Sometimes in college hoops you can see the next big thing coming. There’s often a new coach in charge, or a top-rated recruiting class either coming to town or coming of age.
If those are the criteria, then it’s no wonder no one saw the Northeastern Huskies coming.
Bill Coen is in his seventh season as head coach on Huntington Avenue, and in all those seasons Coen has never been accused of bringing in a top recruiting class. The Huskies returned their leading scorers and rebounders from last season, but they didn’t add any McDonald’s All-Americans to the roster.
Then, early in practice for the 2012-13 season, they lost senior point guard Jonathan Lee to a foot injury.
And yet, something unexpected happened: The Huskies started winning. And winning, and winning some more.
Coen said it helped that the NCAA allowed coaches to work with their players this summer for the first time. It also helped that Northeastern went on a foreign trip (the Huskies trekked to Canada) and to the Great Alaska Shootout, which really provided a boost as the Huskies made it all the way to the finals.
“I think we went up to the Great Alaska Shootout and beat Belmont, which is a tremendous team, great coach, great program, NCAA team year-in and year-out and we did that without our first-team preseason all-conference player,” Coen said. “And so I think that was a watermark for our program this year, and guys really started to believe how good they could be. As we said in the locker room, that team is gonna be in the NCAA tournament, and I think when we did that we had guys really start to believe in themselves.”
They got Lee back before the start of conference play, and then they really took off. The Huskies won their first eight Colonial Athletic Association games, and clinched their first title when they beat Georgia State in overtime on Feb. 27.
Northeastern picked a good season to win that first CAA regular-season title. Because Towson and UNCW are ineligible for postseason play due to low APR scores, and because VCU is in the Atlantic 10 these days and both Georgia State (Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (Conference USA) are ineligible due to upcoming conference changes, only seven teams qualify for the conference tourney in Richmond, Va.
That means the Huskies get a bye into the semifinal round, where they will face the winner of the George Mason-Drexel matchup.
“Fortunately we have a bye, don’t play until Sunday at 2,” Coen said. “That’s given us a little extra time to get healthy and get a few extra practices in. We’re excited about the tourney and the opportunity in front of us.”
Coen & Co. went 4-0 against those George Mason and Drexel teams in the 2012-13 regular season.
Does that give the Huskies an edge in this weekend’s tournament?
“Only in a sense that we know we’ve competed with everybody in the field, had success against everybody in the field, but we also know this is a brand-new season,” Coen said. “Tournament time is a different time of year. March brings out a different sense of urgency and intensity.
“Through 18 games, we’ve earned the right of the No. 1 seed, the bye in the tournament. Now we’re gonna have to play our best basketball of the year to advance further.”
Two more wins will get the surprising Huskies to the next big thing, the Big Dance, for the first time since 1991. And wouldn’t that be something to see?
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.