Huskies focused on improving defense

By Khobi Price

The basketball team is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2017-18 campaign. Head Coach Mark Montgomery said the Huskies left a lot on the table. Montgomery said last season’s team was plagued with inconsistent play and struggles on road games.

NIU finished last in the Mid-American Conference West Division with a 6-12 MAC record and was 1-13 in MAC away games during the 2017-18 season.

Before the team’s first practice Sept. 26, Montgomery said the team focused on setting the tone on the defensive end, according to a Sept. 25 NIU Media Services news release. The Huskies uncharacteristically struggled on defense during the 2017-18 campaign.

They finished No. 11 in points allowed per game in the MAC, with 77.2 points allowed during conference contests and allowed 75.2 points per game in contests, including non-conference matchups.

Through Montgomery’s first six seasons with the program, the Huskies consistently held conference opponents under 71 points per game. NIU ranked in the top-five in points allowed per game in conference each season from the 2012-13 campaign to the 2016-17 season.

“We’re still trying to form our identity,” Montgomery said. “A big identity we were missing the year before was our defensive identity. We really set [the defensive identity tone] in the first practice, but the first three weeks we were concentrating more on defense than our offense right now. I still think our offense is ahead of our defense, and we have a ways to go in both.”

Montgomery said the team did not pull down rebounds like his teams usually have and struggled to keep offensive players in front of them. The Huskies ranked No. 10 in rebounding margin in the MAC and were in the bottom half in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.

Montgomery said the Huskies will not make excuses for being out-toughened and outplayed in games last season; they are just focused on improving defensively for the upcoming season.

“You have to keep guys in front of you and have great help concepts, as in always having good vision of the ball,” Montgomery said. “The ball scores, so we have to make sure our rotations are good when we’re coming over, and we’re not giving up easy layups or shots. Two, we weren’t good in transition, and that’s just getting back, talking about communicating.”

Montgomery said offensive improvements will help the team defensively because taking and making good shots will allow the team to get back in transition and prevent the Huskies from allowing easy points. Although Montgomery said he liked where the team was in scoring last season, he said they need to improve in assisting one another for baskets.

The Huskies finished last in assists per game among all Division 1 men’s basketball teams in the nation with 9.21 assists. They did not have a player on their roster who averaged more than two assists per game.

“Our assist ratio was too low,” Montgomery said. “We have to share the ball and get guys the position they can score. Right off the bat, I liked where we were in scoring last year, but we have to get more assists.”

Junior guard Eugene German will be a factor in the team’s playmaking improvements. German had a breakout 2017 season when he led the MAC in scoring with 20.6 points per contest and was named to the All-MAC second team.

Montgomery said German has been working on trusting his teammates over the summer and during fall practices after finishing the 2017-18 season with 1.7 assists per game.

“I have to get them more involved,” German said. “I have to find my teammates in their spots, watch film with them, see where they like to catch the ball out and see where they like to finish around the rim.”

NIU will return 10 players from last year’s team, including senior forward Jaylen Key. He redshirted the 2017-18 campaign after tearing his labrum and dislocating his shoulder June 2017 and getting surgery on the injury the following month.

Key said he thinks his wisdom and basketball IQ will be assets for this year’s team.

“I’m real anxious and ready to play,” Key said. “I just want to make that leap from my sophomore year and continue to progress from that; score more points, get more rebounds and do anything to help my team win.”

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Montgomery said there are six to seven starters and is unsure who will receive the starting nod for the first game of the season. German said he expects for himself, senior guard Dante Thorpe, sophomore forward Gairges Daow and senior forward Levi Bradley to start with the last starting spot going to either Key or senior forward Lacey James.

Montgomery said junior guard Alize Travis and sophomore guard Zaire Mateen are newcomers he expects to make an immediate impact because of their previous collegiate basketball experiences. Key said he is excited to play with Travis because of his willingness to make plays for others and his passing ability.

Travis spent two seasons at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He averaged 12.1 points, 7.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore during the 2017-2018 campaign.

The Huskies will make a national television appearance when they face-off against the Butler University Bulldogs in Indianapolis Dec. 8. NIU will go against Montgomery’s alma mater, the Michigan State University Spartans, Dec. 29 in Lansing, Michigan. The Huskies will start MAC play when they match-up with the University of Akron Zips Jan. 12 at the Convocation Center.

They will face the Kent State University Golden Flashes for the first time during the 2018-19 season Jan. 19. Kent State eliminated NIU during the first round of the MAC tournament last season.

NIU’s first contest of the 2018-19 campaign will come against the Rockford University Regents 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Convocation Center. Montgomery said the team is keeping its focus on competing for the MAC title even though the team has improvements they need to make between now and March.

“The goal is to contend for the MAC championship,” Montgomery said. “We have to get back to Cleveland. We have to win games and improve daily, but March is a long way away. We just have to keep getting better in each practice and each game because each game is a different challenge.”