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Huskies to meet Kansas in NCAA Tournament at Salt Lake City

Photo: The Huskies celebrate the news of their opening-round NCAA Tournament game, against the University of Kansas, on Sunday at Curry Student Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Northeastern Huskies will face the University of Kansas in the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

The Huskies (23-10) earned a No. 13 seed in the Midwest Regional. The Jayhawks (25-9) are a No. 4 seed after finishing third in the Big 12 Conference during the regular season. They were beaten Saturday in their conference final by Iowa State, 78-66.

Northeastern coach Bill Coen and his players watched the NCAA selection show Sunday at Curry Student Center with scores of Huskies fans. When the matchup was announced, the team and its supporters jumped up all at once with a roar.

Vasa Pusica, the senior point guard and leader of the Huskies, said he had been hoping to play against Kansas, based on the advice he had been receiving from friends from his native Serbia. They had been watching the loss to Iowa State and told Pusica that he should be rooting for a matchup with Kansas, which was ranked No. 17 overall in the NCAA despite going 10-7 over the last two months.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Though they are representing a smaller conference, the Huskies believe their tough non-conference schedule—including seven games against teams from last year’s NCAA Tournament—has prepared them for this matchup against one of college basketball’s most storied programs.

“I think we’re ready for it,” Pusica said. “We already faced teams like them, and we know what to expect.”

If they were to pull off the upset by winning an opening game for the fourth time in school history, the Huskies would meet either No. 5 Auburn or No. 12 New Mexico State in the second round on Saturday in Salt Lake City. Northeastern has never won an NCAA second-round game.

The Huskies overcame early-season injuries to a number of rotational players, including Pusica, who went on to make the All-CAA First Team for the second straight year. His fellow guard, Jordan Roland, made the all-conference third team.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Huskies rank No. 18 in 3-pointers nationally and No. 16 in 3-point shooting percentage—valuable indicators of a team capable of scoring an upset. They also rank No. 33 in free throw percentage, and they have a variety of playmakers in Pusica, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace.

Kansas is led by 6-foot-9-inch junior swingman Dedric Lawson, who averaged a team-best 19 points and 10 rebounds this year. He figures to create matchup problems for the Huskies, who do not have a perimeter defender of similar length.

Coen told the fans that this team shares a similar trait with the Huskies of 2015, who were the last Northeastern team to appear in March Madness.

“I said before the [2015] game to a group of fans that when we took the floor that day, I didn’t know if we were going to win or lose, but I knew we were going to compete,” Coen said. “I’ll say the exact same thing about this group right here. We’re going to give it our best shot, we’re going to be out there for 40 minutes, and at the end of the day, you’re going to be very, very proud of this group.”

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