Author Archives: Ryan Peters

The Hammel Coaching Tree: Greg Herenda and Joe Gallo Share a Unique Bond as Northeast Conference Competitors

Greg Herenda had enough. Sore, mentally fraught and feeling disenfranchised, the 19-year old point guard secretly boarded a bus and began his sojourn from Merrimack College, a small Augustianian school in North Andover, Massachusetts, to the Garden State. 

It was a rough sophomore season for fiery Herenda, one that saw decreased playing time with a new coach keen to establish his way or the highway. Head coach Bert Hammel, in replacing local legend Frank Monahan before the start of Merrimack’s 1980-81 season, sought to institute a new system that drew parallels with Bob Knight at Indiana University. Now there were 5:00 AM lifts, constant running drills on an overgrown ski slope, mandatory study halls, and something that was of a particular annoyance to Herenda, strict curfews.

Several players quit throughout Hammel’s inaugural season as the taskmaster implemented his unforgiving culture. Others like Herenda endured the physical and mental torture in hopes that their standing with the Merrimack coach would improve and basketball would be fun again, as it had been under Monahan.

That didn’t happen, and as Herenda sat on the bus that spring night heading toward the Port Authority in New York City, he felt relief. Relief that the hellish year was coming to a close and that he could start anew somewhere else. The sudden exodus felt right. 

That is until his mother, the following morning in their North Bergon, New Jersey home, asked her son a simple question after breakfast. “My mother was street smart, she’s like ‘well, who is going to give you a scholarship,’” Herenda recalled from that emotional moment.

Once Herenda’s mom injected her son with a dose of reality – there wasn’t a portal that afforded student-athletes an easy way to transfer back then – it wasn’t long before Herenda was on a bus returning to Merrimack. His next meeting with the fastidious Hammel became a turning point in his young life, even if Herenda was oblivious when he walked into the office.

“I had a meeting and I’ll never forget it,” Herenda said with respect to that end-of-season sitdown. “In my second year, I averaged like nine minutes a game and he told me I was going to be a nine minute player if I came back. I don’t think he really was begging me to come back and I just remember saying ‘Ok man, that’s it. I’m going to show this guy.’”

Always the fierce competitor, Herenda devoted himself from that point forward, and by the time the following season commenced, Herenda was the Warriors’ starting floor general. His upperclassman seasons were fruitful, culminating with a splendid senior campaign. The captain averaged nine assists per game and posted a record setting 22 helpers in a victory over rival Bentley College. Over the course of his final season, Herenda developed into a coach on the floor, routinely calling out defensive coverages and making suggestions to Hammel while competing on the hardwood.

“My relationship with him and the game really changed over my four year career,” Herenda said looking back. Shortly after his playing career was over, Hammel gave Herenda his first opportunity to be an assistant coach. It certainly was an arduous path to get there, but things had officially come full circle for the man who’d eventually coach young men to championships, first at UMass Lowell and next at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

———-

Nearly two decades after Herenda was exposed to Hammel’s coaching, the then-assistant coach at East Carolina University got a call from Alan Taback, the long-time high school coach at Princeton Day School in New Jersey. Things weren’t going well for one of Taback’s former stars, Justin Leith, at Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC Wilmington and he needed Herenda’s input. Leith wanted to find a better fit collegiately, leading to Herenda suggesting he look into a small Division II school near Boston.

Leith took Herenda’s advice, and soon after his freshman season committed to Merrimack and Coach Hammel. On one of his next trips up to the campus, Leith brought along a former high school teammate to play in a scrimmage with his new team. The teammate’s name was Joe Gallo.

By the time Gallo signed onto the Warriors program as a walk-on in 2000, Hammel had softened his persona to the point where he fostered a better connection with his players. The intensity on the court, however, never waned as the grizzled veteran coach acquired experience.

“He was very honest, but it always came from a great place, you always knew he cared for you,” Gallo said when asked about playing for Hammel, then entering his third decade of leading Merrimack. “The guy in between the lines was tough, but he was a big teddy bear once you got him off the court back in the office.”

Herenda took his former coach and mentor’s softening to another level. “By the time Joey got to (Coach Hammel), forget it, he was a marshmallow I think,” he laughed.

No matter if he was a teddy bear or marshmallow, Gallo benefited greatly from Hammel’s tutelage. He ascended to become the Warrior’s backup point guard as a junior, a noteworthy accomplishment as a walk-on. And despite missing the entirety of his senior season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the setback inevitably led to Gallo’s next calling in life. It gave him an invaluable exposure into coaching.

“Coach Hammel had me sit up front on the bench with him and the assistant coach rather than in the back with the players,” Gallo said of his senior season. “I was almost like a student (coaching) assistant, so to say, that year.”

Like Herenda before him, the coaching apprenticeship as a player led to a full-time assistant coach position right next to Hammel, merely six months after Gallo graduated from Merrimack. That was the start of a productive career as an assistant coach with stops at Dartmouth and Robert Morris along the way.

———-

After 36 years of patrolling the sidelines, the Merrimack athletic department and Hammel decided to part ways. Then 64 years old, Hammel had given Merrimack a treasure trove of success on and off the court – 526 wins, five NCAA Division II tournament appearances, three NE-10 conference titles and a lifetime of charitable work that originated at the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence. His foundation and legacy, which also produced a slew of coaches including long-time University of New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, left a lasting impression on the hundreds of players he guided over a remarkable four decades. The college even honored the coach in 2011 by naming the basketball facility “Hammel Court.”

Despite the successes, the split between Hammel and Merrimack after the 2015-16 season wasn’t completely amicable. It led to a layer of trepidation for potential candidates; taking over a program that was in great hands for a long time was surely an intimidating prospect for some.

While the college swiftly expressed interest in Gallo as Hammel’s successor given his success as a Robert Morris assistant under Andy Toole, the Warrior alum needed approval from the mentor responsible for jump starting his coaching career.

“The first person that I did call was Coach Hammel,” Gallo said. “He called me back and left me this long-winded message of how proud he would be of me and how there’s no one else he’d rather take over the keys of the program that he had… Before I inquired with anyone over (at Merrimack), I wanted to make sure I got Bert’s blessing. Once I got the OK with him, I could really care less what anyone else thought, whether it was other alums or people close to him.”

The rest, of course, is history with Gallo continuing Hammel’s legacy of achievement at Merrimack with three consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances and a NE-10 championship in 2019 to boot. 

Now Division I and Northeast Conference competitors, Gallo and Herenda share the unique coaching bond that got them into the business, albeit in different ways. And they will square off against each other for the first time when Fairleigh Dickinson visits Merrimack on January 23.

Toole has the unique perspective of having coached against both Hammel disciples, while even employing one for four seasons. He playfully attempted to compare Gallo and Herenda, two distinct personalities whose foundations began at Merrimack. 

“You watch Joe and Greg and they have some great sideline behavior,” Toole deadpanned. “Both of them have shown their vertical, or lack thereof vertical, at times during games. Both of them jumping up and down at times, waving their arms.”

Gallo notes that the famous Herenda foot stomp, a sideline move that may have consequences on 58 year old’s hips in due time, originated with the animated Hammel. 

Joking aside, Toole further elaborated on the two men who coached their respective programs to league championships during the 2018-19 season. “Both of them definitely have a command of their teams; the players are connected to their coach,” he said. “I think all their feelings toward Coach Hammel were as hard and as tough a coach he was, they all had great respect for them, they knew that he cared about them greatly and I think you see that in Joe, you see in Greg and they wouldn’t have had some of the successes that they had if they didn’t approach it that way.”

Herenda will undoubtedly be emotional when he steps onto Hammel Court before Thursday’s tip for the first time since his Hammel’s unfortunate passing in October of 2018. Gallo has already confronted those emotions, while Herenda isn’t completely sure of how he’ll feel.

“That’s where I grew up, it’s where I (went) from a high school kid to a man,” Herenda said two days before the game. “And I coached there with Bert for four years. And now the court’s named after him.”

No matter the score, it will undoubtedly be a special night. And rest assured Bert Hammel, the man who started an indelible legacy at Merrimack, will be smiling down on his former players from above. For a legendary coach that was fiercely intense and competitive, there likely are no losers after Thursday’s contest on Hammel Court.

Robert Morris’ High Powered Offensive Attack is Back, But Why?

Defense has been synonymous with Robert Morris basketball since Andy Toole stepped foot on the Moon Township campus more than a decade ago.

His boss, Mike Rice, initially got the Colonials to buy into a tough, no nonsense mindset on the defensive end, leading to the turnover generating, highly efficient guarding attack everyone equates Robert Morris with these days. Since the 2007-08 campaign, the Colonials have always finished in the top 200 of Division I in defensive efficiency, quite a feat for a small mid-major school. And only one of those years, when Toole had to play zone strictly out of necessity due to injuries and defections, has Robert Morris been outside the top 100 in defensive turnover rate.

In other words, Robert Morris and defensive tenacity go hand and hand.

So what happens when Toole’s squad figures it out on the other end? Well, it was a half decade ago when Robert Morris was also a well-oiled machine scoring the basketball. Having that continuity on both ends is the reason why the Colonials were an absurd 75-27 in league play over his first five seasons as the head coach.

Year Offensive Efficiency KenPom/NEC Rank NEC Record
2010-11 103.2 172 / 2 14-7
2011-12 105.9 119 / 3 15-6
2012-13 105.1 130 / 3 15-5
2013-14 105.8 165 / 3 16-3
2014-15 103.1 197 / 1 15-6

It’s been offensive slog since that 2015 NEC tournament championship, mainly due to several high profile players transferring from Moon Township for bigger programs. Some worked out, some didn’t, but five seasons later Toole finally has built a roster that has the continuity needed to succeed on offense.

“Anytime you make shots it’s making any offense looks good, efficient (and) effective,” Toole said on Wednesday when asked if game planning is easier knowing this team’s strengths offensively. “I do think we have some guys that have played a lot of games and they’re a little bit more experienced in terms of handling different defenses and we’ve been in the same offensive style and system for years.”

After a choppy start that included a difficult non-conference slate, Robert Morris’ offense has been firing on all cylinders, scoring at least 1.03 points per possession (ppp) in six straight games. Over that time they’ve shot 55.3% from 2, 45.4% from 3, and have a pristine 118 assists to go against 74 turnovers (1.6 A/TO ratio). It’s offensive basketball at its finest and it’s safe to say this positive trend isn’t a flash in the pan. So let’s examine why Robert Morris is back to leading the NEC in offensive efficiency (118.9 points per 100 possessions!) through four league games.

Dante Treacy’s Insertion Into the Lineup

I highly recommend Chris Capella’s piece on Treacy. In there he examines the notable improvement the sophomore has made after what some would say was a mediocre freshman campaign. The point guard’s play in 2019-20 has been far from mediocre, as he’s currently a strong candidate for the NEC’s Most Improved Player award with averages of 8.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.9 rpg to go along with a 2.0 A/TO ratio.

(Side note: I really enjoyed Glenn Sanabria’s take on Treacy here. Go to the 22:30 mark.)

Forgot the individual achievements though, it’s how Treacy has made the players around him better that’s been the most impressive feat.

“I think Jon (Williams) has benefited in sharing some of the ball handling responsibilities,” Toole said when talking about Treacy’s impact. “I think obviously him and A.J. (Bramah) have connected well with Dante able to find him on cuts and drop off opportunities and obviously he’s complimenting our shooting with Josh (Williams) and other guys.”

Over the past six games, five of them Robert Morris triumphs, Treacy has assisted Josh Williams on 11 of his 33 made 3s, while providing an assist to Bramah on 10 of his 31 2s. Overall, the guard has assisted 13 triples, 2 two-point jumpers and 16 baskets layups or dunks during the 5-1 stretch. In essence, Treacy has created scoring opportunities for his teammates at all three levels.

Here are some examples how Williams and Bramah have benefited. Treacy found his sharpshooter in transition:

Off an inbounds play:

And using his dribble penetration skills to set up Bramah for an easy dunk:

Most NEC guards see a progression from the freshman to sophomore season, yet Treacy’s has been more pronounced after de-committing from Army late in the summer of 2018 and signing with Robert Morris soon thereafter. He didn’t have the summer prior to get acclimated and spent much of his freshman year in Division I catching up. We are now seeing what a full offseason of strength training and shot taking (shooting 38.3% 3PT this season) has done to convert Treacy into an integral part of Toole’s rotation.

A.J. Bramah’s Versatility Helps Promote Free Flowing Basketball

While Treacy playing at a high level allows Toole to put two facilitators together – Jon Williams and Treacy have played together 40% of the time in the past five games – it’s the junior college newcomers in Bramah and Jalen Hawkins that have solidified the rotation. Their insertion, particularly Bramah, has make the Colonials that much more versatile one through eight.

Pertaining to Bramah, Toole has been pleased with the junior’s progression: “He’s somebody that you always have to pay attention to because he’s usually on the move and he’s making great instinctive plays,” he said of the forward, who’s averaging 11.5 ppg and 7.8 rpg in his inaugural Division I season. “He really finishes well around the basket as well as offensive rebounds so well. He puts pressure on the defense in an entirely different way that we haven’t had previously.”

Bramah’s versatility, in that he can guard multiple positions, run the floor in transition and find an open teammate out of the post has been invaluable, especially when Robert Morris carved up the Wagner zone to the tune of 94 points and 1.36 ppp last Saturday. Exhibit A as he set up Treacy:

He’s also an asset in the high post, here finding Yannis Mendy for the easy deuce:

Bramah is a high level athlete that does a number of things very well with an added bonus; he also gets to the free-throw line at a high clip (50.8 FTA/FGA, 134th nationally) and makes a respectable number of those attempts (68.9% FT).

High Level Shooting Opens Up the Floor for Better Opportunities

Josh Williams is currently playing at an All-NEC first team level, his 71.0% success rate on 31 threes in league play is unfathomable, yet he’s also been more careful with the basketball. He’s sliced his turnover rate from 18.9% to 13.3% as a senior and has clearly benefited from having two point guards on the floor, as well as a passing big man who’s eager to find him camped out behind the 3-point line.

Josh’s brother, Jon, has also seen an improvement in his perimeter scoring, shooting a career best 44.8% from behindthe arc as a junior. Williams, along with Treacy, has been more aggressive after a 2018-19 season that at times frustrated Toole because of their unselfish, pass-first mentality.

“Last year we were arguing with those guys to shoot more shots and be more aggressive on the offensive side,” Toole explained. “All summer, all fall we were talking to those guys all the time about being shot ready on every catch, being aggressive on your drives, and that would open up some of those opportunities that they’re comfortable making.”

Opponents can no longer give the point guards space protecting against the dribble drive now that Williams and Treacy are making those sagging defenders pay. And it’s created a double edged sword with Mendy, one of the league’s best post presences, having more room to operate in the low block. Mendy has been a little more efficient in his takes as a senior (58.5% 2PT) while playing more often (55% of the team’s minutes). Plus, he can move without the rock in his hands:

The offensive resurgence has occurred even with Charles Bain struggling to find his shot after an encouraging sophomore season. Toole is still giving him minutes, as he’s doing other things (13.3% assist rate and 8.9% offensive rebounding rate in league play) to help the Colonials create advantages and make winning plays. If he can start to make the perimeter shots he’s been draining in practice, then the rotation becomes seemingly unguardable.

Despite Bain’s struggles, Robert Morris is still 19th in Division I with a 38.1% 3-point percentage. The last time they shot that well as a program was during the aforementioned glory days, back when stars like Karvel Anderson, Marcquise Reed and Rodney Pryor would strike fear into their opponents with their long-range prowess.

There’s still a long way to go – more than three quarters of the NEC regular season to be exact – yet at the moment, Toole’s Colonials are trending in the right direction. If their offense can continue to produce at a high level, it would not surprise me to see a NEC tournament finals appearance in their future. They surely have the pieces to succeed.

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.

The NEC All-Decade Team – A Compilation of Greatness

While perusing my timeline on The Athletic over Thanksgiving break, I noticed many articles were dedicated toward examining the all-decade teams for teams spanning a multitude of sports. They ranged from the New York Yankees to the Michigan Wolverines to the Minnesota Wild, so I figured, why not here?!

There’s been a wealth of talent in the Northeast Conference over the past decade. To condense the greatness to a list of 10 all-timers would be challenging, which is why a 9-person panel was summoned to vote and provide their expertise. The panel contained a mix of fans/bloggers like myself, coaches who’ve been either NEC assistants or head coaches for the entire decade, NEC announcers and of course hoops guru and resident historian Ron Ratner. Here’s the full panel:

  • Glenn Braica, Head Coach of St. Francis Brooklyn
  • Nelson Castillo, Founder of Blackbirds Hoops Journal Blog
  • Joe DeSantis, NEC TV Analyst
  • Rob Krimmel, Head Coach of Saint Francis University
  • Anthony Latina, Head Coach of Sacred Heart University
  • Matt Mauro, Founder of The Blue Devils Den Blog
  • Ryan Peters, NEC Sports and Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook Contributor
  • Dave Popkin, NEC Play-by-Play Announcer
  • Ron Ratner, Senior Associate Commissioner of the Northeast Conference

The panel was given a list of 25 players to choose from and asked to vote their team “1” through “10.” To qualify for this list, each player had to compete for at least two seasons in the NEC this decade.

Without further ado, allow me to introduce to you the NEC All-Decade Team, highlighted by the NEC Player of the Decade!

 

NEC Player of the Decade
Jamal Olasewere, F, LIU Brooklyn

A staple of the Blackbirds dynasty from 2010-2013, Jamal Olasewere redefined the power forward position with an impossibly quick first step and ability to slash and attack the rim with reckless abandon. His opponents may have known what was coming, and yet they couldn’t contain the athletic and fiercely competitive wing, as evident from Olasewere’s 860 career free-throw attempts. His final three seasons in Brooklyn stack up as one the great stretches of any NEC player, checking off every box a student-athlete could hope for. He was a multi-year league champion, won the 2013 NEC POY award after a dominant senior season (18.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 51.5% FG) and finished as LIU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,871 points. He was literally unguardable.

NEC All-Decade Team

Karvel Anderson, G, Robert Morris

As the only junior college transfer of this team, Karvel Anderson was ultra-productive for Andy Toole, registering 1,123 points, 206 rebounds and 201 made 3-pointers in two highly successful Colonial seasons. The 2014 NEC Player of the Year helped guide Robert Morris to back-to-back regular season championships with a splendid 31-8 mark against NEC competition, not to mention a victory over St. John’s with a 38-point performance in the first round of the 2014 NIT. He may be remembered most as a deadly assassin from downtown (career 45.4% 3PT), yet Anderson was also adept at attacking defenders off the bounce and making the most of his opportunities inside the arc (career 55.4% 2PT). He was a complete player who could fill it up from all three levels.

 


Julian Boyd, PF, LIU Brooklyn

There’s no question that Julian Boyd, the 2009 NEC Rookie of the Year, personified grit and guile in his return from a heart ailment that forced him to miss the 2009-10 campaign. His return from that red-shirt season resulted in one of the most decorated careers the league has seen, culminating with two LIU championships and a NEC POY honor in 2012. Boyd may have been undersized as a big, yet he possessed the surest hands around the rim and grew his burgeoning game to the point where his offense from behind the arc (42.0% 3PT as a junior) served as a nice complement to his unstoppable interior game (career 55.5% 2PT). Boyd and Jason Brickman on the pick-and-roll were indefensible, resulting in the duo providing Blackbird fans much joy over the early part of the decade.

 


Keith Braxton, F, Saint Francis University

When you have a legitimate opportunity to become the first NEC player in history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds… AND compile 400 assists and 200 steals, then you deserve a coveted spot on the NEC All-Decade team even if your collegiate career isn’t over. Keith Braxton’s ability to instill his versatility, smarts and toughness is one of a kind – he doesn’t need to take over a game before providing a monster impact statistically. Furthermore, Braxton possesses an elite rebounding skill as one of only eight individuals to finish in the NCAA Division I top 30 in rebounding over the past two seasons, and this despite his “smallish” 6-foot-5 frame as a power forward. He’s a pivotal reason why Saint Francis has emerged as a routine title contender, so much so that Braxton feels like the Tom Brady to Rob Krimmel’s Bill Belichick.

 


Jason Brickman, PG, LIU Brooklyn

As the greatest pure point guard ever to play in the NEC, Brickman finished his illustrious career with the fourth most assists in NCAA Division I history with 1,009 helpers. The 3-time champion used his elite passing eye, pristine handle and efficiency from behind the arc (career 41.3% 3PT) and at the charity stripe (career 83.4% FT) to serve as the engine of the greatest offensive dynasty the league had ever seen. It’s a major reason why Jim Ferry and Jack Perri entrusted Brickman to play 89% of LIU’s available minutes over his final three seasons. There was no one who could see the court and create passing lanes out of nothing quite like Brickman.

 

 


Jalen Cannon, PF, St. Francis Brooklyn

Jalen Cannon is the epitome of someone who worked exceptionally hard at his craft, to the point where he made a linear progression throughout his four-year tenure in Brooklyn. From standout rookie, to double double machine to complete player, the undersized big steadily improved each season until he reached the pinnacle by guiding St. Francis Brooklyn to their first regular season championship in 16 years and deservedly winning the league’s 2015 POY award. The analytical metrics say Cannon is one of the best players the NEC has ever seen, and with good reason. The Allentown, PA native finished with the most rebounds in league history (1,159) and became only the second NEC player ever to log at least 1,500 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.

 


Shane Gibson, G, Sacred Heart

Shane Gibson is one of two players here that wasn’t selected as the NEC Player of the Year, even though he’ll go down as one of the most efficient volume scorers in league history. Over his final two seasons as a Pioneer, Gibson hoisted up 410 3-point attempts and impressively converted 42.4% of those, despite being the focal point of everyone’s scouting report. His 2011-12 junior campaign produced one of the greatest seasons from a NEC guard when he averaged 22.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 1.7 spg while producing the 54th best effective field goal percentage (59.8%) in Division I. He finished his career fifth overall in NEC history in points (2,079), free throw percentage (85.3%) and 3-pointers made (286). Quite simply, the man got buckets.

 


Ken Horton, F, Central Connecticut State

Based strictly on statistics, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that had a bigger impact in the league than Ken Horton, Central Connecticut State’s all-time leading scorer with 1,966 points. Once a lanky, under-recruited kid from Ossining, NY, Horton developed into a practically unguardable upperclassman, averaging 19.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks per game over his final 59 contests. But aside from the numbers, Horton’s blend of size, athleticism and body control as a power forward trapped in a wing’s body led to an extraordinary junior season that rightfully ended with the 2011 NEC POY award. He was as versatile as they come.

 

 


Velton Jones, G, Robert Morris

If there’s a poster child of this all-decade team that encompassed heart, consistency and a ruthless tenacity on the court, Velton Jones was it. As a two-time All-NEC first team selection, the 6-foot-0 bulldog was a mainstay of a Robert Morris program that won 91 games in Jones’ four active seasons. Despite the Colonials deep basketball history, Jones left Moon Township with the fifth most points (1,588), second most assists (551) and the most made free-throws (495) in program history. More importantly, he was the heart and sole of a team that nearly shocked Villanova in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament and upset Kentucky in the first round of the 2013 NIT, registering eight points and five assists in the latter.

 


Junior Robinson, G, Mount St. Mary’s

Junior Robinson may have been, at times, the smallest player in Division I basketball at 5-foot-5, yet his mesmerizing blend of athleticism, playmaking skill and moxie was an absolute pleasure to witness. A sensational senior season worthy of the 2018 NEC POY award – he averaged 22.0 ppg, 4.8 apg and posted a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio – was the cherry on top of a selfless career under Jamion Christian. As an underclassman, Robinson did whatever he was asked to do by Christian, which some of the time meant deferring to others for the betterment of the team. Through it all, the ultimate team guy was a star in Mount St. Mary’s 2017 NCAA tournament victory over New Orleans (23 points, 3 assists, 9 of 14 shooting) and finished with the third most points (1,872), sixth most assists (457) and fifth most made 3s (230) in program history.

 

 

A Deep Dive Into Bryant’s Defensive Resurgence

Photo: Victoria Brenchak

Rebuilding projects can take some time to develop, especially for those coming off a season where the program couldn’t muster enough wins to count on two hands. 

When Jared Grasso was hired by Bryant President Ronald Machtley after an extensive search, such was the expectation. Grasso was viewed in coaching circles as an excellent recruiter and tireless worker under NYC legend Tim Cluess, yet most people were cognizant of the time it would take to get Bryant back in a position for title contention. Sometimes it takes three years, like it did for Greg Herenda at FDU. Other times when inheriting talented players such as Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, like Jamion Christian did, maybe two seasons is the benchmark.

For Bryant, the latter could apply and that’s been solely due to Grasso’s recruiting acumen. Adam Grant, Ikenna Ndugba and Patrick Harding (a Tim O’Shea signee) are valuable players who each possess a specific, elite skill, yet it’s the newcomers that have shaped the roster and positioned Bryant for not just the future, but the present as well. The Bulldogs welcomed seven newcomers into the fold for 2019-20 – four freshmen and three JUCO transfers – and so far five of those recruits are playing a substantial role in Bryant’s renaissance a mere 11 games into the season. The Bulldogs are 6-4 against Division I competition, a league high, and have three road wins to boot, including the latest effort that sank a hosting Atlantic 10 school.

So what has exactly gone on to lead Bryant to success?

For starters, Ron Ratner captured the resurgence in the league’s latest weekly update. Bryant struggled to defend last season, to put it lightly. The 11th worst adjusted defensive efficiency in the country (115 points allowed per 100 possessions) was impossible to ignore for the second year head coach, so much so that he led with it this offseason. “We put a huge emphasis on our defense from the day we stepped on campus (this summer), because I thought we were so poor defensively last year, that we needed to make some changes,” Grasso confirmed.

The added emphasis has paid off, as Bryant has seen its defensive efficiency improve by a whopping 130 spots in Division I. With the help of a terrific recruiting class that’s bolstered the program’s depth and versatility, Bryant now has multiple weapons to deploy on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s examine the fine points of how Bryant has given up a measly 0.85 points per possession (ppp) in their six wins.

1) Solidifying the Middle

Photo: Dave Silverman

Hall Elisias has been a revelation for those outside of the Bryant program. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 6-foot-8 junior college transfer has been a beast around the rim, posting the fourth best block rate (17.8%) in the country. His 17 blocks accumulated over the last 3 games (63 minutes) – all victories – is a major reason why those opponents have converted just 42.7% of their attempts inside the arc.  

Grasso had been monitoring Elisias since high school and when he played collegiately at the now defunct LIU Post. It’s taken time for Elisias’ body to fill out, but the skills were always there. “I always knew he was athletic enough to be a really good shot blocker – he’s the high major athlete,” Grasso said of his center, who blocked a respectable yet unspectacular 20 shots in 20 games at New Mexico Junior College last season. “I didn’t know he instinctually is as good of a shot blocker as he really is and I think he’s just become more confident.”

That confidence was certainly flowing against Navy. Send it back big fella!

Hall’s interior presence, along with his teammate Patrick Harding, has given Bryant a formidable one-two punch at center, especially when Grasso deploys his aggressive, 2-3 matchup zone. Harding may not block shots in bunches like Elisias, yet the sophomore continues to showcase his nose for the basketball, gobbling up a remarkable 33.4% of the opponent’s misses (4th nationally). He currently leads the NEC at 11.2 rebounds per game.

“They’ve been as good of a two-headed monster that I think you can have at that position,” Grasso said of the combo, who’ve effectively split time at the five. “They are both different, but they both give you a lot on the defensive end.”

Case in point: When Elisias was in the game versus a Fordham lineup that featured three bigs standing at 6’9” or taller, the Rams shot just 4 of 12 from inside the arc. Elisias himself rejected three of those 12 attempts. Harding during his time on the Rose Hill court grabbed 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes. He’s as sure handed around the rim as they come.

2. Much Improved Depth and Athleticism

What makes this non-conference run all the more impressive is that Grasso hasn’t gotten much of a contribution out of Bash Townes (knee, ankle) and Juan Cardenas (foot). Both players continue to work their way back from injuries, with Cardenas seemingly gaining more confidence with each successful effort. The Colombian was aggressive on Wednesday, scoring an efficient 8 points on 4 shots.

Nevertheless, Grasso has been without both players for significant stretches, instead relying on dynamic wings Charles Pride, Mikail Simmons, and at times Benson Lin. All three have steal rates that register in the top 500 of Division I. The newfound athleticism at the wing positions allows Bryant to attack the perimeter and suppress the opponent’s long distance opportunities (34.7% 3PA/FGA, 98th nationally) when in their zone. At the same time, those wings all possess the quickness to recover and double the post when necessary.

It’s a sound strategy for programs that have interior scorers, yet may not be as efficient from long distance. The scheme created fits for Fordham and forced the Rams into several contested perimeter shots. After a somewhat torrid start, Fordham came back to Earth by shooting 26.1% from deep. And it hasn’t been much better for the others – all of Bryant’s opponents have made 30.0% of their 3-point attempts. That’s a stark improvement from a 38.8% mark in 2018-19.

Versus Navy, the Bulldogs mixed up their defensive schemes throughout the night, holding the Midshipmen to just 0.76 points per possession. The versatility has made Bryant much less predictable according to Grasso. “We’ve been doing a couple of different things defensively, switch up defenses, trying to keep (opponents) off-balance a little bit,” he said. 

3) The Guards Can Defend With the Best of Them

Photo: Dave Silverman

One major benefit from getting Ndugba back this eason has been his toughness and ability to face up against most guards. That was to be expected, yet few Bulldog fans likely expected the newcomers in Michael Green and Lin to be able to defend with as much tenacity and savviness as Ndugba.

Lin has flashed an astute sense to anticipate and jump passing lanes (3.0% steal rate), while Green’s low center of gravity and lateral quickness has made life difficult for opposing guards.

Throw in the aforementioned wings and Grasso can now switch defensively one through four, both within the zone and man-to-man schemes. Just watch Simmons switch off his man in great anticipation during a pivotal moment against Columbia. (Oh, and you might enjoy his finish on the other end too!)

It may be difficult to continually switch defensive schemes and be effective on a game by game basis, but that serves as a testament to the Bryant’s chemistry which has developed in a short period of time. “Scheme aside, you can play a million different ways, when your guys are connected with each other and care about each other, you have a chance to be successful,” Grasso said of his group.

The coach admits there’s still plenty to improve apon as we inch closer to league play – reducing turnovers and shooting better are on Grasso’s wish list – yet the Bulldogs have put themselves in a position to contend.

There surely will be challenges moving forward, especially when Grasso attempts to incorporate Pride and Townes back into the rotation and keep everyone happy in the process. At the same time, having too much talent is a good problem to have and Grasso certainly can smile after undergoing an arduous opening season filled with injuries and a lack of depth.

Now, Bryant looks to hang their hat on their defense. It’s their best chance to getting back to hosting a game in the NEC tournament quarterfinals.

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