Breaking Down FDU’s Unprecedented Upset – The Greatest in March Madness History

Photo: Paul Vernon

I didn’t think much of it back in October when friends asked my wife and I if we wanted to attend a Muse concert at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick’s Day. Cool, I thought, without giving the NCAA tournament much of a thought. After our run of seeing Rage Against The Machine, The Killers and Arcade Fire in 2022, adding Muse to the concert list would be fun!

Well, that’s my bad. Thankfully with the help of my IPhone and Youtube TV account, I was able to catch the last 5 minutes of Fairleigh Dickinson’s improbable and historic upset, even if my wife glanced over a couple of times as my two friends and I hunched over a cell phone during a sold out concert at the world’s most famous arena.

The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights gave my friends and the nation all the feels on Friday night, becoming only the second number-16 seed to dispatch a number-1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Going in, 16 seeds were 1-150 in such matchups, yet FDU remarkably kept it close with the Big 10 regular season and tournament champion before shutting down the Boilermakers in the closing minutes. Tobin Anderson called his shot after FDU’s dominant First Four victory over Texas Southern!

The Knights were clearly unafraid of the big moment, refusing to succumb anytime Purdue made a run. The Boilermakers posted 2 “kill shot” 11-0 runs during the contest – one in each half – yet FDU never allowed Purdue to extend their advantage past 5 points in either situation. It was a masterpiece that will go down as the greatest win in Northeast Conference history after KenPom pegged Purdue as a 98% favorite going in. Now, the Knights are still alive as they embark on a second round NCAA tournament matchup with Florida Atlantic on Sunday night at 7:45 PM. 

While much has been written about FDU’s triumph over Purdue, and deservedly so, allow me to break down how exactly the Knights pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. How was Anderson and his coaching staff able to craft a near perfect game plan and will the Knights to a Bart Torvik Game Score of 96?

FDU is Finally Defending

Photo: Paul Vernon

I’ll admit I was skeptical of FDU’s viability in February and March because of their inability to defend. At one point in mid February, the Knights possessed the first or second worst defensive efficiency in the country and that was despite forcing opponent turnovers at a near elite rate. On Friday night, the Knights effectively did both – they forced 16 Purdue turnovers (on just 64 possessions) while holding the much bigger Boilermakers to 0.91 points per possession (ppp). 

The defensive output wasn’t an isolated performance. Over the past 4 games, FDU has given up just 0.92 ppp while holding opponents to a paltry 17% from deep, with both statistics encompassing the Knights’ best defensive stretch of the season. Some of that depressed 3PT percentage is rooted in luck, yet credit is due to FDU for speeding up Purdue’s playmakers and making life as chaotic as possible in the half court. 

There were some open looks that Purdue missed for sure – Synergy estimates that Purdue missed 14 clean looks from behind the arc – yet this buys into the notion that the moment was too big for the Boilermaker players and not for FDU, the shortest team in Division I basketball. 

Back to FDU’s defensive prowess: the 7’4” Zach Edey may have logged an impressive 21 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks, yet arguably the best post presence in the country didn’t attempt a single field goal in the final 8 minutes of the contest. Thanks to a series of doubling and fronting the post, Edey barely touched the ball in the closing minutes. That was a testament to FDU’s speed and savvy in making sure the Purdue center never got comfortable in the low block. 

Edey’s disappearance down the stretch and FDU’s facilitation of that was impressive in its own right, but also consider that FDU held Purdue players not named Zach Edey to a 28.6% shooting percentage. It took awhile, but Anderson’s group has really leveraged their speed, quickness and length to inflict chaos on the floor. 

Sean Moore Has Arrived

Photo: Paul Vernon

In October I offered a bold prediction where I theorized that Demetre Roberts, Grant Singleton and Sean Moore would all emerge in Tobin Anderson’s rotation as Division II transfers who would be top 10 players in the NEC by the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign. My prediction was somewhat right – Roberts and Singleton had fantastic seasons and earned all-conference first and second team honors, respectively. Moore didn’t make an all-conference team however, but make no mistake, the sophomore simply needed a little more time to adjust to the rigors of Division I basketball. I can say with confidence now that there aren’t 10 players in the league who are better than Sean Moore, as the athletic wing has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. 

Moore’s defense has been there all season – he currently has the 104th best steal rate (3.2%) in the country and has collected 10 blocks over his past 8 contests – but of late the STAC transfer has been a revelation offensively. Let’s compare and contrast Moore’s first 7 games and last 7 games this season. It’s night and day, quite frankly. 

First 7 Games (FDU 2-5)7.0 ppg34.8%18.5%0.30
Last 7 Games (FDU 5-2)13.3 ppg59.1%40.7%1.83

Moore’s 3 to extend FDU’s lead to 5, 61-56, with a minute remaining was a kill shot in its own right, surging the Knights’ win probability from 47% to 76% with his top of the key triple. This is big time.

Then in the closing seconds, Moore’s defensive mastery came out as well!

FDU will lose Roberts and Singleton after the two veterans exhaust their eligibility when FDU’s magical run concludes this season, so expect Moore to become a centerpiece to the Knights’ offense in the years to come. He is that good and showing his true colors when the lights shine brightest. 

FDU Won the Turnover Margin Battle, Again

It’s one of Anderson’s most important stats, turnover margin. Take care of the basketball and extract live ball turnovers and you’ll win most of your contests. On Friday, the Knights did just that by bettering the Boilermakers by +8 in turnover margin and posting a +10 margin on points forced off turnovers (15-5).

For the season, FDU has the 32nd best defensive turnover rate nationally at 21.5%. Couple that with the 61st offensive turnover rate at 16.4% and the Knights have one of the best percentage differences in turnover rate across the Division I landscape. FDU is now 7-3 on the season when they extract a turnover on at least 25% of the opponent’s possessions. Their turnover rate versus Purdue on Friday night was… 25%!

Regardless of the Knights’ outcome on Sunday night versus Florida Atlantic, it’s been a wonderful season for Anderson and his Knights. Take a deep breath, buy some merch (see below!), and we’ll see you on Twitter on Sunday night as the nation roots for the FDU Knights to make history once again. I promise I won’t be at a concert this time around.

Two Things That Summarize Merrimack’s Awesome NEC Run

Coming off one of the more memorable NEC Tournament finals we’ve seen in recent memory, now is the time to reflect back on just how dominant Merrimack was during the conference season. Joe Gallo’s group excelled in 2023, victorious in 15 of 18 games while extending their current winning streak to 11 games. It’s the nation’s fourth best winning streak, and if Tuesday night’s championship was the end of their magical 2023 run, they’ll likely conclude with the country’s longest winning streak going into 2023-24.

I’m sorry, but some of the analytic algorithms need to tweak their formulas to properly access where Merrimack stands among their Division I brethren.

Bart Torvik’s ranking feels more correct at 286, but truthfully the overall analytics don’t really matter here. What Merrimack has done, both this year and throughout the entirety of its Division I reclassification process, is remarkable. Two regular season championships. One tournament title in its first ever appearance. And they’ve done it with a lean, but exceedingly efficient coaching staff.

How special was Merrimack’s run in 2023? Allow me to make two points for why the Warriors had one of the best conference seasons in quite some time.

The Defense Was Historically Good

In what many would consider a meaningless game with the regular season championship already wrapped up, Merrimack and Gallo actually had plenty to play for with respect to their last game before the conference tournament. A great defensive effort at the WRAC versus LIU would catapult the program to a new heights with respect to adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s exactly what Gallo’s group did with Merrimack holding LIU to 0.77 points per possessions (their second best effort of the season versus D1 teams), forcing 24 turnovers and generating a starling 34 points off those Shark miscues. Just another day at the office!

With all due respect to the other great NEC defensive units in the KenPom era (21 years), Merrimack’s defense deserves to be recognized as the GOAT when you also throw in these caveats:

  • Merrimack’s turnover rate is currently first in the nation; the Warriors extracted a turnover on an incredible 26% of the opponent’s possessions.
  • Merrimack’s steal rate is also the country’s best with a theft on 16.6% of the opponents’ possessions.
  • Despite the zone’s aggression in forcing live ball turnovers, the team had the 58th best defensive free throw rate nationally with a 26.9% FTA/FGA mark

Gallo and his staff have been offering the college basketball landscape – and the entire basketball world for that matter – a Masterclass in how to run an efficient defense. Please appreciate that we all just witnessed a historically dominant defense that’s currently approaching the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Move over Mike Rice, Milan Brown and Dan Hurley, there’s a new sheriff in town!

Merrimack Actually Met Lofty Preseason Expectations

Most of us, myself included, pegged Merrimack as our preseason number one. With accomplished, been-there-done-that veterans Jordan Minor and Ziggy Reid returning, it was easy to talk yourself into Merrimack as the NEC’s premier program going into the 2022-23 season. In Gallo we trust, right?

Some of us may have been nervous after Merrimack struggled through an arduous non-conference season, but eventually Gallo’s unit regrouped and got better as the year progressed.

With Merrimack obtaining both the regular season and tournament titles, the Warriors now become only the second NEC program in 35 years to be the preseason #1, regular season champion and tournament champion. The other program? The great 2012-13 LIU program from a decade ago under Jim Ferry. That team was in the middle of its 3-title dynasty during a breathtaking run that ended with a record of 19-2 versus NEC foes.

When Merrimack can reasonably compare itself to that 25-win juggernaut led by Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman, you’re doing something right. How’s that for living up to expectations?!

In the end, Merrimack’s awesome second half of the season may not get its proper due because of the non-conference results and the program’s ineligible status with respect to the NCAA Tournament and NIT. Don’t let those two things deflect from the past 10 weeks however, especially given that Gallo brought in 7 newcomers to learn a unique defensive zone that isn’t played much, if at all, at the high school, AAU and prep school levels.

I may not have the time nor the energy to justify calling Merrimack the greatest Division I reclassification team ever, but I feel like this may be true. In four seasons, Gallo and Merrimack have gone 47-25 (65%) in league play. It’s quite simply the best winning percentage of any NEC program in this period.

The rest of the NEC should be terrified if Merrimack returns their full assortment of players going into next year. With a chance to finally qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2023-24, the sky’s the limit for the college hoops team from North Andover. Joe Gallo has built a dynasty up there.

Myriad NEC Tournament Thoughts: Evaluating Recent Performance and Players to Watch

Ah yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Playoff time. When every eligible team in the Northeast Conference has a dream to reel off 3 straight victories and go dancing. This season the league was loaded with parity, that is until Merrimack ripped through the conference during the month of February. 

Ron Ratner has you covered here and here, but on the NEC Overtime! Blog I’d like to share some thoughts, numbers and key players as well ahead of the much anticipated single elimination tournament. 

The Latest Performance Snapshot

To start, one exercise I like to perform prior to the NEC tournament is to take a snapshot of a team’s last 4 weeks of league play. Obviously, this is far from a foolproof way to determine who’s hot going into March, but surely we’ll be able to decipher who besides Merrimack comes in playing well. Just look at this 8-game data… oh my…

RecordPoint DiffOffense PPPDefense PPPPoss/Gm (NEC Rank)
Merrimack7-1+831.010.8669.9 (3)
Stonehill5-3+191.010.9766.5 (8)
FDU4-4+171.111.0869.8 (T-4)
SHU4-4+101.031.0170.4 (2)
SFU4-4-31.041.0469.4 (6)
Wagner4-4+60.980.9761.8 (9)
CCSU4-4-41.021.0367.4 (7)
SFBK4-4-160.940.9769.8 (T-4)
LIU1-7-850.901.0571.9 (1)

A few notes based off this data:

  • Merrimack is head and shoulders above the rest of the league currently. That’s obvious. The thing that struck me was not the 7-1 mark, but the Warriors’ increased tempo in the month of February. They went from playing their first 8 league games at a tempo of 63.1 possessions per game to 69.9 over its last eight NEC contests. Why? Gallo has given his underclassmen more offensive freedom in allowing them to attack with movement early in the shot clock, which has led to shorter possessions overall. It’s crystal clear that players like Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage are much more comfortable offensively than they were 2 or 3 months ago. All 3 players have at least a 10.0 increase in their KenPom offensive rating when going from non-conference competition to league play. It’s no wonder all three are typically logging at least 28 minutes per game these days. 
  • One reason the lower seeded Wagner and St. Francis Brooklyn programs could be dangerous is each team is for the most part defending at a high level. The Terriers attempt to drive opponents off the 3-point line (26.8 3PA/FGA defensively, 1st in NEC) and reject shots around the basket (11.7% block rate, 1st in NEC). Armed with the league’s second best adjusted defensive efficiency in NEC play, Wagner does well to extract turnovers and keep opponents away from the offensive glass (24.6% defensive rebounding rate, 1st in NEC) in order to limit second chance opportunities. Defense travels! 
  • Sacred Heart has done a respectable job defending amid all of their injuries and a shortened rotation. With Nico Galette less than 100 percent – he admitted to Ron and I in the last On The Run Pod that he’s dealt with a pulled groin and lower back issues throughout the season – and Brendan McGuire presumably done for the season with a nagging hamstring injury, Anthony Latina must ride Kenny Womack a little more than anyone originally envisioned (more on him below). When the Pioneers hold opponents to under 1 point per possession, they are 8-3 on the season. 
  • CCSU is 3-8 this season with games decided by 2 possessions or less. It’s been a major problem for Pat Sellers’ group, but recently they’ve done better closing out strong in the final minutes with their 3OT thriller over Stonehill and tight road victory versus FDU illustrating progress. The regular season finale loss to Sacred Heart was a hiccup for the Blue Devils however, as CCSU struggled to keep the Pioneers off the free throw line while missing some critical charity stripe attempts down the stretch.

Which Coach Will Rise to the Top?

This will be the most inexperienced field with respect to the head coaches competing in the NEC tournament. Only four coaches have led their teams in this playoff format, while four others come in with a record of 0-0. 

  1. Rob Krimmel, 8-8
  2. Pat Sellers, 1-1
  3. Glenn Braica, 2-10
  4. Anthony Latina, 1-7
  5. Tobin Anderson/Donald Copeland/Joe Gallo/Rod Strickland, 0-0

It’s been a struggle in the single elimination format for Braica and Latina for various reasons. Braica got his two victories during St. Francis Brooklyn’s magical 2014-15 run that fell one possession short against Robert Morris in the final. While Latina has positioned his team well with respect to NEC tournament seeding – the Pioneers have earned a top 4 seed in 4 of the last 5 tournaments – the long-time head coach only has one playoff victory to show for it – a 61-59 squeaker over Mount St. Mary’s in 2020. Can either coach exercise those demons despite trotting out rosters that have been ravaged by injuries?

Copeland and Strickland may be new to this as head coaches, but Anderson and Gallo have demonstrated success in these formats when they led winning Division 2 programs. Gallo was 4-2 with one tournament championship in 3 seasons at Merrimack when the program was a NE-10 member, while Anderson won 6 East Coast Conference tournament championships and twice was the runner-up in 9 remarkable seasons at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Neither Gallo nor Anderson will be phased by the newness of the NEC tournament. 

Key Players to Watch

We already know the superstars of these NEC rosters. In this segment, I’m more looking at guys that mostly hover under the radar (with the possible exception of the first player listed). These are four student athletes that possibly have the power to advance their team into the next round of the conference tournament.

Maxwell Land, Saint Francis – It wasn’t a seamless non-conference season for Land, but the Red Flash guard has rebounded nicely against league competition to post a career high in KenPom offensive rating (108.9) fueled by a true shooting percentage of 55% that’s tenth among all NEC players. The absence of dynamic freshman Landon Moore has forced Rob Krimmel to play Land more than 80% of the team’s minutes over the past 2 months, and for the most part the junior has delivered with Land serving as the Robin to Josh Cohen’s Batman. When he plays well, Saint Francis does well as these splits illustrate:

–        In 9 SFU wins: 16.4 ppg, 51.4% 2PT, 48.6% 3PT, 1.4 A/TO

–        In 7 SFU losses: 10.3 ppg, 44.7% 2PT, 28.2% 3PT, 1.0 A/TO

If Moore does return from a finger injury for a quarterfinal showdown versus CCSU, expectations should be tempered given his absence over the past 12 games. With Ronell Giles exhibiting inconsistency off of last season’s knee surgery and a tough ankle sprain in November, a lot of the Red Flash’s hopes may hinge on Land’s performance in NEC tournament whether that’s fair or unfair. If the lefty gives Krimmel efficiency with an ability to score anywhere on the floor, then SFU has a chance to go dancing.

Devon Savage, Merrimack – Who’s the best 3-point shooter in the Northeast Conference? If you said Savage, then you are paying attention as the James Madison transfer has been a godsend for a Merrimack team that really struggled to make open shots in the first half of the year. Over the team’s past 3 games – all wins – Savage is on an incredible run, converting 16 of 25 (64%) of his long distance attempts, with 15 of those makes coming from an assist. Not only that, Savage has picked up Gallo’s zone incredibly well, posting the 4th best steal rate (4.0%) and 9th best block rate (2.6%). He’s the true epitome of a ‘3 and D’ player, a categorization we as fans often over use. With Savage however, this classification is apt. And if the defense doesn’t account for where Savage resides on the perimeter at all times – the sophomore has made 43% of his unguarded catch-and-shoot takes this season according to Synergy – knocking off the Warriors in their home confines could be next to impossible. Pick your poison: defend Jordan Minor one-on-one in the post, or double him and risk the ball finding its way to Savage in the corner.

Kenneth Womack, Sacred Heart – With Brendan McGuire reaggravating his hamstring injury in the team’s regular season finale, Womack will once again be asked to absorb the backup point guard duties for Sacred Heart. It’s a small sample, but the football wide receiver and basketball walk-on has done incredibly well filling the backcourt void. Per Hoop Explorer, the Pioneers are scoring 7.8 points per 100 possessions more and allowing 4.8 points per 100 possessions less when Womack is on the floor (for full transparency, it’s 231 possessions on, 1,810 possessions off). His 15-point, 8-assist breakout in a critical overtime win versus FDU was likely an outlier, yet his productive minutes down the stretch versus CCSU illustrates the trust Anthony Latina has in the athletic guard. His crafty finish in the paint with 5:26 remaining and his 2 free throws in the closing seconds of a one-possession game show Womack is ready to embrace the challenge of possibly becoming the most unlikely contributor on a team in the NEC tournament’s top four.

Davonte Sweatman, CCSU – Here’s a fun fact for Blue Devil fans when Sweatman is providing an efficient spark off the bench – CCSU is 6-2 in league play when he posts an offensive rating better than average (100.0). In those contests, the shortest player in the Northeast Conference is shooting 53% from the floor while taking care of the basketball fairly well (8 turnovers in 8 games). It’s clear Sellers trusts him given his crunch time minutes of late as well. If he can provide a spark in the NEC tournament quarterfinal at Saint Francis, the Blue Devils have a real opportunity to steal one in Loretto. In Sweatman’s last game versus the Red Flash, the sophomore poured in 20 points on 10 shots while compiling 5 boards and 4 assists. The playmaking Sweatman is a wildcard for sure.

Enjoy the tournament! 

Plenty of Intrigue in the NEC Awards Race Remains with One Week Left in the Regular Season

Just one week remains in the Northeast Conference regular season! There are several major awards that could go down the wire, so I thought this was a great time to ask myself some questions! Let’s dive right into it.

As a side note: Ron Ratner does a great job here breaking down where all the teams stand with respect to their NEC Tournament positioning. 

Who Will Win the NEC Coach of the Year?

In early February, most people believed one newcomer was a shoe-in for the NEC’s Jim Phelan Coach of the Year honor. 

I’m not picking on this Twitter user, as most of us felt this way back on Groundhog Day. But Chris Kraus and Stonehill have really been cooking ever since, pushing Anderson off as a no-brainer for the award. After starting their NEC season at 3-3, the Skyhawks have embarked on a 7-2 stretch in league play to not only improbably catapult FDU in the standings, but also remain in play for a regular season championship. Those lofty goals may have been bruised considerably after their 3 OT defeat at the hands of CCSU, but Stonehill’s inspired play has made this COY honor a legitimate 2-person race, especially with FDU struggling to defend and close out games down the stretch. 

Both programs had low expectations going in. Anderson inherited a 4-win group from a season ago and had to fill 8 scholarships once he got the job deep into the spring. Stonehill was coming off a respectable albeit middle-of-the-pack NE-10 finish and had graduated 4 of their top 8 scorers. I don’t mind anyone making the argument for either guy at this point, especially after FDU was picked tied for sixth and Stonehill ninth in the preseason coach’s poll (I picked FDU fifth and Stonehill eighth in Blue Ribbon, for what it’s worth). Kraus has exceeded our expectations a little more, yet FDU has a small advantage when you break down the overall resume.

KenPom/ Torvik RankTorvik Game Score AvgD1 Non-Conf RecordNEC Record (Point Differential)Efficiency Margin in NEC Play
FDU318/317275-89-5 (+52)+5.3
Stonehill332/324253-1010-5 (+39)+3.9

It’s pretty close. If FDU and Stonehill finish with identical league records, I would assign a slight lean to Anderson given that the Knights’ have had more success in non-conference play with a dominant Quad 3 win at St. Joseph’s leading the way. The minimal edge in a myriad of analytics for league play helps bolster Anderson’s argument as well. Should Stonehill find themselves ahead of FDU in the league standings as of this weekend however, perhaps honoring Kraus off an improbable 11-5 NEC season is the way to go. 

It’s a tight race where both coaches have very good cases to be made. Both have a challenging second year ahead of them with all of their exceptional talent moving on, but neither of these coaches will sneak up on NEC competition ever again.

I should also mention that Joe Gallo’s probable regular season championship with Merrimack puts him in consideration of this award as well, as the coaches have historically rewarded the regular season champs with a coach of the year honor. Merrimack was picked first in NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll though, as many of them, and us, expected the Warriors to be here. That’s why I’d vote Gallo third in this race, although I wouldn’t put anything past a majority of coaches to vote Gallo as COY if both FDU and Stonehill stumbled in their final week. 

What About the League’s Player of the Year?

Just from what I’ve seen with my eyes this season with added weight during league play, I respect anyone who thinks this is a 3-man race between Josh Cohen, Jordan Minor and Demetre Roberts vying for the league’s most outstanding player title.

It’s fitting that all three deserving players are on teams inside the conference’s top 4, as their consistency has been a hallmark for why I’d consider them over anyone else. If you took any of them off their respective roster, that squad would be worse, as Minor’s absence in November can attest. Nevertheless, this is a player of the year award and not the most valuable player, so I’m more interested in the sheer numbers and statistical analysis between the three standouts. 

PlayerPPG / RPG / APGOffensive RatingeFG%Torvik PORPAGATU!KenPom Rank
Josh Cohen, SFU21.4 / 8.1 / 2.4119.158.3%4.8 (1st)1
Jordan Minor, MC17.1 / 9.3 / 2.3100.551.7%2.3 (5th)2
Demetre Roberts, FDU17.4 / 3.0 / 4.3108.949.6%2.9 (3rd)4

Cohen has cracked the 18-point threshold 19 times this season, Roberts 16 times and Minor has done it in 10 times (he missed 6 games in November due to injury). Minor leads Cohen in double doubles, 11 to 5, whereas Roberts has posted at least 5 assists in a game 12 times, and has averaged just 2.2 turnovers in those contests. Cohen leads the group, and the NEC, in points per possession at 1.11 despite a massive usage rate of 29%. Roberts is 18th at 0.97 ppp while Minor sits just inside the top 30 at 0.91 ppp. Minor may have the slightly less impressive scoring analytics, but he’s first among NEC individuals in offensive rebounding rate (15.1% in league play) and second in block rate at 8.1%, as he’s easily the most impactful among this trio on the other side of the ball. 

You can really slice and dice these numbers anyway you’d like, but for me Cohen is the guy. His ridiculous efficiency, wonderful consistency and clutchness in late game situations gives him the POY nod if I had a vote. That isn’t a knock on Minor or Roberts, but Cohen’s been unstoppable in the post. And he’s done it not just against NEC competition, but also versus teams like Miami (30 points on 16 shots, 9 rebounds), Hawaii (40 points on 23 shots, 9 rebounds) and St. Bonaventure (21 points on 11 shots, 7 rebounds). 

As long as Saint Francis doesn’t collapse in these final two games, the 6’10” post dynamo would be my pick. To round out my all-conference first team, I would include Nico Galette and Grant Singleton in my top 5 for those of you scoring from home. And as I alluded to in my ‘Merrimack is Awesome on Defense’ post, I do believe Minor should get the Defensive Player of the Year hardware when it’s all said and done. 

Who’s the Favorite to Win the NEC’s Most Improved Player Award?

Thanks to conference realignment and lots of turnover on NEC rosters this offseason, there hasn’t been a ton of returning players back. Despite this, there still have been credible candidates that have elevated their game to a NEC Most Improved (MIP) level. For simplification purposes, I decided to wade through the choices by using Torvik’s replacement player measure, PORPAGATU!. That metric stands for “Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage.” It’s not the end all, be all by any stretch, but for this exercise I found it to be a useful measure to track a player’s improvement from one year to the next. Here were the top 6 improvers using 2021-22 as the starting point:

2021-22 PORPAGATU!2022-23 PORPAGATU!Improvement
Joe Munden, Jr., FDU-0.81.4+2.2
Josh Cohen, SFU2.94.8+1.9
Ansley Almonor, FDU0.62.0+1.4
Joey Reilly, SHU0.61.8+1.2
Davonte Sweatman, CCSU0.41.1+0.7
Bryce Johnson, SHU0.61.1+0.5

I think we have our top three MIP candidates in Joe Munden, Ansley Almonor and Joey Reilly. As last year’s NEC Most Improved recipient, Cohen will be eliminated from my consideration. As a quick aside, Cohen’s PORPAGATU! improvement is actually greater this season than it was going from 2020-21 to 2021-22 where he improved by “just” +1.3. Galette, who I thought was destined to become the 2021-22 MIP only to be denied by Cohen, actually improved his PORPAGATU! by +2.3 as a sophomore. But that’s a debate for another time…

With the pair of FDU’s players and Reilly assigned as my top 3 for MIP consideration, let’s dig a little deeper into each player’s statistical improvement from last season to now:

PPG IncreaseRPG IncreaseAPG IncreaseAnother Stat of NoteORtg Increase
Joe Munden+5.8+1.9-0.2+19.4% 2PT+33.2
Ansley Almonor+10.6+3.1+1.3+0.6 bpg-5.7
Joey Reilly+6.7+0.5+0.5+1.0 spg+7.1

As far as a floor goes, Munden is coming off the most difficult season among this threesome, registering an offensive rating of 73.6 as a sophomore after a promising rookie campaign that saw him rightfully land on the league’s all-rookie team. With that sophomore floor, Munden’s offensive rating improvement as well as his correlating shooting percentages have skyrocketed under Tobin Anderson. He’s been cast this season as a near perfect swingman in FDU’s scheme. 

Almonor’s efficiency has remained above average going from his freshman (small sample) to sophomore season (substantial sample); his biggest difference is a three fold increase in playing time that’s seen his counting numbers surge as a result.

Reilly has effectively done both – his playing time has nearly doubled to 77% of Sacred Heart’s minutes, yet he’s also enjoyed a 6.9% bump in his effective field goal percentage. His possession rate (16.8%) however, isn’t as impressive as Munden’s (24.2%) or Almonor’s (23.9%) and categorizes him more as a role player instead of the leading men that the Knights’ duo has become. 

So who is it? This is another tough call, but I’ll peg Almonor as my guy. The 6’6” center’s insertion into Anderson’s starting five has opened up the Knights offense considerably as opposing bigs must respect Almonor’s ability to make a perimeter jumper anywhere on the floor. He’s more likely than the other two to land on an all-conference team (although I think Munden and Reilly have a chance for the third team) thanks to his current top 10 finishes in scoring (14.1 ppg, 9th), rebounding (4.8 rpg, 10th), 3-pointers made (2.0 per game, 4th) and blocks (0.8 bpg, 8th).

This is nothing against Reilly and Munden, as both have had excellent bounceback seasons in their own right. But for Reilly, his usage rate dings him, whereas Munden exhibited a better level as a rookie before struggling the following season. I give the junior a ton of credit for restoring his game under Anderson, but if we’re being honest Munden’s rookie season with a PORPAGATU! of 0.9 could reasonably be assigned as the benchmark instead of -0.8 from the following year. 

With all of these awards, a lot (including my mind) could change with two games remaining. The debate should be fierce for these honors and the all-conference teams until the bitter end, giving us fans and alums even more excitement when watching the final week of the league’s regular season. There’s great intrigue no matter where you look.

Defense, Defense, Defense: Breaking Down Merrimack’s Tenacity and Highlighting my NEC All-Defensive Team

Death, taxes and Merrimack’s defense excelling. If there’s one thing NEC fans will recall from Merrimack’s time during their Division I reclassification period, it’s that Joe Gallo’s aggressive zone is way more difficult to score on than your typical man-to-man defense. There may have been a little bit of lag in Warriors’ defense during those middle seasons, but seasons one and now four have been memorable from a historical perspective in league play. 

Program/YearHead CoachAdj Defensive EffNEC Record
Mount St. Mary’s, 2009-10Milan Brown88.613-7
Wagner, 2011-12Dan Hurley90.116-4
Merrimack, 2019-20Joe Gallo90.314-4
Robert Morris, 2009-10Mike Rice90.418-3
Merrimack, 2022-23Joe Gallo90.59-4
CCSU, 2001-02Howie Dickenman90.722-1

What’s most impressive about Merrimack’s defensive resurgence is the team’s seven scholarship newcomers have turned the Warrior backcourt into a mostly green one. Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage knew nothing about Gallo’s zone coming in this summer and yet here they are with steal rates among the top 20 of the country. It’s a big reason why Merrimack has extracted a turnover on 26.5% of their opponent’s possessions, currently the best turnover rate in all of Division I. 

It kind of started when Gallo and his coaching staff began recruiting Bennett after watching the dynamic guard dominate at a tournament in Philly. “He was just telling me ‘yeah you remind me of this guy, Juvaris Hayes,” Bennett recalled of his first recruiting encounter with Gallo. “I didn’t know who he was, but (Gallo) showed me who he was and I saw really good similarities.”

The Merrimack staff did something unusual in their recruitment of Bennett, as Gallo explained. “We knew Bennett was special, actually when we recruited him we made a video of him with his steals from AAU and high school and Juvaris Hayes steals his senior year at Merrimack,” he said. “There were about 20 for each of them – and some of them were scary in that they were like the identical play.”

The unique approach obviously paid dividends, with Bennett accepting Merrimack’s offer prior to the start of his senior season at Trinity Prep in Florida. A season later the NEC all-rookie lock possesses the nation’s second best steal rate by generating a theft on 5.7% of the opponent’s possessions. And there’s this: even though the NCAA won’t consider players on teams in the midst of their Division I transition process for counting stats (it’s a dumb rule), Bennett leads all Division I players currently with 78 steals. Bennett is one of only two freshmen inside the NCAA’s top 40 in total steals, with FIU’s Arturo Dean serving as the other rookie. 

As the “goalie” of the Merrimack zone over the better part of four seasons, Jordan Minor knows he’s been spoiled to witness both Hayes (in his freshman year) and Bennett this season. “I think they both have very quick instincts,” Minor said when comparing the two. “They both have a knack for finding the ball, especially for (Javon), being a freshman and just picking it up so quickly it’s been kind of fun to watch.”

Bennett’s elite quickness, both laterally and in a linear fashion, has been able to extract turnovers and get deflections, whereas the opportunistic Hayes possessed elite anticipation when making opponent’s lives miserable. 

“There would be times where (Hayes) would have his hands down and he would just pick them up and (the opponent) would throw him the ball,” Minor said with a chuckle. 

Of late, Merrimack has really thrived with playing the trio of Minor, Bennett and Derkack on the floor together. Per Hoop Explorer, Merrimack has an adjusted defensive efficiency of 87.8 for 328 possessions with those three, with the team’s baseline adjusted defensive efficiency for the entire season sitting at 102.0. It’s no wonder Merrimack has allowed 1.00 point per possession or less in 10 of 13 league games this season, with the Warriors sporting a record of 9-1 in those defensive minded contests. 

With 3 games remaining, Gallo has the opportunity to win his second regular season championship in 4 seasons, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Warriors aren’t yet eligible to compete in the NIT or NCAA Tournament. It’s all about the defense.

The Ryan Peters NEC All-Defensive Team

With the season winding down, I wanted to highlight the league’s best defensive players. There’s been some great individual seasons given the league’s overall challenge to score the basketball. Per KenPom, the NEC sits at 31 out of 32 conferences in adjusted offensive efficiency with a mark of 99.4. You may see it as bad offense, yet I see it as great defense! So let’s celebrate the wonderful defenders with my official NEC all-defensive team brought to you by yours truly!

Javon Bennett, Merrimack

Let’s start with the obvious: when you’re leading the country in steals and have such a profound impact on the Warriors’ zone, that’ll put you in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t care about Bennett’s freshman status, and honestly I hope that isn’t a factor when coaches consider the league’s DPOY. Bennett’s ability to disrupt offense at the top of the zone is special, not just in generating chaos with steals, deflections, and diving on the floor for loose balls, but also in contesting perimeter shots and getting Merrimack easy points in transition. League foes are making less than 32% of their 3s, and Bennett’s aforementioned quickness and athleticism plays a role in this.

Jordan Minor, Merrimack

As the premier rim protector in the NEC, Minor has rejected at least 3 shots in 13 of 20 games this season and now possesses the 39th best block rate in the country at 8.3%. Not only does Merrimack have a defensive efficiency that’s improved by 19.1 points per 100 possessions when Minor is on the floor, but opponents are shooting 12.4% worse from deep and 9.4% worse on mid-range 2s when the big man is playing. Why? Minor’s presence in the paint allows the Merrimack wings and guards to extend their coverage; it helps to know an elite shot blocker is behind you if the opponent gets into the paint versus that zone. Minor may in fact be the favorite for this year’s DPOY honor, so it’ll be interesting to see how much his experience plays a role in potentially taking down his freshman teammate.

Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill

Bennett may have the nation’s second best steal rate, but Burnett isn’t far behind with the fourth best mark nationally at 5.3%. The senior has been integral in elevating Stonehill’s defense to the second best efficiency in league play, a development that I certainly didn’t see coming with respect to Chris Kraus’ unit. Truth be told, Burnett’s ability to jump passing lanes, keep opponents in front with his 6’5” frame and stay on the floor without fouling – he’s committing a paltry 1.9 fouls per 40 minutes – is quite special. His versatility to cover all 5 positions on the floor in a pinch is a luxury most NEC coaches don’t have with respect to their backcourt players. Burnett is one of the best two-way players the conference has to offer.

Nico Galette, Sacred Heart

While Galette has been lauded for his late game heroics in recent weeks, and rightfully so, the junior’s defensive impact on the Pioneers should not be understated. As a versatile 6’6” hybrid type forward, Galette is the only NEC player in the league’s top 10 in both steal rate (3.3%) and block rate (3.2%). His unique blend of athleticism, anticipation and court awareness is a reason why Sacred Heart gives up nearly 4 fewer points per 100 possessions and enjoys a defensive turnover rate of 20.4% when he’s between the lines. Anthony Latina challenged Galette to impact the game on the defensive end more so than last season, and the Rahway, New Jersey native has stepped up to the challenge by leveraging his defensive versatility. 

Jordan Derkack, Merrimack

With all due respect, Merrimack is the league’s best defensive squad by a sizable margin, so why not put three Warriors on my all-defensive team? Derkack has given his team a different look at the top of the zone, and it’s something that’s benefitted the Warriors greatly. Just ask Gallo: “He’s as big of a guy as we’ve ever had up there. He’s super aggressive, he’s got a nose for the basketball.” Derkack’s presence alongside Bennett has allowed the lightning quick teammate to chase turnovers, but the big guard has collected a bunch in his own right, posting a 5.1% steal rate. 

I’d like to extend defensive honorable mentions to the following players: CCSU’s Abdul Momoh and his ability to defend the paint for Pat Sellers’ Blue Devils, St. Francis Brooklyn’s Josiah Harris given how much he’s toughened the Terriers’ interior presence and Wagner’s DeLonnie Hunt for his intense ball-pressure that greatly bothers the other team’s point guard consistently. I’m sure there are other players I’ve accidentally omitted from this post, but it’s tough to keep track in the year of great defense!