DeKALB – Whether it's a young team maturing, the addition of new talent, an increase in strength and conditioning or a combination of the three, expectations are different in and around the Northern Illinois men's basketball team.
"This year I think people think we're going to be good and we have the potential to win," said junior guard Xavier Silas, who sat out last season after transferring from Colorado. "So that's always good and we're trying to live up to those expectations."
The Huskies are coming off a 10-20 season but only lost one player in forward Sean Smith while they gained Silas and freshmen Tony Nixon and Antone Christian, plus redshirt freshman guard Keith Smith returns after a shoulder injury sidelined him for almost all of last season. Also, junior guard Jake Anderson, a second-team All-Mid-American Conference player last season, pulled his name out of the NBA draft and returned to the team.
With a young team that now mostly has at least a season of experience, NIU coach Ricardo Patton said practices include more coaching and less teaching and players understand the coaches' terminology quicker.
"There's a perspective now so when we talk about being last in field goal [percentage] defense, they know what we're talking about now," Patton said. "They know why we're spending so much time on the defensive end when we were third in the league in scoring."
Patton said there won't be dramatic changes in style of play and the team focused in on improving a few specific areas in the offseason, such as free-throw shooting (59.2 percent last season) and turnovers (1.1-3 assist-to-turnover ratio).
"I think if we get better in two areas, free-throw shooting, and for the most part, I think that was a lack of maturity at the line," he said. "And then taking care of the basketball. We know that those two areas cost us ballgames last year."
Patton added that the teams NIU struggled with last season were bigger and stronger and the Huskies sought to address that as best they could during offseason strength training and conditioning.
"You don't realize how important that is until you have to battle it," Patton said.
Silas went to San Francisco for two five-week training sessions under noted trainer Frank Matrisciano. When he came back to DeKalb in-between sessions, he noticed a few differences right away on the court.
"I was able to play defense harder and longer and go to the boards a little bit more," Silas said. "I was stronger. That's pretty much what I noticed and then coming back I was getting ready for preseason and I was solid."
If solid is the word most often used to describe the Huskies this season, that will be a major step forward for NIU.
"We've got a group of guys I think that gained some valuable experience over the last year. ... They were thrown in the fire early," Patton said. "I think that will pay dividends at some point."