It took until January and the very end of the non-conference portion of the schedule, but the Northern Illinois men's basketball team finally is starting to feel good about itself.
"The excitement we had at the beginning of the season, I think we're starting to get that back," NIU coach Ricardo Patton said.
The Huskies (4-8) begin the Mid-American Conference portion of the schedule at 1 p.m. today at Ball State (6-6). NIU was picked to finish second in the MAC West before the season, and there were points in the non-conference schedule when that looked like a goal too high for the Huskies.
There was the hand injury to guard Xavier Silas on opening night at Northwestern. Then came the home loss in overtime to Southeast Missouri State, who had the longest losing streak in Division I basketball coming into DeKalb. Then a 41-point drubbing at Minnesota in Silas' first game back. Suddenly, a team that was supposed to put up points and be concerned about defense had to change its plan.
"One of the things that surprised me was how poorly we shot the basketball early on, particularly guys like [sophomore guard] Mike DiNunno and [junior guard] Jake Anderson didn't have many stellar nights shooting the basketball," Patton said. "Because our guard play was so poor, our post game suffered."
But after the Minnesota game, the Huskies appear to have started a turnaround. Wins over Maryland-Eastern Shore, North Dakota and Chicago State, and the most impressive performance of the season in a 10-point loss to No. 18 Temple, has NIU feeling confident entering the MAC portion of the schedule.
Patton said it's tough to underestimate Silas' value to the team and what he brought with him when he returned from injury.
"I liken it to taking a big brother to a fight," Patton said. "If you've got your big brother, you think you've got some backup."
Silas, who leads the Huskies with 18.3 points a game, said the Huskies need to learn from Wednesday's 99-93 win at Chicago State, a game NIU led by 28 at one point, and from last year's trip to Ball State.
"I know that we beat them here last year and we were up nine at halftime there last year and they came back. It's kind of like Chicago State again," he said. "We've got to come out and we've got to play hard and not let them back in the game."
Patton said he wants to see his team to play solid defense against Ball State center Jarrod Jones (14.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and the Cardinals' forwards.
"We can't allow their post players to get our guys in foul trouble," he said. "But still they have guards that are capable of making shots as well. Defensively, I think we've done a pretty good job against everyone we've played. Our nemesis has been not being able to score the ball consistently well enough."
• Check out the latest edition of "On the Wire" with NIU guard Xavier Silas and Daily Chronicle reporter John Sahly at HuskieWire.com.