If Northern Illinois is to get back to .500 in conference play, it will have to beat Western Michigan, something it failed to do back on January 16th. There's a bit of a catch to that, however.
The first meeting between the two MAC West rivals saw a total of four Huskie players ejected early - one for each minute of play, basically - and the Broncos capitalized on the opportunity to beat up on a short handed opponent 83-69. Tucker Haymond was fouled by Travon Baker which was called a flagrant and led to the subsequent ejection of the senior guard. After a brief altercation following the foul, a few NIU players joined the fray and were also removed from the game. As it turned out, the weakened Huskie team was exactly what a struggling Bronco basketball team needed to get its first MAC win of the season. It's fair to say Saturday afternoon's contest will likely be the first to feature both of these teams in full for 40 minutes.
If there was any "momentum" to be gained by Western Michigan from the victory over NIU in January it was quickly lost, as the Broncos have tallied just three wins since the ejection filled victory. Heading into Saturday WMU is currently as it has always been since the Connar Tava injury - a few bounces away from being either very average or an abject disaster. Keeping them closer to average has been the spectacular play of sophomore Thomas Wilder who, despite his most recent, nine turnover game against Eastern Michigan, has been one of the best guards in the entire conference. His 20.5 points per game average in conference play is one of the best marks in the MAC, and has been needed to support a team with a clear lack of scoring depth.
It's tough to pinpoint an exact reason the Huskies that began conference play 5-1 became the current, 7-8 version, but the play of Travon Baker is a good place to start. Baker posted 20 point games in each of the first three MAC contests of the season, and even added a fourth against Toledo on January 22nd, but in the nine games since has scored over 15 points just once. Marin Maric, who had an uncharacteristic three game stretch in late January where he scored 11 points total, has been rounding back into form for the Huskies. Maric is on a streak of seven straight double doubles and is gifted a match up with a Bronco team that struggles at times to defend the paint.
Another area the Broncos struggle in is playing on the road, and it even caught up with Wilder on Tuesday in Ypsilanti for the first time all season. The antidote to what ails the Broncos could be some increased production out of players not named Wilder or Haymond, but that has been on the wish list for quite some time now and shows little sign of being fulfilled. The lack of offensive depth and road woes certainly make this an attractive match up for Northern Illinois which has lost just once all season at home and surrenders the fourth fewest points in the entire conference.
For the Huskies, Saturday provides another opportunity to better position themselves for the upcoming MAC Tournament in March while trying to find that groove that made them one of the MAC's top teams in the early going. For Western Michigan, the prospects of playing on the road in the first round of the tournament have become almost certain, and they will be handed one of the toughest road tests in the MAC to prepare themselves.
The Broncos and Huskies face off on Saturday, February 27th at 4:30 p.m. The game can be streamed on ESPN3.