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NIU men’s, women's basketball looking to turn the corner

Northern Illinois University men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery speaks during a news conference Tuesday at the Convocation Center in DeKalb.
Northern Illinois University men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery speaks during a news conference Tuesday at the Convocation Center in DeKalb.

DeKALB – After struggling through a second consecutive five-win campaign in 2013, the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team will start coach Mark Montgomery’s third season with a more veteran and experienced roster.

The Huskies return eight players from last year’s team, but also welcome a bevy of newcomers, including 6-foot-11 center Pete Rakocevic, guard Aaron Armstead and DeKalb graduate Jordan Threloff, who have transferred from other schools.

After two rebuilding seasons, Montgomery is hoping the effort will finally translate into victories. The Huskies were 5-25 last season, and 5-26 the year before.

“You can see that something special is on the horizon. I can see it in practice,” Montgomery said on Tuesday’s Media Day news conference at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. “We have unbelievable energy, we have unbelievable effort every day in practice.”

Sophomore point guards Daveon Balls and Travon Baker return after taking turns as the starting point guard last year as freshmen. Montgomery said both are stronger and now have a better understanding of what the coaching staff expects from them on offense.

They’ll be aided offensively by the presence of Threloff (6-9) and Rakocevic, who give the Huskies a pair of legitimate offensive threats in the paint, something NIU sorely missed last season.

“This year we actually have some veterans coming back,” senior wing Aksel Bolin said. “We look bigger, stronger. I like everything we’re doing right now. It looks really solid to me. We’re probably two-deep on every position. It’s better than ever.”

Montgomery said his team still needs to learn how to close out games as the Huskies lost seven games by five points or less last year.

“We’re doing different things in practice. We’re putting them through different scenarios.,” Montgomery said. “We’re looking at different video opportunities when we can to get our guys ready to finish games, finish halves, finish possessions.”

The NIU women’s basketball team also struggled through a disappointing season, posting a 7-23 record only one year after a promising 14-win season in 2011 and 2012.

Much of that had to do with injuries and departures as NIU was without the services of Satavia Taylor, Jada Buggs and Danny Pulliam at different times. Claire Jakubicek, who led the team in scoring and was named the MAC Freshman of the Year, transferred to Indiana.

“It was just a rough year with not a lot of people on our roster,” said NIU coach Kathi Bennett, who starts her fourth year with the Huskies. “We have a complete roster this year and so that depth really does make a difference.”

Compared to previous seasons, NIU will be smaller and quicker and Bennett said that will be reflected in the Huskies’ style of play. They will be more up-tempo and try to get out in transition a little bit more than they had in the past.

“We’re going to pressure the ball, try to deny ball reversal and just get after it in the passing lanes,” Bennett said. “We’re going to see if we can get some transition and some added scoring because we have struggled to score in the past.”

Mid-American Conference men's and women's basketball preseason polls

The Mid-American Conference released it preseason basketball polls Tuesday. The are below:

Mid-American Conference men's basketball preseason polls

2013-14 East Division Predicted Order of Finish
1. Akron – 143 Votes (18 first place votes)
2. Buffalo – 120 Votes (6 first place votes)
3. Ohio – 94 Votes
4. Kent State – 91 Votes (1 first place vote)
5. Miami – 42 Votes
6. Bowling Green – 35 Votes
2013-14 East Division Preseason All-MAC Team
Javon McCrea, Buffalo
Demetrius Treadwell, Akron
Will Felder, Miami
Will Regan, Buffalo
Quincy Diggs, Akron
2013-14 West Division Predicted Order of Finish
1. Toledo – 149 Votes (24 first place votes)
2. Western Michigan – 108 Votes
3. Eastern Michigan – 101 Votes (1 first place vote)
4. Ball State – 89 Votes
5. Central Michigan – 50 Votes
6. Northern Illinois – 28 Votes
2013-14 West Division Preseason All-MAC Team
Rian Pearson, Toledo
Julius Brown, Toledo
Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan
Majok Majok, Ball State
Glenn Bryant, Eastern Michigan
MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament Winner: Akron (14); Toledo (7); Buffalo (1)

Mid-American Conference women's basketball preseason polls
MAC East Preseason Poll
1. Akron (9 First Place Votes)
2. Bowling Green (3)
3. Buffalo
4. Miami
5. Ohio
6. Kent State
MAC West Preseason Poll
1. Central Michigan (12 First Place Votes)
2. Ball State
3. Toledo
4. Eastern Michigan
5. Western Michigan
6. Northern Illinois
2014 Predicted Tournament Champion
Central Michigan (9 Votes)
Akron (1)
Bowling Green (1)
Miami (1)
Preseason All-MAC East Team
Hanna Luburgh, Akron
Rachel Tecca, Akron
Alexis Rogers, Bowling Green
Mackenzie Loesing, Buffalo
Hannah Robertson, Miami
Preseason All-MAC West Team
Nathalie Fontaine, Ball State
Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan
Jessica Green, Central Michigan
Andola Dortch, Toledo
Inma Zanoguera, Toledo

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