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Despite COVID-19 disruptions, Huskies are 3 wins away from March Madness

Freshman guard Jahmyl Telfort (right) believes the Huskies will "dig deep" despite the COVID-19 disruptions of this season. Photo by Jim Pierce

It’s no way to prepare for the biggest weekend of the men’s basketball season, but what is coach Bill Coen to do? His Huskies (9-8 overall this season) will enter the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament having played just three games in the preceding 40 days.

There is plenty to earn, of course: A CAA Tournament title will advance Northeastern to March Madness for the second time in three years.

“It’s been a long and challenging year,” says Coen. “We’re entering the one-and-done portion of the schedule, where it’s win or go home. Our guys are excited to play, and we’re hoping that we play our best basketball for three days.”

Coen earned his fourth regular-season championship in nine seasons as the Huskies (8-2 in conference play) tied for the CAA lead with James Madison, which will be hosting the tournament in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It will essentially be a neutral setting, with COVID-19 restrictions limiting attendance to families and guests of the players and coaches. 

Based on a tiebreaker, the Huskies are the No. 2 seed. They open with a quarterfinal Sunday at 6 p.m. EST against the winner of William & Mary (6-9 overall, 4-6 in CAA) vs. North Carolina Wilmington (7-9, 1-6), who will be meeting Saturday.

Northeastern’s quarterfinal can be streamed via FloSports. The CAA semifinals on Monday (the Huskies would tip off at 9:30 p.m.) and the final on Tuesday (7 p.m.) will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.

It could be an extended weekend of happy endings. Not only are the Huskies aiming for a fourth straight appearance in the CAA title game, but they also know that their next victory will move Coen (250-221) past Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun as the winningest men’s basketball coach in Northeastern history. 

Coen has led Northeastern to four postseason tournaments (including two March Madness appearances in the past six seasons), but this may have been the finest performance of his 15-year career. The Huskies had been picked to finish seventh in the 10-team CAA based on their inexperience: Coen has no seniors and was returning only 30 percent of the team’s offense.

Despite going 1-6 in a hellish non-conference schedule that included nationally ranked Syracuse, Georgia, and West Virginia, the athletic Huskies united in CAA play around sophomore point guard Tyson Walker, arguably the best player in the conference. Walker was the CAA leader in scoring (averaging 19.3 points in conference games) and steals (2.5), and he ranked third in assists (5.1). 

“I couldn’t be more proud of this group,” Coen says of his players’ response to the postponements, isolation, and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It started way back in May, June, and July, when we had endless Zoom calls trying to get to know each other and sharing what our hopes and dreams were for this season. We made a pact with one another that whenever we get a chance to play, we’re going to adopt an attitude of gratitude.”

The Huskies haven’t been on the court since a Feb. 17 loss at North Carolina that had been scheduled two days earlier

“I’m very excited,” says freshman guard Jahmyl Telfort, a three-time CAA Rookie of the Week who is the Huskies’ No. 2 scorer (10.6 points). “It’s been a crazy year for everyone. Right now we’re just focused on ourselves, making sure we’re ready. I think we have as good of a chance as anyone to win it.”

Coen says the lack of game conditioning will be a mental challenge for his players during the tournament, similar to that of a marathoner who pushes through the final miles of exhaustion. Telfort agrees.

“We know we’re going to be tired,” Telfort says. “But even if we were at 100 percent in terms of shape, there’s still always a point where you just have to dig in and dig deep to win it. This year is definitely going to be harder. But if there’s one team that can do it, it’s us.”

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