BOSTON – Sunday night didn’t settle anything once and for all in the Colonial Athletic Association. Each team still has ten games left before the conference tournament, and this is still almost certain to be a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. But what Sunday did settle is that right now, Northeastern is very much the team to beat, as the Huskies moved to 8-0 in the conference by putting on a clinic to beat George Mason 71-51.
Northeastern is now three games ahead of George Mason and James Madison in the loss column in the CAA. With a lot of time left, that’s a nice place to be since it gives them some margin for error. What’s more, the Huskies are 4-0 against the projected top three teams in the preseason, having swept George Mason and won at Drexel and at Delaware. They still have visits from Drexel and Delaware, and their only meeting with James Madison, tied with George Mason for second, is at home in about three weeks.
In other words, the Huskies are very much in the driver’s seat right now. Still, Bill Coen has had teams make a nice run through January only to fade in February, so you know he won’t take this for granted.
The second half was where the Huskies really shined on Sunday night. Several minutes in, they consistently dissected the Patriot defense with terrific ball movement on every possession. They penetrated, they found the open man, took shots at the right time, used ball and pump fakes, and showed how you play effective team basketball. Northeastern shot 53.2 percent from the field, including 7-15 from long range, while holding George Mason under 34 percent from the field, including 4-17 from deep. They also had a 36-29 rebounding advantage.
Simply put, a George Mason team that has arguably the most talent in the conference was out-classed on the night.
“I thought we played a solid team brand of basketball on the offensive end,” said Coen. “We wanted to make sure we were moving the basketball and using the best parts of each other, cutting hard, setting solid screens and getting quality looks.”
George Mason made an 11-2 run to get back into the game in the second as Sherrod Wright warmed up with a couple of three-pointers. It wasn’t something they were able to sustain, however, as once they got within 49-45 the Huskies answered back and pulled away, obtaining their largest lead of the game at the end.
“Anytime we made a run back at them, they executed, they made shots,” said head coach Paul Hewitt. “Above all, their defense was outstanding tonight.”
This Northeastern team is the product of well-coached players who have grown a great deal since the season began. You never want to be without your leader, but Northeastern had to go without Jonathan Lee for much of non-conference play and they are now reaping the benefits of what they did during that time. A team can get better for the long run or they can lose their season in a case like that, and it’s clear the Huskies did the former. It was all apparent on Sunday night.
During that time, Joel Smith grew as a ball handler and a leader. David Walker grew into a terrific young glue guy. Add them to Lee, and they have at least three ball handlers to start and a different guy could bring the ball up and initiate the offense at any time. Reggie Spencer grew into a player capable of getting a basket when they need it. Demetrius Pollard grew into a dependable reserve on the perimeter, something this team certainly needed after they had no depth last year on the perimeter.
“Up and down our lineup, we had to get that from everybody,” said Coen. “Then we reintroduced Jon into the lineup, and I think guys were comfortable. Guys were more established, they had more confidence individually, they had more trust in each other. Now, I think you see that, it’s evident when we share the basketball, it really doesn’t matter who’s taking the shot.”
One player who certainly seems more comfortable is Quincy Ford, who continues to be a more consistent factor in CAA play after that wasn’t the case in non-conference. Ford tied Smith for game-high scoring honors with 15 points on Sunday and filled the stat sheet with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot. In CAA play, he’s second on the team in scoring and has failed to reach double digits just once.
The comfort level is such that Coen told his team earlier in the day that he knew someone unexpected would make a difference in the ballgame. He was correct, of course, and this time it was senior Dinko Marshavelski. Injuries have curtailed the junior forward’s career to date, but Marshavelski has had his moments and has become a fan favorite. On Sunday night, he was more than that as he scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting in just ten minutes of play. Later, he got to the line by showing how much his confidence has gone up from the good start, as he went to the basket and tried to dunk on a defender.
“When he wants to be, he’s a beast,” Smith said of Marshavelski.
Times are certainly good for Northeastern right now, and understandably so. If what they’ve done thus far is any indication, they won’t enjoy Sunday’s game for too long since they welcome Georgia State on Wednesday and Drexel on Saturday. They are in the driver’s seat at an early juncture, but the only thing that does is give them room for error. Coen will make sure this team doesn’t go the way of past squads that had a good run through January and faded afterwards.