German anchors a talented roster, defensive improvements key for team success

By Jarrett Huff

DeKALB — The men’s basketball team has been having a historic run the past couple weeks, winning six consecutive games after starting the season 0-2. This marks the longest win streak since the 2015-16 season, when the Huskies won seven straight games between Dec. 22, 2015 and Jan. 12, 2016.

NIU got off to a similar start this season as it did last season in terms of record, going 5-3 through first eight games. However, this season the team has been able to finish out close games a lot better, as many of NIU’s early losses in 2018-19 were very close.

“We found ways to win close games, other than finding ways to lose close games last year,” Head Coach Mark Montgomery said.

NIU currently sits at 6-2 on the season, including a 4-1 record at the Convocation Center and a 2-1 record on the road.

The Huskies, led by senior guard Eugene German, have become an aggressive, defensive-minded team with the ability to spread the floor offensively. The team is fortunate for having a deep bench with players ready to step up and produce right away.

Last season, the team featured three players averaging double-figure scoring. This season, German is the only remaining player of the trio. Despite this change, Montgomery said he believes the lack of consistent volume scorers has helped NIU’s defense, which has held three opponents to 50 points or less this season.

“I think this team is more locked-in defensively because we don’t know where our scoring is coming,” Montgomery said. “They’ve put a stronger emphasis on ‘hey, we’re going to defend, and we’re going to rebound and then we’re going to see how we’re going to generate points.’”

German is averaging 21 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals on 51.2% shooting over the six-game period, but when he’s had an off-night offensively, several players have stepped up to help carry the load. This was somewhat of a concern earlier in the season, as German was the only player to score in double digits during NIU’s two losses that opened the season.

German is in the middle of another spectacular season, with the potential to be NIU’s all-time leading scorer by the time his collegiate career is over at the end of the season. His skill as a scorer has been almost unmatched during the past six games.

He can single-handedly take over games and go on scoring runs of his own like he did during NIU’s game Nov. 25 against Oakland University, when he went on a 7-0 scoring run to open the game for the Huskies.

German has been shooting 41.2% from the three-point range during NIU’s win streak. His shooting skill from behind the arc has certainly galvanized his team, creating momentum during scoring runs or coming out of halftime. He’s a threat to his opponents when in isolation, scoring from well behind the three point line, having the ability to create his own shot from distance.

German was the hero in NIU’s 68-64 win Nov. 23 over Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville after hitting a clutch and one 3-point shot with 10 second remaining to put NIU up 64-63. He then converted on the four-point play, allowing the Huskies to control the final seconds of the game.

The team doesn’t always have to rely on German to win, however. In NIU’s 65-48 win Nov. 18 against Longwood University when German only put up 12 points on 27.3% shooting, several players stepped up offensively.

Redshirt senior forward Lacey James and senior forward Noah McCarty produced double-doubles, scoring 11 and 10 points, respectively. Both had 10 rebounds in the game.

McCarty, who came off the bench in the game, was joined by another bench player with a very productive performance. Sophomore guard Darius Beane added 14 points of his own against Longwood, along with five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Beane, a transfer from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, has been an important player for the Huskies on both sides of the ball. He didn’t appear in NIU’s first two games, but made a noticeable impact in his first game on Nov. 15 against Coppin State University; NIU’s first win.

The Huskies had been struggling to move the ball on offense, combining for seven total team assists in its first two games. Beane came into the game with a pass-first mentality, trying to find his open teammates. He recorded two assists, adding to NIU’s 10 as a team, a then season-high for the Huskies.

Montgomery gave a lot of credit to Beane after the game, recognizing his maturity as a player on the court due to his prior experience as a Division 1 player. German recognized Beane’s passing ability instantly after their first game together against Coppin State.

“[Beane] is a great facilitator,” German said. “He’s very unselfish. He’s going to get guys involved.”

While Beane can get the offense flowing with his passing ability and scoring around the rim, his most vital role is on the defensive side of the ball. Paired with German or first-year guard Tyler Cochran, Beane makes up half of a terrifying backcourt for any opponent attempting a pass near the perimeter.

Beane has been adept at clogging the passing lanes, intercepting passes that have led to several fastbreak scoring opportunities for NIU. He’s currently averaging a steal per game for the Huskies.

“[I] pretty much do whatever my team asks me to do,” Beane said. “Defending mainly; I’m focusing more on that than scoring, and I think the offense is just going to come along with it.”

German and Beane only makes up a fraction of the talent completing this team, enabling its current string of success. 

Sophomore guard Trendon Hankerson has been a leader for the team on defense and has been lights out from behind the arc, making an incredible 65.2% of his shots from deep. 

Junior forward Nathan Scott can come in and give the team double-digit scoring, whether shooting from outside or finishing at the rim. 

James and McCarty have decent outside shots for big men, and when playing with shooters, they  have plenty of space to operate inside the paint to give NIU some easy buckets once defenders are drawn to the perimeter.

With all this talent when it comes to shooting and scoring, the defense is forced to think twice about doubling German, who tends to draw a few players when he has the ball in his hands. NIU’s shooting ability spreads the floor, sometimes pulling defenders away from the paint. While the three-point shot isn’t a favorite of Montgomery’s, he said he is well aware of how it has helped the team during its win streak.

“When we’re not knocking down threes, other teams are sending more guys at German,” Montgomery said. “So as he distributes the ball and we knock down shots, now that lane is going to open up. It just going to open up everyone’s game.”

This allows NIU’s forwards to get easier scoring opportunities inside as their shots are less contested. When the defense refocuses on the inside, the forwards can kick the ball back out to the guards on the perimeter, making defending a nightmare at times for NIU’s opponent.

“I always say guards need bigs, bigs need guards,” Montgomery said. “When you’re a good team, you have five players on the floor that could potentially score, and that’s when you’re most dangerous.”

NIU’s run has been impressive, not to mention refreshing, as the program has lacked consistency the past few seasons. While the team has been playing well, not all of its opponents have been high-level. The Huskies will get their chance at one such opponent on December 5.

The Huskies will travel to Moraga, California to face Saint Mary’s which is currently 8-1 on the season, riding a seven-game win streak of its own. Saint Mary’s has defeated several talented opponents this season, not to mention the team made the NCAA Tournament’s first round last season.

Saint Mary’s made the NCAA Tournament last season, and is currently ranked 35th in the nation, according to the NCAA’s NET rankings. They will be a challenge for NIU, as the Huskies are looking to extend their win streak to seven.

“Anytime you go on the road you have to defend, you have to rebound [and] you have to take care of the ball,” Montgomery said. “If we can just hit those three things, we’re going to have to make some shots because they can score at five different positions. You’re playing against experience, and we’re going to have to match their energy and their effort.”