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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Northeastern is a trendy NCAA Tournament upset pick vs. Kansas. Here’s why

Northeastern players gather for a photograph during their Wednesday practice in Salt Lake City, on the eve of a showdown with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
Northeastern players gather for a photograph during their Wednesday practice in Salt Lake City, on the eve of a showdown with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Playing tough defense has become embedded in Northeastern’s basketball DNA as the season has progressed.

The No. 13-seeded Huskies have won 16 of their last 18, with only five teams in that stretch topping 70 points. It’s one reason they are a trendy upset pick against Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

“We just buckled down the last half of the season,” junior guard Shawn Occeus said. “Whoever was on the court was ready to play and step into their roles. The coaches did a great job of executing the game plan. We really stayed disciplined and we tried to execute every game.”

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Northeastern is allowing just 70.3 points per game and 33.6 percent shooting from three for the season. During its current seven-game winning streak, they’ve tightened further to 64.0 points per game, plus forced 10 turnovers per contest and held opponents to 44.5 percent shooting from the field.

What Northeastern does on offense, where it’s top-25 in the country in both field-goal percentage and 3-pointers per game, often overshadows what the Huskies can do on defense. But an experienced roster, with eight upperclassmen, has created a lasting impact on that end of the court.

“Our team just got more and more comfortable with each other and with our defensive concepts,” coach Bill Coen said. “Obviously, we have an experienced group and, as the calendar turns toward March, the sense of urgency in your seniors and your upperclassmen really begins to kick in. It really shows itself on the defensive side of the ball.”

The Huskies’ defensive evolution is rooted in their Colonial Athletic Association title game loss to Charleston last season, in which they squandered a 17-point second-half lead. They learned how to close out games better this season and how to execute the game plan better in tense situations.

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“We’re an experienced team,” senior guard Vasa Pusica said. “That is our strength.”

Fourth-seeded Kansas presents a unique defensive challenge in the form of Dedric Lawson. The 6-foot-9-inch forward earned All-Big 12 first team honors and was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year after leading the league with 19.1 points per game. Lawson also averages 10.3 rebounds and has tallied 20 double-doubles this season.

The junior took on a critical role for the Jayhawks after star center Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending injury in January and second-leading scorer Lagerald Vick left the team in February. Northeastern plans to take a defense-by-committee approach to Lawson because he is so effective around the paint and on the perimeter.

“We don’t have any one guy that can match him pound-for-pound,” Coen said. “We’re going to have to do it with a group effort. Try to limit his touches when he’s in dangerous scoring positions.”

Myles Franklin (left) and Northeastern are 19-2 this season when holding an opponent to 75 points or fewer. Kansas averages 75.4 points per game.
Myles Franklin (left) and Northeastern are 19-2 this season when holding an opponent to 75 points or fewer. Kansas averages 75.4 points per game.(File/Mic Smith/Associated Press)

If Northeastern can maintain its late-season defensive standards, the Huskies’ offense is potent enough to give the Jayhawks some problems. Pusica, Jordan Roland, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace have stepped up from the outside the last seven games. All are averaging at least 35 percent from 3, hitting 59 in total.

Roland, in particular, has matched a school record with 97 made 3-pointers this season. His 40.8 percent from 3-point range ranks in the top 50 nationally.

“That’s who we are,” Pusica said. “We have multiple guys on the team that are shooting really good percentages and they can make it.”

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