ELON, N.C. – In the age of data and analytics, the precise benefits of senior leadership and home-court advantage remain somewhat elusive. Although I’m sure there are skeptics out there, most people are pretty sure they exist, it’s just a matter to what degree.
Northeastern stands to be a pretty good test case for the senior data this season. The Huskies graduated star Scott Eatherton from last year’s squad that won the CAA and nearly knocked off Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, but return almost everyone else of consequence, including seniors David Walker, Quincy Ford, and Zach Stahl.
That wasn’t enough to make the coaches of the CAA vote Northeastern ahead of Hofstra and James Madison in the preseason poll, but the Huskies put together a solid non-conference campaign highlighted by a win at Miami. They were 8-5 against the 46th toughest schedule in the country, but there were (other than the Miami win, obviously) some troubling close road losses: at Miami (Ohio), Detroit, and Western Michigan.
Northeastern lost four times on the road in CAA play last season, one of which came late in the season at Elon, who finished 6-12 in its first year in the conference. As the CAA schedule gods would have it, the Huskies opened conference play Thursday afternoon at cozy Alumni Gym, and they did it without junior point guard T.J. Williams, who was injured last week against Vermont.
What could the seniors do in what could have been a tough spot? Well, how about a career-high 30 points, eight rebounds, and six assists from Ford to go with 26, 12 (a career high), and five from Walker? Stahl – who has quietly been having a great senior season – added 14 points despite being in foul trouble. Northeastern trailed for much of the first half and led by only one at the break, but was hovering near 2 points per possession and 100 eFG% in the first 10 minutes of the second half as they pulled away for an 86-79 win in their CAA opener.
“We had to rely on some senior leadership,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “Quincy and David has terrific games for us and really settled us down and allowed us to earn a really hard fought, road CAA victory and those are always good.”
The resurgent Colonial (currently 9th in KenPom, its highest rating ever) provides no breaks and the Huskies (still likely without Williams) will face another stiff road test Saturday at UNC Wilmington, but for Opening Day at least, it looked like senior leadership could trump home-court advantage and might make Northeastern the team to beat again in the CAA.
What else did we learn Saturday as 2015 comes to a close?:
- Ford is having a special season
Ford averaged 11.5 points per game way back in 2011-12 (Northeastern was eliminated by VCU in the CAA Tournament that year) as a freshman while filling the stat sheet almost everywhere else (including 60 steals). He stayed about the same the next season as the Huskies went to the NIT, but was injured in the second game of his junior year, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the team fell apart a bit, going 11-21.
With Ford back last season, Northeastern obviously did very well, and Ford again was productive in all areas, but averaged only 10.4 points per game and shot just 40.1% from the field. One of his poorer games was at Elon, where he was 1-6 from the field and scored only 10 points.
In an era of graduate transfers, Ford is back for his fifth year at Northeastern and actually has his his brother Sajon, a freshman, with him for his last season in Boston.
“All the experience coming back, I knew we could do something special this year,” Ford said. Another great opportunity after last year for everyone in that locker room, and we’re really trying to repeat.”
This season, he has scored in double figures in all 13 Northeastern games and the reigning CAA Player of the Week, is up to 18.5 points per game and 45.1% from the field (41.4% from three-point range). At 6’8”, there just aren’t many CAA players that can match up with him from the outside, and Elon certainly had no answers Thursday. With Ford, Walker, Stahl, and Williams (when healthy), Northeastern is able to run a simple, but effective offense because all can pass and all can shoot. Walker, like Ford, is a matchup nightmare at 6’6”, especially in the CAA. It’s why the Huskies are currently 75th in offensive efficiency, 65th in eFG% (52.7%) and 43rd in three-point shooting (39.1%). Sometimes simple is best.
2) They do need Williams, though
Junior point guard Luke Eddy (who missed the entire CAA season last year with an injury) tied a career-high with 27 points, mostly just driving to the basket against a bigger defender. He entered the game second in the CAA in assists and matched his average with five as well. Northeastern was somewhat fortunate sharpshooters Tanner Samson (1-5) and Steven Santa Ana (1-4) were cold or it could have been a different game. Williams started all 35 games last season for Northeastern and played 33.1 minutes per game.
— Elon Men’s Hoops (@ElonMensHoops) December 31, 2015
“Two games in a row, we’ve been without T.J. Williams, who’s our experienced guard and a guy who really gives us tough on the ball defense,” Coen said. “He would have been our best matchup against that. The way they play their attack offense with guys spread out all over the floor, it’s hard to get help on him and he took advantage.”
As it was, Elon (9-5, 0-1) – who is probably better than last season’s team – scored 1.07 ppp. Defense has been the biggest issue for the Phoenix, who are currently 268th in efficiency and gave up 70 in the first half to Duke earlier in the week. Matt Matheny was a long-time assistant under Bob McKillop at Davidson, and – like Davidson – Elon’s offense is always probably going to be ahead of its defense, but they have to defend a little.
“We were not really good defensively,” Matheny said. “We’re getting a little bit better, but we’re still allowing people to get open shots, whether that’s a drive to the basket and it’s a layup that’s not over somebody, or it’s going under a screen when we should go over a screen and they hit a three. We haven’t been able to be consistent for 40 minutes.”
3) Is the CAA that good?
Obviously, ninth ahead of leagues like the Mountain West and Missouri Valley will raise some eyebrows, but – as Elon has shown despite its defensive troubles – there are no real poor teams. Even the worst currently, Drexel and Delaware, have shown some ability against good teams. William & Mary and James Madison, both hovering near the 100 mark in KenPom, lost their openers Thursday as well. The chances of the league getting two NCAA bids is probably slim because it is so balanced, but that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the conference.
Alas, it could be short-lived, many of the best teams (like Northeastern and Hofstra) are senior-laden and the entire first team all-conference was seniors (which didn’t include Ford, who was on the second team). But for now, enjoy it, CAA fans, it should be a fun ride for the next couple of months.
“Aside from just the curiousity factor, it’s a sense of pride,” Coen said. “We get together as coaches and as administrators in the spring and talk about how we can advance the league and get better and become relevant in the national scheme of basketball. In order to do that, you have to make hay in your non-conference schedule. You have to go out and play some people and win some games. As the results started building, you can see that the league was going to be in for a really good year. We kind of knew that at media day, I think the average number of starters returning was four.”
FUN FACT: Ford’s 30 & Walker’s 26 marked the first time 2 players had 30 and 20 since Nov. 20, 2004. (cont.)
— Northeastern MBB (@GoNUmbasketball) December 31, 2015