Category Archives: NEC Hoops

Merrimack and Mount St. Mary’s: Two Elite NEC Defenses?

With nearly a month of games in the books, we have a decent sample size to examine each program’s trends and successes. For my first in-season post, I wanted to hone in on the defensive side of the ball, because defense wins championships! Well, at least some of the time, but it sure helps to be locked in on that end.

November is  a difficult month for the NEC collectively, given the guarantee games and subsequent travel that’s involved. The first month of the season may not be the best barometer for determining which teams will invoke their brand and style of defense, and yet the prospects look good for two teams. 

And they are two programs I bet you didn’t believe would be the only NEC teams within KenPom’s top 210 in defensive efficiency: Merrimack (101.5 DRtg, 206th) and Mount St. Mary’s (101.0, 191st). Let’s break down each program’s defensive attributes one by one.

Merrimack

This offseason I was soliciting opinions of league coaches, past and present, to get their take on where Merrimack stood among the current slate of NEC teams. I figured a Warriors team rife with veterans coming off a NE-10 championship weren’t ever going to finish in the basement of the NEC standings. Those coaches offered a similar sentiment, and that was enough for me. 

I was “bold’ and selected Merrimack eighth out of 11 teams in my Blue Ribbon preseason rankings. It was bold compared to most, but now after an eight-game sample I may have underrated Joe Gallo’s squad. It’s all the defense’s fault.

Through eight Division I games, the Warriors stand 26th in the country in defensive turnover rate by forcing a turnover on over 24% of their opponent’s possessions. If you extrapolate that out to mid-major opponents, the turnover rate swells to 27%. The chaotic, attacking zone has been difficult for like-opponents to adjust to, and it’s been a key attribute in Merrimack’s impressive sojourn into Division I. 

Case in point: against Jacksonville earlier this month, the Warriors gave up a grand total of 5 points in 17 possessions to close out the first half. Eight turnovers, five points and a 19-3 run that put Jacksonville in the rear view mirror for good. Even in their latest defeat against a very good Akron team that thrives on pushing the tempo, Merrimack gave up a respectable 1.00 point per possession (ppp).

They achieved this ≤1.00 ppp benchmark in six of eight Division I contests as a matter of fact, while achieving the same success rate on extracting a turnover on at least 20% of their opponents possessions. All in all, the fluid scheme Gallo promised to install has come as advertised and the numbers have been consistent no matter the competition.

D-PPP

3PA/FGA 3PT% Defense

Turnover Rate

All Opponents

1.00

32.7% 29.5%

24.1%

Mid-Major Opponents

0.97

33.4% 29.2%

27.0%

“We thought we would be very good defensively,” Gallo said to me on Monday. “We thought it would be a little bit different (compared to Division 2); people shoot a lot more threes. So we were a little concerned with how well we’d be able to guard the paint, but we’ve brought in some pretty good size with our younger guys.”

Merrimack’s quickness, athleticism and agility, especially on the outer edge of the perimeter is a projected strength of Gallo’s unit, to the point where they’ve reeked havoc on passing lanes and limited 3-point opportunities. The forwards have been lifted high in the zone, giving opponents an unconventional look that isn’t conducive to finding open shooters.

“The big number we look at are (3-point) attempts per game and how many times we can turn you over and those are two things we preach every day,” Gallo said. “It’s good to see what we preach has kind of come to fruition.”

Additionally, Merrimack has been cautious about attacking the offensive glass, with 6-foot-8 freshman Jordan Minor (16.4% OReb Rate, 15th nationally) as the only one around to produce a significant number of put-backs. That’s completely by design according to Gallo – get back on defense so the opponent doesn’t get an easy basket in transition.

“We crash one, sometimes two guys,” Gallo confirmed. “We’re defending so well in the half-court, we don’t want to give people cheap transition opportunities.”

Lastly, Juvaris Hayes gives Merrimack a unique aspect of the attacking zone. His ability to “freelance” and hunt out turnovers has frustrated opponents for as long as he’s been a Warrior. Gallo elaborated further: “We give him freedom to go make plays and gamble. I think the other four guys on the court have gotten so good at being in position that we allow (Hayes) to just use his instincts.”

Trying to account for Hayes on the floor can be problematic, as a mystique has developed with Hayes jumping the gap and disrupting passing lanes seemingly out of nowhere.

All in all, the Merrimack zone will likely give NEC opponents fits once league play commences. It’ll be fascinating to see how it shakes out depending on the opponent, but for now this veteran squad is shaping up to be a defensive juggernaut.

Mount St. Mary’s

The Mount was struggling to get their newcomers to gel, especially on the defensive end at this point a year ago. Through December 1 of 2018, the Mountaineers gave up well above 1.00 ppp in their first six of seven contests, while allowing their opponents to shoot 54.4% from 2 and 40.1% from 3. All of those games were decided in double figures, and only once did Dan Engelstad’s group take a lead into halftime. It was, suffice it to say, a rough November, but those were expected growing pains with a green roster that concluded the 2018-19 campaign sans a single upperclassman.

Fast forward one year later, and the Mount’s defensive prospects have drastically changed for the better.

D-PPP eFG% Defense Turnover Rate 3PA/FGA
2019-20, 1st Month 1.00 49.5% 18.9% 34.5%
2018-19, 1st Month 1.15 56.5% 15.7% 35.7%

When you pull out the guarantee games and look at just mid-major competition, the same trends still mostly apply.

D-PPP eFG% Defense Turnover Rate 3PA/FGA
2019-20, 1st Month 0.94 49.1% 19.0% 39.1%
2018-19, 1st Month 1.05 49.4% 16.1% 30.6%

The Mount has improved in virtually all aspects across the board – they are forcing their opponents to take tougher shots, they’re extracting more turnovers and in some cases suppressing long-distance opportunities, a Utah State 3-point attempt barrage last week notwithstanding.

The obvious answer for the vast improvement is experience. Engelstad and his staff have more time to teach their fundamentals and concepts to an unchanged roster now loaded with second and third year players. Furthermore, each returnee has reaped the benefits of adding bulk to their physique – Nana Opoku, Damien Chong Qui and Vado Morse are living examples of that. Opoku, in particular, has added an estimated 40 pounds of muscle to his frame since he set foot on campus prior to the 2017-18 season!

Physicality and experience aside, the effort level both mentally and physically has become far more consistent according to Mount St. Mary’s associate head coach Will Holland. “I think the biggest thing is they understand – there still are little hiccups – but they understand how hard they need to play every possession,” Holland said a few days after the team’s decisive road victory over Howard. “(Last season) we just didn’t know how to put together a full 40 minutes of how hard (to play) and the attention to detail you need on every possession.”

In truth, that positive metamorphosis was evident last February, with the Mount winning four of their last seven games. The communication began to improve, the attention to detail was followed, and freshmen such as Chong Qui, Opoku and Malik Jefferson became more in tune with what the coaching staff was trying to implement. 

Heading into his second season, Jefferson has been markedly better at staying on the floor, reducing his foul rate by close to half from 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes to 3.8. It’s led to a better conditioned Jefferson seeing the floor in 67% of the Mount’s minutes, which is a clear benefit in limiting opponent’s second chance opportunities. Through seven Division I games, Jefferson is grabbing 21.5% of the opponent’s misses, good for 214th in all of Division I basketball.

The playing time increase is a direct correlation to the work that Jefferson, like the rest of the roster, put in this offseason. “I think that’s the biggest thing with him, he’s improved his conditioning,” Holland said. “He’s gotten stronger, but he’s always been in the right spots.”

Jefferson’s lowered foul rate is also an embodiment of the Mount guards keeping their opponents in front of them on defense. Last year, there were too many times where Jefferson had to act as the second line of defense once his guard teammates were beat off the dribble. That seems to be happening less now, further prolonging Jefferson’s impact on the floor.

It didn’t take very long, but it appears the Mount Mayhem brand of basketball originally incorporated by Jamion Christian is back after a one-year rebuild. Given the Mount’s depth and speed, it’s fair to assume the Mount will be a contender in a crowded NEC field, thanks in large part to its defense.

#NECWBB: Warriors Prove More Than Ready for Division I Debut

Denia Davis-Stewart

 

Welcome to NCAA Division I basketball, Denia Davis-Stewart.

In Merrimack’s inaugural Division I game, the senior forward victimized Atlantic 10 member UMass with a triple-double.

Davis-Stewart poured in a game-high 31 points to go along with 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in a 79-64 road win.

The versatile post player, who was dominant on the defensive end, put her long-range shooting ability on display at UMass’ Mullins Center. Davis-Stewart, who went a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe, sank 4 of 6 three-point attempts.

The senior’s performance was only the 14th triple-double ever recorded by a NEC athlete and it marked only the third time that a double-digit blocks total was part of the equation.

Merrimack sophomore Kate Mager also accounted for a memorable season debut. The sophomore guard shot 67 percent from downtown en-route to 22 points (no UMass player scored more than 17).

As a team, Merrimack shot 48.3 percent from the field while limiting the opponent to a measly 33.8 percent success rate.

It was already bound to be an historic night with Merrimack, which competed in the Division II NE-10 Conference last season, tipping off the four-year NCAA Division I reclassification process. Davis-Stewart, Mager and the Warriors simply made it that much more memorable.

 

 

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.

Student-Athlete Attendees Announced for 8th Annual #NECINNYC Social Media Day

 

They will be the featured guests for the eighth annual Northeast Conference Basketball Social Media Day at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday, October 23.

They are student-athlete representatives from each of the NEC’s 22 men’s and women’s basketball teams. 

In addition to the traditional on-camera interviews and media greetings, the NEC basketball student-athletes will compete in an #ALLINBALLOUT arcade-style hoops shootout with the semifinals and finals airing on Instagram Live (@NECSports).

Fans will hear from head coaches and players from all 22 teams during the on-air portion of Wednesday’s program, which will be carried live by NEC Front Row and ESPN3 beginning at 11:00 am ET.

 

#NECWBB Attendees

Bryant: Sydney Holloway

CCSU: Ashley Berube

Fairleigh Dickinson: Lauren Francillon

LIU: Ryan Weise

Merrimack: Denia Davis-Stewart

Mount St. Mary’s: Rebecca Lee

Robert Morris: Nneka Ezeigbo

Sacred Heart: Adrianne Hagood

St. Francis Brooklyn: Jade Johnson

Saint Francis U: Haley Thomas

Wagner: Morgan Lenahan

 

#NECMBB Attendees

Bryant: Juan Cardenas

CCSU: Jamir Coleman

Fairleigh Dickinson: Kaleb Bishop

LIU: Julian Batts

Merrimack: Juvaris Hayes

Mount St. Mary’s: Vado Morse

Robert Morris: Josh Williams

Sacred Heart: E.J. Anosike

St. Francis Brooklyn: Chauncey Hawkins

Saint Francis U: Keith Braxton

Wagner: Nigel Jackson

 

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