DeKALB – As the national anthem was playing before tipoff of San Jose State’s game against James Madison on Sunday in the Northern Illinois Invitational, the song stopped and the Convocation Center went dark, evidence of a power outage caused by the howling winds, sideways rain and the tornado-like weather outside.
By the tipoff of NIU’s game against Milwaukee a few hours later, the weather had calmed, but less than about half of the thousand or so fans that showed up for the first two games of the four-team invite decided to stay home.
Huskies’ coach Mark Montgomery saw plenty of benefits to hosting the first iteration of the tournament, but for NIU to be able to host in the future, more people may need to make their way through the gates.
“Hopefully this is a thing that can continue to keep going. I thought the first two nights were very good [in terms of attendance], and maybe it was the weather [Sunday],” Montgomery said. “It would be nice [to have an annual event], but financially we would need to be able to be afford it, and we’d need to get the community and other people involved to come out to the game. That’s how it can be an annual event.”
Despite the attendance, which totaled 2,340 for all three days, NIU did see plenty of benefits from the tournament.
On the court, the Huskies had extra opportunities to jell with several new players in their ranks. NCAA rules allow teams to play 29 regular season games, but “exempt tournaments” count for just one game, allowing NIU to play two extra games.
The young Huskies also found out what it’s like to play three games in three days, like they’d have to do if they made a deep run in the Mid-American Conference tournament, without having to deal with the hassles of travel.
“They found out what the cold tub was after every game,” Montgomery said. “They had to get ice and cold tub, you’ve got to go to bed, you’ve got to get up when probably you don’t want to get up. So it was a good experience.”
NIU also needed to host the tournament to comply with conference rules. The MAC rulebook states that teams play an average of 15 home games every two years. The NIU Invite allowed the Huskies to schedule 16 home games after they played only 14 last season.
The process for scheduling the tournament was a long one. Assistant coach Jason Larson, who is partially responsible for scheduling, said the staff began calling teams last season, but none of the original teams that agreed to participate ended up coming. In May, all of the contracts were finally signed.
Larson said the team is already investigating a plan for next season, though the tournament would have to have a different format because NCAA rules stipulate that a team cannot host a tournament two years in a row with the same layout. So the three-game, three-day round-robin would have to go by the wayside.
But Larson seemed to think it was worth the effort.
“I thought it was great to get the home games and we got a lot of good experience,” he said. “We learned a lot from it with the young team. It was good for us.”
Montgomery said he’d love to make the tournament an annual thing, but if the NIU Invitational was just a one-year event, he doesn’t seem to think his team will have trouble finding another tournament to play in.
“If [they don’t host another invite], maybe next year we go to a tournament next year,” he said. “There’s a lot of exempt tournaments out there. This is the first of many opportunities to come.”