As great as the last three seasons have been for the Northern Illinois Huskies football team, the last three winters have been pretty awful in DeKalb. Since 2010 the football squad has racked up 40 wins, while the Huskies men's basketball team has won a grand total of 19 games. Last season the Huskies broke a few records...none of which they want to have. In a 42-25 loss against EMU, they scored just 4 points in the first half, going 1-31 from the field, and shot a dismal 13.1 percemt for the game (all NCAA lows for a single game).
In the 2012-2013 season NIU ranked 345 or worse (out of 347 Division 1 schools) in three major stats - points/game, field goal percentage, and assists/game. The Huskies also start this season riding an 11-game losing streak - last winning January 30th against Kent State. Oh, and their top two scorers from last season jumped ship. Abdel Nader now plays at Iowa State and Akeem Springs left for UW-Milwaukee - leaving forwards Aksel Bolin and Darrell Bowie as NIU's leading scores (at 7.4 and 5.9 points/game). The Huskies also welcome back the Gray twins (Kevin and Keith Gray) at forward, senior guard Antone Christian, sophomore guards Travon Baker, Daveon Balls, J.J. Cravatta, and 6'11" center Pete Rakocevic.
But perhaps not all hope is gone. The Huskies added three freshman and four transfers this year, two from power conferences. Anthony Johnson, a 6'3" junior, left Purdue for the Huskies. Sophomore guard Michale Orris comes from Kansas State, and 6'9" Jordan Threloff joins NIU after leaving Illinois State. Threloff and Orris haven't played much, averaging 7.9 and 3.3 minutes/game respectively, but Johnson leaves the B1G for the MAC after playing 18 minutes/game while averaging 5 points/game last season for the Boilermakers. In addition to Johnson, Aaron Armstead (a 6'4" junior) joins the Huskies after playing for Wisconsin-Green Bay and San Jose City College. Last year he averaged 14 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game, helping SJCC to a 20-win season. Johnson and Armstead are more than capable of filling the holes that Nader and Springs left the Huskies with.
But they'll have competition too, as the Huskies have two incoming freshman in Dontel Highsmith and Aaric Armstead, that are more than capable of playing. Highsmith, a talented and aggressive defender, is also quick on breakaways and not afraid to battle on the offensive boards. Armstead, three inches taller than Highsmith, also plays tough and inside, but his offense comes more from jump shots. Finally, the Huskies add another big man in 6'10" freshman, Marin Maric from Croatia.
The Huskies have five players over 6'8", which should help them go inside...an area they have struggled in the last few seasons. Head coach Mark Montgomery, in his third year, believes that with the new additions the Huskies will be able to compete in the paint; saying "we bring back a lot of those guys that have a couple years of experience. This year you add in Threloff, Rakocevic and Maric, now all of a sudden we have a post presence and maybe it’s getting them the ball that can help us get over the hump or it’s that we are in the bonus faster because we’re going to go inside." Hopefully he is right, because Montgomery might find himself on the hot seat if the the Huskies can't find a way to win more games this season. His first two years have been more than forgettable - going just 10-51.
The best NIU games to watch this winter are most certainly replays of the football games. But if you can't find those, NIU will look to get a little revenge when they face former-Huskie Akeem Springs, as the Huskies host the UW-Milwaukee Panthers November 17. Abdel Nader also gets a chance to play his former team on December 31, as NIU heads to Iowa State - whichi is coming off a second round appearance in the NCAA tourney. The Huskies play another NCAA-tournament team in Akron on Feb. 15, and the two CMU games (Feb. 12 and 23) this year should be close and will probably be a battle to avoid last in the MAC West.
All in all, the schedule doesn't look too kind for NIU. The season will depend on how the seven newcomers play and, at this point, a few games could go either way. A MAC Championship is not in the cards...not even a quarter-finals game is. But if the Huskies can get to 11 wins (something they have not done since the 2005-2006 season, when they won 17 games), it will be a hugely successful season. But, sadly 7 or 8 wins is a more realistic outlook.