by Matthew MacCormack
BOSTON — Curry Student Center erupted as Northeastern’s name flashed on the screen during CBS’ Selection Sunday broadcast.
The Husky fans, coaches and players were excited just to get the chance to join the field of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But the news delivered at Sunday’s watch party — the Huskies earned a 13 seed, and will take on 4-seed Kansas in a Thursday matchup in Salt Lake City in the Midwest Region — only heightened the excitement.
“Just to see your name pop up, it’s a dream come true for all our players and staff,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen.
“Our first reaction is elation. Our second reaction is oh no, Kansas!”
The game will tip off at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
The Huskies (23-10) earned the Colonial Athletic Association’s automatic bid to the Big Dance after a 82-74 victory over Hofstra in the CAA Championship in Charleston. Northeastern is led by two-time All-CAA First-Team point guard Vasa Pusica (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg), and All-CAA Third-Team shooting guard Jordan Roland (14.7 ppg, 40.8% 3PT FG). Pusica is a redshirt senior transfer from University of San Diego, while the redshirt junior Roland transferred in from George Washington.
Northeastern’s formula relies on three-point shooting, defense and depth. The Huskies are the 16th best three-point shooting team in the country at 38.8%. Players like junior guards Shawn Occeus (10.1 ppg), Bo Brace (10 ppg) and Donnell Gresham (9.8 ppg) are huge pieces in a stingy defense that ranked at the top of the CAA. Seven different players average 8+ points per game.
Coen, in his 13th season at Northeastern, led the Huskies to the tournament in 2015, when NU fell in a close game to Notre Dame.
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Kansas (25-9) finished 3rd in the Big 12, failing to win the conference’s regular season title for the first time in 14 years. The Jayhawks lost in the Big 12 championship game to Iowa State, 78-66.
“I wanted to play someone big like [Kansas] and I couldn’t be more excited,” Pusica said.
They’re led by redshirt junior forward Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-9 presence that averages 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, shoots 48% from the floor and 37% from three. He could be a matchup problem for Northeastern.
The Jayhawks started four freshman in the loss to Iowa State. The lead man among those rookies is point guard Devon Dotson (12.1 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.6 rpg).
Kansas head coach Bill Self, in his 16th season, has dealt without some of his key players down the stretch. Senior guard Lagerald Vick (14.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 45% 3PT FG) took a leave of absence from the team in February for personal matters, and will not return for the tournament. Seven-foot junior center Udoka Azubuike (13.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 71% FG) is out for the season with a hand injury.
The three ball is going to be key in this matchup, as it has been all year for the Huskies. Kansas holds opponents to 33.6% from three. When Kansas holds opponents under that average, they are 15-1. In other games, Kansas is 10-8. Essentially, Northeastern needs to hit their threes to stay in the game. Fortunately for the Huskies, they shot nearly 39% from three over the course of the season.
“Three point shooting, I think is the great equalizer and we’ve got a number of guys who can make shots,” Coen said
“If we can do that you give yourself a chance.”
Since LaGerald Vick (46% 3PT) went out for the season, the Jayhawks have shot just 33.2% from beyond the arc.
The Huskies turn the ball over on 16.7% of possessions. When they turn the ball over less than their average, they are 14-2. In all other games, they are 9-8. Kansas’ opponents turn the ball over on 18.5% of possessions.
The Jayhawks have won three national titles, with the most recent coming in 2008. The school has made 15 Final Four appearances, with Self leading Kansas to Final Four appearances in 2008, 2012 and 2018. Kansas fell to Villanova in last year’s semi-final.
“It would just make the win mean more, if we are lucky enough to win the game,” Roland said.
“It would be better to beat a team like that with all the history.”