Bill Coen was talking about the sophomore leap point guard Tyson Walker needs to make when he summarized the entire philosophy on which he’s built Northeastern’s men’s basketball program.
“I think we don’t really worry too much if the hill is high or the mountain’s high that you’ve got to climb,” Coen said during a Zoom call Thursday morning. “It’s just are they willing and are they a willing participant?”
There is, of course, no bigger hill or mountain to climb than 2020. And while Coen noted there’s no preparation for the challenges presented by a year dominated by a pandemic, he and the Huskies — who hope to open their season this afternoon by visiting Massachusetts in the opener of a weekend home-and-home — are at least already well-versed in and accustomed to embracing challenges that might not exist at other Division I schools.
Northeastern, located in Boston, is one of just two city-based CAA schools, which means the Huskies lack some of the space and facilities their rivals enjoy. The 110-year-old Matthews Arena is also home to the school’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, so in more normal times, wintertime Saturdays are filled with hockey-basketball doubleheaders in which the arena is turned over in between games.
Coen’s recruiting efforts are globe-trotting enough to put Carmen Sandiego to shame. Since the 2009-10 season, Northeastern’s roster has featured players from 20 states and 10 foreign countries. The Huskies this year have players from five states and five foreign countries.
“We get an opportunity to coach really special kids — kids, as you mentioned, that come from all around the world, looking forward to a chance, looking for an opportunity and allowing you to coach them,” Coen said.
The best player Coen has recruited is Matt Janning, whom Coen plucked from Watertown, Minn., a town of fewer than 5,000 residents. The Huskies’ loss in the CAA semifinals in 2010, Janning’s senior year, marked the beginning of a methodical decade-long emergence as the league’s most consistent program.
Northeastern fell in the CAA championship game in 2013 and in the semis in 2014 before finally winning it all in 2015. The Huskies made the semis again in 2016 and squandered a late lead to Charleston in an overtime loss in the 2018 title game before becoming the first northern-based two-time champion in 2019. The most outstanding player in the 2019 tournament run was Vasa Pusica, who was born in Serbia and spent the first two seasons of his career at the University of San Diego.
Last year, Northeastern finished sixth in the CAA after going 9-9 in league play and suffering eight of the losses by five points or fewer. But the Huskies mounted a run to the title game, where they trailed by two at the final media timeout before losing to Hofstra, 70-61.
“We know what our identity would like to be it’s been the same for every year,” Coen said. “It’s basically forming, storming and norming. You come together as a team, you have a plan and then 2020 hits or three tough losses in a row hit and that’s the storm part. And then you need somebody to lead you out of the storm and then normalize things and become who you’re going to become.”
With stars Jordan Roland and Bolden Brace graduating, Coen knew at the end of last season he’d have to find new leaders for 2020-21. But a trio of underclassmen — Myles Franklin, Tomas Murphy and all-tournament forward Maxime Boursiquot — transferred, which, combined with graduation losses, left the Huskies needing to replace 1,532 of the 2,347 points they scored last year and 556 of the 779 rebounds they collected.
There are no seniors on this year’s roster, which Coen, entering his 15th season, said is “…the youngest group we’ve had here.” The Huskies have five freshmen (one redshirt) and three sophomores (one redshirt). Walker and junior Shaquille Walters combined to play 1,810 minutes last season, almost exactly double the rest of the returnees (909 minutes).
Trying to develop such a young roster is difficult in any season, never mind one being played in the midst of a pandemic. Northeastern, with one of the most extensive campus-wide testing programs in the country, slowed the spread of the coronavirus — the positive rate on daily tests has hit or exceeded 0.50 percent just twice since testing began on Aug. 17 — as it proceeded cautiously in the buildup to the winter sports season.
“We get great support here from the university — they’ve done a tremendous job, really, giving us this opportunity to play with their investment in the testing and the protocols and the safeguards to keep us all moving forward,” Coen said.
The school paused all winter sports activities Nov. 24 — one day before the Huskies were scheduled to depart for the Paradise Jam in Washington, D.C. — after athletes from five teams had to be quarantined. Northeastern is the final CAA program to begin play.
“We had a phased-in approach due to all the concerns around COVID and it allowed us to go a little bit slower than I think if we just took the training wheels off and went right at it,” Coen said. “They’ve been tremendously resilient. We’ve been without a locker room — a couple of the normal things in life where you could get extra time or you’re in the weight room or in the gym, everything had to be kind of coordinated and planned. And they’ve done a really, really good job staying with the program and staying with it. And then once we started practicing a little bit, the excitement was there.”
Northeastern had another potential season-opener against UMass-Lowell on Wednesday canceled because of positive Tier 1 cases within the UMass-Lowell program. The Huskies, who usually play one of the most challenging non-conference schedules of any CAA school, have also scheduled games against Bryant next Wednesday and former league rival Old Dominion on Dec. 20.
“I think right now, we’re physically ready to go and I think my concern is the emotional rollercoaster,” Coen said. “Generally, you’re trying to peak and gear for the opening day, but when you don’t know when opening day is, it’s hard to do that.”
UMass hasn’t played yet this season, either, meaning the Bay State rivals will be going through an unusual shared experience over the weekend. With no UMass game tape to watch and the Huskies having only practiced against themselves, Coen said his objective is “…trying to prepare them for 85 percent of the things you’re going to see in college basketball” while also understanding this will continue to be a season unlike any other, even for a program experienced in scaling hills and mountains.
“I don’t know anybody who’s prepared for 2020,” Coen said. “It’s challenged everybody, from our governments to our schools to our simple way of life. Everybody’s had to change and adapt. I think you’ve got to be flexible, and the way we’ve done things probably won’t work in this environment. But I think it’s going to be the program and the staffs that can adapt quickly that are going to gain an edge, because it is going to be different.”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.