Northern Illinois' Sean Kowal shoots over Alaska Anchorage's Jeremiah Trueman Great Alaska Shootout action last season.
DEKALB - If Northern Illinois rises from the MAC West basement to the penthouse, somewhere in San Francisco a guy known as "Crazy Frank" will be smiling.
Or laughing maniacally. Or sitting stoically. Nobody knows for sure how enigmatic trainer Frank Matrisciano might react.
Here's what Northern Illinois' Xavier Silas and Sean Kowal do know: They are different athletes and players for having trained with Matrisciano (and former NBA coach Bob Hill) in San Francisco this summer.
Silas, the sharpshooting 6-foot-5 transfer from Colorado who's finally eligible at NIU, plunked down thousands of dollars to sign up for two five-week hitches.
Kowal, a 6-11 junior who lost his starting center job near the end of last year, traveled west for the second five-week session that included NBA players (such as No. 1 pick Blake Griffin) as well as college standouts like Kentucky's Patrick Patterson.
While they worked on their games under Hill's watchful eye in the gym, their best work was done outside on the sand and in the parks.
Silas could glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge as he suffered during grueling conditioning sessions at nearby Baker Beach.
"The views were nice. The work wasn't," Silas said. "It's called 'Chameleon Training.'
"It's to get outside of your realm, get outside the gym, make it harder than it would be in the gym."
Silas returned to DeKalb with upper arms that look like pythons and in the best condition of his life, but that's not what he retains from those twice-daily weekday sessions with "Crazy Frank."
"It's more mental," he said. "The physical training is hard and it does get you better ... I would take more mental things from that experience. Your body hits a wall and you just have to figure out how to get through it."
As much as San Francisco helped Silas (he scored 58 points in 55 minutes during NIU's pair of easy exhibition wins), Kowal might be the bigger winner.
As Silas put it about his former teammate at Colorado: "I've known Sean since we were 18. He likes to work, but he doesn't like to work."
Kowal came back from San Francisco with 5 fewer pounds (down to 240), a new diet he has maintained that enables him to stay under 9 percent body fat ... and a new appetite for work.
"I would say before I went out there, I really didn't know what work was," Kowal admitted. "Put it like that. I'd come to practice, go through practice and I'd leave. I'd never put any extra in."
Which might explain why third-year coach Ricardo Patton, who got just 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game from Kowal last year, replaced him down the stretch with walk-on Michael Fakuade.
"What I learned out there is you've got to give everything you've got," Kowal said. "I get to the court early every day. I do ballhandling. I do shooting. Then we have practice and, depending on how practice goes, I'll stay a little afterward."
That attitude, along with his battles in San Francisco against Kentucky's Patterson and New Orleans Hornets center Hilton Armstrong, has Kowal at a different level.
"The (pro) game is so fast," Kowal said. "They get the rebound and they're gone. There's no thinking. You've got to stop thinking and just depend on what you've learned and don't be afraid to make mistakes."
Kowal didn't make many mistakes in NIU's exhibitions. He averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.5 assists.
"Kowal has learned how to hold his position in the post," Patton said. "But he has improved as much mentally as physically."
If Kowal's improvement is real, then NIU might have the MAC West's best starting five when you throw in second-team all-MAC combo guard Jake Anderson (16.9 ppg) and sophomore point guard Mike DiNunno (11.9 ppg).
"Eastern Michigan would actually be my choice to win the West," Patton said.
NIU at a glance
Coach: Ricardo Patton (16-42, third year at NIU; 200-202, 15th year overall)
2008-09 record: 10-20 (5-11 MAC West, tied for fifth); Lost to Kent State in MAC Tournament first-round game
Starters returning/lost: 4/1
SF Xavier Silas 6-5, 201 Jr. Colorado transfer capable of getting 25 points any night.
PF Najul Ervin* 6-5, 219 Sr. Patton calls him team's key due to rebounding and defense; slowed by groin injury now.
C Sean Kowal* 6-11, 248 Jr. Lost job at end of last year, but devoted himself in the off-season.
PG Mike DiNunno* 5-11, 188 So. MAC all-Freshman honoree will play off the ball this year, too.
G Darion 'Jake' Anderson* 6-2, 202 Jr. Second-team all-MAC pick didn't get any love after declaring for NBA draft
SG Tony Nixon 6-4, 198 Fr. Shooter from Class 2A champ Seton Academy started first exhibition game, but missed second with sprained ankle.
SG Michael Patton 5-10, 181 Jr. Coach's son makes one 3-pointer for every 14 minutes on the court.
PG Bryan Hall 6-1, 162 So. Lots of starts early last year; looks like solid backup PG this year.
SG Antone Christian 6-1, 189 Fr. Recruited walk-on from Nashville figures in the rotation
PF Lee Fisher 6-5, 210 So. Powerful rebounder must improve his shooting to gain minutes.
C Ante Dzepina 6-8, 230 Sr. Sturdy Croatian looks like a 10-minute-per game backup in post.
C Michael Fakuade 6-7, 227 So. Walk-on was huge in final '09 game (8 pts, 11 rebs, 4 blks), but hasn't regained that form.
PF Tyler Storm 6-7, 207 So. Moved from "3" to the "4"; coaches say he's most-improved on team.
SG Jeremy Landers 6-2, 185 Jr. His niche is as the team's best defensive guard.
PG Keith Smith 5-5, 135 r-Fr. Shoulder forced him to redshirt last year; now he has a thumb problem.
PG Justin Peaster 5-11, 165 So. Waubonsie Valley grad in 2nd year as walk-on; played 8 minutes last year.
Nov. 13 at Northwestern 7 p.m.
Nov. 17 at Illinois 7 p.m.
Nov. 20 TENNESSEE STATE 7 p.m.
Nov. 22 SE Missouri St. 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 28 at Northern Iowa TBA
Dec. 2 BRADLEY 7 p.m.
Dec. 15 at Minnesota 7 p.m.
Dec. 19 at UIC 3 p.m.
Dec. 22 MARYLAND E.S. 1 p.m.
Dec. 30 TEMPLE 7 p.m.
Jan. 2 NORTH DAKOTA 3 p.m.
Jan. 6 at Chicago State 7 p.m.
Jan. 9 at Ball State 1 p.m.
Jan. 13 WESTERN MICHIGAN 7 p.m.
Jan. 16 EASTERN MICHIGAN 3 p.m.
Jan. 20 at Toledo 6 p.m.
Jan. 23 at C. Michigan 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 27 OHIO 7 p.m.
Jan. 30 BUFFALO 1 p.m.
Feb. 1 at Kent State 6 p.m.
Feb. 3 at Akron 6 p.m.
Feb. 6 MIAMI (OHIO) 3 p.m.
Feb. 10 at Bowling Green 6 p.m.
Feb. 13 BALL STATE 3 p.m.
Feb. 17 at Western Michigan 6 p.m.
Feb. 20 BracketBusters TBA
Feb. 24 CENTRAL MICHIGAN 7 p.m.
Feb. 27 at Eastern Michigan 1 p.m.
March 4 TOLEDO 7 p.m.
March 7 MAC first-round games TBA
March 11-13 MAC tournament at Cleveland