So far, the 2013-14 season hasn’t exactly been smooth sledding for the Northeastern Huskies.
After Wednesday night’s 72-64 loss to Harvard in the home opener, Northeastern is just 2-6. But there are signs that the Huskies are better -- maybe much better -- than the record reflects.
Bill Coen’s team has played the 27th toughest schedule in the country -- and second toughest in the Colonial Athletic Association, behind only Drexel -- to date, and five of Northeastern’s six losses have come by single-digit margins. The only loss to come by more than nine points was a 13-point loss on the road against VCU, not exactly a pushover under coach Shaka Smart.
“This is by design,” Coen said after Wednesday’s loss. “We want to go out and play the best, we want to make sure we’re improving and working hard, and really identifying the things we need to improve upon.
“I’ve got a great group of kids in that locker room. They’re frustrated that the wins aren’t coming but they understand, you know, that this is a process.”
They also understand that they’re playing this season down three All-CAA performers from last season’s CAA regular-season champions: Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith graduated and Quincy Ford will miss the rest of the 2013-14 season after undergoing back surgery this week.
Against the Crimson, Coen got big performances from his frontcourt of Reggie Spencer (16 points, six rebounds) and Scott Eatherton (17 points, 11 rebounds -- his sixth double-double of the season). The duo competed hard, quickly getting Harvard’s Kyle Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi into foul trouble.
Unfortunately the Huskies were unable to convert that into an advantage, Eatherton in particular struggling from the free throw line (just 3-for-11 on the night).
“When you come down, you’re running good offense, you’re maneuvering the ball around the court, you’re getting it where you want it to go, you’re being aggressive, you’re getting fouled, you’re getting their frontcourt in foul trouble and then we don’t take advantage at the foul line [it hurts],” Coen said. “Once we learn how to bring that to the game, it’s gonna make us a different basketball team.”
Though fans may be getting antsy, the eighth-year coach is taking a broader view of the rough start.
“I have the long-term vision in mind, so it’s a little easier for me,” he said. “I know last year’s team was a championship team in the CAA and we really didn’t start jelling until January. ... Once we get through exams here and get some time to focus on practice and take that next step, I think we’re gonna be in great shape.”
The 6-foot-8, 219-pound Eatherton, a transfer from St. Francis (Pa.), is one of the national leaders in double-doubles. David Walker has nearly doubled his scoring average from his freshman season (12.3 PPG in 2013-14, up from 6.2 PPG in 2012-13) and freshman point guard T.J. Williams has made plays and scored in double figures in three of his first eight college games.
As this group finds its way, there’s no shame in falling short against teams like VCU and Harvard.
“You’re essentially playing an NCAA team,” Coen said of Harvard. “That’s your measuring stick. That’s where you all want to go. We’re not there, but we’re not far. Our charge is to stay positive, keep improving each and every day and make sure we keep challenging ourselves against those watermarks.
“We have a UAB coming into this building on Saturday that just beat North Carolina. It’s gonna be another challenging test and a great test and our kids are looking forward to it.”
Bumpy ride and all, Coen and his Huskies are determined to enjoy the journey.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.