by Matthew MacCormack and Justin Littman
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. —
It’s the matchup everyone wanted to see.
The North Charleston Coliseum will play host to Tuesday night’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship, with the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Top-seeded Charleston (25-7) takes on the No. 2 seed Northeastern Huskies (23-9) in a battle of conference co-regular season champs.
It’s sure to be a more exciting matchup than the team’s previous two meetings this season — both Charleston victories. The Huskies are playing with a different swagger since their last loss to C of C — a 69-64 defeat back on February 1st at Matthews Arena in Boston. Since then, the Black and Red have rattled off nine straight victories, good enough for the sixth longest winning streak in the nation.
Charleston has the type of dynamic star power you look for in a conference champ. Head coach Earl Grant can turn to savvy scorers in All-CAA First Team guards Joe Chealey and Grant Riller, as well as All-CAA Second-Team forward Jarrell Brantley, a do-it-all post presence.
Northeastern brings a balanced, defensive-oriented attack, spearheaded by the CAA Player of the Year runner up in point guard Vasa Pusica and CAA Defensive Player of the Year Shawn Occeus. Bill Coen, the CAA Coach of the Year, has gotten the most out of a deep group.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Click here to listen to WRBB’s pre-game coverage live from the Coliseum, beginning at 6:30.
WRBB’s pre-game primer has all you need to know about Tuesday’s winner-take-all matchup:
How Northeastern Got Here
— Northeastern MBB (@GoNUmbasketball) February 17, 2018
You don’t have to look any further than the CAA’s Preseason Media Poll to realize how low expectations were set for the Huskies this year.
Northeastern was projected to finish 6th in the conference, and no NU player made a preseason All-CAA team. Three major factors allowed the Huskies to exceed expectations:
- The redshirt junior Pusica — a transfer from University of San Diego — exploded onto the scene, giving the Huskies a go-to, crunch-time scorer (17.6 ppg) and unselfish distributor (5.1 apg)
- Occeus, a sophomore, grew into a lock-down perimeter defender, leading a defense that limits opponents to 29.5% from three –third best in the nation.
- Coen settled on an eight-man rotation that gives the Huskies incredible depth. A bench unit led by CAA Sixth Man of the Year sophomore Bo Brace provides diverse skills.
The Huskies had two blow-out victories over 7th-seeded Delaware (74-50) and 6-seed UNCW (79-52) to get to the championship round.
How Charleston Got Here
The Cougars were the CAA favorite from the beginning of the season. After losing to UNCW in the title game last year, Charleston returned their top three players in Chealey (the CAA Preseason Player of the Year), Brantley and Riller.
Chealey, a senior, is a classic scoring point guard. He averages 18 points per contest, thanks in large part to his ability to get to the line — his 7.16 free throw attempts per game ranks 25th in the nation.
Junior forward Brantley (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) missed almost the entire non-conference slate, but he’s been a beast in CAA play. He’s surprisingly agile at 6’7, 250 pounds, and brings a versatile offensive skillset alongside an ability to guard multiple positions on defense.
The X-Factor, though, may be the sophomore guard Riller. He’s gone bonkers since the last time these two teams played, averaging 26.4 points per game on 64% shooting from the field and 55% from three over his last nine games.
The Cougars scraped by No. 8 seed Drexel (66-59) and No. 4 seed William & Mary (83-73) to move on to the final.
Three Keys to the Game
BREAKING: Tonight @CofCBasketball playing for their first NCAA Tournament trip since 1999. But they do so with heavy hearts.
— Daren Stoltzfus (@DarenStoltzfus) March 6, 2018
Occeus vs. Riller
It’s the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (Occeus) against the hottest scorer in the league (Riller).
So far in the tournament, Occeus has locked up the CAA Freshman of the Year in Delaware’s Ryan Allen ( 5 pts, 1-10 shooting) and UNCW’s Jordon Talley (6 pts, 2-12 shooting), who was coming off a career-high 37 in the Seahawks’ quarterfinal victory over Hofstra.
Riller’s averaged 21 points over two games in the tournament, shooting 42% from three.
This is gonna be fun.
The Turnover Battle
The Cougars have the best turnover margin in the CAA. They won’t force many turnovers, but they do an outstanding job taking care of the ball. Only Virginia and Michigan have fewer turnovers per game on the year. The Cougars are 18-1 in games where they win or tie the turnover battle, including an 11-0 mark against CAA foes.
Charleston won the turnover battle in each of their previous victories over Northeastern. While the Huskies have thrived on forcing turnovers throughout the season, taking care of the ball has been their Achilles’ heel. They have more turnovers per game than any other CAA team, and have a negative turnover differential despite the great defense. The Huskies have not lost the turnover battle in four games, and will need to keep the momentum going tonight.
Charleston has the experience and talent to thrive when the defense tightens up at the end close games. The last time these teams met, the Cougars used a 5-0 run with just over two minutes remaining to break a tie and seal the victory. Joe Chealey has been the go-to guy for Charleston, and the senior will likely have the ball in his hands once again down the stretch. Northeastern has Vasa Pusica, who has proven to be plenty capable at the end of close games. The Huskies will rely on Pusica, and perhaps the shooters around him, to execute in crunch-time.