We tend to view games and seasons through the lens of our expectations. Based on prior seasons and non-conference play, we can usually guess who the main contenders in each conference will be and mark “good wins” and “bad losses” early on. But sometimes those predictions are wrong, and the story evolves throughout the season.
When CAA play began in January, Northeastern and Hofstra looked like the heavyweights, with William & Mary lurking close behind. But UNC Wilmington shook things up early with road wins over the Huskies and Pride. James Madison flirted with first place after a hot start, Hofstra dropped five out of six games, and Drexel pushed into the conversation with a recent four-game win streak.
The Colonial carousel took another spin early Saturday afternoon, when Delaware beat Northeastern on the road as an 11-point underdog. The Blue Hens, written off after a 1-13 start to the season, are now 5-4 since, including a victory over William & Mary last month.
“You’re going to see quote-unquote ‘upsets’ weekly until we get down to Baltimore [for the CAA Tournament], because in my mind, there really aren’t any upsets in this league,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “There are some good teams, and there are some very good teams. On any given day, if that good team comes and plays with energy, they’re going to beat the very good teams.”
Northeastern, now 8-4 in league play, will end Saturday in second place, one game behind tonight’s winner of William & Mary at UNCW (and tied with the loser). Hofstra, James Madison and Drexel entered the weekend in a three-way tie for fourth at 6-5. As the KenPom rankings show, the CAA picture has changed throughout the season:
William & Mary is currently the KenPom favorite (as well as the sentimental favorite to reach its first NCAA tournament). The Tribe is perfect against the other contenders, which bodes well for March, but they have lost three shootouts to the bottom tier. Northeastern has been the most consistent team throughout the season, but it will tumble after today’s loss. UNCW has the most favorable schedule, with no more road games against the top six. Among the 6-5 teams, KenPom isn’t buying James Madison or Drexel, but both have softer schedules coming up.
Of course, those judgments are based on what we believe today — which may not hold up for long. Last month, Coen predicted that the league champion would have at least four losses. With only one team at three after today, and with three full weeks remaining, I’ll take the over.
Three thoughts from the Blue Hens’ 73-68 win at Matthews Arena:
1. Delaware’s defense showed up. The Blue Hens have surrendered a league-worst 1.11 points per possession in CAA play this year, but they took the second-best offense out of its game on Saturday. Northeastern scored just four points in the first 7:30 and finished at .99 ppp. Even in the Huskies’ biggest run, a quick 10-0 spurt to take the lead after halftime, the Blue Hens’ offense was as much at fault as their defense — six points came on fast breaks off of steals and a contested defensive rebound.
Delaware’s packed-in defense cut off many of Northeastern’s passing lanes into the paint. The Huskies had to settle for kick-outs (where they shot 3-16 on threes) or one-on-one drives. Their offense, which relies heavily on ball movement, assisted only eight of 22 baskets. “[Northeastern] has been playing at such a high level, especially offensively,” Delaware coach Monté Ross said. “I couldn’t be prouder of our defensive effort.”
2. The first half was a battle of surprising big men. Delaware’s Maurice Jeffers and Northeastern’s Reggie Spencer each entered Saturday ranked sixth on their team in points per game, but the forwards combined for half of all scoring in the first period. With Huskies star Scott Eatherton sidelined due to foul trouble, Spencer took over inside, powering through the paint for 13 first-half points on perfect shooting. But Jeffers did one better with 14 at halftime and 20 for the game, none more impressive than a two-handed dunk through contact off a spin move from the post.
3. Northeastern is a frustrating opponent when the whistle is tight. Before garbage time, Northeastern had taken 26 free throws to the Blue Hens’ 12, and the Delaware sideline certainly knew it: Ross and his assistants reacted dramatically to almost every call or no-call in the second half. Delaware had a couple strong cases for whistles down the stretch (and each team was called for a horrible offensive foul under the basket, which is par for the course in 2015), but it mostly highlighted the frustration of playing Northeastern with a tight whistle.
The Huskies play very conservative defense, especially when it comes to hand-checking dribblers. This leaves them susceptible to penetration from quick guards, but it keeps opponents off the foul line: Only four teams nationally have allowed a lower free-throw rate. Meanwhile, the Huskies took advantage on the other end, driving into contact more often (though they missed two one-and-ones in the second half that loomed large).