In a surprise twist to an NCAA men’s basketball season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern will be playing the University of North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., at 7 p.m. Wednesday (streaming on ACC Network Extra). It is a rare opportunity for the Huskies that developed in a span of hours.
“Please contact us if interested,” the tweet read.
Before he heard about that public plea, Jeff Konya, Northeastern’s athletic director, was already working on a deal with North Carolina. His Huskies—like the Tar Heels—had suffered COVID-related cancellations and had no games scheduled this week. A couple of colleagues from Northeastern’s conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, informed Konya of the opportunity.
“It’s a who-you-know business,” says Konya, who worked out the arrangements after conferring with Huskies coach Bill Coen. “We hammered out the details—the date, time, finances—in a matter of hours.”
Last-minute logistics were handled by Lauren Tebsherany, coordinator of operations for the Northeastern women’s basketball program, who booked chartered flights, a hotel, and meals for the Huskies. They flew to North Carolina on Tuesday and were planning to return to Boston Wednesday after the game.
“It’s almost like a midseason bowl game, to use a football reference, where we’re getting this experience that otherwise would not be in front of us,” Konya says. “For us to schedule a program like North Carolina in mid-February—the chances of that happening in the future are almost nil. It’s happening now because everything is so fluid because of the pandemic.”
Coen and his staff were scrambling to develop a game on short notice.
“Our players are really excited to get out and see what we can do,” Coen says. “This is one of the most successful programs in NCAA history, they have a Hall of Fame coach [Roy Williams], and they play in a league [Atlantic Coast Conference] that year in and year out produces NCAA championships and Final Four participants.”
Though the Huskies (9-7) are young and undersized, they’ve emerged as a surprising March Madness contender while rising to second place (8-2) within their conference. The Tar Heels are having a disappointing season by their high standards (12-7 overall, 7-5 in the ACC) but will hold a huge size advantage over Northeastern.
This will be the teams’ second meeting: In the opening round of the 1991 NCAA Tournament, North Carolina beat the Huskies 101-66.
“The big thing is to not overcomplicate it, to keep it simple and do what you do at the highest level you can do it,” says Coen, who is hoping that the game will help prepare his Huskies for the CAA Tournament March 6-9 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “You don’t want to change too much because then your players won’t play with confidence. So we’re going to try to play Northeastern basketball and make adjustments on the fly.”
Adding to the intrigue is that Coen stands one victory away from surpassing Jim Calhoun as the all-time winningest coach at Northeastern. What would it mean for him to set that record at North Carolina?
“I’d be excited to have the opportunity to even think about that,” Coen says. “But right now we’re just trying to concentrate on winning the game and getting better and trying to get some confidence as we head towards CAA tournament play.”