MARQUETTE - The win-loss column didn't reflect it, but first-year head coach Bill Sall saw vast improvement in his team from the beginning to the end of the season.
The Northern Michigan University men's basketball squad lost 11 of their final 12 games to finish 5-21 overall and 4-18 in the GLIAC, good for last place in the North Division.
But Sall knew this was a major reclamation project after the Wildcats had three big strikes against them before the season even began.
Northern?Michigan University head coach?Bill Sall talks to his team during a timeout against Grace Bible College on Nov. 18 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Wildcats freshman Marcus Hall (24) shoots for two as sophomore Brandon Havercamp (30) looks on during the first half against Malone on Dec. 7 in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
First, the team finished at the bottom of the North all three seasons under former coach Doug Lewis. Secondly, just three players returned, none of whom played significant minutes in 2012-13.
And third, because of Sall's May hiring, he didn't get a chance to recruit when just about every other coach did. In fact, Sall had recruited nearly all the new players on this year's Ferris State team, the school he left after 11 years to take on this rebuilding project.
"Early on, it was bad basketball," Sall said, making a blunt assessment of the season's start. "We weren't getting the effort we needed and not playing as a team.
"But that's not to be unexpected. We had what was essentially a group of all freshmen, and we were trying to bring them together to work as a cohesive unit."
There were two wins in the first four games against NAIA and NCAA Division III competition, then came the team's only winning streak, back-to-back home wins against GLIAC opponents Tiffin and Ohio Dominican, two of the three worst teams in the South Division.
All of those wins were by 13 points or more; meanwhile, the Wildcats continued to drop a vast majority of the games that were close, losing 10 times in games decided by 10 points or less.
The only two wins in the season's last six weeks showed off the improvement, with NMU beating Sall's former Ferris State team by two points, 61-59 on Jan. 18, then upsetting Wayne State 74-66 on Feb. 15 when the Warriors desperately needed a win to get in the conference tournament.
Those two teams finished fifth and sixth in the eight-team North as all four teams ahead of them qualified for the postseason.
"If you look at the last four games, we played very well in periods of those games," Sall said.
Those contests were the Wayne State win and losses to the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 6 seeds in the GLIAC tourney - Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northwood, respectively.
From the get-go at his hiring last spring, Sall preached patience.
"It's very different than just looking at wins and losses," he said. "But those wins are quite rewarding for the work the players put in."
He focused the most on late-season games.
"We continue to grow and continue to develop," Sall said. "We were getting that competitive fire out of them on the floor.
"With the exception of one game, the Saginaw Valley (State) game (at home on Feb. 13), we competed in every game."
He only expects attitudes to improve.
"We made great strides in that area, but it should be so much better next year," Sall said, "because I won't have to keep saying how tough this league is and how hard you have to work to be competitive.
"They've seen it this year, and it will be a lot more than just me trying to convince them of that."
With Northern averaging 64 points per game and 71 points allowed, three players finished with scoring averages in double figures - 6-foot-5 junior Justin Newell at 12.5 ppg, 6-3 freshman guard Marcus Hall at 11.4 ppg and 5-7 junior guard Ethan Blackwell at 10.0 ppg.
Hall and Blackwell came in for specific praise.
"He just had a tremendous year of growth," Sall said of Hall as he listed a 16-ppg game over the last 10 contests. "Usually you have a few upperclassmen to help you. But Marcus was in a scenario where he was being defended by the other team's best defender every night.
"Ethan came a very long ways as a point guard. He shot the ball surprisingly well, better than 40 percent on 3s."
Two more Northern players were close to double figures at better than nine points a game, 6-5 junior forward Chavis Mattison and 6-foot sophomore Terry Nash.
"The first few games Chris Mattison hardly played, but he ended up being in the top 10 in rebounding in the conference," Sall said.
Nash was the only holdover who saw significant playing this season. He played in just four games the previous year due to several injuries.
"Terry Nash was the one guy returning who was involved in the whole process," Sall said about the coaching change. "We asked him to step up and be a good leader and a good defender.
"And he stepped up to answer the bell in almost every way we asked."
The two other holdovers were 6-7 senior Michael Smith, who averaged 10 minutes and 1.3 ppg this year, though he did have a seven-rebound game late in the season.
Six-foot junior guard Spencer Huss, a Marquette Senior High School product, was limited to eight minutes a game and 0.5 ppg. His best stat was a 1.8-assist-per-game average despite the limited playing time.
Sall pointed out one rather odd statistic that showed where his team's biggest weakness is - interior size.
"We ended up shooting second overall in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (38.2 percent), but in overall field goal percentage we were dead last (42.1 percent)," he said.
"Usually you're a good seven or eight percent better in your overall number compared to 3s. We just didn't have the ability to really work it inside, or for that matter, defend against it."
The tallest non-redshirted Wildcat was freshman Brandon Havercamp at 6-8, with the heaviest another frosh, Brett Branstrom of Mid Peninsula, weighing in at 225 pounds on his 6-5 frame.
"Two of the areas we need to improve are our post threats and getting better depth at the guard position," Sall said.
He addressed some of that with two Illinois recruits who signed National Letters of Intent in the fall, 6-8 Alex Sorenson and 6-6 Kenny Williams.
More players will be coming in the spring, though NCAA rules prohibit any names from being discussed.
"These (spring recruits) will get a chance to play right away," Sall said.