Northern Illinois Men's Basketball Welcomes Back Eight Letterwinners, Adds Five Newcomers Back For 2004-05 Season

GO HUSKIES
GO HUSKIES

GO HUSKIES
July 22, 2004

Northern Illinois Men's Basketball Welcomes Back Eight Letterwinners, Adds Five Newcomers Back For 2004-05 Season

DeKalb, IL -- Youth will again reign for the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball program this season as the Huskies have just one rostered senior (Johnathan Byrd) for the upcoming 2004-05 campaign and 10 of 13 players in either their first or second year of eligibility.

Last season, nine of 13 players were in their first or second year with Rob Judson’s program as the Huskies suffered through the accustomary growing pains that come with putting a number of young, inexperienced players on the floor. Despite boasting another group of diaper dandies, the bulk of Judson’s Huskies return to the hardwood a year older and a year wiser and will look to push their way up the Mid-American Conference standings.

“The key for our team will be their development in terms of maturity,” Judson said. “We have a group of juniors that have been through two seasons here and they understand what it takes to get prepared for this level. Everyone else is in their first or second year with the program and their ability to adjust to this level of basketball will dictate how much they are able to progress.”

Versatility has been the key word when talking about the Northern Illinois lineup during the Judson regime and this season’s Huskies will be no different. Regardless of position, the Huskies have interchangeable parts all over the floor, including size on the perimeter (four swing players over 6-foot-5) and shooting ability in the post. NIU’s top two three-point shooters last season both stand at least 6-foot-7 as Todd Peterson (6-foot-8) led the club with 60 three-point makes and Paige Paulsen (6-foot-7) hit treys at a team-leading rate of 46.7 percent (14-of-30).

With eight returning letterwinners joining five talented newcomers, Judson’s fourth season in DeKalb could be the most exciting, especially locally. The Northern Illinois roster is once again made up predominantly of in-state talent, as 11-of-13 players hail from the state of Illinois and the Chicagoland area. Byrd (Chicago Morgan Park) and freshman Frank Clair (Chicago Leo High School) give the Huskies representation from the city of Chicago. High School teammates Zach Pancratz and Craig Reichel (Schaumburg) join Anthony Maestranzi (Bartlett) in representing the Northwest suburbs, while Ryan Paradise is from the West suburb of Naperville (Naperville Central) and Mike McKinney hails from the North suburb of Evanston (Evanston Township). Bryson McKenzie (Gary, IN/West Side) comes from the Eastside of Chicago, and Peterson (Pekin) gives NIU downstate representation to go with James Hughes’ (Silvis, IL/East Moline United) Quad City connections. Although he will redshirt the 2004-05 season, Ben Rand (Rochelle) will drum up even more local interest. The University of Iowa transfer spent his prep playing days in nearby Rochelle, IL, located 15 miles west of the NIU campus. Only two players, Paige Paulsen (Custer, SD) and Cory Sims (Livingston, AL) fail to fall within 150 miles of NIU’s campus and even Sims has state ties, playing his junior college basketball at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, MO.

Backcourt and Wing
That aforementioned versatility steps to the forefront when talking about the Northern Illinois backcourt this season. Judson’s squad can work a group of six players into either backcourt slot with returners Maestranzi, McKinney and Paradise providing an excellent nucleus until newcomers Sims, Clair and Pancratz are ready to step in.

A junior, Maestranzi started 20 games last season while logging 27.2 minutes a contest, third on the team during the 2003-04 season and tops among returning performers. A deadly shooter from the perimeter (37 percent from three), Maestranzi was also the team’s top playmaker in 2004, handing out 113 assists to break Donald Whiteside’s 1989 record for sophomore dimes. The Bartlett, IL, product also finished fourth on the team in scoring (6.9 ppg.) and reached double figures nine times. Maestranzi’s top offensive output came in a Feb. 9 contest at Central Michigan when he poured in a career high 19 points on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. Maestranzi’s assist/turnover ratio also hovered around 2:1 all season and he dished out five or more assists on 10 occasions, including a career-high tying seven assists without a turnover in a Feb. 28 road win (67-61) at Eastern Michigan.

“Anthony (Maestranzi) wasn’t at 100-percent for most of last season,” Judson said. “He was playing with a pelvic injury much of the year and he battled through the pain quite admirably. The heart and toughness Anthony showed really got the attention of his teammates and they have a great deal of respect for him because of it.”

McKinney saw his on-court identity change dramatically throughout his rookie campaign. Considered a high-flying athlete early in his first season, the Evanston, IL, native shouldered the burden of being the team’s top defender during Mid-American Conference play, silencing a number of the league’s top guns. While his point production held consistent, McKinney did the little things to increase his playing time. In addition to his defensive prowess, McKinney was also the team’s top rebounding guard, finishing third on the squad with 47 offensive rebounds and fourth on the crew in overall boards. His 49 assists were third on the team and his 17 steals ranked fifth. Although he averaged 19.0 minutes on the season, McKinney moved into the starting lineup late in the campaign and averaged 25.2 minutes over the last 10 games.

“Mike (McKinney) took on the role of being one of our top perimeter defenders last season and that was a big reason for his increased minutes,” Judson said. “He was a good rebounder last season, but we expect that to improve because of his offseason training. He spent the summer working hard on his strength and that should enhance his ability to play more minutes and will benefit his overall game.”

While an offseason in the weight room has coaches excited about the progression of McKinney, injury troubles continue to hamper the development of fellow sophomore Paradise. Last season, Paradise was tops among rookies in minutes played through the first 14 games until a left-wrist injury (shooting hand) forced the guard to the sideline. Oringinally suffered during his senior season at Naperville Center High School, Paradise suffered another setback with his wrist at the start of the summer, putting his availability for the start of the 2004-05 up in the air. A tough-minded perimeter performer when healthy, a return by Paradise will give NIU another creator off the bounce and add depth to both backcourt slots. Typically a solid shooter, Paradise shot just 19 percent from 3-point range and just 28 percent from the floor as a freshman, numbers that were obviously hampered by the injury to his shooting wrist.

“Ryan had a real setback with his wrist this summer and was forced into another surgery,” Judson said. “A wrist injury is tricky and the recovery time isn’t definite. We are taking Ryan’s injury day-by-day and we’ll see where he stands when practice begins this fall.”

The final Huskie addition to the 2004 recruiting class, Sims is capable of playing both backcourt slots after turning in All-America numbers at Lewis & Clark Community College last season. A transfer who will be a junior eligibility wise, Sims recorded norms of 22.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in leading LCCC to a seventh-place finish at the National Junior College Athletics Association Division II National Tournament. A First Team Division II All-American, Sims was also named the top guard at the NJCAA summit and ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring and No. 31 nationally in steals.

“Cory (Sims) gives us a creative offensive player that can run both guard spots,” Judson said. “He is a capable shooter, but does an excellent job of getting to the basket. He has a knack for getting to opportune spots on the floor and creating opportunities for his teammates.”

NIU also added a pair of prep standouts to the backcourt in Pancratz and Clair. Both players bring excellent size to the backcourt and have the ability to play both the 2-guard and wing positions.

Clair comes to DeKalb after leading Chicago Leo High School to the IHSA Class A State crown last March. Named MVP of the Class A summit, Clair carried the Lions to the crown, scoring 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting in the title game. He averaged 17.0 points throughout the three-game tourney and was named to the Class A all-state squad following an outstanding season in which he averaged 14.3 points and 6.9 boards a game.

“As is the case with many incoming freshman, strength training will be key for Frank (Clair),” Judson said. “He’s a skilled player that will be able to do a number of things for this team.”

Like Clair, Pancratz earned all-state recognition after leading Schaumburg to a 23-6 overall mark last season and an appearance in the IHSA Class AA Sectional finals. A 20.3 ppg. scorer, Pancratz also grabbed 5.8 rebounds a game while handing out 5.5 assists. A second team all-state pick by the Chicago-Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard earned all-area honors from the Arlington Heights Daily Herald and was an All-Northwest Suburban choice by the Pioneer Press. In addition to possessing excellent size, Pancratz possesses a soft shooting touch and owns the Schaumburg single-game record with eight three-point makes in a game and owns the school career record for three-pointers with 180. He also ranks second in career scoring with 1,531 points.

“Zach loves the game of basketball,” Judson said. “He’s a gym rat. He’s constantly working on improving his game and that’s why he’s such a successful player.”

Although he won’t be eligible until the 2005-06 season, Rand will make an immediate impact for the team in practice, giving the Huskies a physical perimeter presence as a member of the scout team. Rand was considered by many recruiting guru’s to be a Top 100 player nationally and began his collegiate career at the University of Iowa last season before transferring to NIU over the summer.

“We’re excited with the talent we were able to add to our backcourt,” Judson said. “We won’t have Ben (Rand) on the court this season, but his contributions on the practice floor won’t go unnoticed.”

Front Court
One attribute of Rob Judson-coached teams has been size, and in his fourth season, Judson’s squad has a pair of players taller than 6-foot-10, another standing 6-foot-9 and five others 6-foot-6 or better. The NIU front line is the beneficiary of six of those eight players as the 6-foot-11 Hughes and 6-foot-10 McKenzie give Northern Illinois one of its tallest front lines in recent history.

The league’s top returning shot blocker, Hughes ranked among the nation’s leaders (46th) last season after blocking 1.8 shots a game. The NIU freshman record holder with 53 blocks, Hughes finished second in the league in swats and No. 6 nationally among rookies. While he was initially put on the floor for his defensive prowess, the Silvis, IL, native’s offensive game improved dramatically throughout the year, as he made 14 starts, and averaged 4.9 points and 3.4 boards. Hughes also led the team in field-goal percentage (60.6 percent) and was among the team’s top free throw shooters, connecting at a 68.8-percent clip.

“The key for James (Hughes) will be his ability to stay on the floor,” Judson said. “Whether it was because of foul trouble or stamina, James wasn’t able to play extended minutes. The longer he can stay on the floor in an effective role, the better off this team will be in the post.”

A preseason knee injury kept McKenzie out of action most of the year and allowed the hard-working center just 28 minutes of playing time over six games in early December. Despite missing his second season in three years, McKenzie is expected to bolster the NIU interior and provide plenty of depth at the center position along with Hughes and the lone NIU senior, Johnathan Byrd.

“It was huge to get the 2003-04 season back for Bryson,” Judson said. “He worked extremely hard prior to the season, but then really lost the year before it ever got going. He continues to rehab the knee and once healthy, he will be a contributing presence for our club in the post.”
A long, athletic post presence, Byrd gave NIU a defensive boost off the bench in 27 games and was a catalyst in a Feb. 28 road win at Eastern Michigan. Against the Eagles, Byrd played 17 minutes and scored six points while coming away with a key steal late in the game to help seal the win.

“The first season is always tough for a transfer,” Judson said. “We saw Johnathan (Byrd) go through some growing pains that come for any player in his first season with a program. I think this offseason benefitted Johnathan as much as anyone, because he now knows what to expect from Division I basketball and how to prepare for it.”

While NIU could slide McKenzie or Byrd over to fit the more traditional role of a power forward, it could also use the combination of Peterson, Paulsen and Reichel to add another scorer to the mix and create matchup problems for its opponents.

The team’s top three-point shooter last season, Peterson led the squad with 60 treys and connected from beyond the arc at a 36-percent clip. Third on the team in scoring in 2003-04 and NIU’s top returning point producer, the 6-foot-8 Peterson averaged 7.4 points last season and topped double-figures in scoring eight times, while making 21 starts. Peterson’s high-point contest came against Illinois State (Nov. 26) when he lit up the Redbirds for 19 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range. Peterson also finished second in school history with at least one three-point make in 24 consecutive contests and hit multiple treys 17 times including four or more treys on five occasions.

“Todd (Peterson) will be a very skilled, face-the-basket 4-man,” Judson said. “We’ll be playing more of a motion offense this season and that plays to the strength of our personnel. The motion scheme will allow Todd to get some looks from the perimeter as well as underneath the basket.”

Like Peterson, Paulsen initially found his niche from beyond the arc, finishing the year as the team’s most accurate three-point shooter. A 47-percent shooter on the year from bonus distance, Paulsen developed his all-around game as the season progressed and earned a pair of starts in MAC play. After averaging only 5.5 minutes of playing time through the first-two months of the season, Paulsen made his first significant contribution at Akron (Jan. 7) with six points and then poured in a then-career high 12 points at Ball State (Jan. 20). Although he finished the season averaging 3.5 points in 11.0 minutes of playing time, the Custer, SD, native’s numbers rose considerably in the MAC, as he reached double figures in scoring three times, including a career high 14 points at Central Michigan (Feb. 9).

“As with Johnathan (Byrd), I think the offseason was very beneficial for Paige (Paulsen),” Judson said. “The improved strength was key for him. He was a good shooter from the perimeter last season, but with the added strength, he’ll be able to make more contributions with regards to rebounding and on defense.”

While Reichel has the ability to step on the perimeter and hit an open jumper like Peterson and Paulsen (35-percent from 3-point range as a senior), the 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward also has the size and strength to bang with some of the larger bodies in the league. A 17.4 ppg. scorer as a senior, Reichel led the Saxons with 9.1 rebounds a game and finished as the program’s career rebounding leader with 662 career boards. He also claimed single-season (82) and career (249) records for blocked shots by the time he capped his prep tenure. A fourth-team all-state choice by the IBCA, Reichel earned honorable mention all-state accolades by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune and was selected to the all-area teams by the Arlington Heights Daily Herald and the Pioneer Press.

“Craig (Reichel) is going to be a great player in this league by the time he graduates,” Judson said. “He brings impressive size to the floor and is skilled enough to do some things on the perimeter. As he gets stronger, we feel Criag will be one of the more versatile posts in the Mid-American Conference.”

The next installment of the Northern Illinois Men's Basketball season preview will be the releasing of the team's 2004-05 non-conference schedule, followed by the releasing of the Mid-American Conference slate.