There’s No “I” in “Northeastern Men’s Basketball Team”

by Milton Posner

On the Feb. 26 CAA coaches teleconference, Northeastern head coach Bill Coen was asked if he thought any of his players were worthy of consideration for the CAA’s postseason awards.

“It’s really difficult when it comes to our team, primarily because of our style of play,” Coen responded. “We try to run a balanced, team-first attack. Our guys buy into that.”

That Coen’s first instinct was to praise his team over any individual player is unsurprising; team-first talk is central to his interviews. Most coaches routinely do the same.

But Coen, the 2018 CAA Coach of the Year, is right. The stats back him up.

The Huskies don’t have dominant statistical performers. They don’t have a likely player of the year candidate, and they might not have any player win an individual award. But what Northeastern (20-10, 14-4 CAA) does have is a deep, team-first group that looks ready to cause damage heading into this weekend’s CAA Tournament in North Charleston.

A glance at the CAA’s top 25 scorers reveals two Huskies: redshirt senior guard Vasa Pusica and junior transfer Jordan Roland. Their averages of 17.9 and 14.8 points per game are good for 5th and 16th in the conference, respectively.

This would be unremarkable but for two points of context. The first is Pusica’s wrist injury, which caused him to miss six games and possibly play a few more at less than 100 percent. That renders his scoring average slightly less impactful.

The other point becomes apparent upon examining the rest of the top 25. The conference’s reigning — and likely repeat — Player of the Year, Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman, averaged 26.8 points; nobody else averaged above 22. Two Charleston Cougars — Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley — cleanly topped Pusica. UNCW and JMU have three scorers in the top 25 despite finishing eighth and 10th in the conference, respectively. Sixth-place Drexel has four. Fourth-place William & Mary has three in the top 20.

Northeastern doesn’t stand out in individual per-game rebounding either. Three Huskies made the top 25: Bolden Brace with 5.8 (14th), Anthony Green with 5.3 (16th) and Donnell Gresham Jr. with 4.8 (19th). But William & Mary has Justin Pierce and Nathan Knight at third and sixth, respectively. Seventh-place Elon and ninth-place Towson also have two players each who out-rebounded all Northeastern players. Brace, the best Husky rebounder, was more than doubled up by conference leader Devontae Cacok of UNCW (12.3 per game).

Yet Northeastern has arguably outplayed every other CAA team. They weathered a combined 56 missed games by last year’s starters (Pusica, Shawn Occeus and Max Boursiquot) to finish 14–4 in conference play. Their four conference losses all could have easily gone their way; they lost to Delaware by two in double overtime, to Hofstra on a heavily contested, 35-foot, buzzer-beating, running one-hander by Wright-Foreman, to Towson by just three, and to Charleston in overtime. 12 of their 14 wins were by double digits (two were overtime games), including a 14-point triumph over Hofstra, the lone squad to finish ahead of Northeastern.

The Huskies haven’t had a consistent primary offensive option this season. They’ve won not in spite of it, but because of it.

Pusica likely won’t contend for Player of the Year, nor will any other Husky. Despite a stellar defense that ranked second overall and first in three-point defense, no lone Husky is likely to replicate Occeus’ Defensive Player of the Year win from last season. Roland’s chances of succeeding Brace as Sixth Man of the Year were dashed when head coach Bill Coen kept starting him.

Pusica making an All-CAA Team  is likely the greatest individual honor any Northeastern player will claim this season. But this team isn’t built for individual honors. Six players averaged more than eight points; among those six, those with the worst field-goal percentages — Gresham, Roland and Brace at 42, 45 and 47 percent, respectively — all shot an elite 41 percent from three.

That is the challenge that Northeastern’s CAA Tournament opponents face, the same task that awaits the opponents that will face them next year when Occeus and Boursiquot return.

There is nowhere for defenses to hide. Northeastern is too deep. Someone will beat you. And until the clocks run out and the stat sheets are final, you won’t know who it’ll be.

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