Assessing Wagner’s Successful Non-Conference Results and Curious Mid-Major Profile

With Wagner defeating Fairfield in what turned out to be the Northeast Conference’s last non-conference game on December 23, they put a bow on what’s been a very successful out of league campaign. Despite the truncated tilt interrupted early on by COVID-19 – a prospect that many college basketball teams are unfortunately suffering through in the present day – Wagner arguably put together one of the most successful non-conference seasons the NEC has seen in its history. If that sentence comes off as far-fetched after only seven Division I contests, it shouldn’t be. Allow me to explain with bullet points:

  • Wagner improved its KenPom ranking by 74 spots from 192 at the start of the season to currently 118th overall
  • The Seahawks won three road games against VCU, Stony Brook and Fairfield – teams with an average KenPom ranking of 151 – by a combined 56 points
  • All five of their Division I victories were in double figures, and Wagner held the lead for the entire second half in four of those contests

It’s too bad Wagner couldn’t make up the originally postponed games between St. Peter’s, NJIT and Army for a chance to build their non-conference resume into something truly special, yet Bashir Mason’s squad still has put themselves in a position to get the NEC off the 16-seed line should they earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Of course, nothing is set in stone with an uber competitive 18-game conference schedule awaiting the defending regular season champions, so for now I’m here to highlight the Seahawks’ early season achievements and see how it compares to the league’s past history.

Before I begin however, I’d like to get something off my chest. I, for one, am perplexed at the lack of respect Wagner is receiving from these mid-major polls of late. Let’s start with the widely respected College Insider Men’s Mid Major Top 25 poll that came out late Monday afternoon. Despite Wagner’s successes and current NET (42) and KenPom (118) ratings, the program was reduced to simply receiving votes outside of the poll’s top 25. Let’s do a brief dive into where some of these teams landed compared to Wagner:

TeamPoll RankingDI RecordKenPom/NETImpressive Wins
Grand Canyon148-2122/81Beat San Fransicsco in semi-home game
Chattanooga158-3101/40Beat VCU & Loyola Marymount on road
Oakland167-4120/69Best OK St on road, Vermont at neutral site
Weber St237-4148/165Beat Duquesne on road
Boston U249-4162/140Beat GW on road
Samford257-2235/150Beat Oregon St & Mississippi on road
WagnerUnranked5-2118/42Beat VCU & Stony Brook by 29 on road

Let’s be clear – I’m not disparaging the six teams I compared to Wagner above. Rather, I’m asking how it makes sense that Wagner finished tied for 38th in the College Insider poll with Norfolk St. (7-4 vs DI, 266 KenPom) when the Seahawks’ non-conference resume is similar to these fine mid-major teams I’ve listed. The only thing I can reasonably deduce is Wagner’s mid-November COVID-19 pause gave all of the these poll voting coaches amnesia with how good Wagner has been over the totality of their non-conference schedule, smaller sample size be damned.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Take our friends over at Mid-Major Madness at SB Nation. They do a very good job covering the mid-major basketball universe in its entirety, yet Wagner did not conjure up a single vote in their The Other Top 25 Poll the other day. Granted, more conferences are eligible for their poll – the AAC and Atlantic 10 teams can qualify here, for example – yet it’s difficult to provide a logical rationale for why teams like Buffalo (4-4 vs DI teams, 96 NET), Hofstra (7-4 vs DI teams, 118 KenPom) and Grand Canyon got consideration, while Wagner was nothing more than an afterthought. I’m just looking for a little respect for the players from Grymes Hill!

Finally, our buddy who runs the Twitter account @low_madness (he does a great job, I highly recommend following him) posts his Small Conference Top 25 poll on a weekly basis.

His latest summation from today has Wagner barely among his top 25, even though a majority of these teams outside of his top 10 would not be favored against Wagner if they squared off tomorrow. Would any handicapper worth his salt honestly consider Wagner a true underdog at a neutral site against #12 Weber St., #14 Navy, #16 Norfolk St. or #17 Campbell, who finished its non-conference season against Division I competition at just 4-4? The answer is no. The Seahawks should be inside his top 15 at the very least, in my humble opinion.

At the end of the day these polls don’t matter as Joe Lunardi currently has Wagner as a 15-seed. Should Mason’s group run through the league with 14 to 16 regular season wins and eventually earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, then a 15-seed is a worst case scenario for this battle tested group. I’m simply taken aback at how Wagner has been basically forgotten in these polls after an eight game non-conference slate that went about as well as Mason could have imagined, minus the 2-week pandemic pause of course. 

With that diatribe out of the way, let me measure Wagner’s past two months with how it compares to other non-conference resumes in the NEC during this century.

4) 2012-13 Bryant Bulldogs (19-12, 7-4 non-conference)

The Bulldogs won’t be at the top in terms of winning percentage after concluding their 2012 non-conference campaign at 7-4, yet they landed here because of their quality road wins and turnaround that shocked college basketball on a national level. Remember, Bryant was coming off their final season in the Division II to I transition process for 2011-12 and had won just two times out of 30 during that rough season. Nevertheless, Tim O’Shea brought on nephew Joe O’Shea and sharpshooter Dyami Starks to supplement established veterans Corey Maynard, Alex Francis and point guard Frankie Dobbs. The result? The high powered offense O’Shea oversaw – they finished the season 63rd nationally in offensive efficiency at 109.4 points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) – upset Boston College (O’Shea’s alma mater) on November 25 and then more impressively knocked off the C.J. McCollum led Lehigh Mountain Hawks on the road, 79-78. Bryant proved the November and December results weren’t a fluke after owning a share of first place in conference play at 9-2, however the shortened 6 to 7-man rotation ran out of gas late. The 17-win turnaround was the best mark in college basketball, aided by a non-conference performance that no one, except maybe O’Shea, saw coming.

3) 2021-22 Wagner Seahawks (6-2 non conference)

I’ve stated my case above for why Wagner belongs here, and quite honestly they would be higher on my list had they finished 10-2 overall. Under that scenario, the Seahawks would have a chance to be in the top 100 of KenPom and become the first NEC team ever to finish a season in college basketball’s top 100 in the KenPom era (since 2001-02).

2) 2007-08 Robert Morris Colonials

Mike Rice was just starting to make a name for himself with the Colonials’ ascension in the final months of 2007. While they were still a season away from getting to the Big Dance, the Colonials declared themselves ready to take on the Central Connecticuts, Mount St. Mary’s and Sacred Hearts of the league. After beating Iona and Navy to start the season, Robert Morris led by 23 points to Seton Hall before falling just short of the monster upset in overtime. Undaunted, the Colonials concluded their out of league challenges with road victories at FIU, Youngstown State and, most impressively, Boston College. The dispatching of the Eagles at Chestnut Hill came during the beginning of a stretch where Rice’s squad won 19 of 20 en route to a regular season title, their first since 1992. 

1) 2011-12 Wagner Seahawks

Dan Hurley’s outsized personality didn’t take long to get noticed within NEC circles once he joined Wagner from St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, but the national media was put on notice after his team’s shocking upset on December 23, 2011 when they took down Jamie Dixon’s Pitt Panthers, then ranked 13th in the AP national poll, in a defensive battle. That’s just the way Hurley and his staff liked it – the Seahawks held their opponents to 0.89 points per possession and 40% shooting while forcing 18 Panther turnovers for a wonderful 29.5% turnover rate. It’s no surprise Wagner finished the 2011-12 season with the 73rd best defensive efficiency in the nation, and saw their KenPom ranking improve by 129 points once they defeated Santa Clara on the road to conclude their non-conference tilt.

Josh Cohen and Mikey Square – A Breakdown on 2 Emerging NEC Bigs

There are plenty of quality frontcourts in the Northeast Conference this season with five players – Eral Penn, Ty Flowers, Jordan Minor, Elijah Ford and Nana Opoku – all receiving hardware last season after playing predominantly as a four or five-man. And Hall Elisias arguably has been extremely close to grabbing a NEC Defensive Player of the Year honor, if it wasn’t for extraordinary defensive seasons out of Juvaris Hayes and Opoku.

In other words, the frontcourt play is at a high level and getting better with the recent emergence of two players highlighted below. Both showed flashes in a productive rookie season, yet neither of them cracked the NEC All-Rookie team most likely due to a minutes crunch. Nevertheless, both of these unique talents have an opportunity to become household names in league circles if their level of play continues at a pristine level. Let’s discuss these two standout sophomores.

Josh Cohen, Saint Francis University

“His ball goes in”

Those were the first words uttered out of Rob Krimmel’s mouth in the summer of 2019 when I asked him about incoming freshman Josh Cohen for my Blue Ribbon preview. The 6-foot-10 guard turned center – he had a major growth spurt early in high school – had received mild interest from Division I programs, yet Krimmel and his staff fully bought in to lure the Lincroft, New Jersey product to Loretto. Cohen wasn’t your prototypical versatile, athletic 5-man, so the tepid Division I interest wasn’t overly surprising.

I’ll be honest: I was even skeptical of the center’s future impact when writing my Saint Francis Blue Ribbon preview that summer. I’ve spoken to NEC coaches for at least a decade and a handful of times there was a long, 6-foot-10 or taller kid they were touting, the player who’d eventually become a dominant post presence, rim protector and difference maker in a league full of smaller, albeit bouncy 5-men. Unsurprisingly, most of those true center types had failed to make a meaningful impact, yet here was Krimmel expressing his optimism of Cohen.

It was my mistake: I should never doubt Krimmel and his staff when it comes to developing big men, as lesser known recruits turned all-conference stalwarts have already advanced on Krimmel’s watch before Cohen landed in 2019. With assistant coach Eric Taylor, a former NEC star power forward himself, and long-time associate head coach Andrew Helton as part of SFU’s staff, players like Earl Brown, Ronnie Drinnon and Josh Nebo became all-conference studs. And Mark Flagg has developed into a nice rim-protector, rim-runner and post presence over the past four plus years.

With Cohen, Helton always saw the upside for the now-sophomore to become the next efficient post player in Loretto. “He has a really good skill set and he came to us with an understanding of how to pass and how to play and the one thing with him that’s true is he has an incredibly soft touch,” Helton said when asked about Cohen’s recruiting profile. 

Exhibiting a soft touch is one thing, but there were a few facets of the game Cohen needed to work on that led to his red-shirt assignment for 2019-20 according to Helton. “We just felt Josh needed the year,” he said. “He needed the year to adjust to the school, to get stronger.”

It wasn’t like the Red Flash had a critical need in the frontcourt that season as they competed for a championship. They already possessed a stout frontcourt led by former NEC Player of the Year, and atypical 4-man, Keith Braxton. And around him were other meaningful pieces in the more traditional sense of a big man in Flagg, Myles Thompson and Deivydas Kuzavas. 

Nevertheless, Cohen didn’t waste the opportunity to get better while on scholarship in year one. To this day he’s put on 20-25 pounds of muscle, allowing him to acclimate better to the physicality of Division I basketball. 

“The weakness he had two years ago was physical strength and the ability to move his feet… and he’s really worked at getting better in those things,” Helton said. “He’s not going to be Joel Embiid, he’s not going to be the bounciest kid in the world, but he’s gotten better in those areas.”

Embiid he’s not, no one at the mid-major level is, but there’s no disputing the sizable impact he’s had on Saint Francis this season. During Cohen’s 23-point, 8-rebound performance at American on December 8th, this play embodies Cohen’s burgeoning strength, footwork and tenacity to keep moving until he got himself in an advantageous position to score.

 

At 6-foot-10 with an equally long wingspan, he doesn’t need a lot of space to get off his shot in the post. He’ll just shoot it over to the top as he did versus Hartford on Tuesday night. The only mistake on this play was the Hartford announcer mistakenly thinking Flagg scored the bucket.

Both makes came from the left block, yet per Shot Quality, Cohen has been equally lethal from both sides of the paint, registering identical shot quality metrics on the left (1.16 SQ PPP) and right block (1.10 SQ PPP). Those post-up numbers have put Cohen in the top 85th (right block) to 90th percentile (left block) among Division I players.

He also has thrived out on the perimeter, either stationed in the high post or setting the screen on pick-and-rolls. In the former, Cohen’s high IQ and instincts give him the ability to put teammates in a position to score. His positive assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.33 is evidence of that.

“I think the thing that he really gives you is if you notice he has more assists than turnovers, that’s very unique for a five-man,” Helton said of Cohen, who has 12 assists versus 9 turnovers this season.

And in the pick-and-roll, teams must pick their poison between Ramiir Dixon-Conover/Cohen or Ronell Giles/Cohen. For example, the defending big man can try to ice the ball handler in RDC or Giles and prevent the dynamic slasher from getting downhill, but then the astute Cohen can react by rolling hard to the bucket.

Throw in the spectacular mid-range game (he’s made 62% of his career 2-point jumpers per Hoop Math), sneaky quick leaping ability that allows him to grab an offensive rebound on 12.7% of the Red Flash’s misses and it’s fair to say Cohen has a chance to join Sacred Heart’s Kibwe Trim (2005) and Monmouth’s Keith Owens (2003) as the only players at 6-foot-10 or taller this century to earn a NEC all-conference selection. 

“He just has a knack to put the ball in the basket and that comes from 15 feet in,” Helton said. “He can score in different ways, there’s no doubt.”

Quite simply, his ball goes in.

John “Mikey” Square, Fairleigh Dickinson

It’s been a challenging start to FDU’s season. The 31st hardest schedule in the country according to KenPom, as well as a roster featuring seven talented, albeit green freshmen will do that to you. Nevertheless, there have been bright spots and reasons for optimism, chief among them the performance of 6-foot-6 sophomore John “Mikey” Square. 

The DMV product – he went to the same high school as Knight great Darian Anderson and Devon Dunn – leads his teammates who’d played at least eight games in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), 2-point field goal percentage (56.5%) and offensive rebounding rate (10.3%) by a wide margin and presents high grades no matter which analytical site you peruse. Shot Quality puts Square in the 71st percentile in terms of shot quality points per possession, meaning that his shot attempts are good looks.

Greg Herenda is starting to entrust Square more in his sophomore season – his minutes continue to trend up and with good reason. Per Hoop Explorer, the Knights score 9.9 more points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off.

“He’s just dependable, he doesn’t really turn it over a heck of a lot,” Herenda said of his leading rebounder. “He’s hard to guard because he can use his strength and his quickness depending on if he’s getting played by a big or played by a smaller guy and he’s just unorthodox down there. 

Cohen’s post moves and footwork maximizes the sophomore’s length and ability to shoot over the top. At 6-foot-6, Square uses quickness and swift decision making to get buckets with his back to the basket. It may not be text book, yet it’s effective. Case in point:

While P.O. Racine has seen inconsistent minutes this non-conference season, it remains safe to assume Racine and Square will be featured plenty once league play commences. Racine’s 12-point performance against a tough Fairfield team on Wednesday night illustrates the sophomore’s upside. And when you have a four-man in Square who can also defend and move like this, Herenda can’t afford to leave him on the bench for very long.

“He’s got a huge heart and he’s got a huge will and he’s got a fierce sense of competitiveness,” Herenda said. “I’m an old school coach and he’s an old school player, so it’s a good fit.”

Expect the impact of Square to only grow as we progress into the 2021-22 season.

The Path To An NEC Crown For All 10 Women’s Hoops Teams

After navigating through last season and crowing a champion, much of last season’s talent is back, creating yet another opportunity for a chaotic season within Northeast Conference women’s basketball. Even with a unanimous selection on the preseason favorite, there are plenty of teams that have a recipe to dethrone Mount St. Mary’s from the top spot and make a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

As the return of college basketball marches back into town, here’s what it will take for each team within the conference to be the ones cutting down the nets in March.

Mount St. Mary’s 

Just by looking at the weapons that the Mount brings back from last season’s championship team, it doesn’t take much for people to be convinced that they can repeat as champions. Even with a change at head coach over the summer, there is plenty of familiarity with associate head coach Antoine White rising to the helm. White says that he is the “luckiest coach alive” by landing his first coaching job at a place that was unanimously chosen to repeat as conference champion.

Like many teams, the Mount returns its nucleus from last season as a result of athletes earning an extra season due to last season’s COVID year. On top of having most of its team back, the Mount has a pair of fifth-year leaders in reigning conference Player of the Year Kendall Bresee and Kayla Agentowicz. Even when those two have their off nights, senior Michaela Harrison has the capability to go out and score 20 on any given night (and she did a pair of times last season). What also makes the Mount dangerous are the complementary players that roll behind the two fifth year players. Sophomores Isabella Hunt and Jessica Tomasetti will continue to progress. Huntis a forward who played behind one of the better bigs in the league last season in Rebecca Lee and will see more minutes with her departure, and Tomassetti will be another threat on the perimeter for the Mount.

Wagner

The Seahawks made a run to the NEC title game for the first time in 20 seasons before falling just a game short of upending the mighty Mount and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The expectations are much of the same in Staten Island. Wagner also went through a coaching change as Heather Jacobs departed for UMass Boston, and replaced her with assistant Terrell Coburn. If Wagner wants to climb the mountain and take the title, their defense will have to continue to be suffocating opponents. Last season, the Seahawks forced nearly 20 turnovers per game and averaged 17 of their 60 points a night off of turnovers. Coburn alluded to the fact he’s aiming to keep the same philosophy defensively which will be a big factor in terms of how much Wagner lights up the scoreboard on a nightly basis.

Offensively, I don’t think there is a better scorer in the league than Emilija Krista Grava, who finished in the top five in in the conference in scoring last season. She has also said she is looking to expand her shooting to behind the three-point line after a season in which she shot just 20 three-pointers. Finding consistency behind the arc along with her continued volume makes her a candidate to be a top point producer in the conference, if not the leader.

Saint Francis U

Last season, the Red Flash improved upon Keila Whittington’s first year as head coach in Loretto and returned to the top level of the Northeast Conference, finishing third and appearing in the condensed conference tournament. They will, however, have to find a way to replace the scoring of Carson Swogger, who graduated last season after scoring almost 16 points a night. The gap will likely be filled by committee, but the opening presents opportunities for sophomores Kaitlyn Maxwell and Diajah Allen to step into more important roles this season. SFU also returns seniors Lili Benzel, who was one of the top three-point shooters last season, and Jada Dapaa, who was one of the top rebounders in the league. Even when its stars depart, the Red Flash find ways to replace them with ease, making them a contender in the conference once again. Not to mention, Loretto has always been a tough place to play as an opponent.

Sacred Heart:

While it was a just a four-team conference tournament and plenty of outside factors played a role, the Pioneers missing the NEC Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons was a strange sight. The Pioneers missing out on the postseason is something that is consistently brought up by Jessica Mannetti to ensure this season’s team doesn’t fall into the same fate as last year. The Pioneers do bring back a pair of fifth years in Adrianne Hagood and Nikki Johnson. Hagood, now a three-time Preseason All-Conference selection, will have one more opportunity to cap her career with a conference title. While Hagood has battled shoulder troubles throughout her career, her consistency will be a huge indicator on how far Sacred Heart can go.

One thing that the Pioneers found last season was consistent post play, which had been missing from Mannetti’s offense in recent years. The 1-2 punch of Carly Stroemel and Kelsey Wood brings a variety of skill sets down low. While many people within the team believe Stroemel could have been in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player last season had she stayed healthy, that thought remains true for the upcoming season. Sacred Heart’s kryptonite was holding onto the basketball and having stretches where the team struggled offensively. While the Pioneers lost some senior leaders from last season, Sacred Heart should be in the running to host a playoff game once March arrives.

Fairleigh Dickinson

In the first two seasons that Angelika Szumilo has been the head coach, the Knights increased their win total in conference play from five prior to her arrival to nine wins to 12 wins last year. FDU rattled off seven straights wins to close out the 2020-21 regular season, and there’s no reason to doubt that they can take the next leap forward and find themselves back in a conference title game. They bring back All-Conference first-teamer Madison Stanley, who scored in double figures in all but four games last season, but will have to find some scoring options behind her. Szumilo will have to figure those things out as the season goes, but based on her first two seasons in Teaneck, there is little doubt that we will be talking about the Knights making a run in March.

St. Francis Brooklyn

The Terriers have arguably the most decorated roster in all of the conference, featuring former NEC Rookie of the Years, all-conference selections and more. St. Francis Brooklyn is certainly a team that comes in with a lot to prove and plenty of weapons to turn some heads within the conference. The dynamic duo of Nevena Dimitrijevic and Ally Lassen is one of the best pairs in the conference. They also welcome back reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Fruzsina Horvath who will seemingly continue to progress into one of the younger stars in the league. Last season’s 4-10 mark overall before having to cancel its final four games of the season left the team with plenty of motivation as the Terriers enter the season sixth in the preseason poll. If that trio can put things together while adding in experienced players such as Khaleah Edwards, SFBK has what it takes to not only return to the conference tournament, but be in position to host a game or two. 

Bryant

The Bulldogs enter the season as one of the youngest teams in the league, but a lot of those underclassmen saw important minutes for Bryant last season. It does help that Mary Burke brings back her first team selection in Brooke Bjelko, who led the conference in rebounding a season ago, and junior Nicole Gallagher, who looks ready to take the next step after averaging 11 points a night in her sophomore season. While Bryant has one of the best forwards in the league, sharpshooter Alana Perkins will look to maintain her top five standing across the conference in three-point shooting percentage (34%) and made three-pointers per game (2.1).

Merrimack

It’s hard enough to begin your coaching tenure in college basketball by itself, but to have your first season navigating your team through a pandemic is another challenge onto itself. Luckily, Kelly Morrone gets to look past a difficult 2020-21 season in which her team did not have a chance to play a non-conference game before being thrown into the thick of conference play, resulting in a 5-10 finish. With most aspects of a normal college basketball season returning, the Warriors will look for a repeat of their 2019-20 season, where they finished 13-5 in conference play. Merrimack brings back its leading scorer from last season in Mayson Kimball, who returned from an injury filled 2019-20 season and played her way onto the All-NEC second team. Kate Mager remains a threat on the perimeter as she shot 41% from three-point range last season, and Roberts Wesleyan transfer Paige McCormick will bring another interior presence to the team. While Merrimack is still a couple of years away from completing its reclassification process, there’s no reason why the Warriors can’t once again play spoiler across the league.

LIU

Year three of the Rene Haynes era presents an interesting dynamic on her roster, having a senior heavy core with newcomers sprinkled into the mix. The Sharks ended last season winning its last four games to boost them to sixth place finish in the conference. LIU’s senior trio of Brandy Thomas, Erykah Russell and Kiara Bell will be the go-to options for Haynes. Thomas brings a scorer’s mentality that gives her the potential to be one of the best bucket-getters across the league. Outside of the trio, some interesting first-year standouts in Emaia O’Brien and Tayra Eke could be players we talk about at season’s end on the All-Rookie team. Through Haynes’ first two seasons at LIU, there has been a clear culture built. Around seasons three and four is when most new coaches begin to see great improvement within their teams and begin to make a push to the top of the league. This could be the beginning of that stretch for the Sharks.

Central Connecticut State

Central Connecticut dealt with some injuries and bad breaks last season which led to a tough 2020-21 season. They did however have the conference’s Most Improved Player in Forever Toppin, who will look to be more of a facilitator for her team this season rather than rely on her scoring. The Blue Devils also bring back Ashley Berube, who had a pair of double-doubles in four games last season before being lost for the season. Outside of that duo, CCSU brings in graduate transfer Eden Nibbelink,who comes to New Britain from Fairfield, where she will get an opportunity to succeed within the Blue Devil system under Kerri Reaves.

Making the Case for All 10 NEC Teams to Win a Championship

With so much returning talent, the Northeast Conference has a prime opportunity to move up the conference ranks with respect to its mid-major rivals. Nine of the fifteen all-conference performers and all five of the all-rookie team recipients from last season are back. Six teams are returning at least four starters with three of those squads – Sacred Heart, Merrimack and Saint Francis – bringing back their top six scorers at the very least. And there are plenty of transfer portal reinforcements coming to several squads.

Analytical sites KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com appear bullish on the NEC’s outcome as well with Pomeroy assigning the 192nd spot in his 2021-22 preseason rankings to Wagner, with two others (Bryant and Merrimack) sniffing the top 200. 

(Matt at The Mid-Range Jumper had a nice writeup on the Pomeroy and Torvik projections here)

But does every team in the league have a realistic outcome of winning the Northeast Conference? There’s plenty of quality preview content out there, so allow me to channel my inner Bill Barnwell by attempting to lay out the path to a championship for each school, listed in the order where I picked them for my Blue Ribbon preseason standings.

10. Central Connecticut State

While the Blue Devils are looking to rebound off a 5-13 conference season, you only have to go back to 2015-16 to find a last-to-champion example within the Northeast Conference. Coming off a 3-15 league record, Fairleigh Dickinson stunned the league the following season by winning their last five league games – three in the NEC tournament – to go dancing in the NCAA tournament.

That Greg Herenda coached team had terrific, clutch guard play from Darian Anderson, Stephen Jiggetts and Marques Townes, which is something the Blue Devils could boast going into Pat Sellers’ first season in New Britain.

Central Connecticut may have seven scholarship newcomers, but the backcourt veterans possess upside: Ian Krishnan with his shotmaking ability, Tre Mitchell with his scoring versatility and Nigel Scantlebury with his comfort in running the show and creating off the bounce. Throw in an experienced, albeit under-the-radar Division 2 grad transfer in Hegel Augustin (21.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg at Glenville College last season), who Sellers currently calls his best rebounder, and defensive stalwart Zach Newkirk, and there could be something brewing to the tune of four double-digit scorers and a go-to perimeter stopper.

If that backcourt projection seems optimistic, I have some analytics to back up my glass half full approach. ShotQuality considered Krishnan and Mitchell two of the most efficient shot takers in the NEC last season, so I’m confident in saying Krishnan will shoot closer to his sophomore percentages (44.6% 3PT) than his junior percentages (30.5%), whereas Mitchell will let the game come to him with Scantlebury or Newkirk initiating offense. Sellers appears to have versatility, facilitating, scoring and defense one through three (maybe four too, if he’s so inclined to play small ball) and should present an entirely different look to the league with their new “space and pace” system.

If the guard play emerges as a strength and players like Andre Snoddy and Stephane Ayangma (14 ppg, 8 rpg in CCSU’s last 5 games) solidify the frontcourt, it’s conceivable that the proud CCSU fanbase would make Detrick Gymnasium rock again, rendering the blue and white a difficult out in New Britain. Home court could go a long way in getting Sellers off to a fast start.

9. Fairfield Dickinson

On paper it feels like a Garden State rebuild, but in reality Herenda has a solid core to build around. Guard Brandon Rush is a budding star capable of leading the league in scoring (a semi bold prediction of mine) with his efficient shoot-it-deep-or-attack-the-rim mentality. Sophomore Devon Dunn, fresh off an opt-out year, has the sharpshooting chops to become the program’s next Darnell Edge as merely a sophomore. And the sophomore trio who played important minutes last season, led by fluid athlete and all-rookie team recipient Joe Munden, skilled five-man P.O. Racine and the possibly forgotten Mikey Square, give the Knights some promise in the immediate future. That’s a very good young core to build around and an imposing starting five if Dunn and Rush can facilitate enough. (Rush reportedly had 6 assists in FDU’s latest scrimmage)

But could FDU rekindle its past magic with seven true freshmen on the roster? Have you met Herenda and his staff? If anyone can recruit and coach up two or three of those newcomers to make them all-rookie team candidates, it’s Herenda and company. One of FDU’s instant impact freshmen from that 2016 champion, Mike Holloway, even sits on the bench now as a graduate assistant coach. Holloway joins past examples of Kaleb Bishop, Jahlil Jenkins, Elyjah Williams, Darian Anderson and the aforementioned Dunn as rookies who were instant contributors at FDU.

The team likely won’t be in top half of defensive efficiency, but if a freshman point guard such as Antoine Jacks or Sebastien Lamaute gives Herenda the defensive minded, selfless facilitator he desires on day one and others such as Anquan Hill and Ibrahim Wattara step up as integral role players, the Knights could morph into a versatile, cohesive offensive unit that makes 37% of its threes and 50% of its twos in an up-tempo scheme. And that would be a dangerous offense to play against in February and March, especially when Herenda already harbors a reputation of getting his teams to play their best basketball late in the conference season.

8. St. Francis Brooklyn

Before Michael Cubbage got hurt in Marist’s fourth contest last season, it appeared the swiss army knife guard had turned the corner. His efficiency was up as well as his production (14 ppg, 6 rpg in 3 full games), but then a broken foot against Canisius in the second game of a back-to-back ended his 2020-21 campaign. Nevertheless, the super senior is looking for redemption in Brooklyn, and all signs point toward Cubbage getting the keys to Glenn Braica’s offense and becoming a key contributor for the Terriers.

The high-motored junior Rob Higgins has struggled with his outside shot in his career, but a moderate improvement over SFBK’s final five games last season (8 of 21, 38.1%) could illustrate his new floor if his shot selection improves. Larry Moreno is more than two years removed from hip surgery, and Braica remains bullish on the junior becoming a lethal playmaker if he exhibits good health for the entirety of the season. 40 points per game from the Cubbage/Higgins/Moreno trio would establish a solid floor where the Terriers are firmly in the middle of the pack – and in contention – by February.

In addition to Cubbage, the Terriers have several other transfers poised for substantial roles. Senior Jack Hemphill from Boston University is a stretch-five who may be lanky at 6-foot-9, 230 pounds, yet his defensive rebounding rates have been above 18% in each of his three collegiate seasons. Western Michigan transfer Patrick Emilien is another student-athlete who could thrive in the NEC, perhaps becoming a double-digit scorer as a Terrier.

Those two and other transfers should fit in well with senior center Vuk Stevanic (112.3 ORtg), who boosts the offense with his polished post up game and ability to pass out of the low and high post. There’s a chance this unit meshes well offensively, and returns St. Francis to its defensive roots of toughness, rebounding and containment that Glenn Braica covets. This roster could be quite similar to the 2015-16 Terriers, who finished tied for second in the regular sesaon.

7. Saint Francis

This is Ramiir Dixon-Conover’s team, as the 2020-21 numbers clearly demonstrate. 

SituationOffense – Adjusted Points/100 PossOffensive PossessionsDefense – Adjusted Points/100 PossDefensive Possessions
Dixon-Conover ON97.01065105.91053
Dixon-Conover OFF89.5474112.4489
Data thanks to Hoop Explorer

That’s quite an impact. Dixon-Conover’s footprint on both sides of the ball isn’t surprising when you consider the Red Flash’s 0-4 mark when he was out of the lineup last season. And while the fifth-year senior is critically important to Rob Krimmel, it would surely help if Maxwell Land and Ronnel Giles make the sophomoric jump they are capable of and provide Krimmel with a three-way scoring punch that most league contenders possess.

Last season Dixon-Conover led the team in scoring (and a bunch of other categories) with 15.5 points per game, and then there was a deluge of players huddled in the 7.5 to 10.1 ppg range. That scoring balance can be a positive, but in this case an ascension from one or two players into the mid teens would be a welcome development for a team that finished sixth in offensive efficiency last season. 

This is all to say that if Dixon-Conover stays healthy all year, Maxwell Land and Ronnel Giles step up, and a deep frontcourt gives Krimmel ample options on a game-in-game-out basis, then it surely isn’t a stretch to see a NEC quarterfinal game in Loretto. KenPom is bullish, projecting the Red Flash as the fourth best offense based on a roster that returns 12 scholarship players and boasts a ton of experience. Remember, don’t fall victim to recency bias as Krimmel has a history of running great offenses.

6. Merrimack

I’m a little more bearish on Merrimack than KenPom (#3) and BartTorvik (#1), and I don’t really feel good about that. In reality, Merrimack firmly stands in my second tier, meaning that projecting any of the remaining teams as a regular season conference champion is no longer a stretch. With a Warriors defense all but guaranteed to reside near the top of NEC in terms of defensive efficiency – they finished one and two in Joe Gallo’s first two seasons in Division I, respectively – a climb to the middle of the pack in offense would undoubtedly soar the Warriors prospects.

The team certainly isn’t devoid of playmakers. Jordan Minor enters his junior campaign following an impressive season where he posted 12 points and 8.1 rebounds per contest, and that was despite converting just 50.1% of his takes near the rim, per Hoop Math. A realistic progression toward 60% probably gets the bruising big in the 14 to 15 points per game category. His battery mate at the forward position, Ziggy Reid, has already illustrated his potential to reach that scoring level – if he continues the momentum from his last six games (15.7 ppg, 50.7% FG) then the sky’s the limit. 

And then there’s sophomore Malik Edmead, in my opinion one of the most dynamic playmakers that NEC has to offer. If he takes the floor at least 60% of the time as Merrimack’s main floor general (he was at 34.9% in 2020-21), the duo of Edmead and Mikey Watkins presents Gallo with backcourt that’s lethal attacking off the bounce to finish or kick it out to sharpshooters Devin Jensen and Mykel Derring. Both of those veterans easily have the skill to convert at least 40% of their long-range jumpers.

Furthermore, Gallo has the athletes to excel in transition, as the Warriors posted a splendid 61.5% eFG in such opportunities, per Hoop Math. While that number may naturally regress, players such as Minor, Watkins and Edmead have the skillset to thrive in the open floor and the aforementioned shooters certainly don’t hurt on those 3 on 2 fast breaks. A few more opportunities in transition could go a long way in elevating Merrimack’s point total on a game-by-game basis. 

This Warrior offense could be a sleeping giant relative to their tenth place finish in offensive efficiency just a season ago. Where they land scoring the basketball will determine how high they shoot up the regular season standings, thanks to the 2-3 attacking zone that establishes a solid base to work off of.

5. Sacred Heart

The range of outcomes for Sacred Heart may be the widest among the NEC teams this season, at least of those teams residing in my true contender tiers. The Pioneers finished tied for third in the regular season, YET they avoided two games at Bryant because of a COVID-19 cancellation. Sacred Heart bounced back and won the backend of five back-to-back series, YET they were blown out in some of those first games due to frustrating offensive droughts. They did some things very well on offense – free throw rate/conversion and turnover rate, for example – YET the Pios landed eighth among league mates with a 48.7 eFG%. For 2021-22, will the real Sacred Heart please stand up?

While optimism isn’t abound in 3MW’s Sacred Heart outlook, I’m here for the rosy projection: While Tyler Thomas is the team’s best player, Aaron Clarke’s is the program’s most important player. In nine SHU wins last season, Clarke averaged 17.8 ppg and frequently got paint touches and free throw line appearances. A full healthy season out of a trim Clarke already sets a high floor, especially if he and Thomas end the 2021-22 campaign as top 10 players with Thomas eliciting POY discussion. Their consistent production would likely elevate the play of their teammates around them.

Alex Watson continues to serve as a steady role player, Mike Sixsmith will drain shots from deep (maybe not at a 54% clip, but 40% plus is probable), and sophomore Bryce Johnson solidifies the frontcourt alongside rebound gobbler Cantavio Dutreil. The fourth spot last year was a problem for Anthony Latina, but if Johnson (114.7 ORtg as a freshman) makes the second year jump he’s capable of and Zach Pfaffenberger is healthy (to add critical depth at the five behind Dutreil), the Pioneers’ effective height will improve considerably from last season (351st per KenPom). As a bonus, 6-foot-6 athletic sophomore Nico Galette has reportedly impressed this preseason alongside Johnson, further improving the Pioneers’ prospects down low.

The multitude of enhanced options would allow Latina the flexibility to no longer rely primarily on 4-guard sets (Thomas played 40% of his minutes as the 4 in the Pioneers last five games, per KenPom) that limited their defense and rebounding upside. That’s paramount in trying to neutralize the stout frontcourts such as Mount St. Mary’s, LIU and Saint Francis, and could get them back into the NEC tournament semifinals, if the highly touted backcourt comes as advertised. 

4. Mount St. Mary’s

Jalen Benjamin becomes a top 10 NEC player. That’s it. That’s what gets the Mount to a higher probability of earning its first NEC regular season crown since Jamion Christian’s Mountaineers achieved the feat in 2017.

That’s kind of unfair to the transfer who averaged 10.6 ppg in two seasons at UAB, but if Benjamin fills in admirably for the departed Damian Chong Qui, then it’s simple to view the Mountaineers as a bona fide championship contender given the continuity of the remaining roster. As a pick-and-roll machine, Chong Qui was infinitely valuable to the Mountaineers last season, hence Benjamin’s importance. Let’s put it this way: there was a reason why Dan Engelstad slowed the Mount’s pace down to a crawl (356th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom) in order to keep Chong Qui on the floor approximately 90% of the time in 2020-21.

SituationOffense – Adjusted Points/100 PossOffensive PossessionsDefense – Adjusted Points/100 PossDefensive Possessions
Chong Qui ON96.5132097.91324
Chong Qui OFF82.8150111.9155
Data thanks to Hoop Explorer

We already know the ceiling for the Mount’s defense after they lead the league in defensive efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), block rate (10.6%), defensive rebounding rate (75.4%) and eFG defense (44.3%) in 2020-21. As long as Nana Opoku, Malik Jefferson and Mezie Offurum occupy the floor to make opposing 2-point attempts a treacherous endeavor – opponents shot a frigid 43.8% from 2 and 49.8% at the rim when all three played together last season – the Mount defense suppressing offense relative to league average is as sure of a bet as they come. 

Furthermore, there’s also a likely improvement in DeAndre Thomas, Dakota Laffew and Josh Reaves, each of whom Engelstad is imploring to attack the rim more so than they did in year one. Even a modest jump in paint touches for the trio is an improvement, as long as Benjamin delivers as an explosive guard who can kick it out to those shooters when camped out behind the 3-point line. Thomas and Reaves have demonstrated their ability to make 3s in rhythm – in 2020-21 they were a combined 39% from 3 with 91% of those makes requiring an assist.

3. LIU

The Sharks frontcourt of Eral Penn, Ty Flowers and Hofstra transfer and double double extraordinaire Isaac Kante gives Derek Kellogg’s group arguably the NEC’s most imposing frontcourt north of Emmitsburg, Maryland. Bart Torvik agrees, projecting the three among the NEC’s top 10 players (Penn 2, Flowers 9, Kante 10) in the upcoming campaign. With a high floor there, the LIU guards such as Alex Rivera, Kyndall Davis, Tre Wood and freshman Andre Washington will be asked to provide the following: shooting, shooting and more shooting.

Ok, obviously Kellogg needs more than that from his backcourt, but it’s easy to see how a 28.7% conversion rate from deep and an inability to space the floor last season hurt LIU’s offensive efficiency – they were 7th in league play at 99.3 points per 100 possessions. A modest improvement in shotmaking could catapult the Shark’s scoring to a top 4 level and is easily to envision with Flowers moving to a permanent perimeter role as the Shark’s 3-man and others such as Rivera improving.

The LIU defense has already flashed its upside as the fourth ranked unit a season ago, and now adding an elite rebounder/space eater in Kante will only strengthen the squad’s defensive advantage by holding opponents to just one shot per possession. And that’s only if Penn hasn’t already forced a turnover out on the perimeter or near the rim!

Even if only a modest shooting improvement is realized, LIU could conceivably take on the identity of the Jalen Cannon led 2014-15 St. Francis Brooklyn squad that went 15-3 in the conference regular season. The Terriers, despite struggling to make perimeter shots, were third in offensive efficiency that year thanks to a supreme offensive rebounding rate (39.7%!!) and a penchant for getting to the charity stripe frequently. LIU could get zoned to death once again in their offensive sets, but will it matter if no one can contain Kellogg’s squad on the glass? That’s why the late recruiting coop of Kante increases the margin of error for a relatively unproven Sharks backcourt.

2. Bryant

I don’t need to give out Jared Grasso’s secret sauce for how Bryant can win a championship – they already proved they belonged last season with a splendid non-conference tilt followed by a 11-5 mark in league play. Of course, there is some question as to how the Bulldogs move on after Michael Green’s transfer to former NEC stalwart Robert Morris, but the 2021-22 blueprint may already have been witnessed, albeit in an unproven 1-game sample.

In the postgame press conference after Bryant’s 30-point victory in the NEC tournament semifinals, Anthony Latina quipped in the middle of an answer “I don’t know, could Bryant have played any better?” The answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’ The Bulldogs may have been sans Green and Chris Childs because of COVID-19 protocols that afternoon, yet the six scholarship players allowed to suit up still put forth a wonderful display of offensive basketball – 1.44 points per possession, 28 of 38 from 2 and 15 assists to 11 turnovers. The facilitator by committee template has therefore already been in practice, and should continue into 2021-22 with Peter Kiss, Luis Hurtado and a collection of guards (I’m looking at you Tyler Brelsford and Erickson Bans) sharing the ball handling responsibilities. Kiss (18.1%) and Hurtado (19.4%) actually had similar assist rates to Green (18.3%) last season.

Given the versatility of this roster, the abundant shooters and the Bulldogs willingness to fly up and down the floor, I think Grasso will be perfectly fine employing this scheme. It surely helps when you return the best veteran core (besides maybe the number one team on my list) of Kiss, Charles Pride, Hall Elisias and Childs. Bryant should be right back in the thick of the regular season championship hunt, but you already knew that.

1. Wagner

Even if we’ve already seen the best out of super seniors Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez – and it was pretty awesome in 2020-21 – 90% of that production for the upcoming tilt still puts the Seahawks at number one for me. Why? A couple of reasons:

  1. DeLonnie Hunt should build off a terrific freshman performance where he solidified Bashir Mason’s point guard position with a 10/4/3 line after playing more than 80% of Wagner’s minutes
  2. Wagner’s depth should be much improved

Let’s start with number one. Hunt was impressively efficient (10.7.5 ORtg) in a moderate role (17.9% possession rate) while seeing the floor a ton. Per Bart Torvik’s ratings, Hunt was the second most valuable freshman in the league (behind SHU’s Mike Sixsmith), thanks mainly due his excellence at protecting the ball (11.5% turnover, 5th best in league play) and solidness in other facets. Based on his experience and profile, it’s reasonable to expect a jump in Hunt’s second year to the point where 13 ppg or greater is the goal. And at some point, Mason has to groom Hunt for the future when all of Wagner’s 5th year players move on. Expect a tick up in Hunt’s usage.

On Wagner’s depth, Mason has three newcomers pegged for the rotation that would complement the established super seniors and Hunt: Ashton Miller (previously at Duquesne), Raekwon Rogers (Division II Henderson College) and Jahbril Price Noel (Pacific). Miller has gotten rave reviews this offseason for his defensive acumen (always a Mason favorite), plus he exhibits great size at 6-foot-5. His insertion as a two-man would allow Mason to roll out four perimeter players such as Hunt, Miller, Morales and Martinez without really sacrificing size and physicality. Rogers projects a presence at the five as a 6-foot-8 power forward; a timeshare between he and Nigel Jackson could squeeze the most efficiency out of that position. And Price Noel instills versatility and floor spacing as a stretch four man. He gives Wagner a different look and very well could make 38% of his long distance attempts as opposing bigs worry about the sensational slashing ability of Martinez, Morales and Ford.

Fresher legs would undoubtedly help Wagner to their quest to get to their first NCAA tournament since 2003.

#NECFB Teams Duquesne, Merrimack Secure Historic Road Wins

Impactful defense and effective quarterback play resulted in two historic victories for Northeast Conference football teams on Saturday afternoon.

With all-NEC starting quarterback Joe Mischler sidelined by injury, Duquesne’s Darius Perrantes accounted for a 66.7 completion percentage and two touchdowns in a 28-26 victory over MAC member Ohio.

After Brian Bruzdewicz’s fourth field goal of the day bumped the lead to 28-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Dukes needed one final defensive impact play to secure the program’s first-ever victory over a FBS opponent.

Ohio found the end zone with 00:09 remaining, but Duquesne denied the game-tying two-point conversion attempt.

Merrimack starting quarterback Westin Elliott completed 68.6 percent of his passes and threw a pair of touchdowns to spoil Patriot League preseason favorite Holy Cross’ home opener.

The Warriors’ defense limited the Crusaders to six first downs passing and Anthony Witherstone’s second-quarter 30-yard interception return touchdown gave Merrimack a lead that it never relinquished.

The 35-21 triumph is Merrimack’s first-ever win over a FCS top-25 team and it happened only one week after Holy Cross posted a 10-point victory at FBS member UConn. The Warriors also ran the ball effectively with Victor Dawson gaining 111 yards on 19 carries.

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