When the Illinois State men’s basketball team went 17-1 in Missouri Valley Conference play last season and didn’t get invited to the NCAA Tournament, the sting wasn’t just felt in Normal, Ill.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson winced right along with Redbird fans.
“We simply did not do our part to help them get an at-large bid, and that’s a responsibility that I take very seriously,” Jacobson said Friday before a Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser in West Des Moines.
Jacobson’s Panthers stumbled to a 14-16 record this winter, the first losing mark in his 10 seasons at the helm. That poor showing by a team usually among the Valley’s best left Wichita State as the lone league team in the Big Dance.
And now the Shockers have pulled out of the Valley, heading for the American Athletic Conference. It was the second sizeable departure for the Valley, coming four years after Creighton bolted for the Big East. Suddenly, Jacobson finds himself in a league minus its two largest arenas and two most nationally recognized programs.
And, yes, he feels the pressure to be a standard-bearer for a new-look Valley that now includes Loyola of Chicago and Valparaiso.
“As a league, obviously we need to get better. But I’ve always approached it from the standpoint, we need to do our part at Northern Iowa. And that is a responsibility for us because we do have some tradition now, we do have some history in the NCAA Tournament. So there’s no question that we have the responsibility to be good and to play well. And that’s a responsibility that we look forward to and that we’re happy to accept because it’s different now,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson praised Loyola and Valparaiso for bringing solid programs to the Valley. But he said the burden of replacing what has been lost doesn’t fall on the two newcomers.
“It’s about the 10 of us now,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to be better at Northern Iowa, and I know guys around the league feel the same way. We understand that it’s a different league without those two teams, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t play at a high level and that’s our task, to find a way to be better.”
On that front, Jacobson has received some good news this spring.
First, junior guard Wyatt Lohaus is nearly back to full strength after an ankle injury limited him to six games last season. In Lohaus’ absence, Jacobson had to turn to first-year players to supplement the play of senior leader Jeremy Morgan in the backcourt.
“The ankle, if it’s not 100 percent, it’s as close as it can be,” Jacobson said of Lohaus. “With Wyatt, those (first-year) guys can get their footing a little bit. Without Wyatt, they all had to go in there. And when they played well, you could see their confidence. When they didn’t, it took them awhile to get that going again and that happens to freshmen a lot of the times. And I think we would have avoided a lot of that had Wyatt been in the lineup.”
Second, Jacobson picked up a commitment from standout guard Tywhon Pickford of Maple Grove, Minn. The 6-foot-4 wing player can provide immediate help in two areas where the Panthers struggled, Jacobson said.
“He has got really good feet, really good balance. So to have a guy that size that’s able to move his feet and defend will be terrific,” Jacobson said of Pickford. “He’s already shown himself to be a tremendous rebounder at that position as well. We didn’t rebound it very well last year. He’ll have an opportunity to do both for us right away.”