The first half of the season was not kind to the young Northern Michigan University Wildcats. A 3-9 record with five of those losses by 18 or more points was not how they envisioned the season starting. The outlook was bleak and the team lacked one of the most important elements in all of basketball: size. The Wildcats just couldn’t hit a groove and were repeatedly bit by the injury bug. Then the coaching staff decided to shake things up.
Why not take that size disadvantage that would cripple most teams and create favorable match-ups instead? Make the other teams have to adjust to you instead of the other way around. The new and somewhat radical five guard offense hit the floor for the first time at Saginaw Valley State, and it didn’t disappoint.
NMU went into hostile territory against a team that had previously been nationally ranked and looked poised to make a run at the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. The Wildcats found themselves down eight points at halftime, a lead that assistant coach Charles Belt said would have been insurmountable for this team early in the season, especially when you consider NMU’s dominant point guard Naba Echols only scored nine points and collected more fouls than assists.
But the Wildcats had turned a new leaf, outscoring SVSU by 14 in the second half en route to an 82-76 victory. That success was quickly followed with another road victory two days later at Wayne State in Detroit, 75-71, the first time NMU had earned a road sweep in three years.
However, it’s not like everything has completely changed since that weekend and the Wildcats are dominating college basketball. They still own a 5-11 conference record and will likely miss the GLIAC tournament. They still have their bad nights, including 23-point home loss to Grand Valley State, but the seeds are already being planted for next season.They’re 4-5 since changing their approach and using the five-guard offense, not world-beating but a noticeable improvement.
“The growth of our players in such a quick amount of time is just a testament to them,” said Belt. “You have to give a ton of credit to those guys for actually taking those early games and learning from them.”
Eleven players will be returning for the Wildcats next season, including seven of their top eight scorers. Freshman Will Carius, who scored 29 points one night earlier in the year and was a runner-up to Mr. Basketball in Iowa, only played in 10 games this season before needing back surgery. He will surely play a major role in next year’s team. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-7.
Freshmen have combined to start 33 games this season for NMU, Point guard Naba Echols, only a sophomore, averages 16 points per game. He’s also second in the GLIAC in assists.
Freshman center Myles Howard, who stands 6-foot-9 and about 200 pounds soaking wet, is developing into an elite rim protector, ranking second in the GLIAC in blocked shots. Head coach Bill Sall is a master at developing post players, and if Howard puts in the work and adds some weight, he could become a dominant post player.
Sharpshooting freshman Marcus Matelski averages nearly three made three pointers per game, ranking him among the best in the conference. Belt also said he’s also one of NMU’s best defenders, something that’s rare among pure shooters.
Another freshman, Sam Taylor, is starting to heat up, just as the Wildcats are. He’s averaging 16 points in the last three games and is shooting at a ridiculous 50 percent rate from beyond the arc. Add in a rare upperclassman like Jordan Perez who has been a constant in the starting lineup, and you have a Wildcat squad that is looking to make some noise next season.
“The last thing that happens in the process is the winning part, that always comes last,” said Belt.
“You have to value the part of the process of guys coming to the gym on their own wanting to shoot; how loud the gym is when we practice, it’s not a quiet practice it’s loud, there’s energy; the guys playing and competing hard. With five games left, there’s not one guy on this team that’s ready for March.”
The last part of the process, the winning part, should come to fruition next season, and don’t be surprised when it does.