The offensive struggles of Northern Illinois’ men’s basketball team this season have been well-documented.
The Huskies (5-23, 3-12 Mid-American Conference) average 54.4 points a game, one of the lowest marks in the nation and have broken the 70-point mark only four times.
They set numerous NCAA records for offensive futility against Eastern Michigan, scoring only four points in the first half to set the record for fewest points scored in a half in the shot-clock era. The Huskies also scored five points in the first half against Dayton earlier in the season.
But what are the reasons for NIU’s offensive decline?
The Daily Chronicle broke down tape from two NIU regular-season games – the 67-65 home win Jan. 30 against Kent St. and the 59-54 loss Feb. 9 at Buffalo – that were provided by the athletic department. We gathered five trends and confirmed them with the use of advanced statistics.
This was one factor NIU knew it would have to deal with coming into the season, and it might be the biggest reason the Huskies have struggled. With seven freshmen in coach Mark Montgomery’s recruiting class, the Huskies expected there would be some growing pains.
According to Statsheet.com’s Experience Tracker, NIU is the third-least experienced team in the country. Only two upperclassmen – juniors Aksel Bolin and Antone Christian – see consistent playing time.
More than 55 percent of NIU’s minutes have been played by freshmen and five different first-year players have started at least five games. Freshman guards Travon Baker and Daveon Balls have combined to start all 28 games at point guard for NIU.
For NIU, wasted possessions have been a consistent issue as it averages 15 turnovers a game. This number is exacerbated by the Huskies’ slower tempo as 22.9 percent of their total possessions result in turnovers, placing the Huskies in the bottom 25 teams in the country.
At the start of the second half against Kent St., NIU committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions. Against Buffalo, the Huskies turned the ball over on 10 of 28 possessions in the first half. NIU shot 11 for 18 from the field, but still trailed at halftime because of turnovers.
The Huskies have turned the ball over more than their opponents have in each of the past eight games and it coincides with a nine-game losing streak.
Lack of assists/dribble penetration
One thing that stands out when watching NIU’s game tape is a dearth of assisted baskets and open shots.
NIU averages only 8.1 assists a game, which is last in the country. Breaking it down further, the Huskies record an assist on only one of every eight possessions. In their loss to Toledo on Tuesday, NIU had a season-low three helpers.
Most of their assisted baskets come on the perimeter from made jumpers and 3-pointers. Overall, there is little dribble penetration into the paint. Balls and Baker aren’t big threats from beyond the arc – neither shoots better than 25 percent – allowing defenders to sag off and play help defense on others when needed.
Against Buffalo in half-court sets, there were only 13 instances of dribble penetration into the paint that forced a secondary defender to come help off his man. However, of those 13, more than half resulted in scores or open shots.
Points in the paint
The Huskies are not overly reliant on jumpshots. They take more than 34 percent of their shots around the rim, putting them around the national average.
However, the shots NIU takes around the rim usually aren’t high-percentage attempts, resulting in contested fadeaways or off-balance hook shots. According to Hoop-math.com, NIU makes only 52 percent of its shots near the rim, the 13th-worst mark in the nation.
This likely is a result of not having a true post player on the roster and the aforementioned lack of dribble penetration. Keith Gray and Darrell Bowie are NIU’s most utilized options in the post, yet the two are listed at only 6-foot-8 and 6-6, respectively.
Guards and wings aren’t creating many easy shots for forwards at the rim either, as less than one of every three made shots in close are assisted.
Before the season started, Montgomery said he wanted his team to play more up-tempo. With a smaller, quicker roster, it would make sense for the Huskies to get up and down the floor, hoping to wear out teams and beat opposing big men down the floor.
Yet NIU plays at one of the slowest tempos in the country, averaging only 65.3 possessions a game, ahead of only Eastern Michigan in the MAC. Against Kent St., NIU had only 10 shots in transition out of 61 possessions.
When NIU does push the pace, good things usually come as a result. Mike Davis, especially, shows a willingness to get out in transition after a defensive stop. In the second half against Buffalo, Baker pushed the ball after a Bulls made basket and ended up getting fouled on a drive to the hoop. It’s something NIU should look to do more often considering its struggles in the half court.
Inevitably, this team will improve offensively as the young roster garners more experience and more familiarity playing with each other and under Montgomery. It won’t hurt to have the freshmen go through their first full offseason training program, getting stronger after a year adjusting to the college level.
Playing with two freshmen point guards is never an easy proposition. As Balls and Baker get better, so will the offense. They likely will spend much of the offseason improving their perimeter shooting, and if either can prove to be a more reliable jump-shooter as a sophomore, it will open up the court for them to attack the basket. It’s a process even Derrick Rose had to go through.
Every key contributor should return for NIU next season, and the addition of 6-11 center Pete Rakocevic, who sat out this season after transferring, should give NIU a true post player, as well.
NIU’s offense has struggled in both of Montgomery’s seasons at NIU, but next year, with a more experienced roster and a third year running his system, it’s safe to expect a bump in points per game and a subsequent increase in wins.