Historically, the best team in the NEC regular season standings has routinely crossed the 14-win threshold, even during the 2013-14 campaign when the league’s schedule was cut to 16 games. Below are the NEC regular season champions over the past decade:
Mount St. Mary’s
St. Francis Brooklyn
Going back another five years, you’ll find the last time a team finished in first place with 12 wins. Both Monmouth and St. Francis Brooklyn in 2003-04 were tied atop the standings at season’s end with a 12-6 conference record.
Will we see this happen again by the end of Saturday’s set of games? According to KenPom, Saint Francis has a 44% and 36% chance to win at Wagner and Sacred Heart, respectively. For the Red Flash to sweep their final two contests, the odds drop to 16%. The good news for Rob Krimmel’s group is being on the road hasn’t been a detriment to Saint Francis’ success of late; they’ve won five of their last seven outside of their friendly confines.
As for the rest of the league’s odds, I highly recommend diving into Ron Ratner’s weekly update. Some of the teams still have a wide range of outcomes; for example, Sacred Heart can finish anywhere from first all the way to seventh depending on what goes down this weekend. LIU Brooklyn could possibly host a NEC tournament playoff game (#4 seed) or not make the tournament all together.
Who’s the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year?
I honestly don’t know, and can’t confidently answer this with an educated guess until the regular season is finished. For me, there are four legitimate candidates at the moment. And their chances all hinge on the regular season results for the final week.
Rob Krimmel, Saint Francis U – The 7-year head coach and long-time NEC participant would’ve been the logical choice for the award had the Red Flash kept their winning streak alive last Saturday against the Blackbirds. But in NEC fashion, LIU Brooklyn was powered behind 35 points from Ty Flowers and Raiquan Clark to pull off the upset in Loretto. Now, the Red Flash must win the league title the hard way, on the road against two programs looking to finish in the top four. If the Red Flash can claim the championship outright, it will be hard to keep Krimmel from earning his first ever COY honor, even though the Red Flash were expected to be at the top during preseason prognostications back in the fall. That didn’t stop the coaches from voting for Glenn Braica after the Terriers’ 15-3 masterpiece in 2014-15.
Greg Herenda, Fairleigh Dickinson – Like Krimmel’s squad, many pundits expected FDU to be at or near the top by late February. A 9-2 run after a 1-4 start has put them in a good position – they’re hosting at least one NEC tournament game at worse – with winnable games at the Mount and Central Connecticut looming. If the Knights sweep the mini road stand and acquire a share of the NEC regular season title, I’d have no qualms if the COY is awarded to Herenda.
Anthony Latina, Sacred Heart – The Pioneers were picked ninth in the NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll, so Sacred Heart’s overachieving relative to their expectations would play a huge role in Latina winning the COY award. His team needs to finish strong at the very least. A sweep against Saint Francis and Robert Morris – two programs he’s a combined 0-10 against over the past three seasons – would guarantee at least one home playoff game, if not possibly more. Finishing with a 10-8 or 11-7 regular season is fairly impressive given they are the 298th most experienced roster in Division I and rely on three freshman, one sophomore and one Division II transfer.
Andy Toole, Robert Morris – We can’t forget about the league’s 2013-14 COY recipient, who currently has an opportunity to earn his third regular season championship in nine tries. Despite experiencing a crazy amount of turnover the past few seasons, Robert Morris has routinely been a defensive juggernaut with this season as no exception. At 10-6, Toole has engineered an impressive return to the top third of the standings despite losing Koby Thomas for much of the season. The Colonials have forced a turnover on 22.5% of their opponent’s possessions, good for 22nd in Division I basketball. This is the fifth straight year the program has been in the top 30 – that’s remarkable consistency with the roster fluctuations.
So who’s going to be the next NEC Defensive Player of the Year?
Like the COY discussion, I have no idea where the coaches will lean for this one. There are a number of candidates they could reasonably look at:
Matty McConnell, Robert Morris – The heart and soul of Robert Morris defense has that infectious energy about him when in a defensive stance. He’s the best perimeter defender on the league’s number one defense (at least according to defensively efficiency numbers) and possesses a steal rate that’s in the NCAA top 100 at 3.4%.
Malik Petteway, Robert Morris – Speaking of steal rate, Petteway actually leads the league in that category as well as sporting the eighth best block rate. His Chris Wray like ability to affect the game a multitude of ways has guided the Colonials.
Jare’l Spellman, Sacred Heart – The 6-foot-10 center came as advertised from Florida Southern as a former defensive player of the year. Spellman’s 89 blocks leads the conference by a country mile and he has an opportunity to become the first NEC player since 1996-97 (Richard Lugo, St. Francis Brooklyn) to accumulate at least 100 rejections in a campaign. His rim impact is a major reason why Sacred Heart is in the upper half of the league in defensive efficiency.
Juan Cardenas, Bryant – Whether it’s tough man-to-man defense or providing help when an opponent infiltrating the paint, Cardenas has been a master at blocking or altering shots around the rim. His game changing length, versatility and lateral quickness has led to 8.4% block rate, good for 84th in the country.
Randall Gaskins, Saint Francis – Gaskins is perceived to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, serving as a very useful “3 and D” type of complement to Krimmel’s assortment of play-makers. While I view him as a long shot to win the DPOY, his name deserves mentioning here nonetheless.
What has surprised you this season?
Here’s are some random tidbits for each team that I can honestly say I didn’t expect coming into this season…
E.J. Anosike and Jarel Spellman are the best two-man frontcourt duo in total putbacks. They have 72 combined putbacks, greatly exceeding any other NEC duo. After graduating a very good frontcourt in its own right with Matasovic, Lopez and Barnett, Anosike, Spellman and LaRose have put together one of the best big man rotations in the NEC. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but I’m still impressed by the Mount’s resolve this season. The second youngest roster in the nation has now boasted five freshmen who’ve been selected at one point as NEC freshmen of the week (Vado Morse, Dee Barnes, Malik Jefferson, Nana Opoku and now Damian Chong Qui). Dan Engelstad’s group may have been eliminated from qualifying for the NEC tournament, yet the Mountaineers have been very respectable over the past several weeks, knocking off Sacred Heart, Wagner and Robert Morris. They surely will emerge as a trendy sleeper next season. Everyone will be back!
Bryant has turned into one of the slower NEC programs with respect to tempo. The Bulldogs are sixth among their counterparts at 68 possessions per game. That’s not a snail’s pace, but it’s not Iona racing down the floor either. In the preseason, Grasso expected his team would mimic the Gaels model, a model that was consistently in the top 60 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted tempo. At NEC Social Media Day, however, Grasso did add in the caveat that they “have to get guys to understand how to play with pace all the time.” He further explained that it takes time to program your team to get in that mindset of fast pace day in and day out. Clearly, Grasso had enough time to evaluate his talent and understand that a fast tempo wasn’t conducive to winning. In games where the pace gets at 70 possessions or more, the Bulldogs are 1-11 (1-4 NEC) whereas they are 9-6 when a slower tempo is implemented. Running much of the offense through Bash Townes, who thrives in pick and roll situations and isn’t exactly none as a rim runner, also likely plays a role in Grasso slowing down the team’s pace of play.
Raul Frias (125 ORtg), Eral Penn (124 ORtg) and Ty Flowers (118 ORtg) lead the Blackbirds in offensive efficiency during league play. I know, right?! I talked about Frias’ improvement last week, yet Flowers has really emerged as LIU Brooklyn’s x-factor. Over the last six games, Flowers has been deemed the KenPom MVP four times, averaging 20.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4 blocks and 1.8 steals in those situations. Not surprisingly, LIU Brooklyn is 3-1 when the Waterbury, Connecticut native breaks out. For Penn, the sophomore’s tenacity around the rim on both ends has caused havoc. He’s currently second among league mates in 2-point field goal percentage (66.7%), fourth in block rate (8.6%) and eighth in offensive rebounding rate (10.3%).
That’s all I have for now. Enjoy the action this weekend. The NEC tournament is nearly upon us!
“We talk about progress. A lot of progress, a lot of process, getting better in the moment, winning every day, getting one percent better…all of that. In turn, the returners, they know and they remember. We were in a lot of close games (last year) and those moments have not been forgotten.”
That was Wagner head women’s basketball coach Heather Jacobs back at NEC’s Social Media Day in October answering a question from former Seahawk head coach Pam Roecker as to whether or not she thought this was the year the Seahawks could make the jump back into the NEC’s postseason for the first time since 2014. Jacobs’ team had just been selected last in the annual coaches’ pre-season poll, an unfortunately familiar place for Wagner women’s basketball, as the program had ended up at the bottom of the standings in each of the last four straight seasons and six out of the last seven.
But this year is proving to be different. Something special is in the process of happening on Staten Island as the Wagner College Seahawks are beating the odds, the prognostications, and a lot of other NEC teams as well. The Seahawks have surged out to a 7-6 start, their best NEC record after 13 games since 2004. How long has that been? Well, consider that in February of 2004 the iPhone didn’t exist, Facebook was only weeks old, many of the current group of players were in preschool or kindergarten, and Coach Jacobs was halfway through her college playing career at Franklin Pierce.
With a win on Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson, Wagner would secure their first playoff berth since 2014 and only their fourth playoff appearance over the last 15 years.
Wagner was once a very strong and very proud basketball program in the late 80’s, throughout the 90’s, and into the beginning of the new century. Wagner was an original NEC women’s basketball institution, and for the first 18 straight years, they were staples in the women’s basketball tournament. During that 18 year stretch from 1987-2004, the Seahawks were coached by Gela Mikalauskas (1979-90), Pam Roecker (1990-98), and Tara Gallagher (1998-05). They would reach the tournament semi-finals nine times and appear in four NEC Championship Games. The crown jewel would come in 1989 under Mikalauskas, when league MVP Maureen Coughlin paced the team to a 22-win campaign and a 66-60 victory over Robert Morris in the final, to earn the program’s first and only NEC Championship.
From 1996-2003, under Roecker and Gallagher, Wagner would go on a run of eight straight seasons of double-digit conference wins. The 87 wins during that period was third best in the league behind only NEC super-powers Saint Francis U and Mount St. Mary’s. In the middle of an era where Saint Francis and Mount St. Mary’s were dominating the league, the Seahawks were able to hold their own and be perennial contenders. Both Roecker and Gallagher agreed that the key was in the players they recruited to the program, some of the school’s all-time greats, such as Nia Ryan, Amanda Young, Susan Moffat, Meredith Kearns, Carrie Walker, Joy Gallagher, Patti Winterfeldt, and Brenda Milano.
“One of the first memories I had was walking into the student center and seeing the Verrazano Bridge and knowing we could recruit kids there,” replied Roecker. “Over my time we had students from 11 different states and we always sold the connection to New York City and that the campus was 100 acres in a very self-contained environment. It was a beautiful atmosphere, very peaceful and safe, with access to the greatest city in the world.”
“At that time we had a great group of players that just loved to play the game,” said Gallagher. “You have to have the players that want to put the time and effort into it and that have the skill as well.”
In 2004, the team finished 8-10, a down year by their standards, but still enough to qualify for the NEC tournament as the number six seed. The team was slowed by the loss of their All-Conference senior Carrie Walker. Walker missed 11 conference games in January and February due to injury, where the team went 4-7. Walker returned right before the start of the playoffs, but the Seahawks were upended on their home court by the Monmouth Hawks. “We were picked to be pretty good that year, and although we did okay, it wasn’t, obviously, the year we wanted to have,” recounted Gallagher.
Following that season, Wagner lost a ton of firepower, including three starters: Walker, Vanessa Wyffels, and Ashley Linscott, which equated to 40% of their offense. In 2005 the Seahawks would finish 2-25 and 2-16 in NEC play, missing the NEC Tournament for the first time ever. “It was hard, it was tough, but the kids still worked hard. Your heart breaks for the kids more than anything,” said Gallagher.
Little did anyone know at the time, but that would end up being the first of a rough 14 season stretch for the Seahawks, which saw them make the playoffs only three times while finishing in last place nine times. “I don’t think it was just one thing. I think obviously when you don’t win it’s tougher to recruit,” noted Gallagher. “Between myself and when Gela (Mikalauskas) was there and then Lisa (Cermignano), there have been some great players, don’t get me wrong. But it’s been a thing where unfortunately once you start to slide and don’t have winning seasons, the confidence level has to be there, and it’s tough to come back from.”
Enter Heather Jacobs, who was hired in April of 2016 as the program’s ninth head coach. Jacobs was no stranger to turning around programs. In 2007-08 she took over a Daniel Webster program that won only 10 games in her first season, finishing 2-11 in conference. By year three, the Eagles won 20 games, were 15-1 in conference, and regular season champions. Jacobs would then head to Adelphi where it would be a similar story. The Panthers finished in 14th place during her first season, but would end up 14-5 and make the Northeast-10 playoffs in her third campaign.
Now in her third season on Grymes Hill, Coach Jacobs’ building process is starting to show major results once again. “It’s a process that I think is behind the scenes and in the locker room. We knew we were making progress even though last year we didn’t really win as many games as we wanted or hoped,” said Jacobs. “We knew that there was progress there and whether or not it was player development, in the locker room, the culture, standards, expectation…it was happening and people couldn’t see that necessarily.”
In her office, underneath her desk, Coach Jacobs has a wall of bricks. Bricks decorated in the official Seahawks colors: green, black, white, and silver. Written on the bricks are team and individual accomplishments dating back to her first season on Staten Island. Accomplishments such as Team GPA’s, Rookie and Player of the Week honors, and Jacobs’ first NEC win, 58-45 over St. Francis Brooklyn back in January of 2017, just to name a few. The brick wall symbolizes building the program, brick by brick, while recognizing the key moments along the way.
“Ultimately, we focus on standards, expectations, and small successes. That’s what that little thing is behind you (the brick wall). We really focus on that, because if you lose sight and get really stuck on the end and the result, there is a lot of good along the way, and I think it’s important to stop and recognize that. We might have lost the game, but we did A, B, and C way better than we did before and we really try to be intentional of recognizing that. It is hard when you are losing because everyone is competitive and wants to win, but when you do that it allows you to hold steady on the course of where you want to be and keep the bigger picture in mind.”
For the current group of Seahawk players, it isn’t about dwelling on the past or a 14 year ‘losing culture’. No player was a part of the roster prior to Coach Jacobs’ arrival, so to them, the only things they know and that matter are the steps of progression made over the last three years, or in other words, the bricks that they’ve had a hand in building.
Redshirt sophomore Taylah Simmons is the Seahawks leading scorer and has been a force since the start of conference play, averaging 19 points per game. Over the last five outings, in which Wagner has won four out of five, Simmons has put up 20.8 points per game and has netted a Player of the Week honor. For Simmons, she was excited to come over from Australia to be a part of the building process at Wagner. “I liked how it was a small school, so it was kind of like a small community, like a family. I don’t have family here, so it’s nice to have a sense of community and family. Coach Jacobs had just got in, and I knew she was building up the team, and I was excited to be a part of the building process. It was definitely hard at some points last year, but I try to be as positive as I can every moment of the day. We saw such good glimpses of us last year during practice. I held on to that, because I knew we had so much potential.”
Simmons, along with her teammates, are finally finding that potential this season. Wagner’s signature “we’ve arrived” moment might very well have been a thrilling 87-85 win over St. Francis Brooklyn on February 11th. In a game that featured multiple swings of momentum, Wagner pulled it out in the end on a Taylah Simmons game winning jumper in the lane in the final seconds. “I think this year everyone’s role is super important. We’re playing all together. Everyone knows their spots, everyone knows their roles, and it’s more of a team dynamic,” noted Simmons. “I feel like now that we’ve got a couple of wins under our belt, we know what we have to do and we know what it’s like to win, so we want to keep it up.”
“I’m just really excited for the program,” expressed Roecker. “I think it’s a combination of she’s a really good coach, she has a system in place, she’s stayed patient, she’s stuck to her philosophy, and she recruited some really good players. That’s the whole secret. In our success in the 90’s when you talk about players like Brenda Milano, Patti Winterfeldt, Alicia Conquest, Susan Moffat, Nia Ryan…the better players, the better you look as a coach. When you have the combination of both, it can really set you up for success.”
“I’ll look on the program every now and then,” said Gallagher. “I met Coach Jacobs when I inducted Meredith (Kerns) into the Hall of Fame (in 2017), and she was unbelievable. I really liked her and her staff was awesome. They came in and some of her players as well. They came in and congratulated Meredith and talked with us. I am so thrilled that she is having a really, really good year because she deserves it. You can tell how much passion she has for the game and she absolutely loves Wagner and you can see how much the kids love and respect her.”
While the excitement continues to grow as the wins start to pile up, Coach Jacobs and the Seahawks are quick to point out that the job isn’t nearly finished yet and that there is still plenty of work to do. “We have to come every day. The ability to stay present, focus on one game at a time, and continue to play hard for 40 minutes. If we do that, we’ll be in a good spot,” commented Coach Jacobs. “It’s crazy to think about where we were, just from the beginning of the year to now. We’ve learned so much and we understand from a preparation standpoint, to a practice standpoint, to gameday…everybody understands. We know what we need to do. It’s locking in to make sure we take care of business. It’s easy to get distracted when everybody is so excited. It’s nice that you want to celebrate that and be excited for where you are, but stay grounded in the sense that you have to keep working every day and every moment.”
“Keys will be staying consistent, not letting up, and keeping that foot on the accelerator,” added Simmons. “We have ups and downs, but we have to try to get as many ups as we can.”
Following our sit-down interview for this feature, Coach Jacobs handed Simmons a blank brick for the Melbourne native to mark to recognize her recent Player of the Week honor. It will be the latest brick to be added to Coach Jacobs’ wall as the Seahawks continue their process of building themselves back into contention in the NEC.
“For me it’s one game at a time, be in the moment. There is still a lot of basketball left to play,” said Jacobs. “We can still continue to get better individually and collectively. There are teams that are fighting for survival, there are teams dominating, and there are teams that are really trying to establish their identity. Everyone is on their own unique journey and we’re just trying to steer our course, run our race, and play our best basketball at the right time.”
The Wagner Seahawks will have a chance to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2014 with a win on Saturday at Fairleigh Dickinson. If Wagner can pick up two more wins over their final five NEC games, they will assure themselves of their first .500 season in conference play since 2003.
#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES
*WHERE THEY STAND: Half of the 2019 playoff field has been decided, as Saint Francis U, Sacred Heart, and St. Francis Brooklyn all clinched playoff spots this past weekend to join Robert Morris in the 2019 NEC Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The Colonials suffered their first league setback on Saturday, falling to Mount St. Mary’s 61-55 in Emmitsburg. But RMU would manage to rebound on the road in Loretto two days later, winning a rematch of last year’s NEC Championship Game against the Red Flash 66-60. With the win, Robert Morris maintains a three-game lead over second place in the race for the regular season championship and the tournament’s #1 seed. With another win or a Seahawk loss, the Colonials can wrap-up a first round home playoff game in the North Athletic Complex, a place where Robert Morris has defeated their last 21 straight conference opponents.
The reigning NEC champion Saint Francis Red Flash assured a return trip to the postseason for a 24th time, and 10th time in the last 11 years, with a 77-65 win in New Jersey over Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday. The win coupled with the Colonial loss had the Flash in a position where they controlled their own destiny. Had they defeated RMU on Monday they would have been one game back with still another game against the Colonials to go, putting them in the driver’s seat in the race to the #1 seed. Instead, SFU now find themselves three games out of first and in a battle for the #2 seed.
Sacred Heart will be appearing in their 20th straight NEC Tournament, the longest active streak in the NEC. They opened up a season long four game NEC road trip by splitting a pair of games against Bryant and LIU Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers took advantage of losses by Saint Francis and Sacred Heart, returning into a three-way tie with the Pioneers and Red Flash for second place. By sweeping their games against the Blackbirds and Blue Devils, the Terriers officially wrapped up their third straight playoff berth and 14th in school history.
The Wagner Seahawks, winners of four out of their last five, fell a game off of the pace for a top four spot and a first round home playoff game position after splitting games against Central Connecticut State and Mount St. Mary’s. At 7-6, the Seahawks own a winning record after 13 NEC games for the first time since 2004 and have a hold on sole possession of fifth place. After four straight years of finishing in last place, and predicted to finish last by the NEC coaches again this season, Wagner’s magic number to clinch their first playoff spot since 2014 is down to one.
Mount St. Mary’s made up some lost ground this weekend by knocking off previous NEC unbeaten Robert Morris and following that up by handing the Wagner Seahawks their first defeat in the month of February. The Mountaineers are one game behind Wagner and two games out of the top four. The Bryant Bulldogs stand at 5-8 and in seventh place with a big game against the team directly above them, Mount St. Mary’s, coming up on Saturday.
The bottom of the standings certainly got more interesting this weekend following LIU Brooklyn’s 69-64 win at the Barclays Center over Sacred Heart. After starting the year 0-10 in league play, the Blackbirds have won two out of their last three and are only one game behind Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson for the eighth and final playoff spot. In fact, the Blackbirds will play both the Blue Devils and Knights during the final week of conference play, games that could have major implications as to who makes the postseason and which two teams will be left on the outside looking in.
*KEYSTONE STATE COLLISION: 345 days after meeting at DeGol Arena to decide the 2018 NEC Championship, the Robert Morris Colonials returned to Loretto for the first time since last March to take on the reigning NEC champion Saint Francis Red Flash.
The game would come down to the fourth quarter and see the Colonials outscore SFU 11-4 over the final three minutes to come away with a 66-60 victory, their 12th win in their last 13 games. The game featured several eye popping surprises, first of which was the RMU defense holding Jess Kovatch to a career low six points on 1-9 shooting. Kovatch, who had averaged 25.4 points on 42.3% shooting in seven prior career games against the Colonials, became the sixth straight opposing team’s leading scorer to be held to single digit scoring against RMU.
“It’s a team effort. It’s not just that matchup, but the team energy to talk,” said Robert Morris head coach Charlie Buscaglia in his post-game interview on ESPN3 with Pam Roecker. “Our five, Nneka Ezeigbo, was great with talking and continuing to stay to the next play. It was a team effort, (Kovatch) is a great player, she’s a great offensive scorer, and we had to be really good today to stop her.”
The Red Flash, one of the top free throw shooting teams in the league, uncharacteristically left a lot of points off the board due to missed free throw opportunities, going 16 for 26 from the charity stripe on the night. Robert Morris also dominated the boards with a 48-34 advantage, and a 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass, leading to 17 Colonial second chance points. RMU also hoisted up a season high 39 three point attempts. Six of those three point attempts were successfully converted by sophomore guard Nina Augustin, leading to a career high 18 point outing. Nneka Ezeigbo finished a rebound shy of a double-double with 16 points and 9 rebounds.
The teams will meet up again in the regular season finale on Thursday, March 7th in Moon Township. Check out highlights from Monday night’s prime-time President’s Day showdown below…
*HISTORY FOR THE DUO FROM DOWN UNDER: St. Francis Brooklyn’s ‘Duo from Down Under’ had themselves a weekend as the Terriers welcomed in LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut State for games at the Pope PE Center. On Saturday, senior guard Amy O’Neill recorded her second triple-double of the season with a 16 point, 10 rebound, and 11 assist afternoon against borough rival LIU Brooklyn. O’Neill recorded the lucky 13th triple-double in NEC history and joins RMU’s Chinata Nesbit from 2008 as only players in league annals to have multiple triple-doubles in a single season. All this coming just two weeks after O’Neill recorded her first triple-double, and the first in program history, with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in 44 minutes against Sacred Heart. The Melbourne native is one of only six players in the nation to have multiple triple-doubles on the season. Also during the game against the Blackbirds, an O’Neill dish to Johnson on a made jumper would give O’Neill the school’s single season assist record, which previously stood for 28 years. The senior’s tally now stands at 207 helpers, and counting, in 2019.
“Amy is an amazing player, and definitely the heart and soul of this team,” St. Francis Brooklyn head coach Linda Cimino commented during her post-game press conference. “She’s such a great playmaker for us and I’m really proud of her and happy for her.”
Join us next week here on the #NECWBB Fast Break, where we will sit down and chat with the NEC’s Triple-Double Queen.
Meanwhile, O’Neill’s tag team partner, Jade Johnson, was also busy making history of her own on Saturday afternoon, netting her 1,000th career point in the first half of the game against LIU Brooklyn. Johnson reaches the milestone as a junior, and becomes the 18th member of the St. Francis Brooklyn 1,000 point club, joining teammate Maria Palarino who eclipsed 1,000 points earlier this year at Mount St. Mary’s. Johnson and Palarino join Central’s Kiana Patterson, Bryant’s Sydney Holloway, and Sacred Heart’s Katherine Haines, as players who have reached 1,000 career points this season.
“To score 1,000 points is a great accomplishment, but to do it as a junior is really tremendous,” said Coach Cimino. “I’m really happy for her. She needed 20 points going into today’s game, I didn’t realize she was going to get it in the first half! She was on today. It was a great day for the Aussies today.”
Not too long ago, we welcomed her teammate to the 1,000 point club. Now it’s time to welcome the 18th player in our history to the same list. Congratulations to our very own, JADE JOHNSON! #BrooklynTough 🏀 pic.twitter.com/UxFE6BFrvP— St. Francis Brooklyn WBB 🏀 (@SFBK_WBB) February 16, 2019
With only five regular season games to go, plus any playoff games her team plays, Fairleigh Dickinson senior guard Madelynn Comly owns 958 career points, 42 shy of 1,000. Comly would have to average 8.4 points over the last five games to get there.
A LOOK AHEAD
Saturday, February 23, 2019 St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris, 1pm Sacred Heart at Central Connecticut State, 1pm Mount St. Mary’s at Bryant, 1pm Wagner at Fairleigh Dickinson, 2pm LIU Brooklyn at Saint Francis U, 4pm
Monday, February 25, 2019 LIU Brooklyn at Robert Morris, 7pm Mount St. Mary’s at Central Connecticut, 7pm Sacred Heart at Fairleigh Dickinson, 7pm (ESPN+) Bryant at Wagner, 7pm St. Francis Brooklyn at Saint Francis U, 7pm
With just five games, and two and a half weeks, remaining, the race towards March and the NEC Tournament is really starting to heat up. Looking ahead to this upcoming weekend, there are several games with major postseason implications…
*St. Francis Brooklyn’s Pennsylvania Road Trip: After last week’s loss to Wagner put them one game off of the pace for second place, the Terriers fought their way back into the pack with Sacred Heart and Saint Francis U by sweeping a pair of games against LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut. The Terriers chances for ending up with one of the tournament’s top seeds could very well rest on their performance in Pennsylvania this weekend against the Colonials on Saturday and Red Flash on Monday. St. Francis Brooklyn welcomed both of the NEC’s Pennsylvania institutions into Brooklyn back in mid-January and came away with a split. Robert Morris held the Terriers to just 56 points on 37.5% shooting, while forcing 19 turnovers in a Colonial 75-56 win, before SFBK bounced back 48 hours later with 78 points on 48% shooting in a 78-65 win over the reigning champion Red Flash, handing SFU their first conference loss of the season.
Since the year 2000, the Terriers have never swept both games of the Pennsylvania road trip, however they have won at both Moon Township and Loretto in the same single season before. In 2015 they won at SFU and lost at Robert Morris during the regular season, but returned to RMU several weeks later and defeated the Colonials at the Sewell Center in the NEC Championship Game.
St. Francis Brooklyn has already clinched a spot in the NEC Tournament for the third straight season and for the 14th time in program history, so now it is all about jockeying for position. The Terriers are battling to finish in the top four and clinch the program’s first ever home playoff game. A win in one or both of the games out in the Keystone State would go a long way to boosting their chances here in the waning stages of the regular season.
*Sacred Heart at Fairleigh Dickinson: The Pioneers will travel to the Garden State to meet the FDU Knights on Monday night at the Rothman Center. The game will be broadcasted live at 7pm on ESPN+ with myself and Kim Adams on the call. Sacred Heart is in a second place stalemate with St. Francis Brooklyn and Saint Francis U. The Pioneers would love to reach one of the top two seeds, which would ensure that a potential semi-final game would be played at the Pitt Center. The road to a postseason at the Pitt Center will ironically have to be earned on the road, as the Pioneers are in the midst of a season high four game road trip, playing five of their final seven regular season games on the road. Meanwhile, the Knights are fighting for their postseason lives. Fairleigh Dickinson has been to the NEC Tournament each of the last four seasons, with the last two years coming as the #8 seed. To make it back in 2019, the Knights will have to fight off both CCSU and LIU Brooklyn, in a situation where there are three teams likely battling for just one spot.
The Pioneers and Knights met just two weeks ago in Fairfield with the Pioneers coming away with a 68-62 victory. SHU led by 18 points with just over seven minutes remaining, only to see the Knights stage a 19-4 run to pull within a single possession inside of two minutes to go. Sacred Heart managed to hold on for the win, led by Candice Leatherwood’s 19 points and Kat Haines’ double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Sacred Heart has dominated the all-time series, sporting a 30-5 advantage. However, while the Pioneers are 18-0 all-time against FDU at home, they have tasted defeat four out of their last five trips to the Rothman Center.
*The Mount/Bryant Rematch: In one of the most memorable NEC games of the year so far, Bryant staged an epic fourth quarter comeback at the Mount back on January 12th. Trailing by 11 points going into the fourth quarter, and by as many as 14 points within the final quarter itself, Bryant went on an 11-0 run to tie the game at 64 with 2:49 to play. The Bulldogs would outscore the Mountaineers 9-4 the rest of the way to pull off the improbable win, holding the Mount without a field goal for the final 6:09. It was a game that left Mount St. Mary’s frustrated that they let get away. Now six weeks later, they will meet in Rhode Island for the rematch, in a game neither can afford to lose. With just one game of separation between the two schools in the NEC standings, Bryant would be eliminated from top four, and first round home playoff game, contention with a loss, while Mount would slide down to seventh place and lose the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Bulldogs.
THREE: Amy O’Neill, SR (SFBK): Two weeks after her first triple-double, and first triple-double in program history, O’Neill once again reached the historic milestone, this time in regulation. O’Neill filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists against the borough rival Blackbirds. O’Neill is one of just six players in the nation to have recorded multiple triple-doubles this season. Two days later, O’Neill would flirt with the mark once again, with an 8 point, 8 rebound, and 8 assist game against Central Connecticut, helping the Terriers to clinch a third straight trip to the NEC Tournament. The senior point guard is the only player in the NEC to rank top 20 in scoring and top 10 in assists and rebounds. O’Neill also stands second in the nation in assists per game and 10th in minutes played.
TWO: Nina Augustin, SO (RMU): Nina Augustin was our ‘Player of the Game’ during Monday night’s ESPN3 broadcast, and is now our #2 Star of the Week. The box score will show that Augustin had a career offensive night on Monday night against the Red Flash, with a career high 18 points on six made threes. However, what the box score won’t necessarily show is her outstanding effort on the defensive side of the ball. Augustin played a large hand in the Robert Morris defense limiting the nation’s eighth ranked scorer, Jess Kovatch, to just six points on 1-9 shooting, the lowest single-game point total of her career. The sophomore from Finland started both games this weekend, making her first appearances in the starting five since December 7th against Kent State.
ONE: Jade Johnson, JR (SFBK): Johnson had a historic weekend with her family in town all the way from Australia, pouring in a total of 52 points over the course of games against LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut State. Included in the 52, was her 1,000th career point, scored during the second quarter of Saturday’s showdown with the Blackbirds. Johnson would finish the day with 31 points on 13-21 shooting, making it the fourth time this year she has reached 30 points in a game, and the second time this year she’s done it against LIU Brooklyn. Also during that contest, Johnson would score the historic bucket that allowed Amy O’Neill to break the school’s single season assists record. Two days later, against the Blue Devils, the junior guard was right back at it. Johnson led the team with 21 points on 9-21 shooting against CCSU. On the season, Johnson ranks second in the league in both scoring and made threes. During the month of February, Johnson is averaging 22.6 points per game on 45% shooting and 39% from beyond the arc.
STAT OF THE WEEK
*The greatest one-year turnaround in NEC history was the 2004 to 2005 Robert Morris Colonials. In their first season under Sal Buscaglia, the Colonials finished in last place, going 3-24 and 2-16 in NEC play during the 2004 season. Led by RMU Hall of Famer Sugeiry Monsac, the 2005 Colonials would go on to finish 17 games better overall and 11 games better in conference play, ending up a with a 20-10 overall and 13-5 NEC record, advancing all the way to the NEC Championship Game.
Some of the other top one-year turnarounds in NEC play:
-LIU: 4 wins in 2009 to 14 in 2010 (+10) -LIU: 2 wins in 1999 to 11 in 2000 (+9) -CCSU: 5 wins in 2014 to 14 in 2015 (+9) -RMU: 6 wins in 2013 to 14 in 2014 (+8)
A very special thank you this week to Wagner head coach Heather Jacobs, redshirt-sophomore Taylah Simmons, and former Seahawk head coaches Tara Gallagher and Pam Roecker for sitting down with us to talk about the great tradition and the current rise of Wagner women’s basketball. Be sure to join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, February 27th for a unique WBB Fast Break column. First, we’ll check in with the NEC’s triple-double queen, St. Francis Brooklyn senior point guard, Amy O’Neill. Then, we will take you behind the scenes of the Saint Francis/Robert Morris ESPN3 broadcast from this past Monday night and show you what it takes to put on a basketball national broadcast. We’ll show you all of the preparation involved in the days leading up to the game. Plus we will give you a glimpse at the gameday production, meet the crew that helps make the broadcast possible, highlight some of the production decisions that helped shape what you saw on TV, and discuss what stories and information didn’t make the broadcast and why.
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:
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:
Sacred Heart’s Kinnon LaRose has the 4th highest offensive efficiency (138 ORtg) in the country, according to KenPom. He’s a role player based on usage, yet his shooting #s are 🔥. He’s shooting 67% on 2s, 43% on 3s and has committed just 12 turnovers all season.
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.
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:
1st Place Record
Teams 1 or 2 Games Back of 1st Place
5th Place Record
9th Place Record
Difference Between 1st & 9th Place
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.
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.