MSU travels to Boston for a Saturday afternoon meeting with the Northeastern Huskies. This game is part of a three game “Winter Showdown” between the two schools, with women’s basketball and men’s hockey also playing games. It will be reversed next December, with the three Northeastern teams traveling to East Lansing. Interestingly, the men’s basketball game is part of a doubleheader with hockey in the same building, Matthews Arena, which is the oldest multi purpose athletic building still in use in the world.
Northeastern enters this game with a 7-3 record. They’ recently lost by 3 at Detroit and by 1 at Western Michigan. They have a road win over a ranked Miami(FL) team, however, and are expected to be a contender for the Colonial title after winning the conference tournament last year and pushing Notre Dame to the brink in an NCAA game before ultimately losing by 4. Coach Bill Coen has taken the Huskies to 4 post season appearances in his 9 year coaching run.
This is the first meeting between the two schools. Northeastern has some pretty impressive basketball history. Jim Calhoun got his start as a head coach there and won 64% of his games in a 14 year career (but almost 80% of his conference games) and went to 5 NCAA Tournaments.
BACKCOURT – David Walker is the main man in the Husky lineup. He’s a 6’6″ senior from Stow, Ohio who does some of everything for NU. He’s their leading scorer at 21.5ppg and he does it inside and out, hitting 46% of his threes (which account for slightly over half his overall attempts) and 51% overall. He gets fouled a decent amount (averages 6 FTA per game) and shoots almost 90% there. He leads the team in assists and steals and pulls down 3.7 rpg as well. He’s not the only weapon for NU, though. 6’5″ senior Zach Stahl averages 12.5 ppg from a wing position. He’s interesting because despite his size and position, he’s strictly an inside the arc player. The Minnesota native is more of an interior presencem shooting 52% and grabbing 6.2 rpg, good for second on the team. 6’3″ junior TJ Williams is the third backcourt starter for Coen’s squad. He’s right there with Walker as a playmaker (one total assist behind him for the team lead) but is otherwise more of a defensive player. He hasn’t shot well and is only averaging 4.3ppg but sees 23 mpg based on defense and an ability to help run the offense.
Caleb Donnelly and Devon Begley are the two guys likely to see minutes off the Husky bench in this one. Donnelly is a 6’1″ 5th year senior who is playing 17mpg and giving NU some outside shooting (33% on about 2.5 attempts from three per game) and backup point play. Begley is a 6’4″ sophomore wing who plays 19mpg and has struggled with his shot but gives Coen some size and athleticism among his reserve options.
FRONTCOURT – Quincy Ford is a 6’8″ 5th year senior who is the best the Huskies have inside. He’s second on the team in scoring at 16.3 ppg and tops in boards at 6.8 per contest. Ford has some inside/outside to his offensive game (45/39% so far). He’s also second in steals and tops in blocks at slightly more than 1 per game, so what you’re going to get is an active, athletic forward who can do a lot of things to impact a game. Jeremy Miller is a 6’10” 230lbs freshman who recently moved into the starting lineup for NU after playing a key reserve role earlier in the season. Miller is scoring 6.7ppg but doing it very unconventionally for a big man…21 of his 43 attempts from the floor so far have come from outside the arc. He’s shooting 56/48% so far, so he has to be taken seriously as a perimeter threat. He hasn’t yet become a major impact player on the boards or as an interior defender but he does look to be a key to Northeastern’s future.
Coen will play a couple of guys off his frontcourt bench. The top guy will be former starter Kwesi Abakah, a 6’8″ 225lbs redshirt junior. He’s a physical player who brings value primarily on the defensive end…he’s not much of a scoring threat, which is part of why Miller has eclipsed him in the rotation. The other player likely to see at least spot duty is 6’10” 270lbs freshman Anthony Green. Green has only been averaging a little under 8mpg so far but his size might be needed for a tour of duty or two against a team like MSU.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Road Environment – This is the first true road game of the season for MSU. That in and of itself presents a challenge but on top of that, this game is part of a major event for Northeastern and they are sure to be treating it as Christmas and the Super Bowl all wrapped up into one big package. In an old building which is sure to be jammed, it will be important to handle emotions and to get off to a good start to keep the crowd out of the game. I’m not saying this is like going into Kohl in mid February but it is a challenge this particular MSU team hasn’t faced yet this season and it’s against a capable opponent, one with some Tournament experience of its own.
2. Guard The Arc – Northeastern hits almost 39% from three and they take about 40% of their overall attempts from deep. So, the perimeter shot is a big part of their attack and they shoot it well. MSU’s been pretty good so far guarding the three…they’re only giving up 26.6% against from out there, which tells you some good work has been done even if you account for some luck in that statistic. If Northeastern is to pull off the upset, they will have to shoot well from deep, bottom line. If MSU can limit their production from three, the path to a Northeastern win becomes very difficult to traverse.
3. Boards – Northeastern is a middling rebounding team…averaging about 10 offensive boards per game with a plus 3.6 margin per contest overall. MSU has been back among the national elite in this category so far this season, doing the job against some high level opposition. This is an area the Spartans would expect to control in this game.
4. Transition – MSU hasn’t gotten a ton done in transition lately. Northeastern isn’t typically a slow-down team so I would think there’s a chance for a decently fast pace in this game. It would be nice to see the Spartans getting some easy baskets in this one, if for no other reason than to set a tone heading into conference play.
5. Dribble containment – Northeastern does a decent job of drawing fouls, as they’re averaging a bit over 22 FTA per game as a team. They also hit 72% from the stripe, so they tend to cash in on the chances they get. MSU has made some small but positive steps forward in terms of dealing with penetration over the last 3 games. That needs to continue. Putting the Huskies on the line often is another path to a tighter game than the Spartans want to see.
OVERALL – This game represents a real challenge for MSU. It comes at the end of Finals, so you don’t know for sure what kind of mindset the team will have. You also don’t know if they believe Northeastern is as dangerous as they are. I’m positive Izzo and his staff have stressed it and you would think being reminded of that Notre Dame game last March (a team MSU also played) and this year’s win over Miami would get their attention, but you can never know for certain until the game is played how deeply the message sank in.
Playing in a road environment certain to be charged with energy is another component for MSU to deal with. They haven’t faced this particular kind of challenge yet this season, so we’ll start to learn some things with this game. The freshmen haven’t been in this exact situation yet but I do have faith that both DD and MM are the kinds of kids who don’t get rattled easily…they’ve shown plenty of that trait already. For veterans, they’ve been through this type of thing before, but it’s important to get a reminder of what it takes prior to conference play starting up.
I think Northeastern needs a lot of things to go right in order to win this game but they’re a capable team. This would not be a Wright State type loss, IMO. This is a team which has a Tournament bid as a realistic goal and they’re playing at home…that doesn’t add up to “all time program loss” kind of stuff. Instead, it’s a good challenge for a team which has played very well so far but needs to continue to develop further from here. If MSU can limit the three production and avoid putting Northeastern on the line for 30 plus free throws, I think it becomes very difficult for the Huskies to win this game.