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College basketball stars shine brightest in March, but winning a championship takes a constellation.
Northeastern’s run to the Colonial Athletic Association title in 2019 provides an example. In the Huskies’ three CAA Tournament wins, a different Husky set the scoring pace in each win with Jordan Roland posting 21 points in the quarterfinals; Shawn Occeus posting 17 in the semifinals; and Vasa Pusica going for 21 in the final.
The CAA’s standout scorers this season are well-established, but their running mates will be just as important in deciding who dances on into the NCAA Tournament.
Some of the Colonial’s prospective wild cards have shown up in the stretch run of the regular season. Hofstra surged to no worse than a share of the regular-season crown with last weekend’s win at Delaware, a game in which Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton combined for 52 points.
Of course, no one would refer to Pemberton as the wild card alongside Buie; the tandem have been one of the nation’s most consistent tag teams on the season. Buie in particular has established himself as a leading candidate for CAA Player of the Year.
Tareq Coburn, however, adds another layer that makes the Pride the squad to beat in D.C.
Coburn’s February includes a 19-point in the win at William & Mary, a 12-point, eight-rebound and four-assist showing against a UNC Wilmington bunch that’s spent the last month-and-a-half as a decided spoiler, and 11 points and eight rebounds at Delaware.
“He’s playing really, really good basketball,” Pride coach Joe Mihalich said in his postgame comments on Saturday. “He’s an elite shooter, he’s always been a great shooter. But it’s the other things he’s doing now. You mention his defense, his rebounding, his slides in the zone. He’s doing a great job with the coverages.”
While splitting the CAA championship with Hofstra is unlikely -- it needs the Pride to lose both of its final-weekend games against Towson and James Madison, while closing out with a win of its own against Elon -- William & Mary can lock up the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament this coming weekend.
The Tribe won a pair of Saturday thrillers to reach that position, first beating Delaware at home on Feb. 15, then rallying in a back-and-forth affair at James Madison on Feb. 22.
Against Delaware, in a game that likely NBA draft pick Nathan Knight played arguably his best ball of the season, Bryce Barnes was an integral part of the win. Barnes delivered timely buckets on an evening in which he shot 6-of-9 from the floor for 12 points.
As important, the guard dished seven assists and grabbed five rebounds. He came up huge in the win over UD, while Luke Loewe delivered at a career-best pace in the wild win over James Madison.
His 27 points, which included a 6-of-7 night shooting from 3-point range, provided the kind of perimeter scoring complement necessary to exploit a defense keying in on the interior threat of Knight.
The 27 points earned from junior guard Luke Loewe helped the @WMTribeMBB escape James Madison 78-74 Saturday and maintain its hold on the 2 seed in the impending Colonial Athletic Association tournament. https://t.co/ldNwWsIubD pic.twitter.com/XJ3kss3QCO— The Flat Hat (@theflathat) February 25, 2020
As Tribe coach Dane Fischer noted in his postgame press conference, James Madison “really packed it in the paint and they just didn't guard a couple of guys on the perimeter...They really made a conscious effort to keep [the ball] out of [the paint].”
When a shooter like Loewe gets cooking, it’s tough for a defense to remain committed to that philosophy.
That inside-outside dynamic works both ways, too. Delaware’s guard-forward duo of Nate Darling and Justyn Mutts. Martin Inglesby said earlier in the season the two “are really connected,” the result of spending the 2018-19 season simultaneously redshirting.
Darling’s emerged as one of the nation’s premier scorers, while Mutts is a dependable presence on the inside. His rebounding at 8.4 per game is steady, but the Blue Hens are arguably at their most dangerous when he goes off as a scorer -- like in his 30-point, 13-rebound effort against Hofstra on Jan. 23.
Nayke Sanders brings a similar element to Towson. While the Tigers have a potent one-two punch on the perimeter in Brian Fobbs and Allen Betrand, Sanders is a hard-nosed, physical presence central to Towson’s defensive identity.
He’s also upped his statistical production as CAA play has progressed.