All pieces come together for Northeastern as Huskies shoot for NCAAs
BOSTON -- Northeastern University's star senior point guard, Jonathan Lee, planned on playing at Montana State until the school pulled its scholarship offer. The Huskies' other star guard, Texas native Joel Smith, waited around for a UTEP offer that never materialized. Northeastern's most tantalizing prospect, sophomore Quincy Ford, is the fifth of 10 children home-schooled in his family's St. Petersburg, Fla., living room.
Northeastern coach Bill Coen has prospered by using more blue collar players than blue chips. And this current group of far-flung and unheralded Huskies has quietly emerged as one of the biggest surprises in college basketball.
After being picked fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll and losing its best player for nearly two months to injury, Northeastern (15-8) has jumped to a 10-1 start in conference play. The Huskies are hurtling toward the school's first-ever CAA title with a three-game lead in the loss column.
"He's done a terrific job at Northeastern, consistently finding guys who end up being a lot better than people think," VCU coach Shaka Smart said of Coen. "He and his staff do a great job seeing things other people don't see."
Few could see a potential juggernaut in a team whose three best players chose Northeastern over Cornell (Lee), Texas-San Antonio (Smith) and Stetson (Ford). But these Huskies have emerged as a group whose sum is greater than the parts.
And the big question suddenly looming over the school's downtown Boston campus is whether that adds up to Northeastern's first NCAA tournament bid since 1991.
"It's a great story," said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. "Anytime someone gets a chance to come up and really have a shot at the NCAA tournament, which his what all these kids are pointing toward, that's a great story.
Two quirks of fate have helped the Huskies. The realignment gods have helped leave the CAA with just seven teams eligible for its conference tournament, meaning if Northeastern hangs on to win the regular-season title it will receive the lone bye into the semi-finals.
The attrition can be traced to VCU bolting to the Atlantic 10 and CAA tournament bans of Georgia State and Old Dominion for their jumps to the Sun Belt and Conference USA. Towson and UNC-Wilmington can't participate because of academic issues.
The CAA, which has seen VCU and George Mason crash the Final Four in the past decade, is No. 19 in the KenPom conference rankings behind the Ivy and Patriot League.
"We're disappointed with our performance," Yeager said of the CAA. He added of the seven-team tournament: "It's going to be a lot different. I don't think there's any dispute to that."
The league's troubles mean opportunity for Northeastern, even after Lee broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot on the fourth day of practice. Lee, a fiery 6-foot-2 point guard, had just been named Homecoming King and first-team all CAA in the preseason.
"Sports and athletics imitates life," Coen said. "Just when you have it all planned, something unexpected comes along."
The soft-spoken Smith found himself having to take over Lee's alpha dog role, and he's done it well enough to enter the league's Player of the Year race, averaging 16.5 points per game. Ford needed to turn up his motor, and he's responded by scoring 12.5 points and grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game. Nine different players have started for Northeastern, meaning underclassmen Reggie Spencer, David Walker, Demetrius Pollard and Zach Stahl found themselves playing major minutes or having added responsibilities.
"Those things wouldn't have happened if Jon didn't get hurt, that's the silver lining," Coen said. "Guys got tossed into different roles, bigger roles and maybe sooner than expected."
Northeastern's success follows the blueprint that Coen used as an assistant at Boston College, where he unearthed under-recruited gems like Jared Dudley, Craig Smith and Sean Williams. Things have coalesced this season to the point where the Huskies have already collected more wins -- both overall and in the CAA -- than they did all last season. Five times this season the Huskies have erased double-digit deficits to win.
The Huskies, and Lee, are accustomed to overcoming tough situations. Lee can thank his mom, Sonja, for his grit. He's the fifth of Sonja's six kids and she brags that all have graduated from college except her youngest, who is enrolled at Michigan State. (Lee and his two brothers earned basketball scholarships.)
Sonja Lee raised Jon so strict that she forced him to skip a game his junior year of high school because he was on his cell phone after midnight. "She's an amazing woman," he said. "You can get into a lot of trouble in Flint."
Sonja Lee, who works mentoring kids in a juvenile detention center, still found time to complete her master's work at Ferris State last year. Jon attended her graduation last spring, and she'll do the same for him this year.
"She's amazing like that," Jon Lee said of his mom, who raised the six kids herself.
Coen calls her "one of the best moms I've ever met through the recruiting process," and wasn't afraid to invoke her name when Lee began slacking during his freshman year. Coen called Lee in his office and told him that he wasn't doing his mom justice.
Lee admitted poor effort, socializing too much and quickly promised to change.
"I looked him in the eye and I was like, 'I got you. You don't have to worry about me,'" Lee recalled.
From there, Lee blossomed into a leader and star player. Smith, his roommate and best friend, grew alongside. Smith's mom, dad and stepfather all have military backgrounds, and after Lee's injury Smith had to learn to speak up and stand out.
"He's been part teacher, part player, part big brother, part disciplinarian," Coen said of Smith. "He's worn all those hats and his personal growth from that I think has changed him for the better."
Smith neatly summed up his senior season last Saturday night, scoring 14 points on eight shots and holding Drexel star Damion Lee to 2-for-11 shooting.
"Defensively I had to get better," Smith said. "It forced me to talk to younger guys and be more vocal."
Smith encouraged Ford, a silky 6-8 sophomore wing with the softest of jump shots, to raise his game. College had been a huge adjustment for Ford as a freshman. Ford went from being schooled by his mom in his living room to dodging the Green Line train on Huntington Avenue on the way to class.
"I struggled a little bit academically," he said. "Not because I lacked the smarts, but just getting used to having to plan out your whole day without mama."
Ford says he's worlds more comfortable on and off the court this year. "We're trying to instill with him," Lee said, "you may not be the face of the program, but you're the neck."
Everything has blended perfectly. The Huskies share the ball, exploit mismatches in their ball-screen motion offense and throw in a 3-2 zone to confuse opponents.
"If people who are watching and scouting us and preparing against us, if they're saying we're playing a team brand of basketball," Coen said, "I'd be extremely satisfied as a coach."
Coen and his staff's far-flung recruiting finds have found themselves. And if they don't lose momentum, a few twists of fate could help them find a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a generation.
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