MARQUETTE – Nearly two years ago, Northern Michigan University men’s basketball head coach Bill Sall was in a tough situation, taking over a struggling program after the Wildcats had only earned five victories.
This year, the Wildcats made progress that came in fits and starts while making some noise in the conference.
They pulled off upsets of rival Michigan Tech along with top teams Ferris State and Findlay. Even though the season ended with a home loss to the Huskies, Sall felt that the effort was there and that the season as a whole was a success.
“In the Tech game, we played hard,” he said recently. “In the second half, I was happy that we didn’t give up. We just didn’t have the bodies to compete, to be honest.
“That’s unfortunate and there’s no reason for an excuse, but that was just the fact of the game. It’s an unfortunate way to end it all because over the course of the year, there was a lot of good things and a lot of positives.
“The best way to say it is that progress was made. It was a very interesting year. We just didn’t quite frankly … have the bodies to finish off the season like I would’ve liked us to finish it off.
“I guess that’s where the disappointment comes in because I thought that we had started to play basketball the way I needed it to be played. We didn’t get over that hump.
“Just look at the year. It’s almost head-scratching in a way. On the road, we beat Tech, (which was) in the NCAA Tournament; (and) Ferris, who won the GLIAC Tournament and (was) in the NCAA Tournament.
“Northwood, Walsh, all the tough teams, we beat on the road. So it tells you on the talent level that we are right where we need to be.
“Yet in the South, we lost to the … bottom teams – Tiffin, Ohio Dominican, Wayne State were all losses. That’s unacceptable. You’re never going to get yourself where you need to be by having losses like that.”
Looking ahead to next season, Sall likes the recruits that he has gotten and is looking to sign more.
“We have with Vejas (Grazulis of Marquette Senior High School) and Akim (Nyang), two guys that are going to be impactful players in the interior,” he said. “Just watching Vejas this year, his improvement level has been awesome.
“Both those guys are redshirt guys, though. They both have huge strength issues to overcome to be good players.
“Kenton Mack had a really good year down in Chicago. He will come in and help us at the guard position.”
Sall had just been coming back from a recruiting trip he felt was fruitful.
“We still have four players that we need to get,” he said. “I’ve basically spent the last nine days on the road, so we’ve got some really good prospects.
“However, there’s a difference between having good prospects and getting them to sign.”
When asked about who will be the leaders for the Wildcats, Sall is expecting improvement from everyone.
“We need Terry (Nash) to step up,” he said. “I thought he did a good job, but not a great job.
“With all the injuries that we had and lack of players, I though Marcus (Hall) did a good job. It was almost forced … on him and I thought he did a good job of it. We’re going to look for him to step up into a leadership role.
“I think (you look) at all the freshmen and say ‘OK, you’ve got a year under your belt.’ The development of where they go from here is huge. Because no matter whom we bring in as recruits, that freshman group, every last one of those guys has to have amazing improvement over the course of these next six months.
“Any kid I’ve had that’s been good, this is when it happens. They’ve got to make sure they are committed to getting that done.”
Next year will be Sall’s third year at the helm and he thinks that the Wildcats are starting to move in the right direction.
“The first year of being here was, quite frankly, just trying to field a team more than anything else,” he said after joining the program after the main recruiting period was over. “We’re now in a position where we have to get better.
“2006 was the last time Northern had a winning season. That’s where we need to be. A winning record in the conference is something that needs to be a goal.
“I’m confident. I feel that last year’s class was a good class. It all depends on how good do they want to get. It’s crucial. You need to have players that you can develop and find that depth.
“The pressure is also on to have a good signing period. So far, I’m encouraged that we are pursuing the right guys and we just have to make sure that we are getting those commitments.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.