TV: CBS (Brian Anderson/Steve Smith/ Lewis Johnson) (Stream online here)
Date and Time: Thursday 3/19, 12:15pm EST
Location: CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Northeastern earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of their Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship. The third-seeded Huskies "upset" the top-seeded William & Mary Tribe, though the two teams were among four that finished the regular season tied atop the CAA standings. With their conference championship, Northeastern earned its first tournament bid since 1991.
The win over the Tribe (93rd in the RPI) was their second in three tries on the season and was their third RPI top 100 victory on the season. Their victories over William & Mary were behind only the A-10's Richmond Spiders (56th in the RPI) as their best wins this season.
The Huskies have an ACC win on the season as well, as they defeated Florida State in Tallahassee back in November by a three-point margin. Other than the Seminoles, Northeastern's other common opponent with Notre Dame was UMass, to whom they lost by 15.
The Huskies do have some ugly losses, as they have four to sub-200 RPI teams and another to 199th-rated Cal Poly.
Northeastern is 1-1 against teams in the NCAA Tournament field, dropping a December match-up to Harvard while defeating Manhattan at a neutral site.
The tournament's Selection Committee rated Northeastern as the 56th best team in the field, which matches the KenPom rankings as well. Overall, KenPom has Northeastern ranked 120th in the nation (interestingly, one spot below Northwestern). They rate much better in RPI, where they are 86th in the country.
Much like Notre Dame, the Huskies are a much more efficient team offensively (90th in KenPom) than they are defensively (171st). They are 9th in the country in field goal percentage at nearly 49% and 24th in effective field goal percentage at 55%. It was fairly unlikely that they would be matched up with one of the very few teams that shoots it better, but that's exactly what they have with their game against the Irish.
Also like the Irish, the Huskies play at a fairly slow pace, ranking 239th, with just around 64 possessions per game compared to Notre Dame's 65. The two teams are also surprisingly similar on the boards, with neither team excelling in rebounding percentage on either end of the floor, though the Huskies are slightly better on the defensive boards. These teams are also similar (noticing a theme here?) in keeping opponents off the free throw line, as both teams rank in the top ten nationally in this category.
The most dramatic difference between these two teams on paper is not a pretty one for the Huskies, as they are in the bottom 50 in terms of turning the ball over (each starter turns it over more than twice a game) and are bottom 10 when it comes to turning over their opponents. Contrast this with the Irish, who are third-best in the nation in avoiding turnovers and, though not great, much more adept at forcing them than Northeastern.
T.J. Williams - G - 6-3/201
David Walker - G - 6-6/196
Zach Stahl - G - 6-5/215
Quincy Ford - F/G - 6-8/225
Scott Eatherton - F - 6-9/234
Reggie Spencer - F - 6-7/222
Devon Begley - G - 6-4/186
Much like Notre Dame (broken record, I know) Northeastern does not have much size on the interior but their guards are tall and long. Point guard Williams has the height advantage over Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson while Walker and Stahl match the size of Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia almost exactly.
Quincy Ford has a V.J. Beachem-like build. Like Beachem, Ford is largely a three-point shooter (37%), so it is hard to see his height being too big of a match-up problem for Pat Connaughton. He crashes the boards as well (5.4 per game), but Connaughton is used to grabbing rebounds against taller and bulkier players than Ford.
The Huskies' best player, however, is Scott Eatherton, as he leads his team in scoring (14.6 PPG) and rebounding (6.4). Though Zach Auguste has the slight size advantage, Eatherton is a very efficient scorer (59%) that will be a tough test for the Irish center all afternoon.
Northeastern does not have too deep a bench, with only two players averaging double-digit minutes (although a third, Caleb Donnelly, will occasionally play 10-20 minutes, as he did in each CAA Tournament game). There just is not a lot of size on the bench to try to exploit the Irish's frontcourt, with that being likely the biggest match-up concern.
Eatherton will likely get his, but the guy to watch out for is David Walker. He absolutely went off in their game earlier this season against Florida State (the only time I have caught a few minutes of Husky basketball), scoring 22 points on 7 of 10 shooting including 4 of 4 from beyond the arc. He is a great three-point (39%) and free throw (87%) shooter and leads the team in assists. It will likely be Steve Vasturia's job to make Walker's life difficult on Thursday afternoon.
When looking for upset picks in the first round of the tournament, especially once you get down to the 14 seeds, I think it starts with finding Cinderellas whose strengths are really able to exploit the favorite's weaknesses. That's not at all what we have here. In fact, the Huskies are, in many ways, the low-major version of the Fighting Irish. Their lineup is constructed similarly, they sacrifice size and rebounding for more efficient shooting, they play at a very patient pace to work the shot clock for the best look, and they are proficient but not overly reliant on threes.
Northeastern is remarkably similar to Notre Dame, only the Irish outrank them, even if sometimes only slightly, in nearly every category. If the Huskies are going to pull the upset, they are going to need to beat the Irish at their own game to do so. If the Huskies were a great rebounding team or disruptive defensive team, then it would be much easier to envision those extra possessions propelling such a good-shooting team to the upset. As it stands, it is hard to see CAA champs out-Irish the Irish in a game with such high stakes.
Notre Dame 87