Just under 72 hours before his Northeastern Huskies would kick off their 2014-15 season, Bill Coen was upbeat and confident about the upcoming year. His roster is, according to the ninth-year head coach, his most experienced during his tenure on Huntington Avenue.
Rightfully so, expectations are as high as ever for the Huskies under Coen. Northeastern boasts a ridiculously athletic and long lineup for a mid-major program with the likes of seniors Scott Eatherton and Reggie Spencer up front and juniors Quincy Ford and David Walker on the wings. They were picked to win the Colonial Athletic Association in the coaches and media preseason poll. ESPN's bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, slotted the Huskies as a No. 15 seed in his preseason field-of-68 prediction.
Still, the highly anticipated season began to a familiar tune on Sunday. Northeastern and Boston University battled until the final buzzer at TD Garden as the opening matchup of the second-annual Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. Fitting for two schools deadlocked at No. 42 in the U.S. News' academic rankings.
The schools, located just about a 20-minute walk from one another, have opened the last five seasons against each other. In 2012-13, the contest came down to Northeastern's Demetrius Pollard draining a buzzer-beater three-pointer. A year ago, BU used a last-minute 10-2 run to steal a 72-69 victory at the Garden. Northeastern overcame an 11-point second-half deficit to escape with a 71-65 victory on Sunday.
Walker powered Northeastern with a career-high 23 points on 6-10 shooting from three-point land. Sophomore point guard T.J. Williams pulled off a tremendous Rajon Rondo impression, finishing with 7 points, 9 rebounds and a career-high 8 assists.
Northeastern has now won four of the last five against BU and eight of the last 11. There has not been a double-digit margin of victory in the series since 2006.
"My first year here at BU, I probably did not recognize the rivalry the way I probably should have," BU head coach Joe Jones said. "We got into that game, it was at our place, it was a sell-out crowd and actually the floor was shaking during the game. They beat us and I remember seeing [Coen] hugging his players and they were so excited and then it really hit me what this is all about.
"This is a rivalry that really dates back to when we started playing basketball at BU. It's great to have it here in the Garden and to have two really good programs that do it the right way going up against each other to start the season. I think it's wonderful and I've communicated that to our players and I thought our guys came in with a good mindset, understanding that it was going to be an intense battle."
Sunday's matchup was the 142nd between the two programs. Over the recent years, it's morphed into a budding rivalry.
"My three years now here, the games have been great," BU junior guard John Papale said. "It definitely gets a little bit chippy sometimes, I don't really get involved in it. I think we definitely go into this game trying to beat them because they're less than a mile away. It means something to us and I'm sure it means something to them."
Ford has reveled in his team's success against the Terriers.
"Every year this is always the opener, so we never want to lose to BU," Ford, fresh off season-ending back surgery, said. "We see them all the time. We play pickup with them during the summer. There's always trash talking, like friendly competition, going back and forth. I think it's a big game. You always have to have that first win. Always."
The programs are in completely different situations this winter. Coen's squad finds itself at the apex of his rebuilding effort, loaded with veteran talent expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Jones' team finds itself reeling from losing its top three scorers from a year ago. Nonetheless, these two clubs will continue to battle mano e mano for years to come.
It's become as much of a winter staple in Boston as a piping hot cup of clam chowder.