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.
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.
“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.
|2019-20, 1st Month
|2018-19, 1st Month
When you pull out the guarantee games and look at just mid-major competition, the same trends still mostly apply.
|2019-20, 1st Month
|2018-19, 1st Month
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.