Author Archives: Ryan Peters

Peters’s Preseason Takes: Identifying the Wildcards of the 2019-20 NEC Season

SHU’s Koreem Ozier

There’s a lot of talent coming back to the Northeast Conference this fall, likely resulting in an improved product on the floor. Opportunities for newcomers and previously underutilized players to shine however are abound, even for the rosters that return a vast majority of their scoring, rebounding and facilitating.

With the season merely a day away, I attempt to highlight the biggest wildcards whose performance could stand between a mediocre season and a championship season.

Virshon Cotton, Long Island University – Before I even had a chance to ask Derek Kellogg about Cotton’s potential impact, he offered this tidbit unprovoked: “Virshon is kind of in a good way a wildcard for us. I think he has the chance to breakout, be a really, really good player who could score the basketball. His athleticism allows him to really pressure the ball and cause some havoc on the defensive end of the floor.”

Of course, being a season removed from true competition on the hardwoods could lead to inconsistent play in the early going, but there’s no denying what Cotton brings to a Sharks roster that played Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts a sizable amount of minutes last season. Cotton can handle the ball, set up teammates (16.8% assist rate in 2017-18), stroke it from long range (career 37.4% 3PT) and seamlessly guard one through three.

That’s a heck of a weapon to deploy on a title contender that already brings back their top four players.

Koreem Ozier, Sacred Heart – The Pioneers are ready for contention. As Matt and John articulated in their superb NEC preview, Sacred Heart is loaded with depth, playmakers, sharpshooters, rim protectors and veterans. It’s clearly a win-now roster, and yet, the biggest key to their team is a sophomore who barely played half of the team’s minutes last season? It may be unfair to place the burden of Sacred Heart’s upcoming season on the shoulders of Ozier, yet the 6’1″ guard is the most equipped athletically to emerge as Anthony Latina’s go-to scorer. If there was anything the program missed last season, it was that clutch player – such as Raiquan Clark, Isaiah Blackmon, Vado Morse – who could manufacture a clean look late in the game.

While Anthony Latina hedged his bets to take pressure off of Ozier at NEC Social Media Day, he did infer his guard is a candidate to get the ball late. “Koreem does have a unique ability to get a shot at any time,” Latina said. “Some guys just have that, he can get himself a look, whether it’s a mid-range game, whether it’s off the dribble, whether it’s get to the free throw line, so there’s no question he’s a guy whose number you can call late in the game and he’s a gamer and he likes the big spot.”

If Ozier has a productive season worthy of a spot on a league’s all-conference team, then it’s very hard to see how Sacred Heart doesn’t finish in the NEC top 3.

Bryant’s Ikenna Ndugba

Ikenna Ndugba, Bryant – It’s easy to forget the red-shirt junior averaged 13.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2 steals per game two seasons ago, but that’s the kind of production Grasso has coming back in his second season in Smithfield. And it’s far more than production that Ndugba provides. Despite his 6’0″ stature, the point guard’s insertion into Bryant’s rotation adds an element that makes the Bulldogs much more versatile. The Bulldogs struggled without a true facilitator last season, but with a healthy Ndugba occupying that role everyone else’s job should fall better into place. 

Grasso agrees with that sentiment when discussing what Ndugba brings to his program after a lost year due to a shoulder injury. “I think offensively he’s another guy who can get someone a shot, can score the ball and has an IQ, and knows how to play so I think he just makes us a better offensive team because of that,” he said.

Defensively, Ndugba posted the 104th best steal rate in Division I basketball during the 2017-18 campaign with a steal on 3.1 percent of the opponent’s possessions. He can be a game changer on both ends of the floor, especially when paired with Juan Cardenas and freshman Charles Pride.

Curtis Cobb and Alex Morales, Wagner – With ten newcomers on Bashir Mason’s roster – the most turnover he’s experienced in his decorated Wagner career – the vast majority of pundits are putting the Seahawks in the bottom half of their preseason standings. It’s a simple concept- what you don’t know usually results in a modest prognostication, hence the program’s current standing in our minds. But Cobb and Morales can easily blow out those expectations given their exceptional talent.

“Alex and Curtis, the talent jumps out right away,” Mason said at NEC Social Media Day. “You don’t know how they are going to take to our culture, playing hard and defending and all that stuff, but they’ve been pretty bought in since day one.”

Most understand that Cobb’s move from the Atlantic 10 to the NEC could lead to a top 5 scoring type of season. His production at Fairfield, although inconsistent, provides a glimpse into his potential with seven games at 20 points or more as a sophomore. Morales, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown, yet those in the junior college circles will tell you Mason signed a game changer. He’s coming off a special season at Prince George’s Community College that earned him a Maryland JUCO Conference Player of the Year honor.

“There’s nothing he can’t really do on the basketball court and that he also has the IQ to go along with it, which is great,” Mason said about Morales back in August.

Wagner’s model of success relies on scoring balance, which they didn’t possess last season. For that trend to reverse, the duo of Cobb and Morales must take a leading role and allow others like Nigel Jackson, Chase Freeman and Will Martinez to slot in as complementary pieces. Wagner could surprise if such a scenario comes to fruition.

D.J. Russell and A.J. Bramah, Robert Morris – It’s not groundbreaking that I’m highlighting two more unknowns, both of whom emanating from the JUCO scene. Russell and Bramah have been raved about throughout the league, and it’s a poorly kept secret that if they provide Andy Toole with the kind of production he expects, the Colonials are back in the thick of the NEC title race.

Of Russell, he gives Robert Morris with a playmaker down low. “I think DJ is a really good rebounder, he’s good at scoring around the rim,” Toole said. “He has a good touch, he can use his right and left hands.” Bramah’s athleticism, meanwhile, gives Toole the ability to roll out versatile defensive lineups that could even include Bramah, Charles Bain and Yannis Mendy at the five.

Overall, quality play from those two should make up for the loss of Matty McConnell and Malik Petteway and, at the very least, improve Robert Morris’ 2-point efficiency. Over the past three seasons, the program has shot 43.8%, 45.9% and 47.3% from inside the arc, respectively. A return to the middle of Division I in that department (49 to 50%) paired with the 3-point prowess of the Williams brothers and Bain significantly improves Toole’s offense.

Others to Consider:

Karrington Wallace, Central Connecticut – After an inconsistent freshman campaign, which is typical for freshman bigs, Marshall awarded Wallace’s productive summer with a start in their exhibition contest versus Coast Guard. He produced with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks and certainly has the hops to become a notable rim protector. An improvement off of a 4.6% block rate and 14.6% defensive rebounding rate last season would anchor a Blue Devils defense that could surprise league counterparts.

SFU’s Myles Thompson

Myles Thompson, Saint Francis University – As I illustrated last week, Krimmel’s stable of frontcourt players allows him to position reigning POY Keith Braxton as his true point guard. Clearly, if Krimmel didn’t have the confidence to give significant minutes to Thompson, a sophomore who last season showed glimpses in his first NEC rodeo, then Braxton’s move from the four to the one may not happen. As an undersized NEC big, Thompson has the skills and nose for the basketball to become one of the better rebounders in the league. Additionally, an improvement out on the perimeter would open up his scoring.

Malik Jefferson, Mount St. Mary’s – I love Jefferson’s game as a throwback – his post skills are somewhat unusual in an era where stretch fours and face up bigs dominate the scene. As a freshman, Jefferson posted an impressive 108.7 KenPom offensive rating, buoyed by a 59.4% conversion rate on 2s and a manageable 15.3% turnover rate. If Jefferson can improve his conditioning and footwork to avoid foul trouble, then the Mount should be sniffing the upper half of the league standings by season’s end with a promising frontcourt trio of Jefferson, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene.

Do you have a wildcard in mind? Feel free to share in the comments section!

 

Peters’s Preseason Takes: Thoughts and Reflections from NEC 🏀 Social Media Day

NEC Media Day at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019.

Eight years. I’ve been coming to this event at the Barclay’s Center for eight years. A lot in the NEC has happened since then with 19 different head coaches passing through representing 13 teams. There have been six programs that were NEC regular season champions with four of those programs going on to represent the league in the NCAA tournament over that time span.

NEC Social Media Day at the Barclay’s has gone on so long that the first event in 2012 took place before the Brooklyn Nets ever played a regular season game in Brooklyn!

I had a whirlwind of a day last week interviewing 10 coaches and trying to gather up as much content as I could before the regular season tips off on November 5th. Allow me to organize my thoughts and reflections in one of my favorite posts: a recap of the NEC Social Media Day!

 

A Pioneer Push Up the Polls

Preseason polls mean absolutely zilch in the grand scheme of things. They merely serve as fodder for the fans and, for the bottom feeding teams, potential bulletin board material. These prognostications obviously have no bearing on the real standings, nor do they provide a program any type of advantage once the first jump ball goes up in November. That is all obvious.

The poll, however, does serve as a good measuring stick in determining how a program has progressed or declined over the past several years. We also can gain insight into which teams the coaches highly respect.

For Anthony Latina, it’s been a wild ride of peaks and valleys in his attempt to reboot Sacred Heart into an annual contender. Under Latina, the Pioneers have never been selected better than fifth in the NEC Coach’s Preaseason Poll and were the only program in that time frame failing to register a single first place vote prior to this preseason. Over the past six seasons, Sacred Heart has the worst average poll position with an average of 7.8.

 

Team AVG Poll Position Total 1st Place Votes
Wagner 3.8 11
Robert Morris 4.2 5
LIU 4.8 2
Mount 5.2 6
Bryant 5.2 1
Saint Francis U 5.3 18
FDU 5.5 8
SFBK 6.2 6
CCSU 7.0 3
SHU 7.8 0

That poll trend reversed mightily on Wednesday with the Pioneers getting selected as the second best team. They even got 3 first place votes for the first time in more than a decade!

 

 

For Latina, it’s been a complex route in getting Sacred Heart firmly onto the championship path. They seemed destined to compete annually, but then some high level contributors up-transferred, immediately halting the program’s progress. Now, after many long recruiting trips and sleepless nights, Latina finds his Pioneers in a position they quite frankly aren’t used to.

SHU’s Anthony Latina & EJ Anosike at NEC Media Day.

“It’s definitely a source of pride that we took some steps back and lost some guys prematurely and that we were able to recover.” Latina answered when asked if he’s prideful about Sacred Heart’s #2 poll position. “Without question, I take great pride in our program, but I take great pride not for me, but our players and for our school.”

The coach acknowledged the preseason polls are meaningless and that the hard work has yet to come. But he also fully understands his team is built to win-now even after graduating NEC all-conference first teamer Sean Hoehn. “We will be in a position to do something that no Sacred Heart team has ever done and if that’s not motivating, nothing will be,” he said.

Time will tell if the Pioneers put themselves in a position to win their first NEC tournament game since 2009 and make their first NEC tournament final since 2008.

 

A New Point Guard in Loretto

Recently, 6-8 forward Tyler Stewart was declared immediately eligible by the NCAA after playing just five games with Binghamton last season. His insertion into an already crowded frontcourt – Myles Thompson, Mark Flagg, Deivydas Kuzavas – may not seem like a big deal, but for Rob Krimmel Stewart’s ability to stretch the floor and provide versatility at three positions is a real positive for his 2019-20 roster.

“(He) gives us some more depth, and some length and experience too,” Krimmel answered when asked about Stewart’s insertion into the rotation. “It was a good jolt in the arm because it gives us another piece to the puzzle that we haven’t had. He’s a legit 6’8”; he can step out and shoot it, he can handle it…”

Krimmel confirmed Stewart’s presence firmly entrenches Keith Braxton as Saint Francis’ starting point guard moving forward. The days of featuring Braxton at the four in “small-ball” lineups are numbered. Instead, the Red Flash now can role out lineups out consisting of:

  • Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon, Randall Gaskins, Thompson, Flagg

Scott Meredith, an off-the-ball guard/sharpshooter, and Stewart would be the next logical pieces off the bench with Ramir Dixon-Conover spelling Braxton at times to provide selflessness and defensive tenacity at the one. It’s a different look compared to the days of alpha male and shot creation extraordinaire Jamaal King running the point.

As a result, I’d expect the Red Flash’s pace to slow down. With good effective height in various positions, the defense can focus more on containment rather than turnover generation. Jamion Christian employed a similar philosophy in his third year at the Mount, as the utilization of Andy Smeathers, Will Miller, Greg Graves, Taylor Danaher and Kristijan Krajina at the wing and frontcourt positions led to the best defensive efficiency in the league. They were able to keep defenders in front and make them take tough shots over their length. Krimmel is hopeful his team will enjoy a similar effect.

 

Merrimack and Their Unique Defense Enters the Fray

Merrimack’s Juvaris Hayes & Joey Gallo at NEC Media Day.

Merrimack head coach Joey Gallo is no stranger to the NEC. The Merrimack alum (2004) served on Andy Toole’s bench as an assistant from 2012-2016, overseeing a program that won a collective 76 games and three postseason games (2 NIT and 1 NCAA tournament) in four seasons.

While Toole’s tutelage was no doubt a positive for Gallo’s growth as a coach, it was the attacking, 2-3 zone employed by Robert Morris during the 2014 and 2015 championship seasons that likely was most beneficial in guiding Gallo’s transition to Merrimack. Back in 2014, the Colonials were down to eight scholarship players and with a lack of depth, Toole and his coaching staff abandoned their relentless man-to-man scheme and went with the unconventional zone.

It worked wonders as the Colonials finished in the top three of the league in defensive efficiency and turnover rate at the conclusion of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In the latter season, the Colonials length and athleticism on the back end of the zone – Lucky Jones, Elijah Minnie and Rodney Pryor in particular – gave NEC opponents fits.

While Toole circled back to his man-to-man roots the following season, Gallo maintained a true appreciation for the zone after leaving for Merrimack. “He really enjoyed it, he liked teaching it and he thought it fit the personnel that they had,” Toole said when asked why he thought Gallo brought the zone defense to Merrimack. “So now he’s taking it on (at Merrimack) and trying to recruit off it and it’s certainly something that’s unique and different.”

In truth, Gallo was looking for a way to distinguish his team in a NE-10 league rife with man-to-man defense and motion offenses. He had just replaced a coach that was at Merrimack for an eternity and he simply was trying to make a mark in a return to his Alma mater. “It started off as we were going to play a little bit of both (man-to-man and zone) and it just kind of evolved from there. We had success with the (zone); it fit in to how this guy plays (looking at Juvaris Hayes), a lot of steals and created turnovers.”

Last season in the NE-10, Merrimack extracted an incredible 17.4 turnovers per game, leading to an average of 19.5 points scored off of those turnovers. It’s anyone’s guess how the zone will perform against Division I competition, but for now Gallo will take a fluid approach on a game to game basis.

“It forms the shape of what we’re playing against,” Gallo said when describing the versatility of his zone. There will be some games where he’ll plan to attack the perimeter and suppress 3-point shooting and others where the opponent’s frontcourt is the point of emphasis, resulting in crowding scorers and trapping the post if needed.

 

Robert Morris Back to Offensive Basketball

The UPMC Events Center will open this November for the first time, and Toole is hopeful the fans in attendance will be treated to something that’s eluded his program over the past few seasons: free-flowing, high-powered offensive basketball.

It’s been a grind of late for the Colonials in terms of scoring. Toole’s squad, decimated by transfers and early departures, found themselves routinely in the bottom quarter of the league in offensive efficiency over the past four seasons. That could change in Toole’s 10th season with the Williams brother and Charles Bain in the Robert Morris system for the past two-plus seasons.

RMU’s Andrew Toole & Josh Williams at NEC Media Day.

Somewhat surprisingly, KenPom projects a step back for the Colonial offense, likely due to the departures of Malik Petteway and Matty McConnell, both of whom were efficient in their own way. What KenPom cannot predict, however, is the impact of incoming junior college transfers D.J. Russell, A.J. Bramah and Jalen Hawkins. The newcomers, according to Toole, should slot in as rotation guys and provide Robert Morris with something the program has sorely lacked of late: 2-point efficiency.

Of Russell and Bramah, Toole is excited to incorporate their talents into his rotation. “Both guys are capable of making a play for themselves or a teammate,” he said.

Overall, Toole is really looking forward to see the offense’s potential and hopes it take some of the onus off the other side of the ball. “I think we have some really good offensive pieces. I think there’s a good understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

 

More Options in Year Two for Bryant

With a core four of Ikenna Ndugba, Adam Grant, Bash Townes and Juan Cardenas in place, Grasso is searching for the options behind those players. While it’s possible someone from the freshman trio of Charles Pride, Benson Lin and Michael Green could find the starting lineup, Grasso isn’t tipping his hand. “If you walked in to watch us practice you wouldn’t know they’re freshmen. And a lot of it is their intensity, the time they’re in the gym and how they work at their game, how they work at their craft is not at the level of your average freshman,” he said.

Bryant’s depth moving into Grasso’s second season is much improved, so much so that that Grasso is hopeful his team will push the tempo and play fast, aggressive and loose. It was a philosophy he had to abandon in the middle of last season, after Bryant lost their first nine games when they had 70 or more possessions in the game (they finished 1-13 in those games). With Ndugba back and more talent to choose from in year two, it’s fair to assume Grasso will attempt to push the pace.

 

New Look Sharks Going Small Ball?

It’s not easy being at the top from the start, and if that wasn’t hard enough, now Derek Kellogg must navigate the first half of the 2019-20 season without a key power forward.

It’s an unfortunate injury for Penn, who by all accounts had a great summer and was poised to become one of the best two-way players in the NEC. Now, LIU’s depth constricts some, yet the talent remains to contend with the league’s best.

“I think it puts more onus on the guys that played already – the four stars coming back I don’t think they can take a night off.” Kellogg answered when asked what Penn’s injury does to his rotation. “I believe those guys have to be the cornerstones every time we step on the floor and I’m hopeful the other guys can chip in and do what they do as new guys.”

LIU’s Derek Kellogg & Julian Batts at NEC Media Day.

The core four Kellogg is referring to are preseason first teamer Raiquan Clark, Tyrn Flowers, Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts. The roles won’t change for the veteran group, although a return to a smaller lineup may benefit Flowers some.

“It slides Ty Flowers to the 4 quite a bit more where I think he’s probably more comfortable and more of a tough match-up, so in some regards we will be fine offensively,” Kellogg said.

The addition of transfer Virshon Cotton also provides Kellogg with an element that he covets. “I love our overall team speed. I love the fact that we have three even four guys on the floor that can handle the basketball at once. I think we come at you in different ways, especially on the offensive side of the floor. Then I also like we can pressure the ball at different positions, not just from the point guard spot.”

The thing to watch in the early going is LIU’s defense, as Penn was LIU’s best rim presence, registering a block rate of 7.4% (80th nationally). Penn’s versatility and athleticism will be missed, yet his absence won’t stop Kellogg to push the pace and score as much as humanly possible. It promises to be a fun brand of basketball at the WRAC.

 

Quick Hits:

  • Wagner’s Atiba Taylor was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA recently. The 6’4″ guard, who played sparingly last season at Youngstown State as a freshman, has three years remaining and figures to have an opportunity to make Bashir Mason’s rotation.
  • Mount St. Mary’s has been a little banged up this preseason, as the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Vado Morse admitted to nursing a knee injury for part of the summer. While he’s currently a full go in practice, red-shirt freshman Matt Becht (eye) and true freshman Ayan Teel (ankle) are out for the foreseeable future. Becht’s shooting and Teel’s floor general attributes were expected to bolster Dan Engelstad’s second unit, but getting healthy during the non-conference portion of the schedule remains the number one priority. Of the entire roster, Engelstad singled out Damian Chong-Qui, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene as players who’ve really improved their body and respective skill sets this offseason. (Check out this feature by Ryan Raffensperger on Chong-Qui)
  • Speaking of injuries, St. Francis Brooklyn sophomore guard Steven Krtinic has been banged up and hasn’t practiced with the team of late. It’s highly unlikely he’s ready for the start of the season, however freshman guard Rob Higgins has impressed according to his head coach. “Higgins has been terrific, he was great in our scrimmage the other day,” Glenn Braica said of Higgins, who scored more than 2,200 points for Middletown North in New Jersey. The 6’2″ combo guard was a late recruiting get for the Terriers after a scholarship opened up from Jalen Jordan’s transfer. It’s fair to expect a healthy dose of Chauncey Hawkins, grad transfer Unique Major (2 years of eligibility remaining) and Higgins in Braica’s backcourt.
  • Greg Herenda was noncommittal with which players would fill out his rotation behind the obvious foursome of Jahlil Jenkins, Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams and Xzavier Malone. “I think we’re still in that process,” he admitted. “This year’s team is deeper, faster, more athletic, but it’s younger.” The likeliest candidate to start alongside FDU’s “core four” is sophomore Brandon Powell, who serves as nice complement in that he excels at moving the ball and knocking down open shots. The versatile BJ Saliba and athletic Brandon Rush should also compete for time at the two and three.
  • It’s clearly a rebuilding season in New Britain, yet there’s reason for optimism with the talent Donyell Marshall has recruited in year four. While he continues to evaluate the freshmen – he did note Greg Outlaw as someone who’s played well this preseason and that translated to their recent exhibition – it’s junior college transfer Stephane Ayangma and returning sophomore Karrington Wallace that should anchor the Blue Devils’ better than advertised defense. Of Ayangma, Marshall said: “We thought he was just pretty much going to be a junkyard dog, just a rebounder, physical guy, (but) he’s definitely a lot better offensively than we thought.” Wallace’s maturation has been a pleasant surprise for Marshall as he’s been “blocking shots like crazy” this preseason. The frontcourt pair, along with established perimeter stopper Ian Krishnan and junior college transfer Zach Newkirk, allow Marshall to declare this squad the best defensive team he’s been a part of since his arrival at Central Connecticut. They gave up just 0.80 points per possession versus D3 opponent Coast Guard, which is a nice start.

Summarizing the Best #NECMBB Players of the 2018-19 Season

With the 2019-20 college hoops season behind us, I wanted to get out one last post before we fully descend into baseball season. Most of you have already moved onto the offseason, scouring Verbal Commits daily for the latest transfer and commitment news. Nevertheless, I was hoping to put the final bow on the season even if it’s a little late. (Hey, I needed to finish my taxes on time!)

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Fairleigh Dickinson’s First Ever NCAA Tournament Victory Highlights the NEC’s Great Night

Tuesday night marked a magical night for the NEC. Three teams were in action, and all three played well, representing the league as best as anyone could have imagined going into the night. Please allow me to offer my thoughts on the action, starting with the biggest win in FDU’s history.

Good Luck Keeping the Knight’s Offense at Bay for 40 Minutes

Fairleigh Dickinson started their first NCAA tournament game since 2016 with 9 turnovers versus 2 field goals. The Prairie View Panthers, the SWAC champions, came out on fire, hitting 10 of their first 14 shots from behind the arc. Even the team’s starting 6’7″ forward, Devonte Patterson, made 3 of 5 from way downtown after going 10 of 58 (17.2%) from 3 for the season.

The Panthers’ quickness was bothering the Knights, bottling up passing lanes and preventing Jenkins and others from dribble penetrating to create. They came into the night sixth in the country in defensive turnover rate, and their early extractions only bolstered their case.

In other words, it didn’t seem to be Fairleigh Dickinson’s night. Trailing by double figures early in the second half must have felt like a 20-point deficit, but then Greg Herenda’s offense started to settle down like they did over the final eight minutes of the first half.

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5 Thoughts as FDU Bests Robert Morris for Spot in NEC Tourney Final

It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing first half at the Rothman Center, but the Northeast Conference had to be pleased with how the final 20 minutes turned out. Both programs were exerting maximum effort and making plays on both ends of the floor. There were five ties and six lead changes over the course of the game, much of that occurring in the second half. The gym was electric. It was, quite simply, March Madness at its finest.

I was fortunate to be court side for the action, so please allow me to organize my thoughts in what turned out to be a great NEC tournament semifinal.

1) The Knight Guards Adaptability

The Robert Morris defense came as advertised, especially in the first half, holding the Knights to 1.00 point per possession and a bloated 32% turnover rate over 20 minutes. Their perimeter defense was fantastic throughout; the Colonials quick feet and fresh legs – Toole gave double-digit minutes to 8 players when it was all said and done – led to FDU settling for a series of contested perimeter jumpers. In the first half, the Colonials excelled in disrupting the Knights’ offensive flow and preventing their transition opportunities to a minimum.

Not much changed from the Colonials effort and execution in the second frame, instead the Knight guards realized that creating scoring opportunities inside the arc was a must. The philosophy didn’t pay dividends initially – Robert Morris held a daunting 10-point advantage midway through the second half, but the relentless drive of Darnell Edge and Jahlil Jenkins spurred Herenda’s offense when he needed it most.

“You could see they were hedging hard on ball screens and we weren’t getting open looks and they like to pack it in,” Edge said afterwards when asked Robert Morris’ game plan. “We knew we weren’t going to have a lot of wide open shots, so that’s why we wanted to get the ball in and then get it outside.”

Edge’s inability to develop a rhythm behind the arc was the epitome of the Colonials defensive prowess – he made just one triple in his 38 minutes. Rather than continually camp out on the perimeter, however, Edge got creative and converted 7 of 8 from inside the arc for a game-high 20 points. Those points didn’t come the typical way Edge is accustomed to, but he got his buckets nonetheless. His seven 2s tied a season high, when the senior scored as many against Rutgers in the season opener back in November. He successfully adapted from perimeter sharpshooter to mid-range guru. It’s not the most efficient thing to take long 2s, but it was an absolute necessity given the Colonials game plan.

The Knights still registered a 57.9% effective field goal percentage for the game, but that surely was the hardest FDU had to work this season to score 66 points, their third lowest scoring output this season in games they were victorious. The Knights attempted only 15 3s, Mike Holloway was constantly bodied and fronted (mostly by Yannis Mendy and Malik Petteway) en route to just 4 shot attempts, and the Colonials patented “turn them over” defense was in full swing (28% turnover rate, 17 turnovers in 60 possessions).

But Edge and Jenkins adapted their games in the second half, and it was a prime reason the Knights are travelling to Loretto for a Tuesday night championship showdown. Speaking of Jenkins….

2) A Winning Point Guard

The explosive Jenkins has been a model of efficiency as a sophomore – he was second in the NEC in assist to turnover ratio (2.2 to 1) and has been the main catalyst for why the Knights offense has run at a super efficient clip. But a quick gander at the semifinal box score tells a different story: the stoic floor general dished out just one dime against five turnovers. It was only the third time all season where Jenkins had 1 assist or fewer in a contest and the second time he committed five turnovers or more. That didn’t matter, as Jenkins morphed into a scoring point guard, because he had to. He found a way and did whatever it took to win.

He willed the shorthanded Knights by running the point for 38 minutes and literally touched the ball on every offensive possession. Andy Toole is certainly cognizant of how difficult it was to contain Jenkins, even when they bottled up his passing lanes.

“He just puts a lot of pressure on you because of his ability to get downhill,” Toole said after Robert Morris’ semifinal loss. “He’s constantly on ball screens, he’s constantly on the attack, and your guards consistently have to be ready. It makes him a hard matchup.”

Jenkins scored 18 points on 9 shots and got to the charity stripe 10 times, making 9. He was also disruptive on the defensive end, compiling 2 steals and getting out in transition a number of other times to give the Knights the best chance to score against a Robert Morris defense that couldn’t settle amid the tempo. By constantly being in motion and on the attack as a scorer, the Knights were able to survive. Jenkins relentless motor and ability to fly by defenders off the bounce is a marvel to watch.

3) FDU Getting Contributions Elsewhere

In the absence of Xzavier Malone-Key, the Knights bench got even shorter on Saturday. It was evident in the early going that Herenda was rolling with a 6-player rotation, for better or worse. Normally the shallow rotation isn’t an issue, nor has it been over the course of the Knights’ latest 12-2 stretch, yet Toole routinely employs an 8-player rotation, and today was no exception. Depth was a concern if you’re a FDU fan, but the play of freshman Brandon Powell was pivotal in helping quell those concerns throughout the contest. Especially since Kaleb Bishop found himself in foul trouble throughout the second half.

“A few weeks ago he was in the doghouse and I just told him, ‘you went from the doghouse to the Penthouse,” Herenda said of his freshman. “It was a team effort.” 

The rookie played his best basketball in the most important game of his life – at least up to this point. He posted a season high 163 KenPom offensive rating with a 11-point (on 4 shots), 3-rebound and 1-assist showing. It wasn’t an eye-popping performance by any stretch, but Powell did more than enough to ease the burden of the missing Malone-Key, even on the defensive end.

In addition to Powell’s contributions, Elyjah Williams effort in the second half should not go unnoticed. The energetic, versatile big led the team in cheerleading – he was imploring the crowd to make noise much of the time – and was a key contributor in the second half. After a quiet first half, Williams registered 4 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block in the second half. His two hustle offensive rebounds in the final minute of the game allowed FDU to secure a possession for 49 consecutive seconds (1:03 to 0:14) and led to two Jenkins FTs that extended the lead to 2 possessions.

4) A Legitimate Playoff Atmosphere

Fairleigh Dickinson has struggled to draw basketball crowds in the past, but their fans came out in impressive numbers for the 2 NEC tournament games this week. After finishing near the bottom of the league in terms of home attendance (482 fans per game) for 2018-19, the Rothman Center brought in 1190 and 1212 spectators, respectively, for the two playoff showdowns. Considering it is spring break on the Northern New Jersey campus, that’s a nice turnout for the #2 seed of the league.

The atmosphere was electric throughout as there were several moments in the second half where the crowd noise was deafening. Well done, Knight (and Colonial) fans! NEC spirit was alive and well in Hackensack on Saturday.

5) Saying Goodbye to Matty McConnell

There haven’t been many four or five-year seniors who’ve stuck it out at Robert Morris over the past decade, but one player that’ll surely reside in program lure is Matty McConnell. The senior had himself a game on Saturday, collecting 17 points, 4 assists and 2 steals in defeat. A presumed finalist for NEC Defensive Player of the Year, McConnell embodied the hard-nosed, tenacious defensive effort taught to perfection by Toole.

One notable fan and alum, Chris Cappella, poignantly paid his respects to No. 23 on Saturday afternoon.

In the post game press conference, Toole was reflecting on McConnell’s impact, both this season and in seasons past. “I thought he played an excellent game today; thought he should’ve been the defensive player of the year in the Northeast Conference,” Toole said before continuing on.

“He had his best season as a senior and I would’ve like to see him continue to compete for a championship and unfortunately he was not able to do that. But for four years he’s obviously made a number of winning plays. You know he’s a guy whose poured his heart into his team and his program and his jersey and it’s difficult when you can’t help him get to where he wants to get to as a player, which is compete for a NEC championship. So we are sorely going to miss him and all that he brought to the team and I’m happy he was able to compete as he did today.”

The senior guard finished with 1,102 points, 509 rebounds, 297 assists and 232 steals.

Enjoy the NEC finals in Loretto on Tuesday night! And before you do, please allow me to shamelessly promote my feature earlier this year on the NEC family ties between cousins Mike Holloway and NEC Player of the Year Keith Braxton.||

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