Team preview: Northern Illinois

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:14 PM ET
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It's still difficult to figure what happened to Northern Illinois last season.

The Huskies were coming off an encouraging 17-14 campaign and had two of the MAC's marquee players in Marcus Smallwood and P.J. Smith.

Expected to challenge in the MAC West Division, Northern sagged to 10-20 and lost a first round MAC Tournament game at Buffalo.

Injuries played a part, but NIU was unable to live up to the hype and won just 2-of-17 games away from home. An 0-for-3 pre-Christmas trip to Hawaii left the Huskies staggering at 4-6. But a 10-game skid in the middle of the season, including five home losses, was the knockout punch.

Fourth-year coach Rob Judson has plenty of complementary pieces and parts left after last season's crash. Judson had seemingly done a marvelous job in positioning Northern Illinois to compete for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1995. After a five-year stint as an assistant at Illinois under Lon Kruger and then Bill Self, Judson accepted the NIU post in March of 2001, after a dismal 5-23 season.

The challenge for 2004-05 is to find a bona fide scorer and to somehow shake the hangover of last season's missed opportunity. Eight lettermen return, but none averaged in double figures last season. The returning cast includes three athletic big men, two forwards who can shoot three-pointers, an excellent perimeter defender and a savvy point guard. Not a bad starting point.