DeKALB – For all of the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team’s well-documented struggles on offense this year, the Huskies’ defense has been a consistent positive.
NIU’s grittiness has not only kept the Huskies in games, but also won them several low-scoring, “blue-collar” games they wouldn’t have taken in years past.
Saturday was yet another example of the season-long trend as NIU held Ball State without a field goal for more than 10 minutes in the second half and pulled away for a 70-56 victory to end the regular season.
“Comparing them to the other teams in the conference, they’re as good on defense as anyone, they play as hard as anyone and, to me, they’re executing right now way better than they were two or three months ago and they’re hard to deal with,” Ball State coach James Whitford said. “To me, they’ve got it all on [the defensive] end of it, they’re hitting on all cylinders right now.”
NIU, which finished 14-16 and 8-10 in the Mid-American Conference, will be the No. 7 seed entering the MAC tournament and will host No. 11 Bowling Green at 7 p.m. today at the Convocation Center in DeKalb.
It’s the first time NIU has hosted a MAC tournament game since 2003.
Aksel Bolin, one of only two seniors to be honored on senior night Saturday, said the current team is the best defensive team he’s played on at NIU. The numbers confirm Bolin’s observations.
According to kenpom.com, a site that uses tempo-free statistics, NIU’s defense ranks 51st in the country, allowing only 97.4 points per 100 possessions. That is a drastic improvement from 161st (100.8) last year and 295th (108.2) in 2011-12.
“That’s the mark of our team that we can play hard and gritty defense,” Bolin said, “and I think that’s what makes us a good team.”
The addition of postmen red-shirt junior Jordan Threloff and red-shirt junior Pete Rakocevic undoubtedly have added another dimension to NIU’s offense, but their presence also has been felt on the defensive end. Their added rebounding has allowed NIU to create more one-and-done defensive possessions as the Huskies posted the top rebounding margin in the MAC during conference play.
“You have to play through contact,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “The one thing I like about this team is they don’t shy away from contact.”
Montgomery said NIU has played some of its best basketball over the past month. That stretch includes a win at home over Toledo and taking Western Michigan down to the wire on the road without sophomore guard Darrell Bowie, the second-leading scorer for the Huskies.
In MAC play, NIU lost by double figures on only two occasions, a 21-point loss Jan. 8 at Buffalo and a 19-point loss Jan. 18 at home against Ohio.
The offense has come and gone, but the defense has been a constant and could give the Huskies a shot at making some noise in the MAC tournament.
“The league has been wide open all year. Anyone can win this thing,” Montgomery said. “I think the tournament is wide open. Once you get to Cleveland, you have that opportunity.”
2014 Mid-American Conference Men’sb Basketball tournament
Monday (First Round – High Seed Campus Sites)
Game 1: No. 12 Ball State at No. 5 Ohio, 6 p.m.
Game 2: No. 9 Kent State at No. 8 Miami, 6 p.m.
Game 3: No. 11 Central Michigan at No. 6 Eastern Michigan, 6:30 p.m.
Game 4: No. 10 Bowling Green at No. 7 Northern Illinois, 7 p.m.
Wednesday (Second Round and on at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland)
Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner. 5:30 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 Winner v. Game 4 Winner 7:30 p.m.
Thursday (Third Round)
Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. No. 4 Akron, 5:30 p.m.
Game 8: Game 6 Winner vs. No. 3 Buffalo 7:30 p.m.
Game 9: Game 7 Winner vs. No. 1 Western Michigan, 5:30 p.m.
Game 10: Game 8 Winner vs. No. 2 Toledo, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday (MAC Championship)
Game 11: Championship Game, 5:30 p.m., ESPN2
2014 Mid-American Conference Tournament First Round glance
Northern Illinois Huskies (14-16, 8-10) vs. Bowling Green Falcons (12-19, 6-12)
WHEN, WHERE: 7 p.m. today, NIU Convocation Center, DeKalb
RADIO: AM-1360, FM-98.9 in DeKalb
LAST MEETING: NIU won, 45-36, on Jan 12.