March exists for the absolute stunners, the underdogs, the most clutch of clutch shots, that uncanny momentum that some team, playing somewhere around the country, can immediately cultivate in a matter of 40 minutes. Salt Lake City has welcomed March Madness back to its streets and with it eight random teams from around college basketball who all believe their march to Saturday, next weekend and beyond starts here beneath the shadow of the snowcapped mountains.
Each spring SLC plays host, the same question surfaces: Is there a Cinderella in our midst? After last year, it’s no longer impossible to think that a 16 seed is just going to show up for the sake of saying they’ve been there and drew a powerhouse No. 1 seed. Salt Lake has its share of low seeds daring to dream this week. One will capture the hearts of the locals and back home, wherever home is. And whether he did so knowingly or not, Northeastern junior Shawn Occeus mentioned a local legend’s name when asked about his all-time NCAA Tournament memories.
Occeus dropped a Jimmer reference. He remembers the pull-up 3’s from near half court and the run that the former BYU sharp-shooting superstar took the Cougars upon. The No. 13-ranked Huskies arrived in Utah from Boston knowing they’d get a bunch of underdog questions, because let’s face it, when you’re facing a storied program like Kansas just about anywhere, that will be your narrative.
“We're not looking at the name on the front of the jersey,” Occeus said. “At the end of the day, you tie your shoes the same way as we do, you put on the jersey the same way we do. You have to come to play and we're going to make sure we're prepared to play.”
NCAA IN SLC
Thursday’s games at Vivint Smart Home Arena:
• Auburn (5) vs. New Mexico State (12), 11:30 a.m.
• Kansas (4) vs. Northeastern (13), 2 p.m.
• Gonzaga (1) vs. Farleigh Dickinson (16), 5:27 p.m.
• Syracuse (8) vs. Baylor (9), 7:57 p.m.
The Huskies, the Colonial Athletic Association champions, believe they are. They went 14-4 in league play, 23-10 overall, and topped CAA No. 1 seed Hofstra in the conference title game to book a ticket from Beantown to SLC. Redshirt senior guard Vasa Pusica hit seven 3’s in that game. The 6-foot-5 guard from Serbia isn’t flinching in drawing the Jayhawks.
“Kansas is a big name,” he said.
“We are also talented as well,” Pusica added.
Northeastern has the DNA of a mid-major team aiming for an upset of a college basketball blue-blood. The Huskies shoot, and shoot, and shoot some more. As a team they shot 39 percent from beyond the arc this year and have four players shooting over 40 percent from distance. They’re in the top 20 overall nationwide in 3’s made and 3-point field goal percentage.
“It’s who we are and what we do, it is how we’re built and it’s how we like to play,” head coach Bill Coen said. “We can’t match [Kansas] bucket for bucket in the paint so we will have to make threes to keep pace.”
Coen said there hasn’t been much underdog talk. The Huskies may be able to play their way through if they can will themselves against a Jayhawks team that has suffered plenty of injuries this season. Maneuvering “Northeastern basketball” from the CAA stage to national TV is, as Coen admitted, part of the challenge.
“I think if you get swept up in the enormity of the moment, you know, and try to put too much pressure on yourself,” Coen said, “that's when you kind of don't play your best basketball.”
Occeus reiterated that the Huskies aren’t just happy to be in Utah for a few days. No, they are one of the best 64 teams in college basketball this year and have proved it so. “We came here to win games — not just to take pictures and talk on the mic all day.” Sounds like a group that’s ready for a heavyweight’s best shot.
“There’s a great saying,” Coen said Wednesday, “Where you think you can and where you can’t, you’re right. Why not choose to believe?”
Don’t try and tell the Northeastern Huskies they’re just here for the madness of March. They think they’ll have a say Thursday. Some players have sleeves with a phrase written on it: “Unleash chaos.” The Huskies want to. And they’re choosing to believe.