I’ve seen some banter on Twitter of late debating who the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year should be. I’ve seen viable arguments for at least three different coaches, as there are a lot of worthy candidates in this pandemic shortened season. Allow me to offer objective (at least as best I can) arguments on behalf of the coaches who could receive votes next week for the award.
Jared Grasso – If you take into account Bryant’s entire body of work – non-conference included – the Bulldogs have had the best regular season of anyone in the league at 14-5 overall. It’s not even close in that respect. Out of conference wins over UMass, Stony Brook and New Hampshire as well as a nail-biting loss in the Carrier Dome to Syracuse was mainly responsible for soaring Bryant’s KenPom ranking more than 100 spots from 312 in late November to 187 prior to their NEC showdowns in early January with Central Connecticut. Now sitting at 185 on KenPom’s ledger, they lead the NEC in this ranking as well as overall offensive efficiency (103.1 points scored per 100 possessions). The latter is quite impressive when considering Bryant’s nine newcomers among their 13 scholarships this season.
If you need another analytical metric to bolster Grasso’s case, Bryant’s Game Scores on Barttorvik.com have been consistently good – Syracuse, UMass, Central Connecticut game 1, Merrimack game 2 – and have illustrated the third-year head coach’s ability to get his team to 1) consistently perform in the early, middle and late part of the season despite a COVID-19 pause sprinkled in-between and 2) play well and be successful against different schemes and tempos.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs are currently in the driver’s seat to win the NEC regular season title. Preseason expectations aside (Bryant was tied for third in the preseason poll), the coaches have put significant value on winning the league for this award in the past, and I wouldn’t expect 2020-21 to be any different. It’s very plausible to see the coaches (aka the voters) rewarding Grasso for not just a first place finish but also for turning a 3-win program three years ago into arguably the favorite to get to the NCAA tournament.
Bashir Mason – If shock value is your thing, surely Wagner going from 1-4 in the NEC (1-5 overall if you include a lopsided loss to Seton Hall) to 11-5 in second place is the best thing going in the 2020-21 college basketball season. Before their recent hiccup at Central Connecticut, Wagner had a NEC-leading 10 game winning streak and soared from a “team trying to find its way” to “bonafide NEC contender.” It’s prudent to mention that Wagner was picked eighth in the NEC preseason poll, and most likely the Seahawks will be no worse than the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.
How has Mason, a two-time Jim Phelan Coach of the Year recipient already, done it? By developing his talent to the point where Wagner has a 4-headed monster in Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez and DeLonnie Hunt. The former two are destined for an all-conference team nod and Morales is quite honestly a Player of the Year candidate, whereas the latter in Hunt will most likely become the NEC’s Rookie of the Year thanks to his mesmerizing blend of quickness, toughness and shotmaking. Considering the way these four started the season, to have these players, as well as guys like Nigel Jackson, Ja’Mier Fletcher and Elijah Allen, contribute at an all-above average level is a testament to the job Mason and his staff have done in developing their student-athletes. Additionally, Wagner has done well to embrace the roster’s strengths as a versatile, slashing squad that leads the NEC in offensive rebounding rate and is second in effective field goal percentage.
Raise your hand if you thought Wagner would have the league’s best offense in NEC play going into March. Yeah, that’s what I thought!
Anthony Latina – Picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, Sacred Heart has significantly defied expectations in the same way they did in the 2018-19 campaign when they went from ninth in the poll to a 11-7 regular season finish and #3 seed in the NEC tournament. Now with the youngest roster in the conference and the 317th least experienced team in the country per KenPom, Latina has somehow harbored the guard play of Tyler Thomas (Most Improved Player candidate), Aaron Clarke and Alex Watson (1.7 ppg to 7.4 ppg) into a 9-7 NEC finish. And he’s done it with three freshmen – Mike Sixsmith, Bryce Johnson and Matas Spokas – playing significant roles. All three players are posting above average efficiency ratings, not an easy thing to do for any Division I novices.
It’s not a certainty that the Pioneers play in the NEC tournament, although it’s fairly likely at the moment. And for Latina to lose five of his top six scorers (Clarke was the lone holdover) AND lose his starting four-man in Zach Pfaffenberger in the preseason due to injury and to still sneak into the league’s top four is a special accomplishment.
The analytical metrics, particularly efficiency margins and KenPom rating, haven’t been terribly kind to Sacred Heart over the course of 2020-21. That’s mainly due to blowout losses to Wagner (game 1), LIU (game 1) and Saint Francis (game 1). But the Pioneers’ penchant to bounce back and win the second part of these back-to-backs – they did it a remarkable six times this season – should not be discounted in any way. Latina and his staff’s ability to make adjustments on the fly and split all of these series is a major reason why the Pioneers are in an advantageous position here in late February.
Honorable mention goes to Joe Gallo and Dan Engelstad for the jobs they’ve done as well, although I think the trio mentioned above would make up most people’s top three.
Gallo, however, has taken a team who lost three standout seniors, including all-conference first teamer Juvaris Hayes, to being tied for third place going into their final week of the season. And they did it with a massively long COVID-19 pause from Thanksgiving to late December where the team practiced seven times over a 40-day stretch. Engelstad, in his own right, has done very well to get Mount St. Mary’s in the position they’re in, especially after losing Jalen Gibbs, the Mount’s leading scorer at the time, to the transfer portal and having Dakota Laffew go down due to injury. The Mountaineers stand as the league’s best defensive unit going into their pivotal back-to-back showdown at Bryant next week.
We all have biases in this race, myself included, but I wanted to best lay out the arguments for each coach. There are so many great coaches in this league and I can’t wait to see who’s the next Jim Phelan Coach of the Year! Who the coaches decide among their peers will be fascinating.
Greg Herenda doesn’t usually have a guest accompany him when he attends Fairleigh Dickinson’s annual graduation ceremony at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The spring of 2017 was different though, as Herenda swung by Newark Airport beforehand to pick up his guest.
The guest was 6-foot-7, 220-pound Chicago area native Elyjah Williams. The high school senior from Evanston, Illinois was just starting an official visit to FDU that May, late as it may have been in the recruiting season.
As Williams made his way into MetLife Stadium, the physically imposing, yet affable kid had the look of a football player because, well, he was a football player. And a good one at that. The former tight end and defensive lineman at Evanston High had thoughts about playing on the collegiate gridiron, especially after receiving a couple of serious Division I offers. But basketball was his true love, so there he was serving as Herenda’s wing man on graduation day.
That didn’t stop the gregarious Herenda from having a little fun at the FDU graduation ceremony as he brought Williams around to meet the university’s students and facility. His guest, Herenda quipped, was a free agent football player looking to sign with the New York Giants.
“It was actually pretty funny,” Williams said with a chuckle when recalling the event. “A couple of people I think actually believed him.”
The next day Herenda brought Williams to Prestos Pizza, a popular restaurant in Hackensack less than a mile away from the Rothman Center, the Knight’s home basketball court. Herenda likes to bring prospective student-athletes to his favorite pizza joint – it’s part of the process and a way to get to know his recruits in a one-on-one setting. It was on that day at Prestos where Herenda witnessed Williams’s attention to detail firsthand.
“I asked him to grab me a Diet Coke out of the case and it took him about five minutes,” Herenda said. “The next thing you know he comes back with a Diet Coke and on the back of it, it said the name Greg.”
Williams has astutely used Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign to impress his soon-to-be head coach. The teen had meticulously searched Prestos’ entire stock of 20-ounce Diet Coke bottles before finally finding a “Greg” on the back of one. According to Herenda, Williams even spun the bottle around perfectly when presenting the coach’s drink in the sitting booth.
Shortly thereafter on the visit, Williams was offered one of the Knights’ final scholarships for their 2017-18 roster. He swiftly accepted and the ordeal of being in recruitment limbo – should he or shouldn’t he go to prep school to extend his Division I dream – was thankfully over.
“It was definitely a rough process for me personally,” Williams, who a few months earlier had an offer from Holy Cross fall through, said. “When I came to the East Coast I really liked it a lot.”
With a versatile game centered around a myriad of skills and physicality, Williams made an immediate impact as a freshman. It wasn’t easy to do given FDU’s talent base and incoming recruiting class, which also included Jahlil Jenkins and Noah Morgan. Nevertheless, Williams was part of the Knights’ rotation for much of the 2017-18 campaign.
His effort that season in a January road game versus Bryant opened some eyes. On the very first play, Williams received the ball on the left baseline, made a move toward the basket, and flushed it home. The play was a harbinger of things to come in the game – he finished with then-career highs of 16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals – and it showcased his immense potential.
The following season illustrated Williams’ maturation, so much so that Herenda nearly doubled his minutes on the floor. The power forward’s impact during FDU’s magical NEC tournament run may have been understated alongside stars Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway and Jahlil Jenkins. But it surely wasn’t forgotten by the program bearer.
“Back then Elyjah just was a steady force on that team,” Herenda said of Williams’ impact as a role player. “He always did what was necessary of him.”
After procuring two critical offensive rebounds in the final minute of tight tournament semifinal victory over Robert Morris, Williams was fully entrenched as the Knights’ 3-man alongside Holloway and Kaleb Bishop in the finals. His insertion into the lineup to replace Xzavier Malone-Key, who missed the entire NEC tournament due to injury, created significant matchup problems for the number-1 seeded, perimeter centric Saint Francis U Red Flash.
“I think Elyjah Williams was the reason they were able to come in and knock us off, because of his physicality, and because of his versatility, and because of his skill set,” Saint Francis head coach Rob Krimmel said when reliving that painful loss in Loretto. “It was a better matchup for us with Malone-Key, and Malone-Key was a good player.”
In the nationally televised game, Williams played nearly 40 minutes, then a career high, and was terrific on both ends of the floor. The then-sophomore finished with 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting to go along with 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. The Knights were practically perfect offensively and won the championship game going away, 85-76. The Knights were bound for Dayton for the second time in four seasons.
But afterwards, Williams’ actions caught Krimmel’s eye once again. As the FDU players and coaches celebrated their triumph on the DeGol Arena floor, Williams ran past Krimmel and into the back hallway toward the Red Flash locker room. The Saint Francis coach initially thought something was amiss, so he quickly worked his way toward the hallway.
“I walk back and peek my head back and all (Williams) did was respect and congratulate Jamal (King) and Keith (Braxton),” Krimmel said of the moment. “Here his team is celebrating and he’s back in our hallway congratulating (SFU players). That’s a credit to the type of kid he is.”
Now merely games away from closing out his fourth season, the burly Williams has emerged as a top 10 player within the league. His impact on both ends is unmistakable, as he currently sits among the NEC leaders in a variety of categories such as effective field goal percentage (60.8%, 5th), blocks per game (1.4, 4th), scoring (14.2 ppg, 5th) and rebounding (7.5 rpg, 6th). And that production is there despite being quarantined due to COVID contract tracing protocols for more than 20 days during this season.
Among the impressive numbers, Williams’ versatility at his size is truly unique and a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. “He just has a real physical presence,” Herenda said. “When he goes downhill with the ball, especially in the open court he’s had highlights.” The coach also compared Williams’s transition game to watching a bruising running back barrel his way toward the goal line.
While the on-the-court production is nice, Herenda and Williams will forever cherish their close relationship – there are frequent one-on-one discussions far beyond the scope of basketball – both in the good times and the bad. The thing that Herenda most admires about his senior forward is his kindness and consistency, day in and day out.
“After every single game he comes and grabs me and gives me a pound or a hug,” Herenda said of Williams. “And we’ve lost some really hard games, we’ve won some big ones, but he’s very consistent in that. He’s a great sport.”
Williams’ future as a Knight is uncertain – he and Jenkins will discuss their future with Herenda at the conclusion of this season – but his impact is immense, whether there’s just two or 32 games left. After signing with the Knights late in the recruiting season, Williams has entrenched himself as an easy to root for champion and all-time great in FDU lore.
Eral Penn knew something was terribly wrong. As he drove back to Long Island University from Maryland after a preseason break, Penn’s entire arm was swollen and throbbing. He had banged his forearm the wrong way three days earlier in practice, was treated with anti-inflammatories upon his return home at a Baltimore hospital, and yet the arm wasn’t responding to treatment. In fact, the malady worsened as he traversed north on the New Jersey Turnpike, to the point where the 6-foot-7 junior needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
“When he got back (to Brooklyn), the size of his elbow was the size of our thigh,” Jim Mack, an assistant coach at LIU, recalled of the incident.
With much of the LIU basketball staff there for support, the NYU doctors treated Penn’s mystery ailment as if it was a staph or MRSA infection. Within 48 hours however, it was clear the initial treatment was ineffective. Emergency, exploratory surgery to scope out the source of Penn’s swelling and pain was the next crucial step.
“We at first didn’t realize the extent of it, but as they kept going in (to operate), we realized how serious it was getting,” Mack said.
Penn’s infected arm ended up enduring four surgeries over the course of a few weeks. Doctors successfully removed the entire infection on the final scope, one that literally scraped out debris next to Penn’s ulna and radius bones, but the damage had been done. Penn was going to miss the 2019-20 season due to injury.
Penn’s arm issue improbably had begun four years earlier when he inadvertently struck an opponent’s mouth on a block attempt in a high school game. A tooth from the player wound up missing and Penn was left with a gash in his forearm.
“I went to the doctor and they did an x-ray,” Penn said. “His tooth wasn’t inside of me, so they patched (my arm) up and gave me antibiotics.”
In retrospect, the doctors likely missed an opportunity to treat the injury as a bite and administer a tetanus shot. But everything seemed fine moving forward, even if Penn’s arm would bother him every so often after hard contact at the site of the original injury. One doctor suggested during Penn’s freshman year at LIU that he was suffering from arthritis, while another prescribed more antibiotics. Only after four years of his body fighting a somewhat silent infection did his arm flare up to that dangerous level during the 2019 preseason.
Now hospital bound from several surgical procedures, Penn was fortunate to have full use of his arm and a continuing basketball career to look forward to. Sure, he was initially devastated and struggled with some down moments in the midst of his hospital stay, anybody in that situation would, but the LIU staff and teammates were vital in keeping the junior’s hopes up.
“They showed me a lot during that process; they were there with me every step of the way through all my surgeries,” Penn said of the support his coaches gave him during the scary ordeal.
Three months later in January, quite remarkably, Penn returned to the basketball court to resume his individual 7 AM workouts with Raiquan Clark, the team’s leading scorer, and Coach Mack. A few weeks later, he was medically cleared to fully practice with his teammates.
Before Penn emerged as a household name among NEC circles this season, the raw yet athletically gifted kid was returning to the United States to play basketball as an unknown high school junior.
After living in the British Virgin Islands with their father for three years, Penn and his twin brother Vedal moved to Baltimore with their mother. The Penn brothers had a desire to hoop at a quality high school, yet they didn’t have the slightest clue where to look. That’s when an impromptu conversation with a security guard at the Maryland State Department of Education changed Eral’s life for the better.
“When I walked in the door, he was like ‘oh, do you play basketball and stuff,’” Penn, who was there to submit his transcript, said of the chance encounter. “Just like small talk and he told us how St. Frances Academy was a good basketball school.”
Heeding the security guard’s advice, Penn and his brother enrolled at the academy and showed up on the first day of basketball tryouts. St. Frances head coach Nick Myles vividly remembers his first impression of the Penn kids.
“I’ll never forget him and his brother in the corner just nervous, shooting baskets at tryouts,” Myles said. “At my level, normally you don’t get (new) guys that make the team at tryouts. We’re normally a little bit too good for that, but Eral was just so energetic and he was a difference maker from day one.”
Both brothers made the team – Penn called that tryout the toughest practice he’s ever been through – even though St. Frances was routinely among the nation’s elite in the high school circuit. The program was a breeding ground for Division I talent, but that didn’t matter for Penn, who had played against inferior competition in the Virgin Islands. His energy, work ethic and athleticism made its way into Myles’ coveted rotation right from the beginning. The forward stuck and soon was starting games late in the season as a rebounding, rim-protecting role player.
A year later, Penn emerged as a senior star, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game for a very young, albeit talented St. Frances team. The squad was rife with inexperience however, leading to a down season. It certainly wasn’t Penn’s fault, yet with St. Frances out of the national spotlight, Division I coaches weren’t around as much to recruit the tenacious, high-motored forward.
There were offers from Siena and Canisius early in Penn’s senior season, although those eventually fell through. An unofficial visit to Mount St. Mary’s didn’t lead to anything. By the end of the season, Penn was left with nothing but Division 2 and 3 offers to ponder, leaving him to wonder if enrolling in a preparatory school was the best way forward to keep his Division I dream alive.
Luckily for Penn, LIU hired Derek Kellogg as its fourteenth head coach in program history on April 17, thereby paving the way for Myles to sell his star power forward’s credentials. The coach had a relationship with Kellogg dating back to when another St. Frances player, Terrell Vinson, became a quality four-year contributor for UMass, Kellogg’s prior coaching stop.
“When (Kellogg) got the LIU job, I just thought Eral was the perfect fit. I just like the freedom that Coach Kellogg gives his players,” Myles said of the offensive friendly, up-tempo scheme Kellogg regularly implements. “I’m a big fan of his system and the way he plays.”
In his recruiting pitch, Myles didn’t let Kellogg forget about the time he passed on one of his former players. The Baltimore product, DaQuan Bracey, eventually landed at Louisiana Tech and later became a Conference USA all-conference first team recipient as a 5-foot-11 senior. With a few scholarships to fill upon his arrival at LIU, Kellogg wasn’t going to make the same mistake of passing on a Myles recommendation.
“It was one of those things where everything just kind of fell into place and he’s been a workhorse since he’s got here,” Kellogg said of Penn, who’s mother was originally from Brooklyn.
Since arriving on campus, Penn has been the model student-athlete for Kellogg from day one. “The kid’s work ethic and desire to win, his character, all of those things are what really makes him special,” the long-time coach confirmed. “He’s not chasing the points or the glory or any of that stuff, he just wants to do things the right way.”
That much was evident in Penn’s underclassman seasons at LIU. As primarily a reserve big off the bench, Penn made the most of his opportunities, converting 65 percent of his 2-point attempts while swatting away 63 shots and turning the ball over just 28 times in 59 games. It was his performance in the 58th game of his collegiate career, however, that caught the league’s attention and best exemplified Penn’s linear progression as a player.
In that NEC quarterfinals matchup at Sacred Heart, the six-seeded LIU squad came into the Pitt Center winning three straight, yet were considered slight underdogs to a Pioneers team that surprised the NEC with a 11-7 regular season finish.
Enter Penn who, like Sacred Heart that season, seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the show in LIU’s biggest moment. “I felt with that game, it was the last game (of the season) so I had nothing else to lose,” he said of his career performance that evening.
He surely took advantage of the loser-go-home mentality, registering 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and, most surprisingly, draining 3 of 5 from behind the arc in a career high (at the time) 31 minutes. In his previous 57 games at LIU, Penn had attempted just seven 3-point tries, making two. That evening, Penn improbably outproduced the entire Pioneers team from deep, nine points to six.
LIU won the game going away, 71-62, advancing to the tournament semifinals and giving Penn the confidence to realize that he possessed the necessary talent to go from a key role player to an all-conference contributor.
Despite missing the 2019-20 season due to the arm injury, Penn hasn’t missed a beat upon his return to the hardwood this season. He’s officially progressed from bench piece to role guy to NEC superstar.
Within league play for the 2020-21 season, Penn sits inside the top eight among NEC players in a myriad of statistics such as effective field goal percentage (57.9%, 7th), offensive rebounding rate (12.1%, 4th), defensive rebounding rate (24.1%, 3rd), block rate (5.7%, 3rd), free throw rate (61.6% FTA/FGA, 1st) and steal rate (3.4%, 2nd). The last metric illustrates Penn’s superb maturation, as his defensive impact as a NEC five-man has terrified opponents both around the rim and out on the perimeter.
His uncanny ability to block shots and blitz hedges while stripping guards of the basketball is unique, to say the least. Penn’s accumulated 31 steals in his third year after collecting just 20 thefts in his first two seasons combined. And, by the way, he’s rejected 28 shot attempts this season as well.
“That’s why he’s so damn tired right now,” Kellogg joked when asked about Penn’s seemingly limitless defensive energy and impact on the floor. “Those guys are kind of few and far between, because I think everybody puts a premise on scoring points in this day and age and I think he worries about all the other things. And then all of the sudden you get 18 to 20 (points) on putbacks and lop dunks and open 3s and just running the floor and playing hard.”
As someone who’s also coached Penn throughout his LIU career, Mack credits not only the redshirt senior’s insatiable appetite to improve his game, but also his hyper competitiveness with his teammates in practice. “He just progressed and I think one of the biggest things was him and Raiquan would compete every morning,” Mack said of those legendary individual workouts between two close friends. “Those two would go at each other. They wouldn’t hold anything back.”
With two regular season games remaining and LIU sitting at 9-7 in the NEC standings, Penn has undoubtedly emerged as an elite player in spite of not having a ton of offense being run through him. The analytics website BartTorvik.com currently pegs Penn as the second most valuable player in the conference when using its PORPAGATU! (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game at That Usage) metric.
Forget about the statistics, the jaw dropping athleticism and even the tenacious work ethic that Penn possesses as a LIU Shark, though. If you talk to opposing NEC coaches, what most impresses them about the versatile power forward is the positive energy he harbors in uniform, whether it’s on the floor as a playmaker or on the bench as a cheerleader. Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo was taken aback by Penn’s presence when his Warriors faced the Sharks over a two-day stretch in early February.
“When you’re playing against him in person he just has this energy and aura about him,” Gallo said when asked about his immediate impressions of Penn. “Every time they shot a three he’s like screaming and yelling and cheering on his teammates on the court. He’s one of those guys you play against and you’re like ‘I wish this guy was on my team.’ I literally wanted to give the guy a hug.”
Rob Krimmel went one further than Gallo after Penn carved up his Red Flash in their second contest versus LIU to the tune of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals. He actually embraced the big man after their post game chat. “You can look at the numbers and say, ‘hey this kid is good,’ but when you get out there and see how hard he plays and how much he pulls for his teammates, that makes it even more special,” Krimmel said.
Being a great teammate has always come natural to Penn. As someone who first grew up in Brooklyn and then lived in the Virgin Islands, hard work and humility were ingrained into his upbringing. The grounded Penn isn’t hesitant about crediting both of his parents when asked about his on-the-court demeanor.
Of his father, Penn said: “My dad was a huge influence – when I actually moved with him in the (Virgin) Islands, he actually taught me and my brother how to be men. He had us wake up at 5 o’clock every morning and just to have that mindset to get up and go to work, even if I was just going to school.”
The student-athlete then heaped praise on his mother, crediting her hard work and limitless dedication for giving him and his brother the opportunity to play basketball at a private school in the United States such as St. Frances.
The investment into Penn’s craft and character has paid dividends and caught everyone’s eye, no matter if you’re with him or against him on the court.
Mack wholeheartedly agrees. “What he is as a human being – loyal, respectful, hardworking, like he’s everything – and I said this to my wife the other day, if my son grows up to be a quarter of the person Eral Penn is, we’ve done a good job. I’m not saying that loosely… that’s the type of kid that he is.”
Given Penn’s journey from Brooklyn to the Virgin Islands to Baltimore and back to Brooklyn, it’s easy to root the 6-foot-7 forward. And there’s plenty of story yet to be written. Somehow, the best is yet to come.
The 450-mile bus ride from Emmitsburg to North Andover wasn’t as awful as you’d expect after watching your team get thoroughly outplayed by Mount St. Mary’s in a back-to-back series. Even at 1-3 and near the bottom of the conference standings, Joe Gallo saw clues from his Merrimack squad in their second loss to the Mount, a 63-52 setback that quite honestly was never in question.
The defense showed signs of coming around to the elite level they once exhibited as a 2019-20 juggernaut. 19 Mount turnovers were extracted. Only 17 3-point shots allowed. Less than a point per possession given up. And all of that was achieved despite three subpar defensive efforts to open the season where they allowed opponents to shoot 47% from 2 and 45% from 3.
“I thought we played hard enough defensively in the second (Mount St. Mary’s) game that we finally gave the correct effort to defend the way we defend,” Gallo said reflecting back.
The effort was only possible after the Warriors had a prolonged period of court time to get their legs underneath them. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Merrimack had practiced an unfathomable seven times as a team – and four more times if you include individual one on ones – from Thanksgiving break to the end of December. As expected, the energy level was sapped when they returned to the practice court and suited up for live action with Sacred Heart shortly thereafter.
“To be honest we were in an unbelievable place right before Thanksgiving, because we went from September to then without any pauses,” Gallo said about the challenging preseason. “Guys were flying around, guys were in the proper condition… and then the rest is history”
Only after the second Mount defeat did Gallo believe his team was close to their pre-Thanksgiving state. The locked-in practices in the week that followed proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The defensive metrics in conference action illustrate why Merrimack has been victorious in seven of their last eight.
First 4 Games
Last 8 Games
Of the key defensive indicators, the only stat lagging behind is turnover rate, but some context here is warranted: a 21.4% turnover rate would still place them tied for first in the NEC right now alongside Central Connecticut. Yes, it’s not the elite turnover rate from a season prior (25.9%, 3rd nationally), yet the Warriors are finding other methods to make the 2-3 zone scheme as menacing as possible. Call it an adjustment after the graduation of the greatest theft artist to ever play college basketball.
“We don’t close out possessions as much with Juvaris’ (Hayes) steals or Idris’ (Joyner) charges, but we’re making you take tougher shots and coming up with the rebounds,” Gallo said.
Case in point: with an experienced group of Jordan Minor (21.0% DReb, 4.7% block rate), Ziggy Reid (19.3% DReb, 4.2% block rate) and the grizzled vet Devin Jensen (10.3% DReb, 3.3% steal rate) patrolling the backline of the zone, the Warriors have grabbed 5% more of their opponent’s misses when compared to last season. Even the diminutive yet impressive Mikey Watkins, at 5-foot-11, has improved his defensive rebounding numbers as a junior. And with 6-foot-7 junior Justin Connolly back as a rotation piece, the team’s defensive rebounding rate has ticked up to nearly 73% over the last four contests.
Add it all up and the NEC league play numbers compared to a year ago aren’t all that different, while the metrics continue to trend in the right direction. (I’m not a fan of cherry picking data, but if you remove the first four games of the season, Merrimack’s 3-point defense also vastly improves to 30.5%)
2PT FG Def
3PT FG Def
While playing with a cohesive, yet tenacious energy has surely righted the Merrimack defense ship, accountability has also played a big role in the Warriors’ ascension. It’s the coaching staff’s meticulous detail of charting every defensive possession in order to assign praise, or blame, that forces players to be accountable.
“We keep track of who gave up what every game and we don’t always share it with the team unless we really need to make a statement,” Gallo explained. “Sometimes we just share it with guys behind closed doors.”
After Merrimack’s first sobering defeat in Emmitsburg however – the Warriors gave up 77 points on 47% shooting – a group text went out holding players accountable in broad daylight for blown assignments within the zone. “It was like a headcount, like ‘so and so you gave up 17 points’ and no one likes to see that and no one wants to let their team down, so you kind of need it those games to bring in some of that accountability that you can only go so far for practice,” Gallo said.
Now standing alone in first place with two thirds of its regular season in the books, the defending NEC regular season champions are in a position to make history once again. It should come as no surprise with Gallo recently pegged as a revolutionary figure of zone defense, the dean of the 2-3, so to speak. The five-year head coach received a surprising number of messages this offseason asking for his advice in zone defense implementation.
“If you go with e-mail, it had to be 100 (inquires),” Gallo said of the correspondences, ranging from literally all levels of basketball – high school all the way to the NBA and everything in between. Some e-mails, Gallo admits, still need to be answered.
While the questions ranged from all over the map, many were interested in Merrimack’s somewhat mysterious defensive presence on the perimeter. “I think what really intrigued people was that kind of that 3-point number,” Gallo said. “It’s like an oxymoron, everyone wants to know how do you play zone, but not give up 3s.”
While that may have been a legitimate question early on this season after Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary’s had success scoring from deep, Merrimack has been locked in at running opponents off the 3-point line and into the “dreaded” mid-range jumper. The recent 4-game winning streak over Saint Francis and Central Connecticut, where those schools shot a combined 27.6% from deep, is evidence of that.
With the way Merrimack continues to defend this season, the 41-year coach should expect more advice seekers in the coming offseasons. And the fact that he’s doing it with a limited number of staff – assistant coaches Micky Burtnyk and Phil Gaetano deserve a ton of credit as well – makes this Division I transition journey all the more remarkable.
The Merrimack Warriors aren’t going away anytime soon.
Mount St. Mary’s Using Its Size to Stifle NEC Opponents
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Mount St. Mary’s when it came to elite defense within conference play. Actually, it’s deja vu given that I spoke about both of these defenses in November of 2019! Back then Merrimack maintained its defensive excellence, whereas Mount St. Mary’s, due to depth issues caused by untimely injuries, struggled to defend over the course of the season.
Now, the Mountaineers find themselves atop the NEC in defensive efficiency – one spot ahead of Merrimack – and the sample size of 11 league games is more substantive. The Mountaineers vaulted to the top in large part from the basketball clinic they displayed on arguably one of the NEC’s most talented teams in LIU. In the second game, a 64-46 victory, the Mount held LIU scoreless for 16 of 17 possessions (0.12 ppp) over the course of a backbreaking 24-2 run in the second half. While Derek Kellogg’s group missed some decent looks from 3 during that stretch (0 for 4), the Mount did very well to force LIU into contested mid-range jumpers, and the Sharks came up empty (0 of 10, 3 turnovers).
The two box scores from the LIU games should be framed in Dan Engelstad’s office moving forward – the Mountaineers gave up 106 points on 131 possessions (0.81 ppp) and held LIU to 32.8% shooting in the sweep.
Engelstad’s defensive scheme is different than Merrimack’s in that the Mountaineers aren’t overly concerned with turning opponents over; rather, they are using their size at the wing and frontcourt positions to dare opponents to shoot over them. With a regular lineup that features Mezie Offurum (6-foot-8), Malik Jefferson (6-foot-9) and Nana Opoku (6-foot-9) and well as big-ish guards at the two like Josh Reaves (6-foot-4) and DeAndre Thomas (6-foot-5), it’s been proven effective. Look at how many categories the Mount leads the league in with respect to defensive metrics!
KenPom Defensive Efficiency (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions)
Two-Point Field Goal Defense (43.7%)
Three-Point Field Goal Defense (28.9%)
Block Rate (12.7% of opponents shot attempts are blocked by a Mount player)
Defensive Rebounding Rate (75.3% of Opponent’s Misses are Rebounded by the Mount)
Free Throw Rate (23.3% FT attempts / Field Goal Attempts)
The numbers really are remarkable – the Mount are the toughest team to score on anywhere on the floor, they limit second chance opportunities AND they aren’t fouling much at all. That’s incredible discipline from the players and a wonderful coaching job by Engelstad and his staff in season number three.
The Mount’s stiffest test against the league’s offenses awaits with showdowns versus Wagner (1st in offensive efficiency), Fairleigh Dickinson (3rd) and Bryant (2nd). It’ll be fascinating to witness coming down the stretch.
During the early part of the past decade, the Northeast Conference was synonymous with exciting, high-tempo basketball. The LIU dynasty from 2010 to 2013 forged by Jim Ferry and Jack Perri led the charge, but other programs such as Central Connecticut, Monmouth and Sacred Heart certainly weren’t adverse to getting up and down the floor at a dizzying pace.
Later on however, the NEC fell back in average tempo and has hovered anywhere from 12th to 21st overall with respect to the other Division I conferences. Until now.
Mount St. Mary’s
As of this writing, the NEC currently has the second fastest tempo in all of the country after finishing last season as the 19th fastest conference. Three programs, in particular, are mainly responsible for the league’s newfound frenetic pace, as Bryant (2nd), LIU (11th) and St. Francis Brooklyn (26th) find themselves within the top 30 nationally in this category.
Each program has their own unique way of implementing their system, but Bryant has stood out given their fantastic 10-3 opening.
Back in early October when the NEC Media Day taping occurred, I asked Jared Grasso about the scheme he planned to implement with a mostly turned-over roster. He was coy in response, stating that while the scheme was a work in progress, he wasn’t quite ready to tell me “what the secret sauce was.” Truth be told, Grasso wasn’t yet confident with the team’s fast tempo until he saw his squad in action outside of their practice court.
“I knew we had the pieces early on to (play fast),” Grasso said last week when asked about when he believed Bryant’s up-tempo scheme could be realized. “The Syracuse game, even though they play zone, our pace carried over from practice into that game.”
It surely did. In the November 27th opener that took place in the cavernous Carrier Dome, the Bulldogs impressively exerted their style of play on Syracuse, racing up and down the floor to the point where the game ended with an astonishing 172 possessions. It was easily the fastest 40-minute game played by the zone-oriented Orange in two years (there was a 174 possession game later on December 19 versus Buffalo, but that game went into overtime).
For Bryant, a system was born – a breakneck, frenetic pace that has been successful in speeding up opponents on both ends of the floor to the point of discomfort. Through 13 contests – the most played by a significant margin when compared to their league counterparts – Bryant is averaging 76.6 possessions per game, while their offensive possession length averages just 14.4 seconds per possession, eighth in all of college basketball. Per Hoop-Math, a nation’s best 43.4 percent of Bryant’s possessions are of the transition variety, and that leads the NEC by a considerable margin (LIU is next at 36.7 percent, which ranks 10th in DI).
It’s one thing to be fast, but it’s entirely another thing to put your pedal on the gas AND score efficiently. Bryant thus far has done both. When adjusting for pace the Bulldogs are registering 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a notable feat for a NEC squad that places them in the top half of college basketball.
One reason for Bryant’s increased tempo and efficiency is their proficiency to convert 3-point attempts at a 41.5 percent clip. The Bulldogs long-distance prowess has given Grasso the flexibility to roll with four to five shooters at any time when on the floor, much in the same way that Tim Cluess programmed his Iona teams when Grasso was the associate head coach.
This is a far departure from what Grasso inherited in year one, where Adam Grant and Juan Cardenas were the only players who sank at least 35% of their 3-point attempts in the 2019-20 season. Now, six Bulldogs meet that 35% threshold with four of them – Michael Green, Charles Pride, Chris Childs and Peter Kiss – attempting at least 45 shots (about 3.5 to 4 attempts per game) from behind the arc.
“When you have guys who can make shots, that spaces the floor in itself,” Grasso said when asked how much Bryant’s shooting helps dictate pace.
Having multiple shooters on the floor will make you more deadly in transition as well. Case in point:
Furthermore, Grasso believes the spacing opens up the lane for his off-the-bounce playmakers such as Green, Pride and Kiss. Throw in the unselfish nature with which they play and an efficient yet hurried offensive attack is born. “Peter Kiss, Luis Hurtado, Chris Pride catch it, make the extra pass, make the simple play which makes the game a lot easier,” Grasso confirmed.
Just watch these examples of how the Bulldogs will make the extra pass for the betterment of the team. It’s basketball that can be pleasing to the eye!
And yet the game’s tempo isn’t solely dictated from the offensive end. Bryant has also made a concerted effort to speed up the game defensively. They’ve done it mainly with their full-court press, as they have the luxury of the league’s best shot blocker sitting back to protect those odd man breaks should the pressure be broken. Send it back, Hall Elisias!
In addition to the press, the Bulldog’s zone defense, a scheme that’ll pull its wing off the baseline to reduce 3-point attempts and rhythm 3s, has been effective as well.
“We’re trying to speed teams up with our pressure and our zone is a little unconventional where we’re playing obviously a lot of zone right now, sprinkling in some man-to-man,” Grasso said. “We want to get some offense off our defense.”
The Bulldogs have been working on both defenses in practice, in preparation for league games down the stretch later this month and in February. The rationale is to be flexible while retaining the ability to adapt on the fly and also keep opponents on their heels.
Thus far it’s working with Bryant sitting at #97 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. We are only one third into the conference season, but the Bulldogs have emerged as one of the league’s frontrunners on the back of a scheme that’s well suited for their roster.