AMES — ISU’s 2014-15 Sweet 16 season contained a few sour notes.
One game combined the two disparate flavors, as Northern Iowa rolled to an 18-point lead on the Cyclones in the Big Four Classic before Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim keyed a comeback that led to a 91-82 overtime win.
“The biggest thing I remember is they just completely took us out of everything that we wanted to do,” said Niang, who’s wary of Saturday’s 6 p.m. reprise with the Panthers in this season’s matchup at Wells Fargo Arena. “Obviously they play every game with a ton of energy.”
Then, as now, one element remains constant for UNI: Ben Jacobson can flat-out coach.
He’ll get the most out of his players — as he did when the Panthers upset Marcus Paige-less No. 3 North Carolina 71-67 in Cedar Falls. The game was scheduled so Paige, a former Linn-Mar star, could make a curtain call in eastern Iowa. Instead, he sat — just as Niang did, who viewed the stunner in person.
“It’s funny, I was actually at the game,” said Niang, who retains a close bond to the Tar Heels’ Brice Johnson. “It was impressive the way (UNI) controlled the pace of the game in this second half. At the end of the first half we felt like they were sort of giving the game away, but obviously they have a great coach in coach Jacobson and he did a great job of controlling tempo. They did that and they just looked like a really good team. They looked sound on defense and they really ran their stuff on offense. So obviously that’s a little alarming. We’re really going to have to be on our ‘A’ game to beat them. It’s an in-state rivalry and they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game just like we need to bring ours.”
‘A’ games all around.
The fifth-ranked Cyclones (9-0) will face their first stern test since senior leader Naz Mitrou-Long reluctantly decided to sit out the rest of the season in hopes of obtaining a medical redshirt for next season because of ailing hips.
Matt Thomas will start his second straight game in his place and has averaged 18 points on torrid 11 of 17 shooting from beyond the arc the past two games.
“I think people are really going to see what kind of player Matt is,” Mitrou-Long said. “He’s a high-caliber player. … I believe in all these guys.”
Front and center: Deonte Burton. The Marquette transfer will make his Cyclones debut Saturday. He’s “a freak of nature” athletically, according to Niang. He simply needs to be another favorable component, according to Prohm, whose rotation taps out at seven guys.
“He’ll play a lot at the four initially,” first-year ISU coach Steve Prohm said. “Duley (Abdel Nader) will play a lot at the three.”
From there, Prohm will adjust. Hallice Cooke should get more run, too, as ISU adjusts to life without Mitrou-Long.
“I’d have loved him to play, but at some point you’ve got to do what’s in the best interests of the student-athletes and from a mental and a physical standpoint this is the best decision for Naz and I support him and his well-being,” Prohm said.
UNI’s all about upsetting power-five program’s equilibrium, but lately it’s the Panthers that have been foundering.
Wes Washpun-led UNI (6-3) has lost two of its last three games, but both of those setbacks came on the road against solid Richmond and New Mexico squads.
“A program that’s about winning, about doing things the right way,” Prohm said about UNI. “A terrific culture they have there. Obviously (Greg) McDermott did a great job there and now Jacobson’s taken over and done a phenomenal job, has won a ton of games. I’ve had a chance to watch them off and on. I remember watching them last year at Stephen F. Austin in the 24-hour marathon game. The guard, Washpun, was really good that day, so we’ve got to do a great job against him, but a terrific program. Obviously a lot of respect for them and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Niang shares that eariness of the Panthers. The ‘A’ term makes a final appearance.
"You really have to bring your ‘A’ game against them, especially when they have a week to prep for us," he said. "They’re really going to take away every advantage that we have."