It’s the CAA Championship game, Northeastern University versus the College of Charleston. 47 seconds left in the first half, and the Cougars are looking to go two for one. Senior guard Joe Chealey takes down the ball with a sense of urgency, looking for any path to the basket. One step, two steps, three steps, he’s past his defender. Eyes locked on the rim, he rises up and gives a quick hesitation before releasing the ball, thinking he’s thrown off his defender’s timing. The ball goes up…
And flies off of the backboard.
Shawn Occeus was right with Chealey every step of the way. He timed each step, the jump, the hesitation, every movement perfectly syncing up for a mammoth block.
The defensive highlight was one of 18 blocks on the season for the sophomore guard, good for second on the Northeastern team. His superior length for his six-foot-four-inch frame allowed him to develop into a stalwart both in the post and on the perimeter, tallying a CAA-leading 64 steals including four games with at least five thefts.
It all culminated into a CAA Defensive Player of the Year award, Occeus becoming the first Northeastern guard to take home the honor.
“It’s a cool moment to get recognized by your fellow athletes and the coaches,” Occeus said. “They’re kind of rewarding you for what you’ve done this year, but for me it’s just a testament to my hard work. At the same time winning individual awards doesn’t really mean anything to me. At the end of the day if you don’t win then it doesn’t really mean anything.”
The Huskies would go on to lose the CAA Championship in a thriller, but the season was a monumental one for the lanky guard nonetheless. Starting the season off the bench, Occeus weaseled his way into the starting lineup with hustle and grit. With more playing time came more opportunities on both ends, but Occeus claims his mindset never wavered.
“For me it’s just about basketball,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re starting, if you’re off the bench or if you’re the last person on the bench. It’s just about how you can impact your team and what can you do in that role for you team […] For me, it was just about keeping it basketball and just letting my love for the game determine how hard I played.”
That work ethic, paired with instincts and raw physical tools, was evident before he ever donned a Huskies jersey.
“A couple things in the recruitment process stuck out; obviously from a physical standpoint he had great size and length and athleticism,” head coach Bill Coen said. “And then as you got to know Shawn and you got to know his coaches’ opinion of him, everybody across the board had glowing recommendations for him – his work ethic and his determination to be as good as he could possibly be.”
As a freshman, Occeus had a front row seat to the best player in the conference: guard T.J. Williams. A senior at the time, Williams registered 21.4 points per game for the Huskies, leading the CAA by a wide margin. The ball was almost always in his hands during his average of 38.2 minutes on the court.
“I was able to learn a lot because he was a very good mentor to a lot of us young guys,” Occeus said. “At first it was tough because you are used to being a main guy on your team coming out of high school, but seeing him handle the ball especially in college is a relief at certain points. I think it’s just seeing him in practice; guarding him in practice helped us this year.”
Occeus took the mantle of the team’s primary ball handler in the 2017-18 season but stayed within his abilities rather than trying to replicate his predecessor. His 10.8 points per game doubled from his freshman campaign, and he saw increases in shooting efficiency from both the field and the line.
With the sophomore on the floor for 28.9 minutes per game, the Huskies ranked third in the nation in opponent three-point percentage at 29.9 percent.
“Everyday in practice we were doing our drills to close out and all that type of stuff,” Occeus said. “It all boils down to playing hard and with effort, and that’s two things Coach [Coen] preaches about before every game and we really take that to heart. We don’t want teams to get easy looks on the offensive end so we got out there and played hard.”
The downside of being the conference’s best defensive player? Always matching up against the other team’s best player.
“Every game we played, my matchup always had a great game the game before us,” Occeus said. “I always took [defense] personally to make sure to make it hard for [my matchup] on the offensive end. I think that me taking it personally just really led to that aggression on the court to play even harder and playing for my teammates.”
Case in point: Occeus held his opponent, UNCW guard Jordon Talley, to a 2-12 shooting night in the second round of the CAA tournament. The game before that, Talley had tied a tournament record with a 37-point explosion.
A constant mitigator of the most threatening opposing scorer, Occeus’ tireless defensive work is a coach’s dream.
“I can’t say enough good things about [Occeus’] serious mindedness, the way he approaches the game, the way he approaches his dream,” Coen said. “I have pretty high expectations for him so I don’t know if he’s surpassed them yet. My vision for him is to become one of the best players in this league by the time he’s finished.”
Occeus certainly isn’t done developing as an elite two-way guard. The soon-to-be junior is planning his offseason improvement around one word:
“Everything,” he said. “Everything.”
Photos by Alex Melagrano