Huskies to focus on defense, Montgomery says James will be vital for team success

Huskies prepare for an inbound Feb. 16 against Bowling Green State University at the Convocation Center in DeKalb.

DeKALB — Head Coach Mark Montgomery set his expectations for the men’s basketball upcoming season during the NIU Winter Media Day on Wednesday at the Convocation Center.

The Huskies finished 17-17 in the 2018-19 season, with an 8-10 record in Mid-American Conference play. NIU finished its year with a semifinal appearance in the conference tournament, but Montgomery said a new season means a new beginning.

“Every season is definitely a challenge, and I think our biggest challenge for this season is the conference and schedule,” Montgomery said. “Plus we bring a mix of nine returning players and six newcomers.”

Defense is the focus of the 2019-2020 season for NIU, according to Montgomery. Over the offseason, Mongtomery said his staff conveyed to him the importance of defense, with every conference champion in the nation finishing in the top three of their conference in each defensive category.

“If we’re going to finish at the top of the MAC, then we need to finish in the top three in all defensive categories,” Montgomery said. “That’s our big challenge to our guys.”

Montgomery said the goal for the offense is the same as many teams across the country, to play fast and up tempo. The nine-year coach of the Huskies did express the importance of three-point shooting, following the moving of the three-point line to the international mark of 22 feet.

“Just like loads of other teams across the nation, we want to play fast and up tempo,” Montgomery said. “We want to share the basketball and play inside and out. At the same time, we’re going to have to knock down some threes. It’s going to be a little more challenging since they moved our three point line back.”

Montgomery pinpointed a player he wants to be a force on both ends in redshirt senior forward Lacey James. James averaged 8.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season, but expectations are high for the former Rider University transfer.

“It’s going to start with James,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to half to consistently be a double-double guy.”

James said not much has changed in his preparation or approach going into the new season, even with the graduation of forwards Levi Bradley and Jaylen Key.

“I kind of did what I always do,” James said. “I’m in the gym and the weight room every day. I take care of my body. I don’t look at it as higher expectations or pressure. I’m just excited for this season.”

Scoring on a consistent level was far from an issue last season for senior guard Eugene German, averaging 20.4 points per game. Montgomery said he wants to see German become a bigger force on the other side of the ball.

“With [German] we’ve been talking to him a lot about defense,” Montgomery said. “He has to make a bigger impact in that area.”

German worked with NBA scouts over the offseason to become a better two-way player, saying he enjoys the pressure Montgomery is putting on him to improve.

“I love it,” German said. “I definitely need to improve on defense and be more active. With me being such an offensive threat, I definitely need to take more pride in my defense.”

There are several newcomers to the team both on the court and on staff. Anthony Beane Sr. joins the assistant coaching staff from Southern Illinois while former graduate assistant Chris MacMartin has been promoted to Director of Player Development and Operations.

Junior forward Chris Johnson joins the team from South Suburban College where he led NJCAA Division II in rebounds, averaging 14.5 a game.

Montgomery compared Johnson’s playing style to Hall of Fame forward Dennis Rodman. Among other transfers are sophomore guard Darius Beane, son of Anthony, and junior forward Nathan Scott from Olney Central College.

Montgomery also said first-year guard Tyler Cochran from Bolingbrook could see a lot of playing time early in the year, comparing his versatility to former All-Star forward Draymond Green. Other first-year players include guard Daniel Filippone and forward Keenon Cole.

Before they start regular season play, the Huskies host an exhibition game 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Convocation Center against Roosevelt University.

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DeKALB — The men’s basketball team has been having a historic run the past couple weeks, winning six consecutive games after starting the season 0-2. This marks the longest win streak since the 2015-16 season, when the Huskies won seven straight games between Dec. 22, 2015 and Jan. 12, 2016.