DeKALB – February has been a tough month for the freshmen-laden Northern Illinois men's basketball team.
Around the time their high school seasons hit the final stretch, the six freshmen Huskies are slogging through the latter part of the conference season.
Saturday's 59-47 non-conference loss to Eastern Illinois was the Huskies' sixth defeat in six February games, and coach Mark Montgomery is hoping the push toward the postseason will breath life into his team.
“It's been tough. February has been tough,” Montgomery said. “That's when the young guys, your freshmen especially, kind of hit the wall. It's part of college basketball.”
NIU (5-20) is just two games out of a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference. If the Huskies finish eighth or better, they'll host a Mid-American Conference tournament game.
“[The freshmen] have just got to stay focused on the main goal, and that's getting to [the second round of the MAC tournament in] Cleveland and going on a run,” said Abdel Nader, who scored a team-high 17 points. “It's tough, but we'll work through it.”
But if they're going to catch Kent State, Bowling Green or Eastern Michigan, the Huskies are going to have to make some major improvements from Saturday's loss and the rest of their trudge through February.
For starters, NIU has to put together a complete game, a constant issue this season. Against EIU, the Huskies took an early lead and trailed just 27-25 at the end of the first half.
But the Panthers scored the first eight points of the second half, forcing the Huskies to play from behind for the rest of the game.
“Eastern Illinois came out of the locker room a little better than us and went on an 8-0 run and I think that was the difference,” Montgomery said. “We have to play in three-minute segments, five-minute segments, find a way to win it down the stretch and in the second half.”
The Huskies struggled shooting from the perimeter, a season-long theme. NIU made just four of 20 three-pointers, and the Huskies' 20-percent shooting from beyond the arc was only about eight points below their season average.
Montgomery knows teams will play a zone against his team in the coming weeks, and NIU will have to improve on its three-point shooting. In the 12 games they've shot 16 or more three-pointers this season, the Huskies have won just once.
“I think it's just about taking better threes, definitely,” Nader said. “There's not really two ways about it.”
Most of all, the Huskies need to realize that there's quite a bit to play for over these last few weeks of the conference season. Even though NIU has no chance of reaching .500 in conference play, three wins in the Huskies' last four games would, in all likelihood, earn the Huskies a home conference tournament game.
Montgomery hopes the thought of the postseason coming up will help his team climb out of the dog days of February.
"We were hoping the excitement of March [being] right around the corner, there's only four league games left. Hopefully that can get them over the top,” Montgomery said. “If you steal one Wednesday [against Eastern Michigan] and you find a way to win one against Central [Michigan on Saturday], you're right back in it.”