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Northern Illinois offers Mizzou a bite of lighter fare

In a season of transition, the Tigers aren’t ducking difficult non-conference tests, but early opponents like the Huskies build in a softer start.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unlikely Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin relies on a strict recipe for crafting a non-conference schedule. Usually, there are three staples—a multi-team event, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, and the annual Braggin’ Rights showdown in St. Louis. Yet, those alone can make up six games and almost half the slate.

Over Martin’s first three seasons on the job, it was easy to discern how MU would fill out its remaining slots.

Typically, there would be a couple of quality home-and-homes against a foe from the American Athletic Conference, such as Temple, UCF, or Wichita State. While Utah delayed its return leg to Columbia, MU set up a high-major arrangement with Xavier. After that, it mixed in mid-major fare, usually a retooling tournament team such as Wofford, Stephen F. Austin, or Northern Kentucky. If anything, the program avoided empty calories, only playing a couple of foes who would wind up in the lower depths of the NET rankings.

This season, however, the distribution has shifted ever so slightly.

So let’s start with the positives. The Border War is back, although hostilities will be renewed at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Braggin’ Rights returns to St. Louis. And at long last, Utah will grace Mizzou Arena with its presence. Toss in a home game against Wichita State and a potential neutral-floor tilt against Florida State, and it’s obvious Martin’s not ducking anyone after an offseason roster overhaul.

That said, MU’s allowing itself a couple of cheat days. Using Bart Torvik’s projections, we can see the Tigers will swing by the dessert table, picking up donuts by facing three teams sitting lower than 300th – Central Michigan, Eastern Illinois, and Northern Illinois. UMKC isn’t quite as sugar-packed, but the ‘Roos are projected to finish 241st in Torvik’s pecking order.

All four of those games also come early on, suggesting MU’s staff is easing nine newcomers, including five freshmen, into the season. However, compared to prior seasons, the combined effect doesn’t look much different. Right now, the averag Torvik rating for the Tigers’ opponents checks in at 138.3 – or identical to 2018 (137) or 2019 (138.8) seasons.

Northern Illinois’ purpose is clear: collect a paycheck. Last season, coach Mark Montgomery, a former Michigan State assistant, saw his 10-year run end after a 1-7 start to the season. Yet the Huskies, who finished 3-16 overall, didn’t see their roster entirely gutted this offseason. Eight players moved on, but five represented just 2.8% of scoring and 6.4% of rebounding.

The biggest welts were felt in the backcourt, with Tyler Cochran (15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Darius Bean (9.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg) transferring out. Still, NIU returns almost two-thirds of its statistical output across the roster. No, it’s far from elite. But at least it’s not starting from absolute zero, and perhaps it won’t see momentum stunted by COVD-19 shutdowns.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 08 USC at Arizona State Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Head Coach | Rashon Burno | First Season

When Northern Illinois tapped Rashon Burno as its head coach, the logic behind the hire was easy to grasp. Sure, the Arizona State assistant was considered a rising star in the profession. But like many coaches tasked with leading Division I programs in Illinois, he boasted connections to its obvious — and most-competitive — talent pool: Chicago.

A New Jersey native, Burno suited up at DePaul. He cut his teeth for three seasons as coach at Marmion Academy, located in Aurora on the fringes of the Windy City’s western suburbs. Naturally, the expectation is his connections will help the Huskies upgrade their roster in short order.

Doing so requires tapping into a nearby pipeline – an impact Burno saw up close with the Blue Demons, who found short-lived success keeping Bobby Simmons and Quentin Richardson home. “I was a guy from outside the city, from New Jersey, and I saw those guys and wanted to be a part of that,” said Burno, who ran point alongside the duo, when he was introduced in March. “You have to take care of home, and that’s going to be a strong emphasis.”

Here’s the rub: Every athletic director within driving distance of Chicago is trying some variation of that plan.

A year ago, UIC hired Luke Yaklich, the architect of elite defenses as an assistant at Michigan and Texas, to take over for Steve McClain. Before jumping to the college ranks, Yaklich spent a decade at LaSalle-Peru, Sterling, and Joliet West – schools just to the west of the Chicago metro area. Before Oklahoma plucked him this spring, Porter Moser, a Benet graduate, mined the city’s suburbs for local talent that jumpstarted an eight-year tenure turning Loyola Chicago into a mid-major power. Oh, Northwestern’s led by another Chicagoan in Chris Collins.

Then some colleges tried to tap into a well-known Irvin clan, whose patriarch founded the fabled Mac Irvin Fire program. First is Lance Irvin, who spent 14 years making the rounds as a Division I assistant and before Chicago State hired him in 2018 to lead the Cougars. Unfortunately, Irvin, a leukemia survivor, stepped away from the job during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he separated from the school this July. And over in Macomb, Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter hired Nick Irvin, who won four state titles with Public League power Morgan Park.

Lastly, Illinois made sure it had an emissary on staff in former assistant coach Chin Coleman. Then, this spring, Kentucky paid up to pry him away Brad Underwood. And if it’s not clear by now, the marketplace is crowded, and that’s without Duke, Michigan State, and Kansas parachuting in for top-end prospects.

For Burno, the bar to clear for a successful tenure is admittedly low, but relying on local recruiting as the backbone of roster building can be perilous. Working in his favor is the fact his employer wasn’t the only one to make a change this offseason. DePaul, Loyola, and Eastern Illinois all made moves, and two of those hires – Drew Valentine and Tony Stubblefield — are also like Burno in moving down the bench to the head seat.

Series History | Missouri leads 2-0

The meetings are few but recent. Back in 2010, the No. 10-ranked Tigers put a 97-61 shellacking on the Huskies. Led by Marcus Denmon’s 24 points, three players finished with more than 15 points.

Five years later, the Huskies visited a program in entirely different circumstances, foundering under Kim Anderson. That December night, MU led by just one point at halftime. Tied at 41 midways through the second half, the Tigers needed a steal and three-point play by Jakeenan Gant to finally gain separation. It was indicative of a night where front court combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds.

When you think of NIU, its football program springs to mind. On the hardwood, the Huskies’ track record is far more modest. Over 55 seasons, they’ve won at .449 percent clip, claimed a lone Mid-American Conference title in 1991, and made the last of three NCAA tournament trips in 1996. The program finished with winning records in 2016 and 2020, which included a first-place finish in the MAC’s West Division. But that’s about as optimistic as its recent history gets.

Again, there’s opportunity and risk in equal measure for Burno. Piloting NIU to an NIT or NCAA tournament might be enough to put him on the radar of a more stable mid-major or a power-conference program looking for a fast-riser in the profession.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Illinois at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Combo guard Trendon Hankerson, who averaged 13.9 points and 4.4 rebounds, is the biggest cog still in this machine. And he’s one that doesn’t operate all that efficiently, posting a 94.3 offensive rating on 23.4% usage. Alternatives are scant. The next-best scorer is Zool Kueth, who posted 6.7 points per game. In the best case, Burno inherited a streaky combo guard and a clutch of reserves.

Like many of his peers, Burno sifted through the transfer portal for immediate help. Four of seven newcomers are Division I transfers rebooting their careers in DeKalb. None among Keshawn Williams (Tulsa), Martice Mitchell (Minnesota), Chris Osten (Arizona State), and Darweshi Hunter (Weber State) averaged more than 3.1 points per game, but minutes and touches should be plentiful.

Crucially, Burno targeted transfers with multiple years of eligibility remaining, and he wanted to upgrade overall athleticism along the front line. Meanwhile Mitchell and Williams are local products coming back home. By contrast, a couple of undersized but bouncy freshmen in Noah Kon and Zion Russell could slot in alongside Hankerson.

Regardless of how the rotation shakes out, this is a game where you want to see MU assert control early and build a comfortable working margin to experiment with some lineups.