DeKALB – Mark Montgomery looked a bit timid when he was introduced as Northern Illinois men's basketball coach in March, like someone who is still getting a feel for their surroundings.
When he sat down for his first in-depth interview with the Daily Chronicle last week, he was cracking jokes.
"Let me get my roster out. I forget these guys names sometimes," Montgomery said, looking comfortable and at home in his NIU office.
Of course, Montgomery knows his roster well. But his knowledge of the Huskies' program – and his ease with making jokes – aren't the only differences since March. Montgomery discussed his transition to DeKalb, how he sees the center and point guard positions playing out, and his expectations next season with sports reporter Ryan Wood on Thursday. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Ryan Wood: You've been on the job for about a month and a half now. What have you learned about this place and this program that you didn't know before taking the job?
Mark Montgomery: DeKalb is a little bigger than I thought. Great area, more of a college feel once you've been around for over a month, see the students go to classes. Even better facilities once you get inside of them. I see a good feel among other coaches throughout the department, a good family atmosphere feel. The advertisement was good, but once you get here it's way better.
RW: You've lived in the Lansing (Mich.) area for so long. How has the move here gone for you?
MM: Haven't made the move yet, I'm still looking for a house. But the surrounding area, good places in Sycamore and DeKalb, it's going to be great whenever we get that moving truck. It will be more normal when I get my family here.
RW: You've done a lot since taking the job. You've hired a coaching staff, you have a full recruiting class, you've had practices. What do you think has been the most important thing you've done on the job this past month and a half?
MM: I think connecting with the team, getting a feel for the guys that are staying and kind of laying down a foundation of our anticipation for next year. We just changed everything. We do everything in the morning: individual workouts in the morning, lifting weights in the morning, conditioning in the morning. Just getting a feel for the guys and where they're from – things they like and things they didn't like, do they have a one-parent home or two-parent home, high school coaches, AAU coaches – just trying to get connected to who's in their triangle.
RW: We've talked a lot about how long you waited to become a head coach. Now that you have that job title, is it what you expected when you were waiting and anticipating it.
MM: I think it's more than you expected because you're so used to a head assistant at Michigan State. I knew what recruiting was, I knew I had to make phone calls, I knew we had individuals and weights. And now you take everything else. So interviews, speaking engagements, the dinners, the home visits. I am selling myself, I am selling Northern Illinois, and now it's a different product.
Is it what I didn't expect? No, but it's, I'd say, a lot of challenges ahead. But they're good challenges.
RW: Let's move onto the recruiting. You have six players in your incoming class, four that were signed since you were hired here. Did you imagine you would have a class that large?
MM: Well two were already signed, so I'm getting credit for Zach Miller and DeAndre Barnette. I talked with them on the phone, and I met with Zach Miller face-to-face, so those two were already signed and I was happy they wanted to continue to come to NIU and play for me. But the other four guys (Keith and Kevin Gray, Marquavis Ford, Andre Henley), things kind of happened fast. You know, I hope it can happen that quick for us all the other years.
It was good to get all of those guys on campus so they could see it first hand. You have to meet the academic people, you have to meet the assistant coaches, you have to meet the AD and walk through the facilities and make sure it's the right fit. And I think it was just a combination of different people and different relationships that I had that helped me get off to a good start.
RW: Is the recruiting finished for this class?
MM: You know, as a college coach, you're always recruiting because you never know what's going to happen the next day. It's our job to make sure that if someone leaves, or if something unfortunate happens, we have to be ready to sign another player. So, as of right now today, all our scholarships are filled. But we're going to keep recruiting for this year and next year.
RW: Center was a position that desperately needed to be filled last year. What's your strategy with the center position both this upcoming season and also long term?
MM: Definitely the Gray twins are going to have to play the four and the five. They're going to be long enough and athletic enough to play that position. We do have Tim Toler coming back, a senior, you know he can muscle up some guys and hopefully push some guys around. We have Nate Rucker, he's a physical presence. He'll be strong enough to play that position. We'll be undersized, but I don't think we'll be outmanned at that position. It's going to be center by committee.
In the present future, for the 2012 class, we're definitely looking to bring in an imposing big man.
RW: Is that priority No. 1 with your next recruiting class?
MM: Well when we're losing Tim Toler and Cam Madlock, we have to bring in some size. So that's going to be two players – two bigs – we bring in, and we're going to have an emphasis on we want to bring in the best players that we can and hopefully they do have some size. But we also want to bring in a point guard in the 2012 class.
RW: The point guard position is a position that, because of injuries last year, a lot of players got a chance to play there. How do you see that position battle playing out this upcoming season?
MM: I'd have to give the edge right now to Antone Christian, because he's the kid I've worked with for the last four and a half weeks. He has an unbelievable work ethic. He's going to play that position, Zach Miller will come in and he played that position in high school, and Marquavis Ford is going to play that position too.
RW: The biggest loss off last year's team is obviously Xavier Silas. How do you plan on filling the offensive void he leaves?
MM: It's going to be a team effort. We've got to fill the 22 points. We've got six freshman coming in, hopefully all six of those guys can average 20 points a game. (Montgomery laughs.) But first you've got to go with the returning players. You know, Antone Christian will be a combo (guard), I think he can fill that void some. Aksel Bolin, a European kid, he's had a good four and a half weeks since I've been here, he's starting to step up. You have Tim Toler, he's the leading scorer coming back, I think he's going to do more damage inside and out. And Nate Rucker is coming off a year of having some good experience under his belt. He could potentially be a double-figure guy.
So it's going to be a team effort. I don't think it's going to be one player who averages 20 points, but I'm envisioning that we have six or seven or eight players who are averaging seven or more points.
RW: It's no secret that this program hasn't had a lot of success before your arrival. Realistically, how far away is this team from competing for a MAC championship?
MM: I still haven't had a chance to review all the other teams in the MAC, but I think if we get better every day and we get down to Cleveland, we have a chance to compete for a MAC championship. You never know what will happen throughout the season. If we can be lucky enough to stay away from injuries, other teams might have injuries, you might have a chance. But if you're competing every day, and you're getting better, and you're being a good teammate, you'll put yourself in a position to make a run to March.
RW: One thing that has been talked about a lot is the chance to play Michigan State basketball here at NIU. Obviously, one of the important pieces to Michigan State basketball is size. Without that size you had at Michigan State, how much are you going to be able to play Michigan State basketball right away at NIU?
MM: Well we might not have the size, but if you have the heart and toughness and tenacity – it starts in the summer if you lift weights and condition and get mentally tough then you can be physically tough – so we might now be imposing, we might not have 6-9 or 6-10 guys like they do, but if we defend, rebound the ball, limit our turnovers and take good shots, to me that's playing Michigan State basketball. You share the basketball and play smart. We're just trying to get our guys to be quick and nasty, that's another one of our goals.