Where: DeKalb, Illinois Convocation Center
When: Saturday, 4:30 (EST)
Just a few weeks ago, it was thought that the home team in this game was the best that the conference had to offer. No longer. It's plainly evident that Akron is best built to get the one-seed and play the best ball going into the Mid-American Conference tournament.
The Zips are coming off a cakewalk 83-68 win over the Bowling Green Falcons. Time and again, Akron manages to have several players make steady contributions to wins, and it could be about anyone throughout the lineup on any given night. Versus the Falcons it was Antino Jackson showing off again with 20 points. Jackson and Reggie McAdams shot the lights out and combined to shoot 11-19 from beyond the arc in the win. Given the fact that Akron has sustained some injuries, it is going to be really crucial for this team to continue to work its starters at a lessened rate. Getting to play your starting lineup less than 30 minutes almost across the board for most of the regular season is a big benefit that will work out well in road games like this where legs are relatively fresh.
Akron continues to be the best 3-point shooting team in the MAC while sitting high on the charts in terms of statistics like scoring defense (not too far behind NIU), is first in scoring margin, 3-point percentage and 3-point percentage defense, first in blocks and second in assists, and is overall doing well for itself in a number of other categories. NIU still ranks highly in most defensive categories, but there are a number of reason that the Zips will be favored to win this road contest. More on that in a second.
Chuks Iroegbu's selection to the "State Farm Dark Horse Dunker" competition is the best thing that has happened to the NIU basketball program as of late. Weeks ago Hustle Belt and college basketball pundits alike were heralding the defensive prowess of this team wondering if this was the squad that would represent the MAC in the madness. Now, the curiosity surrounding this team is whether it can get it all together after sputtering through a stretch of five consecutive losses.
Crazy to think that we're at this point after the start that Travon Baker, Marin Maric, Aaric Armstead and crew had to start the season. Coach Mark Montgomery has this team playing incredible defense in starting MAC-play at 5-1. In a 90-78 home loss to Buffalo (who was in the midst of its own winning streak at the time), the Huskies received great efforts from Maric and Marshawn Wilson but the defense just couldn't contain anything in what was the highest opponent scoring total against the Huskies this season. After that and two road losses to Kent State and Ohio, the Huskies have to be pleased to be back in DeKalb, ready to make a second run at making the MAC West intriguing.
Baker has performed admirably and is still excelling at a level that should (in my personal opinion) keep him in the conversation for conference player of the year honors if NIU picks up some steam, and it could be largely due to his efforts that NIU comes screaming back to the top of the standings.
Some fans are being dismissive of this NIU bunch. They've struggled for sure. It doesn't mean that this Huskies team is out of contention to make a tourney run. Saturday's game could point toward what type of team the Huskies will be for the last couple of weeks of the season.