Oct. 29, 2007
Taking over the reigns of a Northern Illinois men's basketball team that won seven games during the 2006-07 season was not discouraging at all to first-year Huskie head coach Ricardo Patton.
In fact, Patton saw potential in the squad and he loved what NIU had to offer.
"When you look at the resources that we have, the facilities that you are working with, with talent-rich Chicago 65 miles away and the whole state being full of talent, Northern Illinois makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons," Patton said. "NIU is right there at the top of the league in many categories and has the potential to be one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference."
Patton knows what it takes to be one of the best in the league as he led Colorado to six postseason berths, including a pair of NCAA tournament appearances, in 11-plus seasons as the Buffaloes skipper.
With the arduous task at hand, Patton hit the ground running upon his arrival in DeKalb.
"We haven't stopped since we arrived," Patton said. "Putting together the coaching staff, getting to know the players, preseason conditioning. It has been one thing after another, but it's been fun and energizing for me.
"We have a tremendous staff, and we're excited about this opportunity to do something here that maybe hasn't been done for a long time."
With 17 roster-eligible players for 2007-08, Patton knows the competition will be fierce and will provide the depth necessary to be successful in the always-tough MAC.
"It should be a very hungry team," Patton said. "We are only going to travel with 13 and possibly 15 guys this season.
"When you have 17 guys, they realize that if they don't perform during the week at practice, they probably won't make our traveling squad, so it should create a level of hunger and great competitive fire amongst our guys, and I think it has."
Patton knows that he brings a different style of play to the Huskies, but he boils it down to two words: working hard.
"I believe that you can teach a guy to be willing to outwork and play harder, longer than our opponents," Patton said. "Everyone can play hard for a certain length of time but if you are able to play harder longer, then you've got a chance to beat your opponent."
Patton believes that seniors Egan Grafel, Shaun Logan, Ryan Paradise and Ben Rand will help set that example for the rest of the squad. Sharpshooter Zach Pancratz, who led the squad with 51 three-pointers last season, will miss the 2007-08 campaign due to left shoulder surgery.
"Those guys have been through the wars, and they understand what it means to play in this conference," Patton said of the seniors. "They are familiar with how teams play, so we want our newcomers and our freshmen to pick those guys brains and we want those guys to lead the way.
"They have been tremendous teammates and have done everything we've asked."
Paradise, the team's leading returning scorer from 2006-07 (10.1 ppg.), led the Huskies last season in three-point shooting percentage (42.5%) and seems poised to continue that role.
"Paradise, you have to love that name. He is a guy that has shown the ability to shoot the basketball," Patton said. "If we were to draw up a late-game shot, right now we would draw it up for Paradise to take it."
Logan, a 6-7 power forward, is a player that does all the little things that don't always show up on the stat sheets. Last season, the Eldridge, Iowa native averaged 7.6 points and 5.5 boards-per-game in his first year in a Huskie uniform.
"Every day, he brings his hard hat to work and we know what to expect," Patton said of Logan. "Every drill he tries to lead, every run he wants to be the first guy. He is a guy that will be running a corporation one day, not just working at one, because he is consistent in his effort, and that is the biggest thing that I think the guys have to learn is to be consistent.
"When you see guys scoring 20 points in one game and then 10 in the next, that is inconsistent," Patton continued. "Shaun Logan has shown to be our most consistent guy in his work."
Rand, who has undergone two surgeries on his right knee in the past two seasons, looks to be back at full strength after playing just 19 of NIU's last 33 games since the end of the 2005-06 campaign. As a sophomore, the 6-7 swingman averaged 7.7 points-per-game, helping the Huskies to the 2006 MAC West Division title.
"Rand is one of those guys that is going to be consistent in his efforts," Patton said. "I think he is hungry, which is what we want from our guys.
"We talk to the team about being humble and hungry, and I think he is both," Patton continued. "Ben is a very humble and focused young man who is really going to help this team be successful."
Grafel, who saw limited action as a junior college transfer last season, came on toward the end of the year and averaged 4.3 points and 1.3 boards over the Huskies' last four games.
"I have seen a great change in Egan," Patton said. "He has really picked up his intensity and taken it to the next level. I told him to dare to be great and not just do enough to get by. He needed to have a burning desire to be a major player on this team, and I have seen a drastic improvement in his level of intensity since our conversation."
Patton has also challenged sophomore guard Cody Yelder. Yelder, a MidAmPub.com All-Freshman team selection last year, averaged 9.8 points-per-game while shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range. Patton believes that the Calumet Park, Ill., native needs to realize his potential.
"Cody needs to become more consistent in his effort," Patton said. "If he would do that, I don't know if any of us know how good he could become.
"Right now, I think Cody is a guy that can play the point and run the team, that is probably his best position," Patton continued. "I think the point position is a position that he has to excel in."
Redshirt junior guard Jarvis Nichols (6-2, 219 pounds) is eager to take to the court after sitting out last season. Nichols was an honorable mention All-Jayhawk West selection at Pratt Community College in 2006 after averaging 11.8 points and 3.7 assists-per-game for the Beavers.
"Jarvis Nichols is excited about the opportunity to have a chance to play, and he has a great deal of talent," Patton said. "He is a guy that I have been extremely surprised and pleased with thus far.
"He has shown the ability to guard the basketball and to sustain his defensive position," Patton continued. "I believe he can put the ball in the basket."
Others expected to compete for playing time at guard include sophomore Richard Oruche and Michael Patton, Coach Patton's son.
Sophomore fireplug Bristan Kelley (6-6, 244 pounds) should provide some bulk in the post for the Huskies. Kelley averaged 2.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game for the Huskies last season, appearing in all 30 games as a freshman.
"We talked to Bristan early on about becoming a beast on the blocks," Patton said. "Defensively, he can guard bigger and stronger guys and push them off the block, and offensively, he has shown his ability to score around the basket."
Others expected to compete for time in the frontcourt are redshirt freshman Darrius Gaters, senior Michael Hart and freshmen Michael Fakuade and Lee Fisher.
Patton's first recruiting class includes junior college transfers Najul Ervin (F, 6-5, 207), Sean Smith (F, 6-7, 200) and freshmen Darion Anderson (G, 6-2, 200) and Jeremy Landers (6-2, 184).
Ervin, a sophomore, will often find himself around the rim, but can cause havoc defensively, according to Patton. Last season, Ervin averaged 4.8 points and 5.8 rebounds for Kankakee Community College.
"Najul is a guy that I think has a lot of potential," Patton said. "He's long, athletic, can run the floor, get to the rim, and can finish.
"Defensively, he is a guy that can get his hands on a lot of rebounds because of his length."
Smith brings the most experience as he averaged 13 points and 6.8 rebounds for Vincennes J.C. as a sophomore last season, helping the Trailblazers to a berth in the NJCAA Tournament.
"Out of the first-year players, he is probably the one coming in with the most experience," Patton said. "I think right now, if I had to pick a guy that I thought could become the team's go-to guy, I think it might be Sean Smith.
"He is a guy that if you had a big guy playing along side of him, he could be a four-man that would cause match-up problems.
The arrival of Anderson and Landers has bolstered the guard position.
As a high school senior, Anderson, whose nickname is Jake, led the Chicago Public League in scoring, averaging 32 points-per-game for Carver Military Academy. Patton is a big fan of Anderson's attitude.
"What makes Jake Anderson a special kid and player is his level of focus," Patton said. "He is very hungry and really wants to be great; that in itself separates players.
"I truly believe with his ability and level of focus, he has a chance to be a premiere player in this league during some point in his career."
Patton believes that Landers is wise beyond his years. Last season, the Milwaukee, Wis., native competed for Genesis One Prep School in Mendenhall, Miss. and averaged 16 points and seven assists-per-game, leading them to a runner-up finish in the National Athletic Christian Association Championships.
"Jeremy is a terrific freshman," Patton said. "He is a guy that I think really knows how to play the game from the wing spot.
"He is more of a scorer, and has a great mid-range game," Patton continued. "It is hard to teach players today that there is a lot of basketball played between the basket and the three-point line.
"I think [Jeremy] is a guy who understands that and has a great mid-range game."
Patton knows that the wins will come, but he wants his squad to take care of the little things that help lead to victories.
"I want to set a standard of how we do things, how we dress, how we act, how we approach the classroom, how we treat one another and how we treat other people," Patton said. "We want our guys to be winners off the floor in everyday life.
"I personally believe that if you are a winner off the floor, you will transfer that to the floor," Patton continued. "I do not believe that you can be a loser off the floor and then all of a sudden hit the court and become a winner.
"There are some basic fundamental things that we are establishing in our program that I think will spearhead us into being one of the top programs in our conference. When we recruit, we want to recruit guys that can help win your conference
"In my mind, we are ahead of the curve in a lot of regards in that way."
On the court, opposing teams better be ready for the Huskies.
"We want to be a very physical basketball team and whatever pressure we apply, we want to apply it for 40 minutes," Patton said. "I want [opposing teams] to view the Convocation Center as a difficult place to come in and win.
"We want a home court advantage," Patton continued. "Although the students and the fans that are in the building enhance that advantage, the players have to create that home-court advantage by how hard they play."
Patton also hopes to prepare the Huskies for a grueling MAC campaign, as NIU's non-conference slate opponents, including "Sweet 16" participant Southern Illinois, averaged 19.6 wins in 2006-07.
"Our facility warrants teams coming in, our fans deserve it, but I also think it gives us a true gage of where we are when we get into our conference," Patton said. "If you play a light non-conference schedule, you do not get a real gage of where you are, and you go into your league and you are not prepared."
"Good teams expose your weaknesses and we want our weaknesses exposed as soon as possible because the earlier they are exposed, the more time we have to pay attention to and correct those mistakes and weaknesses," Patton continued. "We want to identify who we are, early, as opposed to being exposed later when it is too late to do anything about it."