DeKALB – Ricardo Patton’s biggest concern going forward isn’t the health of his Northern Illinois team or things like rebounding margin or bench points.
“I think there’s an old saying,” Patton said after Saturday’s 77-69 victory over Eastern Michigan. “When you focus on the elephant, the ants crawl all over you. We don’t want to focus on the elephant and let the ants kill us.”
OK, so they’re metaphorical ants, likely of the species sportius reporteri or seasonate ticket holderus.
But the fact that the NIU men’s basketball team is even talking about things like focus and even overconfidence is a gigantic stride forward for a program that desperately needed it.
For the first time since the 1980-81 season, the Huskies are 3-0 in the MAC. They’ve never gone 4-0 to start MAC play. The Huskies had 12 conference wins in the previous three seasons combined. The history of futility in the past few decades goes on like, well, a line of ants.
And the elephant? For once, NIU’s stated goal of a conference title doesn’t come with a laugh track. It’s approaching plausible. And it’s also why Patton reminded everyone on Saturday that the conference season is all of three games old.
“It’s early. It’s still early,” Patton said. “Now you’re trying to send the ants in here. You want us to focus on the elephant. We’re confident but we’re not overconfident. We realize that if we play hard, play smart and play together, we have as good a chance as anyone else.
“You’ve got enough time to catch up and you’ve also got enough time to fall behind. And so I think if you lose sight of that, this early, you’re going to be in trouble.”
But for those players that have been through the conference season a couple of times now and know what it’s like to finish near the bottom of the division, this is different.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” guard Jake Anderson said. “We’ve got to basically continue doing what we’ve been doing – knocking down shots, playing aggressive on the defensive end, giving the other team one chance at [a basket] and second and third efforts. Even if you lose, doing that type of effort, you’ve got to feel good at the same time.”
Even four weeks ago, when NIU was calling a win over Maryland-Eastern Shore much-needed, this start to conference play didn’t seem possible. That’s why NIU players can insist their attention won’t stray going forward.
“I think that we’re very confident but we’re not losing focus on the next game,” guard Xavier Silas said. “We can’t forget about our goals and our goal is to win the conference. We can’t let confidence take over.”
• John Sahly is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org