It is probably a good thing that Northern Illinois has figured out how to play football over the last month, or at least a brand of football good enough to possibly win the MAC West.
That is because the next couple of months are not going to be pretty on the basketball court. And January and February won't be much better.
Almost everything you need to know is this: Carthage 74, Northern Illinois 70 (OT).
That is Carthage College, a Division III team.
If you can't beat a Divison III team, what hope do you have against the Purdues and Iowas of the world?
Not much will be expected of coach Mark Montgomery's first team, and that will keep the spotlight off as he rebuilds from a 9-21 season last year under Ricardo Patton that included a dismal 5-11 mark in the MAC.
But expectations are not something the Northern Illinois fans have a lot of. Since 2001, the team has won just 37 percent of its games. That is the main ingredient for a lot of empty seats in the Convocation Center.Gone: Gone is 68 percent of the team's scoring from last year, including top scorer Xavier Silas, who was the only Huskie player to average in double figures. Gone are 73 percent of the team's assists. Gone are 64 percent of the team's rebounds.
Gone, gone, gone. Get the picture? This Huskies team is basically starting over. Silas (22.3 ppg) graduated, So did Jeremy Landers (1.8 apg, 7.1 ppg) and Michael Patton.
Bryan Hall, who helped a lot in the assist category is also out. And Nate Rucker (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) , who could have been a major building block at 6-6, 245, went back home to Memphis after battling injury through his first year and preseason workouts.
Back: Tim Toler will be back in the front court for the Huskies, and will give them a much needed presence inside. Toler averaged close to 10 points per game last year and pulled in 5.5 rebounds. And as a senior forward, especially one that weighs close to three bills, you would hope that he could shoot a little better than 50 percent this season. Almost all of his shots should come around the basket -- as in dunk, dunk, dunk.
Also returning is Antone Christian who will likely be part of a committee of point guards for Northern Illinois this year. Why would he suddenly become a point guard, after averaging a little under an assist per game last year? Because he can't shoot! It is the same problem with Tony Nixon. Both shot less than 40 percent from the floor and neither proved to be a solid 3-point threat either.
With former point Montgomery in charge, someone should turn into the main ball handler for this team, with Christian the leading candidate.
New: It might be too early to call Montgomery a genius recruiter, but maybe he will turn into one. The incoming freshman class, much of it from the Chicago area, is stacked with talent.
New is Abdel Nader, who earned an all-state selection from the Chicago Tribune in a very packed senior class. Nader is a lanky 6-7 swing man who has the potential to play small or power forward, depending on how much work he does in the gym. He has the ball control ability of a guard, which is where he started for the Huskies against Carthage. He was maybe the lone bright spot in the loss, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds to go with two blocks. Someone just need to tell him to stay inside the 3-point line. He isn't going to make many out that far.
New are the Gray twins who helped lead Brooks High School to a state semifinal appearance last year before bowing out to Rock Island (and Stanford freshman/co-Illinois Mr. Basketball Chasson Randle). Keith Gray should be a monster inside for the Huskies. He is 6-6, 205, and probably needs a little more time in the weight room like Nader. But the talent and drive are there to complement Toler. Kevin Gray should be another in the rotation of point guards.
New is Jeremiah Jackson who missed out on a state title last year because of a pesky team from Simeon, only the No. 1 high school team in the country headed into this year. Jackson is a nice piece to have off the bench for the Huskies.
New is Marquavese Ford, who has the best shooting touch of any of the new faces. Here is the long term solution in the back court. Ford can shoot (22 ppg as a senior in Saginaw, Mich.) and can feed the ball. He might get a chance to prove that quickly given his performance in the exhibition game (5 pts, 3 reb., 2 ast.), and the lack of a clear favorite.
See the spark of genius there? Montgomery has built in just a single season of recruiting a foundation for the next four years. None of these kids is jumping early. None of these guys is a singular focus like Silas was. This is a team that could be a major contender in 2014-2015. Only this is 2011.
Outlook: Nine. If Montgomery had any sense, he writes that number on the white board.
That is the only goal for the Huskies this season.
If Northern Illinois can duplicate last year's record, with an almost entirely new set of contributors, that is a success. It should be enough for the fan base, it should be enough for the administration to think that they hired the right man in DeKalb.
It isn't going to be easy. Northern faces Purdue, Iowa, Milwaukee, UIC, Southern Illinois and Valparaiso before entering the MAC season. Oh, and DePaul. The Huskies might actually win that one though.
There are wins available on the schedule. Eastern Illinois, Boise State, Utah Valley State: these could be had. There are games against Nebraska-Omaha and Roosevelt. And there is the MAC season, especially the latter half of the year when anything is possible.
By then, the freshman won't be freshman any longer, which is the worst cliche imaginable, and yet makes a lot of sense for this team.
A year spent eating properly for basketball, training properly for basketball, and getting the right strength for the college game is going to transform Northern Illinois into a different team by the time February and March roll around.
So nine doesn't seem too much of a stretch. It isn't going to be pretty, and there are going to be some times when this team questions itself. But the ability is there to accomplish nine.
In fact, this team has the ability to win a game in the new MAC tournament format, and should by March be ready to pull what should be a first round upset.
Chalk Northern Illinois up for nine wins ... from somewhere.
Then remember this season in 2014 when the number Montgomery should be writing on the board will be 20, along with two words.
Northern Illinois Huskies Basketball Roster