by Justin Littman and Michael Petillo
Oh, what a difference five months makes!
When the Colonial Athletic Association released it’s preseason primer in mid-October, hardly any media voters showed love to the Huskies, who were coming off an underwhelming 15-16 record and facing the reality off a life after T.J. Williams — the NU point guard who took home CAA Player of the Year honors in 2017. The Huskies were voted as the 6th best team in the conference, and no Husky made the preseason all-conference squads. Senior guard Devon Begley and junior forward Jeremy Miller received Honorable Mentions, the CAA equivalent of a good ‘ol pat on the back.
Fast forward to March, and the Huskies (21-9, 14-4 CAA) nearly swept the pre-conference tournament awards party all together. When the conference announced its awards via Twitter on Friday afternoon, Northeastern was well-represented.
Head Coach Bill Coen took home his first Coach of the Year award after leading the Huskies to a share of CAA title with College of Charleston. Although he was (possibly) snubbed of a CAA Player of the Year award — that honor went to Hofstra’s Justin-Wright Forman — star redshirt junior point guard Vasa Pusica was named to the All-CAA First Team in his first year on Huntington Ave.
Sophomore wing Shawn Occeus was named CAA Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in steals. Sophomore forward Bo Brace was the conference’s inaugural Sixth Man of the Year, in a testament to the Huskies’ staunch eight-man rotation. And finally, freshman forward Tomas Murphy was named to the All-CAA Rookie Team.
Clearly, Northeastern is a team that will be a handful once the elimination games begin. The Huskies’ first game of the CAA tournament will be this Sunday evening at 6 p.m. as they await then winner of the Delaware-Elon game on Saturday.
Bill Coen, Coach of the Year
Coen was a no-brainer for Coach of the Year. The Hamilton grad led NU to its third regular season title in the last six years, and the team’s 14-4 record in conference play ties the 2009-10 and 2012-13 Huskies for the best CAA record in school history. The Huskies enter conference tournament with an overall record of 21-9, and the best single-season winning percentage in Coen’s tenure.
After losing Williams to graduation last season, a return to league excellence was anything but guaranteed. Coen mixed and matched lineups early in the season as the Huskies struggled, but eventually settled on a group that worked. The offense thrived under newcomer Pusica, and Northeastern had one of the best three-point defenses in the nation.
Coen is just the fourth Northeastern coach to receive Coach of the Year honors, and the first since Ron Everhart in the 2004-05 season. Coen now has 199 career wins, and has the opportunity on Sunday to become just the third Northeastern coach to reach 200 wins. He would join some impressive company, as Jim Calhoun and Dick Dukeshire are the only other coaches to reach this mark in their time at Northeastern.
Vasa Pusica, All-CAA First Team
Pusica had a strong case for Player of the Year, so the First-Team nod comes as no surprise. The Serbian-born floor general ranked 9th in the conference in scoring (17.6 ppg) and 3rd in assists (5.0 apg).
The redshirt junior began the season as a bit of wild card after sitting out a season as a transfer from the University of San Diego, but quickly established himself as the vocal leader of a young Husky squad and their go-to scorer in crunch time. His emergence was the biggest key in Northeastern’s surprising rise to the top of the CAA.
On top of his superb per-game numbers, the Huskies star point guard scored at an incredibly efficient rate at all levels, posting a 49/42/79 slash line in CAA play.
Shawn Occues, Defensive Player of the Year
The 6’4” sophomore from Boynton Beach, Florida led the CAA in steals, averaging 2.03 steals per game.
Occeus, who came off the bench to start the season, moved into a starting role after the Huskies got off to a slow start to the season. Tasked with defending the best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis, Occeus embraced the role and played a significant part in helping the Huskies boast a top 10 three-point defense in the nation. The Huskies are 19-6 since Occeus was inserted into the starting lineup.
This season, Occeus played six conference games where he recorded at least four steals, and he tied his career high with six steals in Saturday’s season finale at Elon. That performance moved Occeus into a tie for seventh place in the Northeastern single-season record books, and he needs just two more steals to move up to sixth. Occeus becomes the third Northeastern player ever to win this award, and the most recent since Scott Eatherton won it in 2013-14.
Bo Brace, Sixth Man of the Year
Brace, a sophomore, wins the CAA’s first ever Sixth Man award in a season which saw him begin in the starting lineup before relinquishing that role to fellow sophomore Shawn Occeus before the start of conference play due to a slow start by both himself and his team. The change was one that Brace took in stride and proved to be vital in helping get Northeastern’s season back on track.
Upon moving to the bench, the offense that so many were expecting from Brace entering the season began to emerge and his three-point shot started falling. He knocked down 42.9% of his triples in conference play, a ten percent increase from a year ago and good for top ten overall in the conference.
Brace’s impact on NU, however stretched far beyond his scoring. He paced the team with 4.9 rebounds and was second with 2.3 assists per game.
Defensively, head coach Bill Coen was able to utilize a variety of different lineups as Brace’s 6’6” 230 pound frame allowed him the defend both bigs and perimeter players.
Tomas Murphy, All-CAA Rookie Team
Murphy was the only one of Coen’s four freshman to earn much burn this season, but he certainly took advantage of the opportunity.
Murphy — the brother of former Husky Alex Murphy and former NBA baller Erik Murphy — came off the bench to average 6.7 points and 2.4 rebounds on 57% shooting. He teamed with junior big man Anthony Green to form a versatile 1-2 punch in the post.
Murphy combined a soft shooting touch with an ability to run the floor, and his chemistry with Pusica was apparent, especially in the Huskies’ two overtime wins over UNCW (38 points combined).