Face Off: Better basketball season

By Steve Shonder

Men’s basketball comes into this season having completed the biggest turnaround in program history. It went 15-17 and 8-11 in the MAC last season, which was a 10-win improvement from the previous campaign. Now, the Huskies are returning four of their five starters and adding three transfers to an experienced lineup.

Women’s basketball’s 2013-14 run ended with a loss in the second round of the MAC Tournament, capping off an 11-19 season. It’s returning all its starters, but injuries have already started taking their toll.

Both teams are getting the regular season underway this weekend. Women’s basketball hosts Illinois State Friday, while men’s basketball takes on Aurora Saturday.

Steve Shonder: Men’s basketball’s experience combined with a pretty weak non-conference schedule puts it in a great position to be well over .500 when MAC play begins. Then, it’s a bit of a toss-up.

I liked what I saw from the Huskies during their exhibition against the Roosevelt Lakers, which they won 71-44 Saturday at the Convocation Center. The only questions remain on the offensive end, but the Huskies are going to have a lot of fast break opportunities with head coach Mark Montgomery’s new up-tempo offensive scheme.

They missed a lot of open layups in transition against Roosevelt, but that’s not going to continue just because of this team’s talent level. With that many close-range shots it’s unlikely they’ll put together too many 38-percent shooting nights.

Frank Gogola: Similar to men’s basketball, women’s basketball brings back a wealth of experience; however, two of their starters are out with injuries.

Senior shooting guard Amanda Corral will be out until mid-December after surgery on her hand, and senior forward Natecia Augusta will miss the season with an ACL injury. Corral and Augusta were the Huskies’ top two scorers last season, respectively, and were key defensive contributors.

The lack of offense and defense was on full display when the Huskies were upset by the Lewis Flyers, of Div. II, 60-49, Saturday at the Convocation Center. Head coach Kathi Bennett’s squad will be tasked with playing true team basketball until they get one of their leaders back.

SS: Defensively, men’s basketball is going to get better. Redshirt seniors Jordan Threloff and Pete Rakocevic and junior Darrell Bowie give the Huskies an imposing front-court presence. Last year, they were the 52nd-best rebounding team in the country, and their 62.9 points allowed per game was 30th in the nation. That’s not going to change.

Combined with the full-court press NIU is implementing, it’s going to shut down a lot of offenses and stay competitive in just about every game. There’s going to be a lot of grind-it-out wins, but the defensive play is going to put them over the top.

The MAC is loaded with teams with similar defensive styles, but the up-tempo offense and aggressive defense gives the Huskies an advantage on paper, which should translate onto the court.

FG: Women’s basketball will rely on redshirt seniors Danny Pulliam and Jenna Thorp to guide the newcomers during non-conference play.

Redshirt junior guard Lacia Gorman is good to go after sitting out last season with an injury, and redshirt sophomore forward Cassidy Glenn is eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Freshmen Renee Sladek and Kelly Smith will be expected to play key contributing roles for the Huskies, and freshman Georgia Breunig will provide the offense with range when she returns from a broken foot.

The key for women’s basketball will be to weather non-conference play and begin to establish its identity so it is ready to roll when it gets its players back from injury and starts conference play.

SS: Men’s basketball should be rounding into form mid-way through December. Transfers Michael Orris and Anthony Johnson should be fully acclimated to the system, sophomore Dontel Highsmith will likely be back from his ACL injury and the rest of the team will be in mid-season form.

Just from looking at the non-conference schedule, the Huskies should have at least seven wins before conference play begins.

They’ll need junior guard Travon Baker to facilitate the offense and players like senior Aaron Armstead and sophomore Aaric Armstead to knock down their shots at a high percentage; they’re going to get a ton of high percentage looks.

The Huskies owned the glass last year, and they look like they’ll win a lot of turnover battles. On defensive play alone, NIU will be a strong team in the MAC, but if the offense produces the way it needs to, the Huskies will be a dangerous team in the MAC Tournament.

FG: A winless non-conference record for women’s basketball wouldn’t be ideal, but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Huskies’ focus is on improving for the MAC season because it’s conference play that determines seeding for the MAC Tournament.

Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan Chippewas senior guard, is far and away the MAC’s best player, but the conference is in a state of parity this season where nearly any team could win the MAC Championship. The Huskies have 10 non-conference games to work on gelling into their roles and gearing up for a conference season where anything can happen.

The Huskies will struggle early on in the season, but they have the opportunity to be a solid team in the MAC, especially on the defensive end, and they should find themselves in the middle of the pack when the MAC Tournament rolls around in March.