The University of Northern Iowa Panthers will open the 2010-11 regular season Friday when they travel to Syracuse, N.Y., to take on the No. 13-ranked Syracuse University Orange. This marquee match-up will feature two teams that each went 30-5 a year ago and reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. The 60 combined wins between the two schools is the most of any match-up nationally for a 2010-11 season opener.
"This week there are some important practices in getting ready for the game on Friday night and playing against one of the better programs in the country year-in and year-out," said UNI head coach Ben Jacobson. "They have a Hall of Fame coach, a very good group of returning players and a great recruiting class."
Jacobson's counterpart Jim Boeheim had kind words to say about UNI as well.
"We're opening up with an NCAA (Tournament)-quality team in the first game of the year, so these exhibition games are important," Boeheim said following SU's 96-60 exhibition victory over Kutztown University on Nov. 2. "Northern Iowa's going to be very good this year. They lost a couple guys, but they've got a lot of good players."
While UNI won both of their exhibition games with ease behind solid defensive performances, the Panther offense shot just 39.7 percent from the floor.
"We've got some work to do offensively," said Jacobson. "We've got to spend some practice time there as well to allow the guys to get some reps and make some improvements in practice before we take the floor on the offensive end."
The Panthers will likely need their backcourt to have success shooting the ball if they want a chance to pull off the upset. The Orange play a 2-3 zone defense that tends to shut down their opposition's inside game and forces them to hit outside jump shots, which means the Panthers will want to improve upon their 23.3 percent shooting from three-point range before Friday night's game.
Jacobson expects SU's defense to be very good.
"They've played primarily that 2-3 zone (defense) that they're known for, and I would think we would see quite a bit of that," said Jacobson. "They may mix in a little bit of man-to-man (defense) as they've done early in the season in previous years. We expect that their zone (defense) will be very good."
UNI's starting line-up should be the same as in the two exhibition games against Wartburg College and the University of Mary. Expect the starters for the Panthers to be senior guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, junior guard Johnny Moran, senior guard Kerwin Dunham, sophomore forward Jake Koch and senior forward Lucas O'Rear. SU's projected starting line-up will consist of junior guard Scoop Jardine, sophomore guard Brandon Triche, junior forward Kris Joseph, senior forward Rick Jackson and freshman center Fab Melo.
Both the Panthers and the Orange were picked to finish third in their respective conferences (Missouri Valley Conference, Big East Conference). This will be the first meeting between the two schools. Under Jacobson, UNI is 0-2 against the Big East and 2-6 against teams ranked in the top 25. The Panthers' last victory over a ranked opponent came against the No. 1-ranked Kansas University Jayhawks in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament.
UNI's last four opponents (UNLV 1990, Kansas 2008, Michigan State 2000, Syracuse 2003) dating back to last season have all won national championships since 1990.
The Panthers have won eight straight season-opening games. The last time UNI opened the season with a loss was in 2001, a 71-57 loss to San Diego State University in Greg McDermott's first season as head coach of the Panthers.
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. Central time. The game can be seen online at ESPN3.com or you can listen to Panthers play-by-play announcer Gary Rima on KXEL radio (1540 AM).