Top Questions for #NECWBB 2018-2019
Happy New Year! No, it’s not quite 2019 just yet, but it is time for a brand new basketball season!
The 33rd season of Northeast Conference women’s basketball has finally arrived, and it promises to be one of the best, and most exciting, ones yet. When we last left you back in March, the Saint Francis Red Flash had defeated Robert Morris in the NEC Championship game to claim their record 12th tournament title, and first since 2011. The Flash would go on to represent the NEC proudly in the NCAA Tournament against the UConn Huskies.
In the eight months or so since, programs and student-athletes throughout the NEC have been hard at work, putting their preparations in place for the upcoming campaign. However, as pre-season now winds down and the league’s ten teams commence their regular season in non-conference action on Tuesday, there are some lingering questions that will be on the forefront of everyone’s mind as the season rolls along.
So to begin our enhanced #NECWBB coverage here on the Overtime Blog, I’ve presented some burning questions to keep an eye on as the 2018-19 season tips off…
-How many records will SFU’s Jessica Kovatch end up with when all is said and done?
Besides the chase for the championship, Jess Kovatch’s chase for history will be the top storyline hovering over this year’s season. After winning her first championship last year, Kovatch begins her senior season with a chance to leave her mark and her name all over the NEC record books. To fully try and answer the question though, we first have to take a look back at some of the records Kovatch already has:
-NEC freshman scoring record with 649 points in 2016
-NEC record 13 Rookie of the Week Awards in 2016 (including a record 11 straight)
-NCAA record for most made 3’s in a single season with 141 in 2018
-NEC Tournament record with 103 points in a single tournament in 2018
So with those records already in her back pocket, here are some others within Kovatch’s reach:
-NEC WBB All-Time leading scorer (180 points away from Jess Zinobile’s 2,338)
-NEC Basketball All-Time leading scorer (433 points away from Terrance Bailey’s 2,591)
-NCAA all-time career made 3’s record (143 away from OSU’s Kelsey Mitchell’s 497)
-NEC single season points record of 841 by Wagner’s Jasmine Nwajei in 2016
-842 points away from becoming only the 14th NCAA player with 3,000 career points
Kovatch averages 22.2ppg for her career. So going by that average, she’d break the WBB scoring record around her eighth game of the season and the break the NEC basketball scoring record around the 20th game of the season, sometime in the heart of conference play. Last season, Kovatch led the nation, and set an NCAA record with 141 made threes. In the Red Flash fast paced offense, she’ll continue to get her shots, and therefore will have an opportunity to get back close to those numbers again, making the NCAA career made three point shot record, the NEC single season points record (she finished 10 points shy last year), and 3,000 career points, all realistically within her reach.
-How does SFU make up for the losses of Ace Harrison and Caitlyn Kroll?
This was probably the unanswered question that cost the Red Flash, as the reigning champion, the top spot in the pre-season coaches’ poll at Media Day. The losses of SFU’s starting point guard and their defensive and locker room leader were probably big enough losses to have the coaches’ pause with some concern over the Red Flash’s chances to repeat. While we won’t know for sure until the season unfolds, SFU’s exhibition game last Wednesday against Pittsburgh at Johnstown may have provided some minor clues.
Sophomore guard Karson Swogger, who appeared in 33 games off the bench last year for the Flash, was in the starting lineup with Kovatch and redshirt junior guard Sam Sabino in the backcourt. Shot block artist, senior, Courtney Zezza and newcomer, grad student, Aunesha Williams, started in the frontcourt. Williams received a significant amount of playing time and had a fine game with 12 points and 5 rebounds in her debut. Also, freshman point guard Phee Allen played 23 minutes off of the bench, leading the team with four assists. While the final rotation will play itself out during the season, that might actually be the easy part for Coach Joe Haigh. The greater challenge will be making up for the leadership and the intangibles that Ace Harrison brought to the team over the last two years.
-How will the Terriers follow up their best regular season finish in team history, returning the bulk of their roster, but with a new coach and new system?
Last season St. Francis Brooklyn recorded their best regular season finish in program history, clinching the number three seed in the NEC Tournament. While they graduated Alex Delaney, a 3rd team All-Conference selection, they return the bulk of their team, a group of players who have been learning and improving together as a unit over the last several seasons. The 2015 Terriers, led by seniors Sarah Benedetti, Katie Fox, Jaymee Veney, and Eilidh Simpson, along with junior Leach Fechko, provided the blueprint to what a team can do when they grow and improve together as a group over the span of several seasons.
This year’s Terriers team returns seniors Amy O’Neill, Maria Palarino, Dana DiRenzo, and Lorraine Hickman, with veteran juniors Mia Ehling and Jade Johnson. Just like 2015, the Terriers have a talented group who have now played together for several seasons, which in my opinion, makes SFBK a serious contender for the championship. However, the unknown is how this group of veteran players will now perform with a new coach and a whole new system.
At Media Day, new head coach Linda Cimino described her style of play during her interview with Pam Roecker. She said, “We like to get up and down…I think they’ve been receptive to change…we’re looking forward to playing fast paced, up tempo style.” This would be quite the contrast from how we’ve seen the Terriers play in the past, where they’ve fared well in transition, but for the most part have gotten into the half court and used a lot of patient ball movement to find shots. Now they’ll be trying to push the ball up quickly, look for a lot of three pointers, press on defense, and get up and down the court. How this current roster, a roster that was already at the championship contending level under their old system, reacts and performs in this totally new situation will be fascinating to follow.
-Which team are we not talking about now that we will be at seasons end?
Last season Saint Francis and Robert Morris created a large gap of separation between themselves and the rest of the league. This year the gap has definitely shrunk. Teams like Sacred Heart, St. Francis Brooklyn, and Bryant all bring back a large amount of talent and will find themselves as contenders in 2019. However the one team that’s not on that list, that for some reason no one is talking about right now, but they will, is Central Connecticut State. How the Blue Devils were selected eighth in the pre-season poll, I have no idea.
Forget the fact that this is a Beryl Piper odd year season (Coach Piper has an outstanding .630 win% and has made 4 semi-final appearances in 5 seasons with Central that have been during odd numbered years), but Central returns over 85% of their offense from last year! Ashley Forker, Emma McCamus, Tiffany Slicklein, and Ashley Berube, who all made outstanding contributions last year as freshman, are all now one season better. They join the senior trio of Kianna Patterson, Andi Lydon, and Sydney Hines, which may be the most talented trio of seniors on one team this year in the NEC (It’s either Central or SHU’s trio of Storck, Haines, and Leatherwood). Going into the final game last year, the Blue Devils were still in the running for a top four seed. Central got off to a slow start last year, which really set them back. This season, three of their first four NEC games are against the bottom three teams from last year’s standings. If they can get off to a solid start this time around, the Blue Devils will be back in the hunt for a home playoff game come late February.
-How will the change back to the “higher seed hosts” playoff format from last year’s “pod” format impact the NEC postseason races in 2019?
Last season the NEC experimented with a “pod system” format where the top two seeds host the quarterfinals and semi-finals of the NEC tournament. It was a seemingly perfect compromise for those coaches who favor a ‘neutral site’ playoff format and those who favor a ‘higher seed hosts’ format. Unfortunately, the way the season played out, the top two teams separated themselves from the pack by the end of January and it eliminated some of the drama that usually comes down to the final weekend where teams are battling to host playoff games.
If the ‘higher seed hosts’ format was in play last year, five teams would have been in the running on the final day of the regular season for two remaining first round home game seeds. Instead, the six other teams who weren’t the top two knew they were going out to Western PA, all that was left to be decided was the opponent.
So to answer the question, the change should make this year’s playoff race more dramatic and exciting. This year it won’t be only about the seeding and pairing, but also the fight to get into the top four and earn playoff home games will be added back into the equation as well. Definitely a change that will benefit the fans and all NEC women’s basketball followers as the season draws to now an even more dramatic conclusion.
So, while I did my best to answer some of these big questions as we enter the season here in November, the actual answers will be unfolding at an NEC gym near you over the course of the next four and a half months. I will be at the RAC in Piscataway, NJ on Tuesday night as the reigning champion Saint Francis Red Flash tip off their season against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Then the following week, I’ll be back at the RAC as Central Connecticut comes to town. Follow me @CraigCD13 for some thoughts and analysis during these games and I’ll try to post some post-game video recaps as well.