Throughout the Northeastern Huskies’ very successful 2012-2013 season, head coach Bill Coen has referenced each of his team’s accomplishments as simply another mere step in their journey this year. For many of Northeastern’s players, that journey started this summer when the team gathered in Boston for a series of workouts before traveling north of the border for a Canadian tour.
But, for senior co-captains, and best friends, Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith, their respective success this year has been a result of a journey that started back when they first arrived on campus during the end of the summer of 2009.
Just like every college freshman, Lee and Smith arrived on Northeastern’s buzzing, lush campus with an opportunity to make new friends and begin the next chapter in their lives. The two-wide eyed youngsters found a comfortable companion in one another from day one of Huskies practice, despite growing up in polar opposite areas of the country. While their hometowns’ climates could not be any different, they joined the Northeastern roster in the exact same and limited role.
“We started from the bottom – and I mean the bottom of the bottom,” Lee a 6-2 guard from Flint, Mich., said. Smith, a 6-4 guard, grew up in Leander, Texas.
At the time, the freshmen guards joined a roster that was headlined by the likes of Matt Janning, Chaisson Allen, Manny Adako and Nkem Ojougboh – who all averaged at least 9.2 points per game. Lee and Smith combined to average just 3.0 points in 11.1 minutes per game.
“When we came in as freshmen, it was tough,” Lee said. “We were sitting a lot and we definitely started making excuses for ourselves. But that summer, we got together, we worked really hard and played everywhere. We just made improvements and got better by pushing each other.”
With hard work came definitive results. Both Lee and Smith received more playing time and more scoring opportunities as the years progressed. The tremendous effort and sweat that came from their summer workouts paid dividends immediately in their sophomore campaigns. The duo averaged 30.1 minutes per game and scored a combined 24.0 points per game in 2010-2011.
Coen rewarded the two guards again, in their junior season, as Smith and Lee both earned starting roles and became upperclassmen leaders in the Huskies’ locker room. This year, their leadership and on-court success has culminated in an historic final season in red and black. A season in which Lee and Smith have combined to average 30.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 2.9 steals per game.
“It definitely helped us become better leaders,” Lee said. “We’ve been in everybody’s shoes in the locker room. We can tell them ‘Just keep working. Keep your head up,’ because we’ve been there before.”
Coen has praised both Lee and Smith’s emotional leadership both on and off the court as major components to the Huskies’ success this season. However, the two senior co-captains have also led by example with their games.
This season, Lee and Smith both reached the 1,000-career point mark. They both have impacted the game on the glass, passing and defensively. They both have also stepped up when the other was injured this season.
“When Jon was out, I knew I had to step up and start handling the ball more,” Smith said following his 6 assists against George Mason on Jan 27. “Everybody on this team knows we have to work together to be successful, and helping to distribute has been something I have really worked at.”
When Smith went down with an ankle injury and missed the team’s Feb 13 overtime loss to Delaware, Lee rose to the occasion and poured in 23 points while also grabbing six rebounds. The captains have been the faces of a team attitude that constantly showed a “next-man up” philosophy in the heat of battle.
Behind such successful and hard working leaders, the Huskies morphed into a Colonial Athletic Association powerhouse, jumping out to a 12-1 record in CAA play – the fourth best in the conference’s history. And even though not many expected these two young men to do so, Lee and Smith have grown into two of the most dynamic guards in the entire conference while also becoming models for what diligent hard work can create.
“They’ve accomplished so much through 18 games, through overtime games and through everything else,” Coen said following his team’s season finale against Old Dominion on Saturday. “I couldn’t be prouder of these guys and to see where they’ve come from their freshman year and how they’ve grown as men, as teammates, as players, as students and as ambassadors for the program.”
Further, Coen, a strong candidate for CAA Coach of the Year who does not often show much emotion, held back tears when saying, “It’s just been tremendous. It’s been my pleasure to coach these two guys.”
However, for Coen and his senior co-captains, their journey this season is not over just yet.
“It’s win or go home time,” Coen said. “They call it March Madness for a reason. We’ve earned the Number 1 seed in the CAA tournament and now we have to go down to Richmond and win that championship.”
For Lee and Smith, they’re hoping Northeastern’s journey will end in the program’s first CAA tournament championship ever and their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1991. They’re hoping to be known as the two guards that lead the Huskies to that long-awaited Promised Land.