Tourney looms for Huskies

By Wes Swietek

All the wins, all the losses, all the proverbial blood, sweat and tears that the Mid-Continent Conference teams have gone through this season are meaningless starting March 8.

That’s when the Mid-Con Tournament begins in Cleveland. A loss means automatic elimination. A win propels a team one step closer to the goal of a tourney title, and most importantly, an automatic bid to the big show—the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Brian Hammel’s NIU men’s basketball team is currently sixth in the M-C with a 7-9 mark. But the tight standings are bound to change because every Mid-Con team, except NIU, has one conference game left.

Hammel, however, said he doesn’t really worry too much about who his squad will face in the tourney.

“We don’t fear anyone going into the tournament. I don’t believe we’ve really been out of a conference game all year,” Hammel said. “Maybe we weren’t necessarily in a position to win every game, but we were at least able to make each game a close one for the majority of the contest.”

Senior co-captains Brian Molis and Mike Hidden echo their coach’s thoughts.

“It doesn’t make any difference who we play,” Molis said. “If we stay out of foul trouble, we can beat anybody.”

“We can beat anybody in the conference, including Green Bay,” Hidden said. “The teams with a lot of big guys will be difficult for us because we only have two guys (Steve Oldendorf and Randy Fens) and Molis playing inside at 6-4 … but we match up with most of the teams.”

Although every team starts out 0-0, the record the squads earned during the regular season isn’t totally discounted—they are used to determine the seeding for the tournament’s two brackets.

So far, only one spot has been sewn up—the top seed belonging to Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The Phoenix appear headed to the NCAA’s even if they don’t win the Mid-Con Tournament. Head Coach Dick Bennett’s squad, led by his Mid-Con Player of the Year son, Tony Bennett, have soared to a 22-3 mark, 13-2 in the conference.

The Phoenix have been moving up in the polls and currently are towards the top of the “others receiving votes” category.

The tourney’s top bracket pits the No. 1 seed against No. 8 with the winner facing the victor of the game between No. 3 vs. No. 6. The second bracket pits No. 4 vs. No. 5 and No. 2 vs. No. 7. The team with the worst record in the league is not invited to the tourney.

In some ways, it would appear to be better for NIU to finish 7th, rather then 6th. By finishing 7th, the Huskies would not have to face, presuming they keep winning, UW-GB until the title game. But if they finished 6th, they could face the Phoenix in the second game.

The tourney’s first round starts March 8 with the semifinals March 9 and the title game on March 10 at 8:30 p.m. The championship game will be shown live nationally on ESPN. Some preliminary games will be broadcast on SportsChannel Chicago.

The Huskies have one more game to gear up for the tournament. NIU ends its regular season against Texas Tech (Saturday at 2:05 p.m.) at Chick Evans Field House. Molis and Hidden will be honored before the game on Senior Recognition Day.