Can Northeastern rise above the CAA? With Coen at the controls, it’s possible


File photo by Brian Bae

Head coach Bill Coen roams the sideline during a home game. He’s now in his 13th season at NU.

Charlie Wolfson, editor-in-chief

Northeastern entered the season as the consensus pick to win the CAA and advance to the NCAA Tournament after coming within a couple points of doing so last season. What was last year a very young and talented roster was expected to mature and overtake its league competition.

Things rarely work out in such a tidy way year-to-year in collegiate athletics. Bill Coen, in his 13th season as head coach, has dealt with a chain of issues that have his team at 7-3 in the conference behind Hofstra at 9-1.

  • Shawn Occeus, a starting junior guard and last year’s CAA Defensive Player of the Year, has been limited to just 11 games this year. He didn’t appear at all until Dec. 8, and had to sit out Saturday’s huge game against Hofstra due to undisclosed injuries.
  • Vasa Pusica has only played 15 games this season. Pusica is the driving force of the team; almost every offensive possession runs through him at point guard and he’s important on the defensive end as well. He has averaged 16 points per game, leaving a gaping hole in his absence.
  • NU’s three conference losses (at Delaware, at Hofstra, at Towson) came by a combined eight points. In the Delaware game, five players scored in double figures, but NU’s three centers combined for just five rebounds. Two Delaware forwards combined for 18. At Towson, NU got outrebounded as a team 38-18.

But after a huge win Saturday at Matthews Arena over previously-undefeated Hofstra, things are looking up for the Huskies. The CAA will only get one NCAA Tournament bid, which means that all that matters is winning the conference tournament in March. NU doesn’t need to catch Hofstra in the standings — though they could, they’re just two games back — they need to enter the tournament hot and execute in the big games.

How did Northeastern, a team that got outrebounded badly in three CAA losses, rout Hofstra by 14 to end the Pride’s nation-best 16-game winning streak? The answer is why NU fans should be feeling good about this team’s chances: Bill Coen is a top-notch coach at the mid-major level, and he showed it on Saturday.

The first and most obvious challenge for Coen and his players Saturday was that their best defensive player (Occeus) went down with an injury at the worst possible time. Hofstra’s electric senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman is by all measures the toughest guard in the CAA.

He came in as the third-highest scorer in the nation with 26 points per game, and his presence drew the national media and the Boston Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge to Matthews to see him. With Occeus out, Donnell Gresham Jr. drew the hefty assignment of trying to contain Wright-Foreman.

Wright-Foreman’s line on Saturday: 15 points, three fouls, five turnovers, no assists and three rebounds on 5-14 shooting.

“We were without Shawn [Occeus] today, and Donnell stepped up and drew the defensive assignment on Wright-Foreman,” Coen said after the game. “I thought he did a really great job on him, as best as anybody could do for us. From the jump, that really set the tone.”

He didn’t just send Gresham out to try to shut down Wright-Foreman on his own, though. He tasked his frontcourt of Anthony Green, Tomas Murphy and Jeremy Miller with protecting the interior so Gresham was free to be aggressive on the ball at the perimeter.

“I thought Donnell was really good getting physical on the ball, and I thought the three guys behind the ball did a really good job picking up the pieces,” Coen said. “[Wright-Foreman] is just so shifty with the ball, he can split ball screens, he can dribble around the big, he can pull back and duck behind 3s. He’s an incredibly hard guard for anybody.”

Pusica said NU has “other players who can defend” in Occeus’ absence and reiterated the team approach to defense.

“Red [Gresham] stepped up today,” Pusica said. “It comes down to team defense, and I think we did a good job with that. That’s how you play against players and teams like that. It’s got to be team defense.”

The duel between Pusica and Wright-Foreman came to a key point, in terms of coaching, midway through the first half. Each picked up a pair of fouls, and their respective coaches had to weigh the benefit of leaving them on the floor against the risk of having them foul out. Saturday’s result can be traced to the fact that Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich sat Wright-Foreman down immediately, and Coen left Pusica in the game in a key calculated risk.

“He’s an experienced player,” Coen said. “When you have a player like that, and you have a player with a pretty good game going just sit and marinate on the bench, sometimes they don’t get it going again. We want to make sure they stay in touch with the game.

“I know Vasa can count to five.”

Pusica didn’t sweat the foul trouble, and he dragged the weight of his fouls to a 24-point, eight-rebound, two-steal, 7-12-shooting, 37-minute output.

“I’m just out there playing,” he said. “I could’ve done a better job not getting those fouls, and then playing better defense while I had those two fouls. Guys were attacking me and I probably could’ve put a little more effort into that [if I didn’t have the fouls]. It just means I’m part of this and that he believes in me.”

Wright-Foreman couldn’t get into a rhythm in the second half, and aside from one explosive dunk couldn’t “score in bunches,” as Coen feared he would. Post-game, Mihalich said he always sits players down when they’ve accrued two early fouls.

Another Coen masterstroke came when Hofstra picked up a technical foul, allowing Coen to choose which Husky would go to the line for two free throws — the pressure-packed kind with nobody lining up to rebound and no live ball after the shot. He could’ve sent Pusica to the line — he was clearly locked in from the floor that day. Instead, Coen tapped Jordan Roland.

Roland had struggled up to that point in the game, and had yet to make a field goal. But Coen saw the transfer guard who shoots 91 percent from the line and took an opportunity to get the sharpshooter going.

“Shooters, sometimes [they] just need to see it go in, and the net moves the way it always moves, and there’s life in the gym,” Coen said. “He’s got a temperament to go up in a big game with nobody on the line and make shots.”

Roland drained both, and went 2-2 from long range the rest of the way to finish with 10 points. Yet again, Coen made a gamble and it paid off in a big way.

Coen being a master tinkerer is nothing new. Last year, he started the season with then-sophomore guard Bolden Brace in his starting lineup. It made sense at the time: Brace was coming off an intriguing freshman year that included a 40-point explosion at Elon. But Brace struggled early on in the role, and simultaneously, the newcomer Pusica was emerging as a go-to scorer and ball handler.

Coen swapped Brace out of the starting lineup after just a few games and installed Pusica as the focal point of the offense. Pusica thrived in the role of minutes-eater, and Brace provided a spark off the bench every night.

Full marks to Brace for being flexible, but it’s impressive that Coen was able to demote a player in terms of court time and end up getting more production out of said player. Brace averaged a healthy 7.9 points per game off the bench last year, plus 4.7 rebounds and a couple assists.

Brace arrived on campus this fall ready to enter the starting lineup: So far he’s averaged 9.4 points per game, 2.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent 3-point shooting and just 1.4 turnovers on 29.8 minutes per game. It’s fair to say that Coen’s handling of this player throughout his three years at NU has been impressive, and perhaps masterful.

A challenge still awaits this team if it is to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, Devon Begley’s freshman year. They are unlikely to get the top seed in the conference tournament, which will render their path through the tournament harder than it was last year.

And then there are the intangibles. Northeastern was poised to knock down the tough College of Charleston in the championship last year, and led by double digits, but still fell in overtime. That could fuel them or it could make them second-guess themselves. With Coen at the helm, though, one would lean toward expecting them to learn from their past rather than being haunted by it.

“Our guys stepped up and took the challenge,” Coen said of facing Hofstra without Occeus. “I think it’s going to take something like that in order to win a CAA championship. You need a full complement of starters and reserves and all hands on deck to beat a good program.”

Pusica pointed out that it’s not all a blessing to be preseason favorites.

“We were picked to win this league, so every team against us is going to have a little more energy and a little more focus. We just need to match their energy every single time,” he said.

Coen closed his media session Saturday by indicating that he won’t simply lean on his team’s strengths (Pusica takes to the rim, Jordan Roland 3-pointers, getting Anthony Green 1-on-1 looks inside). He has a laundry list of upgrades for the team to make before they’re put to the test in Charleston, South Carolina next month.

“We’ve got to keep getting better,” he said. “We have three losses by a total of eight points. Can we get a possession or two better in our next game? Can we eliminate second chance baskets for our opponents? Can we eliminate turnovers? Can we shoot better from the line? Where can we improve? We need to keep getting better in order to accomplish [the CAA title].”