Mark Montgomery entered his fourth season as Northern Illinois men's basketball coach with the program's highest expectations in nearly a decade. With Dontel Highsmith scheduled to return from an ACL tear suffered eleven games into a fantastic start to his freshman campaign and the addition of two big time transfers in Anthony Johnson (Purdue) and Michael Orris (Kansas State), NIU was expected to take a step forward after winning fifteen games the prior season. Unfortunately, Highsmith missed the entire season after suffering another knee injury in practice before the season, and the Huskies struggled with consistency.
Even in Highsmith's absence, NIU returned its five leading scorers from a team who made a ten win jump from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014, and had a strong finish to the season defeating Bowling Green in the first round of the MAC Tournament before narrowly falling to Eastern Michigan in Cleveland.
The Huskies came out of the gate well, starting 7-5, including a win in Athens over usually tough Ohio. However, a two point loss to Kent State in the following game began a stretch that saw the Huskies lose ten of their next thirteen games, digging themselves a 4-10 hole in conference play. To the Huskies credit, they rebounded to win their final four regular season games, before being thoroughly dominated by Akron in the first round of the MAC Tournament, finishing the season at 14-16.
For the first time in Montgomery's tenure, the Huskies shot above 40 percent from the field as a team. Sophomore Aaric Armstead lead the team in scoring with 11 points per game, shot a respectable 34 percent from three, and was third on the team in rebounds. Armstead, along with senior-to-be Darrell Bowie (10 PPG, 5 RPG) will look to lead NIU into the 2015-2016 season.
The group of seniors provided steady, if not spectacular play. Purdue transfer Anthony Johnson came to DeKalb and provided a sorely needed wing scorer, averaging 11 points and shooting 43 percent from the field. Home-grown Jordan Threloff shot a team high 53 percent from the floor to go along with his seven rebounds per game. Aaric's brother Aaron Armstead averaged seven points in a shade over 20 minutes per gaem
The highlight of the season came in a four game stretch just prior to the MAC Tournament in which the Huskies defeated the top three teams in the Western Division of the MAC. On February 25th, the Huskies went into Toledo and defeated the Rockets 84-82 on the back of an Anthony Johnson three pointer with ten seconds to play.
Three days later, the eventual MAC West Champions Central Michigan Chippewas came to DeKalb and never lead on their was to a 73-55 loss to the Huskies. The win featured what was undoubtedly the play of the year for NIU, a nasty two hand jam by Pete Rakocevic which would have made Kenny Battle proud.
On March 3rd, the defending champion Western Michigan Broncos came to town and on the heels of a Threloff block, the Huskies knocked off the Broncos 65-63 to give them their third consecutive win over the top three teams in the Western division. NIU completed their regular season schedule with a win over Ball State, giving them a season high four-game winning streak.
Injuries were an issue for coach Montgomery and his staff the entire season. As previously mentioned, Highsmith suffered another injury in fall camp and was forced to miss the entire season. Bowie missed nine games with a shoulder injury, and was severely limited even upon returning to the floor. Of the eleven rotation players on the roster, only Threloff, Travon Baker, Orris (who played with a hand injury for much of the season), and Chuks Iroegbu were able to appear in all thirty games.
While the offense was improved from 2013-2014, putting the ball in the hoop continued to be an issue. The Huskies were 216th in the nation in points per game (65.7), 214th in field goal percentage (43%), and an absolute anemic 330th in assists, averaging less than ten per game. Combine those numbers with turning the ball over fourteen times a game, and you have a recipe for struggling to win games.
Junior guard Baker suffered through a major shooting slump at the start of the season before "rebounding" to shoot 33%. The team defense surprisingly took a step back as well. Last season, Ken Pomeroy had NIU ranked 44th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. This season, they fell all the way down to 167th.
Considering it was nearly an identical roster to the year before, the step back in defense is difficult to explain. In the little success NIU has tasted under Montgomery, it has always largely been due to defense and rebounding. They will need to get back to the same formula to find more success next season.
While the 2014-2015 season didn't reap the rewards fans were hoping for, there are still reasons to be optimistic heading into next season. After only posting ten wins combined in Montgomery's first two seasons, the Huskies put up twenty-nine victories in the last two. Reason to hang a banner? Hardly, but Montgomery has taken NIU from one of the worst handful of programs in the country to a usually competitive team night in and night out.
Threloff, Rakocevic, Aaron Armstead, and Anthony Johnson are gone to graduation, but one of the best recruiting classes in program history will arrive in DeKalb next fall. After signing a pair of three star forwards in Levi Bradley (Milwaukee, WI) and Jaylen Key (Mequon, WI), the Huskies received a verbal commitment from their AAU teammate Marshawn Wilson last week. Wilson is rated as a four star prospect and the 22nd best point guard prospect in the country by ESPN. The runner up for Minnesota "Mr. Basketball" had offers from Colorado State, Northern Iowa, and back to back Final Four participant Wisconsin and will likely play the off guard position in DeKalb.
In addition, the Huskies also inked point guard Laytwan Porter (Rockford, IL) and sharp shooting wingman Austin Pauga (Naperville, IL) in the early signing period in November. The group of five talented freshman will add some much needed offensive talent. Bowie and Iroegbu will be the only two seniors next season, which will likely mean growing pains early on, but also providing the opportunity for the five freshmen to grow with the rest of the roster.
The wildcard will continue to be the health of Highsmith. A healthy Highsmith combined with Marshawn Wilson could create the best back court in the conference. It remains to be seen if Highsmith will ever be able to return to the health and form he flashed as a freshman.