DeKALB – Patience.
It’s something second-year Northern Illinois men’s basketball coach Mark Montgomery didn’t necessarily need to have during his 10 seasons as a Michigan State assistant.
From 2002 to 2011, Montgomery was an assistant for Tom Izzo teams that made the NCAA tournament all 10 years, getting all the way to the Final Four three times, and playing for the national championship in 2009.
Last season, Montgomery, taking over a program that went 35-83 in Ricardo Patton’s four seasons as Huskies coach, had to endure a losing season for the first time since 1999-2000, when he was an assistant at Central Michigan. The Huskies went just 5-26 in his first season at the helm.
“You’ve got to have some patience, especially when working with young guys, you have a young team,” Montgomery said at the team’s annual media day Oct. 29. “I was just so used to, we had a situation at Michigan State, we had 20 wins before you could blink.”
Montgomery now has a year of head coaching experience under his belt, and he’ll work with a Huskies team that fields seven freshmen. He said he still learns a lot about coaching from looking at last year’s film, and calling other coaches he knows, such as Izzo, Missouri’s Frank Haith and South Florida’s Stan Heath, not to mention watching their practices on film.
This season, Montomery said he’s a little more at ease in his second season as the Huskies look to improve on last year’s mark.
To NIU junior forward Antone Christian, not much has changed about Montgomery’s coaching demeanor.
“He’s still intense,” Christian said. “He still appreciates energy and effort. He cares about his players.”
A new group
Seven freshman line the Huskies roster this season – guards Travon Baker, Daveon Balls, J.J. Cravatta, Mike Davis and Akeem Springs, as well as forwards Darrell Bowie and Sam Mader. A lot of them will see key minutes for Montgomery’s team this winter.
Something that has helped the transition was the new NCAA rule allowing coaches to conduct workouts with their teams two hours a week for eight weeks during the summer. Montgomery said the group was able to become closer as a team while learning the terminology of the Huskies’ offensive and defensive systems. Not to mention getting a chance to work together and find their way around the weight room.
Mader, a 6-foot-9 post player from Appleton, Wis., said the group of freshmen has had good chemistry and is looking to turn around a program still chasing its first NCAA tournament berth since 1996.
“I click good with the freshmen. We’re all good friends, I would say. We all want to play to win the game,” he said. “I don’t think they want to have the success they had last year. We want to win more games, obviously, and keep improving every year.”
During the 2011-12 campaign, NIU lost its first 11 games, and didn’t defeat a Division I team until topping Central Michigan on Jan. 14. The Huskies did win two of their last four games, and claimed a Mid-American Conference tournament victory for the first time since 2003.
Last season, the Huskies had eight freshmen, although five from that group have left the program.
One player still with the team, sophomore forward Abdel Nader, a preseason All-MAC selection, said it just took a while before last year’s group got comfortable.
“Towards the end of the season, I really did think that learning started to pay off. It’s not fun when you learn and lose. Obviously, it’s more fun when you learn and win. It definitely started paying off,” Nader said. “If you watch film from the beginning of the season to the middle of the season, I broke the season up into thirds, and everybody, [last] third of the season, you saw our stats, the video. We defended better, we rebounded better, we scored better. We just kept getting better gradually.”
When talking about the development of his newest freshmen class, which features two point guards in Balls and Baker, Montgomery once again used the word patience.
He also realizes how much this year’s experience will pay off in the coming seasons.
“You have to remember, when these freshmen are juniors and seniors, or sophomores, juniors and seniors, it’s going to be success,” Montgomery said.
Not a whole new roster
Montgomery understands he’ll be dealing with a good amount of freshmen, and also some associated growing pains. He also pointed out how the Huskies have more experience coming back this season compared to what Montgomery had returning his first year in DeKalb.
Montgomery mentioned how his team will have Nader, who averaged 10.4 points a game and was named to the MAC All-Freshmen team last year, and junior Aksel Bolin, who scored 6.2 points a contest a year ago, still on the roster. Those two each started 29 of NIU’s 31 games last season.
The Huskies also return 60.7 percent of their minutes from last season. Compare that to the beginning of last year, when NIU returned just more than 33 percent.
NIU also has 62.6 percent of its scoring from 2011-12 coming back. In Montgomery’s first season, that number was a mere 32 percent.
In the end, the Huskies are young, but not as inexperienced as last season.
“We just have more players with more experience, and it should help us this year,” Montgomery said.
Getting to Cleveland and beyond
With last year’s 55-52 win at Eastern Michigan in the first round of the MAC tournament, NIU earned a trip to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena for the second round of the tourney. It was the first time the Huskies had played at the tournament venue since 2006, when they received a bye to the quarterfinals.
In the end, the goal of every Division I basketball program in the nation is to make it to the NCAA tournament.
Competing in the MAC, the road to March Madness begins in Cleveland, with conference teams fighting to earn the lone automatic bid.
Last season’s tournament win in Ypsilanti, Mich., was a step in the right direction toward the ultimate goal of being one of the 68 teams named on Selection Sunday, even if there still is a long ways to go.
“It comes down to making it to Quicken Loans in March, to see who goes to the NCAA tournament,” Montgomery said. “So our goal is to make it to the MAC tournament and then win games and see what happens.”