NIU men’s basketball: Huskies inch toward brighter future

By Steve Shonder

Injuries and inconsistent play were the biggest factors in men’s basketball’s season going awry, but a strong foundation for next season is present.

The Huskies ended the regular season playing their best basketball of the year — the blowout loss to the Akron Zips in the first round of the MAC Tournament excluded — but looking at the season as a whole is where things start to go a little awry. Until NIU put together the season-closing four-game win streak they were very inconsistent.

“We had our moments in this season,” said fourth-year head coach Mark Montgomery. “We definitely finished strong. Through injuries and players hurt, not getting off to the greatest start in MAC, our guys battled back strong. Our seniors — Jordan [Threloff], Aaron [Armstead], Pete Rakocevic and A.J. [Anthony Johnson] — gave it their all. We just struggled to find that early. We lost a lot of close games, but we also won a lot of close games.”

From shooting 70 percent in the second half against the Ball State Cardinals on Feb. 10 to the Huskies’ first win over the Ohio Bobcats since 2007, there were good moments, but there were also a trio of three-game losing streaks that ultimately left them on the outside looking in.

Heading into the season, the Huskies put a little more emphasis on offense, and it showed. From last season to this season, NIU went from 92.8 to 101.4 based on Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency. They found a lot of diverse scoring threats, with a new player able to step up in each game.

The injuries the Huskies suffered led to huge losses. Sophomore Dontel Highsmith was never able to make it onto the court as his return from a torn ACL hit another bump in the road. Junior Darrell Bowie was limited to just 21 games by a shoulder injury. In the end, only four players — Threloff, junior guard Travon Baker, redshirt junior Chuks Iroegbu and redshirt sophomore Michael Orris — played in every game.

It’s easy to claim injuries as the reason for the season, but the Huskies were able to persevere through those. Some nights they played like one of the best teams in the MAC; during other games they played like a middle-of-the-road team, and their record reflected that.

But, despite the inconsistency the Huskies had throughout the season, this year still featured a leap in quality from previous seasons. The Huskies’ 14 wins gives NIU 29 wins over the last two seasons, far better than the 10 combined wins between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

“In a two-year span, 29 victories is step up from where this program was,” Montgomery said. “It was a tough season, and I’m just looking forward to next season and moving up in the MAC standings.”

After two seasons in the middle of the MAC, the Huskies are going to have to take that next step. Given that they’ll return three starters and an experienced bench, they’ll be more than capable.