"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Northern Illinois Preview, 2021-22

Northern Illinois Huskies

November 27, 7:00 pm, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Rashon Burno (0-0)

3-Year NET Average: 217.3

3-Year Kenpom Average: 218.3

Projected 2021-22 T-Rank: 315

Trendon Hankerson is the Huskies' leading returning scorer

Photo from NIU Athletics

Projected Starters: PG Kaleb Thornton (6'0" Jr), SG Trendon Hankerson (6'2" Sr), SF Zool Kueth (6'7" Sr), PF Chris Osten (6'9" Sr), C Martice Mitchell (6'10" So)

After seven straight top-250 finishes at Kenpom and his first winning MAC record in 2020, Mark Montgomery saw his team crater in 2021, finishing a career-worst #337 at kenpom and just 2-12 in the MAC. The Huskies were not just the worst team in the MAC but one of the worst in all of Division I. Montgomery is gone, replaced by former DePaul player Rashon Burno, who polished his coaching credentials at Florida with Billy Donovan and Arizona State with Bobby Hurley.

Burno kept much of last year's roster, including six players that started multiple games for the Huskies. Thornton and Hankerson give him an experienced but turnover-prone backcourt. Hankerson can score and will likely play a lot with the ball in his hands while Thornton is more of a defensive specialist that needs to improve his handle and productivity level. Expect transfers Keshawn Williams (Tulsa) and Darweshi Hunter (Weber State) to provide some back court depth. Up front, Zool Kueth is a high-efficiency shooter that will be one of the most dangerous offensive weapons. He's joined by a pair of high-major transfers in Chris Osten (Arizona State) and Martice Mitchell (Minnesota), who provide a length and talent upgrade. The Huskies have some depth, with Anthony Crump, Chinedu Kingsley Okanu, and Adong Makuoi all providing depth with starting experience.

It will be interesting to see what Burno does schematically. Donovan's rosters played at a slower pace with defense being the primary focus while Hurley pushed the pace with offense the centerpiece of their success. Montgomery tended to play slow and that seems the pragmatic way for Burno to start things off. Hankerson, Kueth, and JUCO transfer Edward Manuel are reliable threats from deep, so a slow pace that aims for high percentage deep looks seems like the best way to score some upsets this year. Burno has really stressed defensive toughness in his interviews, and considering that depth is one of their strengths, I could see this being a team that mixes it up and tries to win with physicality on the defensive end of the floor.

I like this roster more than most. Hankerson and Kueth were two of the best players on a bad team last year and adding transfers from clearly superior leagues gives the Huskies a much higher talent floor than they had a year ago. Their collapse last year coincided with the losses of all-time leading scorer Eugene German and three-year starter Lacey James. They're going to give some teams troubles and while they'll probably be in the bottom half of their league, I don't think they are the clear-cut cellar dweller they were a year ago. In terms of playing Marquette, however, this should be a comfortable win, though don't be surprised if it is a low-scoring, mostly defensive affair on both ends.

Marquette Connection: Rashon Burno may not have the most fond memories of Marquette from college, as he was just 2-5 against the Golden Eagles in his days at DePaul. The first time he coached against Marquette was a different story, however. Burno was an assistant at Florida when they played Marquette on November 29, 2012 in Gainesville in a rematch of the game that ended Marquette's season the year before. The Gators dominated Marquette from the jump, opening up an 18-point first-half lead and ultimately coming away with a dominating 82-49 victory. At the time, Buzz Williams said "I've never been beat this bad in my career -- 179 games as a head coach, that's the worst loss. Not close." Marquette fans will hope for an outcome more like the last time they saw Burno, a 78-73 overtime victory against Arizona State in 2015 when Henry Ellenson led Marquette to the come from behind win.

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