Molinari adds depth to 17-11 crew

By Carl Ackerman

When men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari took on NIU’s coaching duties last year, he was faced with a plethora of challenges. The result was a highly successful season.

Now “Coach Mo” prepares to enter his second season at NIU and looks to add a sequel to last year’s success. However, this year may pose a greater challenge for NIU.

The Huskies have joined the challenging Mid-Continent Conference, which is ranked as the 14th most competitive league out of 33 Division I loops. Also, NIU will hit the road 16 times this season.

“I feel our team will be better, but our record may not necessarily be better,” Molinari said. Last year’s NIU record was 17-11 which included a 13-1 home record. The Huskies’ efforts landed them in the No. 5 spot for the NCAA’s best defense.

“I think we’ll be better because we have more depth this year and we know each other better. What’s going to hurt us is that we only play 12 home games. We have 16 road games plus a tournament, and we have to adjust to a new conference,” Molinari said.

Probably the biggest bright spot for NIU this season is its five returning starters and increased bench depth.

The Huskies will again feature Donnell “D-Train” Thomas, a 6’4″ senior forward who led NIU in numerous categories last year, including a 17.8 points-per-game average, an average of eight rebounds per game (224 total), most field goals (174) and free throws (149).

“I can’t say enough about him,” Molinari said. “I think he’s the best post player at 6’4″. He has had a great career here, and I hope he finishes it as well as he started it. More importantly, he’s our leader. To me, leadership is character in action.”

The action doesn’t stop there. Donald “Robocop” Whiteside, a 5’10” senior guard, is another serious NIU threat.

Whiteside produced some big points last season as well. He finished second in scoring with an 11.8 ppg. average, led NIU in three-point field goals with 59, free throw percentage (.763), and steals with 36.

“We call him ‘Robocop’ because he keeps going all the time. He’s a machine,” Molinari said.

Other starters returning from last year include 6’7″ senior center Andrew Wells, who recently underwent heart surgery. Stacy Arrington, a 6’3″ junior guard, recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and has just started practicing again. Molinari said Arrington is having a hard time doing what he used to be able to do before surgery. Six-foot-seven senior forward Antwon Harmon has also provided a lot of spark in the Huskies lineup.

“We’re still in the building process as a team,” Molinari said. “I was really excited about last year. I want the seniors to go out with something special. We should be a really competitive team.”

NIU will need to be a competitive team to get past its challenging conference rivals. University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has been picked No.1 for the conference by the M-C conference coaches. UW-GB finished No. 2 in the M-C last season with a 9-3 conference mark behind Southwest Missouri State, which has left the conference.

“I think (UW-GB) should be picked No. 1,” Molinari said. “They have veteran players plus they are having the conference tournament at home. That creates a lot of excitement for them.”

Molinari feels the challenging conference teams will not only improve the players’ talents but also the fans’ enthusiasm.

“I’m excited for the students and the rest of our fans. They now have something to identify with (the new conference). We’re going to see top teams again and again. It’s not like we’re going to see a team once from some far away place they don’t know, like the University of Mars,” joked Molinari.

Although NIU finished No. 5 in the NCAA’s best-defense category last season, Coach “Mo” is looking to change things slightly.

“We want to move a little more up and down the court because we have better depth. I don’t think we’ll change much. We have some great athletes, but we don’t really have any jets. Our best style is a strong defense,” Molinari said.

NIU’s bench should improve the team’s defense even more. Molinari said sophomore guard David Mitchell is maturing every day and provides spark for NIU. Junior forward Brian Banks has improved a lot as well, Molinari said.

“Mike Hidden averaged 25 minutes a game last year. He’s a strong defender that will get more confidence as time goes on,” Molinari said.

NIU’s newcomers will also provide plenty of depth, including 7’1″ freshman center Steve Oldendorf.

“He really has good skills for his size and for his stage of development as a freshman. Weight and strength are factors for Oldendorf. It may take a year or two for him to come around,” Molinari said.

Freshman guard Mark Layton is also expected to be an influential newcomer. “He’s the best defender of any freshman I’ve ever been around. He fights hard. I’m really pleased with his development,” Molinari said.

Highly-touted freshman guard Mike Lipnisky will be looking for his first year of action along with Brian Molis, a sophomore guard from Colorado.