It was too good to be true. The buzz built around the basketball program during the 6 game winning streak was amazing. But now, Northern is back to where it has been for years: basketball irrelevance.
After falling to Kent State on Monday night, the Huskies have dropped their MAC record to 4-4 and are currently riding a 4 game losing streak. Things were looking up for the Huskies before this atrocious display of basketball. The Huskies were riding a 6 game winning streak and were off to a 4-0 start in the MAC for the first time in school history. Xavier Silas and were racking up Player of the Week awards and Mike DiNunno was finally looking like he was...well...a basketball player.
Almost two weeks after their last win, the atmosphere in DeKalb is filled with disappointment and confusion. How could a team be playing such good basketball for a whole month, and then all of sudden play this poorly?
Well, let's examine what is going with our Huskies.
1. NIU cruised through an easy schedule in their 6 game winning streak. Sure, the Huskies played good basketball, but during the streak, Northern played 3 teams that are ranked lower in both the Pomeroy Ratings and ESPN RPI Rankings (Toledo, North Dakota and Chicago State) and 2 teams that are awful on the road with a combined record of 5-13 (Eastern and Western Michigan). The only "quality" victory the Huskies had was against Ball State, a team that was not playing well at the time, but has turned things around winning 5 of their last 6 conference games.
2. NIU entered crossover play against the all-mighty East division. The East division has historically been superior than the West. This year it has been as usual with the West division going 6-11 against the East so far, with 3 of those 6 wins belonging to red-hot Ball State. The quality of basketball that is played in the East has been clear, as Northern has lost its 3 crossover games by an average of 19 points.
3. The Huskies have forgotten how to play defense. Maybe it is the fact that NIU is playing higher quality opponents, thus exposing their defensive deficiencies, or maybe Northern has lost its defensive intensity during this slump or perhaps it is a combination of both. Either way, the result has not been pretty. After giving up a respectable 64.3 PPG during their six game winning streak, Northern has allowed 87.8 PPG in their 4 losses. That is a difference of 24.4 PPG! Ouch!
4. Northern is running out of gas late in games. The interesting thing about the losing streak is that Northern has actually kept the game close until late in the second half (well, not against Kent State, where the Huskies were out of it after halftime). Here are some of the second half scores:
- @CMU: down 74-71 with 1:21 left.
- Ohio: down 69-66 with 8:30 left.
- Buffalo: down 57-50 with 16:11 left.
So is this a bump on the road for Patton's rebuilding plan or is this program heading in the wrong direction?
Huskie fans can look at this slump (and the future losses that are very likely to pile up in bunches) and declare that NIU basketball is dying. The only problem is, it may never have been born.
Sure, Northern might have had some basketball success back in the Chick Evans Field House days, but that success was sporadic and not great enough to consider it a tradition. I, for one, was too young to remember the last time Northern participated in any sort of postseason tournament, and any recruit or student coming in is less likely to remember it or care about it for that reason.
So I look at the 6 game winning streak as a good thing. It generated some buzz on campus and around the Chicago area. Of course, that buzz is pretty much dead after tonight, but for a second it became a spark for this program. Northern is going to need a lot more sparks to get the program going, but one spark is better than nothing.
The Huskies will need to stop the bleeding and play well in the final stretch of the season when they finish Division play against the West. No one expected the Huskies to do anything against the East anyways. Baby steps are needed to turn a program around, so before we dream of winning the MAC tournament, let us be satisfied with winning the MAC West. Winning the West is a feasible goal, but it will be more difficult after this losing streak.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel still!
Well for starters, Northern has everyone that matters coming back next year. Unless Jake Anderson decides to declare for the draft for some odd reason (he entered the draft last year but never hired an agent), the Huskies should have all of their starters back. Their only losses will be Ante Dzepina and Najul Ervin, both of who play very limited roles on this team. Michael Fakuade, Tyler Storm and Tony Nixon will have another year of experience under their belt, and will be expected to play a bigger role in Northern's rotation.
Add that to the fact that the rest of the MAC West will be taking some heavy losses with the exception of Toledo and Ball State you can see why Northern will most likely be favored to win the division. The East will be tough once again, but in the MAC, no one is unbeatable.
What about 2012?
Silas, Anderson and Kowal will be gone. The starting rotation will probably look something like this: PG Bryan Hall, SG Tony Nixon, SF Tyler Storm, PF Nate Rucker, C Michael Fakuade. Lee Fisher and Mike Dinunno will come off the bench, perfect roles for both undersized players. With a healthy Hall running the point, Nixon and Storm giving you consistent shooting from the outside, and Rucker and Fakuade dominating the paint, this Huskies team could still be very good in their post-Silas era.
But the question being asked should not be whether or not the Huskies will be succesfull in 2 years. The question should be: can this team build on each season's success and become a perennial powerhouse not only in the MAC but perhaps in the whole Mid-West?
Later this week, I will talk about the long term outlook of this program.