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Teammates rivals, too

Daveon Balls and Travon Baker go back and forth.

Northern Illinois’ two freshmen point guards are teammates and competitors, fighting for the same starting position while trying to help the the Huskies rebuild their program.

“Definitely, when you’re talking to one, you’re speaking to both,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “Every day they go bring it in practice because they are competing for that spot. [Baker] started the season, then [Balls] took over the spot, and now [Baker] has it back, so we’re in a good world right now because we have two who can play the position.”

NIU’s young roster struggled to a 5-26 record last season as more than half of the team’s minutes were played by freshmen. Montgomery knew that number wasn’t going to decline much as Baker and Balls were proclaimed the front-runners to be the starting point guard in preseason.

Baker and Balls, along with NIU’s entire freshman class, were aided by a new NCAA rule that allowed coaches to spend two hours each week practicing with the team during the summer.

“It helped a lot because we already had a jump start than the year before had,” Baker said. “We already knew the plays, the drills.”

Montgomery monitors them in every game and practice situation, often pitting the two against each other in scrimmages. While the two have switched on and off as the starter, both average more than 20 minutes a game, playing alongside each other for only brief spurts, often after timeouts.

It’s an opportunity, Balls says, for both to observe and learn.

“I learn a lot from him,” Balls said. “Seeing him attacking, when he’s in, I pick up on things that he does and things that I can take from. It makes me more aggressive, too.”

The transition to the college game is tough for most high schoolers, but the jump is made more difficult for Baker and Balls because of the responsibilities involved with the point guard spot.

Balls and Baker combine for more than 11 points a game, and Baker leads the team in steals. However, the freshmen duo have had their struggles, committing more turnovers than assists and shooting only 20 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s a different pace,” Balls said. “It’s a lot more up and down, and I have to find ways to play through adversity. Coach preaches a lot just controlling the game, controlling the tempo.”

Eight games is not nearly enough time to make an accurate assessment of how the two freshmen are progressing. Most players in their class aren’t immediately looked to as floor generals responsible for getting teammates into the right spots.

Montgomery hopes to have a better feel for both by the time Mid-American Conference play starts Jan. 9 against Miami (Ohio).

“I like it more where they are in December than where they were in October,” Montgomery said. “You have to remember, less than a year ago they were playing AAU basketball, high school basketball. Now they’re going against some pretty good competition day in and day out.”

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