RICHMOND — The Northeastern men’s basketball team couldn’t have selected a better year to win the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title. You could say NU’s timing was impeccable.
By virtue of their first CAA title since joining the league in 2005-06, the top-seeded Huskies (19-11, 14-4) earned a bye to the semifinals of the CAA’s tournament at Richmond Coliseum, where the absence of anchor teams such as Virginia Commonwealth, now a member of the Atlantic 10, and Old Dominion, which was deemed ineligible after announcing its intention to leave next season for Conference USA, will truly make it a neutral site.
The Huskies’ chances of clinching their first NCAA berth since 1991 were further enhanced when the field for the conference tournament was pared to seven teams after Georgia State (headed to the Sun Belt), and Towson and North Carolina-Wilmington (knocked out by low academic progress rates) were not eligible to compete.
“It’s certainly a unique year in the CAA where the tournament will be unlike any other that we’ve competed in,’’ said NU coach Bill Coen, whose team will play Sunday at 2 p.m. against the winner of Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. quarterfinal between fourth-seeded George Mason (17-13, 10-8) and fifth-seeded Drexel (13-17, 9-9).
The Huskies, who enter the tournament on the heels of a sobering 81-74 home setback against last-place Old Dominion last Saturday, own a 10-1 record against the tournament field. NU’s only setback came in a 76-74 overtime home loss against Delaware Feb. 13.
NU was hamstrung in that loss to the Blue Hens by the absence of senior Joel Smith, who was named to the All-CAA first team Friday night, with an ankle injury.
The Huskies will be at full strength Sunday, having put behind them the setback against ODU.
“I think the lesson from that [ODU] game is that you really can’t let your guard down,’’ Coen said. “The league is too competitive, the coaching is too good, the teams are too good, and the players are too good to have a subpar effort and come away victorious.’’
Second-seeded Delaware (18-13, 13-5) will face seventh-seeded Hofstra (7-24, 4-14) at 6 p.m. Saturday, and No. 3 seed James Madison (17-14, 11-7) will play sixth-seeded William & Mary (13-16, 7-11) in the tripleheader finale at 8:30 p.m.
“I think we’re going to have to play our best basketball if we have our eyes on the tournament championship,’’ said Coen, whose team has never advanced to Monday night’s tournament championship game, making it as far as the semifinals in 2006 and 2010. “I think it’s an evenly matched field. I think it’s completely wide open and I think every team and every coach here in Richmond is feeling the same way.’’
But the Huskies hope to emerge as the top dogs of the CAA tourney, which will shift to Baltimore next year.
“I think it’s going to be the most neutral CAA tournament in a long, long time,’’ Coen said. “That’s another reason why every coach feels they have a legitimate chance of winning. But we’ve just got to make sure we play our brand of basketball, that we manage the emotions and the excitement of March, and that we stay in the moment and really stay focused on the task at hand.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.