Bill Coen possesses an affable cautiousness not often found in basketball coaches. And even if he wasn’t so low-key, his resume as one of the most experienced and decorated coaches in CAA history ensures he’s not prone to hyperbole when comparing past and present feats at Northeastern.
So when Coen says this year’s Northeastern team reminds him of some Matt Janning-led editions, well…as a certain 1970s commercial implored.
The Huskies’ hot start officially reached rarefied air last weekend with another pair of comeback wins in another sweep of a recent CAA championship game foe. Northeastern scored 10 of the final 12 points in a 67-62 win over Charleston on Saturday before overcoming a six-point deficit in the final five minutes of a 68-66 win on Sunday.
With the wins, Northeastern improved to 6-0 in the CAA — the 11th time a team has opened 6-0 or better since the CAA expanded in 2001-02 and the third such start for the Huskies. No other program has done it more than once.
The ’08-09 team was the squad Coen thought about Sunday. In many ways, it was his first trademark team, one filled with under-recruited players from all over the map who were experienced enough to run Northeastern’s motion offense and patient defense.
“We had a good run with Matty Janning, Manny Adako, and Nkem Ojougboh and all those guys,” Coen said Sunday afternoon, listing players he recruited from Minnesota, Georgia, and Texas by way of Texas-San Antonio, respectively.
But that ’08-09 team was led by a pair of veterans in Janning and Adako, who were only juniors yet had already combined to start 180 games by the end of the season. There are no seniors on this year’s roster and just two juniors — Shaquille Walters and Jason Strong — who have been with the program their entire careers.
Northeastern didn’t get to practice until late September due to the pandemic and played just six non-conference games. After three straight CAA title game appearances, the Huskies were picked seventh in the preseason poll.
But Northeastern has displayed a toughness and resiliency belying its inexperience. The Huskies’ last four wins have all come in games in which their lowest win expectancy, per KenPom.com, slipped below 30 percent. The win probability was at 2.9 percent when Northeastern trailed Hofstra by 19 points on Jan. 7 and at 15.6 percent with 6:41 left Sunday, when transfer Chris Doherty scored his only basket of the game with a tie-breaking putback in the final 20 seconds.
“This group has come together quicker and without expectations, because you really don’t expect a team without a senior on the roster to play at this high level,” Coen said. “We’re getting leadership from up and down the lineup. Guys really enjoy each other. They enjoy playing for each other and they just don’t want to let their teammates down.”
Of course, this is a year like no other, and if Northeastern loses the opener of this weekend’s scheduled series against James Madison, the Huskies won’t officially be the last unbeaten team in the CAA (the Dukes are 1-0).
But sweeping Hofstra and Charleston — the programs that succeeded and preceded Northeastern as CAA champions — serves to underline how quickly and how well the Huskies have positioned themselves. Of the 10 previous teams to open 6-0 or better in CAA play, four reached the NCAA Tournament and four made the NIT. The only ones to miss out on postseason play were Northeastern in 2008-09 and William & Mary (6-0 last season).
“The young guys are growing right before our eyes,” Coen said. “I think everybody’s in a good spot emotionally. They’re getting better and certainly everybody’s enjoying winning.”
THREE FOR ALL
Teams close out wins by hitting key free throws down the stretch dozens of times a night. But have you ever seen a team mount a last-minute comeback solely from the free throw line?
That’s what William & Mary did Sunday in earning a 69-64 win to salvage a split of a weekend series with Drexel. The Tribe overcame a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes by going 17-of-22 from the line, a span in which they were credited with just one field goal attempt (a missed 3-pointer by Luke Loewe).
“They drove us, we fouled them, they got us in the air,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’ve got some guys that have been really, really solid defenders for us that fouled. Then we weren’t able to score.”
The unusual run was fueled by freshman Connor Kochera, who went 12-of-14 from the line. Kochera took just 12 free throws all season prior to Sunday’s final media timeout.
He also drew a charge by Drexel’s Matey Juric with 2:26 left to highlight a sturdy down-the-stretch defensive effort by the Tribe, which held the Dragons to just three points and no field goals over the final 4:07.
“Just kind of willed himself there, playing with confidence and driving the ball,” William & Mary head coach Dane Fischer said afterward. “And then he had an enormous charge in the last four minutes of the game. That was a huge play for us because we needed to string together some stops to even give ourselves a chance being down nine with under four left. He was terrific.”
The loss Sunday was a particularly painful one for Drexel, whose road woes — the program is 6-40 away from the Daskalakis Athletic Center under Spiker — amplify the importance of homestands. A sweep would have provided some valuable momentum for the Dragons, who aren’t scheduled to play again until beginning a six-game stretch against Northeastern at the DAC on Jan. 30.
“I can’t sugarcoat this,” Spiker told the Inquirer. “This is a sick pit in my stomach right now.”
THE TOWSON EXPERIENCE
In another “welcome to 2020-21” moment: After playing three games in the previous 49 days, Towson played three games in four days between Saturday and Tuesday. And it was as herky-jerky as expected, with the undermanned Tigers falling to James Madison, 81-72 on Saturday before sweeping UNC Wilmington with a 72-69 win on Monday and a 78-74 victory on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the Tigers trailed by 10 points in the first half and led by 15 points with 4:40 to go before nearly squandering the lead. UNC Wilmington nearly one-upped William & Mary’s free throw feat when Mike Okauru hit seven straight free throws in a six-second span, including four free throws generated when technical fouls were called on Towson’s Jason Gibson and Solomon Uyaelunmo following a skirmish near mid-court. The Seahawks had a chance to tie the score or take the lead in the final seconds, but Joe Pridgen couldn’t get his layup around Charles Thompson.
The sweep of UNC Wilmington provided a look at the Pat Skerry template. Zane Martin, who missed the James Madison game due to personal reasons, played at a superstar, modern-day Charles Jenkins-esque level Tuesday, when he finished with 26 points, five assists, and five rebounds while running the point and regularly creating contact in the lane. And long before Gibson and Uyaleunmo got wrapped up with multiple Seahawks while fighting for a loose ball, the Tigers were their usual physical, nuisance-like selves
“I thought we were a little bit lifeless and we haven’t been together much,” Skerry said Tuesday of the Tigers, whose recent pause was their second. “So I’m still trying to figure out how to get this team to have that type of killer instinct all the time. We’re still trying to put roles together and energy and chemistry with pauses and injuries and everything else. Hopefully, this gives us a little life and we can build off of it.”
Following the sweep, UNC Wilmington head coach Takayo Siddle made it clear he was still tinkering as well. Jaylen Sims, who leads the Seahawks with 17.9 points per game, sat out the final 11:21 Tuesday after hoisting an ill-advised 3-pointer.
It marked at least the second time this season Siddle has benched Sims, who didn’t start a 78-59 win over Campbell on Dec. 21 because Siddle was displeased with his performance on defense.
“I have a standard and expectation of the way we should play,” Siddle said Tuesday. “I’m building a program here.”
A SPLIT-SECOND SWEEP FOR DELAWARE & HOFSTRA
Delaware came within a half-second Sunday of outdoing William & Mary’s unlikely comeback. The Blue Hens never led in a 68-67 loss to Hofstra but had the ball and the last shot, which Ebby Asamoah hoisted from the left corner after the buzzer thanks to a closeout by the Pride’s Tareq Coburn. The shot was waved off even before it swished through the net.
It was just the second empty possession in the final 11 trips down the court for Delaware, which ended the game on a 20-6 run. But the Blue Hens were out of timeouts and had to mount their final possession on the fly after Hofstra’s Isaac Kante missed a jumper with about 22 seconds left.
“He made the shot, which was the craziest part,” Delaware center Dylan Painter told The News-Journal after racking up 17 points and 15 rebounds. “We felt like the last 10 minutes we had the momentum, were the better team and if you gave us one more minute — we don’t even need one more minute, we should’ve just been more organized at the end.”
The last-second defensive stand by Hofstra capped a hot-and-cold defensive performance by Hofstra, which forced 20 turnovers before the Blue Hens’ late surge, and also ensured its losing streak would not extend in the most painful and potentially season-altering way possible. A 76-58 loss on Saturday gave the Pride its first three-game skid since January 2017.
“Any win’s going to help your confidence and your esteem and everything like that, but how do you grow from wins like you grow from losses?” acting Hofstra head coach Mike Farrelly said. “The biggest thing — momentum, all that stuff — is we have to practice to have it (by) working hard, playing hard, playing with energy and effort all the time.”
MATT LEWIS CAN’T LOSE
Matt Lewis made James Madison’s long wait to play its CAA opener a worthwhile one Saturday by draining nine 3-pointers — tying the school record — and scoring 30 points and adding eight assists in the win over Towson. The effort earned Lewis the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week award as selected by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
At 1-0, James Madison is scheduled to play for first place this weekend, when the Dukes are slated to host Northeastern.
A LOOK AHEAD
The CAA schedule took another coronavirus-related dent earlier today when the league announced Charleston’s next four games — against William & Mary and James Madison — have been postponed because of a positive test within the Cougars’ program. The remaining intact series at the moment are scheduled to pit Towson and Hofstra on Long Island and Delaware and UNC Wilmington in North Carolina.
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.