DeKALB – A year from now, Northern Illinois’ biggest contributors could very well be players who had a Division I stop before coming to DeKalb.
Currently, the NIU men’s basketball team has three players with previous Division I experience who have seen playing time in 2013-14 – juniors Aaron Armstead (Wisconsin-Green Bay, San Jose City College), Jordan Threloff (Illinois State) and Pete Rakocevic (Sacramento State).
Armstead already has made a large impact, averaging 7.2 points a game this year.
Next season, NIU also will have the services of guards Anthony Johnson and Michael Orris, who are sitting out this season after transferring to NIU over the offseason. Johnson will have one season of eligibility at NIU, as he redshirted his freshman year at Purdue. Orris spent last season at Kansas State and will have three years of eligibility remaining.
Gaining Division I transfers is becoming increasingly common in college basketball, and NIU isn’t the only team in the Mid-American Conference that has benefited from their help.
Toledo, which is 17-2 and 5-1 in the MAC, has four players on its roster who are at their second college stop, including the Rockets’ two leading scorers – Rian Pearson and Justin Drummond.
Eastern Michigan has five transfers, Miami (Ohio) features four, while Buffalo and Kent State each have three players with previous experience on D-I campuses.
“The dynamics of how college basketball is now, it’s almost win now,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “Not a quick fix, but if you could get a pretty good transfer from a school, you hear good things about them, you’d rather take a chance on a transfer, because you know that this is his last stop. It almost has to work.”
Players leave schools for numerous reasons – lack of playing time, a coaching change, personal reasons.
Orris, a product of Crete-Monee High School, signed with Illinois in 2012, but when Bruce Weber was fired, Orris followed him to Kansas State after being released from his scholarship before he stepped foot on campus.
At the end of the 2012-13 season, Orris decided he wanted to be closer to his family – his parents live in Crystal Lake.
“After the season we kind of evaluated where I was at, had a meeting with coach Weber, and we kind of talked things out and what not, and just felt it was best for me to move on,” Orris said. “Then I began the process of looking at other schools and what not. I got a lot of calls, but I figured if I want to transfer, I want to transfer close to home.”
A DeKalb High product, Threloff spent three seasons at Illinois State. Threloff’s mother, Edie Hartman, had been dealing with rheumatoid arthritis and other disabilities, and Threloff said her health started to deteriorate around the middle of last season.
Threloff wanted to move closer to home to get his mother better treatment. He and his mother lived together when he was at Illinois State so he could help take care of her, and Threloff’s older sister, Kadie, moved in with them when they returned to DeKalb. Hartman died in July.
Threloff applied for the NCAA’s hardship waiver and it was granted in August, meaning he was eligible to play immediately without having to sit out a year.
“I talked to (Illinois State coach Dan) Muller a couple of days after the season ended, we didn’t make it to the NIT,” Threloff said. “We talked, I just kind of briefed him on the situation, my mom and everything. He and I both agreed that it would be best for me to go back home if it was possible, if they had space, or somewhere even closer to home where we could get her better help to go to doctors and stuff.”
NIU assistant Jon Borovich recruited Orris out of high school, and when he decided to transfer, Orris said Borovich was one of the first coaches to call him. Orris said he had 10 to 15 schools interested, including some high-major programs, and cited the Huskies’ coaching staff as another reason he came to DeKalb.
However, one negative for any player transferring is having to sit out a year. Both Orris and Johnson, a product of Chicago’s Whitney Young High, applied for hardship waivers but were denied.
“It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. To be honest, I’ve been blessed, [Johnson]’s here too and he has to sit out. So I’m not by myself, and that is huge,” Orris said. “Me and him are attached, me and him go do workouts together, extra stuff together. We’re in it together. So it’s not like I’m by myself sitting out.”
Montgomery said adding a D-I transfer comes down to dynamics.
“Do you have a scholarship? Does he fit what you need?” Montgomery said. “Big thing with [Orris] was family and an opportunity for playing time.”