Patton settling the troops at NIU

Patton ready to rebuild NIUBike Scott WalstromSenior guard Ryan Paradise (10.1 ppg) is NIU's only returning player who scored in double-figures last season.
The Convocation Center on the Northern Illinois' campus is a nice place. Built in 2002 for $36 million, the 10,000-seat arena is touted as the biggest capital improvement project in the university's 100-year history.

The Huskies might soon be wondering how it is as a bed and breakfast.

Back when he first was named interim coach at the University of Colorado, Ricardo Patton tried to bring a sense of pride and ownership to a Buffaloes' program that had no history with either attribute. The game before Patton took over, the team lost at home to Southern Utah. The frustrated coach told his players to pack their pjs and pillows. They'd be sleeping in the arena.

"I told them until they learned how to protect their home court, they'd be sleeping in it," Patton said

Fast forward 11 years, and Patton again finds himself in charge of another program that isn't exactly on a first-name basis with winning. About to celebrate their 40th year as a Division I program, the Huskies have exactly three NCAA Tournaments to show for it, the most recent coming in 1996.

Instead of being dismayed at the mountain he once again has to conquer, Patton is energized. After 11 seasons at Colorado that included two NCAA berths and four trips to the NIT, Patton tired of waiting for the university to offer him an extension. So he made the unusual -- and risky -- decision at the beginning of the season to announce he wouldn't be back when the season ended.

"I just thought if someone had taken a close look at my full body of work, the fact that the year before we had finished fifth in the Big 12, a great league, they'd understand I did a pretty good job in a difficult situation," said Patton, who was 184-160 at CU. "My name was solid in the profession."

Eleven days after Patton coached his last game at Colorado, NIU hired him. The Huskies were 7-23 last season under Rob Judson, who was fired after amassing a 74-101 record in six years.

Patton believes the job here is easier than the one he faced at Colorado. The Buffs were the long-time doormats in the Big 12, fighting a constant battle to win recruits and attention in a league that boasted some of the country's best programs.

NIU is in Dekalb, a 65-mile ride from Chicago. Draw a 100-mile circle with the campus at the epicenter, he said, and there are players everywhere. And while competition in the MAC is fierce, the discrepancy between the top and the bottom is nowhere near as vast as it is in the Big 12.

"I've always believed what you learn from losing is how to lose," Patton said. "From winning, you learn how to win. They haven't tasted a lot of success here, so you have to teach them how to win."

And to Patton, winning always should begin at home (NIU was 5-8 there last season). The Convocation Center, he said, is one of the bonuses, a new, state-of-the-art facility to show off to recruits.

Or, perhaps, a place to bunk down for the night.

"I'm not sure we can do that anymore; I have to check with the compliance people," he said and laughed. "But I believe even a meek man will protect his home. That needs to be our mentality. At home, people are pulling for you. It's the easiest place to learn how to win."

The game after the Buffs pulled the gym all-nighter, they squared off against a Kansas team ranked No. 4 in the country.

The Jayhawks won.

But they needed a buzzer-beater to eke out the 80-78 win.

Feeling empty
Keith Dambrot feels a bit like an empty nester.

Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis have flown the coop, leaving Dambrot feeling oddly at a loss.

So to cure what ails him, the Akron coach is thinking about redecorating.

"I told Dru and Rome I'm going to get one of those Fatheads so I have full-sized replicas of them," Dambrot said. "Really, it's been strange for me to this point."

No doubt.

Since Joyce and Travis were middle schoolers, pre-pubescent hoopsters destined to play alongside some guy by the name of LeBron, Dambrot has been their coach. Before arriving at Akron, he was the head coach at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary, the high school that would become a better barnstorming team than the Globetrotters when James reached his senior year.

The former Central Michigan coach parlayed that job back into the colleges, taking an assistant coaching job at Akron, eventually bringing Joyce and Travis to campus. In 2004, Dambrot was named head coach.

The Joyce-Travis tandem helped right the Zips' ship, earning an NIT bid in 2006, but last season Akron was shut out of the postseason. Beaten in the conference tourney finals on a banked buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Miami (Ohio), the 26-7 Zips were shut out of the NIT as well.

The obvious challenge, naturally, is to find a way to replace Joyce and Travis on the court. The Zips are down their two leaders and their top scorer (Travis) and point guard (Joyce).

The less than obvious challenge is for Dambrot. His comfort level with Joyce and Travis was so natural he never felt like he had to coach them anymore. Joyce was the guy he could trust in the end, Travis the guy he could count on to crack a joke and lighten the mood.

"You're so familiar with guys, it becomes difficult. They're like family members," he said. "It's a new challenge for me as a coach. There's a lot of doubt, even in our own league. People think we were good because of those guys, so now it's a challenge to be good without them. They kind of started the step in making us a good program. Now it's up to us to take it even further."

Going streaking
Baseball players don't talk about no-hitters for fear of jinxing themselves.

Kent State basketball players aren't nearly so suspicious. Or maybe they're just resigned to the fact that there's no ignoring the fact that the Golden Flashes have posted nine consecutive 20-win seasons, a run matched by only eight other programs in Division I. This is no typical elephant in the room. It's a day-glo elephant with twinkly lights.

"Oh, they know about it," said coach Jim Christian, who is responsible for five of those nine 20-win seasons. "Whoever it is in the senior class, that's one of the goals. They don't want to be the class that ends the streak. It's a look on their face. Our first goal is to try and win a conference championship, but the two go hand-in-hand."

To get to 20 wins this season, Christian will first make his team climb a few mountains. At the Chicago Invitational, the Flashes will play Xavier with a possible date Indiana. And before embarking on the conference slate, Kent takes a nice little trip south to Chapel Hill, N.C..

Christian knows it's asking a lot, particularly on a team that is experienced but still young. But the way he figures it, you don't get better running from competition.

"I think we owe it to these guys to put them against teams of high caliber," Christian said. "It's a great way to prepare for the league. We learn a lot about ourselves as a team and either way, we come out with a lesson learned. We better not be intimidated, not with the people we're going to be playing against."

2006-07 Standings/Stats

* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant

Fast breakMAC

The Zips not only lost a controversial game when they dropped the MAC Tournament title to Miami (Ohio), but they also lost LeBron's boys. Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis, James' high school teammates, played their final collegiate game the night of that unforgettable buzzer-beating trey. Now Keith Dambrot has the unenviable position of replacing them. Nick Dials (10.1 ppg) and Cedrick Middleton (11.1 ppg) offer strength at the 2-guard, but Dambrot needs to find himself a point guard to replace Joyce. Redshirt freshman Steve McNees and hot recruit Ronnie Steward are the likely candidates but in a pinch, Dambrot can move Dials over. Big man Jeremiah Wood (10.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) offers some good inside presence. What remains to be seen, though, is if any of these guys can replace the leadership and savvy that Joyce and Travis provided.

Ball StateBall State
The off-court issues are daunting. Even more difficult for Billy Taylor might be rebuilding this basketball team. The Cardinals were nothing shy of a disaster last season, limping to a 9-22 record to set a school record for losses. They shot 38 percent from the floor, 27 percent from the arc and averaged 59.6 points per game. Those numbers rank Ball State 323rd, 321st and 309th (out of 325 teams) in the nation. That's not good. The lone bright spot might have been the play of Anthony Newell and Peyton Stovall. Newell, a forward, averaged 11.8 points and 8.0 rebounds, while Stovall, the team's long-distance threat, sunk 40 treys. The pair gets some help this year as Iowa transfer Malik Perry becomes eligible.

Bowling GreenBowling Green
It's been 39 years since the Falcons went to the NCAA Tournament. In other words, Louis Orr will be given some time to make things right. The former Syracuse star and Seton Hall coach takes over a 13-18 team that is short on experience. Bowling Green's top scorer, Martin Samarco, is gone, leaving a roster that includes just one senior, Ryne Hamblet. There are bright spots. Junior Nate Miller was second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.1 points and 7.7 rebounds, and posted a triple-double with a 20-10-10 night against Buffalo. But there's no doubt that the expectations right now are based merely on slow and steady improvement, not overnight sensations.

Byron Mulkey was a revelation for the Bulls last season. Inserted into the lineup in February, the point guard's 45-30 assist-to-turnover ratio brought a steadying hand to a team that was averaging 19 miscues a game. Whether he can pick up where he left off will go a long way in saying what kind of season this is for Reggie Witherspoon's crew. Buffalo lost three of its top four scorers, including Yassin Idbihi (15.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and will be thin at the forward spot. Mulkey and backcourt mate Andy Robinson, a defensive star who came on strong offensively at the end of the season, will be asked to do a lot.

Central MichiganCentral Michigan
First-year head coach Ernie Ziegler led the Chippewas to seven conference wins. On its face, that might not seem like a lot, but consider that's more than the program had won in the last three seasons combined. Ziegler's one-year revamp turned Central Michigan from 4-24 to 13-18, the 17th best turnaround in Division I hoops last season. The former UCLA assistant would love to get his team to play at the same tempo as Ben Howland's team but also knows he has to work with what he's got. Right now, what he's got is a talented point guard in Giordan Watson, who was second in the league in scoring (18.8 ppg). If center Marko Spica, who improved in leaps and bounds during his freshman season, makes the same sort of progress, the Chippewas might sneak up on a few people.

Eastern MichiganEastern Michigan
Instead of folding when Carlos Medlock was lost to a foot injury, the Eagles did a funny thing. They rallied around one another. After dropping the first three games without the point guard, Eastern Michigan went a respectable 5-4 down the stretch. Forward Brandon Bowdry and center Justin Dobbins both got better as the season progressed. Now with Medlock back, coach Charles Ramsey, who already turned 7-21 into 13-19 without Medlock, should be able to expect even more improvement.

Kent StateKent State
The Golden Flashes return all five starters from a team that finished 21-11 and went to the conference tournament semifinals. In other words, expect big things out of Jim Christian's team. Seniors Omni Smith and Armon Gates were reliable scorers and leaders, and with them around last season, freshmen Julian Sullinger (8.1 ppg), Rodriquez Sherman (5.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg) and Chris Singletary (8.1 ppg) were able to come into their own gradually. Mix their experience with seniors Haminn Quaintance (8.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg) and Mike Scott (9.4 ppg), and the addition of DePaul transfer Rashad Woods, and Kent State should be looking for its 10th consecutive 20-win season.

MiamiMiami (OH)
The MAC's defending champions righted a 5-10 start on the play of Tim Pollitz. The conference tourney MVP averaged 18 points per game and shot a ridiculous 62 percent from the field, including an unbelievable 91 percent from the floor in the upset of regular-season champ Toledo. And he was only a junior, which means this year Pollitz will be a legitimate MAC Player of the Year candidate. But before anyone pencils the Red Hawks into the finals, realize that Charlie Coles has to replace three strong seniors in Nathan Peavy, Doug Penno and Monty St. Clair. More than likely he'll do it by relying on his defense. Coles, who needs one league win to roll into second on the all-time winningest list with 176 conference wins, expects his players to play lockdown D and they do. Last season the Red Hawks were the only team in Division I to not allow 70 points in a game. Ohio University got the closest. The Bobcats scored 69, but needed OT to do it.

NIUNorthern Illinois
The Huskies lost 16 of 17 games at one point and matched the school's ignominious record for losses in a season with 23. No surprise, then, that Rob Judson found himself job hunting at season's end. New boss Ricardo Patton will turn to seniors Ryan Paradise (who, at 10.1 ppg, is the team's top returning scorer) and Zach Pancratz (8.9 ppg) to provide some of the leadership that was sorely lacking last season. Patton also has a heady point guard in Cody Yelder and added some immediate help in the form of juco transfers Najul Ervin and Sean Smith. Still this isn't going to be a quick fix.

Tim O'Shea has a point guard. Actually he has two. Juco transfers Michael Allen and Bert Whittington both are true points, and that's two more than O'Shea had at midseason. After Antonio Chatman quit the team, O'Shea had to move Bubba Walther to the point. Not surprisingly, turnovers were a bit of a sore spot with the Bobcats committing 14 a game. Now with Allen and Whittington in the mix, Walther (12.4 ppg) can move back to his more natural wing spot, where he'll be joined by Murray State transfer Justin Orr. The strength of this team, though, will be its frontcourt. Leon Williams (14.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Jerome Tillman (14.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) both were all-league last season.

Even if he had all of the pieces back, it would be hard for Stan Joplin to replicate last season's heroics. Righting a 4-8 nonconference start to a 7-0 run to open league play, the Rockets won their first regular-season title in 27 years. The thing is, Joplin doesn't have all the pieces back. Florentino Valencia, Justin Ingram and Keonta Howell, all 1,000-point scorers, are gone. That leaves a huge burden for Toledo's two newly minted seniors, Kashif Payne and Jerrah Young. Payne, the MAC's defensive Player of the Year, is the top returning scorer at 7.6 ppg. Young was a role player. They, along with juniors Jonathan Amos, Ridley Johnson and Tyrone Kent, will need to assume bigger scoring and leadership roles.

WMUWestern Michigan
The Broncos could go from .500 team to favorite team this season. With all five starters back, including Freshman of the Year David Kool, Western Michigan is at least in position to take charge of the West Division of the league, if not the MAC entirely. As the young nucleus of players got used to one another, Steve Hawkins' team got better as the season went on, turning in a signature 22-point thumping of Kent State in February. Kool will get a big assist from Joe Reitz. The center, who makes the perfect inside complement to Kool, is within reach of the school's all-time scoring record. He has 1,234 points. The mark is 1,786.

Even without LeBron's boys, Akron will be making another NCAA Tournament appearance, predicts resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

Early 2007-08 Bracketology

For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.

Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at dgoneil@msn.com.