Last Season: 23-10 (14-4, 2nd in CAA); lost to Charleston in CAA Finals
Projected Finish: 1st
Key Departures: G Devon Begley
Key Returnees: G Vasa Pusica, G Shawn Occeus, F Bolden Brace
by Matthew MacCormack
Northeastern was 20 minutes away from a trip to the Big Dance. Then everything came crashing down.
In last year’s CAA Tournament final in the North Charleston Coliseum, the second-seeded Huskies led No. 1 seed Charleston by 17 points early in the second half. Slowly but surely, an experienced Charleston team chipped away at the young Huskies’ lead, and the Cougars came away with an 83-78 OT victory — clinching a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The pain of being so close to a March Madness berth would sting a bit more if the Huskies prospects for 2018-19 weren’t so bright. Northeastern returns as the favorite to win the conference, garnering 35 of 40 first place votes in the preseason media poll. Despite Devon Begley’s (6.3 ppg) graduation, the Huskies return their top seven leading scorers and 90.4% of their scoring overall — the 13th highest mark in the nation.
The conversation about Northeastern starts and ends with redshirt senior point guard Vasa Pusica, the runner up for CAA Player of the Year and a Preseason All-First Team selection. The Serbian-born University of San Diego transfer burst on to the scene last year, averaging 17.9 points per and 5.1 assists per game with a 50/43/81 shooting line. He’s a 6’5 floor general that makes everyone around him better.
Flanking Pusica will be a pair of award-winning junior swingmen in the 6’4 Shawn Occeus (Defensive Player of the Year) and 6’6 Bolden Brace (Sixth Man of the Year). Occeus (10.8 ppg) is capable of locking down a team’s best perimeter scorer or ball handler. Brace (7.9 ppg) is a versatile chess piece who can slide across three positions, shoot the three ball (39.6%) and crash the boards (a team-leading 4.7 rpg). Redshirt junior Donnell Gresham is a steadying presence at the two-guard position, and a smooth shooting stroke (43.1% from deep) helped him flirt with a double-digit scoring average last season (9.1 ppg).
The big man trio of senior Anthony Green, junior Max Boursiquot and sophomore Tomas Murphy is intriguing, especially because their skill sets are so diverse. The 6’10, 250 pound Green is a presence down low. Boursiquot stands at just 6’5, but does all the little things and unlocks versatile lineups with his defensive ability. The young gun of the group, Murphy, has the highest offensive upside of all three, but was sometimes unplayable defensively down the stretch last season. It remains to be seen if 6’11 senior big man Jeremy Miller — a highly touted recruit — will reemerge after falling out of the rotation at the end of last year.
If the Huskies have a weakness, it’s their lack of a second go-to scorer after Pusica. It’s possible that redshirt junior guard Jordan Roland, a transfer by way of George Washington, could fill that role. Roland averaged 6.7 points per game on 41% shooting from three in 2016-17. It’s possible that Occeus or Brace increase their scoring load, but Roland looks like a prime candidate to play off Pusica.
Holding down the fort is reigning CAA Coach of the Year Bill Coen, who helped the Huskies outperform their 6th place prediction in the 2017 preseason media poll. Coen knows how to pull the strings, and his résumé proves he should be trusted.
Bottom Line: The expectation is clear; it’s NCAA Tournament bid or bust for the Huskies. Pusica is the best point guard in the conference — and maybe one of the best floor generals in all of mid-major basketball. Coen is an experienced coach, and he has the luxury of a slew of versatile players — Occeus, Brace, Boursiquot and more — and a deep bench to tinker with. If someone like Roland can step up as a secondary scorer, look out; the Huskies just might make 2018-19 a redemption tour.