By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
ST. LOUIS — Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said during Wednesday’s Missouri Valley Conference media day he expects to know about the status of Austin Phyfe in early October.
Phyfe, a senior forward, is recovering from serious health issues that limited his playing time last season and affected him this spring. He has yet to be cleared to play.
Phyfe, a two-time all-conference selection in his career at UNI, played in 30 games last season, starting seven, but averaged just 12.1 minutes per game as he recovered from a bout with COVID-19 from the summer.
Jacobson said Phyfe showed improvement through the spring, but he fell ill again in June and underwent surgery to have blood clots in his lungs removed.
“He was going in the weight room and was doing great,” Jacobson said. “Then in June he wasn’t feeling very good and we weren’t quite sure what it was. His girlfriend took him (to the doctor) and he had blood clots in his lungs.
“It was serious.”
Jacobson said Phyfe had appointments last week with doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He went through a series of tests on Wednesday but before he could go to his Thursday appointments he was informed that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“So that set him back about three weeks,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said Phyfe keeps feeling “better and better” since the summer surgery, but still must be cleared to play. He said Phyfe’s limited playing time last season helped the Panthers adjust to his absence.
“It took us a while to figure it out,” Jacobson said. “Having gone through it helps us (if Phyfe isn’t available to play).”
Phyfe was a first-team all-conference selection in 2020 and a third-team selection in 2021. He redshirted in 2019 after an illness ended his season after the first eight games.
“He’s long overdue for some good news,” Jacobson said.
VALLEY CHANGES: The conference expands to 12 teams this season. Loyola (Chicago) is gone, and the Valley added Illinois-Chicago, Belmont and Murray State.
“I think it just makes it tougher,” Southern Illinois coach Bryan Mullins said. “The Valley is a grind.”
“The most exciting thing is we’ve added championship programs,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said. “We added better teams.”
The additions mean a 20-game conference schedule, with two games played in late November and early December.
“Those two games could determine a Valley championship,” Mullins said. “So you have to be ready to play.”
“It’s good to get a challenge like that early,” Bradley forward Rienk Mast said. “That they’re conference games puts a little more pressure on them.”
The conference tournament expands to four Thursday games to go with the traditional schedule of four Friday quarterfinals, two Saturday semifinals, and the Sunday championship game.
“Our league is still going to be a league where anyone can win,” Ford said. “But we don’t want to have to play four games in four days.”
A DIFFERENT LOOK: Missouri State won 23 games last season, then lost almost the entire team.
Only two letterwinners return — guard/forward Donovan Clay and forward Dawson Carper.
To combat all of the losses, Ford hit the NCAA’s transfer portal, bringing in seven players with Division I experience, including four players from power conferences.
Ford didn’t seem to mind the changes.
“In today’s landscape, you don’t know who’s coming back or not,” he said. “We’ve been able to change a lot of things.”
Besides, Ford said, it doesn’t do any good to complain.
“This is who we are, this is what we do,” he said. “I embrace all of these changes.”
BREAKING THE CLICHES: Indiana State coach Josh Schertz couldn’t resist when he saw a Twitter post about how, at media days such as this, coaches always say they like their teams.
So Schertz felt the need to change it up.
“I don’t like my team. I hate my team,” Schertz said, grinning.
The players with him on the dais — Cooper Neese and Cam Henry — got a good laugh out of it.
Schertz made sure to point out that yes, he did like his team.
“It’s September,” Schertz quipped. “Everybody better like their team, or else it’s going to be a long year.”
It was the Valley’s first in-person media day since 2019. The last two seasons, the event was virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacobson said he enjoys the event.
“It’s just hanging out with these guys, not just talking about basketball stuff,” he said. “It makes for a pretty fun day.”
Photo: UNI’s Austin Phyfe (right) is defended by Saint Louis’ Jordan Nesbitt in an NIT game last season. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)