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NITZ: Time for fans to be excited about NIU basketball

CLEVELAND – Wednesday’s 53-48 loss to Eastern Michigan was another one of those “here we go again” games for the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team.

The Huskies took an 11-point lead into halftime after an efficient first half, before the offense collapsed in the second, with the Huskies shooting 3 of 21 after halftime in the loss in the second round of the Mid-American Conference tournament.

It was one more frustrating loss for NIU’s program and its fans, who haven’t seen their team in an NCAA tournament game since 1996.

Wednesday was a tough end to the season, but it was still a successful year for NIU – and things are looking up.

For those who followed the Rob Judson and Ricardo Patton eras, that may be hard to believe. But it’s true, Mark Montgomery has this team on the right track.

Look at who NIU has coming back – Jordan Threloff, Darrell Bowie, Travon Baker and the Armstead brothers for starters.

NIU also will add two transfer guards in Michael Orris (Kansas State) and Anthony Johnson (Purdue) – both sat out this season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules.

Guard Dontel Highsmith, who was NIU’s leading scorer before tearing his ACL in December, also will be back.

This year, the 15-17 season and first-round MAC tournament win were seen as a step in the right direction. Next season, those marks should be considered a disappointment.

“I think next year, when I get that phone call early in the year from different publications and magazines, that they will not be picking Northern Illinois to finish last anymore,” Montgomery said after Wednesday’s loss at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. “I’m excited for this team next year, I’m excited for what we have coming back and I’m excited for our chances.”

For some fans, it might be tough to get optimistic about NIU basketball – but next year they should be. In a league such as the MAC, there’s no reason the Huskies can’t be at the top of the conference in 2015 and contending for the league’s NCAA tournament bid.

The Judson era was disappointing, Patton’s tenure was a disaster.

Montgomery’s first two seasons were frustrating.

It’s looking like things are finally different, and there should be some meaningful basketball at the NIU Convocation Center next season.

In the fall of 2014, it will finally be time for fans to get excited about NIU men’s basketball.

• Steve Nitz is the Daily Chronicle’s NIU athletics beat writer. He can be reached via e-mail at

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