Assessing the NEC After Non-Conference Play

The Northeast Conference is on the rise. For the first time in 6 seasons, the league’s aggregate KenPom conference ranking has moved up to 28th overall after nearly a 2-month sample size. It’s not a meteoric jump, but it’s progress and the first time in more than half a decade the league has been in this position nonetheless. Have a look.

Year

KenPom Conference Rank Non-BCS Record*

Mid-Major Record

2019-20

28 41-68 (0.376) 39-45 (0.464)
2018-19 30 35-63 (0.357)

32-44 (0.421)

2017-18

29 37-57 (0.394) 36-42 (0.462)
2016-17 30 30-71 (0.297)
2015-16 30 30-69 (0.303)

2014-15

26

36-60 (0.375)

2013-14 24 43-60 (0.417)

2012-13

24 54-61 (0.470)

2011-12

24 48-61 (0.440)
2010-11 24 52-57 (0.477)

*excludes games versus the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC

If Sacred Heart and Merrimack didn’t suffer heart-wrenching losses in the closing seconds on the final non-conference day of the season, the league would’ve finished tantalizingly close to a 0.500 finish against mid-major competition. 

I went back the past three seasons to determine the league’s “mid-major” record, although my distinction of a mid-major opponent is subjective. For this exercise, I did it by excluding all guarantee games versus the AAC, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac 12, SEC and the WCC. This group encompasses the top 10 KenPom conferences with Conference USA (14th overall) as the 11th. What remained after this omission was a composite schedule that, in my humble opinion, represented the type of opponents each NEC member would see during league play in terms of KenPom ranking.

The overall improvement relative to Division I basketball, while slight, is likely indicative of the fact that the majority of the league’s top players are upperclassmen who’ve been with their respective programs for two-plus seasons. Ten of the conference’s top 11 scorers are in their third, fourth or fifth season at their school, whereas 7 of the top 11 rebounders have met this veteran threshold. Maintaining program continuity has been a challenge, but with fewer high-impact players leaving for other schools over the past two offseasons, the league has been able to better cultivate some of its “home grown” talent.

What does this mean in terms of future NCAA tournament seeding? Probably not much, as it’s a safe bet the NEC will wind up back in Dayton for the First Four of the NCAA tournament, yet it’s not impossible for the league to avoid the “play-in game” as a true 15 or 16-seed if the league’s top three KenPom and NET squads, Saint Francis (NET #137), Sacred Heart (NET #187) or Bryant (NET #192), have a dominant regular season and somehow finish with 15 or more NEC regular season wins. Given the competitive nature of the conference, however, I wouldn’t bet on that outcome as practically every league game will have the potential to be a dogfight. 

When examining each school individually, I like to break down the mid-major games to provide a glimpse into how the league competed against similar competition in November and December. 

Team Mid-Major Record Point Margin Opponent’s AVG KenPom KenPom Predicted NEC Finish
Saint Francis U 5-1 +11 231

12-6 (T2)

Sacred Heart 6-3 +93 281

13-5 (1)

Bryant

6-3 +43 257 12-6 (T2)
St. Francis Brooklyn 5-4 -30 273

7-11 (T9)

LIU

4-4 -1 251 10-8 (4)

Merrimack

4-6 -68 232

9-9 (T5)

Mount 3-5 -12 252

9-9 (T5)

Robert Morris

3-4 -21 237 9-9 (T5)
Wagner 2-4 -18 257

7-11 (T9)

FDU 1-4 -51 244

8-10 (8)

CCSU 0-7 -111 242

3-15 (11)

Given this data, allow me to provide tidbits across the league as we move into the first league game on Thursday.

Saint Francis University

Saint Francis won a lot of close games in non-league play, as evident from their skinny margin of victory despite being four games over against mid-major competition. Nevertheless, Rob Krimmel’s group has gotten it done of late since the Red Flash’s “embarrassing” loss to Delaware – Krimmel’s words, not mine. The group has played inspired basketball, winning four of five versus Division I with the lone defeat coming to a 11-2 Florida State program poised to compete at the top of the ACC. Breaking down those final four minutes during the 4-1 stretch, Saint Francis has scored 1.42 points per possession (PPP) and outscored opponents 62-32, a credit to the program’s veteran leadership and versatility.

Early on, Krimmel was experimenting with his rotations, exclusively using Ramiir Dixon-Conover at the point while featuring Keith Braxton off the ball. Part of that was Krimmel wanted to get as many ball handlers on the floor against aggressive defenses such as VCU and Richmond, but lately the team has slotted Braxton at the one and given more faith to playing Randall Gaskins at the three. The new dynamic has allowed Krimmel to bring Dixon-Conover off the bench as a ball handler/defensive stopper and Scott Meredith as instant offense.

It’s led to a more fluid, versatile rotation that’s nine-to-ten deep and one Krimmel doesn’t expect will shrink during league play. Most of the time these rotations tend to constrict, but barring injuries, the Krimmel doesn’t expect that to be the case. Currently, 9 Saint Francis players are in the game at least 30% of the time through 10 Division I games. This is the deepest roster Krimmel has ever had at Saint Francis.

Sacred Heart

There I was at the Sacred Heart Pitt Center, writing my Pioneer blurb for this post assuming Sacred Heart would close out Lafayette and finish with a very good non-conference mark of 7-5 against Division I competition (7-2 versus mid-major teams). It would’ve been the first time in the program’s Division I history that the Pioneers ended up with 8 non-conference victories (one came over a non-D1 program), but my narrative in the span of 16 game seconds was soon blown up.

A flurry of Sacred Heart blunders late – a missed free throw on the front end of a one-on-one, a turnover inbounding the ball, an ill-advised foul – snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to an improbable 67-66 Lafayette victory. Afterwards, a somewhat stunned Anthony Latina was asked to assess the team’s performance in the season thus far.

“We have some guys that are performing at a very good level. We showed we can win on the road, which is important. We showed we can win a couple of different ways, so that was encouraging,” Latina said regarding the team’s non-conference results. “But this was disappointing, I’m not discouraged but I’m disappointed that we didn’t finish the (Lafayette) game like we have been. We get one or two more stops, that’s an eight-to-ten point win and we feel really good about it, but that’s how it works. You do this long enough you see everything.”

The Pioneers offense, as talented and versatile as they come, hasn’t really clicked on all cylinders. They’ve been able to win a number of different ways, while overcoming a particular flaw that randomly pops up. For example in wins over Brown, Presbyterian and Hartford, Sacred Heart overcame copious amounts of turnovers (24.8% turnover rate) by dominating the interior (59.2% 2PT) and sharing the basketball (59.0% A/FGM). In the other three victories, they took care of the basketball and in some cases shot lights out from 3. Yet with the exception of Quinnipiac – a 17-point road win – the Pioneers still haven’t found consistency scoring the basketball. 

They may be in the top half of college basketball in offensive efficiency (101.7 points per 100 possessions) yet there’s a higher level of play that can be achieved for a roster ready to win the league right now.

Fairleigh Dickinson

FDU has dropped more than 50 spots in the KenPom rankings since the beginning of the season. It’s the result of playing one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the league with the Knights signing up for a league-high five guarantee games versus the likes of the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East and SEC. Xzavier Malone-Key, Jahlil Jenkins and promising rookie guard Devon Dunn all missed time due to injury, but luckily for Herenda, Malone-Key and Jenkins are back and Dunn could possibly make his return when the Knights open the NEC season at St. Francis Brooklyn on Thursday. 

Dunn is averaging 9.3 ppg and shooting 41.7% from behind the arc and should boost the team’s second unit. Though 10 Division I games this season, the Knights have been outscored 249-88 from the bench and are shooting just 30.0% from three, a far cry from the Darnell Edge led team last season (40.2% 3PT). FDU has a strong front four, but Dunn, Brandon Rush, Brandon Powell and B.J. Saliba will need to find more consistency to get the Knights back into the NEC contention conversation.

A difficult start to league play – on the road versus St. Francis Brooklyn, Bryant and LIU with one home game against Sacred Heart – could put the Knights in an early hole if the inexperienced second unit doesn’t step up. Still, I would never count a Greg Herenda coached team out, especially one that has Jenkins running it.

St. Francis Brooklyn

I descended on Brooklyn right before Christmas break to witness Glenn Braica’s Terriers, who somewhat surprisingly possess a positive mid-major record on the back of a 3-game winning streak to conclude 2019. The Terriers have pulled through in a lot of close games – three to be exact – when the contest ends within four points. 

The Terriers possess a somewhat unconventional team in the modern era. It’s a squad that relies heavily on a post-oriented big man in Deniz Celen, who wasn’t even part of Braica’s plans prior to the 2018-19 season. Now, the former walk-on turned scholarship player has become a critical focal point for a Terriers team that needs his interior production as much as they need guard playmaking from a stable of athletes including Chauncey Hawkins, Unique McLain and Rob Higgins.

Regarding the latter, I came away most impressed by the 6-foot-1 guard who hails from Middletown, New Jersey. He was under recruited playing high school ball at the Jersey Shore – these days most players out of that region settle for Division 3 offers – but luckily for him, Braica found Higgins just in time to fill Jalen Jordan’s departed scholarship. Higgins scored 17 points in the team’s victory over Delaware State, but it was his defensive impact that arguably was more valuable. His on-the-ball tenacity bothered Delaware State’s best player in the second half, and it’s a fair bet you’ll see Higgins on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer (see Adam Grant, Isaiah Blackmon, Curtis Cobb, Vado Morse) during league play. That’s how much Braica values his freshman guard.

“He can really guard, he can really move his feet laterally,” Braica said of Higgins after the Delaware State win on December 22. “His motor is unbelievable, he never stops. You can’t teach that, some guys have it or they don’t.”

Higgins isn’t being talked about yet as an NEC all-rookie team candidate, but more performances like NJIT and Delaware State, and he’ll enter the conversation quickly.

Bryant

I’ve already waxed poetic about Bryant’s defense here, but here’s more reinforcement: I went back and charted the top rim-protectors the league has seen over the past decade. 

Season

Player Team Ind Blocks Team Blocks % of Blocks NEC Wins

Reg Season Finish

2019-20

Hall Elisias Bryant 39 63 0.778 ? ?
2018-19 Jare’l Spellman SHU 96 133 0.722 11

T3

2017-18

AJ Sumbry Wagner 58 129 0.450 16 1

2016-17

Josh Nebo SFU 89 136 0.654 13

T3

2015-16 Amdy Fall SFBK 57 122 0.467 11

T2

2014-15

Amdy Fall SFBK 71 149 0.477 17 1
2013-14 Naofall Folahan Wagner 89 200 0.445 13

2

2012-13

Joe Efese CCSU 47 130 0.362 9 7
2011-12 Naofall Folahan Wagner 52 126 0.413 16

2

2010-11

Naofall Folahan Wagner 45 119 0.378 9

T6

Because of the imposing interior presence, 7 of the past 9 teams that rostered the player with the best block rate in the NEC has finished in the top 3 of the league’s regular season. That obviously bodes well for Jared Grasso as opponents figure out how to navigate the paint against the 6-foot-8 Elisias.

Because of the non-league success, Bryant has improved its KenPom ranking from 325 on November 5 to 206 currently, a startling 119 point improvement! That’s by far the best KenPom improvement within the league during non-conference play over the past three seasons (in 2017-18 Robert Morris improved 83 spots, while in the same season Wagner improved 82 spots). Bryant isn’t going anywhere, folks.

Central Connecticut State

There’s no question that Central Connecticut State struggled during it’s non-league tilt (I highly recommend Matt’s piece on it at The Blue Devil’s Den), yet there has been some progress with a roster that’s loaded with Division I newcomers. It may seem subtle, but defensively Donyell Marshall’s group has slowly improved over the past few games, and that was before sophomore guard Ian Krishnan (the team’s best perimeter defender) and bouncy 5-man Karrington Wallace (the team’s best rim protector) came back in their non-Division I victory over Connecticut College. 

  • November (4 mid-major games): 1.10 D-PPP, 56.1 eFG% defense, 18.3% turnover rate
  • December (3 mid-major games): 1.03 D-PPP, 53.0 eFG% defense, 19.3% turnover rate

The improvement makes sense given the difficulty of teaching defensive concepts to a turned-over roster. Now, Marshall has a team that could disturb some league counterparts, once their high effort level translates more into execution. Of course, context is important here, as even the defensive improvement in December lags behind the KenPom national averages of 1.00 D-PPP, 49.3% eFG and 19.7% turnover rate, respectively. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Also interesting was the recent insertion of 6-foot-0 point guard and walk-on Tyler Rowe, who over 16 minutes versus Connecticut College was a productive two-way player, logging 9 points, 2 assists and 3 steals. Rowe, a former Western Connecticut State standout who averaged 20.3 ppg and 3.5 apg in 2017-18 and was ineligible last season and the first semester this season, could give Marshall a viable playmaker at the point. If that occurs, then things should get easier on the offensive end for talented guards Trey Tennyson, Myles Baker and Greg Outlaw.

7 comments

  • Dan From Staten Island

    If you’re looking for value from your entertainment dollar, chances are you won’t go wrong attending any NEC basketball game. The Conference is so balanced that any one of its members can win on a given evening despite their ranking. It’s exciting, ultra-competitive hoops.

  • Dan From Staten Island

    St. Francis Brooklyn’s Deniz Celen has very quietly developed into one of the best big men in the NEC. Over the last 7 games, he’s averaged almost 16 ppg and his presence underneath has given a new dimension to a Terrier offense that had been almost exclusively guard-oriented. Leading the NEC in Field Goal Precentage (60%), he really knows how to work the post game and his footwork and passing instincts are top notch.

    • I love Celen’s game – he’s a throwback. Versatile as a big too, he’s a better shooter as a senior, and he’s always been adapt at finding teammates, whether in the low block or in the high post.

  • As a RI native and still only living 40 minutes away, I’ve been really pumped to see what Bryant does after getting Jared Grasso who’s known to be a great recruiter. It’s early but after that non-conference performance I see them as a major contender for the NEC title this year. As long as they stay healthy they are scary deep, with three great freshman I get to watch for the next 3.5 years!

    My only complaint about the NEC is that they don’t have their tournament at a solid location but instead the higher seeds host at their own school. It’s more fun when you can get a hotel room and make a weekend out of it, just watch wall to wall hoops in one place

    • Thanks for the compliment, I really appreciate it.

      Unfortunately since your comment, Bryant has been banged up. Without a healthy Elisias, it’s going to be difficult to stick in that top tier. Hopefully Grasso can get all of his guys back – the good news is Juan Cardenas seems back to his normal self after dealing with nagging injuries during the non-conference and Bash Townes got minutes versus Merrimack yesterday.

      As far as the tournament location, the league tried the one location approach, but filling up the arena is difficult in that setting, given how spread out the schools are geographically. I prefer the current setup as it gives more value to the regular season (better seed hosts, reseeding in the semis) and provides for a better atmosphere at these games overall. I understand your sentiment – it would be awesome as a fan to see every tournament game live, but like I said it doesn’t work out unless you have schools with huge fanbases.

      • yeah it’s been a tough go if it for Bryant. I made the foolish assumption that since they had such goods non-conference results, they’d breeze through the NEC slate. Oops.

        I hear you on the tourney thing, that makes sense. I was basically spoiled rotten growing up going to the BE tourney as Madison Square Garden, late ’80s and early ’90s.

  • Also thanks to Ryan Peters for the great coervage!

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