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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 22 Northeastern Huskies

After surprising the CAA last year, Northeastern is ready to step into the spotlight this season.

NCAA Basketball: Northeastern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 23-10 (14-4 CAA)
Key Returning Players: Vasa Pusica (G, Sr.), Shawn Occeus (G/F, Jr.), Donnell Gresham (G, Jr.), Bolden Brace (G, Jr.)
Key Losses: Devon Begley
Key Newcomers: Jordan Roland (G, Jr. via George Washington)

Longtime CAA fans know never to count out Bill Coen’s Northeastern Huskies, and last year was no exception. After bidding adieu to league Player of the Year T.J. Williams and being picked sixth in the preseason poll, all the Huskies did was plug in former San Diego point guard Vasa Pusica and tear through the Colonial again.

Northeastern defeated Boston University, Harvard and Vermont, and went win-for-win with Charleston throughout conference play. Pusica emerged as a legitimate POY candidate, and dominated teams in pick-and-roll sets. Sophomore Shawn Occeus morphed into the perfect complementary two-way player, doubling his scoring average from the season before and taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Northeastern shared a regular season title with CofC and made it all the way to the CAA Championship game, but fell in overtime to the Cougars. With essentially everyone back, the Huskies are a heavy favorite to finish the job in 2019.

Key Non-Conference Games

Part of the reason why Northeastern always seems to outperform expectations is because they test themselves in non-league play. The past three seasons, this team has won at Michigan State, at #15 Miami and at UConn and still schedules up. The Huskies have another strong schedule already, and will have the chance to play Purdue, Virginia Tech and Wichita State in the Charleston Classic if the bracket breaks right.

Nov. 9 at Harvard
Nov. 15 vs. Alabama (as part of Charleston Classic)
Nov. 24 at Davidson
Dec. 4 at Syracuse
Dec. 16 at Vermont

Three Things to Watch

Pusica’s Encore

Vasa Pusica was nowhere near the All-CAA radar this time last year. He won’t be overlooked by any team now that he’s orchestrating the league frontrunner. With him on the floor, Northeastern’s offense is silky smooth. He effortlessly navigates the screens and motion around him to set up teammates, and can drain a shot if teams play off him by half a step.

Having Gresham, Brace and newly-eligible Jordan Roland as shooting options should give Pusica space to operate a bit more consistently than last season. The Huskies need to squeeze every bit of production out of his time on the floor because too often their offense would grind to a halt without him. But with those weapons, we could see the senior Serbian improve on his 17 points and five assists per game averages.

How NU Guards the Paint

The Northeastern defense was lights out when it came to guarding the perimeter. The Huskies allowed opponents to shoot under 30% from three against them, and only surrendered about 68 points per contest. But if there’s a weakness, it’s getting stops inside. The frontcourt of Maxime Boursiquot and Anthony Green brings a lot to the table with their passing, off-ball movement and defensive rebounding, but the Huskies were victimized a few times when teams bullied them down low or slipped into the open paint.

How the Huskies protect the rim will be important because the preseason All-CAA team is full of players in two groups: talented big men like Devontae Cacok and Nathan Knight, and speedy scoring guards like Grant Riller and Justin Wright-Foreman. It’ll be interesting to see how Coach Coen shores things up inside.

Shawn Occeus - Swiss Army Knife

In an era of position-less basketball, every team wants someone like Shawn Occeus. The 6-4 lefty will defend anyone anywhere (64 steals, 18 blocks last season), take shots when they’re within the flow of the offense, and effortlessly switch roles within a game. At varying times he might convince you he’s the team’s best athlete, best shooter or best finisher. He took a big leap from Year One to Year Two, but is still just scratching the surface of his potential.

Tune in for at least one highlight play from Occeus per game, but expect to see a more polished overall player this season.

X Factor

Tomas Murphy

Sophomore forward Tomas Murphy is the X-factor for me this season. He was one of the league’s highest-rated incoming recruits last season and lived up to the hype by playing all 33 games, which earned a spot on the All-Rookie team. If his game models that of his older brother Alex, who finished his career at Northeastern in 2017, Tomas projects as a skilled four who can step out to the perimeter.

He certainly showed flashes by dropping 15 and six in his first collegiate game. If Murphy can put on some more weight to defend other CAA bigs, and improve his three-point shooting (25%, on one attempt per game last year), he can give Northeastern a dimension they didn’t really have last season.