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NIU Men's Basketball Early Season Recap

With the Huskies non-conference schedule over and conference play beginning tonight, they have already had a few surprises that no one saw coming.

Dontell Highsmith shoots the ball against UMass
Dontell Highsmith shoots the ball against UMass
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies men's basketball team has come out this year a different team. And it's about time!

With most of the attention, and success, on the football field in DeKalb, it has been easy to overlook the NIU basketball team. While the football squad has won an astounding 82.1% of their games since the start of 2010 (with a 46-10 record), the Huskies basketball team has managed to only win 24.3% of their games (25-78, including this year's record so far). And while NIU's football team has won 11 or more games in each of the last 4 years, the basketball team hasn't won 11+ games since the 2005-2006 season!

But that all has a chance to change this year. Through their fist twelve games, the Huskies have managed a 6-6 record. It's the first time in two years that they've won more than five games. In fact, it's the first time they are .500 or better since Nov. 24, 2010 (when they were 2-1) and the first time they have been at .500 at the start of conference play since 2005-6.

The Huskies started off 2013 with six of their first seven games at home, and were able to win three. The first game, on Nov. 8th, found the Huskies opening up against Nebraska-Omaha and, after NIU blew an 11-point halftime lead, the Huskies fell 68-66. A week later, the Huskies held the NIU invitational and played on three consecutive days. First, after trailing big early, and despite a strong second half comeback, NIU fell 60-55 to James Madison. Day two of the tournament had NIU take on San Jose State, where a few last second free-throws would propel the Huskies to a 60-59 win, their first of the year. The third, and final game, was against UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers and Huskies were close at the half, but Milwaukee was too much down the stretch winning 82-69.

After a week's rest, the Huskies were back home for St. Josephs, a D-II school in Indiana. The Huskies would find a way to rout the Pumas 111-61. It was the first time NIU broke 100-points since 2005 and the most points in a game since 2000, when they scored 121. On Nov. 30th, NIU played it's first road game of the season, against Nebraska. The Huskies found a way to keep it close, but clutch free-throws by the Cornhuskers brought down the Huskies 63-58. Five days later, NIU would return home to face Dartmouth, where the Huskies once again blew a large halftime lead, but recovered this time, winning 64-57.

Against No. 22 UMass, the Huskies never came close - falling 80-54. But then it happened. Against Loyola, on December 18th, the Huskies struggled in the first half going into the break down 14-28. In the second half however, NIU would storm back, outscoring the Ramblers 41-21 in the final 20 minutes and win 55-49. Four days later the Huskies beat UC-Riverside 71-64, only trailing once in the game: 6-3 in the first minute and a half. With the win, it marked the first time the Huskies had won back-to-back games since 2010.

The Huskies would return to the court New Years Eve against No. 13 Iowa State. The Cyclones would stay undefeated as they routed NIU 99-63. And finally, just a few days ago on the 3rd, the Huskies bullied Bethune-Cookman, winning 65-51. It marked the first time in Mark Montgomery's tenure that NIU has won more than five games and got the Huskies back up to .500, with a 6-6 record.

Nine of the players have appeared in at least ten games this season, with five players averaging above 20 minutes per game: Darrell Bowie and Travon Baker each with over 25 minutes, Dontel Highsmith at 23 minutes, Aksel Bolin getting 21.3 minutes per game, and big-man Jordan Threloff netting 20 per contest. Highsmith is the only Huskie averaging 10+ points per game (10.5), with Bowie not far behind at 9.6, and three Huskies at 7. A big part of their success this year has been better rebounding. Last season NIU only grabbed about 34 boards per game, this year that number has jumped to 40. NIU is also shooting nearly 5% better, at 40.2%, compared to last years abysmal 35%.

Sophomore Bowie that has been the leader so far, with nearly 10 points per game and over 7 rebounds per game. But two big men, in Threloff and Rakocevic have also helped the Huskies inside and on defense.

MAC play begins tonight when the Huskies take on Buffalo, where they will look to get their first conference win and try to get over .500 for the first time in eight years. It's a tall order, but this year's team has already shown it can play well against good competition.