Though the student section at Matthews Arena for yesterday’s Northeastern-Delaware game was nearly empty as of the opening tip, more and more fans filed in to the courtside seats throughout the game. Most likely, the late-arriving crowd was due to a relatively early noon start, but perhaps those students have learned something about their basketball team — when Northeastern is involved, the game doesn’t really start until the final few minutes.
Sure enough, the Huskies’ 74-70 defeat on Saturday came down to the wire; given their recent history, this was hardly a surprise. In fact, over the last two seasons, no Division I team has played as many games decided by five points or less as Northeastern:
(Note: All data obtained via the MasseyRatings.com game database and includes games played through Saturday. All overtime games are included, regardless of the final score.)
After Saturday’s defeat, 11 of Northeastern’s 18 games this season have been decided by five points or less, the second-highest percentage in the nation behind only Mississippi (11 of 17). Last season, the Huskies played 18 close games out of 33, tied with Xavier for the highest percentage. (If you’re curious, the two teams without a close game this season are Louisville and Dartmouth; the one without a close game all last season was 0-28 Grambling.)
Why are the Huskies so prone to playing nailbiters? Because there is very little year-to-year correlation in close games played, the biggest reason is likely luck (for example, Delaware led by eight in Saturday’s final minute before poor free-throw shooting let the Huskies get closer). But there are some additional possibilities. For one thing, Northeastern has been about an average team in each of the last two seasons (around 150-200 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings), which means it’s rarely much better or much worse than an opponent. For another, the Huskies generally play at a slow pace, which means there are fewer possessions in which one team can get separation.
Most important, however, is the Huskies’ schedule. Aside from Central Connecticut, there were no cupcakes in this year’s non-conference slate, which is a hallmark of recent Northeastern teams (they’ve never played a non-DI team in the Bill Coen era). And once conference play begins, it seems every team in the CAA plays several nailbiters each year — of the five teams above 50% close games in 2012-13, three hailed from the Colonial (NU, Delaware, Towson). “A lot of teams in the CAA are evenly matched,” Coen said.
Delaware coach Monté Ross agreed. “Our guys are prepared to play one-, two-possession games every night out in the league,” he said after Saturday’s game. “It doesn’t matter how you did in the non-conference … when you get into conference play, there’s such a familiarity that you have to be ready to go for 40 minutes, every single night.”
There’s another side to Northeastern’s story: How well it’s played in those close games. Last year, the Huskies went an amazing 14-4 in such contests, riding its late-game performance to the regular-season CAA title. This year, their fortune has turned; after Saturday’s defeat, they’re now 3-8 in games decided by five points or less. No other team has had such a dramatic swing in close-game fortune this year, for good or bad:
From what we know, close-game performance is mostly explained by random variance, but Coen pointed to another possible factor. “I think it’s the difference between having senior guards and underclassman guards,” he said, referring to 2013 graduates Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith. “It just settles everybody else down and it gives everybody else confidence. Our guards will get there; it just has to be a process.”
Thanks in part to its poor record in close games, Northeastern is now behind the proverbial eight-ball in CAA play, with a 2-3 league record (5-14 overall). But if the score is close in the final minute, anything can happen — so if the Huskies keep taking games down to the wire, they’ll be a particularly dangerous underdog in the postseason tournament.