Well, it could have been a whole lot worse. In fact, for the Northern Illinois Huskies basketball team, it has been for the last decade or so. But NIU finally broke a long streak this year, and found a way to win more than 10 games, a feat it last accomplished in the 2005-2006 season. And for once, I actually have a good feeling about next season (although it's way to early to start thinking about that).
The last time we checked in on the Huskies, at the midway point in the season, I said they were not yet a complete team and lacked any offensive firepower to scare other MAC squads. I hoped that would change, but this whole season was a roller coaster ride of inconsistent offense, mixed with a great defense. Like a classic western film, this team was a compilation of the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly.
The Huskies were one of the best rebounding teams in the entire country, grabbing nearly 38 boards per game. Last season they managed to average just 33 rebounds a game, which was 219th in the NCAA. This season they also claimed over 13 offense rebounds per contest, which was 23rd in the nation. NIU was also a top 30-team in scoring defense, allowing just 62.9 points per game, and held four teams to less than 50 points.
Northern also managed to win eight MAC games, the most since 2005-2006, including their biggest win of the season - a 74-66 win against Toledo. It was the most complete game the Huskies played all season. NIU shot nearly 46 percent from the field, and made 25--for-30 free throws while holding the Rockets to 41.8 percent shooting, and just 3-for-21 from behind the arc.
They also managed to score over 100 points in a game when they slaughtered Division-II St. Josephs, 111-61. It was the first time in nine years the Huskies hit the century mark.
Sadly, the Huskies weren't immune to being thrashed either. They had four losses of 15 or more points: Iowa State (a 36 point loss), UMass (26 points), Buffalo (21 points), and Ohio (19 points). NIU struggled against teams at, or over, .500, going just 3-14, with wins against EMU, Toledo, and Kent State.
Despite a bigger and stronger defense, NIU still only managed 3.3 blocks and 6.6 steals per game. And the Huskies turned the ball over nearly 15 times per game - only 16 teams (out of 351 Division-I teams) turned it over more.
The Huskies were not ranked higher than 230th in any major offensive category besides rebounds. They were, however, in the bottom 20 in most stats: 336th in points per game, 346th in field goal percentage, 347th in 3-point percentage, and 350th in assists. Only Howard had less assists. Their highest scoring category was free throw percentage, where they shot 68.4 percentage, tied for 230th.
I was trying to decide on the ugliest game of the season, but there were too many choices to pick one. Two stood out. There was the 45-36 win they had against BGSU. Sure, the Huskies held them to only 36 points, but they only managed to go 14-43 from the field. Then there was the lowest scoring double overtime game of ALL TIME (probably) when NIU sneaked past EMU 61-59.
Unless any unexpected transfers or dismissals happen, the Huskies will only lose two players from this year's team: seniors Antone Christian and Aksel Bolin. Christian averaged just seven minutes per contest and only 2.3 points per game, so his leaving shouldn't hurt the team too badly. However, Bolin was a major contributor the last three years. He averaged 6.7 points, over 4.5 rebounds, and over 26 minutes a game since the start of the 2011-12 season.
But with Dontel Highsmith returning from his injury next season, plus the five leading scorers coming back (and hopefully improving), NIU should have a lot of experience on next year's roster. Jordan Threloff and Pete Rakocevic will still be the big men inside. Travon Baker, Darrell Bowie, and the Armstead's (Aaron and Aaric) all return as well.
The Huskies have tasted winning now. NIU basketball has been a hopeless case for nine long years, but could we have witnessed the beginning of the resurrection? Can Mark Montgomery do for the basketball team what Joe Novak did for the football program? We can only watch and wait. But, if next year NIU can reach that elusive .500 mark, I'd say the Huskies are definitely headed in the right direction.
As for this year, they exceeded almost everyone's expectations and were even able to win a MAC Tournament game. This is not a great team, but compared to the basketball teams that have been coming out of DeKalb in recent years, this is a refreshing change.