Last year the Northern Illinois Huskies basketball squad finished at 15-17 overall, falling to Eastern Michigan in the second round of the conference tournament. For most programs this would not be considered a positive season, however over the past few years NIU has not been like most programs. NIU was coming off of a five win 2012-2013 campaign and quite frankly has not been relevant for as long as I can remember. It's fair to say that a ten win overall improvement can be considered a positive season.
Rising sophomore Dontel Highsmith gave fans something to cheer about as he averaged 10.5 PPG before tearing his ACL against Iowa State. His return this year will be something to look forward to as he looks to prove that he is the same player that he was prior to his injury.
NIU's offense struggled last season as they averaged just 62 PPG which ranked a lowly 336th in the country. Highsmith alone will not be able to solve the Huskies scoring woes; however the Huskies have a few transfers that will be eligible next season that will make an immediate impact
Last off-season head coach Mark Montgomery was able to land two transfers from big-time programs such as Purdue and Kansas State, respectively.
Anthony Johnson and Michael Orris both were highly-touted recruits coming out of high school. Johnson was a 4-star shooting guard out of Whitney Young High School, a powerhouse in the city of Chicago and nationwide. Johnson was rated 100th in the Class of 2010 and had offers from Illinois, Marquette, and Ohio State to name a few. Johnson already redshirted his freshman year at Purdue so he will only have one season of eligibility left with the Huskies; however he has the tools and shooting ability to make his one year a very memorable one in DeKalb.
Orris was a 3-star guard coming out of high school and held offers from Illinois, Nebraska, and Pittsburgh. Orris did not play frequently his freshman year at Kansas St. and cited playing time and distance from home as a main reason for his transfer to NIU. Orris will have 3 years of eligibility remaining in DeKalb so look for him to be a key contributor for years to come.
Another transfer who has signed with the Huskies more recently is shooting guard Chuks Iroegbu. Iroegbu is a junior college transfer from the City College of San Francisco and will be eligible to play right away. After watching Iroegbu's mixtape, it is obvious that he is extremely athletic and is great above the rim. The added guard play of Johnson, Orris and Iroegbu along with a healthy Highsmith should make for an electrifying 2014-2015 season and will give NIU one of the best backcourts in the MAC.
After talking about the exciting future of the Huskie backcourt I bet you are wondering who will be defending the paint for the Huskies next year. Two words: Jordan Threloff. Threloff, who transfered from Illinois State last season, was eligible to play immediately last year due to a hardship waiver and is entering his senior season. Threloff was a huge presence in the post for the Huskies last year as he led the team in rebounding and blocks. After a year to get accustomed to Mark Montgomery's system, expect Threloff to make significant strides in his senior year. At many times, especially late in the season, it was evident that Threloff was the most dominant player on the floor for the Huskies.
The Huskies definitely have a lot to build on for the future. A court-storming victory at home over Toledo was definitely the main highlight of last season. Threloff led the way for the Huskies with seventeen points and nine rebounds against Toledo, who was 23-5 at the time. NIU also played an NCAA tournament team, Nebraska, down to the buzzer on the road. Dontel Highsmith drained a clutch 3-pointer to make it a one point game with just eight seconds left to play. NIU proceeded to lose 63-58, however this game proved that NIU has the talent and potential to beat NCAA tournament quality teams.
The additions of multiple transfers have only increased the potential for this Huskie team, but don't expect everything to be smooth sailing to start for NIU. Expect the Huskies to have some growing pains early in the season due to a lack of live game experience as a team. However, the Huskies will be a much deeper team than in previous years and expect them to be very competitive once the conference season begins in January.
If I were another team in the MAC, this is not a team I would want to be facing late in the season or possibly in the MAC tournament. Look for NIU to make a run at the MAC tournament this year and don't be surprised if they wind up in the semi-finals or even further.