#NECMBB Thoughts on Two Elite Defenses: Robert Morris and Sacred Heart

Defensive wins championships. Or something like that.

While there isn’t one avenue to winning the NEC championship and punching your ticket to the NCAA tournament, playing exceptional defense will certainly improve your chances. There have been countless examples over the past decade of teams finishing in the top half of the league, thanks in large part to a tenacious defensive effort.

One third of the way into league play, Robert Morris and Sacred Heart stand tall as the two best defensive squads, at least in terms of KenPom’s defensive efficiency. I find it interesting that both programs are going about their defensive excellence in different ways. With their much anticipated match-up on the horizon this Thursday, allow me to examine what has made each program difficult to score on during the six-game sample size.

Sacred Heart – 2nd in NEC Defensive Efficiency

On a team that’s fairly inexperienced going into the season, depth and balance weren’t expected to emerge as strengths for Anthony Latina’s squad. Instead, the new look roster that routinely features three freshmen and one sophomore improbably leads the league in scoring (81.1 ppg), assists (15.2 apg) and is second in field goal percentage (46.4%) and rebounding margin (+5.1 rpg). If you factor tempo into the equation, as any good statistician would, Sacred Heart has the best raw offensive efficiency after scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions through 18 Division I games.

While the Pioneers offense has gotten a lot of attention this season, it’s actually their defense that’s been noteworthy of late. Through six NEC games, the Pioneers find themselves 2nd among their league counterparts in defensive efficiency at 93.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. In four home victories, the Pioneers haven’t let an opponent score over a point per possession and have been relentless in their defensive ball pressure. Case in point: road opponents are shooting just 16.9% on their 3s and they’re shooting less of them (37.4% 3PTA/FGA) compared to the league average.

One focus of Anthony Latina and his coaching staff has been to restrict 3-point attempts – remember the discussion we had regarding St. Francis Brooklyn? – by focusing on the team’s defensive tenacity in practice. The blueprint: Stay in front of your defender, challenge the shot and mix up your defensive schemes to cause discomfort. Because of the Pioneers’ focus on staying in front, they’re taking less chances in turning opponents over (aka less risk and less fouling), as evident from their league worst 16% turnover rate. Thus far the formula has worked well, especially after holding CCSU, Bryant and Wagner to 61, 70 and 38 points, respectively.

Let’s be perfectly honest, though. The philosophy employed by Latina and his staff surely helps when you have a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate guarding the paint in Jare’l Spellman. Coming off an incredible 9-block effort versus Wagner, Spellman is now 21st in the country in block rate, swatting away 11.4% of the opponent’s shot attempts when he’s on the floor. For a little perspective into this stat, here are the five best block rates from an NEC player since Ken Pomeroy kept track of the stat starting in 2003-04:

Player/Team (Yr) Block Rate % Team Minutes Played Fouls Committed per 40 min
John Bunch, Monmouth (’06-07) 17.6% 49% 4.0
Naofall Folahan, Wagner (’13-14) 14.2% 52% 6.0
Amdy Fall, SFBK (’14-15) 12.2% 49% 4.9
Jare’l Spellman, SHU (’18-19) 11.4% 64% 4.5
AJ Sumbry, Wagner (’17-18) 10.6% 48% 7.2

Just from purely a shot blockers standpoint, Spellman’s effort has been historic. Not only is he on the floor more often than the other four defensive standouts in their peak seasons above, but he’s also done a decent job staying out of foul trouble, unlike a couple on the list. He’s committed a modest 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes, which is a respectable number given the 6-foot-10 center’s activity around the rim. There’s no doubt his presence is a major reason why teams are converting just 45.5% of their 2-point takes against Sacred Heart.

It’s also worth noting that the Pioneers have done well to eliminate their opponent’s second chance opportunities, which is where the team’s positive rebounding margin comes into play. With Spellman (21.4% defensive rebounding rate) and EJ Anosike (18.4%) leading the charge, as well as some guards who aren’t afraid to attack the defensive glass in traffic (Koreem Ozier, 16.4%; Cam Parker, 13.1%; Zach Radz, 11.7%), there’s another reason why the opponent’s field goal percentage inside the arc has been depressed. Putbacks are high percentage opportunities to score and this current roster has limited the damage their opponents can do with respect to that.

Wet blanket alert: there is some room for regression in the Pioneers’ defensive efficiency numbers, unless you truly believe Sacred Heart will hold league opponents to just 26.6% shooting from behind the arc all season (spoiler alert: I don’t). But even as these percentages progress more toward the mean, the overall metrics still portray a defensive unit that’s on the rise thanks to their perimeter tenacity, grittiness and their defensive play down low.

Now the true test is upon them: can Latina’s group continue this effort away from the friendly confines of the Pitt Center? Their 1-6 road record against mid-major opponents this season is glaring and must be improved if this team intends to compete for the NEC championship. We should learn a lot with trips to Robert Morris, Saint Francis and Mount St. Mary’s in their next three. The Pioneers are 3-13 at these venues over the last half decade.

Robert Morris – 1st in NEC Defensive Efficiency

Death. Taxes. Andy Toole coaching elite defense. The nine-year Robert Morris coach is a master at stopping opponents from scoring and this season is no different. Their current trend of allowing just 92.5 points per 100 possessions in league play would be the best mark a NEC program has achieved since the 2011-12 Wagner Seahawks, coached by Dan Hurley, permitted just 90.1 points per 100 possessions.

Can the Colonials realistically keep up their current pace? Based on Toole’s history of repeatedly finishing in the league’s top three defenses year after year, I believe so. And this year it’s partly because of one critical senior.

I’m in awe of Malik Petteway. Allow me to explain with some tweets.

While I don’t have copious amounts of time to determine if these numbers are unprecedented, they are incredible to look at on paper. Petteway is among the NCAA individual leaders in block rate (8.2%, 61st nationally) and steal rate (4.5%, 22nd nationally), while grabbing 23.0% of the opponent’s misses. His athleticism, defensive anticipation and hustle have turned him into the next Chris Wray of the NEC. We all became aware of Petteway’s defensive prowess in Robert Morris’ first conference game of the year.

While the coast-to-coast action was impressive on its own, Petteway’s performance at Bryant last Thursday was fantastic in all aspects. He literally did it all in his 14-point, 9-rebound, 4-steal and 1-block effort in 19 minutes that evening:

Among this highlight reel of plays, I was most impressed with Petteway’s ability to step up when Robert Morris needed him too. In the above clip at the 0:22 second mark, Petteway aggressively hedged on a high pick and roll, stole the ball from the very reliable Adam Grant (13.1% turnover rate) and dunked it home in the open floor. The highlight play halted a 10-2 Bulldog run and essentially stopped the Bulldogs in the midst of their furious comeback attempt. And if that wasn’t enough, Petteway threw in an emphatic block (0:38 in the clip) on the very next possession to stick the nail in the coffin and deliver the Colonials yet another road victory.

In the team’s televised road game against the 4-2 Terriers, Petteway logged a couple of thefts in a critical part of the game on back-to-back possessions. The two takeaways, around the 4-5 minute mark of the second half in a tight contest, led to four Robert Morris points, which can’t be understated in an offensive slog of a contest decided by just three points. Again, Petteway did it with his anticipation and exceptional defensive awareness.

It’s clear Petteway has added another dimension to the Colonials defense. His ability to generate turnovers along with backcourt teammates Matty McConnell (3.5% steal rate) and Jon Williams (2.5% steal rate) gives Toole a trio that has taken the rock away on 23.5% of their opponent’s possessions, good for 16th in the country. The turnovers have given the Colonials more opportunities in transition, where they’ve been more efficient shooting the basketball. According to Hoop-Math, Robert Morris has posted an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 60.0% in their transition opportunities. For a team that averages 48.1% eFG overall, that’s a massive boost to the Colonials offense.

Three of Robert Morris’ next four games feature potent offenses in Sacred Heart, Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Francis U. Will the Colonials continue to impose their will and turn these contests in half-court affairs focused on execution, or will high tempo win out?

We will learn a lot about these two defenses in the coming weeks. Enjoy the upcoming action!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s