DeKALB – Tuesday afternoon, Ricardo Patton sat in his office at the Convocation Center, leaned forward in his chair and talked about the difference in guard Mike DiNunno's play over the past few weeks.
After struggling with some personal issues to start the season and putting too much pressure on himself offensively while Xavier Silas was injured, DiNunno had started to perform like the player Patton wanted to see.
"It's really good to see him really just smiling," Patton said with a smile of his own, "just out there, confident and enjoying playing."
On Wednesday night against Western Michigan, DiNunno rewarded Patton's sentiments and gave Huskies fans plenty of reasons to smile after leading NIU to an 87-77 victory over the Broncos at the Convocation Center.
DiNunno led the Huskies (6-8, 2-0 MAC West) with 21 points, including six three-pointers, and 10 assists while committing only three turnovers.
"Now that I'm finding everybody else and everybody is keying on Xavier [Silas] and Jake [Anderson] and Sean [Kowal] now and it just opened up the lanes for the pick-and-roll game today and that's where the majority of my assists came from," DiNunno said.
DiNunno penetrated regularly against Western Michigan's defense, allowing open shots for Kowal (18 points on 8 of 11 shooting) and Anderson (12 points).
"I think the main thing is not focusing on my scoring, trying to put a lot of pressure on the ballhandler and get everybody else involved," DiNunno said. "Since the Chicago State game [Jan. 6], the result of that has been me getting open rhythm shots and I've been knocking them down."
That, in turn, gave DiNunno wide open looks from deep, which he buried. It was especially crucial in the first half, when Western Michigan (9-6, 1-1 MAC) held a 14-point lead just 10 minutes into the game.
"Mike DiNunno is becoming the point guard that we had envisioned," Patton said.
For the third time ever as a member of the MAC, the Huskies have started 2-0 in conference play. The last time NIU was 2-0 in the MAC was during the 1980-81. NIU's four-game winning streak is the first since the 2005-06 season.
"Now teams across the league will say, 'Well, we have to play when [NIU] shows up' and no coach will have a difficult time making their players understand that, I think," Patton said. "We're not going to sneak up on anybody."
"Coach [Patton] always talks about us defending our home court and one thing it definitely does now is it puts pressure on us to come in every game and every practice with an increased amount of focus," DiNunno said.
"Coach [Patton] said in the locker room, 'We're not the hunter anymore. We're the hunted.'"