By Peyton Doyle
Jason Strong’s first day on a collegiate basketball court was Nov. 11, 2017. The lanky forward for the Huskies stood at 6’8” and weighed just 195 pounds when he first checked into the game against Wentworth and stepped onto the hardwood floor panels in Matthews Arena. The 18-year-old from Coconut Creek, Florida played 14 minutes that first game, taking six shots missing them all. Strong appeared in nine more games that season, two rebounds, dishing two assists and scoring zero points.
A little over two years later, he scored double digit points in four straight games for Northeastern. A month after that scoring stretch he started against the UNC Tar Heels at Chapel Hill.
In his final six games in the Huskies’ red and black he averaged 12 points a game on over 40% shooting from deep. Two of those games were in the CAA tournament where his scoring allowed for his team to edge past the William & Mary Tribe in the opening round.
Shaquille Walters did not see his first college minutes as a member of Northeastern’s basketball team but he would soon find himself there after transferring from Santa Clara before his sophomore year. His first game was also at home but against quite the opening opponent, the University of Alabama. In that first game Walters hit just two free throws, the first of his 727 points he would score as a Husky, the last of which came in the CAA tournament, where he struggled from the field but had six rebounds and four assists to go along with his 10 points in the final game against the Towson Tigers.
These two players have been to one national tournament together and two CAA title games. Over their careers, the duo combined for nearly 1,400 points and 600 rebounds. This past season, they were the two longest tenured players on head coach Bill Coen’s team.
While Nikola Djogo has not been on the team as long as Strong and Walters, he too was an important member of the 2021-22 team and has built a powerful connection with Coen over the years. Before deciding to spend the majority of his collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame, Djogo was heavily recruited by Coen who finally convinced him to join the Huskies as a graduate transfer this past offseason. Following the last game for the three seniors on March 6, Coen discussed his time with the graduating players and the relationships he has formed.
“Seniors always have a special place in my heart. They’ve been here through the ups and downs, and it’s a very long relationship, starting with the recruiting process, so a year or so before they even get to Northeastern you get to know them and their families,” Coen said. “To me, I always look at my role as a coach as an educator. You try to teach life through basketball. Hopefully, those guys learned a few things here. Jason and Shaq are great individuals, great teammates. Nik has only been here a year, but he’s a guy we recruited in high school as well, so we’ve got a long-standing relationship with him and his family. So there’s a sense of pride that they’ll be graduating this year and moving on, but also a sense of sadness that this chapter is over for them. But it’s like that each and every year and next year there’ll be a new group of seniors. We’re very proud of that group.”
The final year of their collegiate careers was far from ideal for each of these players. Individually they each saw success and failures. After two years marred by COVID-19, this past one was responsible for the least amount of team success that any of them had ever seen, from the full five years Strong spent at Northeastern, the first year at Santa Clara and the four following in Boston for Walters and the four that Djogo saw at Notre Dame before arriving on Huntington Avenue.
Walters took on a larger role as a ball handler for the Huskies this season and led the team as one of its best perimeter defenders. He set a career high in points per game as well as a career high for assists in a season. Throughout his career the London native was one of the most consistent guards on the team both as a scorer and a tenacious defender, flexing his turnaround jumpers and suffocatingly long arms.
Strong’s role took a slight step back this season after starting all but one game for the Huskies last year. The senior still showed he could provide some much needed scoring off the bench for a Northeastern offense that struggled mightily throughout the season. On Feb. 19, Strong scored a career high 19 points against Hofstra. After their win against William & Mary at the end of the regular season, Coen commended Strong for his performance against the Pride.
“Jason’s played really really well for us,” Coen said. “He’s a redshirt senior. He’s been around. He knows the ins and outs of the program. He shot the ball well down at Hofstra, made some shots tonight, really allows us to loosen up the offense. He’s an execution guy, he gets in the right spots, he’s got a level of experience, and it was great to see him playing like that down the stretch.”
For Djogo, this was his best year from a personal standpoint, fitting right into the Huskies’ starting lineup after coming off the bench for the majority of his four years with the Irish. Djogo was third on the team in PPG, second in RPG, first in steals and first in made threes. While he struggled early in the team’s first tournament game against the Tribe, Coen always had faith in his player to come through.
“You have a lot of jitters and anxiety on a new court. This is a different mind game, and Nik came out a little anxious,” Coen said. “He had some looks that would normally for him not go, but we called his number on a sideline out of bounds play when we needed a three. He’s our best three point shooter and he delivered. We talk about competitive greatness, being at your best when your best is needed, and even though he wasn’t having that type of night, he stepped up in the moment.”
While the final CAA tournament game against Towson did not go as the team wanted, the three graduating players all performed valiantly in their last game for Northeastern: the trio combined for 30 of the team’s 61 points and gave it everything they could on the defensive side of the ball.
After the season-ending loss in D.C., Coen discussed what it was like to see his players leave at the end of each year.
“The last game of the year is always an emotional locker room. Guys are moving on. It hits you like a trainwreck. You’re on a treadmill, you’re going 100 miles an hour and suddenly someone presses stop,” Coen said. “When that happens, the floodgates open. A little bit of emotion in the locker room, but what we talk about is anytime you put on a Northeastern uniform, the goal is to go out there and earn respect, respect from your opponents, respect from the fans, respect from your teammates and staff. I thought we did that over the course of the last two weeks here competing and we’ve got a lot to be proud of. We’ve had an up and down year. A lot of teams could have given in and not shown the fight and resiliency that we did here, and I was proud that we did. Learning from that is a life lesson. I’m very grateful to get an opportunity to coach [all my players]. Sometimes, the wins and losses just don’t show up on the score sheet. But earning that respect is important for us.”