Life on road for cagers a journey never ending

By Mike Morris

On the road again…

Willie Nelson may enjoy life on the road, but for college basketball teams there’s no place like home.

Yet, less than 24 hours after arriving at O’Hare International Airport from a successful 1-1 road trip, the NIU men’s basketball team (3-2) has hit the trail once again.

Destination—Macomb, Ill., and a 7:30 p.m. contest with intrastate rival Western Illinois.

“We’ve experienced a little success on the road,” NIU head coach Jim Rosborough said yesterday before boarding the bus to Macomb. “It’s just a matter of us doing the things that we did well at Idaho State and understanding that this is the most important game on our schedule.”

What NIU did was improvise, with Rosborough making what could turn out to be a key change to his starting lineup. Six-foot-eight freshman Randy Fens started at forward against both Montana State and Idaho State, which moved 6-foot-7 sophomore Andrew Wells to the pines. This move gives NIU some experienced front-court punch off the bench, which the Huskies lacked when they got into foul trouble against Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“I like Andrew coming off the bench, and Randy deserved to start,” Rosborough said. “We had a real good rotation with Andrew coming off the bench and maybe it’s better for him, in terms of handling whatever internal pressure he puts on himself.”

WIU (1-3) was picked to finish eighth in the Association of Mid-Continent Universities and returns just one starter from last year’s 15-12 ballclub.

“We aren’t playing up to our own expectations,” WIU head coach Jack Margenthaler said. “We’re an inexperienced team with only one starter back from last year.”

Bob Smith, a 6-foot-6 swingman, leads the Leathernecks with 11.8 points-per-game as the lone returning starter. He will be matched up against 6-foot-4 Donnell Thomas, while Fens will cover 6-foot-6 senior Mike Hayes.

One of the key matchups to watch will be the defense of Smith against Thomas. Averaging 16 points per game, the Huskie co-captain managed just six points at Idaho and 10 against MSU while being double-teamed most of the night.

“We’ve changed some of our setups just a little bit to take advantage of Donnell in different spots,” Rosborough said. “He’s going to have to make sure he can hit an outside jumper or two to keep things loose, and then get into the post area when he’s isolated.”

The key for Western will be to win the battle of the boards. Rebounding was a problem for the Leathernecks in a Nov. 26 loss at Illinois State, when the Redbirds outrebounded them 37-24. The Huskies have outrebounded their opponents by a 204-158 margin this season.

“(Rebounding) is going to be a real concern of ours,” Mergenthaler said. “Northern is a tough, aggressive ballclub inside.”