Defense lays foundation for sustainable success

By Brian Earle

For men’s basketball and head coach Mark Montgomery, defense has been the name of the game this season.

Ever since Montgomery took the head coaching job at NIU, he has been preaching defense. This season, the Huskies have bought into his defensive philosophy and have seen results on the court.

“It’s a team game. It doesn’t take a lot of skill; it takes more heart, toughness and determination,” Montgomery said. “Just from my background, it keeps you in games. I like teams to have a defensive mindset, and that’s what our guys have bought into especially this year… . It’s a mentality that we’re not going to let you do or go where you want to go, we’re going to try to make life a little bit more difficult for you on that side of the ball.”

The Huskies’ strong defensive play has allowed them to be the third-best defensive team in the MAC, allowing just an average of 64 points per game.

On Jan. 12, the Huskies allowed their season low in points to Bowling Green when they gave up just 36 points on 12 made shots from the field. They also held Bowling Green to a season-low 14 points in a half.

Last Wednesday, the Huskies went up against the highest-scoring team in the conference in Toledo, which averages 81 points per game. The Huskies held the Rockets to 66 points, well below their season average.

In the MAC, NIU holds teams to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage, forcing teams to shoot 41 percent from the field. In its first matchup with Eastern Michigan on Feb. 20, NIU forced the Eagles to shoot 27 percent from the field.

The key to the Huskies’ success on defense has been their ability to coexist and play as a unit. They defend and take away passing lanes while playing good help defense.

“First of all, you can’t have selfish guys, and people always think that’s just on the offensive end,” Montgomery said. “On defense, you’re playing with five guys; they all have to be on the same page. As we say, they have to be on a string together, so if the ball moves from spot to spot you need players rotating, moving and jumping to the ball, being in a stance.”

Another place where the Huskies thrive on defense is the transition game. They make a strong effort to get back on defense and stop the other team’s fast break, limiting points in transition.

“It’s one of our main aspects on defense because we play a lot of teams that want to get out and run,” said guard Aaric Armstead. “With the defense that we play, man to man, it’s easy for teams to think that they can try to get out on a break on us, so we try to make that kind of like our trademark when it comes to defense because a lot of teams want to run, so we have to know that we have to get back and play transition defense at all times.”

While defense is a team game, it also helps that the Huskies have a number of players who are strong on-ball defenders and can shut their man down one on one.

“It’s great to have some length with your wing players,” Montgomery said. “You take Aksel Bolin, 6-foot-5, and [Aaric] Armstead, 6-foot-4, so they’re bigger guards. Then you have [Travon] Baker and [Daveon] Balls, who can guard the one-position and keep point guards in front of them… Then we have another [Aaron] Armstead, who has pretty good size and some experience.”