Go back about a month to this date and one would not picture NIU basketball to be in this position heading into Mount Pleasant for a showdown against Central Michigan. Today's game was a battle for first place in the MAC West and even though the Huskies lost 81-75, they played aggressive and tough basketball against a physical and experienced team who was favorite to win the division in pre-season polls. If it wasn't for a couple of bad possessions at the end of the game, NIU could have won this one. Off course, there are no W for almost wins, but after watching NIU battle this one out, one has to be excited about the chances of winning a division crown, and maybe even cause some ruckus in the MAC Tournament.
The Game: The Huskies (8-9, 4-1 MAC) and the Chippewas combined for 27 ties and lead changes throughout this one. NIU had a 69-68 lead with 3:29 remaining but could not hang on to it, committing 2 turnovers and missing 2 point blank lay ups (both misses by Michael Fakuade) in the last 3 minutes while CMU went 11-12 from the free throw line to ice the game in that same time span.
Turning point: With the game tied at 70, Xavier Silas took an outlet pass and rushed down to the other end, only to be stripped by Robbie Harman. Silas tried to recover the basketball, but fouled Harman in the process and putting Harman in the free throw line since NIU was already in the bonus. Harman hit both free throws giving the Chippewas the lead, which they would hold on to for the rest of the game.
Player of the Game: Robbie Harman 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals. The Senior guard led CMU throughout the game, and helped secure the victory by scoring 6 points in the last 2:15 minutes.
What we learned about the Huskies: NIU is extremely thin. After Jake Anderson and Silas there aren't many players that you can count to give you a scoring boost every night. The junior guards carried the team once again, but after Anderson fouled out with 3:39 left in the game, Silas couldn't win the game by himself. A few players tried to step up but were not successful. Tony Nixon missed a shot, Kowal had a turnover and Fakuade missed 2 lay ups in the game's closing minutes. Off course Silas also had a turnover and missed a few shots in the final stretch as well, but one has to wonder if tired legs had anything to do with those mishaps. At one point, Silas hunched over with his hands on his knees, showing signs of fatigue. Silas has the ability to carry the Huskies, but does he have the energy to do it night and night out?
With that in mind, the Huskies need to find a reliable 3rd option. Dinunno was supposed to be the final part to a 3 guard attack, but he has regressed after having a break out game against Western Michigan. The Sophomore guard only played 15 minutes and took only 2 shots against CMU, a career low for Dinunno. Whatever little confidence boost he had gotten from the WMU game has vanished, and now he seems to have lost the confidence of Coach Patton, who had his son Michael and Jake Anderson handling most of the PG duties down the stretch.
If this squad wants to have a shot at the MAC, someone will have to step up and help Silas and Anderson.
Kowal is the next most consistent scoring threat but is a liability on defense. He has showed improvement rebounding the ball (11 rebounds tonight) and can definetely be that third option if he can continue to rebound the ball like he did tonight.
Mike Dinunno can be that third option if he can return to his WMU form, but after watching tonight's game, there is little hope that he will. Even if he can chip in a consistent 10 points every night, it would go a long way. Unfortunately, the question is how many shots will he need to take in order to score those 10 points? Judging by his performance all season, I would say about 25.
Tony Nixon is the next best bet. He shows tremendous athleticism, and can hit the 3 ball or create his own shot. The only problem with Nixon is that, well, he is a true freshman and tends to play like one most of the time. Asking him to help carry the load is unfair, but he definitely has the capability.
The wild card of the bunch is Tyler Storm. Storm has not seen much playing time this season, but considering how Patton has given Dinunno every chance to fail, I don't see why he has not been given a bigger role this season. Storm has nice jump shot and a smooth game, but has yet to earn Patton's trust. It would be nice to see Storm play more continuous minutes instead of being pulled so quickly to see what he can do for the Huskies.
What we learned from the game: The Huskies can compete with CMU. Seems like an obvious statement, but it is not so obvious if you look at these facts:
1. NIU has been a terrible road team.
2. CMU is favored to win the West
3. CMU has one of the most experienced and tough teams in all of the MAC.
If you look at all those facts, NIU should have never been in this game. It was supposed to be a blowout. Yet, the Huskies hung in tight for most of the night until those last 3 minutes of the game. NIU was more athletic than CMU, but CMU had a pair of experienced guards who took over at the end and put the game away.
Final thoughts: Yes, this loss stings a bit. But it is not the end of the world. No one was expecting this team to go undefeated in the MAC, so it is nice to get that first conference loss out of the way. We learned a lot about the Huskies tonight, but I think that this 6 game stretch against the East Division will be more telling of where NIU stands in the MAC basketball picture. It is not unreasonable to think the Huskies can go 3-3 in the next 6 games. This team has already exceeded expectations and if Silas can keep up his player-of-the-year worthy campaign, a division title and a possible postseason bid may not be so far fetched as it was a month ago.