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The long road to Northeastern’s first CAA championship

March 10, 2015 Columns No Comments

BALTIMORE – When Northeastern finished its first season in the Colonial Athletic Association, there were plenty of doubters. That might seem surprising when you consider they had the Player of the Year (Jose Juan Barea) and Defensive Player of the Year (Shawn James) and reached the semifinals of the conference tournament. They finished fifth, so they had to win two games to get there. But some were not impressed despite the challenges involved in switching conferences.

The thought from some was that if they had two award winners and finished fifth, how in the world would they ever win in the CAA? That first year, by the way, was the year George Mason made its legendary Final Four run. It was the CAA’s best year until a couple of years ago; the Patriots didn’t even win the conference tournament, losing to Hofstra in a semifinal game best remembered for a player who earned a one-game suspension.

The logic was flawed, although there was a point well-taken from a larger standpoint: the Huskies faced an uphill battle. They had been in America East, where in theory they could contend often, and in their last year they reached the conference championship game before getting drilled at Vermont. Now, in their tenth season in the CAA, through an uneven road, they are conference champions and heading to their first NCAA Tournament in 24 years.

Right after that first season, head coach Ron Everhart left to take the head coaching job at Duquesne. You could add that as another reason to wonder about the team’s future. They were better off in America East, many said, especially as James followed him.

Instead, Bill Coen has brought a steady hand and much stability to the program. The Huskies have finished at least .500 in CAA play in all but two seasons since joining the conference. While they have had rebuilding years, they haven’t been part of a big cycle, as they have contended again in short order each time. The big hurdle has been the conference tournament, as they have under-achieved a few times there.

That’s where being a Husky fan was not for the faint of heart. While 24 years isn’t an exceedingly long time in between NCAA Tournament trips – certainly not compared to one who has never been there like the Huskies’ opponent Monday night, or the Red Sox with their long time in between World Series wins – the Huskies have had some tough ones along the way. In addition, prior to this stretch, their longest time without an NCAA Tournament bid was three years.

There was the title game in 1995, where Drexel annihilated them. There was the worst year in program history, followed by the lean Rudy Keeling years, before Everhart turned them around in their final years in America East and got them started in the CAA. In 2009, they had a bye, but lost to Towson in the quarterfinals. They lost a heart-breaker to William & Mary in the quarterfinals a year later with a veteran team. In 2013, they won the regular season title and got to the championship game, but couldn’t stage a second straight miracle rally and lost to James Madison.

The Huskies were picked to win the conference this season, although a bit by default. In a year where most teams lost either their best player or multiple key players, the Huskies returned most of their team. They were hardly prohibitive favorites, and that’s how the season played out. Tie-breakers pushed them to the No. 3 seed in a four-way tie at the top. Although it was anyone’s ballgame, the feeling coming in was different compared to 2009 and 2010, when the Huskies were thought to be among the favorites to win.

This time, however, it was different. Though they teased us late, allowing William & Mary to cut a 22-point lead down to single digits with over a minute to go, this team did enough.

While this team was among the conference favorites in part because of their personnel, it is Coen that has steered the program through much of its CAA tenure and is a big reason for this team’s success. He guided this team through non-conference, winning games as a more grown-up team. He guided them masterfully through the different matchups, using great game plans with a group that has bought in all along. He’s built a program with talent, but more importantly, with high character kids. He’s built a program that alumni, both those who played and those who didn’t, can be proud of, and many weighed in on social media on Monday night to that effect. Those who played years ago and those who played under Coen are all happy campers.

Northeastern has been among the toughest jobs in the CAA. The team plays in an old arena, though one that has a great deal of history, and in a pro sports town. The athletic department isn’t loaded with money. The great days the program had in the 80s are ancient history to the young kids of today, who weren’t born the last time the Huskies went dancing before now. Coen, who loves Boston, has made this work masterfully, and now the Huskies have won the championship that some didn’t think would ever materialize.

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