Friday, Northern Illinois men's basketball coach Mark Montgomery clamored about how wild March gets, but little did he know how bizarre the circumstances surrounding the tournament this year would be.
The Northern Illinois men's basketball team's first-round game Thursday against the Miami RedHawks, set for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland will be contested in front of a restricted audience, something the conference announced Tuesday, but was seen in reality Wednesday when the MAC women's basketball tournament began without fans.
“Obviously it will feel different having fewer people in the stands, but once the game starts we will all have to do our best to forget about that and treat it like any other game," Montgomery said in a statement to the Daily Chronicle. "We are thankful for the opportunity to play, no matter how many people will be in the stands.”
Last season, it was Montgomery's seventh-seeded Huskies squad that made a run to the MAC semifinals and nearly overcame a 23-point deficit in a season-ending 71-67 loss to the Falcons last March.
“Not many people gave us a chance last year when we came in as a seven seed," Montgomery said.
Added Montgomery, "I’m looking forward to getting to Cleveland and making a serious run.”
Last year's run, coupled with this year with sharing the MAC West and securing the first MAC Tournament bye of his nine-year tenure as coach has Montgomery feeling giddy. The Huskies are set to face the Miami RedHawks Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, OH.
NCAA President Mark Emmert provided a statement Thursday that the tournament will feature only "essential staff and limited family attendance," which applies to the NCAA men's and women's basketball Tournament, but not conference tournaments across the board.
Monday, the No. 12 seed RedHawks (13-19), a team that has split its season series with the Huskies, defeated Buffalo 85-79. Nike Sibande scored 31 for Miami in the win. Isaiah Coleman-Lands had 13 points, eight rebounds and six assists off the bench.
Without yet knowing who the Huskies (18-13) would play, Lacey James said that NIU was glad to have the advantage of extra rest and more time to prepare for the RedHawks.
“They have to play back-to-back, we already know what that felt like last year, so we'll watch a lot of film," James said. "Maybe get a little rest, but we’ll be in the gym though. We have a little fresh legs if you want to say, and we have a little more time to study than they do.”
Following a 75-54 loss to Ball State Friday, a game that pushed the Huskies back to the No. 4 seed, the focus was on regrouping and being prepared to make a long run in the tournament.
"We’re going to come back, regroup and take care of business the first game we’ve got to play over there," Noah McCarty said.
James in particular has responded to repeated questions about the team's success with the refrain that the end goal has been the same all along, and that's holding the MAC Championship trophy aloft.
For Montgomery, this coming week represents a dream that he wants to see enhanced with the Huskies' results this time around.
“Coaches dream for coaching in March and players dream playing in March," Montgomery said. "We have a great opportunity to put ourselves on the map and we plan on doing that.”
NIU's identity throughout the season has been formed around its defense, which enters the tournament top 50 in Division I in field goal percentage defense (45th, 40.2%), scoring defense (42nd, 64.5%) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (49th, 30.5%), though Ball State and Akron are comparable in several such categories. NIU's plus-4.3 rebounds per game rebounding margin is also tops in the MAC.
The winner of Thursday's game will play Friday against the winner of Akron (1 seed) vs. Ohio (9 seed) in the semifinals set for 6:00 p.m.