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Huskies seek to defend CAA title–and return to March Madness

Huskies guard Jordan Roland drives on Harvard guard Noah Kirkwood during a 84-79 defeat of the Crimson on Nov. 8. Photo by Jim Pierce for Northeastern University.

They are hoping to experience a long weekend of paradoxes.

As the Huskies seek to defend their championship in the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament in Washington, D.C., they find themselves drawing stubborn faith from many of the losses they’ve suffered throughout this frustrating season. And they hope that an unwelcome injury to freshman point guard Tyson Walker will trigger a couple of surprising weapons. 

Sixth-seeded Northeastern (15-15 overall, 9-9 in the CAA) opens the conference tournament against No. 3 Towson (19-12, 12-6) on Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. 

The winner of the single-elimination CAA event will advance to the NCAA Tournament. If the Huskies are to participate in March Madness for a second straight year, they will need to win three straight games—something they’ve failed to do over the past two months.

The Huskies have suffered eight conference losses by five points or fewer; in a half-dozen of those games they fell short by a point or two. Along the way, like victims of a Sisyphean myth (or like Bruce Wayne escaping The Pit in The Dark Knight Rises), they have defined themselves as a team that doesn’t give up. They continue to push themselves in belief that one day they’ll break through.

“We’ve had opportunities to reverse the fortunes of this season,” says Northeastern coach Bill Coen. “But this group has come to practice each and every day. They keep believing in themselves, they keep trusting in the system and in the coaching staff, so we’re hoping that resilience will bear fruit in the tournament.”

The oddsmakers appear to share in that belief: They’ve established Northeastern—in spite of its low seeding—as the number two favorite to win the CAA Tournament behind top-seeded Hofstra (23-8, 14-4). The Huskies ranked second in the conference in points differential, outscoring opponents by an average of 5 points per game.

“The theme this year has been trying to learn from our losses,” says senior swingman Bolden Brace. Those last-minute losses have proved to Brace that “with every team, we’ll have a chance.”

The Huskies split their two games against Towson, winning their conference opener 61-45 in Maryland in December, and then losing to the Tigers 75-72  on Sunday at Matthews in the final game of the regular season. Towson has defended and rebounded its way to a 6-1 finish over the past month.

“They’re playing almost as well as anybody in the country,” Coen says of the Tigers, who are led by senior guard Brian Fobbs (16.2 points per game) and Allen Betrand (14.0). “Their offense has been highly efficient both from the free throw line and from the three point line, so when you marry that type of offense with great defense and rebounding, you’ve got a pretty good club.”

The Huskies are led by senior guard Jordan Roland, the CAA’s leading scorer, who ranks No. 7 nationally with 22.7 points per game this season. Roland and Brace are the main returning contributors from last year’s championship team. Maxime Boursiquot, who was sidelined by injury last season, played in the conference title game two years ago.

“This is the best time of the year,” says Roland, who scored 39 points in the two games against Towson. “Winning the championship last year, we have a taste of what that feels like. I think that experience will definitely help us.”

The decision on Walker’s availability will be made shortly before the game on Sunday, Coen predicted. Since their starting point guard suffered a left shoulder injury in a 77-68 victory at Drexel Feb. 22, the Huskies have gone 1-1 while establishing junior Shaquille Walters as a capable replacement who generated 27 points (10 of 16 shooting) and 15 assists against just two turnovers across the two games.

The injury to Walker also created an opportunity for Guilien Smith, a graduate student who transferred from Dartmouth, to generate 20 points (7 of 11 shooting) in a 77-57 win over James Madison. Walker may return to find more weapons at his disposal.

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