It has been a season of trials and tribulations for the Northeastern Huskies men’s basketball team. After playing their way to a horrifying 2-16 record in conference play – by far the worst in the Coen era – their postseason prospects look grim.
The season began full of promise. Northeastern was voted second in the preseason CAA poll, bolstered by an experienced roster. The Huskies brought back all but three of their players from last year’s regular season CAA title-winning team, including three starters. Two of their losses, center Greg Eboigbodin and guard J’Vonne Hadley, were fairly minor subtractions. Of course, neither of these were the losses making headlines. The real issue for Northeastern was the transfer of guard Tyson Walker, arguably the CAA’s top player, to Michigan State. With Walker departing for East Lansing, Northeastern not only needed to replace 19 points and 5 assists per game, they had to develop an entirely new team identity.
As their record in conference play may suggest, this new identity never truly emerged. Northeastern’s style of play has fluctuated throughout the season. At times they have leaned on their inconsistent three-point shooting, at others basket and entry passes to one of the many larger players in their forward-heavy lineup, such as standout big man Chris Doherty. Sometimes Northeastern has used redshirt senior Shaquille Walters as their primary facilitator, at others transfer Glen McClintock, and still others reigning CAA sixth man of the year Jahmyl Telfort. Telfort in particular has been up-and-down as the lead guard for Northeastern. After his explosive rookie season last year, most expected Telfort to become the new offensive centerpiece with Walker’s departure, but he has struggled from the field and especially from three (just 26% on the season) and from the free throw line (68%).
The constant attempts to throw offensive styles against the wall hasn’t really seen much stick. Without an all-CAA level point guard for the first time in over half a decade, the patented Bill Coen offense has struggled mightily to produce more than 65 points per game. It is certainly possible that Northeastern will simply not be able to put up enough points to give themselves a chance to keep pace with the CAA’s top offenses in the tournament.
While lack of playmaking has been the biggest factor in Northeastern’s offensive regression, turnovers and poor shooting aren’t far behind. With so many score-first players cosplaying as point guards, Huskies games without double-digit turnovers have been about as rare as verified Bigfoot sightings. This lack of a quality, consistent facilitator has certainly reduced the number of open looks for Northeastern’s shooters, but the open looks haven’t been falling as of late either. During conference play, the Huskies are shooting just 43% from the field and 32% from three, second to last and last in the conference respectively. Northeastern’s lineup only includes one player who shoots over 40% from three: grad transfer Nikola Djogo, who has seen his role in the offense grow as his shooting acumen compared to the rest of the hapless Huskies has become more and more clear.
As for the Northeastern defense, it has been an up and down year. While the Huskies have been blown out numerous times, most were due to their offense being left in the dust, not terrible defense. They do however have a notable weakness to small, fast, guard-heavy lineups that exploit Northeastern’s large, forward-heavy approach. Teams like James Madison and Hofstra have taken particular advantage of this in their blowout wins over the Huskies. Their size has also been a positive in other matchups, however, as Northeastern has managed to hold three opponents (Towson, William & Mary, and Boston University) to 7% or worse from three with stifling perimeter defense from their long-armed, mobile guards like the aforementioned Djogo, Telfort, and Walters as well as forwards like Jason Strong and Coleman Stucke, all of whom stand at least 6’6”.
So does Northeastern have a shot for a miracle CAA tournament run? Well, as luck would have it, their first two opponents in the tournament will be the two teams they managed to beat in the regular season: William & Mary and Towson.
First up is William & Mary. The Tribe, who were projected to finish last in the CAA, instead finished second to last in front of Northeastern. The two teams split their season series. The most recent game was a laugher just a week ago, as Northeastern held the Tribe to just 28 points, the fewest by a Division I team since 2019. Northeastern could have stomped the country’s second-oldest university even harder, but even in a performance as dominant as that one, the Huskies offensive woes were present, as they shot only 27% from three despite being given countless open looks. Either way, this game provides Northeastern with a simple blueprint for victory: exploit the Tribe’s lack of star power with swarming perimeter defense and force them to set plays to find open shooters. On the offensive end, Northeastern will likely be given space to work from beyond the arc, so they must take advantage this time around unless they plan to post another historic defensive effort.
The first game between the two teams was a far different story. William & Mary squeaked out a win at the buzzer thanks to a collection of strong performances. To make up for their lack of star power, the Tribe had five scorers in double figures, including four starters- guards Julian Lewis, Connor Kochera, and Tyler Rice, plus forward Ben Wight, as well as sixth man Yuri Covington. The final starter, forward Brandon Carroll also added eight points of his own. Northeastern also clearly put a focus on closing off passing lanes after allowing 10 assisted baskets in this contest, as they cut that to a mere four in the teams’ second meeting.
Almost all of this work was done from inside the arc, as the Tribe shot merely 16% from three in this contest, but 56% from two. With two horrible performances from distance in the team’s two meetings, William & Mary will almost certainly be looking to work closer to the basket in their third clash. To that end, Northeastern will need to handle Wight in particular, who leads the Tribe in points at 11.5 per game and stands taller than every Husky rotation member at 6’9”. Wight was 5-6 from the field and second on the team in scoring with 13 in their first meeting. In order to put up a fight against Northeastern, the Tribe must find a way to bring back their effective passing and shooting from the paint from their victory over the Huskies.
If Northeastern manages to dispatch William & Mary, they will face the first-seeded Towson Tigers. Northeastern pulled off a shocking upset over Towson just a month ago for their first CAA win of the year and they did it in much the same way as their victory over W&M: incredible perimeter defense, aided by a heaping helping of lucky misses and poor shooting days. The Tigers shot just 1-15 from three, including an 0-9 abomination from the usually sharp Nicolas Timberlake. The Tigers were kept afloat via bruising work in the paint from forwards Cam Holden and Charles Thompson, who scored 21 and 14 points respectively, both at an over 50% clip.
Northeastern spread their scoring around, as five players contributed at least seven points for the Huskies. However, this 58-point performance is unlikely to cut it again against the potent Towson offense. Northeastern will need to step up their interior defense against Holden and Thompson, as well as find an offensive centerpiece, if they hope to pull off another upset. Stopping Towson’s forwards will require Doherty to stay out of foul trouble, something which has been a challenge for him all season. A good place to start on offense is Djogo, who shot 4-9 from three and jumpstarted the offense, getting them out of a number of ruts with timely shots.
The first meeting between the two teams resulted in a three-point Towson victory with a similar outlook from both squads. Djogo led the Huskies with 17, while an armada of Tigers in double figures were paced by 18 from Holden and 13 from Thompson. Towson once again shot poorly from three, this time posting a slightly more respectable 30% line. The similarity of these two games and the difference in their results highlights just how much Northeastern needs to up their offensive output. They simply cannot rely on holding Towson to 7% from three. If the Tigers can be held to 30% once again with decent work in the paint as well, that needs to be enough of a defensive stand for Northeastern to come out on top.
All eyes will be on the Northeastern offense and if coach Coen has any last tricks in the bag he saved for the only part of the season that truly matters. While it has been a massively disappointing year for Northeastern, there is still one final chance to rewrite the story of the season. As Coen has been sure to note, everyone enters the CAA tournament undefeated. Can Northeastern keep it that way through next Tuesday? The odds are long, but as the saying goes, you never know what’s going to happen in the CAA.