Author Archives: Ryan Peters

A Look at the NEC’s Most Improved

As someone with two young kids, I’ve really come to appreciate efficiency. Getting everyone out the door, in the car, safely to daycare, and then to work in time for a 9:00 AM meeting poses major challenges without efficiency. And it increases my disdain for those who schedule 9:00 AM meetings.

If I make my lunch the evening before, that buys me five extra minutes to invest in the morning routine. If I lay out my clothes for the next day, there’s another two minutes. Change our toddler into his day clothes right after he wakes up in the morning, another minute. Back the car into the driveway the evening before so I don’t have to backout into the street the next morning, there’s 10 extra seconds! OK, maybe I’m a little crazy with this time efficiency stuff.

My love for efficiency extends to NEC hoops. I’m visiting KenPom.com more times each day than I’m going to my Facebook page. (Trust me, it’s better this way.) For this latest Overtime! Blog post I’m scouring KenPom to find some players who’ve greatly improved their efficiency numbers from last year. Consider this a compilation of the unofficial All-NEC Most Improved Team.

Let’s start with the most notable improver.

E.J. Anosike, Sacred Heart (87 ORtg in 2017-18 to 118 ORtg this season)

At NEC Social Media Day, Anthony Latina specifically targeted Anosike as someone who should strive to win the NEC’s Most Improved Player award. This declaration is close to coming to fruition, as Anosike, who no longer sits on the bench behind Joe Lopez and Mario Matasovic, has illustrated a stark improvement. The sophomore has excelled as the team’s primary power forward, improving his effective field goal percentage by almost 17 points in conference play! And that’s with far more usage. He’s expanded his shooting range (39.5% 3PT on 43 attempts), developed a much improved touch (60.3% on shots near the rim) and continues to rebound at a high level. Anosike’s statistic profile (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg), size, position and bull-in-the-china shop game had me wondering how he stacks up next to a NEC all-time great when he was a sophomore:

  • Anosike, 2018-19: 118 ORtg, 22% possession rate, 55% eFG, 18% def rebound rate, 57% FTA/FGA
  • Jalen Cannon, 2013-14: 117 ORtg, 24% possession rate, 51% eFG, 20% def rebound rate, 55% FTA/FGA

Wow, that’s a heck of a comp for Anosike!

Adam Grant, Bryant (94 ORtg in 2017-18 to 104 ORtg this season)

On the surface Grant’s counting numbers over his 3-year career (13.4 ppg as freshman, 15.6 ppg as sophomore, 15.4 ppg as junior) doesn’t illustrate improvement, but a look under the efficiency hood depicts a different tale. We have always respected his ability to drain clutch perimeter shots, a skill that makes him one of the more talented guards in the conference. His quick release that requires very little separation is impressive to watch. Case in point:

 

 

Honestly, you can fall into a Twitter wormhole watching clips of Adam Grant clutch 3s (trust me, there’s plenty of them)! He’s always been a shotmaker from day one, but the addition of freshman Joe Kasperzyk and grad transfer Byron Hawkins into the backcourt has helped reduce Grant’s burden, putting him in better spots to succeed. The talent infusion has led to Grant shooting a career best 37.4% from behind the arc (41.2% in league play), while sporting a career low turnover rate (14.1%). He basically isn’t sacrificing scoring despite fewer shot attempts. Efficiency!

Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Jenkins is the lifeblood of the Knights, handling the point guard duties while playing nearly 92% of the team’s minutes this season. That’s A LOT of playing time, and yet Jenkins has managed to take a page out of the uber-efficient Glenn Sanabria book – post an assist rate north of 20%, turn the ball over infrequently with respect to a floor general and offer consistent production from behind the arc (37.8% in NEC play) and at the free throw line (88.6%, 37th nationally). It comes as no surprise that FDU is one of the most efficient offenses in league play, with the multi-faceted Jenkins playing a vital role.

Raul Frias, LIU Brooklyn (107 ORtg in 2017-18 to 120 ORtg this season)

The senior guard from Miami is the epitome of instant offense off the bench. With his long-range moxie as the focal point, Frias is posting the third highest efficiency rating in league play while also registering a solid 2.7% steal rate. He’s made a three-pointer in 17 of his last 18 games, a remarkable sign of consistency for someone who plays just 48% of the LIU Brooklyn’s minutes. Compared to last season, Frias has improved his scoring production by 290% (3.0 ppg to 8.7 ppg) and his rebounding numbers by 231% (1.3 rpg to 3.0 rpg), while improving his defensive profile as well. On a Blackbirds squad that prides itself on getting out in transition, Frias has emerged as the reliable scoring threat camped out behind the three-point line.


Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart
(112 ORtg in 2017-18 to 135 ORtg this season)

This tweet was probably what spurred the idea for me to write this post in the first place:

 

LaRose has always been an efficient player – competent three-point shooters who don’t turn the ball over usually are – but this year has been exceptional. He’s clearly the beneficiary of more talent around him, compared to last season when he and Sean Hoehn were forced to do much of the heavy lifting in the backcourt. Now with Cam Parker, Koreem Ozier and Aaron Clarke in the mix, LaRose has slotted into an off-the-bench, stretch-four role which has enhanced his strengths. There’s more space for him to make outside shots, he’s able to finish near the rim by blowing by bigger defenders and his savvy positioning has made him a sneaky good offensive rebounder (8.2% offensive rebound rate).

And now for an unconventional bonus selection…

 

Vado Morse, Mount St. Mary’s (111 ORtg this season)

Yes, the probable NEC Rookie of the Year obviously didn’t play for the Mount last season, yet his improved efficiency has been noteworthy from an intra-season standpoint. The Mount played a difficult non-conference schedule full of bigger, physical defenses which surely impacted Morse’s play from the start. Mount coach Dan Engelstad agrees, but he also believes there are other factors at play besides the non-conference schedule.

“Yeah I think that’s part of it, but I also think the game’s starting to slow down for him,” he said with respect to Morse’s improvement against NEC competition. “I think he’s done a lot of film study, I think he’s really become a student of the game, finding out where he can best put himself and our team in good situations and I think that’s showing up lately.”

In league play, Morse has been unguardable at times, showcasing a lethal quick release on the perimeter while flying by defenders when he puts the ball on the floor. Truth be told, he’s one of the toughest players to guard one-on-one, a scary predicament down the road for opposing NEC coaches. He’s posted a KenPom offensive rating of 100 or higher in 10 of 16 league games, compared to 4 of 10 in non-conference play. Any player who’s showing his productivity by shooting 56% from 2, 37% from 3 and 76% from the free throw line in league play, should be viewed as a serious candidate for an all-conference team.

And now for some honorable mention guys:

Deion Bute, Central Connecticut (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 111 ORtg this season)
Joe Hugley, Central Connecticut (105 ORtg in 2017-18 to 109 ORtg this season)

Both junior college transfers have seen a steady growth the second year in Donyell Marshall’s system, although for Bute, it could be argued that he would’ve been more efficient in 2017-18 had he not injured his knee halfway through league play.

Elijah Davis, Wagner (95 ORtg in 2017-18 to 101 ORtg this season)

As awesome as Romone Saunders is, Davis may be just as critical to Bashir Mason from an offensive standpoint. In games where Davis has posted an offensive rating north of 100, Wagner is 10-3.

Chris Coalman, Robert Morris (93 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Coalman may have a limited role in Andy Toole’s rotation, yet something is going right when you’ve made 61% of your shot attempts, some of which came from downtown.

Randall Gaskins, Saint Francis U (intra-season improvement)

Gaskins struggled with his offense during the non-conference campaign, but has since rebounded big time to post a 64.3% effective field goal rate against conference foes.

NEC Parity Dominates Deep into the Season

It happens every season, and least it seems like it does.

“There’s so much parity in the league!”

“Anyone can win it this year!”

Most of us, myself included, go through the song and dance of overstating the league’s balance every October. In some ways we are awarded with our “bold” proclamations – Fairleigh Dickinson won the 2016 NEC tournament after a ninth place selection in the Coaches Preseason Poll. Saint Francis University followed their ninth place designation a preseason later by getting to the NEC Tournament final on a team loaded with talented underclassmen.

But that’s not what I really mean by parity. Sure, teams exceed or underachieve their expectations every year, but what we truly mean by parity is that the league top to bottom will be competitive. And most of the time, the NEC standings usually shake out by early February and we become clearly aware of who the contenders are. 

This season, on the other hand, feels legitimately different.

 

Our friend at The Blue Devils Den (seriously, follow him @BlueDevlsDen) highlights the weirdest of the league, especially after this past weekend. After reading his post, I was willing to take a cursory look into the recent past to determine how unprecedented the current Northeast Conference standings layout is. I had a hunch that 9 teams being within 3 games of each other was atypical.

I didn’t go back very far – here’s the data of each of the past 6 seasons (since the NEC has been at 10 teams) twelve league games in, from 2013-14 to now:

Season 1st Place Record Teams 1 or 2 Games Back of 1st Place 5th Place Record 9th Place Record Difference Between 1st & 9th Place
2018-19 8-4 5 6-6 5-7 3 games
2017-18 10-2 1 7-5 3-9 7 games
2016-17 10-2 3 7-5 3-9 7 games
2015-16 8-4 4 7-5 4-8 4 games
2014-15 10-2 2 7-5 2-10 8 games
2013-14 11-1 0 6-6 3-9 8 games

As I suspected, the current season has an unusual amount of parity and balance any way you slice it. There are five teams either in first place or within 2 games of the top spot. The difference between fifth place and ninth place is merely a game. Over the past 6 seasons, the top nine programs have never been as close as they are today.

We saw a similar amount of parity in 2015-16, the aforementioned campaign where the Knights stunned the world with a roster headlined by sophomores Darian Anderson, Earl Potts, Marcquise Townes and freshman Mike Holloway.

Nevertheless that season of parity clearly had a demonstrated top 8, whereas nine teams this season all have a chance at securing a top 4 spot in the NEC tournament with only six games remaining. It’s certainly more of a long-shot for those programs – LIU Brooklyn, Bryant and CCSU –  that sit with a 5-7 record, but a 5-1 stretch or better could theoretically get them a home playoff game. Are you willing to bet against Tyler Kohl, the defending champs in LIU or a feisty bunch in Smithfield, Rhode Island?

Even the Mount at 3-9 has a chance to make the NEC tournament, with road showdowns against Central Connecticut and Bryant coming up. All of the last place teams from the previous five seasons didn’t have a reasonable shot to make the NEC tournament. You can’t say the same about Dan Engelstad’s energetic and dangerous roster.

How will the 2018-19 season shake out? It’ll be a fascinating final stretch of the season, with each game offering the potential of dramatic shifts in seeding. Tiebreakers will loom large. Enjoy the action – it certainly won’t be dull as we approach March.

Loyalty the Name of the Game for Many #NECMBB Stars, Past and Present

The thought weighed on Glenn Sanabria’s mind for quite some time. With a difficult decision looming, he wanted to speak with his coach, Glenn Braica, sooner rather than later. Theoretically, the point guard could’ve waited until the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign to air his concerns, one that pitted academics and his love for Terrier hoops against each other. But he believed initiating the discussion was prudent.

“His mom wanted him to take grad classes for his fifth year and at the time we talked about it, (St. Francis Brooklyn) didn’t have the grad program that he wanted,” Braica recalled of his past conversation with Sanabria. “And I said ‘look we’ll support you either way.’”

Then entering his fourth year at St. Francis Brooklyn – and third year of eligibility – Sanabria didn’t know if the college situated on Remsen Street would be a fit for him at a graduate level. St. Francis wasn’t offering the Organizational Management program that he desired, and it put him in an awkward position.

Would he stay loyal to Braica, the first coach to offer him a Division I scholarship, or would he become a graduate transfer after the season? Given the Staten Island native’s reputation as a heady, tenacious floor general, the prospect of transferring to a bigger Division I program that offered a graduate degree in Organizational Management seemed inviting.

While some players would’ve left Brooklyn under this scenario, Sanabria is wired differently compared to the average student-athlete. It’s loyalty that reigns supreme for him, even as the allure of competing on a bigger stage would’ve enticed another player in his position in this day and age. He chose to remain a Terrier.

“In my mind I’m confident I can play in any type of situation, but it wasn’t really about that,” Sanabria, who was 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, said. “And then even more after the season, I still feel like there’s more to prove here with the team.”

It worked out in the end, as St. Francis ended up adding Organizational Management to its list of graduate programs in time for the 2018 fall semester.

A myriad of factors ultimately aided Sanabria’s decision to stay, but first and foremost, loyalty stood out. That certainly wasn’t a surprise to Sanabria’s former teammate, Jalen Cannon, who lauded Sanabria for his maturity, poise and dedication as a freshman starter, when Cannon was a senior, on a 23-win Terrier squad that won the NEC regular season championship.

A few years prior, Cannon himself had an opportunity to leverage a successful two-year stint – 11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 55.6% FG as an underclassman – at St. Francis into something bigger. Like Sanabria though, Cannon’s devotion to the first and only Division I coach to offer him a scholarship took precedence over anything else.

“I never even thought about transferring after my freshman or sophomore year,” Cannon, the 2014-15 NEC Player of the Year and all-time leading rebounder in league history, revealed via email while in Italy, as he plays professionally for Fortitudo Agrigento in Sicily. “There were always people back home who tried to convince me to see what bigger schools were out there. I felt I owed Coach Braica everything.”

Junior Robinson, another fellow NEC Player of the Year who was a point guard adversary of Sanabria several times, is grateful he decided to stick it out at the Mount for the entirety of his college career. The multi-faceted 5-foot-5 guard certainly had the athleticism and playmaking skills to call a Power 5 program his home during the latter half of his college career.

Again, it was about staying true to the coach that believed in you first before anyone else did. “He’s helped me really mature, as a player and a person,” Robinson said of Jamion Christian, then the coach of Mount St. Mary’s. “There are times where I would make immature choices on and off the court and he would just pull me to his office and sit and talk with me for hours.”

The tough-love bond Robinson shared with Christian was paramount in helping him decide that staying in Emmitsburg, Maryland was the right decision. And that’s even when the star guard saw a number of his teammates voluntarily defect, for various reasons, over the course of his Mountaineers tenure.

Robinson’s devotion paid off, starting with a trip to the NCAA tournament as a junior, followed by an exceptional senior season – 22.0 ppg, 4.8 apg, 1.2 spg on an 18-win Mountaineers team. To top it off, the North Carolina native is playing professionally for Saenz Horeca Araberri in Spain and delighted fans with a scintillating 20-point performance in his NBA summer league finale last August for the Atlanta Hawks.

While the personal and team accolades are noteworthy in their own right, Robinson’s decision to remain a Mountaineer helped him grow as a leader on a team that had 13 freshmen in his final season.

Speaking via WhatsApp from Spain after practice, Robinson realizes now how much those leadership lessons helped him in becoming the player he is now. Had he moved onto a bigger program and became more of a role player instead of “the man”, it’s likely that leadership training wouldn’t have presented itself.

“He basically forced me to lead that group of 13 freshmen,” Robinson said of Christian. “He made me be the one to always talk to them, to call up group meetings, I had to do all that stuff. It was really out of my comfort zone, because I wasn’t used to that.”

———-

The loyalty of the college basketball student-athlete is becoming more of a rarity these days. With better resources, more television exposure and more opportunities to fine tune your game and body before a professional basketball endeavor, some players are understandably taking their careers into their own hands.

While those positives do exist for the past Northeast Conference stars such as Matt Mobley (St. Bonaventure), Marcquise Reed (Clemson), Cane Broome (Cincinnati) and Josh Nebo (Texas A&M), it’s the other transfers that aren’t necessarily looking to move up; instead, they opt to leave a situation that hasn’t materialized to their liking. In some cases, they’re leaving in the face of adversity.

According to Verbal Commits, there were 877 transfers in Division I after the 2017-18 season. More specifically, less than half of those transfers went back to a Division I program, with the remainder either going to Division 2, NAIA, or 2-year colleges. The data illustrates that while the up-transfers have generated much of the attention at the mid-major level, it’s the players who leave after a lack of playing time as underclassmen, and subsequently transfer down, that’s become more prevalent.

This player movement is all fine with Greg Herenda, even though he’s seen his fair share of transfers – up-transfers and the like – over the course of his six-year run as Fairleigh Dickinson’s head coach. He understands the mentality of a player’s decision to transfer, and the positives that decision may provide. But he’s also indebtedly thankful that his current seniors, Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway, are around as 4-year players when either could have left as underclassmen, for different reasons.

“I think it goes way beyond basketball,” Herenda explained at NEC Social Media Day this past October. “It shows them in life – and our mantra is C.P.A., commitment, persevere and achieve – it goes way beyond basketball, that these young men, instead of looking at the grass being greener or just things don’t go well and they jump ship, that in life they’re going to stick with and commit to something. And then when things aren’t perfect, like the end of (last season) right here in Brooklyn was very hard [Fairleigh Dickinson lost to LIU Brooklyn in the NEC tournament semifinals, 78-77], but guess what? You have to persevere through it.”

Herenda then went on to discuss a couple of his players, past and present. “And I applaud Marques Townes (who transferred to Loyola Chicago), I’m a big Marques Townes fan, but guess what, that was his path. And in this day and age, everyone’s paths in life and in basketball vary, but I just think Darnell Edge punching the clock and putting that (NCAA free throw shooting statistical champion) plaque on our locker room and putting (up) an NCAA appearance and now being the face of our program just shows so much about the individual.”

Edge didn’t see much of floor as a freshman, blocked by a talented backcourt that featured Darian Anderson, Stephan Jiggetts and the aforementioned Townes. His playing time as a result wasn’t consistent and fell to a little more than 9 minutes per game over the team’s final seven games. Nevertheless, Edge trusted that if he put the work in, the playing time would eventually come.

And it did. As a junior, Edge earned a spot on the All-NEC third team after leading all NCAA Division I players in free throw percentage (94.4%). He averaged 14.5 ppg and led his team in 3-pointers made (60), steals (40) and minutes played (34.1 mpg) en route to a well deserved team MVP award. At NEC Social Media Day, Herenda called Edge “an incredible leader on and off the floor.”

Holloway, like Cannon before him, likely had the chance to up-transfer after two successful seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson. With his 6-foot-11 brother Rashaan playing in the Atlantic 10 at UMass, Holloway was certainly cognizant of the brighter lights he could be exposed to, so to speak.  

“Honestly my brother would tell me all the time, you belong at a bigger school,” Holloway said when asked about the influences he encountered after his sophomore year. “Sometimes he’d say you belong bigger than where I’m at.”

Rashaan was, of course, looking out for his brother’s best interest, but in the long run the younger Mike wanted to be at the place where he was most comfortable. “I still decided to stick it out because I believe I belong in a FDU Knights uniform,” he said.

Holloway also has forged a critical partnership with his head coach, even if getting there has been, well, bumpy at times. “Honestly, the guy, he’s crazy,” Holloway said with a smile when asked why he remained loyal to Herenda. “He gets on my nerves, but he’ll push you to play harder and to push his team to win and that’s honestly the two best things I love about him.”

Comfort, paired with staunch loyalty, can be credited as a driving force much of the time when NEC players want to be a part of their respective program’s history. Holloway is very much aware of that, as is his cousin and fellow All-NEC preseason first team recipient, Keith Braxton.

When Braxton explains his reasoning for not transferring from Saint Francis University after a stupendous start to his collegiate career, he always goes back to loyalty, comfort and community. It’s the least he could do after Rob Krimmel and the Red Flash emerged as one of the only Division I destinations for Braxton to consider after his preparatory season at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

“I just wanted a chance and that was it and they gave me more than that,” Braxton said when asked about his noteworthy loyalty. “You know they helped develop me, they made me a better person here.”

In the midst of his tough decision last offseason on whether to stay the course at Saint Francis, one thing became obviously apparent to Braxton: “I was talking to a lot of guys and the culture that they build up here in Loretto, everybody up here is family, everyone is close, the coaching staff, the players and you know it’s just a community around here. You just always have someone to talk to, whether it’s alumni, current players and coaches. That’s the kind of bond I wanted when I was looking for a school.”

Braxton is positioning himself as one of the all time greats, not just at Saint Francis, but also within the NEC. The junior currently stands with 1,323 points, 792 rebounds, 284 assists and 139 steals and has the opportunity to become the first conference player to score 2,000 points and corral 1,000 rebounds in league history.

Former LIU Brooklyn great and three-time NEC champion Jamal Olasewere appreciates where someone like Braxton is coming from. He understands what it means to build your entire career at one institution. He stands as LIU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,871 points and, perhaps more importantly, was a significant part of the Blackbirds unprecedented three-year dynasty as NEC tournament champions and NCAA tournament participants from 2011-13. Even if one player – Olasewere, Kyle Johnson, Julian Boyd, Jason Brickman, CJ Garner – from that spectacular core decided to test the transfer waters, then the dynasty likely never happens and history is never made.

For Olasewere, he’ll never forget about being part of LIU Brooklyn and NEC lore, but building those relationships that last a lifetime takes the cake. Especially when he goes back to the LIU Brooklyn campus every summer during the offseason of his professional career.

“I was able to cement myself as a legend in that school, not just with basketball, but off the court,” Olasewere confirmed from Italy, where he is a professional player for Remer TVG. “You make so many friends with professors, faculty, staff, you know you go there and they just remember you. You’ve been there for the four years, I’m not even just talking about the basketball, I’m just talking about the relationships you’re able to garner from staying in that school. And those kind of things are the things that go on for a lifetime.”

———-

The NEC is fully aware that loyalty, comfort and community serve as the main reasons for past and present players staying within the league. The conference’s recent All In, Ball Out campaign has focused on bringing out these core values by enhancing the overall experience for student-athletes, primarily in men’s and women’s basketball. While these initiatives were specifically rolled out at the latest NEC Social Media Day, this was actually the second part of a multi-year process the league has undertaken. In truth, this has been a priority long before transfers were a major storyline of the college basketball offseason.

With basketball officially at the forefront of the league’s attention over the past two years, NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris and her colleagues have made a concerted effort in retaining their student athletes. “There was a plan and we attacked it from all different perspectives, but all with the intention of elevating the level of play and also elevating the atmosphere around our games so that our student-athletes are getting a better experience,” Morris said.

Initiatives that revolve around optimizing non-conference scheduling, improving game promotions and activities, and requiring programs to add on-campus fueling stations for their players are just some of the examples the league’s programs have willingly implemented of late.

The All In, Ball In rollout comes at an ideal time, with eight of the league’s top 11 scorers in their third, fourth or fifth season at their respective school. This is a departure from recent seasons, when the leaderboard would be littered with upstart underclassmen or former transfers.

This year, those top scorers populating the list such as Raiquan Clark, Romone Saunders, Sean Hoehn, Edge, Braxton, Adam Grant, SaBastian Townes and Jamaal King illustrate what hard work and perseverance will bring the NEC student-athlete if they’re fully committed to their basketball program. A few of them were even part of the All In, Ball Out media campaign that began this preseason.

While it’s difficult to determine how much this campaign has helped in retaining talent, Morris is optimistic that the opportunities presented for upperclassmen will work to the league’s benefit. “I think we’ve built up a nice community of student-athletes and they feel like a part of something, so we’re trying to build on that,” she said.

Clark was a former walk-on who easily could’ve jumped ship until Jack Perri offered him a scholarship as a sophomore. Saunders has seen several teammates over his five-year tenure transfer, yet he decided to stay with Bashir Mason and Wagner even though his bruising, 6-foot-3 body would’ve been an asset in a bigger program’s backcourt. Through a work ethic that’s second to none, Hoehn has progressed from a role player to an efficient volume scorer. Edge and King could’ve determined their programs weren’t a fit after one season of light playing time and opted for a change of scenery as sophomores. Grant and Townes could’ve used the recent coaching change at Bryant as an excuse to explore what else was out there on the Division I landscape.

For each of them, loyalty, comfort and community likely played a role in their decision. And while student-athletes are putting their own collegiate careers into their own hands, and sometimes rightfully so, it’s refreshing to know that these core values aren’t lost on all of them. The Northeast Conference has had their fair share of recent successes of four and five-year players and will continue to do so moving forward. And the league is hopeful their efforts from a school and conference level will be fruitful from a competitive standpoint.

As the former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence.” The NEC has plenty of college basketball student-athletes who are living by this mantra everyday.

#NECMBB Thoughts on Two Elite Defenses: Robert Morris and Sacred Heart

Defensive wins championships. Or something like that.

While there isn’t one avenue to winning the NEC championship and punching your ticket to the NCAA tournament, playing exceptional defense will certainly improve your chances. There have been countless examples over the past decade of teams finishing in the top half of the league, thanks in large part to a tenacious defensive effort.

One third of the way into league play, Robert Morris and Sacred Heart stand tall as the two best defensive squads, at least in terms of KenPom’s defensive efficiency. I find it interesting that both programs are going about their defensive excellence in different ways. With their much anticipated match-up on the horizon this Thursday, allow me to examine what has made each program difficult to score on during the six-game sample size.

Sacred Heart – 2nd in NEC Defensive Efficiency

On a team that’s fairly inexperienced going into the season, depth and balance weren’t expected to emerge as strengths for Anthony Latina’s squad. Instead, the new look roster that routinely features three freshmen and one sophomore improbably leads the league in scoring (81.1 ppg), assists (15.2 apg) and is second in field goal percentage (46.4%) and rebounding margin (+5.1 rpg). If you factor tempo into the equation, as any good statistician would, Sacred Heart has the best raw offensive efficiency after scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions through 18 Division I games.

While the Pioneers offense has gotten a lot of attention this season, it’s actually their defense that’s been noteworthy of late. Through six NEC games, the Pioneers find themselves 2nd among their league counterparts in defensive efficiency at 93.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. In four home victories, the Pioneers haven’t let an opponent score over a point per possession and have been relentless in their defensive ball pressure. Case in point: road opponents are shooting just 16.9% on their 3s and they’re shooting less of them (37.4% 3PTA/FGA) compared to the league average.

One focus of Anthony Latina and his coaching staff has been to restrict 3-point attempts – remember the discussion we had regarding St. Francis Brooklyn? – by focusing on the team’s defensive tenacity in practice. The blueprint: Stay in front of your defender, challenge the shot and mix up your defensive schemes to cause discomfort. Because of the Pioneers’ focus on staying in front, they’re taking less chances in turning opponents over (aka less risk and less fouling), as evident from their league worst 16% turnover rate. Thus far the formula has worked well, especially after holding CCSU, Bryant and Wagner to 61, 70 and 38 points, respectively.

Let’s be perfectly honest, though. The philosophy employed by Latina and his staff surely helps when you have a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate guarding the paint in Jare’l Spellman. Coming off an incredible 9-block effort versus Wagner, Spellman is now 21st in the country in block rate, swatting away 11.4% of the opponent’s shot attempts when he’s on the floor. For a little perspective into this stat, here are the five best block rates from an NEC player since Ken Pomeroy kept track of the stat starting in 2003-04:

Player/Team (Yr) Block Rate % Team Minutes Played Fouls Committed per 40 min
John Bunch, Monmouth (’06-07) 17.6% 49% 4.0
Naofall Folahan, Wagner (’13-14) 14.2% 52% 6.0
Amdy Fall, SFBK (’14-15) 12.2% 49% 4.9
Jare’l Spellman, SHU (’18-19) 11.4% 64% 4.5
AJ Sumbry, Wagner (’17-18) 10.6% 48% 7.2

Just from purely a shot blockers standpoint, Spellman’s effort has been historic. Not only is he on the floor more often than the other four defensive standouts in their peak seasons above, but he’s also done a decent job staying out of foul trouble, unlike a couple on the list. He’s committed a modest 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes, which is a respectable number given the 6-foot-10 center’s activity around the rim. There’s no doubt his presence is a major reason why teams are converting just 45.5% of their 2-point takes against Sacred Heart.

It’s also worth noting that the Pioneers have done well to eliminate their opponent’s second chance opportunities, which is where the team’s positive rebounding margin comes into play. With Spellman (21.4% defensive rebounding rate) and EJ Anosike (18.4%) leading the charge, as well as some guards who aren’t afraid to attack the defensive glass in traffic (Koreem Ozier, 16.4%; Cam Parker, 13.1%; Zach Radz, 11.7%), there’s another reason why the opponent’s field goal percentage inside the arc has been depressed. Putbacks are high percentage opportunities to score and this current roster has limited the damage their opponents can do with respect to that.

Wet blanket alert: there is some room for regression in the Pioneers’ defensive efficiency numbers, unless you truly believe Sacred Heart will hold league opponents to just 26.6% shooting from behind the arc all season (spoiler alert: I don’t). But even as these percentages progress more toward the mean, the overall metrics still portray a defensive unit that’s on the rise thanks to their perimeter tenacity, grittiness and their defensive play down low.

Now the true test is upon them: can Latina’s group continue this effort away from the friendly confines of the Pitt Center? Their 1-6 road record against mid-major opponents this season is glaring and must be improved if this team intends to compete for the NEC championship. We should learn a lot with trips to Robert Morris, Saint Francis and Mount St. Mary’s in their next three. The Pioneers are 3-13 at these venues over the last half decade.

Robert Morris – 1st in NEC Defensive Efficiency

Death. Taxes. Andy Toole coaching elite defense. The nine-year Robert Morris coach is a master at stopping opponents from scoring and this season is no different. Their current trend of allowing just 92.5 points per 100 possessions in league play would be the best mark a NEC program has achieved since the 2011-12 Wagner Seahawks, coached by Dan Hurley, permitted just 90.1 points per 100 possessions.

Can the Colonials realistically keep up their current pace? Based on Toole’s history of repeatedly finishing in the league’s top three defenses year after year, I believe so. And this year it’s partly because of one critical senior.

I’m in awe of Malik Petteway. Allow me to explain with some tweets.

While I don’t have copious amounts of time to determine if these numbers are unprecedented, they are incredible to look at on paper. Petteway is among the NCAA individual leaders in block rate (8.2%, 61st nationally) and steal rate (4.5%, 22nd nationally), while grabbing 23.0% of the opponent’s misses. His athleticism, defensive anticipation and hustle have turned him into the next Chris Wray of the NEC. We all became aware of Petteway’s defensive prowess in Robert Morris’ first conference game of the year.

While the coast-to-coast action was impressive on its own, Petteway’s performance at Bryant last Thursday was fantastic in all aspects. He literally did it all in his 14-point, 9-rebound, 4-steal and 1-block effort in 19 minutes that evening:

Among this highlight reel of plays, I was most impressed with Petteway’s ability to step up when Robert Morris needed him too. In the above clip at the 0:22 second mark, Petteway aggressively hedged on a high pick and roll, stole the ball from the very reliable Adam Grant (13.1% turnover rate) and dunked it home in the open floor. The highlight play halted a 10-2 Bulldog run and essentially stopped the Bulldogs in the midst of their furious comeback attempt. And if that wasn’t enough, Petteway threw in an emphatic block (0:38 in the clip) on the very next possession to stick the nail in the coffin and deliver the Colonials yet another road victory.

In the team’s televised road game against the 4-2 Terriers, Petteway logged a couple of thefts in a critical part of the game on back-to-back possessions. The two takeaways, around the 4-5 minute mark of the second half in a tight contest, led to four Robert Morris points, which can’t be understated in an offensive slog of a contest decided by just three points. Again, Petteway did it with his anticipation and exceptional defensive awareness.

It’s clear Petteway has added another dimension to the Colonials defense. His ability to generate turnovers along with backcourt teammates Matty McConnell (3.5% steal rate) and Jon Williams (2.5% steal rate) gives Toole a trio that has taken the rock away on 23.5% of their opponent’s possessions, good for 16th in the country. The turnovers have given the Colonials more opportunities in transition, where they’ve been more efficient shooting the basketball. According to Hoop-Math, Robert Morris has posted an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 60.0% in their transition opportunities. For a team that averages 48.1% eFG overall, that’s a massive boost to the Colonials offense.

Three of Robert Morris’ next four games feature potent offenses in Sacred Heart, Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Francis U. Will the Colonials continue to impose their will and turn these contests in half-court affairs focused on execution, or will high tempo win out?

We will learn a lot about these two defenses in the coming weeks. Enjoy the upcoming action!

#NECMBB Thoughts: The Top 6th-Men and St. Francis Brooklyn’s 3-Point Defense

Chauncey Hawkins

For some players, the glory lies in being part of the starting five. You’re introduced to the crowd. You’re on the floor for the opening tip. You’re part of the group that sets the energy/tempo of the game. You simply can’t beat that adrenaline rush.

But for others, when they are inserted into the game isn’t critical; rather, they yearn to be part of the most critical moments. Because when a coach trusts you enough to play in the final five minutes of the game, that’s when the lights shine the brightest more often than not.

In the Northeast Conference, there have been plenty of primetime performers (sorry to steal your term, Ron!) coming off the bench this season.

I’d like to highlight my “starting five” of these outstanding sixth-men, as they’ve provided stability and spark to their respective second units in the early going. Let’s begin with one of the best two-way players in the NEC!

 

Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis U – Rob Krimmel has been careful easing Blackmon into action, and with good reason. The dynamic talent is a year removed from knee surgery, but you wouldn’t know that of late. In his last five games, four of which he came off the bench, Blackmon has averaged 15.2 ppg while shooting 56.3% from the field. Additionally, his elite athleticism appears to be back – he’s been a menace on the offensive glass by grabbing 9.2% of his team’s misses when he’s on the floor. It’s fair to assume Blackmon is rounding into form as the NEC conference season rapidly approaches. It speaks to the program’s depth that Blackmon, who’s started 30 times in his collegiate career and was part of the NEC’s preseason first team in 2017, can serve as an explosive six-man on a team rife with expectations.

 

Joe Hugley, Central Connecticut – When looking at Hugley’s advanced numbers at first glance, it’s hard to believe the junior hasn’t even played in half of the Blue Devils available minutes. But that’s the role Donyell Marshall has tasked Hugley with, partly because Hugley reminds the head coach of himself in the latter half of his NBA career. And so far, Hugley has bought in, scoring in double digits in seven of his last eight games. He’s registered a block in six straight, while corralling at least six boards in 5 of 10 contents. In terms of efficiency, the Maryland native easily possesses the highest offensive rating (118.3) of any NEC player that has a possession rate north of 20%. Hugley’s scoring acumen and energy level clearly has been an asset off the bench, six weeks in.

 

Kaleb Bishop, Fairleigh Dickinson – While the junior is still rounding into form with respect to his scoring, Bishop has registered career highs in offensive rebounding rate (11.8%), defensive rebounding rate (23.7%), and block rate (4.0%) as a junior. Off the bench, the 6-foot-8 forward has grabbed at least six rebounds in eight of tencontests. With the insertion of sophomore Elyjah Williams, Greg Herenda now can afford to make athletic Bishop part of his second unit to serve as the four or five.

 

Malik Petteway, Robert Morris – With an injury riddled junior year behind him, Petteway has provided productive bench play similar in the way that Billy Giles did as a junior during the 2015-16 season. Of course, Petteway and Giles are different power forwards, but there are similarities in their ability to rebound, score efficiently around the rim and providing some rim-protecting capabilities. For Petteway, it’s his defensive acumen and physical presence that affords Robert Morris a proven bruiser down low. His block rate (5.3%, 3rd in the NEC) and defensive rebounding rate (19.5%, 9th in the NEC) are evidence of that.

 

Chauncy Hawkins, St. Francis Brooklyn – Like many freshman, Hawkins needed time to adapt to the rigors and speed of Division I, but once he did, he was off and running. The freshman posted a respectable 98.0 offensive rating in league play last year, so a production boost in 2018-19 shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hawkins has poured at least 16 points in six contests, four of those resulting in Terrier wins. He may not be on the floor at the opening tip, yet Hawkins has provided St. Francis Brooklyn with the necessary pop and versatility off the bench. It’s safe to expect the trio of Hawkins, Glenn Sanabria and Jalen Jordan – the best offensive lineup St. Francis can boast according to Glenn Braica – will play together, especially late in the 2nd half. According to KenPom, that has already happened at least 26% of the time in the Terriers available minutes over the past five games.

 

Speaking of Hawkins, I’ve been fascinated with one key tenet of St. Francis Brooklyn’s philosophy: restricting their opponent’s 3-point attempts.

In the age of the 3-point shot and its increasing use, some programs are making a concerted effort to suppress the opponent’s attempts from behind the arc. The philosophy was a staple of Mount Mayhem under Christian – one of the key attributes is that you take a lot more 3s than your opponent. Makes sense, right? If you are going to lose, why not lose because your opponent made a high percentage of deep 2s, traditionally the least efficient shot in college basketball?

Glenn Braica has excelled at this in recent years and he’s at it again with his 2018-19 Terriers.

Season Opponent 3PA/FGA

(DI Rank)

Opponent’s 3PT%
2018-19 30.6% (14) 30.7% (62)
2017-18 31.7% (20) 34.1% (122)
2016-17 27.3% (4) 36.0% (231)
2015-16 25.4% (2) 33.1% (91)
2014-15 26.5% (8) 36.7% (282)

 

As Ken Pomeroy has demonstrated in the past, it’s much easier to limit a team’s 3-point attempts than to affect their accuracy from behind the arc. Braica’s teams have certainly done the former, finishing in the country’s top 20 over the past five seasons. Despite the Terriers tenacious defense along the perimeter, sometimes their opponents have made a high percentage of their 3-point attempts (see 2016-17 and 2014-15 as an example). But at the very least, it helps when those made 3s aren’t as frequent due to your defense’s suppression techniques.

Is applying this philosophy merely a defensive mindset or does having length, particularly athletic length, and lateral quickness help as well?

In all honesty, Braica doesn’t have an answer nor is he specifically instructing his players to suppress 3-point attempts. The suppression is merely an aftereffect of the Terriers razor sharp focus on defense in practice sessions. Play hard, apply ball pressure, fight through screens and deny passing lanes – all of those fundamentals lead to a tenacious defensive effort that, guess what, limits the number of 3-point attempts their opponent takes. It’s really not rocket science, nor does it require recruiting a certain type of athlete. It appears to be a coaching thing and the Terrier players have clearly bought in.

Right now, a majority of the NEC programs haven’t shot the 3-ball well. While much of that is likely due to the elevated competition, St. Francis Brooklyn may have the upper hand come conference play in limiting their opponents 3-point production. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out starting in January!

« Older Entries Recent Entries »