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Viewpoint: Judson's not the problem

DeKALB - In seven years as a member of the full-time sports staff at the Daily Chronicle, I've written almost a thousand articles. Some bad, but hopefully a higher share on the good side. The one constant in my tenure has been the minimal response by readers regarding the articles written by me and the rest of the staff. Sometimes that is good, but other times that lack of feedback has fostered an &#8220is anybody out there” syndrome for the staff. But alas, it took a simple column summing up the 2005-06 Northern Illinois men's basketball team to shatter the record for e-mails received by the sports staff. The column appeared in last Tuesday's paper, with the theme revolving around the lack of support that an overachieving team received from its fan base. The feedback was 70 percent in support of the column, but the negative e-mails had some strength and wanted answers to some questions surrounding this past season. So, I'll try and clarify and expand on some of my points, answer the questions that were most common in the e-mails and make a few new remarks. First, I don't understand why a majority of the fans are so upset with the direction of program in the fifth-year of the Rob Judson era. Once again, whether this pains some former players or people in the athletic administration, Northern Illinois doesn't have a rich history in men's basketball. Judson's winning percentage (67-78) remains superior to former NIU coaches Brian Hammel (117-137), Jim Rosborough (28-56) and slowly inching toward John McDougal (136-141). Jim Molinari posted a 42-17 mark, but the Huskies competed one season as an independent and in the Mid-Continent Conference. The Huskies had won just 12, 10, six, 13 and five wins before Judson's arrival. Since then, the Huskies have posted win totals of 12, 17, 10, 11 and 17. Of course, there is still work to be done. Changing history takes time. Let's take a look at Bradley - a team which landed in the Sweet Sixteen, boasts a storied history of two NCAA championship games and four NIT titles and sits smack in the middle of a fertile area for recruits. Under coach Jim Les, the Braves sported a grim 40-49 mark in the last four years entering the 2005-06 campaign. Basketball rules at Bradley. The only football in town is played at the local high schools. When did NIU's hoops program suddenly elevate to the same annual expectation level of Bradley's? I must have missed that memo. The one common denominator in all of the negative e-mails was that Judson should've turned the program around in five years. But didn't the Huskies win the Mid-American Conference West Division title? No sharing, either. The winning season by the Huskies in 2002-03 followed by consecutive losing records is another perceived mark against Judson. First, the Huskies overachieved by reaching the semifinals of the MAC Tournament in 2003. They didn't have a true post player or point guard. Until Jay Bates finally got comfortable and proved to be unstoppable late in the year, the Huskies were an average team. And please don't mention Marcus Smallwood. Yes, Smallwood had a great career, but college basketball teams don't win championships with a 6-foot-6 power forward as their main inside threat. At Monday's banquet, Judson proudly declared, &#8220this was an historic season for NIU basketball.” You know what, he's right. The Huskies were picked by the media (the so-called experts) fourth in the preseason West poll in October. That fact seems to be ignored by the Judson haters. The Huskies beat DePaul for the second straight year. The same DePaul team that destroyed eventual Big East Tournament champion Syracuse by 39 points a few days before the Orange's amazing four-game run to the NCAA tourney. Northern Illinois had a school-record 12 conference wins and led the West wire-to-wire. They showed tremendous heart by overcoming a season-ending injury to Ben Rand and a head injury to James Hughes to defeat Ball State and Western Michigan on the road to end the regular season. The 2005-06 squad didn't overwhelm teams with their athleticism, relying on hard work and a singular heartbeat approach to defy the low preseason expectations. In simple terms, this team wouldn't have won the West if not for a stellar coaching job. Another area that led to consistent debate throughout the season - and in the e-mails - was Judson's substitution pattern. Fans voiced their displeasure with the erratic substitutions in every medium available. That troubling and perplexing substitution pattern led to the Huskies leading the MAC in field goal percentage (.490), three-point field goal percentage (.409), assists (15.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.20). The Huskies ranked second in field goal defense (.420) and blocked shots (3.67), and finished in the top four in scoring offense, scoring margin and rebounding defense. Not too shabby for a coach and a team that had a puzzling substitution pattern. The sudden end to the season frustrated numerous fans. But that's March Madness. The banged up Huskies lost by one point to the hottest team in the league. The phantom charge call on Cory Sims late in the game turned out to be the deciding factor. Kent State was the lone team from the conference to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Flashes also were the lone basketball team to lose scholarships (2) from the recent NCAA Academic Progress Rates Report - Kent State had five players released from their scholarships at the end of the 2004-05 season. The most alarming and frustrating factor remains the low attendance figures in the Convocation Center. The Huskies averaged 2,330 fans in 13 home games this past season, just 90 fans more per game than the 11-17 team in 2004-05. In contrast, Illinois State averaged 6,450 fans last year for a 10-19 team (2004-05). Central Michigan averaged 2,263 fans for last year's 10-18 squad. Even Eastern Illinois drew 2,295 fans in the 2004-05 campaign. Bradley filled Carver Arena on a regular basis, averaging 9,337 fans in the 2004-05 season. And that was for a below-.500 program. Where are all the fans in DeKalb County? Is Northern Illinois a football or basketball school? Some fans believe I'm on the Rob Judson payroll. Far from the truth. I just will never understand why a hard-working team didn't receive the credit they deserved. Of course, some of the fans might not like Judson and would like nothing better than for him to leave town. That's fine. Every fan is entitled to his or her opinion. But that dark cloud of frustration hovering over Judson shouldn't engulf the team. Unfortunately, it did this past season. And whether agree or disagree, frustrated or satisfied, Judson hater or lover, the likes of seniors Anthony Maestranzi, Todd Peterson and Cory Sims were underappreciated and overlooked by the majority of the local hoops community. That's the biggest crime of the Judson era. Bobby Narang can be reached at bnarang@daily-chronicle.com.

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