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Huskies enter '14 with 4th-best 'D' in MAC

DeKALB – Dontel Highsmith remembers when the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team was told about the new rules designed to curb hand-checking in college basketball.

The reaction was a surprise.

“We all looked up, we were all like, what is this?” Highsmith said.

“Usually, if somebody gets past you, you bump them a little bit,” he added. “But that’s a foul now.”

Around college basketball, there have been challenges and inconsistencies with the new way officiating has been handled.

However, the Huskies’ opponents have had trouble putting the ball into the basket this season, and NIU men’s coach Mark Montgomery thinks his group has handled the changes well, despite the inconsistencies they present.

Heading into 2014, NIU’s average of 67.5 points allowed is fourth best in the Mid-American Conference. Before Tuesday’s 99-63 loss at No. 13 Iowa State, the Huskies were giving up 64.3 points a contest, which led the MAC.

NIU still has its troubles on the offensive end, ranking 10th in the league, averaging 66 points a contest. But on the defensive end, the 5-6 Huskies have been efficient, despite the fact referees are calling fouls at a higher rate.

“We have to adjust. Every game’s a different challenge; every official’s different,” Montgomery said. “I thought early we struggled with it, but as of late officials have been very consistent, so it’s been easier to play.”

It helps that NIU has some size this year in centers Jordan Threloff (6-foot-9) and Pete Rakocevic (6-11). NIU’s rebounding margin of plus-4.7 is second in the conference.

Montgomery said his team is playing a man-to-man defense about 70 percent of the time, but one adjustment he’s made because of the new rules also is playing some zone as well to stay out of foul trouble.

“It’s effective, makes other teams change what they do,” Montgomery said. “It changes the rhythm of the game, you guard more of an area. The challenge of playing a zone defense is still rebounding the ball.”

Threloff added that with the new rules, playing help-side defense is of extra importance.

“They are calling quick fouls, so you can’t just leave a guy out on an island,” he said. “So everyone has to help everyone, there’s five guys working as a unit.”

To Montgomery, defensive success comes down to having each other’s back, trusting each other and just buying into the system.

“Buying in to the defensive drills we’re doing in practice,” Montgomery said. “They’re buying into. If we’re going to be in a game and win it, it’s going to come down to our defense and rebounding.”

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