One-Two In NEC Standings, Merrimack & Mount Rise Fueled By Suffocating Defense

The 450-mile bus ride from Emmitsburg to North Andover wasn’t as awful as you’d expect after watching your team get thoroughly outplayed by Mount St. Mary’s in a back-to-back series. Even at 1-3 and near the bottom of the conference standings, Joe Gallo saw clues from his Merrimack squad in their second loss to the Mount, a 63-52 setback that quite honestly was never in question. 

The defense showed signs of coming around to the elite level they once exhibited as a 2019-20 juggernaut. 19 Mount turnovers were extracted. Only 17 3-point shots allowed. Less than a point per possession given up. And all of that was achieved despite three subpar defensive efforts to open the season where they allowed opponents to shoot 47% from 2 and 45% from 3.

“I thought we played hard enough defensively in the second (Mount St. Mary’s) game that we finally gave the correct effort to defend the way we defend,” Gallo said reflecting back. 

The effort was only possible after the Warriors had a prolonged period of court time to get their legs underneath them. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Merrimack had practiced an unfathomable seven times as a team – and four more times if you include individual one on ones – from Thanksgiving break to the end of December. As expected, the energy level was sapped when they returned to the practice court and suited up for live action with Sacred Heart shortly thereafter.

“To be honest we were in an unbelievable place right before Thanksgiving, because we went from September to then without any pauses,” Gallo said about the challenging preseason. “Guys were flying around, guys were in the proper condition… and then the rest is history”

Only after the second Mount defeat did Gallo believe his team was close to their pre-Thanksgiving state. The locked-in practices in the week that followed proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The defensive metrics in conference action illustrate why Merrimack has been victorious in seven of their last eight.

D-PPPeFG% DefTurnover Rate3PA/FGA
First 4 Games1.0756.2%24.5%41.7%
Last 8 Games0.8843.3%21.4%34.1%

Of the key defensive indicators, the only stat lagging behind is turnover rate, but some context here is warranted: a 21.4% turnover rate would still place them tied for first in the NEC right now alongside Central Connecticut. Yes, it’s not the elite turnover rate from a season prior (25.9%, 3rd nationally), yet the Warriors are finding other methods to make the 2-3 zone scheme as menacing as possible. Call it an adjustment after the graduation of the greatest theft artist to ever play college basketball.

“We don’t close out possessions as much with Juvaris’ (Hayes) steals or Idris’ (Joyner) charges, but we’re making you take tougher shots and coming up with the rebounds,” Gallo said.

Case in point: with an experienced group of Jordan Minor (21.0% DReb, 4.7% block rate), Ziggy Reid (19.3% DReb, 4.2% block rate) and the grizzled vet Devin Jensen (10.3% DReb, 3.3% steal rate) patrolling the backline of the zone, the Warriors have grabbed 5% more of their opponent’s misses when compared to last season. Even the diminutive yet impressive Mikey Watkins, at 5-foot-11, has improved his defensive rebounding numbers as a junior. And with 6-foot-7 junior Justin Connolly back as a rotation piece, the team’s defensive rebounding rate has ticked up to nearly 73% over the last four contests.

Add it all up and the NEC league play numbers compared to a year ago aren’t all that different, while the metrics continue to trend in the right direction. (I’m not a fan of cherry picking data, but if you remove the first four games of the season, Merrimack’s 3-point defense also vastly improves to 30.5%)

D-PPPTurnover Rate2PT FG Def3PT FG DefDReb Rate
2019-20 Season0.90327.2%45.5%29.2%65.9%
2020-21 Season0.94521.4%43.9%36.0%70.9%

While playing with a cohesive, yet tenacious energy has surely righted the Merrimack defense ship, accountability has also played a big role in the Warriors’ ascension. It’s the coaching staff’s meticulous detail of charting every defensive possession in order to assign praise, or blame, that forces players to be accountable. 

“We keep track of who gave up what every game and we don’t always share it with the team unless we really need to make a statement,” Gallo explained. “Sometimes we just share it with guys behind closed doors.”

After Merrimack’s first sobering defeat in Emmitsburg however – the Warriors gave up 77 points on 47% shooting – a group text went out holding players accountable in broad daylight for blown assignments within the zone. “It was like a headcount, like ‘so and so you gave up 17 points’ and no one likes to see that and no one wants to let their team down, so you kind of need it those games to bring in some of that accountability that you can only go so far for practice,” Gallo said.

Now standing alone in first place with two thirds of its regular season in the books, the defending NEC regular season champions are in a position to make history once again. It should come as no surprise with Gallo recently pegged as a revolutionary figure of zone defense, the dean of the 2-3, so to speak. The five-year head coach received a surprising number of messages this offseason asking for his advice in zone defense implementation.

“If you go with e-mail, it had to be 100 (inquires),” Gallo said of the correspondences, ranging from literally all levels of basketball – high school all the way to the NBA and everything in between. Some e-mails, Gallo admits, still need to be answered.

While the questions ranged from all over the map, many were interested in Merrimack’s somewhat mysterious defensive presence on the perimeter. “I think what really intrigued people was that kind of that 3-point number,” Gallo said. “It’s like an oxymoron, everyone wants to know how do you play zone, but not give up 3s.”

While that may have been a legitimate question early on this season after Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary’s had success scoring from deep, Merrimack has been locked in at running opponents off the 3-point line and into the “dreaded” mid-range jumper. The recent 4-game winning streak over Saint Francis and Central Connecticut, where those schools shot a combined 27.6% from deep, is evidence of that.

With the way Merrimack continues to defend this season, the 41-year coach should expect more advice seekers in the coming offseasons. And the fact that he’s doing it with a limited number of staff – assistant coaches Micky Burtnyk and Phil Gaetano deserve a ton of credit as well – makes this Division I transition journey all the more remarkable.

The Merrimack Warriors aren’t going away anytime soon.

Mount St. Mary’s Using Its Size to Stifle NEC Opponents

2/11/21 – Emmitsburg, MD: Mt. St. Mary’s University, Men’s Basketball

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Mount St. Mary’s when it came to elite defense within conference play. Actually, it’s deja vu given that I spoke about both of these defenses in November of 2019! Back then Merrimack maintained its defensive excellence, whereas Mount St. Mary’s, due to depth issues caused by untimely injuries, struggled to defend over the course of the season.

Now, the Mountaineers find themselves atop the NEC in defensive efficiency – one spot ahead of Merrimack – and the sample size of 11 league games is more substantive. The Mountaineers vaulted to the top in large part from the basketball clinic they displayed on arguably one of the NEC’s most talented teams in LIU. In the second game, a 64-46 victory, the Mount held LIU scoreless for 16 of 17 possessions (0.12 ppp) over the course of a backbreaking 24-2 run in the second half. While Derek Kellogg’s group missed some decent looks from 3 during that stretch (0 for 4), the Mount did very well to force LIU into contested mid-range jumpers, and the Sharks came up empty (0 of 10, 3 turnovers).

The two box scores from the LIU games should be framed in Dan Engelstad’s office moving forward – the Mountaineers gave up 106 points on 131 possessions (0.81 ppp) and held LIU to 32.8% shooting in the sweep.

Engelstad’s defensive scheme is different than Merrimack’s in that the Mountaineers aren’t overly concerned with turning opponents over; rather, they are using their size at the wing and frontcourt positions to dare opponents to shoot over them. With a regular lineup that features Mezie Offurum (6-foot-8), Malik Jefferson (6-foot-9) and Nana Opoku (6-foot-9) and well as big-ish guards at the two like Josh Reaves (6-foot-4) and DeAndre Thomas (6-foot-5), it’s been proven effective. Look at how many categories the Mount leads the league in with respect to defensive metrics!

  • KenPom Defensive Efficiency (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions)
  • Two-Point Field Goal Defense (43.7%)
  • Three-Point Field Goal Defense (28.9%)
  • Block Rate (12.7% of opponents shot attempts are blocked by a Mount player)
  • Defensive Rebounding Rate (75.3% of Opponent’s Misses are Rebounded by the Mount)
  • Free Throw Rate (23.3% FT attempts / Field Goal Attempts)

The numbers really are remarkable – the Mount are the toughest team to score on anywhere on the floor, they limit second chance opportunities AND they aren’t fouling much at all. That’s incredible discipline from the players and a wonderful coaching job by Engelstad and his staff in season number three.

The Mount’s stiffest test against the league’s offenses awaits with showdowns versus Wagner (1st in offensive efficiency), Fairleigh Dickinson (3rd) and Bryant (2nd). It’ll be fascinating to witness coming down the stretch.

Bryant Leads the Way with the NEC’s Faster Tempo

Photo Credit: Rich Barnes, USA TODAY Sports

During the early part of the past decade, the Northeast Conference was synonymous with exciting, high-tempo basketball. The LIU dynasty from 2010 to 2013 forged by Jim Ferry and Jack Perri led the charge, but other programs such as Central Connecticut, Monmouth and Sacred Heart certainly weren’t adverse to getting up and down the floor at a dizzying pace.

Later on however, the NEC fell back in average tempo and has hovered anywhere from 12th to 21st overall with respect to the other Division I conferences. Until now.

YearPossessions/ GameConference RankFastest Team
2013-1467.74thMount St. Mary’s
2014-1565.84thSacred Heart
2016-1768.121stSacred Heart
2018-1968.913thSacred Heart

As of this writing, the NEC currently has the second fastest tempo in all of the country after finishing last season as the 19th fastest conference. Three programs, in particular, are mainly responsible for the league’s newfound frenetic pace, as Bryant (2nd), LIU (11th) and St. Francis Brooklyn (26th) find themselves within the top 30 nationally in this category. 

Each program has their own unique way of implementing their system, but Bryant has stood out given their fantastic 10-3 opening. 

Back in early October when the NEC Media Day taping occurred, I asked Jared Grasso about the scheme he planned to implement with a mostly turned-over roster. He was coy in response, stating that while the scheme was a work in progress, he wasn’t quite ready to tell me “what the secret sauce was.” Truth be told, Grasso wasn’t yet confident with the team’s fast tempo until he saw his squad in action outside of their practice court.

“I knew we had the pieces early on to (play fast),” Grasso said last week when asked about when he believed Bryant’s up-tempo scheme could be realized. “The Syracuse game, even though they play zone, our pace carried over from practice into that game.”

It surely did. In the November 27th opener that took place in the cavernous Carrier Dome, the Bulldogs impressively exerted their style of play on Syracuse, racing up and down the floor to the point where the game ended with an astonishing 172 possessions. It was easily the fastest 40-minute game played by the zone-oriented Orange in two years (there was a 174 possession game later on December 19 versus Buffalo, but that game went into overtime).

For Bryant, a system was born – a breakneck, frenetic pace that has been successful in speeding up opponents on both ends of the floor to the point of discomfort. Through 13 contests – the most played by a significant margin when compared to their league counterparts – Bryant is averaging 76.6 possessions per game, while their offensive possession length averages just 14.4 seconds per possession, eighth in all of college basketball. Per Hoop-Math, a nation’s best 43.4 percent of Bryant’s possessions are of the transition variety, and that leads the NEC by a considerable margin (LIU is next at 36.7 percent, which ranks 10th in DI).

It’s one thing to be fast, but it’s entirely another thing to put your pedal on the gas AND score efficiently. Bryant thus far has done both. When adjusting for pace the Bulldogs are registering 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a notable feat for a NEC squad that places them in the top half of college basketball. 

One reason for Bryant’s increased tempo and efficiency is their proficiency to convert 3-point attempts at a 41.5 percent clip. The Bulldogs long-distance prowess has given Grasso the flexibility to roll with four to five shooters at any time when on the floor, much in the same way that Tim Cluess programmed his Iona teams when Grasso was the associate head coach.

This is a far departure from what Grasso inherited in year one, where Adam Grant and Juan Cardenas were the only players who sank at least 35% of their 3-point attempts in the 2019-20 season. Now, six Bulldogs meet that 35% threshold with four of them – Michael Green, Charles Pride, Chris Childs and Peter Kiss – attempting at least 45 shots (about 3.5 to 4 attempts per game) from behind the arc. 

“When you have guys who can make shots, that spaces the floor in itself,” Grasso said when asked how much Bryant’s shooting helps dictate pace.

Having multiple shooters on the floor will make you more deadly in transition as well. Case in point: 

Furthermore, Grasso believes the spacing opens up the lane for his off-the-bounce playmakers such as Green, Pride and Kiss. Throw in the unselfish nature with which they play and an efficient yet hurried offensive attack is born. “Peter Kiss, Luis Hurtado, Chris Pride catch it, make the extra pass, make the simple play which makes the game a lot easier,” Grasso confirmed.

Just watch these examples of how the Bulldogs will make the extra pass for the betterment of the team. It’s basketball that can be pleasing to the eye! 

And yet the game’s tempo isn’t solely dictated from the offensive end. Bryant has also made a concerted effort to speed up the game defensively. They’ve done it mainly with their full-court press, as they have the luxury of the league’s best shot blocker sitting back to protect those odd man breaks should the pressure be broken. Send it back, Hall Elisias!

In addition to the press, the Bulldog’s zone defense, a scheme that’ll pull its wing off the baseline to reduce 3-point attempts and rhythm 3s, has been effective as well.

“We’re trying to speed teams up with our pressure and our zone is a little unconventional where we’re playing obviously a lot of zone right now, sprinkling in some man-to-man,” Grasso said. “We want to get some offense off our defense.”

The Bulldogs have been working on both defenses in practice, in preparation for league games down the stretch later this month and in February. The rationale is to be flexible while retaining the ability to adapt on the fly and also keep opponents on their heels.

Thus far it’s working with Bryant sitting at #97 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. We are only one third into the conference season, but the Bulldogs have emerged as one of the league’s frontrunners on the back of a scheme that’s well suited for their roster.

Tracking the Most Exciting Newcomers in the NEC

Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Childs, Bryant – Honestly, there are plenty of exciting newcomers to choose from Jared Grasso’s recruiting war chest, and while most would put Peter Kiss here, I’m going with Childs, a 3-point extraordinaire that undoubtedly improves Bryant’s long range prowess. Scoring from deep with consistency is something that’s eluded Grasso in his first two seasons, as the Bulldogs collectively shot 32.2% from distance during that time span. Now, Childs along with others – Kiss included – adds a deadly dimension to the Bulldogs’ high-tempo attack. The ability to fill it up in bunches.

In the young season, Child has lived up to his reputation as a long-distance savant in the JUCO ranks, converting more than half of his 3-point attempts (19 of 34, 55.9%). His 131.0 KenPom offensive rating (a 100.0 rating is considered average) illustrates his hyper efficiency. Furthermore, from a performance standpoint Childs has emerged as part of a very consistent quartet (Michael Green, Charles Pride and Kiss as the others), scoring between 12 and 19 points in six straight contests to kick off his Division I career. Sure, Kiss or Luis Hurtado (who in their right mind wouldn’t want a skilled 6-foot-6, 210 pound point forward?!) may tickle your fancy as Bryant’s most exciting newcomer, but for me I’m going with the guy who’s perimeter savvy is critical in Bryant’s offensive attack. From way downtown, Childs has Karvel Anderson and Darnell Edge type of potential.

Tre Mitchell, Central Connecticut – Word on the street this preseason was that Nigel Scantlebury would emerge as the multi-skilled point that Donyell Marshall had coveted for years, and thus far, there’s no disputing his impact on the Blue Devils’ offense with a 30.8% assist rate and 62.7% free throw rate. While Scantebury surely looks like a significant rotation piece moving forward, I’ve been most excited about Mitchell’s game in a CCSU uniform. His playmaking ability adds yet another athletic perimeter type that can find himself or others shots at any point during an offensive set.

Consider this: Mitchell’s 5.0 turnover rate is in the top 100 nationally, as he’s made 21 field goals while just coughing it up two times. While the mid-range game in college hoops is something of a lost art, Mitchell has been proficient there, making 6 of 7 “2-point jumpers”, according to Hoop Math. That percentage isn’t sustainable, but the early sample and the eye test indicates Mitchell isn’t forcing any bad shots either. His shot distribution, in fact, is something that should thrill Marshall, as he’s taken 14 shots near the rim, 7 as 2-point jumpers and 19 from behind the arc. That’s an excellent balance that perhaps could even influence his athletic teammates, namely Greg Outlaw and Myles Baker, to improve their shot selection over time as well. 

Joe Munden, Jr., Fairleigh Dickinson – Greg Herenda and his staff always do a fantastic job bringing in talented newcomers, and the 2020-21 FDU recruiting class is no exception. While P.O. Racine fills in as a quality big alongside star Elyjah Williams, and Mikey Square, Jr. occupies a current role, it’s Munden’s blend of length, athleticism and defensive versatility that garners the most immediate upside to the program’s near-term prospects. 

Most surprisingly, at least to me, is Munden’s prowess from deep. Through six games, the rhythm shooter from the Bronx has drained 8 of 16 from behind the arc, giving Herenda the power forward pop that Kaleb Bishop once supplied as part of his compelling inside/out game. The shooting may ebb and flow throughout the season, yet Munden’s long wingspan, defensive instincts and leaping ability may lead to lots of playing time as a rookie. For example, a lineup of Jenkins, Rush, Powell, Munden and Williams gives FDU shooting at every spot, while not necessarily sacrificing the defensive rebounding needed to open up transition opportunities. At 6-foot-4, Munden has shown he could hold his own on the glass, grabbing more than 15 percent of the opponent’s misses thus far.

Mezie Offurum, Mount St. Mary’s – If you hadn’t considered Offurum as a true wildcard for Dan Engelstad’s squad in 2020-21, then the Mount’s conference opening win vs Saint Francis University may convince you otherwise. Offurum was electric on both ends of the Knott Arena floor (19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists in 35 minutes), showcasing a slashing, off-the-bounce offensive portfolio that’s a handful for any NEC squad to defend. His energy was infectious early, as he posted 6 points, 1 assist and 1 block all within the first 8 minutes of the contest.

While he’s not established as a 3-point shooting threat as of yet, Offurum’s 6-foot-8 frame and physicality at the wing gives Engelstad a wealth of length, especially when Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson share the floor. Additionally, his size can easily slot into a power forward position on nights when either Opoku or Jefferson confront foul trouble. If he can channel more performances like the one from this past Tuesday, while being a disruptive pest defending the opponent’s basket, then the Mount has a legitimate opportunity to claim one of the top spots needed to qualify for the NEC tournament in March.

Maxwell Land, Saint Francis University – If there ever was a perfect time to introduce yourself into college hoops, it would be Maxwell Land’s freshman debut against a Big 5 program on the road. The guard set the tone for his Red Flash, scoring 5 points in the team’s opening 10-2 spurt while drilling back-to-back dagger 3s that extended Saint Francis’ advantage over Pittsburgh to 20 points early in the second half. Since that magical night, Land has been a consistent role guy in Rob Krimmel’s rotation, logging 68% of the team’s total minutes while posting a 61.5% effective field goal percentage. 

At 6-foot-4, Land is as adaptable as they come, as his strength, comfort in transition and shooting ability – he’s made 6 of 9 from deep thus far – affords him the opportunity to play a number of different positions on both ends. For now, he’s rightfully entrenched as Krimmel’s 3-man.

Travis Atson, St. Francis Brooklyn – So far, so good for Atson, a Tulsa and Quinnipiac grad-transfer, who’s apparently found a home in Brooklyn. The 6-foot-5 stretch four averaged an impressive 18.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.5 apg in a split with Bryant this past week, illustrating a “a tremendous feel for the game” according to Glenn Braica. The luxury of Atson as a big guard who can slot into the four gives Braica plenty of ball handling, passing ability and shooting in a small-ball lineup. He may be a smallish power forward, however his toughness makes up for his size deficit. If there’s one thing Braica values most about his players, it’s toughness.

Cantavio Dutreil, Sacred Heart – In the NEC, Dutreil undoubtedly will serve a high rebounding, rim-protecting big for Anthony Latina’s otherwise very young frontcourt. It’s only one game, but in Sacred Heart’s opener at Rutgers, Dutreil grabbed 11 rebounds and swatted away 2 shots in 22 active minutes. Staying out of foul trouble is the biggest key to JUCO transfer, and early on in the conference season, Latina may have to junior come off the bench to protect him from getting auto-benched for the majority of the first half. Nevertheless, that energy as a 6-man will be an asset for the Pioneers.

The Best #NECMBB All-Decade Teams and a Crossword Puzzle!

As my family and I are finishing up our sixth week of quarantine here at home, it’s been…. um fun! As we continue to navigate through the unchartered waters of no sports – and for me, copious amounts of time to do other activities instead of watching sports – I figured I would have fun in what will be my last NEC Overtime! Blog post of the 2019-20 season. I want to thank everyone for reading my stuff over the past season, which remarkably ended more than one month ago in Moon Township.

As I wrap a bow on this season, I wanted to partake in some fun with this tweet from the Northeast Conference some three weeks ago.

This exercise absolutely filled some of the “no sports” gap! But rather than just give you my favorite $15 roster, I decided to come up with a series of teams, which allowed me to reminisce further on what was a terrific decade of NEC hoops. Let’s begin!

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