By Justin Diament 

The Northeastern Huskies 2020-2021 Men’s Basketball season was a roller coaster of emotions. Northeastern began the year with relatively low expectations, ranked seventh in the CAA’s preseason poll, yet they finished with the best record in conference play and entered the CAA tournament with huge expectations. The Huskies proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and will retain the majority of players from last year’s roster, yet they are considered an unknown entering the 2021-22 season. How can this be the case? 

Northeastern’s low ranking prior to the 2020-21 season was primarily due to losing two major stars to graduation. Starting guard duo Jordan Roland and Bolden Brace departed, leaving the Huskies without their two All-Conference selections from 2019. They lost another starter when defensive powerhouse Max Boursiquot transferred to the University of Ottawa. With an exceptionally young team featuring four true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, and zero seniors or grad students, Northeastern Head Coach Bill Coen had his work cut out for him. 

Coen’s response to such a young and inexperienced team was to throw them into the fire right away, hoping that the Huskies could learn to play against a variety of teams, players, and schemes through tough competition. Northeastern’s non-conference slate began with a home and home against in-state rival UMass and featured marquee matchups against nationally ranked West Virginia and Power Five foes Syracuse and Georgia. Later in the season, Coen and the Huskies jumped on a rare opportunity to travel to the Dean Dome to play against Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels. To put it nicely, the results were rockey. The Huskies finished their initial non-conference schedule 1-5 and later fell to UNC, putting them at 1-6 against non-CAA opponents. However, Northeastern’s trials and tribulations paid off in a big way. With experience against college basketball’s big guns under their belt, the Huskies rattled off seven straight wins to begin conference play, including season sweeps of Elon, Hofstra, and College of Charleston, all of whom were ranked ahead of the Huskies in the preseason poll. 

Northeastern’s roster had come together to fill the holes left by Roland, Brace, Boursiquot, and more magnificently. Sophomore Guard Tyson Walker, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, blossomed into a superstar capable of putting a team on his back with both prolific scoring and dynamic playmaking. He earned two CAA Player of the Week awards en route to First Team All-CAA and a Mid-Major All-American selection. Walker averaged nearly 19 points and five assists per game, becoming the focal point of an offense that also boasted a reliable secondary scoring option in redshirt junior guard Shaquille Walters, strong shooting from junior forward Jason Strong, and the rebounding prowess of Notre Dame transfer Chris Doherty. Freshman Jahmyl Telfort stepped up and cemented himself as the best of the freshman class with 20 point outbursts against Elon and James Madison. He became the one tasked with carrying the scoring load during stretches where Walker wasn’t at his best. 

Even more key to the Huskies’ success was their stifling defense. Walker earned CAA defensive player of the year by virtue of averaging nearly two and a half steals per game. Despite receiving this award, Walker may not even have been the best defensive player on his own team, which only serves to highlight just how good Northeastern was on the defensive end of the floor. Walters built upon his sophomore season with another excellent defensive season and became the Huskies defensive anchor in Boursiquot’s absence. Sophomore guard Quirin Emanga also emerged as a defensive specialist, while Doherty put in work to keep larger opposing big men in check. Telfort too showed some defensive acumen, assisted by his six foot seven inch frame and guard agility. 

After starting CAA conference play 7-0, the Huskies lost their second game against James Madison to end the streak. Following this game, they spent two weeks out of action due to Covid-19 cancellations, returning in late February to face Towson. This long layoff clearly affected Northeastern, who lost their second game against the Tigers with a very poor 57 point showing. Just a few days later, they faced North Carolina on short notice. Unfortunately for the Huskies, more Covid-19 related cancellations meant that this was the last game they played until the CAA Tournament three weeks later. Northeastern finished the regular season with a 9-8 overall record, 8-2 in conference play. 

While Northeastern was sitting out, James Madison used their victory over the Huskies as a springboard to rattle off an 8-2 conference record of their own and snag the number one seed in the CAA tournament, while NU received the number two seed. Northeastern began with a bye, followed by a matchup against number seven seeded William & Mary in the second round. Northeastern dispatched the nation’s second oldest college with relative ease thanks to 19 points from Walker, as well as 13 from Telfort and fellow freshman Coleman Stucke. However, not everything was looking great for Northeastern. Covid-19 had left Walters back in Boston, while Strong was unable to play due to a lower body injury. Husky reserves were forced to step up, as Emanga started for just the 6th time, reserve guard Vito Cubrilo played 14 minutes, and redshirt freshman Connnor Braun, sidelined all year with injury, played his first minutes of the season at a less-than-ideal juncture. These issues would spell doom for Northeastern in the following game, as Drexel ended Northeastern’s magical season. Strong attempted to play but limped off the court after only a minute of action and Husky reserves like Braun, Cubrilo, and freshman big man Alex Nwagha all played minutes in his absence. Telfort and Walker did their best to carry the scoring load, combining for 53 points, but it wasn’t enough to lift the hobbled Huskies over the Dragons. 

 Immediately after the end of Northeastern’s season, all eyes turned to one man: Tyson Walker. Walker’s all-conference showing as a sophomore had landed him in the conversation to be a major addition for some of the country’s largest and most prestigious programs. Walker’s season was highlighted by his 27-point outburst against North Carolina, including 21 points in the first half despite being essentially quadruple teamed by the Tar Heels while his teammates were ice cold from the field. Any major program’s coach who was unaware of the dynamic point guard razing the CAA prior to his trip to the Dean Dome was certainly aware afterwards. Unfortunately for Northeastern, Walker quickly made it clear that he intended to seek greener pastures and would ultimately choose to continue his career with Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans. As Magic Johnson welcomed the Spartans’ newest star guard, the Huskies had to prepare for life without Tyson Walker. 

Thankfully for Bill Coen and Northeastern, they will not have to contend with many other major losses this season. Starting center Greg Eboigbodin has departed, but he did not develop into a major offensive threat last season as the Huskies had hoped. Doherty will likely step into a bigger role in year two with Northeastern to take his place. Freshman guard J’Vonne Hadley, who saw very limited minutes once Telfort emerged as a rising star, transferred to Indian Hills Community College to seek more playing time. 

In order to replace Walker’s 20 points per game, Coen recognized that attracting a single player of that caliber who could step into his shoes immediately would be nigh impossible. Instead, Northeastern turned to a replacement by committee approach, bringing in four transfers and one freshman, all of whom are listed at guard. Graduate student Tyreek Scott-Grayson arrives from UAB, while fellow graduate student Nikola Djogo gives the Huskies their second Notre Dame transfer in two years. Coen also committed a bit of CAA-on-CAA crime, poaching UNCW junior Joe Pridgen. The Huskies round out their new guard bonanza with sophomore Air Force Academy transfer Glen McClintock and the team’s lone freshman, Montreal’s To Randriasalama. 

The biggest piece to replacing Walker, however, will likely come from within. Jahmyl Telfort finished his season on an incredibly high note, scoring 30 points in the season-ending loss to Drexel, five times more than any Husky not named Tyson Walker. Bill Coen’s system has traditionally relied on a high-scoring guard, as Northeastern has boasted all-conference selections in Walker, Roland, Vasa Pusica, T.J. Williams, and David Walker over the last six years. Telfort will be asked to make a similar jump to Walker in year two with Northeastern, at least as far as Walker’s scoring acumen. Whether Telfot can seamlessly make the jump from CAA 6th Man of the Year to reliable starter and number one scoring option may determine just how far the Huskies can go. 

The other half of replacing Walker, his ball handling and playmaking, remains a bit of mystery. Despite bringing in four experienced transfer guards, all four were primarily regarded as scorers and shooting guards on their previous teams. Whether or not any of these players will expand their game to include bringing the ball up the court on a regular basis remains to be seen. Coen noted that Walters, who spent some time at point guard while the Huskies were hampered by injury in 2019, will begin the year as the primary ball handler. However, this may not be the long-term plan for Walters, who has been at his best as a scoring option and defensive anchor thus far in his career. 

Northeastern’s coaching staff saw a bit of turnover this offseason as well. Bill Coen, who became the winningest coach in Northeastern history last season, returns for his 16th season with the Huskies, but his primary assistant coach, Chris Markwood, left for a position at Boston College. Markwood, who was named the CAA’s top assistant coach for the 2019-20 season, was replaced by Joel Smith, while experienced NU assistant Brian McDonald will become Coen’s right hand man. A familiar face also joins Coen’s staff, as the aforementioned Bolden Brace returns to Northeastern as a graduate assistant. 

Saying the CAA is always difficult to project may be the understatement of the century and Covid-19 has made it a harder task than ever before. Voters were faced with this dilemma in the recent CAA preseason poll, where Northeastern ultimately placed second. Many looked to Bill Coen’s decade and a half of experience at Northeastern and consistent quality coaching as something they could hang their hat on in a sea of unknowns. The Huskies were surpassed only by Delaware, who returned all five starters, giving voters another consistent piece to latch on to. Coen aside, the Huskies enter the 2021-22 season as a bit of a wild card due to the loss of Walker and the offensive identity he took with him to East Lansing. Will Telfort evolve into the first option the Huskies need? Will the team’s new wealth of experience perform better in key tournament games than last year’s young, inexperienced squad? It’s hard to say. 

However, expectations are still quite high. Djogo, Scott-Grayson, and Pridgen give the Huskies far more scoring options than last season and some extremely high-quality depth that they really could have used during the CAA tournament last season. Telfort’s 30 point outburst in the last game of the season lends credence to a potential leap into superstardom for a player who has already shown flashes of brilliance that could make him a potential transfer risk. And yes, the clock is ticking for Northeastern. Last year’s team may have been exceptionally young and lost no players to graduation, but the passage of time and bringing in graduate transfers has left Northeastern with perhaps only one season before their core changes yet again. Scott-Grayson and Djogo are graduate students who will exhaust their eligibility this season, while Walters and Strong are both redshirt seniors who could consider a transfer or graduation following this season (they will have one year of eligibility remaining due to the blanket additional year granted by the NCAA due to Covid-19). As previously noted, Telfort is no guarantee to be here for next year either, as a second year leap akin to Walker’s could give him the opportunity to transfer to a larger program. 

Northeastern’s season kicks off with a road bout against Colgate on November 9th, while their home opener is a November 16th rivalry match against Boston University. Later, the Huskies’ CAA slate begins in late December and returns to the traditional structure, forgoing last year’s back-to-back, Saturday and Sunday, both home or both on the road game structure necessitated by Covid-19. Northeastern should have high expectations for themselves and they have all the pieces to put together a season to remember. They may have lost their star, but they lost two stars prior to last season and, despite some growing pains, still managed to build a team to be reckoned with. There’s no reason to doubt that Bill Coen and the Huskies can do the same this year and make a bid to return to the top of the CAA. 

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