"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

Friday, August 25, 2023

Northern Illinois Preview, 2023-24

Northern Illinois Huskies

November 6, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Rashon Burno (22-40)

Three-Year NET Average: 294.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 294.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 221

Projected Starters: PG David Coit (5'11" Jr), SG Keshawn Williams (6'3" Sr), SF Zarique Nutter (6'6" Jr), PF Philmon Gebrewhit (6'7" 5th), C Harvin Ibarguen (6'9" Sr)

Keshawn Williams led all scorers with 17 points in Marquette's 2021 win over NIU
Photo by Larry Radloff | Associated Press

The last time we saw Northern Illinois was two years ago, when Marquette dispatched them 80-66 at Fiserv Forum. The Huskies made a big improvement in year two under Rashon Burno, finishing 9-9 in the MAC and winning 9 of their last 17 games. Their performance per T-Rank skyrocketed, ranking #328 through January 8th and climbing to #191 the rest of the way. This was largely fueled by massive shooting improvement. They went from a 47.2 eFG% (ranked 293) to a stellar 56.0 (ranked 13). Inside, credit the emergence of Harvin Ibarguen, who ranked 3rd nationally in 2PFG% at 74.5%. Outside, it was improvement from David Coit (34.9% to 41.9%) and the departed Darweshi Hunter (25.0% to 48.3%) from deep that drove that surge.

NIU improved their kenpom rank from #297 in 2021-22 to #250 in 2022-23 and return four starters. They will be led by Keshawn Williams, who led the team in scoring average at 17.9 PPG, but it's worth noting he only played in the first 13 games of the season and NIU's improvement began after Williams went down. David Coit will run in the back court with Williams and likely take over the lead ball handler duties. Along with Zarique Nutter, the Huskies have multiple players that can create offense on and off the ball. The familiar name here is Philmon Gebrewhit, who was a spot starter for DePaul the past two years and provides another capable wing scorer. Ibarguen was one of the big surprises last year, putting up monstrously efficient offense (125.3 Offensive Rating) albeit on low usage (12.4%). His minutes, efficiency, and 2PFG% all improved in conference play, and he could be in for a huge senior year. Two more names to watch are Quaran McPherson and Ethan Butler, a pair of high-major down-transfers from Nebraska and Oregon. This roster is experienced, deep, and talented.

Offensively, Northern Illinois wants to play fast, creating turnovers and transition opportunities to generate offense. However, that was more effective in conference play than in non-con. They also played smarter and more aggressive on offense as the season went on. The Huskies attacked the rim more, got to the line more often, and took a higher percentage of their shots from deep. With their improved accuracy coinciding with increased volume, it's no wonder the offense improved. On defense, they play a pressure defense, using their length and athleticism to generate turnovers. They also have a pair of aggressive shot-blockers on the bench in Oluwasegun Durosinmi and Yanic Konan Niederhauser, but both are more likely to foul than they are to block shots. That's particularly true for Durosinmi, who fouled out 6 times on the year and while he led the team with an 8.5% block rate, he had as many or more fouls than blocked shots in 27 of 29 appearances, and in 5 of the 6 times he fouled out he did it in fewer than 10 minutes played.

For the past few years, Toledo, Akron, and Kent State have been the class of the MAC. Next year, between those 3 teams, 8 of the top 9 scorers are gone. If ever there was a season for a team to challenge from the middle of the pack, this is it, and NIU looks positioned to be a team that could make that type of charge. It might be too soon to win the league, but this looks like a top-4 team in the MAC and could even be a Quadrant 3 game by the time March rolls around. The biggest X factor may be leading scorer Keshawn Williams. While he's a highly productive player, the team's improvement in shooting and overall play coincided with his season ending injury. He will need to prove he can fit in with and augment the roster that looked so much better from January 10th on. If he does, this could be a better team than most are expecting. On opening night with multiple championships being unveiled in the Fiserv rafters, Marquette should come away with the win, but if NIU rediscovers their hot shooting, don't be surprised if they keep it closer than most expect.

Marquette Connection: After a 24-year series hiatus, this will be the third time NIU has traveled to Milwaukee since 2017. NIU was once a thorn in Marquette's side, going 2-1 against Rick Majerus in the 1980s, and they were so once again on December 18, 2017. Coming out of halftime with a 6-point deficit, the Huskies' all-time leading scorer Eugene German led a 13-3 run that gave the visitors a 49-45 lead midway through the second half. The game played close until an 11-1 run led by Markus Howard and Sam Hauser put the game away. Even still, that game foreshadowed a Marquette team with both tremendous offensive capabilities and glaring defensive weaknesses as they escaped with a 79-70 victory.

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