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RedHawks open MAC against struggling NIU

It would seem to be the perfect Mid-American Conference opener for Miami University’s men’s basketball team, a home game against a struggling opponent that almost never wins at Millett Hall.

RedHawks coach John Cooper is optimistic, yet cautiously so, as Northern Illinois comes to Oxford tonight.

“I worry about all of them,” he said. “We’re not the kind of team that’s just going to come out and knock your socks off and be an imposing-type team. We’ve got to have great energy. It’s not going to be some walk through the park.”

MU is 5-7 and coming off a one-point loss to Massachusetts, while the Huskies are 2-10 and losers of their last five games. NIU is also 1-19 at Millett Hall, its lone victory coming in 1981.

“We’ve played a tough nonconference schedule,” Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said. “Our last five or six games, we’re been right there with four or five minutes to go. We just have to get over the hump.”

Valparaiso, Loyola, Illinois Chicago, Dayton, DePaul and Washington are among the squads that have beaten the Huskies. Their last game was a 64-59 home loss to UMass on Dec. 29.

NIU has just one double-digit scorer, sophomore wing Abdel Nader (15.0), and he was suspended for the first seven games. Northern is shooting just 37.5 percent from the field as a team.

“We’ve had some injuries and we have a young team, but I like how our guys are definitely going out with the mind-set of competing for 40 minutes,” Montgomery said. “Our defense is definitely ahead of our offense. (Miami has) four or five guys that can get them double figures, and we’re still looking for two or three guys.”

Cooper liked a lot of what he saw last Wednesday in his team’s 70-69 defeat at the hands of UMass. What wasn’t so great was Miami’s rebounding, and that’s been the norm this season.

The RedHawks are getting outrebounded by an average margin of 8.8. Jon Harris (4.8), Will Felder (4.5) and Quinten Rollins (3.0) are the leaders on the glass.

“You can deny it as long as you want, but at this point in the season, that’s who you are,” Cooper said. “So we’ve got to figure out a way to get better as a group. We’re always going to be a group-rebounding team. We don’t have a guy that’s capable of averaging 10 or 11 boards a game.

“Having said that, it’s not the end of the world if we understand that we’ve got to do it together.”

A win tonight would give MU its best record through 13 games since the 2008-09 campaign, when the RedHawks were 8-5.

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