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Northeastern hopes to ride senior backcourt and other key players into CAA contention

October 18, 2012 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

BOSTON – The Colonial Athletic Association will have a little different look this season, but that isn’t true only because one team is gone and two more teams will be gone after this season. Look near the top of the standings and there will likely be a team or two that hasn’t been a traditional contender in the mix. Northeastern hopes to be one of those teams, and there is reason to believe the Huskies can be there.

Northeastern returns four key players from last season’s team that will be the foundation of this season’s team. The last time the Huskies contended in the CAA, it was similar – four core guys and role players that surrounded them. Potentially, this team will have more depth than that team, and the four core players might collectively match the ones from that team.

They will be led by the senior backcourt of Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith. Lee has come a long way since arriving on Huntington Ave, going from a player who simply wasn’t good enough to play a lot of minutes (and was behind excellent upperclassmen) to the unquestioned leader and a potential first team All-CAA player this year. He was also the Homecoming King last weekend, a tribute to the fact that the native of Flint, Michigan is more than just a good basketball player. Smith is known for his shooting but at his best does much more than that. When he is also rebounding and getting assists, Smith is playing the kind of basketball that makes this team better.

Quincy Ford has as much potential as anyone on the roster and showed that during a stellar freshman campaign. As last season went along, Ford got more confident and ultimately better, and he’s only scratched the surface of what he can do. Although he’ll play in the frontcourt, don’t be surprised if he’s occasionally guarding a ball handler on the perimeter and using his length to get deflections and steals. Now he has to adjust to the rest of the conference better than they adjust to him, as the conference knows a lot more about him now.

The X-factor among the team’s starters will be sophomore Reggie Spencer, who showed potential but also some limits last season. Spencer opened his career with a big game against cross-town rival Boston University, but was relatively inconsistent, as is the case with many freshmen. He also showed offensive limitations, and while those remain the Huskies will probably be content with a 12-rebound effort that includes no points.

“Reggie had a very productive freshman campaign,” said head coach Bill Coen. “If he can build on that, I think that will go a long way into settling our frontcourt down. He’s a guy who, I think, scored opportunistically last year, and we’re hoping he can develop a more consistent back-to-the-basket game and extend his range.”

After those four is where the questions begin. The fifth starter might be Dinko Marshavelski, who returns after redshirting last season. Now with a mature body, Marshavelski is skilled and tougher than when he first arrived on campus and was missed last season. Although he is playing again, Marshavelski is still not all the way back from a conditioning standpoint or in terms of trusting his body.

The backcourt is where a lack of depth was a big problem last year, as Lee and Smith played a lot of minutes because neither Marco Banegas-Flores nor Demetrius Pollard did enough to earn consistent minutes. Now, with them and newcomers like Zach Stahl, David Walker and Derrico Peck, Coen said the key will be one or two of those guards separating themselves from the pack to be the first guard off the bench. For his part, Banegas-Flores, the only Boston native on the roster, looks more focused and into the game than he was last year. Stahl looks to be the freshman most ready to contribute immediately and had a good trip to Canada back in August.

There aren’t many proven options up front thanks to a couple of transfers, but if Marshavelski starts on the bench he is joined by freshman Kwesi Abakah, who is long and athletic but needs to gain strength. Scott Eatherton will sit out the year after transferring in from St. Francis (Pa.) and looks like he’ll push all of the regulars in practice. With that, don’t be surprised if the Huskies go with three true perimeter players most of the time.

“That role player that comes in and gives you 10-12 quality minutes, you can’t win without him,” said Coen. “We have opportunities up and down our lineup for guys to contribute, and the thing I feel good about is that we have high character guys who put winning above everything else.”

Northeastern has had some very difficult non-conference slates during Coen’s tenure, and while this one is hardly a cake walk it’s not as loaded as before. In fact, they have more home games (six) than road games (three), although they break even when you add in three neutral site games at the Great Alaska Shootout. They open with cross-town rival Boston University at home, head to Ivy League favorite Princeton and host America East contender Vermont before heading to Alaska. After that, four straight home games await, including visits from UMass and La Salle, and they close out the slate at UAB. In conference play, they start with three of the first four and four of the first six on the road, including George Mason, Drexel and Delaware.

The Huskies have a lot going for them this season. They will need to cut down on turnovers from last season, as that was a major problem, and with better guard depth that should be less of an issue this time around. There is a solid core group, good experience in the backcourt and some freshmen who are ready to play. They will have to develop depth, but if they do that they should be among the contenders when March rolls around.

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