Winter break about improvement, not record for men’s hoops

By Steve Shonder

Winter break is giving men’s basketball a chance to focus solely on improving its game before heading into MAC play.

The Huskies (3-2) will play six non-conference games across break before opening up the MAC season at the Ohio Bobcats Jan. 7. Four of their seven games over break will be on the road, providing the Huskies with a chance to get into a rhythm playing away from home. They’re 0-2 on the road with losses to the Iowa Hawkeyes and the DePaul Blue Demons.

“Just to get the break from school so we can focus our minds on basketball, that’s always good,” said senior Aaron Armstead.

If the Huskies want to exit break on the right note they’ll need to improve on their shooting and winning the turnover battle.

As a team, NIU is shooting 40.8 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from the 3-point line. While the Huskies had a good shooting performance in their last few outings, including shooting 48 percent from the floor against DePaul, they lack the consistency they want.

“We get our shots up in practice, but you have to come in extra to get some shots up,” said head coach Mark Montgomery. “… Then, it’s just confidence. Once break comes, we’re definitely going to have a lot of shooting sessions.”

The Huskies have turned the ball over 89 times and have only forced 78 turnovers. The minus-10 turnover differential has been a big factor in the Huskies’ two losses, and it played a role in the 21-point deficit they faced before the comeback against the Maine Black Bears Nov. 30.

“I think we just have to reduce our turnovers,” said redshirt junior Chuks Iroegbu. “We had [21] turnovers against DePaul. That’s [21] possessions that we couldn’t get back. We could have attempted a shot that would have put us in a better position to win the game.”

There are solid games over break, but the biggest matchup for the Huskies comes against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Dec. 22 in South Bend, Ind. The Irish have run roughshod through their non-conference slate, complete with an overtime win over the No. 19 Michigan State Spartans. Their only loss came against the Providence Friars, 75-74, Nov. 23.

“That’s a big game, and we’re really looking forward to it,” Armstead said. “We’re going to try and get that win.”

With only six non-conference games remaining, the Huskies are keeping an eye on preparing for the MAC season. Montgomery wants NIU to be able to hit the ground running when it enters conference.

“I don’t put a won-loss total on it, but we want to be playing our best basketball heading into January,” Montgomery said. “You have 18 MAC games, that’s where it’s decided what seed you’re going to get, where you’re going to be in the playoffs. Ultimately, we want to be getting better every day in practice, keep strength and conditioning up and just playing good basketball.”