By Mary Paoletti
Bill Coen's Northeastern Huskies deserve some attention.
At 12-3 in league play, NU sits tied with Old Dominion for first place of the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA win total already matches the program record, set in 2005-06, but Northeastern is hardly content.
The Huskies want to go a little mad this March.
The conference record shows that they're on the right track in the CAA. Of the three losses, one was to Drexel during a five-game losing streak in December. The next league defeat, also to Drexel, broke up a different kind of streak.
Because from Dec. 25 to Jan. 23, Northeastern didn't lose.
The 11-game run was the third-longest winning streak in the country. After a 74-62 victory over VCU, opposing coach Shaka Smart heaped praise on the Huskies.
"They don't beat themselves," said Smart. "Usually when you go through stretches where you've won 10, 11 games in a row, there's a couple games where certain guys maybe just don't have it.
"But it seems like, because of willpower, because of leadership, because of experience, they don't allow themselves to have those types of nights."
There is experience aplenty on Northeastern's roster. Of the players averaging the most minutes -- Nkem Ojougboh, Manny Adako, Baptiste Bataille, and Matt Janning -- are all seniors. The fifth, Chaisson Allen, is a junior.
Leadership on the stat sheet comes from swingman Janning and point guard Allen. Often, the two create a backcourt wrecking crew that demolishes defenses. In the team's Jan. 23 win over VCU, they combined for 31 points, 14 of NU's 27 rebounds, and 9 of its 13 assists. A week later Allen and Janning took advantage of ODU for 36 points (6 of 9 from behind the arc), 13 of NU's 17 assists, and 7 of its 9 steals.
But this is no two-man team.
Freshman starter Alwayne Bigby plays a crucial role as Northeastern's defensive specialist. When the Huskies hosted Georgia State on Feb. 10, Bigby was assigned to shut down Joe Dukes. A transfer from Wake Forest, Dukes is a dynamic guard who entered the game averaging 13.7 points in CAA contests. His point total against Northeastern? Zero, thanks to Bigby.
"I don't think you can have five scorers out there," Coen said. "That's generally not your best team. You have a couple that take pride in their defense and other guys that know they have to put some points up. It all works together."
Coen is not being romantic. Northeastern's success hinges on cohesion on the court that starts in the locker room. The Huskies learned this the hard way when they were being choked by that early losing streak.
An embarrassing 75-60 loss to Western Michigan in a Honolulu holiday tournament was a tipping point. On Christmas Eve, a players-only meeting was called to hash out some issues and a resolution to become a better defensive team emerged.
"It was good for us to be on the road because we had to take a hard look at ourselves," Coen said. "We were together all the time and had to go eat together breakfast, lunch and dinner and figure it out."
It's no coincidence that Northeastern won 15 of the 17 games that followed.
There are still four left to play, and the Huskies hope to rebound from their Feb. 13 loss to William & Mary when they travel to UNC Wilmington tonight. Games against Hofstra and George Mason will finish up the conference schedule.
But before Northeastern can dive into the CAA tournament, there is a BracketBuster to battle through.
On Feb. 20 the Huskies will take on Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are a fellow mid-major out of the Western Athletic Conference. No matter how strange the non-conference game looks on NU's late February schedule, it could be a huge help. If the Huskies grab automatic entry via the CAA title, a win over LT could earn them better seeding in the national tournament. If Northeastern gets knocked out of league playoffs, a late-season win over the Bulldogs might bolster its case for an at-large bid.
Coen is hopeful. "In the spirit of the BracketBusters, we'd like to play our way into the conversation."
New England is already talking about Northeastern. How far that buzz spreads around the country is up to the Huskies.
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti