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Men's Basketball Preview: Q&A with Rock M. Nation

NIU is undefeated headed into its matchup with Missouri. Has the Huskies' start been a fluke, or is there a nice foundation that is readily improving?

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Illinois rides its 7-0 undefeated mark into Columbia for a Friday night showdown that should be fun. Will the Huskies prove their mark thus far is no fluke? We talked to Sam Snelling of Rock M. Nation to find out a bit more about the Tigers. Feel free to go follow him at @SamSnellingRMN to see him freak out about the new Missouri football coach.

HB: This will certainly be the biggest test for Mark Montgomery's team thus far. What can we expect from Missouri that might give a smaller, less-athletic MAC team some problems?

RMN: In a lot of ways, Missouri is still trying to figure out who they are. This is a very young team with two freshmen starters, and the majority of the contributors to this point being freshmen or sophomores. Missouri, right now, is a very guard heavy team, and will sometimes play 4 guards, to one big. Their style of play is one that is attempting to play at a faster pace, but the coaching staff has yet to fully entrust this team to play fast too frequently. They're going to try to attack the basket on offense, and clog up driving lanes on defense. At times they've shown half and full court traps on defense, and this has really given trouble to the non-power 5 opponents that Mizzou has faced. Overall, there is still much that is a mystery, although this team does seem to score with more frequency than they did a season ago.

HB: What was it that the Tigers really lacked in that three-game losing spurt? And why were the points so hard to come by against Kansas State? NIU coach Mark Montgomery prides himself on his team's defense, can you see NIU's defense giving the Tigers some problems?

RMN: It was really three different games to be honest. The Tigers played well against Xavier, they just struggled to keep pace with the Musketeers pace of scoring through about 5-10 minutes in the second half, and then could never quite get over the hump to make it a one possession game after that. They also struggled to keep Xavier off the glass, which gave them multiple attempts on offense, which the young Mizzou team just wasn't able to do on their own end of the floor. Against K-State, the Tigers just got flat out played. Talent-wise there wasn't a big disparity, but when the shots weren't falling, the Tigers slumped on the other end of the floor and let the Wildcats dictate the game physically. Then they played Northwestern and let the K-State game carry over into the first 12 minutes where they got outscored 31-11, before outscoring NW 51-36 the rest of the way. They played with much better energy, and just could not find that key stop late to get the score evened. If NIU is consistent and physical on defense they can effect what the Tigers want to do offensively, and possibly pull out the win. 

HB: Mizzou is getting outrebounded by several a game while NIU has been wiping the boards and easily grabbing more rebounds than opponents. Is this something you envision to possibly be a problem come Friday night?

RMN: Sure, the obvious weakness of Missouri right now is experience and depth on the interior. Even their starting center, Ryan Rosburg, is not known as being a very good rebounder despite his 6'10 260 frame. In fact, most of the better rebounders on the Tigers are perimeter players. The starting guards, Wes Clark, Terrence Phillips and Namon Wright, all rebound very well for guards. What's interesting is Northern Illinois hasn't played anyone in the top 150, and both teams have very similar size in their first five. The rebounding stats are likely to finish much more even than the lopsidedness that is projected so far. 

HB: Mizzou has not hit above 28 percent from behind the 3-point line in each of its last three games. Who has to get hot to change that, and does that number need to change to beat Northern Illinois?

RMN: No, I don't think so. Mizzou's advantage is going to be drives from the wing. They have several players (Clark, Phillips, Wright, plus KJ Walton and Tramaine Isabell off the bench) who have the ability to break down a defender. They also shot well against Arkansas State, and seem to like shooting at Mizzou Arena as they're 20/47 at home (42.5%). At home they seem to play a more attacking style of offense, and aren't as content to shoot from distance. They average over 18 attempts away from home, and just over 15 at home, all while playing at a faster pace on top of that. Namon Wright is probably the top sniper, he shot over 40% last season, and is 7/13 at home. Also Cullen VanLeer is probably good for a couple three's a game, Isabell is a good shooter as well, and even Phillips can knock a few down. So I wouldn't count on Mizzou shooting poorly from deep, I'd count on them being measured in their attempts, and getting to the free throw line a bunch. 

HB: Mizzouri has had a different leading scorer in each game this year (before Arkansas State game) who is the real go-to scorer on this team? Are we sure it's Kevin Puryear?

RMN: There really isn't one. It's not Puryear, he's a consistent scorer, but doesn't have enough offensive game to be a go-to guy. He very could lead the team in scoring just through consistency, but this is the life of a young team. If his shot is falling, Namon Wright can be the guy. He's developed his game attacking the rim, and has a very high Free Throw rate this year, whereas last year he was mostly a jump shooter. I think it will be rare that Mizzou has a clear leading scorer, and they'll be most successful when the scoring is spread out. They scored 88 points against Arkansas State and the leading scorer had 14. 

HB:  The Huskies come in undefeated and all of their games so far against D-1 competition have been close. Do you expect this to be a close one?

RMN: KenPom has this as a Mizzou win by three points, and I agree. If both teams play their best, I think Mizzou is probably 10-12 points better, but the Tigers are too young and inconsistent, and quite frankly they just need to win, and I think they do. I'd probably push the difference to about 8 at most. The projection has a game in the 60's, which favors NIU. I think Mizzou would prefer to get it into the 70's, and that's where I think this ends up. Probably in the 78-73 range.