Northeastern certainly wants to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, but can they actually do it?
The Huskies earned a No. 13 seed in the Midwest Region against the blue-chip powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks — a team traditionally more associated with basketball success than their Boston opponents. Some commentators are already looking ahead at how Kansas could match up against the region’s No. 1 seed, North Carolina, in the Sweet Sixteen.
Others say not so fast.
“Kansas may not get past Northeastern,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Sunday night during the network’s bracket selection show.
Led by longtime coach Bill Coen and senior guard Vasa Pusica, the 23-10 team clinched their March Madness bid by winning 12 of their last 13 games and the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title.
Pusica, a sharp-shooting Serbian who averaged just under 18 points the last two seasons, went 7-of-12 from three-point range for 21 points in their championship win over Hofstra. And he’s not the only one who can splash it from deep. As a team, Northeastern’s 38.6 percent three-point shooting percentage ranked 17th in Division 1 basketball this season. Their effective field goal percentage ranks fifth.
That said, even in a down year, Kansas is still the favorite. Bill Self’s team hasn’t lost in the first round since 2006. Despite missing several key players, oddsmakers have the Jayhawks favored by 8.5 points Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.
Nevertheless, some experts are picking the underdogs from Boston — or Huskies, to be more specific:
New York Times sports reporter Marc Tracy included Northeastern in his six first-round upset picks, with the qualifier that Coen and company will have to find a way to “neutralize” Dedric Lawson, the Jayhawks’ versatile 6-foot-9 “double-double machine,” even if Kansas is without their full complement of players:
This is not a typical Kansas juggernaut: not without the big man Udoka Azubuike and the wing Lagerald Vick, both of whom are no longer playing: the former because of injury and the latter for what were labeled “personal reasons.” Northeastern, meanwhile, had several good early-season wins — versus St. Bonaventure, versus Alabama, at Harvard — and then made an impressive run through the Colonial Athletic Association. The Huskies know how to pick their shots, with the fifth-highest effective field-goal percentage in Division I.
Similarly, USA Today writer Scott Gleeson included Northeastern over Kansas in his list of the four “smartest” first-round upset picks. According to Gleeson, the Huskies have “a very real chance” of pulling it off on an opponent that “still hasn’t found its identity.”
That’s because what started off as a season with national title expectations for the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks was disrupted by the season-ending injury of preseason All-American Udoka Azubuike and then the late-season departure of second-leading scorer Lagerald Vick. KU failed to win the Big 12 regular season for the first time in 15 years and that’s not by mistake. It’s an off year, and that opens the door for Northeastern to become a Cinderella. Vasa Pusica (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) can shoot the lights out, draining seven three-pointers in that CAA title game while helping Northeastern rank in the top-20 nationally in shooting percentage beyond the arc and top-25 in triples averaged per game.
In their tournament cheatsheet, the Washington Post also warned basketball fans:
Don’t sleep on the Northeastern Huskies, who can light it up from three-point range and have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. They could upset the depleted Jayhawks in the opening round.
Calling the Midwest Region the “bracket of death,” New York Post sports writer Zach Braziller straightforwardly predicted an upset:
Northeastern should not be on the 13 line. At worst, this is a 12-seed. Injuries and defections led to Kansas’ run atop the Big 12 ending after a ridiculous 14 years, and the Jayhawks will get an early start on next season as the well-coached Huskies and star Serbian point guard Vasa Pusica finish what the 2015 team couldn’t in a near-upset of Notre Dame.
Mike DeCourcy, a college basketball writer for Sporting News, picked Northeastern as his sleeper in the region. And in addition to Pusica, he gave a lot of credit to the Huskies’ coach.
Northeastern is extremely well-coached by Bill Coen, who delivered his third 20-win season in the past five years and is making his second NCAA Tournament appearance of his 13-year tenure. Once part of a loaded staff that included future head coaches Tim O’Shea and Ed Cooley, Coen did a brilliant job in the Colonial Tournament to get the Huskies past a dynamic Hofstra team that was 27-7. This is not a great defensive team, but senior guard Vasa Pusica, a 40-percent 3-point shooter this season who hit seven 3s in the CAA title game, is the kind of player who barges into view in March.
That doesn’t mean Northeastern is the only trendy Cinderella pick in the Midwest. Yahoo’s Pat Forde is mightily impressed with the No. 12-seeded New Mexico State Aggies, who take on the No. 5 seed, Auburn, after finishing the season with a 30-3 record and a Western Athletic Conference tournament trophy. However, Forde also noted that Northeastern’s senior center Anthony Green, a 6-foot-10 Quincy native, may have the size to at least slow down Lawson.
The Aggies really might be the deepest team ever, with 13 players averaging double-digit minutes and 10 different players leading them in scoring in at least one game. NMSU has been to seven of the last nine tournaments, but this might be its best team in a long time. And don’t disregard Northeastern, which won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, is well coached by Bill Coen and has a big interior body in Anthony Green to combat Kansas’ patented inside-out offensive attack.
Even if the Huskies’ defensive stats won’t strike fear into opposing offenses, the sports gambling website The Action Network says Northeastern runs “one of the most beautiful and efficient offenses you will watch.” The team has “an elite 1.028 points per possession,” good for fifth-best among the teams in the entire tournament. And while the offense runs though Pusica, defenses can’t solely focus on him, according to The Action Network:
The Huskies have capable shooters all over. Northeastern takes a ton of 3s and makes a ton of 3s since it generally gets great looks as a result of splendid ball movement. A top-25 ranking in both 3-point attempt rate and 3-point shooting percentage is all you need to know about the Huskies’ capability from the behind the arc.
The Jayhawks are vulnerable and have done nothing noteworthy away from home all year. Dedric Lawson should have a monster game for Kansas but I think this one comes down to the wire in Salt Lake City.
Bleacher Report writer Joe Tansey notes that while Northeastern’s 10-loss record may give fans pause, some of those defeats came against tougher non-conference opponents like Syracuse, Davidson, and Virginia Tech. With their current winning streak, Northeastern’s form and experience could be trouble, Tansey wrote:
A first-round matchup with No. 4 Kansas, who was inconsistent at times during Big 12 play, presents Northeastern with an ideal scenario to pull off an upset.
In addition to entering a favorable matchup, the Huskies have the upper hand in experience, as each of their top four scorers are upperclassmen.
Going against Kansas’ freshman-laden lineup could benefit Vasa Pusica, Jordan Roland and Co., as they have the opportunity to put the young Jayhawks under pressure from the start.
Finally, NBC Sports college basketball writer Rob Dauster agrees that the matchup — at least on paper — has the makings of a potential stunner.
Kansas starts four freshmen. One is their third string center. One was supposed to be a redshirt this season. Northeastern? They’re built like a mid-major winner: They shoot the cover off the ball, they don’t turn the rock over, they don’t give up offensive boards, and they control tempo. Upset city.