DeKALB – For the first week of Mid-American Conference play, it sure looked like NIU was going to play down to its preseason prediction.
Picked last in the conference, not only did the Huskies drop their first two conference games by at least 18 points, they lost leading scorer Keshawn Williams for the season to an ACL tear.
Adversity is part of the game. It’s life. No one is going to give you an asterisk because Keshawn is out. They’re not going to play any less. They are going to try to knock your head off. So you have to go out and fight and go out and perform.— NIU coach Rashon Burno
Fast forward two months, however, and the Huskies clinched a spot in the MAC tournament and are prepping for a trip to Cleveland after their regular-season finale at noon Friday at home against Eastern Michigan.
“For me personally, I’m proud of these guys,” senior point guard Kaleb Thornton said. “Guys who have never been in this position, guys who have never played Division I basketball, are playing their best basketball in conference when it matters most.”
Williams was averaging 18.8 points entering the Buffalo game Jan. 7, in which he played only nine minutes, scored five points and had to leave early with the ACL tear. That knocked his average down to 17.9 for the season.
Thornton has gone from averaging 4.3 points per game to 8.5, and David Coit has gone from 13.6 to 15.9 despite missing three games himself. And moving off the bench, guys like Harvin Ibarguen (now at 5.4 a game) and Darweshi Hunter (currently averaging 8.6 points per game) have doubled their scoring averages since Williams’ injury.
“I’m not shocked,” second-year coach Rashon Burno said. “A lot of times, external expectations - I’ve never been one to subscribe to it. I knew what I had in my locker room. I knew the work we put in. I trust the work we were doing would eventually pay off. It was just a matter of time. It’s a testament to these guys and a testament to the program. We’re going to battle every day.”
Last year, the Huskies were 9-21 in Burno’s first season. Entering the year, they were picked last in the preseason MAC poll. And it didn’t look like it was going to get better. After the loss to Buffalo, the Huskies were 4-11, 0-2 in the conference, without their top player and had lost six of seven.
Then they won seven out of 10 games in conference play. When the tournament rolls around Thursday, they’ll likely be the No. 7 seed with a potential matchup with No. 2 Kent State, a team they’ve already beaten this year.
Thornton, whose 4.9 assists per game is third-best in the MAC, said it shows the resiliency of the team. He said at the start of the year he wasn’t sure the young Huskies had the ability to handle that kind of adversity.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t see it in us at the beginning of the year,” Thornton said. “We didn’t show that. ... To see guys pick up our brother like that – Keshawn was a guy who came into practice every day, worked hard, never complained and he had the worst injury in basketball that can happen to you. For us, it’s picking our teammates up.”
So was he wrong at the start of the year, or did the team forge its will under fire when necessary?
“Not to say I know everything, but I think I was right at the beginning of the season,” Thornton said. “And we stepped up when it mattered. You don’t have confidence if you don’t show it previously, so I was kind of a little bit skeptical, but I’m always going to go with my guys.”
Burno said it’s his job to be able to see around corners, whereas sometimes players aren’t worried about that kind of longtime version.
And the coach said he knew the team was capable of more than a last-place showing even after the rough start and losing its top scorer.
“Internally we had a lot of confidence we could turn this thing around,” Burno said. “It was just if we could focus on what goes into winning and could we block out the noise? That’s the most important thing when you try to rebuild a program. Adversity is part of the game. It’s life. No one is going to give you an asterisk because Keshawn is out. They’re not going to play any less. They are going to try to knock your head off. So you have to go out and fight and go out and perform.”
NIU has lost four of its last five, the lone win being the tournament-clinching win Feb. 25 at Central Michigan, although three of those losses were without Coit.
The team lost 85-75 to Buffalo at home Tuesday in Coit’s return and will try to right the ship heading into Cleveland at home against Eastern Michigan at noon Friday.
“It’s our last game, me and Kaleb. It’s our third season here and we want to go out with a win,” senior forward Anthony Crump said. “It will be our last home game so we want to end it off on a good note.”