SALT LAKE CITY — The trials and tribulations of the Kansas Jayhawks in 2018-19 have been well documented.
No Silvio De Sousa for the season. No Udoka Azubuike for the final 21 games. No Lagerald Vick for the last 11. There's also the Adidas scandal and FBI investigation — enough to wear down any team.
But, the opponent the Jayhawks face Thursday afternoon in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional — the Northeastern Huskies — has seen its own share of adversity.
It actually started a year ago in the championship game of the 2018 Colonial Athletic Association when the Huskies blew a 17-point second-half lead against Charleston, losing an 83-76 decision and seeing their dream of the berth in the NCAA Tournament go up in flames.
Northeastern coach Bill Coen called it an emotional time for his team and an emotional loss.
The 2018-19 season didn't start much better. Junior swingman Maxime Boursiquot, who was in the starting lineup for all but one game last season, went down with a season-ending injury during the offseason.
Senior guard Vasa Pusica missed seven games with an injury and defensive leader Shawn Occeus was gone for 19 games.
"I just think it pulled us closer together," junior guard Donnell Gresham said. "Guys go down, other teammates pick each other up and see that how much you love this game. When you have it taken away, it makes you even more determined not to let things slide. It made other guys just step up even more.
"We had a goal at the beginning of the season to get to this point. I think (the adversity) really helped us."
It eventually helped, but there were struggles early on.
After the ninth game of the season — a humbling 72-49 loss at Syracuse — Northeastern was 4-5. Two games later, the Huskies were 5-6, but that is when the tide turned.
The Huskies are 18-4 in their last 22 games,; their losses by 3, 3 and 2 points, and the other in overtime.
"I think it was tough initially," junior guard Shawn Occeus said. "Guys were in different roles and things like that, but overall I think it helped us. We got those guys back and it just made the other guys who had been stepping up for us even better."
The Huskies (23-10) have been one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country this season. They are making nearly 10 a game (24th nationally) and hit 38.8 percent of those shots (16th).
"We'll have to make shots, but we're also going to have to get to the rim and finish," Occeus said. "It's going to have to be a mixture of both to beat Kansas."
Regardless, Northeastern won't come into the game intimidated by the Kansas name. Many of those in the national media are picking the 13th-seeded Huskies to pull off the upset. There are many others around the country believing it as well. The opening line Sunday night was 10.5, but that had shrunk to 6.5 the day before the game.
"Obviously as a kid you hear about Kansas and stuff like that; their history and the people they've brought through that school and the hall of famers and legends who go there," Gresham said. "But, at this point, I don't really care who our opponent is. It's just another game and they're just another school, just another opponent for us. We can't look at them, look at (KU coach) Bill Self and all their players and be in awe."
The Huskies have come a long way in a year, a long way from that second-half collapse in the CAA Tournament.
"I have answered that question way too many times this season," Pusica said. "It was obviously a tough loss, but I think it just made us better, made us more experienced, more calm in tough situations."
Pusica grew up in Belgrade, Serbia, and has spent his five years of college playing on the West Coast (San Diego University) and East Coast (in Boston, home of the Northeastern Huskies).
But the 6-foot-5 Pusica spent the 2013-14 school year in the Midwest — at Wichita's Sunrise Christian Academy — honing his skills before moving on to college. He was one of seven players on his squad who would eventually sign with Division I schools.
“It was school, basketball and sleep, because they were used to working a lot there,” Pusica says of his year in Wichita. “I learned how to work hard. I just saw kids coming and shooting in the gym at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., and that was something I never (had) done before. I thought I was a hard worker. But when I came over to the States, I saw how much more work you’ve got to put in and how much more you can develop.”
Pusica has developed into one of the top players in college basketball — 17.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game — even though many people outside of the New England area know little about him. He was named his conference's player of the year last week.
The Kansas Jayhawks didn't know much about Pusica a week ago, but ever since Selection Sunday, all that has changed. Kansas coach Bill Self compares Pusica's style of game to that of former Kansas player Svi Mykhailiuk.
"He is a fabulous player. He plays with pace, he's a point guard with size," Self said. "He's got great vision and his stroke is pure. I did know of him before the selection show came out, I'm not going to say I didn't because I did.
"But, after watching him on tape, he has to be one of the better unknown talents in America. He's a really good guard."