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NIU basketball coaches preparing to expect the unexpected in pandemic-affected season

NIU men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery speaks Friday at NIU's basketball media day.
NIU men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery speaks Friday at NIU's basketball media day.

DeKALB – Less than a week before the scheduled start of the season, the NIU women's basketball team lost an opponent.

although coach Lisa Carlsen said she expects to find a replacement for Wednesday's 1 p.m. season opener, it does emphasize how literal a "one day at a time" attitude has become in the 2020 season.

Both the NIU women's and men's teams are scheduled to start Wednesday, and both coaches and players spoke during a virtual media day Friday.

"We have to throw our normal routine out the window, but so do 350 other teams," men's coach Mark Montgomery said. "A good motto we're now living by is stay positive, test negative. We have to be ready for the unexpected, and then accept it."

The men open with a 6 p.m. game against UIC, while the women were supposed to open with Illinois State, but ISU in a statement Friday said it did not have enough healthy players to play.

"We've had to change opponents a little bit," Carlsen said. "I'll wait on who that will be, but likely we still play a 1 o'clock game at home on Nov. 25."

Montgomery said the program has had to rethink how it does everything, all the way down to housing arrangements.

"When you contact trace, and three of the guards are living together, it wipes out three of them, and you only have three left," Montgomery said. "So we had to move some housing, get smart in that, change some roommates, get creative with that because we want to play games."

Montgomery said he hopes fans will get into the Convocation Center at some point this season.

"Hopefully by January we get some fans in the building," Montgomery said. "They're the season ticket holders. They're the ones who have sacrificed, they've paid money, and we want them to be able to see the product they support."

Carlsen said she expects a very fast version of the Huskies to reemerge this year.

"We're going to be able to get back to opening things up," Carlsen said. "Likely on a game-to-game basis we'll have, I think, four to five players in double figures. We'll push pace at all times as always, but I think this group will be better at sharing the basketball. Scoring quickly and often at all five positions puts us in a good position offensively."

The men won the MAC West last year but lost standout Eugene German to graduation. Montgomery said the program is built to last, but the team was 10th in the coaches' poll.

Sophomore guard Tyler Cochran said the poll doesn't matter.

"We're going to come in with the same mentality, ready to work," Cochran said. "Now we're picked 10th, we come in as the underdogs and work 10 times harder."

Carlsen said she didn't expect the empty stands to have an effect on the team.

"As a competitor, you should not be motivated by who's in the stands," Carlsen said. "Our motivation doesn't change. I think this group is so anxious to get on the court and play, we'll be able to handle what it's like on game day when the stands are empty. It's not something we want, it's not something we hope lasts very long, but it is the way it is. But the chance to play way outweighs the fact that for a while people will just have to watch us on TV."

And sophomore point guard Chelby Koker said the team is so used to unconventional things at this point, it will take a lot to throw them off.

"It was definitely challenging compared to the normal ways we would normally put in work," Koker said. "Gyms closing, it was definitely a challenge to be creative and find other ways to prepare for the upcoming season."

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