Northeastern’s offense entered Saturday in a slump. After averaging 1.11 points per possession en route to a 4-0 start, including a win at Florida State, the Huskies failed to crack .90 ppp in any of their next three games against UMass, Fairfield and Harvard.
But against Western Michigan at Matthews Arena, Northeastern kicked its offense back into high gear. Led by star forward Scott Eatherton, the Huskies were nearly unstoppable at the rim and on the offensive glass, riding a season-high 1.23 ppp to an 81-69 victory and improving to 6-2.
Saturday’s explosion wasn’t quite like the beginning of the season, when Northeastern’s offense was sparked by hot outside shooting. The Huskies shot a pedestrian 6-for-20 from three-point range and 8-for-29 outside the paint overall — a clear improvement from their prior game at Harvard, in which they scored from beyond the paint only twice, but hardly world-beating. Instead, their production came from the paint (where they shot 18-for-27) and the free-throw line (23-for-26).
An inside focus is nothing new for the Huskies: They entered the game taking 53% of their shots at the rim, fifth-most in the nation (per hoop-math.com), and they ranked ninth at 48% last year with most of the same personnel. But Northeastern’s scheme was particularly effective against the Broncos, whose top shot-blocker, freshman center Drake LaMont, played only two of the first 26 minutes after fouling Eatherton three times.
Without LaMont, the visitors were nearly powerless to stop Northeastern at the rim — especially Eatherton, who overpowered the rest of Western Michigan’s frontcourt from the post. The senior shot 8-for-10 in the paint and 9-for-15 overall, finishing with game highs of 22 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks and leading the Huskies to a wire-to-wire victory.
“I thought tonight might have been his most complete game over the last two seasons,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “He handled double-teams, he got his teammates involved, he was very vocal. He just did a great job of leading his team today. When he plays like that, it makes the game easier for his teammates, and it certainly makes it easier for the coaching staff.”
Few players have consistently blended usage and efficiency as well as Eatherton, who transferred from St. Francis University after his sophomore season in 2012. The forward has posted an offensive rating of 108 or better for each of his four seasons; in the last three, he’s done it while taking at least 25% of his team’s shots.
Eatherton has shown flashes of accuracy from midrange and even further away — he shot 15-for-34 on three-pointers last year, though his jumper has been erratic so far this season — but his true value offensively lies in his ability to muscle past opponents to the rim and to finish there with either hand. More than 80% of Eatherton’s shots this season have been dunks or layups, and more than 60% of those have been successful. “He’s got a complete offensive game, and he always shoots a good percentage because he gets quality shots,” Coen said.
He’s also a prodigious rebounder, a skill shared by several other Huskies. Eatherton, Zach Stahl and Reggie Spencer are each among the top 500 players nationally in both offensive and defensive rebound rate, per KenPom.com. They were especially effective on the offensive glass Saturday, collecting 41 percent of their team’s misses (including five from Stahl alone). “We just have a good rebounding team,” Eatherton said. “We have some athletic bigs … we’re the two crashing — the three guards are responsible for getting back — so we just try to make as big an impact as we can on the offensive glass.”
With their strength in the paint and on the glass, the Huskies are not a fun opponent to play, as Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins made clear after the game. Fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance in 2014, Hawkins agreed to a home-and-home series with Northeastern late in this year’s cycle to fill an open date for both teams — but he did so reluctantly.
“When you’re a decent team, nobody wants to play you,” he said. “The last thing we wanted to do was come here. I love Boston … it’s a great place to visit when you’re on vacation, but I just don’t want to play [Northeastern].”