How a year of adversity helped the Northeastern men‘s basketball team prepare for the Kansas Jayhawks and March Madness

The Huskies celebrate their long-awaited admission to the Big Dance after defeating Hofstra, 82-74, to take the Colonial Athletic Association men‘s basketball final on March 12. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The first coach of the Kansas Jayhawks was Dr. James Naismith, who launched the basketball program in 1898, seven years after he had invented the sport itself.

The Jayhawk men have won three NCAA Tournaments and reached fifteen Final Fours. Five of their coaches are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, including current leader Bill Self. Paul Pierce and Jo Jo White (who both went on to win NBA championships with the Boston Celtics) rank among the stars at Kansas, along with Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning.

On Thursday in Salt Lake City, in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament, the underdog Northeastern Huskies will be daring to take on basketball royalty. From the historical point of view, it doesn’t matter that the Kansas roster is young and depleted, or that the Jayhawks failed to win the Big 12 conference for the first time in 15 years after having been ranked No. 1 nationally as recently as December. The fourth-seeded Jayhawks (25-9) are still seven-point favorites to beat No. 13 Northeastern (23-10).

Northeastern fans know the narrative of how this team regathered itself after blowing a 17-point lead in the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament one year ago. The Huskies devoted themselves to recovering from that setback, so that now, in hindsight, their ascension to this NCAA Tournament seems to have been destined all along. But Northeastern coach Bill Coen insists there was no such certainty after last year—and that is why this season has been so special.

“I don’t know if there’s any sense in denying it,” Coen says. “It was an emotional time—an emotional loss. More than anything else, when we did talk about it, it was to make sure everybody knew it was no one person’s fault. And so we can move forward.”

When the team returned to the Boston campus last fall, Coen knew what to look for.

“I just wanted to see the joy of the game back in their step, because the last time we met, it wasn’t a joyous occasion,” he says. “It ended so abruptly that I wanted to make sure that they were still passionate about what they were trying to do and still having fun playing the game. That really was the silver lining of it: Our guys were forced into making that choice—and it was a conscious decision—of which way they were going to go, and fortunately for our program, they chose to try harder.”

More bad news came after the Huskies were picked in preseason to win the CAA. Senior swingman Maxime Boursiquot suffered a season-ending injury. Then senior point guard Vasa Pusica missed seven games and defensive leader Shawn Occeus was sidelined for 19 as the Huskies dropped to 4-5 after a 72-49 loss at Syracuse.

“While we were going through it, it was stressful and nerve-wracking, and you couldn’t help but feel a little bit like, ‘Why is this happening to us?’” Coen says. “But the other guys gained confidence, and the guys who were sitting out realized that, ‘Hey, the team can win without me. It doesn’t have to all come down to me.’”

Pusica learned to trust more deeply in his teammates, as he watched junior guards Donnell Gresham and Bolden Brace emerge as secondary playmakers.

“Everyone has picked up the pieces and worked together,” Gresham says. “It gives us a great chance knowing that we’re going to overcome anything that comes to us.”

Coen gives special credit to Gresham, who became the primary ball-handler in Pusica’s absence while also emerging as the top ball-stopper in place of Occeus. Gresham adapted to every role that was asked of him as the Huskies found their competitive edge. They’ve gone 19-5 in the three months since the Syracuse loss, and all of the losses have been tight to the end.

“Someone’s got to lead you, and everybody thinks it’s the coach. But a lot of times it’s somebody who is an emotional leader and emotional rock,” Coen says. “That was Donnell Gresham. He never complained. He did whatever was needed, and that’s what you need to have a successful team. He is the example of, ‘Okay, this is how you deal with adversity. This is what it looks like.’”

On Thursday, when the season ends for one team while the opponent celebrates, the contrasting histories of Kansas and Northeastern will be irrelevant. The Huskies have grown to believe that teamwork, perseverance, and good intentions can overcome superior talent.

They have learned so the hard way.

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