Defense key for season turnaround

By Khobi Price

The men’s basketball team’s defensive shortcomings have caused the Huskies (11-15, 4-9 Mid-American Conference) to be unsuccessful in MAC play this season.

Strong defensive play has been a key part of the team’s identity since Head Coach Mark Montgomery took over the team in 2011.

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

“We need to be better on defense,” said sophomore guard Justin Thomas. “Offense isn’t a problem for us; we can all score the ball. If we get our defense right, we can go for a deep run in the tournament.”

The Huskies are experiencing significant regression on the less glamorous end of the floor this season. They’re allowing their conference foes to score 76.8 points per game and rank No. 10 in points allowed per game in conference play, according to the MAC’s official website.

Montgomery said holding opponents to 70 points or less is the magic number for the Huskies to win. NIU has allowed its conference opponents to score 70 points or more in seven of their eight MAC losses.

The Huskies snapped their four-game losing streak with a 90-88 overtime win against the University at Buffalo Bulls Saturday after a game-winning layup by sophomore guard Eugene German. Despite the win, the Huskies’ defensive numbers were poor in the game against Buffalo.

They allowed the Bulls to shoot 50 percent from the field, and Buffalo scored 82 points in regulation. This is well over the 70-point mark Montgomery and the team aims for.

A reason why the Huskies struggle defensively is because they’re one of the worst teams in the conference in defending 3-point shots. They’ve allowed the second most 3-point shots made and the most 3-point shot attempts in the MAC, according to the MAC’s official website.

“If we can contain the dribbler and keep him from getting into the paint, that’ll help our 3-point percentage defense,” Montgomery said. “Teams do a good job of sharing the ball, [so] they’re shooting a high percentage from [3-point range]. If we do a better job of on-ball defense, that can solve that problem.”

The Huskies have done a good job defensively against their opponents’ initial possessions. However, they have struggled in the rebounding category and rank eighth in defensive rebounding percentage.

“We give a lot of second chance points,” German said. “We play good defense for the first 30 seconds, but then if they get the rebound, they mostly score on the second chance. We need to tighten our defense on the help side and secure more rebounds.”

NIU suffered a major loss to the team with junior guard Dante Thorpe’s shoulder injury. German said losing Thorpe is not only a big loss for the Huskies because of the pressure Thorpe takes off German on the offensive end but because of how good a defender he is.

The Huskies have the worst record in the MAC West. It’s going to take a complete team effort for the Huskies to bring back the hard-nose defense fans are accustomed to seeing out of them.

Reverting back to being a strong defensive team could be the catalyst to turn around its season.