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Men’s hoops coach Montgomery: ‘I’m excited’

September 26, 2013
Mark Montgomery

Mark Montgomery

This season, the NCAA has changed the start date for Division I men’s basketball practice, allowing teams to begin practice 42 days prior to their first game of the season. Third-year head coach Mark Montgomery and Northern Illinois will take to the court for their first practice on Saturday. caught up with Montgomery to get his thoughts on the basketball program prior to the beginning of practice.

On the new start date for practice…

I’m excited it’s starting early because we usually start around October 14 and the first exhibition or scrimmage is just two weeks later. Another reason it helps us is because before we were going from two hours on the court to, all of a sudden, 20 hours on the court, now with the new rule we get to go back to eight hours on the court earlier and just have to take 10 days off before our first game. I know our players are going to like it because you’re not going to have those grueling three-hour practices after just being on the floor for two hours the whole week, now you can have two-hour practices and I think that will reduce some injuries and keep our guys fresh.

On the positives that can be taken from last season…

I think there are a lot of positive steps because we were one of the youngest team in the county and now we bring back a lot of those guys that have a couple years of experience. This year you add in (Jordan) Threloff, (Pete) Rakocevic and (Marin) Maric, now all of a sudden we have a post presence and maybe it’s getting them the ball that can help us get over the hump or it’s that we are in the bonus faster because we’re going to go inside. Then our guards are a little more experienced so hopefully we will have fewer turnovers and be getting better shots. Then it comes down to the importance of making free throws because a free throw here or there makes a big difference.

J.J. Cravatta

J.J. Cravatta

On the off-season work done by the team…

What the fans don’t get to see is that the guys put in a lot of work in the summer. They take two summer school classes, they’re lifting weights four times a week and we’re doing two hours of individual (workouts). My backyard is player-friendly, we are swimming, playing team volleyball, playing bags, throwing the football around and probably the highlight of the summer was our 8-mile canoe trip. We had coaches and players, two or three in a canoe, it was definitely grueling and it ended with a cookout which helps the guys get closer. We have carried that over into the fall where we had our first campout. The day kicked off with the football team beating Iowa, getting the chance to watch that, and then we started our Olympics. We did pass, punt and catch, we had a soccer challenge, a football challenge, a basketball challenge, just something to get their competitive juices flowing but also bring them together. We also sat around the campfire for three hours, sharing stories, talking, getting familiar with one another. Then we had to survive outside in a tent, some guys had never put up a tent, let alone slept in a tent, so we are definitely a closer team than the previous two years.

On the changes to the staff…

It’s good when you have a good staff that the guys are still familiar with. Jason (Larson) was the (director of) Ops and now he’s an assistant (coach) and then Chad (Pecka) moves from video to player development and ops. When you have good guys working for you, you want to reward them and that’s what I got the chance to do and also bring in Brandon Watkins, a local Chicago product, St. Joseph’s graduate. His experience playing, in the Big Ten (Penn State) and in Europe, always helps and gives us even more credibility. A lot of the time you’re looking outside to see what you can find and sometimes you have a couple gems inside, I thought that was the best thing to do for the team we had coming back. We already established all of our recruits so we just needed some continuity; those guys are hard workers and are great assets to our program.

On the returnees…

With the returnees, they seem to have a chip on their shoulder because when you don’t have a successful season, like last year; guys know how much harder they have to work to be competitive in our league. What I like about these guys is that they have checked their egos at the door and they are helping the new players. We have three transfers and three freshmen, so it’s not that we’re super young, but they have been getting everyone on the same page. They tackled our weight training in the summer and its carried over in the fall, you should go online and see our Rise and Shine video because we’ve been grinding throughout the summer at 6 a.m., workouts and now in the fall at 6 a.m., workouts and I think it’s really going to pay off when the season starts.

Travon Baker

Travon Baker

On returning point guards Travon Baker and Daveon Balls

They have been through it. A lot of people always say it’s about the games, but I think the practices are just as important and then you get the chance to see what they can to do in the games. They know the speed and tempo of how other teams play, they understand the scouting reports and they understand how important it is to take care of the ball. What I like about this team is that it’s going to be very competitive at every position and there are no guarantees. (Travon and Daveon) played a lot of minutes last year but they’re going to have to earn those this year because when you have Dontel Highsmith or Michael Orris, those guys can play on the ball or off the ball. It’s going to be pivotal for guys to have some versatility and play different positions if they want to see heavy minutes.

On the newcomers…

With Michael Orris from Kansas State, (Jordan) Threloff from Illinois State, Aaron Armstead who started at Green Bay and then finished off at a junior college out in California (San Jose City College) and Anthony Johnson (Purdue), they are very competitive young men, they know that this is their last stop and they want to get it right this time. I know that they bring their hardhat to each practice and they just want to do whatever it takes to help this team win. They want to play their role but also hopefully be game-changers in practice and in games.

On if the increased size of this year’s team will change offensive or defensive philosophy…

It’s definitely not going to change us defensively; we are still going to be about 90 percent man-to-man. When guys do get around our guards we will have bigger bodies in there to block shots and alter shots. It’s going to change our offense because we’re going to try to pound the ball inside; you shoot a better percentage the closer you are to the basket. But we still want to get out in transition and try to get some easy baskets. We are already a pretty good rebounding team and I think we can even take that up a couple more notches and, hopefully with that size, control the glass a little more. Control the glass, control the paint and not allow easy baskets. The size also gives us some depth, sometimes last year Keith (Gray) and Kevin (Gray) were the biggest guys we had going against the Zeke Marshalls, the 7-foot guy at Akron, or the 6-foot-9 guys at Western Michigan and we just wore down. When you have depth, practices are a lot more competitive, you don’t have to go as long and guys can’t take days off. That’s the fun thing about this team, everyone is fighting for minutes and that’s what usually makes a good team in the long run.

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