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Northeastern powers through a race of unknowns

How Bill Coen and his Huskies are right back at the top of the CAA standings.

NCAA Basketball: Northeastern at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

According to Northeastern head coach Bill Coen, the Colonial Athletic Association race comes down to one thing: the unknowns.

From trying to figure out what his young team would look like, to the types of workouts the team can participate in, all the way to seeing whether or not games will be played, this season has been filled with plenty of unknowns for his Huskies squad.

After playing in the Colonial championship game for three straight years, Coen’s team looked like it was about to enter a rebuilding season. The Huskies lost three starters and were picked seventh in the Colonial. Fast forward a month and a half and Northeastern is near the top of the CAA standings and looking to advance to its second NCAA Tournament in four years.

After an athletics-wide pause at Northeastern forced the Huskies to start the season in mid-December, it would take a bit longer for Coen to see what his team looked like in game action. After a 94-79 opening day loss to UMass, Coen was impressed that his team was able to turn around from a disappointing opening game and two days later show the mental toughness to get back in the fight and beat that same UMass team.

From there, Coen saw glimpses of what his team could do during a brief but tough nonconference schedule against teams like Syracuse, Georgia, and West Virginia.

“Each of those games there were moments — maybe it was a half — a 10 minute moment, but there were bright spots,” Coen said. “The results weren’t what we were looking for, but there were bright spots.”

Coen hoped the lessons from the nonconference schedule would translate once the Huskies got to the conference play, and man, the lessons have translated.

One of the biggest unknowns for this year’s Northeastern team would be how it would respond to losing three starters and incorporating a young group of players into an already challenging and limited preseason.

“We said early on our sophomores and juniors were going to have to play like seniors and our freshmen had to play like sophomores and juniors in order for us to win,” Coen told me.

Led by sophomore guard Tyson Walker at 18 points and 5 assists per game, the team has taken charge and shown that the unknowns are what define the CAA.

For Walker, he has taken his game to the next level.

“He made a huge jump because of the way he approached the preseason and how he has approached the season,” Coen said. “Your freshman year you don’t know what you don’t know, and now you do, and what are you going to do about it? Tyson made some really mature choices about it.”

His 36-point performance out of a three-week pause against Elon showed the dominant footprint he can have on a game. While last year Walker had an experienced supporting cast to work with, this year he’s worked with an up-and-coming group of freshmen and upperclassmen that are starting to see their patience paid off with increased opportunities.

When it comes to freshmen, Coleman Stucke and Jahmyl Telfort have led the way.

“They have both played really well for freshmen and fit in nicely,” Coen said. “They’re guys that are in the gym first thing in the morning putting in their extra time, they’re staying deliberate and mindful with their bodies and that has allowed them to play at the level they’re playing at.”

As Coen noted, if his team was to be successful this year, players like Stucke and Telfort would need to play at a higher level — something they have made look easy.

It’s not just the freshmen and sophomores that have stepped up for Northeastern but the upperclassmen have taken the next steps that Coen has wanted to see. Most notably to Coen, guard Shaquille Walters.

“He’s shooting the ball at a high level, he leads us in rebounding, there’s nothing he’s not doing on the basketball court,” Coen said.

Walter, who plays multiple positions for Northeastern, has shown his versatility and stuffs the stat sheet in all ways. The combination of improvement from returning players and the pleasant jumps in playing levels from his younger players have put Northeastern in a win now position.

“We’re just fortunate. We have a really good group of individuals on our team,” Coen said. “Whatever we do, whether it’s just individual work at baskets we’ll be grateful for that, if it’s getting to play a game we’ll be grateful for that.”

With this attitude of gratitude and a focus on getting better each and every day, Coen has propelled his team to the top of the CAA standings. At the start of the year, who would’ve guessed it’d be his team of unknowns that would come to define the CAA race? Just a half game behind James Madison, Coen’s team is looking to shock the CAA and take home this year’s title proving that the unknowns of this year’s basketball season can actually be a positive.