The NMU men’s basketball team and its players have gone through more than a handful of problems this season. The list isn’t a long one, but it is daunting.
1. Lose the starting point guard to start the season.
2. Lose the backup point guard weeks later
3. Experience issues with team depth
4. Start the season 0-8.
5. Play the No. 3 team in the nation-twice in three days-and play the No. 2 team four days later.
The team’s first win finally came on Dec. 8 against conference-rival Michigan Tech.
One week later, the first semester of classes at NMU was complete, and the ‘Cats began the most difficult portion of their schedule.
During the winter break, the Wildcats played then No. 3 ranked South Dakota in a tournament hosted by Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. and two days later played South Dakota on their home court.
The Wildcats spent seven games on the road, with their only home game coming against then No. 2 ranked Grand Valley State.
Throughout the month-long break, the ‘Cats received little holiday spirit, going 1-7 and pushing their record to 2-13 overall and 2-5 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC). Despite only two wins, the Wildcats are only 2.5 games behind the GLIAC North’s second-place team, Northwood University, and remain in the thick of the conference hunt.
“One great thing right now is that the GLIAC North is up for grabs – except for Grand Valley who is running away from everybody,” NMU men’s basketball head coach Dean Ellis said. “But, everybody else is essentially in a tie for second, and the second place team hosts the GLIAC tournament.”
Ellis hopes that the Wildcats can repeat as the second-place finisher in the GLIAC North, and added that the team’s schedule at the beginning of the year features probably the second-most-difficult schedule in the GLIAC, behind that of Michigan Tech.
“We played the second toughest schedule and we have seven home games left, so things will start to even out just because of that – and it’s fairly even right now,” Ellis said. “We’re going to give everything we have to get into second position and hold it.”
The Wildcats, despite only two wins on the season, have not lost faith in themselves and their teammates.
“They’ve just dealt with everything and come in every day and work hard in practice and work hard to get ready for games,” Ellis said. “They’re an amazing group.”
According to the coach, the men will reap the benefits of being positive later in the season.
“It’ll end up paying off somehow. It’s hard to tell right now, but stuff will happen, and we’ll be saying, ‘It’s because they handled a difficult part of the season great and now they’re getting rewarded,'” Ellis said. “I don’t know exactly when that’s going to be, but it’ll happen.”
Much of the team’s positivity comes from senior guard Jake Suardini, Ellis said, adding that:
“This whole group has yet to be down or disappointed enough that it affects their play. Nobody likes losing, but Jake’s been a big factor in keeping everybody in the right frame of mind,” Ellis said. “And I don’t know if that’s easy to do as a senior because your career is winding down quickly – and in our case, we’re losing more than winning.”
To help Suardini, and keep him from hitting his 36.5 minutes per game mark, the Wildcats will have point-guard Ryan Reichel back in the lineup on Saturday. After weeks out of the lineup with a hand injury, Reichel will be back for the ‘Cats when they host a GLIAC conference game against Wayne State University at the Berry Events Center. The addition of a true point guard like Reichel can only help the depth-strived Wildcats.
NMU’s coach said that Wayne State was dealing with depth issues, as well, and that having to play against Michigan Tech two nights before they visit NMU might work to the ‘Cats advantage.
“They play at Tech on Thursday and we don’t play until Saturday, so that can be a positive, especially when we’re on our home court,” Ellis said. “They’ve got problems with depth, and they keep the tempo up and their pressure up, so it’ll be interesting to see whose lack of depth is a factor in the game.”