The blowout loss to Towson that brought Northeastern’s season to a screeching halt in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last year was a gut punch that stuck with the Huskies all offseason.
And when they saw the preseason conference poll as they got ready to regroup last fall, the Huskies took it as a slap in the face.
It wasn’t necessarily that Charleston sat atop the poll, hogging all but two of the 40 first-place votes. It wasn’t even that Towson — a team that still makes the Huskies see red — was No. 2 with the other first-place nods.
It was that the prognosticators had the Huskies finishing sixth — again.
It meant that no one saw the Huskies being any better than they were last season when they went 15-16 overall and 8-10 in the conference.
But after putting together a scorching end to this season with seven straight wins that earned them a share of the CAA title, it’s clear to the Huskies the preseason poll was the start of the shoulder-chip that’s carried them through a season no one but them saw coming.
“We didn’t like the way we went out in the CAA tournament,” said sophomore guard Shawn Occeus. “So that was a chip on everyone’s shoulder to come out to this year that we’re not a sixth seed and we’re not a team that’s going to be playing in the bottom four on a Friday or Saturday or whatever it was. We wanted to prove to this league that we’re a threat and I think we’re doing that.
“I think it was good for us. We obviously don’t want to be picked sixth in the league, but I think it was good for us because that gave us more motivation that we already had before coming off that loss to Towson.
“So seeing that we’re picked to be the sixth-best team in the league is something that we took personally and each and every day we worked to prove people wrong.”
After a 14-4 finish in league play, the Huskies are seeded second and will open conference tournament play in the quarterfinals Sunday against the Elon/Delaware winner.
This is Northeastern’s third regular-season championship since joining the Colonial in 2005 (all in the past six years).
This season, a 21-9 regular season marked the most wins by a Northeastern team since 1986-87.
If there’s a unique quality about this team, coach Bill Coen said, it’s the way it handled expectations.
“We’ve had some teams that were picked first or second going into the league and you kind of fight through those things and it’s a different type of navigating of the season,” Coen said. “This team, I think there was a common theme: We weren’t picked.
“I don’t think there was anybody on our team that was picked as a preseason all-conference player. So it’s a little easier to get their attention when it’s like that. I think guys come in with a little bit of edge and want to prove they’re worthy.”
A four-game losing streak in November at the PK80 Invitational was pivotal, according to transfer guard Vasa Pusica said. Against power conference staples such as Ohio State and Stanford, the Huskies took their lumps, but it tested their mettle.
“I think we came out as a better team,” said Pusica. “We took that as a lesson. Our team grew as the season was going. It was a new team, new roles, nobody played with each other, really, before. I think as we were figuring it out, we were getting better.”