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Everything you need to know about Northeastern’s matchup with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament

Since 1985, teams seeded 13th in their regions have scored opening-game upsets at a rate of 20.1 percent in March Madness , and it’s happened 24 of the last 34 NCAA Tournaments. Can Northeastern take that number to 25?

How we got here

The Huskies were the preseason pick to win the Colonial Athletic Association because they returned all five starters from a team that had won 23 games. Injuries to Vasa Pusica, Shawn Occeus and Maxime Boursiquot contributed to a disappointing 4-5 start, but the Huskies bounced back: They’ve been competitive in every game over the last three months while going 19-5, including gritty wins last week in the conference tournament to atone for their loss in the championship game one year ago.

MEET THE HUSKIES

You ought to know them well by now: The same rotation has gone 23-10 each of the last two seasons around the leadership of 6-foot-5-inch senior point guard Vasa Pusica, who transferred from the University of San Diego in 2016. Pusica led Northeastern with 17.8 points, 4.2 assists, and 1.5 steals. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the CAA tournament last week.

The Huskies are loaded with a half-dozen 3-point shooters, including a quartet of junior guards: Donnell Gresham Jr. emerged as their best two-way player; Shawn Occeus returned last week from a leg injury to provide lockdown defense and earn a spot on the All-CAA tournament team; Bolden Brace nearly generated a triple-double in the CAA title game; and Jordan Roland (third-team All-CAA this season) needs one more 3-pointer for a school-record 98. The attention they command on the perimeter creates room in the paint and along the baseline for senior center Anthony Green and his freshman backup Tomas Murphy.

Coach Bill Coen hopes to celebrate his 13th season at Northeastern with the school’s first win in the NCAA Tournament since 1984. He is a finalist for the Hugh Durham Award, given to the top coach at a mid-major school.

Bill Coen

  • 224-196 in 13 seasons
  • 2019 Hugh Durham Award finalist

Vasa Pusica, senior

  • Guard, 6’5”, 210 lbs
  • 17.8 ppg, 3.9 rbg, 4.2 apg

Donnell Gresham Jr., junior

  • Guard, 6’1”, 203 lbs
  • 9.8 ppg, 4.8 rbg, 3.2 apg

Shawn Occeus, junior

  • Guard, 6’4”, 208 lbs
  • 10.1 ppg, 2.7 rbg, 2.7 apg

Bolden Brace, junior

  • Guard, 6’6”, 227 lbs
  • 10 ppg, 6 rbg, 2.7 apg

Jordan Roland, senior

  • Guard, 6’1”, 171 lbs
  • 14.7 ppg, 2.4 rbg, 1.7 apg

Anthony Green, senior

  • Center, 6’10”, 252 lbs
  • 8.9 ppg, 5.4 rbg, 0.8 bpg

Tomas Murphy, freshman

  • Guard, 6’8”, 220 lbs
  • 8.2 ppg, 3.5 rbg, 0.9 apg

A DIFFERENT LEVEL OF COMPETITION

Northeastern opened with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, including seven games against teams that qualified for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Overall, however, Kansas faced a far greater challenge: The Jayhawks strength of schedule was ranked No. 1, while the Huskies were No. 98.

The Jayhawks were 8-3 against Top 25 teams. The Huskies lost 88-60 in November to No. 16 Virginia Tech, their only game against a team in the current rankings.

A TALE OF TWO TRENDS

The opening weeks for Northeastern and Kansas were misleading this season. The Jayhawks, coming off a Final Four appearance last season, were rated No. 1 overall in preseason polls and retained that ranking after a 9-0 start. Then, big man Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury, and leading shooter Lagerald Vick left school for personal reasons. Forward Silvio De Sousa has been suspended amid an NCAA investigation, Kansas’ trio of highly recruited freshmen have struggled, and the Jayhawks failed to win the Big 12 for the first time in 15 years. Their young, depleted roster went 10-7 over the final two months.

Conversely, the Huskies suffered their injuries early, then recovered from a 4-5 start to play their best basketball at the end of the season. They’ve been peaking, while the Jayhawks have been receding.

PACE OF PLAY

The teams play contrasting styles. The experienced Huskies prefer to share the ball in the halfcourt to create 3-pointers for Jordan Roland, Vasa Pusica, Bolden Brace, Donnell Gresham Jr., and Shawn Occeus. The Jayhawks have been weak there while yielding 290 3-pointers, ranking them 318th among the 353 NCAA Division I teams.

“I know they’ve got four guys that shoot it every time it’s open,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, in what was an underestimation. “That’s hard for us.”

For their part, the young Jayhawks won’t be expecting to make a lot of 3s—they shoot poorly from distance—which means they’ll be trying to attack for easy baskets in transition.

Keep an eye on the speed of the game. The Huskies were 252nd nationally in pace of play. If they’re slowing the tempo, it will mean they’re giving themselves a chance.

WHO WILL GUARD DEDRIC LAWSON?

Since transferring from Memphis, the highly-skilled redshirt junior has been a revelation. He has led the Jayhawks with 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds while they’ve played their offense through him to exploit his tremendous vision as a passer.

At 6 feet, 9 inches, and 235 pounds, Lawson has an ability to score and create from the perimeter, which could create a nightmare matchup for Northeastern. Look for 6-foot-4-inch Shawn Occeus (who was CAA defensive player of the year in 2017-18) and 6-foot-6-inch Bolden Brace to take turns on him—with plenty of double-teaming help from their teammates.

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