DeKALB — Men’s basketball opens its 2019-20 season this Saturday, and expectations couldn’t be higher.
NIU is coming off a season where it won 17 games and advanced to the Mid-American Conference tournament semifinals for the first time since 2003. The Huskies take the floor Saturday against Northern Iowa University, looking to build on the 2019 conference tournament performance and go even higher this year.
The Huskies return three starters from last year’s team that finished 17-17 overall and 8-10 in league play, and open the season picked to finish second in the MAC West Division by conference head coaches.
Northern Iowa will provide an immediate test for the Huskies right out of the gate. Under Head Coach Ben Jacobson, the Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament four times, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2010. After the 2018-19 season, Northern Iowa went 16-18 and finished fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Like the Huskies, the Panthers return plenty of depth, including sophomore guard A.J. Green, who averaged 15.1 points per game last season. Green was recently named to the Lou Henson Award watch list, given to the best mid-major player in the nation.
“It’s going to be an exciting game Saturday afternoon,” NIU Head Coach Mark Montgomery said. “We are going to have to key in on Green, but they have some other players that have experience. They are definitely going to test us.”
The Huskies will counter Green with senior guard Eugene German, who is coming off a season where he averaged 20.4 points a game. On Oct. 31, German was named to the preseason All-MAC West team and scored 19 points in Tuesday’s 85-50 exhibition win over Roosevelt University.
German can score a lot of points in a hurry, but the success of the team offensively will come from spreading the ball around. Seven players scored more than seven points Tuesday night, which makes a perfect blueprint to work from this winter.
“It’s important [to spread the scoring around] because teams are going to key on me a lot,” German said. “We lost a couple of good scorers and we are trying to figure out who we’ve got now. We have guys who can step up to the plate. They need to get into the gym, put in the work and be ready to shine.”
Redshirt senior forward Lacey James returns after averaging eight points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year, while sophomore guard Trendon Hankerson and junior guard Rod Henry-Hayes moved into the starting lineup for Tuesday night’s game and will see a lot of time this season. Hankerson averaged 2.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg during the 2018-19 season, while Henry-Hayes averaged 3.8 ppg.
The Huskies also have several newcomers who will likely play a big role this season. They include junior forwards Chris Johnson and Nathan Scott, as well as first-year forward Keenon Cole and first-year guard Tyler Cochran. Transfer additions Johnson and Scott come from South Suburban College and Olney Central College respectively.
Also joining the squad this year is sophomore Darius Beane, who played at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville in 2018-19, but was given immediate eligibility by the NCAA to play this season.
The Huskies will need contributions from everyone to start the season, as Northern Iowa begins what is a very ambitious pre-conference schedule for the Huskies. The Northern Iowa game kicks off a run where NIU will play six games in a 12-day span, including next Tuesday night when they travel to Ames, Iowa to take on Iowa State University.
In December, the team will travel west to take on 20th ranked Saint Mary’s University – California and the University of California – Davis, before making the trip back across the country to play the University of Pittsburgh Dec. 16. The Huskies will then close the non-conference slate at home Dec. 21 against the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.
Montgomery said the tough non-conference games are meant to get the team ready for MAC play, and the teams the Huskies play over the next several weeks are going to do that.
“We will be working to get better every game,” Montgomery said. “Every game is going to teach us something new about ourselves. We know that it’s a challenging schedule, but it’s an opportunity to go out and play some of the best teams in the country.”
The MAC slate will start Jan. 4 on the road at the University of Buffalo.
German sees the stretch of games coming up the next two weeks as an opportunity to get the season off to a fast start.
“I want to win them all,” German said. “That’s what it’s all about — winning. If we win games we all look good, both as individuals and as a team.”