DeKALB – Tonight, Northern Illinois returns to the scene of its lowest point of the season.
On Jan. 26, Eastern Michigan defeated NIU, 42-25, in Ypsilanti, Mich. The Huskies, who finished the regular season at 5-24 and 3-13 in the Mid-American Conference, set multiple NCAA records, including the fewest points scored in a half (4) in the shot clock era.
The Huskies will be back at the Eastern Michigan Convocation Center, where they will take on the Eagles in the first round of the MAC Tournament.
Tip-off between the 10th-seeded Huskies and seventh-seeded Eastern Michigan will be at 6 p.m.
Last week, before NIU’s first-round opponent was determined, freshman point guard Travon Baker said the Huskies would be ready for another possible game in Ypsilanti.
“There’s going to be a lot of motivation regardless,” he said. “But that might add a little bit to it.”
NIU won’t be favored to win tonight, but the Huskies weren’t expected to get a victory when they were in the same position a year ago, before beating the Eagles, 55-52, in Ypsilanti to advance to the MAC Tournament’s second round in Cleveland.
“Last year we were in a similar situation with us being toward the bottom of the conference,” junior guard Antone Christian said. “The good thing about college basketball, when it’s tournament time, anybody can be beat.”
Last season, NIU took a big step with the win, which was their first MAC Tournament victory since 2003.
This year’s team features a number of freshmen getting consistent playing time. Considering the makeup of the group, getting to Cleveland for the second year in a row would be a nice building block with how much the Huskies have struggled this year.
With a victory, NIU would play the winner of 11th-seeded Miami (Ohio) and sixth-seeded Bowling Green at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT.
“If we can get by that first play-in game like we did last year, I think our guys would benefit a lot,” NIU head coach Mark Montgomery said.
With six freshmen on the roster, there’s been a lot of growing pains for NIU. Tonight is a new season, and Mongomery said his team has a shot if they play loose, confident and share the ball.
The Huskies could be without sophomore wing Abdel Nader, who has been away from the team while going through personal and family issues. He didn’t play in the team’s 53-51 loss at Ball State Saturday, and Montgomery said his availability for the tournament hasn’t been determined.
Having so many freshmen has allowed the young group to gain experience, but they’ve also gone through typical freshmen struggles.
“I thought they all made strides,” Montgomery said. “At the same time they all hit the wall at times, which is tough.”