“It’s a new group, we want to build on the momentum from the end of last year but it’s a new team with new faces,” said Montgomery, the head coach.
“There is a lot of energy in the air, anytime you have eight new guys you can feel the excitement. I’m happy; I’ve been looking forward to this since we lost in the MAC Tournament last year. The start of practice is always exciting and I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Returning their top-five scorers and top-six rebounders from a season ago, the Huskies hope that the lessons learned by a young team last season will pay dividends during the upcoming campaign.
Despite having 55.9 percent of their minutes played by freshmen a year ago, the sixth-highest percentage in the country, Montgomery and his staff laid the foundation for their style of play in year one. NIU led the MAC in offensive rebounds while ranking second in rebounding defense and third in rebounding margin.
The Huskies ended the 2011-12 campaign on a positive note, winning two of their last four games, including a first round upset of MAC West champion Eastern Michigan in the MAC Tournament. The victory was NIU’s first win in the conference tournament since 2003.
Headlining the returnees from last season is leading scorer and MAC All-Freshman team honoree Abdel Nader (Skokie, Ill./Niles North).
A versatile, 6-foot-7 wing, Nader led the Huskies averaging 10.4 points per game last season while pulling down 4.2 boards per contest. The Skokie, Ill., native scored in double figures 17 times last season while also leading the team in blocked shots.
Juniors Aksel Bolin (Akser, Norway/Asker) and Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet) also return, bringing experience to the Huskie lineup. Bolin played a team-high 25.6 minutes per game last season, scoring 6.2 points and grabbing a team-best 5.1 rebounds per game. Bolin is another extremely versatile player for NIU, capable of playing three different positions for the Huskies. Christian averaged 5.2 points per game a season ago. The redshirt junior shot 76.7 percent from the free-throw line
Senior Tony Nixon (South Holland, Ill./Seton Academy) is the most experienced player on the NIU roster, having played in 83 career games. Nixon missed the first three games of last season due to injury, getting his season off to a slow start, but the 6-foor-4 guard finished strong, averaging 9.9 points per game over the final eight games of the season.
Also returning are sophomore forwards Keith Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) and Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy). Keith Gray averaged 5.1 points, sixth best among conference freshmen, and 3.1 rebounds, fourth-best among MAC rookies, last season. Kevin Gray scored 3.8 points per game and was the third-leading freshman rebounder in the MAC, pulling down 3.7 boards per contest.
Among the newcomers to the Huskie roster are a pair of quick point guards in Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) and Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North). Baker was a Class C All-State selection in Michigan as well as an All-Detroit honoree by both the Detroit News and Detroit Free-Press. Balls led Lawrence North High School, the same school that produced Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., in assists.
Other new faces in the backcourt for NIU include Mike Davis (Garfield Heights, Ohio/Garfield Heights), Akeem Springs (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan Township) and J.J. Cravatta (Streator, Ill./Streator Township). Davis was an all-district performer as a senior, averaging 19.3 points per game. Springs led Waukegan Township High School to the Central Suburban South championship while scoring 16.7 points per contest. Cravatta earned AP Class 3A All-State Second Team honors as a high school senior.
In the frontcourt, the Huskies have added 6-foot-6 wing Darrell Bowie (Wauwatosa, Wis./La Jolla Prep) and 6-foot-9 post player Sam Mader (Appleton, Wis./Appleton East). Bowie was a first team all-conference performer at Wauwatosa East High School as a junior before transferring to La Jolla Prep in California for his senior season. Mader averaged 13 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while earning first team all-conference honors.
Also providing size in practice this season will be 6-foot-11 Pete Rakocevic (Chicago, Ill./Wilbrahm & Monson Prep/Sacramento State), a Chicago native who will sit out this season as a transfer following two seasons at Sacramento State.
Basketball season tickets are on sale now, including the combined men’s and women’s season ticket for just $126. Season tickets for the NIU men’s basketball team are just $99 for the general public and $86 for NIU faculty/staff or senior citizens (62 and older). NIU women’s basketball season tickets are available for just $50, with faculty/staff or senior citizen season tickets available for $40.
Fans can purchase season tickets online or by calling (815) 752-6800.
For more information on NIU men’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.