Created:Wednesday, February 20, 2013 11:08 p.m.CDT
Updated:Thursday, February 21, 2013 8:06 a.m.CDT
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Waiting for an opportunity

By STEVE NITZ - snitz@shawmedia.com
Northern Illinois University freshman guard J.J. Cravatta shoots during a drill at Tuesday’s practice on Victor E. Court inside the Convocation Center in DeKalb. (Kyle Bursaw – kbursaw@shawmedia.com)

DeKALB – As Northern Illinois men’s basketball coach Mark Montgomery puts it, sometimes players just have to wait for an opportunity.

One of six freshmen on Montgomery’s 2012-13 roster, J.J. Cravatta came to DeKalb as a preferred walk-on. For the first two months or so of the season, he bided his time near the end of NIU’s bench, waiting for that one opportunity, rarely getting on the scoreboard.

He played 19 minutes in the Huskies’ blowout win over NAIA Judson University Nov. 18, and had a 16-minute effort in a win over SIU-Edwardsville Dec. 5, but outside of those two games there wasn’t much playing time for Cravatta.

In an 81-63 loss at Ohio Jan. 16, Cravatta got another opportunity, and took advantage of it, scoring a season-high 10 points in 16 minutes. The good amount of playing time he received that evening came after a stretch of seven games when Cravatta averaged about 4.5 minutes.

“First, he probably had a good week of practice. When he went into the game, he just played aggressive, he was getting loose balls, he got to the offensive glass,” Montgomery said of Cravatta’s showing at Ohio. “He did his job, he was ready to shoot the basketball and that’s what he did.”

Since then, the Streator native has been more of a fixture in the Huskies’ rotation, averaging close to 14.5 minutes a contest since the game in Athens, Ohio in mid-January. He tied his career high of 10 points in a loss on Feb. 2 to Toledo, though he’s still averaging just 2.8 points a game.

Cravatta’s main strength is his shooting, something he certainly did a lot at Streator, getting the ball coming off screens and firing away. He averaged 26.9 points a game his senior season and led the Bulldogs to their first regional title in 43 seasons.

Despite his dominance at the prep level, there wasn’t much Division I interest. Cravatta had the option to be a preferred walk-on at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and said he talked to a couple other schools about walking on. He said NIU hadn’t seen him play until assistant Lou Dawkins watched him go against Ottawa late in 2011-12, and Cravatta didn’t have much talk with the program until after the season ended.

“It was really kind of a late decision,” he said. “When I talked to my parents in stuff, I felt it was best. I wanted the opportunity to play Division I, try and prove myself.”

Cravatta didn’t expect to have a scholarship his freshman year, and wasn’t seeing much playing time ahead in his freshman year.

However, his fortunes changed fairly quickly. In August, Montgomery called him into his office telling him he had earned a scholarship, which had opened up when Marquavese Ford left the program.

Montgomery evaluated Cravatta throughout the Huskies’ summer workouts and thought he had worked hard enough to earn his scholarship.

“Dating back to the summer, he fit in with the guys well. He was working hard in our workouts in the summer,” Montgomery said. “We were lacking a true shooter, that always helps too.”

Cravatta didn’t figure he’d be on scholarship, and wasn’t planning on getting too many minutes during the regular season.

So far, he’s been trying to make the most of it, and hopes it will end up paying off in the future.

“I didn’t expect anything this quick. I figured my freshman year, hopefully just work hard through practice,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to get this many opportunities in the game. But I’ve been just trying to prove myself day in and day out. I’ve kind of earned that.”

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