Team preview: Northern Illinois

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

With a veteran core of six juniors and seniors, Northern Illinois coach Rob Judson thinks this is the year the Huskies move back into contention in the MAC West. Why not? A quick glance at the rest of the division reveals key graduation losses or rebuilding programs.

The last two seasons have ended in Buffalo, N.Y., in front of sold-out crowds screaming themselves hoarse for the upstart Bulls. The Huskies are ready to turn the tables and get back to Cleveland where they reached the MAC Tournament semifinals in 2003. To Judson and his staff, that tournament must seem like a long time ago. It was such an encouraging season, as the Huskies finished 17-14.

Since that loss to Chris Kaman and Central Michigan, Northern has been working to regroup and make another charge. This should be the year. The Huskies no doubt are a sleeper, after 10-20 and 11-17 records the last two years.

Last season, Northern ranked first in the MAC in free-throw percentage (74.8) and blocked shots (4.36). Two statistics the Huskies expect to clean up are: turnover margin (-1.3) and rebounding margin (-0.7) in which the net result is two possessions per game. Northern was 2-6 in games decided by overtime or five points or less. NIU appears capable of applying added defensive pressure this season and forcing more than 12.9 turnovers per contest (which ranked next to last in the MAC).

"We had some tough breaks last season, but you could see this team build and get stronger because of it," Judson said. "Some teams will go the other way after a number of tough games and tough breaks. Sometimes they'll lose hope. This team never did. They always got back up and that's why they improved the way they did."

Here's what Northern brings to the table: 1. A hard-nosed, senior point guard. 2. Two dynamic wing players with proven scoring ability. 3. A legit three-point shooting ace at forward. 4. A shot-blocking center who converts a high percentage of inside attempts.

In fact, the Huskies return their top five scorers from 2004-05.