‘Cats relying on stingy defense to thrive

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BATTLING VS THE TOP—The Wildcats have a tough set of games this weekend, and guard Alec Fruin (pictured above) will need to perform. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics

Travis Nelson

This year’s NMU Men’s Basketball team has struggled on the offensive side of the floor, but its smothering defense always gives them a chance.

The Wildcats held the Ferris State University (FSU) Bulldogs to a season-low 61 points at the Berry Events Center on Thursday, Jan. 16, but ultimately fell short 61-48. NMU had a tough night shooting the basketball, going 30% in total while only shooting 5.6% from 3-point range. In a bounce-back effort, the Wildcats dominated Lake Superior State (LSSU) in a 65-40 win on Saturday, Jan. 18. This game also marked a season-low scoring output from the Lakers, and it was the first time that the ‘Cats have allowed 40 or less points in a game since the 2001-02 season. The first half left a lot to be desired offensively, as Northern led 24-18 at halftime. The second half went much different, as the ‘Cats outscored LSSU’s game total (41-40), and won comfortably. Even when the offense has sputtered in spots this season, usually the defense is there to make up for it.

“That was our best weekend of the season defensively for sure, I thought it was pretty consistent from both games,” Head Coach Matt Majkrzak said. “Definitely that’s been the most positive thing, the offense has been kind of a work in progress, but the defense has been relatively consistent.”

The Wildcats will need more than its defense to pick up two victories this weekend, when they go on the road to take on two of the best teams that the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) has to offer in Davenport University (DU) on Thursday, Jan. 23, and Grand Valley State University (GVSU) on Saturday, Jan. 25.

DU enters the game with a 14-5 record (6-3 GLIAC), and on a five-game winning streak, including a victory over No. 11 FSU. The Panthers were the preseason pick to win the conference this season, and it’s no surprise to Majkrzak.

“They’re very good, they won the league last year. I would say talent wise, they’re right there with anyone else in the league,” Majkrzak said. “They started off the year not playing their best, and now they’ve won six in a row. They’re as good a team as we’ll play all season, and then it doesn’t get any easier on Saturday [against GVSU].”

The No. 12 ranked Lakers (15-2, 8-1 GLIAC) are NMU’s opponent in the second game on the weekend, and are the same team that defeated DU by double digits earlier in the year. Both of these match-ups are a tipping point for the Wildcats to find out where they stack up among the GLIAC. FSU and Michigan Tech University (MTU) are two of the top teams in the GLIAC, and NMU split those two contests. Now with playing the other top two teams in DU and GVSU on the road, it is a whole new ball game. 

“We’re going and playing the other two top teams on the road, at the end of weekend, [we can] look back and go, ‘can we consistenly play with the top teams or were those just two really good games?’,” Majkrzak said. “Because this will be harder, cause Tech was a rivalry game, and then Ferris was at home, so to have to go and play them back-to-back on the road.” 

The Wildcats and Panthers begin the weekend series at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday in Grand Rapids, it’s time to see if the saying, ‘defense travels’, really is true.

“I think it’s one of those fun and exciting challenges, it’s what you want out of playing college basketball or college sports in general,” Majkrzak said. “You want to go play the best teams in a tough situation, it really is going to be a great opportunity to see if we’re there, or if we can compete with teams like that consistently. If we’re not, what we need to improve on and get better at.”