Cyclones face toughest non-conference opponent Saturday

Donovan Jackson, guard, dribbles towards the basket during the men’s basketball game against Alcorn State on Dec. 10 at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones won 78-58.

Aaron Marner

Two years ago, Iowa State and Northern Iowa met at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

Iowa State was 9-0 and ranked No. 5 in the nation. That didn’t matter, as the Panthers won 81-79 and knocked the Cyclones out of the top 10. It was the first loss for Steve Prohm as the head coach at Iowa State.

The bad news for Iowa State, as its first rematch with the Panthers approaches? Ben Jacobson is still coaching the Panthers. Four of UNI’s eight players who saw action in the win two years ago are still on the team.

All four will likely see time this Saturday, when the Panthers and Cyclones square off at Wells Fargo Arena at 3:30 p.m.

The good news for the Cyclones? Iowa State is on a seven-game winning streak, and nobody has been able to figure out an answer to Nick Weiler-Babb at point guard with Lindell Wigginton and Donovan Jackson off the ball.

But the Panthers have proven the ability to beat Iowa State, even when the Cyclones are at their best.

“Defensively their stats are off the charts,” Prohm said. “They’re gonna make it tough for you to score. They’re going to play with a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger, a lot of toughness. And they should, they’ve had a lot of really good wins.”

The Panthers currently sit at 8-2 (0-0 MVC) and have four wins over top 100 teams, according to KenPom. Their two losses are at North Carolina and at a neutral site against Villanova, both of which are ranked in the top-10 of the AP poll.

Even in the loss to Villanova, UNI’s defense was impressive. Villanova is undefeated and has the second-best offense in the nation, per KenPom. Northern Iowa held Villanova to its lowest scoring total of the season (64 points) and gave up just 8-of-25 3-pointers (32 percent).

“[The key is] the pace of the game,” Prohm said. “And then when we are in the half-court to make sure we’re getting a good shot every possession.”

The pace of the game is probably the biggest key.

Iowa State is currently ranked No. 171 in adjusted tempo by KenPom, which is about as average as a team can get in any category.

Getting easy buckets, usually by Wigginton or Cameron Lard, has been a huge piece of Iowa State’s success over the last seven games.

“I think me staying aggressive helps our team get into the game,” Wigginton said.

Ben Jacobson’s squad, however, is 350th in adjusted tempo out of 351 Division I teams. They take up 20.2 seconds per possession, faster only than Maryland Eastern Shore — Iowa State’s next opponent after it plays UNI.

And while Iowa State’s not exactly an up-tempo team at this time — at 16.1 seconds per possession, the Cyclones are 76th fastest on offense — it can be tough to get fastbreak points when the game is played at such a slow pace.

“It’ll be a great challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it,” Prohm said.

Another challenge? UNI’s physicality.

The Panthers are led by big men Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson. Koch is one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls; he draws 6.0 per 40 minutes. In comparison, Lindell Wigginton leads Iowa State by drawing 5.7 fouls per 40.

That will be a challenge for Iowa State’s front court, which has struggled with foul trouble this season. If Iowa State gets into foul trouble, it could be a long day for both the front court and backcourt.

“I just heard they were physical,” Wigginton said. “They’re big, strong guys. They’re farm guys, so they’re strong. I heard that.”