2018 NEC Social Media Day – Thoughts and Reflections
Seven years. A lot has happened for me in that time, but one thing has remained consistent. I’ve attended each and every NEC Social Media Day for the past seven years.
Only four NEC coaches – Andy Toole, Glenn Braica, Bashir Mason and Rob Krimmel – can say the same!
What makes year number seven special for me is I now have the opportunity to represent my favorite league: the Northeast Conference.
That’s right, for the upcoming campaign, I will serve as a contributor for the league in a myriad of formats. You’ll find my posts here in the NEC Overtime Blog, I’ll write some features for the website and will make appearances in the NEC studios to talk hoops. I’m excited to share my passion and promote the great student-athletes and coaches of this conference!
My first contribution is one of my favorite things of the preseason, giving you my thoughts and reflections at the 2018 NEC Social Media Day.
Let’s begin with the squad at the top of the league’s preseason poll.
The Undisputed Preseason Champ
The NEC championship obviously isn’t decided in October, but even the biggest skeptic of preseason polls must acknowledge that Rob Krimmel has done a tremendous job of getting his program in a position to be a championship contender. Once again, the preseason number one will have the target on their back for the second straight preseason.
Is there a different mindset between this year’s team and the one from a year prior? Krimmel thinks so. “I think they are more prepared, because you can’t manufacture that experience of having the bullseye on your back. You can talk about it, but if you don’t experience that, as a coach you can’t minic what it feels like to go into every arena and feel like you have an ‘x’ on your back.”
The experience of losing a heart wrenching home game in the NEC quarterfinals (84-75 to FDU) is something Krimmel believes will harden his players and continue to fuel their desire to succeed. It surely helps when you return two stars in Keith Braxton and Jamaal King, sharpshooter Andre Wolford, defensive stopper Randall Gaskins, Jr. and a bevy of big men who can mix and match at the four and five. And, oh by the way, former NEC preseason first teamer Isaiah Blackmon (torn ACL) was recently cleared to fully practice.
Having all of this depth may be a luxury, but it’s also a challenge to keep the locker room happy. “From a coaching perspective, competition you hope is the greatest motivator and practices have been more competitive than they’ve ever been,” Krimmel said. “At the same time, you’re talking about guys that have started for their entire careers and there’s a chance they could come off the bench.”
One caveat with this team that I find fascinating: both Wolford and Blackmon are coming off full campaigns where they made at least 49% of their 3-point attempts. Now together and presumably healthy, the Red Flash’s prowess from behind the arc could be historically deadly.
The NEC has never seen a team roster two players that made at least 45% of their 3s in a season. And in the past decade, only 10 teams have had two players make at least 40% of their attempts (must make at least 1.0 three per game to qualify) in the same season. The 2009 Sacred Heart Pioneers, a team near and dear to my heart, had three players hit that threshold (Shane Gibson 42.0%, Chauncey Hardy 42.7% and Corey Hassan 41.2%). The Red Flash have the talent to drain triples at an unprecedented rate.
Point Guard Battles Across the NEC Landscape
The league currently offers an exciting stable of floor generals, from the ultra efficient senior Glenn Sanabria to emerging sophomores Jahlil Jenkins and Jon Williams. Throw in elite playmaker Jamaal King and the multifaceted Jashaun Agosto and Ikenna Ngudba and the competition at the one should be fierce during league play.
There are several programs looking to insert their talented newcomers into the mix. For those programs wishing to join the NEC elite, finding a mainstay at the point is critical. Let’s offer a synopsis on the recent battles and how they are shaking out:
Wagner – Sophomore Chase Freeman and Tyler Plummer are battling it out to take over the minutes that the graduating JoJo Cooper left behind. Yes, filling Cooper’s elite production (105.4 ORtg, 34.3% assist rate) will be next to impossible, yet Mason just needs a stabilizing presence alongside star guard Romone Saunders.
Freeman, in particular, has caught Mason’s eye. “I have the utmost confidence in Chase being able to now take the ball and run the show the way we need him to.” Despite playing just 29% of Wagner’s minutes as a freshman, Freeman made the most of his time off the ball, posting an effective field goal percentage of 52.5% and getting to the line at a respectable clip.
Plummer also stands out as a candidate, so much so that Mason felt inclined to start him at the one in a scrimmage a week ago. His size and strength as floor general is certainly intriguing. “He’s much bigger, stronger, athletic than most guards he’ll face every night and that’ll give him an advantage,” Mason said of Plummer. Freshman Jonathan Norfleet (no, he’s not related to former Mount great Julian Norfleet) could also find some time as a facilitator, though he projects more as a combo at the moment.
Sacred Heart – Turnovers were a problem last season for the Pioneers, as they coughed it up on 21.5% of their possessions. Latina and his staff sought out this upcoming recruiting class as a way to fill the point guard void, signing three versatile, scoring guards in Cameron Parker, Aaron Clarke and Koreem Ozier. While the latter will be featured mostly off the ball – Ozier has been described as a high level scorer who’s reportedly lighting it up in scrimmages – the opportunity is there for the selfless Parker. His natural ability at running the point, finding passing lanes and setting up teammates is a fit. Clarke may be the most versatile of the three.
It’s Latina’s hope that four-year senior Sean Hoehn teaches these freshman the ropes, and quickly.“I think Sean is going to be really good for them,” Latina said of the senior’s influence on his talented freshmen. “I think they’re going to be good for Sean because they’ll give him some help, give us a little dynamic firepower that maybe we were lacking in numbers last year, especially on the perimeter.”
Latina would like his team to lead the league in assists, much like they did in 2014-15 when Phil Gaetano (now an assistant coach at Merrimack College) was their starting point guard. Last year, the Pioneers finished sixth among the league in assists per game (12.9) and eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9).
Central Connecticut – Tyler Kohl is as talented and versatile as they come, yet Donyell Marshall is looking for ways to conserve Kohl’s energy and keep him in advantageous situations where he’s creating for himself and others. That goal can be realized if one of the Blue Devils’ stable of young guards can step in and allow Kohl to play more off-the-ball. It’ll all depend on whether junior Tyson Batiste and/or freshmen Will Ellis and Thai Seqwai will provide the type of minutes and performance that Jon Williams and Jahlil Jenkins gave to their respective programs a season ago.
Just don’t ask Marshall to single any one of them out. “We need all three of them to become one great player,” the third year head coach said. “It’s a luxury, all of them bring something different. Tyson obviously brings his leadership and experience. Will brings a scoring mentality at the point guard spot. Thai is a guy who runs the team, sees the floor well.”
Marshall likened his team’s situation to his time as a junior at UConn, when Jim Calhoun relied on a center by committee on a squad that won 29 games and finished first in the Big East at 16-2.
The Two Young Coaching Guns
Two new coaches were introduced at this year’s NEC Media Day – the fourth straight season where there was at least one new coach at one of the 10 men’s basketball programs.
Bryant and Mount St. Mary’s were selected in the bottom third of the preseason poll (eighth and tenth, respectively), yet according to some pundits Bryant could exceed the low bar. Jared Grasso hopes his guards will take him there, as he’s planning to play three, and sometimes four guards together on the floor. The prospect of playing Ngudba, Adam Grant, Byron Hawkins and Joe Kasperzyk together brings Grasso back to the glory days of his last coaching destination.
“We (played 4 guards together) at Iona for years,” Grasso recalled. “Our best team when we got the at-large bid (2012, 14 seed) we were playing four guys 6’2 and smaller and a 6’4 center who was Michael Glover, so it was a little different.”
For Dan Engelstad, the head coach hired to replace Jamion Christian, it’s all about getting acclimated to his team that returns just one player (Omar Habwe) who played at least 25% of the Mount’s minutes last season. Nevertheless, Engelstad wants his youthful group to attack, much in the same way Christian implored his teams to do.
“We want to be the aggressor,” the first year head coach said. “That’s one thing that we always want to be – the most aggressive team every night and that includes energy and enthusiasm. For us, we want to guard you. That’s going to be a big emphasis for us.”
Engelstad plans to implement an up-tempo attack, despite the team’s youth. The exciting brand of Mount Mayhem basketball that Christian made popular likely won’t be going anywhere with his successor in place.
Other NEC Tidbits
- Scott Meredith (SFU) and Joshua Nurse (SFBK) will miss the upcoming season due to injury. Both will likely redshirt this season.
- In talking with Greg Herenda, it was clear who his top six would be. The starting four of Jahlil Jenkins, Darnell Edge, Kaleb Bishop and Mike Holloway is obvious, but Herenda believes sophomore forward Elyjah Williams and sophomore transfer Xzavier Malone will fill out the top six. Williams is versatile as an inside, out 3/4 type, whereas Malone is an ultra athletic wing who can create in the open floor.
- Jalen Gibbs, who transferred from Drake to Mount St. Mary’s this offseason, was granted a waiver by the NCAA and is immediately eligible to play this season. The sophomore guard made 50.0% of his 2s and posted a solid defensive rebounding rate (15.4%) in his rookie campaign.
- Grasso was high on incoming freshman Joe Kasperzyk, calling him “electric” and “a kid I think people will really enjoy watching.” Kasperzyk is part of a crowded backcourt that just brought in former LIU Post guard Jared Rivers to replace the recently departed Malik Smith on scholarship. Rivers averaged 18.5 ppg as a sophomore at LIU Post and could be eligible for the second semester.
- Latina believes sophomore forward E.J. Anosike will see a significant bump up in production now that the starting power forward position is his and his alone. Latina stated one of Anosike’s goals should be to win the NEC Improved Player award.
- Robert Morris transfer Josh Williams is poised to have a big season in Moon Township. Although he didn’t shoot well in a scrimmage a week ago, the Akron transfer could end up leading the team in scoring when it’s all said and done.
I’ll chime in a couple more times here before the season begins to give you my thoughts on the league’s shot blockers (new and old) and explain why the NEC could be one of the fastest leagues in the NCAA. Thanks for reading and feel free to share your comments on your favorite team below!