DeKALB – When a new coach takes a job, as Kathi Bennett did in May as the Northern Illinois women's basketball coach, one of the biggest concerns is if the players will buy into the coach and the system that coach brings.
As far as senior center Ebony Ellis is concerned, the Huskies already are past that point.
"The first couple of months have been going well, we've been learning a lot and it's actually been pretty exciting to get a whole new emphasis on basically everything, especially defense," Ellis said. "I think what's most surprising is how close we've gotten as a team and how much better the team chemistry is."
There wasn't a specific game, week or moment when Ellis or Bennett feel like players bought in, but the results have shown across the board.
The 5-4 start for Bennett is the best for a first-year coach in school history and NIU already is halfway to the total number of wins the Huskies had last season under coach Carol Owens. NIU entered Sunday with the second-best record in the MAC West and ranked first in defensive rebounding and three-point field goal percentage.
All of that early success has Bennett happy but not satisfied.
"The thing I'm most pleased with, is that I feel like we're a team," Bennett said. "There's a sense of us. That were together, that we're starting to form an identity. Is it there yet? No. Are we consistent all the time? No. But, we're progressing towards that, and that's exciting."
Defensively, Bennett said from the day she was hired that NIU's identity would be on defense. So far, it's been a process. The Huskies started Sunday in the middle of the pack in scoring defense in the conference.
"I almost feel like, to be honest with you, the winning hurt us," Bennett said. "And the UIC loss helped us. From that loss, I felt it turn a little bit. The best game was the Northern Iowa game (a 71-64 road win), by far. I thought the UIC game, you always want to learn from a loss, and that humbled us a little bit."
Bennett said she believes the seniors have played a big role in the team's chemistry this season, and that there's been a realization that they want to make something of their final season.
"Coach has a big emphasis on defense," Ellis said. "We're more together as a team, especially on defense. You've got to have each others' backs. Off the court, we've always been close, it just shows more on the court now."
Northern Illinois coach Kathi Bennett said freshman forward Jenna Thorp will redshirt this season as she recovers from a torn left ACL and meniscus suffered in August. But, Bennett is hopeful that the Hinckley-Big Rock graduate will be able to fully participate in practice by the end of January or the beginning of February.
"She's amazing," Bennett said. "That girl is so far ahead because of her work ethic. Her work ethic is unbelievable. She's doing slides, she's way ahead."