Travon Baker remained confident, despite what outsiders thought. Northern Illinois again was picked to finish in the bottom half of the MAC and the players almost needed nametags on a roster with so many new faces.
But as the preseason unfolded and the season commenced, the Huskies’ senior guard saw the commitment from the upperclassmen and the ability within a quintet of incoming freshmen.
“I always felt like our team was talented enough to win,” Baker said. “I told our guys, you always go hard. If you go hard in everything you do, we can be a good team. We have a lot of talented guys, and our freshmen are very talented. If these guys push themselves to go harder and harder each day with the talent they have, the sky’s the limit.”
Indeed, Northern Illinois (16-5, 5-3 MAC) rode a hot start to the program’s best 20-game mark since 1990-91. Even in the midst of a two-game losing streak over the past week, there was progress.
The Huskies return home to the NIU Convocation Center, where they’ve won 15 in a row dating back to last season, for Tuesday’s game on ASN against Buffalo (12-9, 5-3).
“I feel like we’re playing very good basketball right now,” Baker said. “Yeah, we lost the last two games, but we know we can play better and we’ve just got to get back to working hard.”
Northern Illinois already has won more games than any team since 2006, which was also the last season the Huskies finished higher than fourth in the MAC West. After being picked to finish fifth, they are tied for first in the division with Central Michigan.
NIU’s cornerstones are defense and rebounding, to be expected given coach Mark Montgomery’s Michigan State pedigree. The Huskies lead the MAC in scoring defense (64.4 ppg), field goal percentage defense (.384), rebound margin (plus-6.9) and offensive rebound percentage (.348). They are second in steals, assists and turnover margin.
Montgomery didn’t permit himself to put limitations on the team, based on its youth and roster turnover from last season.
“I always go with the mentality that you work hard every day in practice and in games and see what happens,” he said. “When you look at the fact that we have eight newcomers and five freshmen, maybe we’re a little ahead of the curve. But when we beat Cal Northridge, South Dakota and Wright State out of the gate and won our first seven, you could see this team was getting better.”
Baker is part of a productive upperclass nucleus, along with junior Aaric Armstead and senior Chuks Iroegbu. The 5-11 senior from Detroit is the team’s No. 2 scorer at 11.9 points per game, and leads in assists, steals, minutes and 3-point field goals. He became the school’s career leader in steals last week, passing Ronald Minter, and is ninth on the career assist list, with a spot in the top three well within his reach.
Baker has greatly enjoyed watching the new players develop. Freshmen have contributed 36% of the Huskies’ scoring thus far, led by guard Marshawn Wilson’s 11.1 points per game and 41% rate from 3-point range.
“I have to lead these guys, on and off the court,” Baker said. “I have to tell guys: this is what you do; this is how you do it. I might have to tell a guy or scream at a guy, but that’s my role. That’s what I have to do for this team.”
The Huskies won only five games in Baker’s freshman year. They hovered at .500 each of the past two seasons, and he said the biggest jump is the team’s effectiveness in close games, despite its relative inexperience. NIU was 17-20 in games decided by eight points or less, or in overtime, the previous two seasons. This year, the Huskies are 7-1 in those games.
Baker has done his share. He raced the length of the floor for a layup with 0.7 seconds remaining to force a second overtime in an eventual 78-75 win against Florida International. He made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minutes as the Huskies held off UIC, 70-65.
“It comes with a sense of maturity and a sense of everybody locking in, because we can’t win close games if everybody isn’t locked in,” Baker said. “If four people are locked in and one person is not, we’re not going to win that game or we’re not going to execute that last play, so everybody has bought in and the freshmen are playing really well. They’re helping us a lot.”