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MAC Men's Basketball Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

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Will an infusion of youth push NIU over the hump and into a contender?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The fight to become relevant has been an ongoing one for the Northern Illinois Men's Basketball program. In a constant shadow of the more popular and more successful football program, the Huskie men have not broken the .500 mark since the 2005-2006 season.

It's been 18 years since Northern Illinois has joined the MAC. Of those 18 seasons, only two have ended in winning records. Is this the year that will propel NIU to contender status? Or is the Huskie program going to be stuck in a constant state of mediocrity?

Head Coach: Mark Montgomery, 5th year, 39-84 (22-46)

Montgomery came over to DeKalb after being an assistant on Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State for nine years. His ability to recruit Chicago was a key factor to bringing him to NIU, and the jury is still out after four years at the helm.

To his credit, Montgomery is starting to turn things around. His first two seasons were abysmal, going 10-51 overall and 6-26 in conference play. Usually coaches get three to four years to get things to where they need to be program-wise, and with this being Montgomery's fifth season, he is squarely on the hot seat. A highly-touted freshmen class will help things out (more on that later), but there is pressure mounting to win now in DeKalb.

2015-2016 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (EST) Notes
13-Nov Cal State Northridge 8:00 NIU Showcase
14-Nov South Dakota 4:30 NIU Showcase
15-Nov Wright State 4:30 NIU Showcase
21-Nov Eureka 2:00
25-Nov IU Northwest 8:00
28-Nov at Idaho 10:00
2-Dec Chicago State 8:00
4-Dec at Missouri 8:00
16-Dec at Ohio State 7:00
19-Dec Florida International 3:00
22-Dec Roosevelt 8:00
29-Dec at Illinois-Chicago 8:00
2-Jan Judson 2:00
6-Jan Ohio 8:00
9-Jan Eastern Michigan TBD
12-Jan at Toledo 7:00
16-Jan at Western Michigan TBD
19-Jan Central Michigan 8:00
23-Jan Toledo 4:30
26-Jan at Akron TBD
30-Jan at Miami 3:30
2-Feb Buffalo 8:00
6-Feb at Ohio TBD
9-Feb at Kent State 7:00
13-Feb Akron 4:30
16-Feb Bowling Green 8:00
20-Feb at Ball State 4:00
23-Feb at Central Michigan 7:00
27-Feb Western Michigan 4:30
1-Mar at Eastern Michigan 7:00
4-Mar Ball State 8:00

It's not a bad schedule, but the four non-Division 1 teams are a little disheartening to see. The games at Ohio State and Missouri will be tough, but the rest of the non-conference games are winnable. In conference play, NIU has to play Ohio and Akron twice from the East, which could be worse. This schedule sets up for the Huskies to be over .500 overall at the end of the year, but the lack of many meaningful games could hurt them in the end.

Meet the future of NIU basketball

Perhaps the biggest storyline of the season is not so much who returns from a 14-16 team, but all of the new faces. The Huskies have arguably the best recruiting class in the conference, featuring three three-star recruits. Not too many three star recruits sign up for basketball in DeKalb, but it's a credit to the program that Montgomery is building.

The most highly regarded of the newcomers is Marshawn Wilson, who was once a four-star recruit with offers from Wisconsin and Creighton, to name a few. The 6-foot-3, 205 pound guard will likely slide in the starting line up at the off guard position, teaming up with backcourt mate Travon Baker. Wilson's ability to attack the basket will be spotlighted by the fact that Montgomery will look to run a more up-tempo offense. Also, Wilson did this during the Huskies' Midnight Madness event:

The guy he jumped over in that video, Jaylen Key, will also factor in the lineup this season. Key, a 6-foot-8, 220 pound forward from just north of Milwaukee will be a key (pardon the pun) contributor off of the bench as a backup for Darrell Bowie. For a team with not a ton of height (only three players stand over 6-foot-8), the freshman forward will be tasked to improved the Huskies' defensive rebounding which ranked 315th in the country last season.

Also helping out in the frontcourt will be another three-star forward, Levi Bradley. Bradley is also from Milwaukee and played on the same AAU team as Wilson, so these three are very familiar with each other. He's a little lighter than Key at 200 pounds and will stay on the wing more often.

Two other newcomers could see playing time as well. Freshman Austin Pauga, who stands at 6-foot-6, will be a huge match-up problem when he's on the floor. He won the 3-point contest at Midnight Madness and should improve NIU's lack of 3-point conversions and attempts last season. The Huskies ranked 321st and 320th in those statistical categories, respectively.

JUCO transfer Andrew Zelis will likely get minutes behind starting center Marin Maric. A 7-footer who grew up just 40 miles from NIU's campus, Zelis comes into the program as a redshirt sophomore and will have the chance to work with the same coaches who developed Jordan Threloff.

It would be remiss to not mention Dontel Highsmith as a newcomer, although he will be a redshirt sophomore this season. Highsmith has only played eleven games in his college career, as knee injuries have held the talented guard from Dowagiac, Michigan off of the court. In those eleven games he shined, averaging 10.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field. Hopefully Highsmith can stay healthy this year and really show what kind of talent he can be.

Ok, so who will I remember from last year?

Although last year's team finished under .500, they were always ripe for an upset. Just ask the three best teams in the West division (Toledo, CMU and WMU), whom NIU knocked off in three consecutive games at the end of the season. Although the Huskies lose talented players like Threloff, Anthony Johnson and Aaron Armstead, much is still left in the arsenal at Montgomery's disposal.

Aaric Armstead is NIU's best returning player and will start right away. The 6-foot-5, 195 pound guard averaged eleven points and five rebounds last year and should have an increased role in the offense. Bowie was solid on the wing, averaging ten points and five rebounds per game. Baker will be the starting point guard and, with a few more scoring options, should be able to improve his average of three assists per game last season.

Maric will start at center, and although his numbers aren't fantastic for a starting center (5 points, 4 rebounds), he won't have to sit behind Threloff anymore. Additional minutes will do him well, and having Zelis there to push him in practice will only help him out. With such poor rebounding numbers as a team last season, Montgomery will be looking at his fours and fives to get to every missed shot as possible and attack the basket when the shot goes up.

Is this finally the year?

Huskie basketball fans have had to wait a long time for a winner. There is finally some excitement in the program with new jerseys, a new floor, and potential impact freshmen that could take a mediocre program to the top of the conference.

However, there are so many question marks with this team. Will Highsmith finally come back healthy? If so, will he play at the level he did before he was injured? Just how good are these freshmen? Can Armstead take the next step and be a leader? Will the rebounding improve at all?

That's a lot of questions to answer, but thankfully we have thirty-odd games to figure it out. Montgomery has a lot to juggle here and will continue to experiment with new lineups until he finds the right one. Luckily the non-conference schedule is not great, so he can do the experimentation without risking a bad loss.

It would seem that a record just above .500 feels about right for this team. In conference play, 8-10 or 9-9 and the sixth, seventh or eight seed seems like a good spot for a young Huskie team. The freshmen will need to get used to the system and playing with the guys who have been in the program awhile, which could cause some growing pains. The potential is there and the future is bright for NIU basketball. It has taken awhile, but this year will be another stepping stone in their stroll to the top of the conference.