DeKALB – Akron has been one of the teams which has set the standard for Mid-American Conference basketball in recent years.
The Zips have made the NCAA Tournament two out of the last three seasons, and have enjoyed seven straight 20-plus win campaigns. Akron came into Saturday's MAC crossover contest at the NIU Convocation Center with 10 victories, the most in the conference.
NIU, on the other hand, went into the contest with just three victories, the lowest total in the MAC.
Akron showed why it will be competing for an NCAA Tournament berth, while the Huskies played like a team that has some work to do in order to get to the Zips level, as Akron left DeKalb with an 68-53 win.
The Huskies (3-11, 1-1 MAC) went just 1-for-14 from beyond the three-point line in the loss.
"I told my guys, we know where the bar is. It's tough to beat one of the top teams in the MAC when you only make one three," NIU head coach Mark Montgomery said. "We came in shooting the ball very well. Unfortunately we couldn't get on track today."
NIU started two freshmen and two sophomores Saturday. Akron (11-4, 2-0 MAC) coach Keith Dambrot is familiar with what Montgomery is going through with his youth movement, as he mentioned a similar situation when he took over the Zips program before the 2004-05 season.
Dambrot praised the Huskies' energy, and said NIU will be better off when the younger players are veterans.
"We've done it mostly with high school kids, we've had four transfers in nine years. We've done it straight by the book pretty much," Dambrot said. "I think that's the best way to do it in our league. Because when you get them in that third or fourth year, or even their second year, they start to understand what you really want done. And they get smarter and smarter and smarter.
"And then when you're in a bunch of close games you end up winning because they know your system more than the other team."
A slow start doomed the Huskies Saturday, as NIU shot just 22.7 percent from the field in the first half. The Huskies did make it close during the second, as an Abdel Nader dunk against Akron 7-footer Zeke Marshall brought NIU to within 11 points, while NIU's only three of the game, courtesy of Aksel Bolin, got the Huskies to within six with 11:29 left in the game.
That was the closest NIU would get in the second half, although freshman Darrell Bowie, who led the Huskies with 13 points, said Nader's dunk helped the team's momentum.
"Our bench got into it," he said. "It got our juices flowing."
After a 72-61 win over Miami (Ohio) to open conference play Wednesday, the Huskies fell back to .500 with Wednesday's loss.
Montgomery said he has seen some improvements with his team, such as players trusting each other. One thing Montgomery said about Saturday's game was how much energy and toughness his team played with.
NIU's second-year coach said that if you would have told him a couple of weeks ago that his team would start off 1-1 in conference play, he would have been "ecstatic."
"I think both (MAC) games we came out with a lot of energy and great effort," Montgomery said. "... It's not all about wins in losses it's about how you're teams playing. I think we are improving, we're getting better."