DeKALB — Men’s basketball has been on a tear lately, winning its last three games in four days, against Coppin State University, Rockford University and Longwood University. The team’s defense and depth have been the brightest over the three-game stretch.
This recent streak has shown a lot of what the team can do. The Huskies’ defense has been the most promising part of the team so far. In those three games, the team held its opponents to an average of 32.6% shooting from the field and 25.3% shooting from behind the arc, allowing only 19.7 field goals per game.
Head Coach Mark Montgomery was especially pleased with his team’s defensive performance Monday night.
Montgomery said when his team limits opponents to a low shooting percentage and dominates on the board, the Huskies position themselves for success.
NIU’s defense is going to be extremely important this season for the team to be successful. While the Huskies blew out Rockford by 48 points Saturday, not every game is going to be that easy. Rockford isn’t a Division 1 school, and it was undersized, likely contributing to NIU’s offensive onslaught and its ability to hold all but one player to a combined 20 points.
In the games against Coppin State and Longwood, the Huskies shot just under 40% as a team and just barely over 30% from three. Those numbers are not too convincing. Sure, it is early in the season, and the shooting could improve, but from what the team has shown so far, shooting in games against tougher Division 1 opponents may be a struggle, so the defense has to be stellar to hold NIU’s opponents.
Redshirt senior forward Lacey James has proven that he can hold down the paint on the defensive end. He was fantastic Monday night, registering four blocks and a steal on the way to his best game of the season. If James can be half as good as he was Monday night on a regular basis, the team should be able to stay in games where the shooting isn’t there, limiting opponents from taking as many shots from inside the paint.
James wasn’t the only notable defender during that three game stretch, as sophomore guard Darius Beane and first-year guard Tyler Cochran played major roles in NIU’s defensive performances.
Beane, who made his season debut against Coppin State, was an instant game-changer. Aside from bringing some scoring and much-needed playmaking ability to the table, his defense was great. He registered three steals and a block in his debut and two more steals against Longwood. It’s been a focus of his to become a better defender for the team.
“That’s one thing coach has been on me about, continuing to be a better defender,” Beane said. “I can see more minutes if I continue to do that. That’s one thing I started to take more pride in, is just hassling guys.”
Beane seems to always be looking to take advantage of a player’s lazy pass, as he excels at fast break opportunities. Along with Cochran, he helps create a major defensive backcourt threat for any opponent. Beane and Cochran have contributed to starting a few Huskie scoring runs because of their ability to make instant stops.
Cochran had two steals a piece on Saturday and Monday, along with a block against Rockford. Just like Beane, he is always looking to take advantage of bad passes.
Aside from being threats on the defensive perimeter, Beane and Cochran have another thing in common; they come off the bench — a bench that has shown to be very productive. They are part of NIU’s talented depth that has finally become a factor on a nightly basis.
In NIU’s first two games, I wasn’t convinced at all in the team’s ability to create offense for itself. In the first two games combined, the team had only seven assists, which was extremely troubling. The team seemed to hide behind senior guard Eugene German’s scoring ability, as he was the only player able to crack double-digits in scoring. The amount of shots he was taking far exceeded any other players’ number of attempts. That changed in the game against Coppin State.
German was excellent in the game, but the scoring burden was not his alone to bear. Junior forward Nathan Scott had his breakout game, scoring 18 points and adding two assists. James contributed 11, and Beane added in 12 of his own points. All together, the team had 10 assists, a big improvement from its last two games at the time.
Against Rockford, every single player that saw the floor scored. Cochran had a career-high 11 points and looked great on both ends of the floor. Junior forward Chris Johnson added 10 points of his own. The team had a season-high 18 assists.
The most convincing part of NIU’s depth was its performance against Longwood. German had an off-night, shooting 3-13 from the field and only contributing 12 points. The way NIU has played at times seems as if the offense is hopeless without German’s scoring, but those fears were eased, thanks to James, Beane and senior forward Noah McCarty.
James and McCarty went for double-doubles, scoring 21 points and grabbing 20 rebounds between them. Beane went off for a season-high 14 points in the win.
If NIU is to win games like this, it cannot be just the “Eugene German show.” The other starters have to do their part on offense, whether that be giving the team options if German is being doubled or to leading the second unit when German goes out. Players coming off the bench have to be ready when their number is called.
Huskie basketball was fun to watch this past week, and the defense made things interesting, even when shots weren’t falling.
If NIU can keep up its defensive ability and production from other players not named Eugene German, there is no reason why this team can’t compete for the Mid-American Conference Championship come spring.