Two-seeded Northeastern will battle No. 7 Delaware in the quarterfinal of the CAA Tournament championship at 6:00 p.m on Sunday in the North Charleston Coliseum. Listen to WRBB’s coverage here.
by Matthew MacCormack
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. –
“I think it says we’re a championship team.”
There was no hesitation – not even a hedging quiver – in Vasa Pusica’s voice. Northeastern’s All-CAA First Team point guard was calm, moments after sinking a buzzer-beating layup to lift the Huskies to a 69-67 victory over conference foe William & Mary in mid-February.
“We’ve won way too many close games like this,” Pusica continued.
“I think that’s a good characteristic of a championship team.”
The word seemed to hang in the air of the Matthews Arena media room.
Well, “media room” is a generous term; a black curtain is pulled over a backdrop of bench presses and dumbells – a tiny fitness center tucked away somewhere in the maze-like hallways of 100-year-old Matthews Arena.
It isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done. And in a way, that’s how you could describe this version of the Northeastern Huskies.
The Huskies finished the season 21-9 overall, notching the highest winning percentage in the 12-year tenure of head coach Bill Coen. NU’s 14-4 record in the Colonial Athletic Association earned the Huskies a share of their third CAA regular season title in the past six years. The Huskies claimed a No. 2 seed, and are set to battle No. 7 Delaware– which defeated No. 10 Elon in a play-in game on Saturday – in Sunday’s quarterfinal of the CAA Championship tournament.
All this for a team picked to finish 6th in the conference in the preseason media poll.
It’s no wonder Coen was crowned with his first ever Coach of the Year designation on Friday afternoon. He took a roster of question marks and turned it into a team that played relentless defense and unselfish offense. Coen deserves plenty of credit for the team’s success, but it wouldn’t be crazy to say that there’s been a little magic at play for the 2017-18 Husky hoopers.
No one can blame the preseason pollsters for their pessimism. Reigning CAA Player of the Year T.J. Williams graduated alongside second-leading scorer Alex Murphy. Towson clobbered NU, 82-54, in the quartefinals of last March’s CAA Tournament to end a sub-.500 campaign. An unproven roster featuring just one senior – guard Devon Begley – and eight underclassmen was left to pick up the pieces.
And pick up the pieces they did.
The magic starts and ends with Pusica – a redshirt junior transfer from University of San Diego by way of Serbia. He’s a heady, clutch floor general whose per-game averages of 17.6 points and 5.0 assists with a 51/42/81 slash line hardly tell the story of his impact. The Huskies needed a playmaker with Williams’ graduation, and they got Vasa: a catalyst that makes his teammates better every time he touches the floor.
All-CAA First Team #GoNU pic.twitter.com/UV2oqccyDt
— Northeastern Men’s Basketball (@GoNUmbasketball) March 2, 2018
Next comes defense, led by sophomore wing Shawn Occeus, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year. Occues is the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.4 points per game, but his impact is most felt on the other side of the floor.
The Boyton Beach, Florida native spearheads a feisty perimeter defense that limited opponents to 30.1% from three – seventh best in the nation. At 6’4, he led the CAA in steals per game (2.0) and notched six conference games with four thefts or more. Occeus locks up the primary option in a switch-heavy defensive scheme.
The Huskies’ depth is unmatched in the CAA. Redshirt sophomore guard Donnell Gresham (9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) started most of his freshman year before missing almost all of his second season with a hand injury. His shooting – 45.3% from three – spaces the floor.
Sophomore forward Max Boursiquot is an undersized four at 6’5, but he’s a versatile defender who plays the role of garbage collector – and that’s meant in a positive way. He’s joined in the big man rotation with 6’10, 250 pound junior center Anthony Green and All-CAA Rookie Team selection Tomas Murphy (the brother of Alex).
The bigs have diverse skillsets. Boursiquot can defend wings or bigs, allowing the Huskies to play smaller lineups. Green’s numbers (6.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) aren’t gaudy, but he’s a presence down low. The 6’8 Murphy battles freshman inconsistency, but his 38 combined points in two overtime victories over UNCW show his offensive firepower.
Murphy is one segment of a three-headed bench mob that features Begley and sophomore forward Bo Brace, who took home the conference’s first-ever Sixth Man of the Year Award on Friday.
Sixth Man of the Year #GoNU pic.twitter.com/rePBzPB6QZ
— Northeastern Men’s Basketball (@GoNUmbasketball) March 2, 2018
Coen lauds both players – who entered the year as starters – for their commitment to their bench roles. After a 2-4 start that featured four consecutive losses in the PK80 Invitational in November, Coen plugged Occeus and Gresham into the starting lineup.
Some players would have pouted, but Brace and Begley performed. Begley (6.8 ppg) – a CAA All-Defensive selection in 2017 – provides leadership and a defensive spark.
Brace (8 ppg) was most known for his scoring after dropping 40 points in last year’s win at Elon. This year, he’s transformed into a 6’6 utility knife, pacing the team with 4.9 rebounds for contest while shooting 40% from three and sliding up to guard power forwards and centers in smaller lineups.
Nearly every Husky has sacrificed this year. Three freshmen – Derrick Cook, Myles Franklin and Jason Strong – have barely seen the floor. Junior forward Jeremy Miller – who started for most of his freshman and sophomore seasons – is the Huskies’ most enthusiastic bench hype-man despite falling out of the rotation mid-season.
Miller’s bench energy will be needed this week, as the Huskies look to win three games in three days in the CAA tournament.
The conference is rich on parity but low on clarity. Top-seeded Charleston sports three players – guards Joe Chealey and Grant Riller and forward Jarrell Brantley – on either the All-CAA First or Second teams. No. 3 Hofstra has the conference Player of the Year in Justin Wright-Foreman. Fourth-seeded William & Mary sports one of the nation’s top offenses, and last year’s assassin Towson still lurks in the bracket.
But while the other CAA squads have talent, the Huskies have the best TEAM.
Players win games in November, but teams win championships in March. If the Huskies cut down the nets in the North Charleston Coliseum on Tuesday night, claiming an automatic bid to their second NCAA tournament appearance in four years, it’ll be a testament to their starters, to their bench and their coach.
It takes a team, and the Huskies are just three games away.