How Northeastern Men’s Basketball Became CAA Title Favorites

By Jordan Baron and Milton Posner

The Northeastern Huskies have had some pretty crazy CAA win streaks. In 2012–13 they began conference play with eight wins and finished 14–4. In 2018, they marched to the CAA Championship game on the back of a nine-game streak. The next year, a string of seven victories lifted them into March Madness.

And now, in a pandemic-riddled season, they’ve added another — a seven-game run to open the conference season. Though it ended on Sunday with a loss to James Madison, it positioned the Huskies as the overwhelming favorite to win the conference’s regular-season crown. That it happened at all is a testament to a young team figuring things out absurdly quickly.

Non-conference

Northeastern head coach Bill Coen likes to use the non-conference slate to expose his teams to different strategies and schemes, and tough opponents — including Power Five squads — are always a part of that. But by the time the Huskies had cobbled together a mid-pandemic schedule, theirs was — according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index — the 17th toughest in the nation.

A cursory glance at their 1–5 record in those games — the worst of any CAA team in the non-conference — wouldn’t reveal much to be excited about. They threw away so many passes in their opener against UMass’s full-court press that the Minutemen hung 94 points on them. They almost ceded a double-digit lead down the stretch of the only game they won. They faltered late against Syracuse, missed their first 13 shots against Old Dominion, allowed Georgia to rattle off 21 unanswered points, and were outclassed in the paint by West Virginia.

But a closer look revealed the CAA’s youngest team making major strides. In their second game against UMass, the Huskies got their turnovers under control by harnessing the speed of Tyson Walker, the ball-handling of Shaq Walters, and the steadying presence of Jason Strong to routinely break the Minutemen press.

Against Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone, the Huskies’ hot three-point shooting kept them in control throughout the first half and turned a predicted trouncing into a six-point squeaker. It showed just how many Huskies were viable and willing perimeter shooters, as well as the team’s strong defensive resilience to hold Syracuse to 62 points.

While the Georgia game will be most remembered for the Huskies’ worst offensive half in more than a decade, we’d be remiss to overlook the first half, which was arguably their best of the season. They knocked down 69 percent of their threes, which they fired off in large volume. Jahmyl Telfort logged 15 points without missing a shot. And the Huskies led a Power Five team by double digits at halftime.

But perhaps most important was the tightening of the bond between the young teammates. By fighting through such a tough slate of games, they proved to themselves that they could compete against uber-talented teams outside of the CAA.

It only made them more confident going into conference play, and that confidence reigned supreme across an unbelievable seven-game stretch — starting with two victories against Elon, carrying into an unbelievable road overtime win and a subsequent home victory over Hofstra, accompanying them south for a sweep of Charleston, and back up home with a win against  James Madison. 

Let’s break down what powered the run.

The Doherty Effect

The effect wasn’t immediate, as Doherty missed the first two conference games with an injury. Nor is it guaranteed to continue, as Doherty missed the Huskies’ last game with an ankle sprain. But when he’s healthy, the sophomore forward has been one of the Huskies’ most impactful players.

Much of this stems from his relentless energy and positional awareness, which fuel his prodigious offensive rebounding and effective pick-and-roll scoring. He leads the team in offensive rating, per-minute rebounding, and per-minute win shares, and is third in per-minute scoring. He even notched a dramatic game-winner against Charleston in typical Doherty fashion: securing a rebounding and laying in the putback.

His energy has kickstarted the Huskies’ offense on numerous occasions, and if he remains healthy he will be an indispensable part of the rotation.

Emanga’s Emergence

When Max Boursiquot left the Huskies after a spectacular junior season, he left a pair of versatile shoes to fill. The gift of a muscular, crafty, capable, 6’5” guard/forward who can defend essentially anyone anywhere on the floor is not the sort of thing you just find every season.

Unless you’re Bill Coen, in which case you can turn to a guy who averaged five minutes per game last season and unveil him as your new defensive stopper.

The guy in question in Quirin Emanga, and his coming-out party as an elite defensive force came January 9 against Hofstra. Facing a 19-point deficit and the task of guarding bulldozing Pride forward Isaac Kante, Coen turned to Emanga when Strong went to the bench with four fouls. Kante, the all-CAA-caliber big man who had looked unstoppable to that point, was held to a couple of buckets the rest of the way as the Huskies mounted a dramatic comeback and won the game in overtime. Kante didn’t fare much better against Emanga two days later either.

Ever since, Emanga has been a defensive factor. Though he hasn’t quite matched Boursiquot’s rim protection and all-around brilliance yet, he has been stellar defending big men on the block and wings on the perimeter. In five games as a starter, he’s committed just seven fouls in 164 minutes despite being asked to guard major scoring threats. He has also pitched in, albeit in moderate volume, on the offensive end — he has the highest three-point percentage on the squad and the second-highest effective field goal percentage behind Doherty.

Shaq Attack

Shaq Walters showed his rebounding prowess last season, and began to display some playmaking chops in the last half-dozen contests. And given his height, length, and athletic ability, it wasn’t necessarily a shock to see him become Coen’s go-to man to defend the other team’s top perimeter threat this year.

But the shooting was a surprise. After connecting on a meager 29 percent of his three-point tries last year, Walters doubled his shooting volume and upped his percentage to a remarkable 41 percent this season. Suddenly his rainbow shots are finding gold routinely, as he’s hit multiple threes in half of Northeastern’s conference tilts. And he’s hitting some tough ones too.

But none resonated more than the one he hit against Hofstra on January 9, the one that clinched the Huskies’ overtime win after a frantic second-half comeback.

He’s still finding the time and energy to lead the Huskies in rebounding, but make no mistake — Walters’ newfound marksmanship is the single most important individual skill jump the team has seen this year.

Holding Down the Tel-Fort

When Bill Coen says you’re one of the best two-way freshmen to pass through his program in years, it means you’re doing a ton of stuff right. Despite starting only two of the Huskies’ 14 games, Jahmyl Telfort has established himself as the team’s second-leading scorer, a versatile wing with athleticism, awareness, and good defensive instincts.

His finest hour thus far came on Saturday against James Madison. After a scoreless first half, Telfort exploded for 23 points in the second to put the game out of the Dukes’ reach. And he did it with a variety of weapons, from transition layups to midrangers to catch-and-shoot threes.

As the only player to win CAA Rookie of the Week at least three times this season, he’s the clear frontrunner for the end-of-season award. And he’s become a major engine for a contending team.

Downtown District

It must be nice to be Bill Coen, knowing that almost every player out on the court wearing a Northeastern jersey can reliably shoot the three and make it. Of the six players who have logged 200 minutes or more, five have made at least a third of their tries from deep.

The Huskies’ perimeter ball movement — not just on their win streak, but for the entire season — has been excellent, as they seem to always find the open man beyond the arc. Walker and Walters have honed into the drive-and-kick play, with Strong, Telfort, and Emanga as the biggest beneficiaries of their penetration, gravity, and playmaking.

The Huskies have attempted 205 three-point shots in eight conference games. To put that number into perspective, last year’s squad attempted just 383 long balls across the entire 18-game conference schedule. This year’s Huskies are on pace to shatter that mark, and with a large portion of their team capable of reliably sinking that shot, there’s no reason for them to stop.

Dicin’ Tyson

We can’t analyze the circumstances that led to this win streak without talking about the leadership, overall skill, and athleticism that sophomore guard Tyson Walker brings. 

In conference play, Walker has accumulated the most points (141), assists (43), steals (22), free throws made (23), and free throws attempted (32) of any Husky. Sure, he’s struggled with turnovers at times, but for a guy who almost always controls the ball and is constantly making plays for younger, less experienced players, turnovers will happen. 

Walker has showcased an unbelievable ability to pick up lost momentum for his team, and it’s led to the Huskies winning games they were seemingly out of. Against Hofstra on January 9, the Pride were busy devouring the Huskies until Walker decided he’d had enough. He drained five threes to slingshot the Huskies back into the lead. Even when the streak ended on Sunday, he still poured in a season-high 30 points to key the attack.

Looking Forward

On Thursday afternoon, the CAA announced that Northeastern’s games against Drexel (January 30 and 31) and Delaware (February 6 and 7) were being postponed due to a positive COVID-19 case within the Huskies’ program, with a rescheduling decision to be made later.

But in a season rendered completely insane by the pandemic, it might not hurt the Huskies’ position as much as you might think. To understand why, let’s examine the CAA’s seeding mechanisms.

Seeding is based on conference winning percentage. Teams must play at least eight CAA games to be eligible for their seed; if they don’t, “virtual losses” are added until the record is eligible (e.g. a 3–3 team becomes 3–5). If the average number of conference games played by all teams is below eight, teams must play no less than two fewer games than that average number (say, five games to be eligible if the average team has played seven). Teams must also play 13 games overall — or receive an NCAA waiver — to be CAA tournament eligible.

Here are the standings as of January 29:

TeamCAA recordCAA pct.Games missed as of 1/29
Northeastern7–1.8750
James Madison3–1.7504
Hofstra5–3.6250
Charleston3–3.5002
Delaware3–4.4291
Drexel2–3.4003
William & Mary2–4.3332
Towson2–4.3332
UNCW1–3.2504
Elon0–2.0006

Seven of the nine other teams have already lost three or four games, and thus cannot catch Northeastern’s current winning percentage of .875 even if they win out.

Elon theoretically could exceed that mark, but only if they play the typical 18 CAA games and win their next 16 in a row. For a team that hasn’t played since January 3, that volume of games is nearly impossible.

James Madison has the best shot at reaching .875, as the Dukes have lost just one CAA game. But at the rate they’ve played games, they would likely have to win out to do so.

All of this would be moot if Northeastern plays — and loses — another game. But that’s the thing; the Huskies have played eight conference games, so they’ll be eligible for their tournament seed no matter what. Purely from a standings standpoint, they’re better off not playing again until the CAA Tournament. They’d almost certainly earn the top seed.

Of course, head coach Bill Coen and his team wouldn’t choose this path. They’re a basketball team, and basketball teams are meant to play, well, basketball games. They want to be in gear for the CAA Tournament, not trying to overcome a month’s worth of rust. And the only way games get cancelled is if people get sick, which no one wants.

This isn’t to recommend that Northeastern sit out games or to imply that they could choose to. It’s just to point out that, after a seven-game winning streak to start conference play, they are in the driver’s seat. They control their own destiny. And especially if their games are lost to the pandemic — instead of being rescheduled — it might only take another two or three wins to seal the top seed.

But regardless of which seed they wind up with, these Huskies have proven so much this month, and are well positioned to make the CAA championship game for the fourth straight year.

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