Huskies look to improve despite roster turnover

Huskies look to improve despite roster turnover
Fourth-year guard Devon Begley grins during a 2016 game. Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics

A mix of intriguing strengths and looming questions await the Northeastern men’s basketball team leading up to the 2017-18 season-opener Friday at Boston University. The development of two key scorers and the arrival of a four-star recruit to help on the interior give the coaching staff plenty to work with this year, but the departure of the CAA Player of the Year leaves a gaping hole in the roster.

Coming off a 15-16 record and a sixth-place finish in the CAA last season, the Huskies’ roster is remarkably young. The thirteen-man unit is composed of four freshmen, five sophomores, three juniors and one senior. However, twelfth-year head coach Bill Coen isn’t concerned about the lack of experience.

“Even though we’re young, we have guys that gained valuable experience last year,” Coen said after a practice last week. “Devon Begley, being a senior, is ready for a really, really big year. Donnell Gresham has gotten some great experience, and our entire sophomore class got a great start to their career last year.”

He also noted the relative experience level of his incoming freshmen. Their state-title runs in high school have somewhat prepared them to play in high-level games, he said.

“They’ll be younger in terms of age, but I think our maturity will help us throughout the year,” he said.

Certainly their greatest challenge will be replacing the contributions of T.J. Williams, who led the team last year with 21.4 points per game, took home conference Player of the Year honors and served as a primary leader in the locker room. Coen and sophomore guard Bolden Brace both think Devon Begley, also a guard, is ready to fulfill some or all of Williams’ duties.

“I’d say Devo, as a senior, really slid into that role,” Brace said. “He’s always been a leader, but he’s kind of a quiet guy so shows his leadership on the court. This year he’s finally started to communicate with us a little better as a leader and he’s done a really good job stepping into that role.”

Coen echoed Brace’s thoughts, adding that they have “many other leaders” on the squad.

Begley could be poised to fill some of the space left by Williams on the scoreboard, too: He scored a career-best 9.7 points per game last year, a marked improvement over his sophomore year. He raised his field goal percentage from .287 to .406, and his percentage from three-point range from .250 to .374.

When it comes to leadership, either the symbolic sort or the kind that shows up on the scoreboard, Begley wants to be the all-around player the team needs.

“I want to be consistent in whatever I do,” Begley said. “Whatever the team needs from me, if it’s defense, if it’s three-pointers, or if it’s getting my teammates involved, I just want to be consistent and bring whatever I need to help the team win.”

Brace could also be a big part of the offense post-Williams. He broke out during CAA play last season and finished with 7.5 points per game, shooting .362 from the field. He showed flashes of how high his ceiling is in a few dazzling performances: He hit five threes in a game against Delaware, collected 20 points (including six three-pointers) in a game at William & Mary and filled Elon’s hoops to the tune of a 40 point game, including a school-record ten three-point makes.

Brace and his coach are excited about the possibilities for him in an expanded role this year.

“There’s going to be opportunities for me, in some games, to score a lot,” Brace said. “There’s a little pressure, but that’s what you want. You want that opportunity to step into that bigger role.”

Coen praised Brace’s effort and his rapid development throughout last season.

“He’s primed to take huge jump forward,” Coen said. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic, he’s an elite teammate, he’s really competitive and wants to win. He’s put in the time in the offseason to work on his game. We’re excited about where he’s at both mentally and physically.”

An area that may be of particular concern to Coen and his staff heading into this year is defense, especially on the interior. Despite the scorers Northeastern had in its arsenal last year, their average scoring margin was only a plus .2. Essentially, however well they played on offense, they played equally as poorly on defense — reflected in their 15-16 record. They’ll look to widen that scoring margin this year, and that begins and ends with defense, Brace and Begley both said.

“We actually talked about it today,” Brace said. “On weak-side defense, it’s called the ‘weak-side I’, we have to get to the rim, and the help-side defense has got to get a lot better.”

Begley said a lot of the battle is won or lost in “effort and hustle.” If everybody buys into that, he said, they’ll be a much improved unit.

6-foot-8-inch first-year forward Tomas Murphy of Rhode Island, rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, could add some helpful size to the Huskies’ interior defense, in addition to a slew of other abilities Coen sees in him.

“Tomas is a multi-positional player for us,” Coen said. “He’ll play both frontcourt spots. He’s been productive in all of our exhibition games. He probably needs a little time in the weight room, but he’s got a skill level and a natural basketball IQ. I think he’ll contribute immediately.”

Through the additions, departures and newly adopted roles, Coen’s goals haven’t changed from last year or any other year. Their sights are set on a CAA championship, as always.

“I think if you’re not playing for that,” Coen said, “you’re going to misfire. That may be more of a challenge some years more than others because of experience and what-have-you, but every year we set out to play the best and be the best that we can be. If we do that, we’ll have reached our goals.”

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