Northern Iowa doesn’t seem like a team content to rely on the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers have finished in the upper half of the Valley for 14 years in a row, a streak that’s unlikely to change this season — especially with Wichita State’s departure for the American Athletic Conference.
But the Panthers will need to spring some major upsets in non-conference play if they want to avoid having to lean on that automatic bid.
The Panthers (14-16 in 2016-17) have put together a brutal non-conference schedule this season.
They open at North Carolina, play in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament against SMU and either Arizona or North Carolina State, host UNLV and Xavier, and play Iowa State on a neutral floor.
It’s a daunting slate for a team that lost Jeremy Morgan, its best player.
Coach Ben Jacobson, whose team is seeking its third NCAA bid in four years, is confident about the culture he has built in 12 seasons in Cedar Falls.
“Leadership goes back to how hard you’re working. That’s what the team responds to,” Jacobson said at the team’s annual media day earlier this month.
The departure of Morgan will sting. But the Panthers bring back three starters and almost all of their bench players — and they should be stout in the post.
Six-foot-10 Bennett Koch returns for his senior season after averaging 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds over his last 14 games. He will team with 6-foot-7 Klint Carlson, who played nearly 37 minutes a game in 2016-17.
Carlson’s charge will be to drastically improve his 3-point shooting. He was hit 25.3 percent a year ago, an especially low number for a team that likes to work the inside-outside game with both its post and perimeter players.
The backcourt appears to be much less settled.
Sophomore Juwan McCloud didn’t do much a year ago, averaging 3.7 points per game. But Spencer Halderman earned MVC All-Freshman team honors after hitting 49 3-pointers, and Wyatt Lohaus is back after redshirting because of an ankle injury.