By: Matthew MacCormack
Northeastern takes on Towson in the first round of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament on Saturday night. WRBB coverage begins at 8 p.m, with Jeremy Leopold, Justin Littman and Matt MacCormack on the call on our exclusive live stream: http://www.wrbbsports.com/listen-live/.
CHARLESTON, S.C — It seems all-too fitting that after 30 games, the Northeastern men’s basketball team sits exactly at .500.
The Huskies’ performance in the 2016-17 regular season has been, in a word, schizophrenic. Senior point guard T.J. Williams (21.6 ppg, 5.3 apg) pieced together one of the best seasons in program history, carrying the Huskies to multiple wins almost single-handedly. But the core around the newly-minted CAA Player of the Year has been inconsistent: a revolving door hampered by inexperience and injuries. Consistency and continuity have eluded the Huskies all year long.
The season’s bright spots were riveting. NU (15-15, 8-10 CAA) pulled off gritty road wins at basketball bluebloods Connecticut and Michigan State, upended America East regular season champ Vermont in the Green Mountain State, and beat out conference foe Elon in double overtime with just seven active players.
After starting out conference play 5-0, Northeastern looked like Colonial Athletic Association contenders. Head coach Bill Coen’s squad then won just three of their final 13 games, as the Huskies seemed unable to overcome a wave of injuries. Opening day starters Donnell Gresham and Jeremy Miller have missed most of the season, and the recent absences of starters Devon Begley (wrist) and Alex Murphy (personal reasons) have thinned out the bench.Three freshman have been forced to take on pivotal roles: Bolden Brace, Max Boursiquot and Shawn Occeus.
The roller-coaster season will culminate in this weekend’s CAA tournament. The winner of the tournament will snatch an automatic bid and dance on to the NCAAs.
Despite the competition moving to the Charleston Coliseum for the first time, the Huskies first-round matchup hasn’t changed. Just like last season, NU earned the No. 6 seed, bypassing the play-in round and setting up a matchup with No. 3 Towson. The Tigers will be looking to avenge last year’s 71-60 loss.
Towson provides a tall task for Coen and the rest of the NU coaching staff. The two teams split the season series, with each side gaining a single-digit victory at home (Towson won 74-64 at SECU Arena; Northeastern got by with a 69-62 win at Matthews Arena).
We’ve outlined three keys for NU to be successful in Saturday night’s matchup:
Note: All-CAA Third team member John Davis will miss his fifth straight game for Towson after suffering a gunshot wound in early February. Davis was the team’s third leading scorer (11.8 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.6 rpg).
Stay out of foul trouble
Most intramural basketball teams have more healthy bodies than the Huskies had in last weekend’s North Carolina road trip. Just seven players made the trip for the final two games of the season at Elon and UNCW. While the Huskies emerged with a win and a loss from the road trip, playing well with only seven active players isn’t sustainable.
Jeremy Miller (knee) looks like he’ll be back in the lineup, but the word is still out on whether Begley (an All-CAA defensive selection) and Murphy (the team’s second-leading scorer) will be available in Charleston.
This is a particularly dire problem when you consider the Huskies’ first round opponent. Towson has a reputation as the most physical team in the conference, and the numbers back it up; the Tigers averaged more than 26 free throw attempts per game this season, which led the CAA. Northeastern, on the other hand, averaged just over 20.
Here’s another one: Towson is 14-2 when they shoot more free throws than their opponents.
Especially with an undermanned bench, the Huskies must play sound defense without fouling to have a chance to win. Pay particular attention to Towson senior forward William Adala Moto, who attempted 13 free throws (and hit 12) when NU loss at Towson, but attempted just four (and hit three) when the Huskies were victorious at Matthews Arena.
Connect from deep
You know the old cliché “live by the three, die by the three”? The Huskies take that tired phrase to an extreme.
In their 15 wins, the Huskies shot 40.8% from beyond the three-point line. This mark, if extrapolated across the whole season, would rank 8th nationally.
During the Huskies’ 15 losses, that number drops to 33.6%, which would rank right around 250th in the country.
The Huskies don’t usually have a problem getting open looks; Williams draws a lot of the defense’s attention, allowing for easy drive-and-kick opportunities. The biggest factor is, quite literally, whether or not those shots fall. Look for freshman Bolden Brace, fresh off a career-high 40 points at Elon last week, to have his fair share of open triples.
Stay competitive on the boards
From a CAA perspective, Towson is an elite rebounding team; thanks to a slew of physical big men and athletic guards, the Tigers led the conference with a rebounding margin of +7.9 (i.e, Towson pulls down 8 more boards than their opponents, on average). But the Tigers aren’t just good rebounders at a mid-major level; they rank 8th nationally in rebounding, one spot ahead of No. 4 Gonzaga, who was undefeated until a loss last week to BYU.
Staying competitive on the boards is as much mental as it is physical, and the Huskies did a stellar job, relatively, in their two bouts with Towson this year. Overall, the cumulative rebounding total from those two contests was 62-61 in Towson’s favor. The Tigers lost all four of the games in which they lost or tied the rebounding battle this year, and with Davis on the sideline, the Huskies have a legitimate shot to grab more caroms than their fearless opponents.