No. 22 UMass looks to keep focus against NIU

Last modified: Friday, January 03, 2014
AMHERST — Raphiael Putney knows the No. 22-ranked University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team is a heavy favorite heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. game against Northern Illinois.

But he said overlooking the struggling Huskies could tear down much of what the Minutemen (8-0) have accomplished so far this season.

“In the past years, in games like this, we would lose and when it came down to the making the NCAA tournament it was a game we needed to win,” Putney said. “Especially with the caliber of team we have this year, we have to come more focused and more prepared. We have to come ready to play. We can’t take these guys lightly. We have a different mindset. Even though we’re ranked this year, we still have the mindset of still being hungry. We still don’t feel satisfied.”

On top of playing an opponent that isn’t likely to inspire, the Minutemen are coming off a disjointed practice week and won’t have the student fans to help add energy to the Mullins Center — all factors that concerned UMass coach Derek Kellogg.

“They’re just coming off a week of finals. A lot of times teams can come out not ready to play after a not great week of practice with their minds somewhere else,” he said before Friday’s practice. “Today will be a good day to get refocused. We had a good practice (Thursday) and I think we’ll have a another good one today to be ready for a good game.”

Kellogg said even playing as well as his team has during its 8-0 start isn’t enough going forward.

“We have to make another jump this season as far as getting better and getting guys ready and doing some things we haven’t done yet, maybe some zone or a different way to press,” he said. “We have to continue to reinvent ourselves.”

The game is one of four against Mid-American Conference opponents that UMass is contractually obligated to play as part of the Minutemen’s membership in the MAC for football. The Minutemen went 4-0 against MAC teams last season and has already topped Eastern Michigan this year.

UMass beat the Huskies last year, but got a scare against an NIU team that finished 5-25. The Minutemen led by just two with 58 seconds left, but made enough free throws to hold on 64-59.

NIU doesn’t look much like the team UMass played last year after a considerable amount of roster turnover. Only two starters — sophomores Darrell Bowie, a wing, and Daveon Balls, a guard — were even on the roster a year ago as coach Mark Montgomery has filled in the squad with freshmen and transfers.

Bowie leads the team in scoring (10.7 points per game) and rebounding (7.0 rpg) and is one of only two Huskies who play at least 25 minutes per game. NIU will try to rely on its depth as all 12 players play at least eight minutes per game.

They’ll do most of their scoring inside as they’re shooting only 23.7 percent from 3-point range.

“They have some new guys. They’re playing a ton of players and really coming at you in waves,” Kellogg said. “They’ve raised their talent level and they’re trying to play a little faster than they have in the past.”

NIU is 3-4, but one of its wins came over St. Joseph’s of Indiana, a Division II school. The Huskies opened the season with a loss to Nebraska-Omaha, which is still transitioning to Division I. They’ve beaten San Jose State and Dartmouth, and lost to James Madison, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Nebraska. NIU hung with the Cornhuskers before falling 63-58. UMass beat Nebraska 96-90 in the first game of the Charleston Classic.

“They lost to Nebraska by five and Nebraska was a tough team,” Putney said. “It shouldn’t be that hard of a game for us, but if we’re not focused and we don’t match down on defense, things will get ugly. We have to come focused.”

Kellogg expected focus not to be a problem for the Huskies.

“They’re a dangerous team. They went to Nebraska and came pretty close to beating them,” Kellogg said. “They’re dangerous and this is a big game for them with us being rated right now. They’re on the road with nothing to lose.”

MULLINS MILITIA RESERVISTS? — With most UMass students home for winter break, the school is inviting college students from other schools in the area to attend games for free. Anyone showing a valid undergraduate student ID will get a student section seat at no charge for any home men’s basketball or hockey game until Jan. 14.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage