The Northeastern Huskies played through a challenging non-conference schedule in 2012. When the calendar flipped to 2013, Bill Coen’s club used lessons they learned to dominate in Colonial Athletic Association conference play and win the league’s regular season title for the first time since joining the CAA in 2006.
This season, entering somewhat of a rebuilding year—Coen lost his two senior captains and thousand-point scorers Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith to graduation in the spring, leaving all underclassmen on is roster—Northeastern’s non-conference schedule in 2013-14 looked even more challenging on paper back in September. Now preparing to play UNCW in their CAA opener tonight, the Huskies stand at 3-11 after battling through the 17th toughest schedule thus far, according to ESPN.com.
"Quite typically, we aim to play the best opponents we can play and maybe this year we over did it a little bit," Coen said Tuesday during the weekly CAA coaches teleconference. "But I think when you play that type of schedule, you really learn about yourself and specifically things you need to work on. We’ve always felt that it’s been great preparation to play against all the great players and the great coaches in the CAA and I’m hoping this year it serves that same purpose."
Some of that preparation came while upsetting Georgetown in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on November 21 and almost knocking off Florida State during the tournament as well. Coen’s club battled some of the nation’s top talent on a nightly basis.
"I think the majority of the teams that we’ve played so far will end up in the postseason—whether it’s in the NCAA, the NIT or so on. So, I like to tell my team that every time we take the floor it’s against a postseason opponent," Coen, the 2013 CAA Coach of the Year runner-up said. "While we don’t want to take any solace in morale victores, we know that we’re capable of playing at a high level but we also know that we’re not as consistent as we need to be to beat that level opponent."
The Huskies’ fought valiantly. In Northeastern’s 10 losses during November and December, the Huskies fell by an miniscule average of 5.8 points per game.
"We’re not that far away, but we’re fully aware that we’re not getting it done right now."
Unfortunately, the Huskies capped off their non-conference slate with a 30-point defeat at Vanderbilt in Nashville last Saturday. One could come up with a plethora of excuses for Northeastern, but Coen won’t.
"Obviously we were disappointed in the way we competed. They fired on all cylinders and we didn’t get our balance in the first half," Coen said. "The second half we played them even, but we certainly didn’t respond to the challenge coming out of the gate."
The game revealed one of the Huskies’ biggest flaws, however. With the edition of redshirt-junior Scott Eatherton, a transfer from St. Francis (Pa.), Northeastern now plays a half-court offense predicated on feeding the ball into Eatherton or junior forward Reggie Spencer down low. And with a team full of inexperienced youngsters still finding their footing on this team and in Division I basketball, the Huskies have struggled in the half-court offensively, motion grows stagnant and there is hardly any dribble penetration from the guards.
"We’ve got a young team—we don’t have any seniors—so I think everybody is in some sense deferring to their teammate," Coen said. "[Scott Eatherton, Reggie Spencer and sophomore guard David Walker] have been so good for us, they’ve all done a great job, but we do need some other contributions down the line and I think those guys are ready to step up."
According to the coach, his team is ready to collectively rise to the occasion now that conference play has arrived. Even going 3-11 thus far, Northeastern can still win the CAA regular season title and earn an automatic berth to the NIT like last season and the team is still capable of winning the CAA Tournament and earning that elusive NCAA Tournament ticket.
"I think that our team is still positive, confident and ready to learn. I think when you go through the gauntlet and play a top-20 non-conference schedule, I think guys can give into it a little bit," Coen said. "But we had arguably our best practice of the year [Monday]. As a coach, when you see your guys respond to adversity like that, that’s an extremely positive sign because that means that there’s a ton of fight left in them."
The question now remains if the Huskies can improve from the lessons they learned during non-conference and convert losses into the win column with the turn of the calendar for the second season in a row.