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Wayne Nelson / Forum News Service, Published March 19 2013

Number of connections between UND, Northern Iowa

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – On one hand, Ben Jacobson admires the progress his alma mater – the University of North Dakota – has made since it moved up to Division I men’s basketball.

On the other hand, he now realizes it won’t be as easy for his Northern Iowa Panthers to defeat UND, which has been the case four times since the Green and White made the Division I move.

UND plays Northern Iowa tonight in a first-round CollegeInsider.com Tournament game scheduled for the McLeod Center.

UND is 16-16 and playing its best basketball of the season while Northern Iowa comes in 18-14 – a somewhat deceiving record since the Panthers went 7-1 in Missouri Valley Conference play in February and finished third in the demanding mid-major league.

The game has a number of connections.

E The teams were former North Central Conference rivals in their Division II days.

E UND coach Brian Jones played at Northern Iowa.

E Jacobson played for UND in the 1990s and later spent four seasons as a full-time assistant coach at his alma mater.

E The teams have played four times since UND made the Division I move. Northern Iowa has had the upper hand, winning all four by an average of 20.3 points.

Jacobson, however, is well aware of UND’s Division I progress this season.

“I’m always checking their box scores,” Jacobson said. “I think Brian and his staff have done a terrific job of building a team that has improved each year. Watching them on film, this team has improved tremendously this season.

“The biggest difference this year from three or four years ago is the experience this team has,” Jacobson said. “That can be expected – and maybe it should be expected – but that’s a real credit to Brian and his staff. They’ve gone out and recruited young guys who stayed in the program and improved each year.”

The teams met in mid-November with Northern Iowa taking a 72-47 win. That was UND’s third game of the season and North Dakota played without leading scorer Troy Huff, who suffered a broken jaw in the team’s season opener at Kansas State.

“That game got away from them,” Jacobson said. “They’re a much different team now.”

The Panthers, however, have improved as well.

With a strong finish to the regular season, many believed Northern Iowa would receive a berth in the NIT. That didn’t happen. Regardless, Northern Iowa is appearing in postseason play for the fifth straight year. UNI bid the required $35,000 to host a CIT game.

The Panthers also have had postseason success. Under Jacobson, Northern Iowa made noise in the 2010 NCAA tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 after upsetting top seed Kansas.

“We had a great month in February,” said Jacobson, a finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year coaching award. “The only (MVC) loss was a road game and we were without (leading scorer) Anthony James because of a thigh bruise,” Jacobson said. “In three or four of our (MVC) losses, the game went down to the final few plays.”

So, now, UNI focuses on a CIT title, starting with UND tonight.

“This game will be a lot different than the first one,” Jacobson said.

Nelson is the sports editor for the Grand Forks Herald