DEKALB -- On an ridiculously warm Tuesday in November, Xavier Silas felt the urge to work on his game.
Northern Illinois' senior forward hopped in his car all excited about the prospect of hitting some shots.
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Huskies at a glance
Coach: Ricardo Patton (26-62, 4th year at NIU; 210-222, 16th year overall)
2009-10 record: 10-20 (6-10 MAC West, fifth); Lost to Eastern Michigan in MAC Tournament first-round game
Starters returning/lost: 2/3
But when the nation's No. 11 returning scorer (19.7 ppg) reached his destination, he was disappointed to discover the driving range closed for the season.
How exactly does this new hobby help Silas and the Huskies during NIU's pivotal year?
It turns out the challenge of hitting an occasional 320-yard drive is designed to keep him from fretting so much about hitting 21-foot shots.
"It was my dad's idea," said Silas, referring to former San Antonio Spurs great James Silas. "I was in the gym a lot and my dad, 'You should do something that takes your mind off of it.'
"And it's so nice out there on the course. Definitely relaxing. It helps me mentally. You get to step back and do something else and still be competitive."
Silas' desire to take an alternative path to basketball excellence could serve as a metaphor for Northern Illinois' collective route over the last nine months.
The Huskies had the chance to bring back their top 10 scorers from last year's team.
But after a promising start (4-0 in the MAC) degenerated immediately into a disaster (10 consecutive losses from Jan. 23-Feb. 20), things had to change.
Starting guards Jake Anderson (10.6 ppg) and Mike DiNunno (7.0 ppg) and time-sharing centers Sean Kowal (10.5 ppg) and Michael Fakuade (3.5 ppg) left town not all by their own choice.
Fourth-year coach Ricardo Patton, whose program needs to show improvement after back-to-back 10-win seasons, stopped discussing the departees' situations after they found other schools.
Anderson (Iowa State) and DiNunno (Eastern Kentucky) found Division I homes, while Kowal's convoluted departure made him politically unattractive to his one-time Division I suitors. Fakuade and lightly used point guard Keith Smith moved to Division II UIS.
Some of the Huskies' returning players, without naming names, don't hesitate to explain the problems.
"The old guys I came in with, I love them to death and I definitely wish them the best," said senior guard Michael Patton, Ricardo's son. "It was hard to see them go, but there was some internal stuff going on. The team wasn't bonding like it needed to to be able to fight when times got hard.
"This team just has that different attitude that I haven't seen since I've been at NIU."
"Definitely a different vibe, a different feel," Silas said. "More team. No internal problems. No one who has secret agendas. I think everybody's out in the open and knows their roles, accepts their roles, OK with their roles."
That's important because there were a lot of roles for the taking, both for the six returnees and the eight players who'll see their first regular-season in an NIU uniform tonight against Northwestern.
Ricardo Patton recruited Indianapolis' Kyree Jones son of former Chicago State coach Kevin Jones with the idea the freshman would take over the point.
But a bad back has slowed his progress and junior Bryan Hall took a big step by getting stronger and fixing his shot mechanics in the offseason.
In the frontcourt, junior-college transfers Tim Toler and Cameron Madlock started the exhibition game against Coe College while 6-foot-6, 245-pound freshman Nate Rucker came off the bench.
These three newcomers, along with returning starter Lee Fisher (4.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) will mix and match at the two post spots as they each have a different specialty.
Toler, who looks like he should be anchored in the paint at 270-plus pounds, hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers last year at Danville Area CC.
Madlock plays the best defense and got his hands on the most passes in preseason practice, which allowed him to claim the team's "deflections" championship belt.
The chiseled Fisher and Rucker aren't as tall, but they're bangers. The powerful Rucker has a taste for contact, but a soft touch around the rim.
"Rucker is just a man-child down there," Michael Patton said. "He can definitely play with the biggest of players. That will definitely show up when we play the high-caliber teams."
SF Xavier Silas* 6-5 198 Sr. The nation's No. 11 returning scorer (19.7 ppg) got trimmer in offseason
PF Tim Toler 6-7 270 Jr. Yeah, this juco transfer is big…but he has soft touch from 3-point range
C Cameron Madlock 6-9 215 Jr. Juco transfer began career at Bowling Green; he's long and defense-oriented
SG Michael Patton 5-10 189 Sr. Coach's son bulked up and added consistency to his 3-point shot
PG Bryan Hall 6-1 168 Jr. Couldn't shoot first two years, but teams can no longer ignore him outside
PG Kyree Jones 6-2 205 Fr. Expected to be starting PG, but bad back slowing him down
C Nate Rucker 6-6 245 Fr. Explosive beast in post; shattered backboard in high school
PF Lee Fisher* 6-5 212 Jr. Fierce rebounder missed exhibition with a bad ankle
SG Tony Nixon 6-4 200 So. Celebrated for his shooting, but hit just 33 percent on 3-ptrs last year
G Antone Christian 6-2 189 r-Fr. Former walk-on earned scholarship this fall in part for his effort and leadership
PF Tyler Storm 6-7 217 Jr. Still looking for a niche in the frontcourt
SG Jeremy Landers 6-2 185 Sr. Defense remains Job 1 for "Red"
F Aksel Bolin 6-7 200 Fr. Norwegian has cool Euro hair and finesse game; good shooter who's adjusting to physical play
PG Tre Edwards 6-0 172 Fr. Walk-on from Racine could help if Jones' injury lasts