DeKALB – Spring break vacation in Cleveland?
A trip east will serve just fine for Mark Montgomery and the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team, which defeated Bowling Green, 54-51, in overtime in a Mid-American Conference tournament first-round game Monday at the Convocation Center.
Even if Joakim Noah would choose not to go within 100 miles of the city, NIU junior center Jordan Threloff doesn’t mind.
“I love it,” Threloff said. “It’s the first conference tournament I’m going to be able to play in. I’m excited. I’m very excited.”
Although it seems like a decade has passed since NIU even made the six-hour roadtrip over to Cleveland, NIU visited Quicken Loans Arena in 2012 after a road upset over Eastern Michigan.
But it was merely that: A visit that lasted long enough for one 17-point loss to Western Michigan. Not even enough time to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This year as a No. 7 seed, NIU’s highest seed in the MAC tournament since 2006, the Huskies have a chance to stay a while.
Is NIU going to win the MAC? Probably not. Don’t buy NCAA tournament tickets just yet.
But just as easily as NIU could’ve lost Monday, the possibility exists for NIU to steal a game or two in Cleveland.
The Huskies split two regular-season games with Eastern Michigan already this season while No. 3 Buffalo, a team that has losses to both MAC doormats Ball State and Bowling Green, would await in the quarterfinals.
NIU’s offense still leaves a little – OK, a lot – to be desired. Those issues aren’t going to disappear even when the Huskies step into a professional arena. That is, if you still consider the Cavaliers to be a legitimate NBA franchise.
Just comparing the effectiveness of NIU’s transition prowess versus its half-court offense, Montgomery should have the team sprint to Cleveland.
But NIU’s defense has kept it in every game and will continue to give teams trouble down the road. Even with the deep scoring droughts NIU often suffered through during games this season, its defense has been a constant.
No matter the results that follow in the MAC tournament, this season by all means has been a successful one for Montgomery and NIU. Not many thought 15 wins would be an attainable milestone. Those who did probably had to recalculate their predictions after the season-ending injury to Dontel Highsmith in December.
Looking back, the five-point loss to Nebraska on the road didn’t seem significant in November. Now with the Huskers likely headed to the NCAA tournament and holding only one home loss for the entire season, it’s another confidence-building performance for NIU to carry forward. Add in the home win over Toledo and three overtime victories in MAC play, there certainly are games to build off.
The forecast calls for 30- and 40-degree temperatures in Cleveland over the next few days.
Cleveland ain’t exactly Cancun. But after how the past two basketball seasons ended, it certainly beats staying in DeKalb.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.