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Men's basketball: Sioux brace for UNI

In 2001, Kansas came to Grand Forks to play UND in The Ralph. More than 13,000 fans turned out for the game -- the largest turnout ever for a college basketball game in the state. The Jayhawks -- with a couple of future NBA stars in their lineup ...

In 2001, Kansas came to Grand Forks to play UND in The Ralph.

More than 13,000 fans turned out for the game -- the largest turnout ever for a college basketball game in the state. The Jayhawks -- with a couple of future NBA stars in their lineup -- put on a clinic in their 108-77 win against the Sioux.

Northern Iowa comes to The Betty on Saturday to take on UND. The Panthers don't have the clout or notoriety of a program like Kansas, but things are going pretty well for UNI -- coached by former Sioux player and assistant coach Ben Jacobson.

The Panthers have become a fixture on the country's college basketball radar.

"Nothing is going to rattle them," Sioux coach Brian Jones said. "This will be a great chance for our fans to see a quality program, probably the best we've had in town since Kansas opened The Ralph.

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"Our fans can see what that level of basketball is all about."

It's a level UND wants to some day reach.

UND is in its second Division I season, while UNI -- a former Sioux opponent in the old North Central Conference -- is well established and now is a powerful mid-major program.

The Panthers are No. 27 in the latest RPI rankings, an indicator in where a team stacks up for the NCAA Tournament. And UNI also is ranked No. 3 in the latest Collegeinsider.com mid-major Top 25 poll, trailing only Butler and Gonzaga. The team also picked up a couple of votes in this week's AP Top 25 poll.

UNI, which returns nine players from last season's team that won 23 games, will be a huge favorite against 1-10 UND. But Jones is optimistic in one area.

"Our guys will come out swinging," he said. "We have to find ways to make things simple for us. With our lack of experience, the way you combat that is you stress the fundamentals and make things as simple as possible so our guys are out there playing aggressively and not thinking too much.

"When you start thinking, your feet become slow. And then you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing."

The Sioux have only one player (Travis Mertens) in double figures (11.6 ppg) and lately have struggled to shoot. For the season, UND is shooting 41 percent from the field and 28 percent on 3-point attempts.

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The game will be UND's marquee home contest of the season. While Jacobson has a lot of ties to UND, Jones has a lot of connections to Northern Iowa, where he played his collegiate basketball.

"Jake has never forgotten where he came from," Jones said. "He actually entertained the thought of coming back here and playing. When a program gets to the level of the Butlers and Creightons, it's not easy getting teams like that in our building."

Northern Iowa is 7-1, with wins against Iowa State of the Big 12, Iowa of the Big 10 and Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

UND will play a physical, experienced team that won the Missouri Valley Conference postseason title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Expectations are high again this season in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

"Our kids are definitely excited for this opportunity," Jones said. "It's our big marquee game at home. It's a chance for us to hopefully play in front of the biggest crowd we've seen at home since we've been here.

"We want to show we can compete, play fearless and have a lot of fun doing it."

Nelson reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1268; (800) 477-6572, ext. 268; or send e-mail to wnelson@gfherald.com .

Wayne Nelson is the sports editor at the Herald.


He has been with the Grand Forks Herald since 1995, serving as the UND football and basketball beat writer as well as serving as the sports editor.



He is a UND graduate and has been writing sports since the late 1970s.



Follow him on Twitter @waynenelsongf. You can reach him at (701) 780-1268 or wnelson@gfherald.com.
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