Nov. 8, 2006
Northern Illinois University head men's basketball coach Rob Judson takes great pride in the fact that his squad is typically a deep one, and at any given moment, a Huskie player can step out and lead NIU to victory.
Such was the case during the 2005-06 campaign, as seven different players led Judson's troops in scoring in at least one game, and the Huskies' deep bench helped key NIU to its first-ever Mid-American Conference West Division Championship.
With each passing year, every collegiate basketball coach must bring in new faces to replace the old. The 2006-07 Huskie team is a testament to that, as seven newcomers have joined the seven returning student-athletes from last season, to make up this year's roster.
"Our depth paid big dividends for our team last season, especially with the injuries [that we] sustained down the stretch," Judson said. "Playing as many as 10 guys was a strength for our team and created excellent chemistry. Our substitution approach built confidence in our depth and in the attitude of our players. It also kept the team fresh, and that helped our defensive pressure."
Judson believes that the new additions to his squad will quickly learn the "Northern Illinois" way.
"The new additions to this year's team will learn to adapt to the intensity and the physical play at the DI level," Judson said.
With the 2006 MAC West title in hand, Judson and his team are looking for more in the upcoming season. This season, all 12 MAC schools will travel to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the home of NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, for the conference tournament.
"Winning a MAC Division title over the course of an 18-game schedule is a worthy accomplishment," Judson said. "Last season's Championship was certainly historic for NIU. After the conference season, the focus shifts immediately to the tournament, and that is where this year's team can take another step forward."
Helping the Huskies take that first step is senior center James Hughes. Hughes, a 6-11 center, was the 2006 MAC Defensive Player of the Year and has been named to the All MAC West Division preseason team.
As a junior, Hughes averaged 9.6 points-per-game and led the MAC with 1.6 blocks per game. Judson, however, would like to see the Silvis, Ill., improve his performance on the glass, where he averaged 3.6 boards a year ago.
"James was chosen (to the) preseason All MAC (team) due to the fact he was last season's defensive player of the year," Judson said. "If James can consistently become our top rebounder, it will go a long way to our team's success."
Senior swingman Mike McKinney looks to regain his sophomore form, as the Evanston, Ill., native averaged a team-best 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds-per-game, including four double-doubles in 2004-05. Last season, McKinney was fourth on the squad in scoring, pouring in 9.2 points and 3.7 boards-per-contest.
"Mike returned for his senior year in the best physical condition of his college career," Judson said. "That is an excellent start. If Mike is a force on the backboards for our team, it will be a major factor to our success."
The `X' factor for the Huskies could be the healthy return of 6-7 junior guard / forward Ben Rand. Rand, who averaged 7.7 points-per-game as a sophomore, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the Huskies' last home game in 2006.
"Ben has recovered nicely from an unfortunate knee injury," Judson said. "His leg strength continues to grow and he will be a stronger player and person because of the adversity he is now in the process of overcoming."
Junior guard / forward Zach Pancratz looks to continue the torrid pace he exhibited at the end of his sophomore campaign, as he averaged 8.3 points over the Huskies' final 10 games. The Schaumburg, Ill., native spent hours on the hardwood this summer, and was a prototypical "gym-rat".
"Zach totally `ratted-out' this summer," Judson said. "He had a fantastic off-season in the weight room and playing in his summer league. His body has matured and that has allowed his athleticism to increase."
With the losses of graduated senior guards Anthony Maestranzi and Cory Sims, junior point guard Ryan Paradise looks to take the keys to the car and guide the Huskie squad on the court.
The Naperville, Ill., native made a welcome return to the court after sitting out the 2004-05 campaign due to a left wrist injury. As a sophomore, the 6-1 Paradise shot a team-best 45.5% (15-for-33) from beyond the three-point arc. He also earned MAC West Player of the Week honors after a career-high 22 points in an overtime victory over Buffalo (1/7/06).
"Ryan is a tough competitor who did a lot for our team last season," Judson said. "Ryan's challenge will be his consistency with the ball and his intensity on the defensive end. He shot the ball well last season and looks even more effective with his shot this year. Don't forget, Ryan has overcome a serious wrist injury. Much like Ben Rand, the adversity has made him stronger."
Sophomore guard Quintan Lipkins will challenge Paradise at point guard. Lipkins, a 5-8 native of Houston, Texas, saw limited action during his rookie campaign, but had flashes as well, evidenced by his eight points in six minutes in the Huskies' win over Eastern Michigan (2/26/06).
"'Q' is continuing to mature as a player in our program," Judson said. "'Q' possesses great quickness and the ability to knock down open shots. His decision-making will be the big key for him, along with his level of defensive intensity."
The seven new student-athletes that Judson has recruited will quickly be tested, as all will have their opportunity to contribute.
Judson continues to bring in top Chicagoland talent, and he believes he has found a gem in Marshall grad, 6-7 freshman wing Darrius Gaters. The Chicago, Ill., native is an explosive jumper who runs the floor well. As a senior, Gaters was the leading rebounder in the 2006 Illinois State High School Tournament.
"Darrius is a player with athleticism and is quick off his feet," Judson said. "He played for one of the top programs in Chicago at Marshall in the Chicago Public League Red West."
Judson feels that 6-7 forward Egan Grafel, a junior transfer from Cloud County Community College, will adapt quickly to the Division I level and could be a defensive contributor for the Huskies immediately.
"Egan is a good athlete who throughout the course of his junior college career has greatly improved and will continue to do that here for us at NIU," Judson said. "He's another versatile player and he gives us more athleticism on our front line."
Freshman fireplug Bristan Kelley (6-6, 246) gives the Huskies a wide body in the frontcourt, and a definite presence in the low post. Judson is fond of the forward's strength and court awareness.
"Bristan has a great frame, good hands and has the ability to be a force in the paint area with his size," Judson said.
Freshman center / forward Mike Lochner provides Judson with the best of both worlds, the ability to bang on the blocks as well as hit the occasional three-pointer.
"Mike has the size and strength to make his presence felt in the paint," Judson said. "He possesses a nice touch facing the basket, as well."
Junior college transfer Shaun Logan should add a great deal of depth to the forward position opened by the departure of graduated senior Todd Peterson. Peterson finished his career with 1,070 points and with the most three-pointers in NIU history.
As a sophomore, Logan averaged 13.2 points-per-game and a team-best 7.5 rebounds to help Kirkwood Community College to a record of 31-5 and a runner-up finish in the 2006 NJCAA Division II finals.
"Shaun is a versatile, athletic player who has an outstanding attitude and work ethic that fits in with our team perfectly," Judson said. "He has a nice touch from the outside and he's very active on the boards."
Junior guard Jarvis Nichols rounds out the junior college transfers for the Huskies. Nichols, was an Honorable Mention All-Jayhawk West selection in 2006, after averaging 11.8 points and 3.7 assists-per-game for the Beavers.
"Jarvis is an explosive basketball player whose athleticism allows him to play a number of positions," Judson said. "He's very talented offensively."
Freshman guard Cody Yelder rounds out the 2006 NIU recruiting class. Yelder left Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., (Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade's alma mater) as its all-time leading scorer and was named the SICA North Gold Player of the Year as a senior after averaging 18.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists-per-game.
"Cody is a tough, physical player with outstanding quickness and ball skills," Judson said. "He's excellent in the open court and he has an active eye for his teammates."
Judson believes this team has all of the balance necessary for a well-rounded squad, but he knows that there is and will always be one prevailing focus for his team - defense. Last season, the defending MAC West champs were second overall in the MAC in field goal percentage defense (42.0%).
"Year in and year out, the teams at the top of the MAC standings are also at the top of the league in field goal percentage defense," Judson said. "That will be a key for our group."
A good solid defense, often leads to missed shots resulting in rebounds. If the Huskies are solid both defensively and on the glass, Judson believes that will help propel his offense in the long run.
"Rebounding will be the next major factor for this team," Judson said. "If we can limit our opponents to one shot, secure the rebound and head downcourt on the attack, our offense will be potent."
The offense will need to be potent, as Judson has orchestrated a rigorous non-conference schedule that could feature as many as seven different teams that made the postseason in 2006, including 2006 NIT runner-up, Michigan. The Huskies will face a seven-game road stretch from December 8-30.
"One word: challenging," Judson said of his team's schedule. "We always want our non-conference schedule to prepare us for the battles we will face in the MAC.
"The road in college basketball forces your team to pull together and depend on one another."
If the Huskies' pull together in 2006-07, they just may pull away with another successful season.