Huskies strive toward their next goal: a CAA Tournament win


Charlie Wolfson

The Northeastern men’s basketball team has accomplished the first of its overarching goals for the season — a CAA regular season title — largely thanks to its season-ending, seven-game winning streak. They’ll have to run their streak to 10, though, to check the next box: a CAA Tournament championship and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s the best time of the year,” said Devon Begley, the team’s only fourth-year and the only player who has experienced a CAA Tournament championship. “The team’s starting to jell with each other, we’re learning how to keep leads and how to come back.”

The season-ending hot streak culminated with a win Saturday at Elon University that gave NU a share of the regular season title; they finished in a first-place tie with the College of Charleston, though Charleston won both of its games against NU.

“We went in there with a focus on being conference champions, and nobody was going to get in our way,” Begley said.

The Huskies haven’t lost since they fell at home against Charleston on Feb. 1. Vasa Pusica, the third-year point guard who’s been the team’s leading scorer this year, said they knew after that loss they needed to ramp things up.

“After that loss, we agreed that we needed to have a seven-game winning streak going into the tournament,” Pusica said. “We knew we could do it. Those are the goals we set. If our goal is to win a championship, we have to play well for long stretches.”

Head coach Bill Coen, in his 12th year on the job, said the goals to don’t change from year to year, regardless of how the roster changes.

“The standards are what they are,” Coen said. “Sometimes [a CAA championship] is a little more realistic than others. This year, having only one senior, it was a little more challenging. But we like to keep the bar there and adjust accordingly.”

The CAA preseason rankings, which predicted NU to finish sixth, played a large role in how the players motivated themselves for the season. Coen said preseason polls for mid-major conferences are often inaccurate because of a lack of knowledge on new players.

“Preseason rankings are solely based on the returning starters and identifiable names,” Coen said. “Vasa [Pusica] is a great example of how it often comes down to someone who wasn’t even on the radar in the preseason. When you’re at the ACC level, everybody knows who Carolina or Duke has coming in and those rankings are more accurate.”

The players, though, didn’t like being picked sixth, and worked all season to prove the ranking wrong.

“It was actually good for us,” Shawn Occeus, a second-year guard said. “It was good in the sense that it gave us more motivation on top of what we had coming off that loss to Towson [in last year’s tournament]. Being picked to be sixth-best was something we took personally, and each and every day we worked to prove people wrong.”

Pusica said the ranking fueled their effort throughout the season, and that they knew they “were better than that.”

The hallmarks of the 2017-18 team have been a balanced rotation, a selflessness with the ball and a fun, friendly team atmosphere. Those attributes, Coen said, have allowed the group to work together to the best of their abilities.

“This team likes each other,” Coen said. “When you have that, they’re willing to weather some adversity. They’ve been a great group in terms of being receptive to coaching and being put in different situations. When we made an adjustment in the starting lineup, people didn’t pout. People didn’t give in, they dug in.”

Bolden Brace, a second-year guard, embraced a move from the starting lineup to the bench earlier this season. He said the decreased pressure, along with the chance to impact the game in a different way, allowed him to contribute more to the team overall.

“It’s perfect,” Begley said of the team dynamic. “This is the time when the whole team should be clicking as one. We’re all on the same page. That’s exactly what you want.”

That chemistry wasn’t there from the start; the team is so young that many of the players were stepping into new roles or were new to the team entirely. After a four-game losing skid during non-conference play, things started to come together.

“I believe those games, even though we lost, we learned a lot from them,” Pusica said. “We came out as a better team. It was a new team, new roles. As we figured things out, we got better.”

Now, the team will have to find a way to carry their momentum through a dormant week into their tournament debut Sunday.

“It’s a challenge,” Coen said. “It’s kind of like when you’ve had a great first half, you don’t want to go into the locker room for halftime. In another respect, it’s a chance to refocus on some things that, in a normal game week, you don’t have time to do.”

Pusica plays more than 30 minutes per game, but the prospect of three must-win games in three days isn’t daunting to him.

“That’s what the tournament is all about,” Pusica said. “I think I have enough experience, I’ve played enough minutes this year and I feel pretty good. I don’t think it’ll be a problem for us, especially knowing that we’re such a deep team.”

Northeastern has showed it has the raw tools to win any CAA game; their tournament fate could come down to mindset, competitiveness and rising to an occasion. With an at-large NCAA bid unlikely, winning this tournament is probably their only chance to go to the big dance.

“It’s very different. It’s win or go home,” Coen said. “I think there’s a balance. Anxiety’s high, how do you manage that? You have to stay true to your identity as a team, and also keep it fun. I’ve had teams that wanted to win so bad, and they came in really tight. That’s a mistake. You want to be focused, but loose.”

Begley is the only player on the team who’s experienced a CAA tournament triumph and NCAA bid — they ran the table in Charleston in his freshman year.

“Three games, that’s all you gotta give,” Begley said. “Three games.”