Basketball, like life, is unpredictable, a game in which the underdog has the potential to become the star—if only for one series, one game, one play.
Caleb Donnelly, the walk-on guard for the Northeastern University men’s basketball team, is a prime example.
Donnelly scored 27 points in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last week, three more than in his previous 14 games combined. He sank seven 3-point shots, catching and releasing the ball like the prototypical NBA marksman. He hit four big free throws, displaying grace under fire. And—lest we forget—he helped the Huskies defeat three consecutive conference opponents en route to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991.
“I focused on playing fearlessly,” Donnelly recalled in a post-practice interview on Thursday afternoon in the Cabot Center. “The opportunity presented itself and I shot well.”
But forget his stats. Pretend that his CAA Championship performance did not belie his regular season showing, in which he scored just 2.7 points per game. The very fact that he was on the court at all—that his 6-foot-1-inch, 181-pound frame was bedecked in the Huskies’ sleeveless black jersey and matching shorts—testified to his work ethic and unwavering dedication to improving his game, to never letting go of his childhood dream.
Donnelly scored more than 1,000 points for Alvirne High School, twice leading his squad to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association Final Four. He posted big numbers for Northeastern’s club team too, quickly earning the nickname “Agent Smooth” in honor of his deft scoring touch.
After solidifying his status as one of the league’s best players—after dominating opponents for two consecutive seasons—he challenged himself to win a spot on the Huskies’ 11-man roster. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play Division 1 college basketball,” Donnelly said. “I would have regretted not giving it a shot and trying out.”
His “shot” arrived in the summer of 2013, when head coach Bill Coen allowed him to practice with the team. He made the squad, redshirted his first year, and quickly became one of the Huskies’ most vocal leaders.
“Whether I’m on the bench or in the game, my role is to keep guys focused and energized,” Donnelly said. “This game is more than 50 percent mental and having supportive coaches and teammates can build confidence.”
Donnelly, Coen said, is the first player to arrive at practice and the last to leave.
His primary focus is honing the accuracy of his 3-point shot, his biggest basketball strength: In 30 games this season, he’s hit 55 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, going 27 for 49.
“Caleb’s a machine,” said forward Scott Eatherton, his road roommate. “He puts up a lot of shots every day and that’s why he knocks them down in the games.”
When he’s not fine-tuning his 3-point stroke, Donnelly is watching game film, studying his favorite teams and players. He recently replayed highlights from NBA sharpshooter Stephen Curry’s masterful run in the 2008 NCAA tournament, where he scored 128 points in four games. And he reveled in re-watching the past 10 NCAA championships, dating back to North Carolina’s 2005 victory over Illinois.
“It reminds me of where we want to go as a team,” Donnelly said, “and it shows me what it’s like to be on that stage and stay focused on basketball.”
His work ethic, to be sure, is his greatest intangible attribute, an invaluable asset whether he’s draining threes in practice or studying for a final exam in Snell Library.
He was recently named the co-winner of the CAA’s prestigious Dean Ehlers Leadership Award, which is presented annually to the student-athlete who “embodies the highest standards of leadership, integrity, and sportsmanship in conjunction with his academic and athletic achievement.”
“Caleb is incredibly organized, fanatically disciplined, and fanatically obsessed with being successful,” Coen said. “Each and every decision he makes is well thought out and superbly executed.”
His resume reads like the curriculum vitae of the quintessential valedictorian: Donnelly, BS/MS’16, owns a 3.99 GPA in the chemical engineering masters and bachelors program; has taught inner-city youth how to build solar-powered toy cars; and was named to the “Huntington 100” in 2014.
He attributed his industrious nature to his mom, who’s in sales, and his dad, who’s in shipping and receiving. “Both my parents are incredibly hard working,” he said. “They’ve devoted everything to help me achieve my dreams.”
His professional dream, he noted, is to apply his engineering acumen to the world of sports. For now, he’s just looking forward to going dancing and winning a few more basketball games. “It’s been a long journey, but all the hard work is finally paying off,” he said. “I’m very excited for the opportunity our team has and I can’t wait for the tournament to get started.”