Defense, Defense, Defense: Breaking Down Merrimack’s Tenacity and Highlighting my NEC All-Defensive Team

Death, taxes and Merrimack’s defense excelling. If there’s one thing NEC fans will recall from Merrimack’s time during their Division I reclassification period, it’s that Joe Gallo’s aggressive zone is way more difficult to score on than your typical man-to-man defense. There may have been a little bit of lag in Warriors’ defense during those middle seasons, but seasons one and now four have been memorable from a historical perspective in league play. 

Program/YearHead CoachAdj Defensive EffNEC Record
Mount St. Mary’s, 2009-10Milan Brown88.613-7
Wagner, 2011-12Dan Hurley90.116-4
Merrimack, 2019-20Joe Gallo90.314-4
Robert Morris, 2009-10Mike Rice90.418-3
Merrimack, 2022-23Joe Gallo90.59-4
CCSU, 2001-02Howie Dickenman90.722-1

What’s most impressive about Merrimack’s defensive resurgence is the team’s seven scholarship newcomers have turned the Warrior backcourt into a mostly green one. Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage knew nothing about Gallo’s zone coming in this summer and yet here they are with steal rates among the top 20 of the country. It’s a big reason why Merrimack has extracted a turnover on 26.5% of their opponent’s possessions, currently the best turnover rate in all of Division I. 

It kind of started when Gallo and his coaching staff began recruiting Bennett after watching the dynamic guard dominate at a tournament in Philly. “He was just telling me ‘yeah you remind me of this guy, Juvaris Hayes,” Bennett recalled of his first recruiting encounter with Gallo. “I didn’t know who he was, but (Gallo) showed me who he was and I saw really good similarities.”

The Merrimack staff did something unusual in their recruitment of Bennett, as Gallo explained. “We knew Bennett was special, actually when we recruited him we made a video of him with his steals from AAU and high school and Juvaris Hayes steals his senior year at Merrimack,” he said. “There were about 20 for each of them – and some of them were scary in that they were like the identical play.”

The unique approach obviously paid dividends, with Bennett accepting Merrimack’s offer prior to the start of his senior season at Trinity Prep in Florida. A season later the NEC all-rookie lock possesses the nation’s second best steal rate by generating a theft on 5.7% of the opponent’s possessions. And there’s this: even though the NCAA won’t consider players on teams in the midst of their Division I transition process for counting stats (it’s a dumb rule), Bennett leads all Division I players currently with 78 steals. Bennett is one of only two freshmen inside the NCAA’s top 40 in total steals, with FIU’s Arturo Dean serving as the other rookie. 

As the “goalie” of the Merrimack zone over the better part of four seasons, Jordan Minor knows he’s been spoiled to witness both Hayes (in his freshman year) and Bennett this season. “I think they both have very quick instincts,” Minor said when comparing the two. “They both have a knack for finding the ball, especially for (Javon), being a freshman and just picking it up so quickly it’s been kind of fun to watch.”

Bennett’s elite quickness, both laterally and in a linear fashion, has been able to extract turnovers and get deflections, whereas the opportunistic Hayes possessed elite anticipation when making opponent’s lives miserable. 

“There would be times where (Hayes) would have his hands down and he would just pick them up and (the opponent) would throw him the ball,” Minor said with a chuckle. 

Of late, Merrimack has really thrived with playing the trio of Minor, Bennett and Derkack on the floor together. Per Hoop Explorer, Merrimack has an adjusted defensive efficiency of 87.8 for 328 possessions with those three, with the team’s baseline adjusted defensive efficiency for the entire season sitting at 102.0. It’s no wonder Merrimack has allowed 1.00 point per possession or less in 10 of 13 league games this season, with the Warriors sporting a record of 9-1 in those defensive minded contests. 

With 3 games remaining, Gallo has the opportunity to win his second regular season championship in 4 seasons, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Warriors aren’t yet eligible to compete in the NIT or NCAA Tournament. It’s all about the defense.

The Ryan Peters NEC All-Defensive Team

With the season winding down, I wanted to highlight the league’s best defensive players. There’s been some great individual seasons given the league’s overall challenge to score the basketball. Per KenPom, the NEC sits at 31 out of 32 conferences in adjusted offensive efficiency with a mark of 99.4. You may see it as bad offense, yet I see it as great defense! So let’s celebrate the wonderful defenders with my official NEC all-defensive team brought to you by yours truly!

Javon Bennett, Merrimack

Let’s start with the obvious: when you’re leading the country in steals and have such a profound impact on the Warriors’ zone, that’ll put you in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t care about Bennett’s freshman status, and honestly I hope that isn’t a factor when coaches consider the league’s DPOY. Bennett’s ability to disrupt offense at the top of the zone is special, not just in generating chaos with steals, deflections, and diving on the floor for loose balls, but also in contesting perimeter shots and getting Merrimack easy points in transition. League foes are making less than 32% of their 3s, and Bennett’s aforementioned quickness and athleticism plays a role in this.

Jordan Minor, Merrimack

As the premier rim protector in the NEC, Minor has rejected at least 3 shots in 13 of 20 games this season and now possesses the 39th best block rate in the country at 8.3%. Not only does Merrimack have a defensive efficiency that’s improved by 19.1 points per 100 possessions when Minor is on the floor, but opponents are shooting 12.4% worse from deep and 9.4% worse on mid-range 2s when the big man is playing. Why? Minor’s presence in the paint allows the Merrimack wings and guards to extend their coverage; it helps to know an elite shot blocker is behind you if the opponent gets into the paint versus that zone. Minor may in fact be the favorite for this year’s DPOY honor, so it’ll be interesting to see how much his experience plays a role in potentially taking down his freshman teammate.

Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill

Bennett may have the nation’s second best steal rate, but Burnett isn’t far behind with the fourth best mark nationally at 5.3%. The senior has been integral in elevating Stonehill’s defense to the second best efficiency in league play, a development that I certainly didn’t see coming with respect to Chris Kraus’ unit. Truth be told, Burnett’s ability to jump passing lanes, keep opponents in front with his 6’5” frame and stay on the floor without fouling – he’s committing a paltry 1.9 fouls per 40 minutes – is quite special. His versatility to cover all 5 positions on the floor in a pinch is a luxury most NEC coaches don’t have with respect to their backcourt players. Burnett is one of the best two-way players the conference has to offer.

Nico Galette, Sacred Heart

While Galette has been lauded for his late game heroics in recent weeks, and rightfully so, the junior’s defensive impact on the Pioneers should not be understated. As a versatile 6’6” hybrid type forward, Galette is the only NEC player in the league’s top 10 in both steal rate (3.3%) and block rate (3.2%). His unique blend of athleticism, anticipation and court awareness is a reason why Sacred Heart gives up nearly 4 fewer points per 100 possessions and enjoys a defensive turnover rate of 20.4% when he’s between the lines. Anthony Latina challenged Galette to impact the game on the defensive end more so than last season, and the Rahway, New Jersey native has stepped up to the challenge by leveraging his defensive versatility. 

Jordan Derkack, Merrimack

With all due respect, Merrimack is the league’s best defensive squad by a sizable margin, so why not put three Warriors on my all-defensive team? Derkack has given his team a different look at the top of the zone, and it’s something that’s benefitted the Warriors greatly. Just ask Gallo: “He’s as big of a guy as we’ve ever had up there. He’s super aggressive, he’s got a nose for the basketball.” Derkack’s presence alongside Bennett has allowed the lightning quick teammate to chase turnovers, but the big guard has collected a bunch in his own right, posting a 5.1% steal rate. 

I’d like to extend defensive honorable mentions to the following players: CCSU’s Abdul Momoh and his ability to defend the paint for Pat Sellers’ Blue Devils, St. Francis Brooklyn’s Josiah Harris given how much he’s toughened the Terriers’ interior presence and Wagner’s DeLonnie Hunt for his intense ball-pressure that greatly bothers the other team’s point guard consistently. I’m sure there are other players I’ve accidentally omitted from this post, but it’s tough to keep track in the year of great defense!

After Movin’ On Up, Sky’s the Limit for Stonehill

Photo by Brian Foley for

Most of us picked Stonehill near the bottom of the NEC standings in the preseason. When I researched the program for the first time this past summer, I saw a veteran Skyhawks jumping up a level after going 10-9 in the respected NE-10 during the 2021-22 season. Merrimack executed a similar jump 4 years ago, and who could forget the Warriors’ improbable regular season title at 14-4. 

But Merrimack was coming off 3 consecutive Division 2 NCAA tournament appearances at the time, not to mention a NE-10 regular season title and a veteran team led by Juvaris Hayes, one of the greatest stealers in the history of college basketball. Stonehill came in with a different playing style/scheme, more moderate success and had 4 of their top 8 scorers depart after last season. Maybe Chris Kraus’ group would be competitive some nights, but a middle of the pack finish could be construed as a best case scenario for 2022-23.

Now into February, Stonehill has defied these expectations and then some. More than halfway through the league’s conference schedule, the Skyhawks sit one game back of first place FDU at 6-3. The group has won several different ways: outscoring opponents, grinding it out defensively and making clutch plays when it matters most. Does any of this success, especially in league play, surprise Kraus at all?

“I think you have to be, for us to be sitting at second place in the league,” Kraus, now in his 10th year at Stonehill, said. “I think there’s a little bit of surprise and excitement at the same time, but I think overall it certainly shows how good our program, our team and our players are but also how good the Northeast-10 conference is.”

How exactly has Stonehill done it? Allow me to map out Stonehill’s successes for why they’re currently in the running for an improbable regular season title with just four weeks remaining. 

Experience Matters, Even if It Isn’t Division I Experience

Don’t let the lack of Division I playing time on this Skyhawks roster fool you, as I was. Per KenPom, the Skyhawks may be 361st (out of 363 programs) in its experience metric, yet the team is loaded with accomplished veterans such as Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and others. It’s a major reason why Stonehill doesn’t get fazed in big moments. The team’s top 5 scorers are all in their fifth year of playing college basketball and regardless of the level, you can’t discount how much their experience has helped sculpt this group into a formidable opponent. 

In actuality, no one in the league is older than Stonehill, and that’s significant after several NEC programs graduated their grizzled 22 and 23 year olds from rosters last offseason. Here’s a snapshot of the league’s current experience in terms of playing at the Division I level:

TeamKenPom ExperienceNational RankNEC Record
Merrimack1.96 years1705-4
Sacred Heart1.89 years1874-5
Wagner1.70 years2294-4
Saint Francis University1.45 years2805-3
CCSU1.19 years3084-5
St. Francis Brooklyn1.10 years3194-5
LIU0.85 years3431-9
FDU0.60 years3547-2
Stonehill0.29 years3616-3

Interestingly enough, FDU finds themselves in a similar boat with respect to how their Division I experience compares to the rest of the league. That’s because star guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton have 8 years of collective experience at St. Thomas Aquinas College, but zero at the Division I level. It makes me question my prognostication skills a bit – why didn’t I value that Division II experience more instead of ranking FDU fifth and Stonehill eighth in my NEC preseason standings in Blue Ribbon?

Nevertheless, Kraus’ players are now in the stage of their careers where proving everyone wrong has become a daily mantra. 

“I think all of these kids who have transferred up…  they come up and show they belong, we always felt the NE-10 was a Division I league. It just happened to have a Division 2 title, I think people are seeing that,” Kraus said.

The 3-Pointer Has Opened Things Up for Stonehill’s Offense

Stonehill’s long distance prowess has experienced a positive bump, and it really can be traced to 2 players: Shamir Johnson and Max Zegarowski. The 5th year sharpshooters are shooting a combined 39.8% from deep and have made 42.1% of their guarded catch-and-shoot 3-point takes, according to Synergy. Their court presence is a major reason why the Skyhawks have enjoyed a 2.8% increase in 3-point shooting compared to last season at the Division 2 level. 

Photo by Brian Foley for

“We have more shooting across the board on this current roster than we did last year, and it’s allowed Andrew Sims to play more one on one or we’ve game planned it a little more differently versus last year’s team,” Kraus said of a team that’s second in league play with a 54.1% eFG and 36.4% free throw rate.

While Johnson and Zegarowski are predominantly jump shooters – 73.1% of their shots this season have been jumpers – their shotmaking has opened up the floor for the Stonehill slashers and interior presences. The aforementioned Sims has more room to operate out of the post, landing in the top 30 percentile of Division 1 with a 49% success rate on his post opportunities. Burnett has gotten downhill more effectively as well, finishing at the rim 65% of the time. And others such as Josh Mack have added efficiency to their games – Mack in particular has an effective field goal percentage of 62%, a tremendous number for a 6’0” guard getting his first taste at the Division I level.  

It’s mainly due to Johnson and Zegarowski spacing the floor in Stonehill’s 4 or 5-out motion offense. It’s a tough set to guard with the complementary pieces, and especially so with Zegarowski pulling opposing bigs out of the paint. 

“He’s done such a great job spacing the floor, with his IQ, his feel, his awareness with his ability to shoot it,” Kraus said of Zegarowski, who also played in the NE-10 at Franklin Pierce last season before transferring to Stonehill. “We can put him in spots on the floor besides Burnett, besides Sims and say ‘ok, pick your poison.’”

Case in point:

One bonus analytic on Zegarowski: per Hoop-Math, the 6’8” stretch big has made 47% of his 3-point attempts when the shot clock is at 10 seconds or less. What a dagger it must be for the other team to play tenacious defense for 20-plus seconds, only to have Zegarowski drain one over the top of you.

The Defense Has Improved Throughout the Season

In the early going when Quinnipiac, Holy Cross, Illinois Chicago and other opponents were routinely getting above 1.00 point per possession (ppp) in their non-conference battles with Stonehill, it didn’t seem like this was a team built for grinding games out. And yet, nine games into league play, Stonehill has the conference’s third best adjusted defensive efficiency (97.0 DRtg) thanks to a unit that holds opponents to shooting percentages of 47.8% 2PT and 29.8% 3PT. 

The Skyhawks aren’t equipped to rebound, nor have they extracted a lot of turnovers from their opponents on a nightly basis. For Kraus, it’s all about tailoring a plan that fits the strengths of his players. 

“If we’re on the perimeter with a motion concept (offensively) with four guys or five guys, whatever it is, you sort of build in your transition defense or conversion defense to fit what we’re doing offensively,” he said. 

With more shotmakers to rely on, Kraus has taught its players to be careful about crashing the glass, and instead making sure they are back on defense after a miss. The philosophy bodes well; currently Stonehill’s 50.0% eFG mark on defense in transition opportunities is bettered only by Wagner (49.4% eFG) within the NEC. For perspective, 6 NEC programs sit at 54% eFG or worse when playing transition defense. 

Furthermore, better size at the guard and wing spots – their effective height at the 1, 2 and 3 is either average or above average per KenPom – has allowed Stonehill to better contest shots in the half-court, hence the depressed shooting percentages.

It also helps when you have this guy, armed with a 4.8% steal rate that’s ranked 18th nationally, giving you a nightly pick-6. You can make the argument that Burnett won Stonehill the game in that second half against Wagner.

Kraus is Trying to Find an Edge Anyway He Can

This is really true of any head coach, as coaches are always mining for hidden gems that’ll give them even a 1 or 2-point edge over the course of 40 minutes. For Kraus, he’s always loved to design plays out of timeouts, so it’s no surprise that Stonehill currently ranks in the top quarter of the nation in offensive efficiency (0.922 ppp, 52.3% eFG) out of those play stoppages. 

Photo by Brian Foley for

“For me, I always loved ATO (after time outs) stuff whether it’s baseline out of bounds or like special situational things,” Kraus answered when asked why Stonehill does well in those situations. “I think as a coach it’s a fun time to be creative if you want to or hone in on certain areas to attack.”

This isn’t new for Kraus – Stonehill ranked seventh in all of Division 2 basketball in offensive efficiency after time outs at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season as well. Now, with veteran players that each possess unique skills relative to each other, it allows Kraus to put each of them in positions of strength.

Sims, Burnett and Zegarowski are all inside the NEC’s top-10 in effective field goal percentage out of time outs, illustrating how dangerous Stonehill is when Kraus is given time to draw up a play.

Now with seven games left in their season, Stonehill is in position to do something special similar to what Merrimack did 3 years ago. Win or lose the rest of the way, the Skyhawks have acquitted themselves very well into Division I basketball; the future is bright in North Easton.

From STAC to Hackensack: FDU’s Demetre Roberts Levels Up

Credit: Larry Levanti

Demetre Roberts was ready to give it another go. After weeks of deliberation with family, friends and coaches, Roberts decided that the pros outweighed the cons for returning to St. Thomas Aquinas College for a fifth season. Despite accomplishing seemingly all there was to accomplish at the individual and team level, the ECC all-conference first teamer was poised for more. A Final Four appearance. Maybe a legitimate run at the Division II national championship. But most importantly, it was a personal goal that drove his decision making process to stick around.

“I think the ultimate goal for me was getting my Masters (degree),” Roberts said when asked for his reasons for why he decided to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as STAC, for the 2022-23 season. “In my family I’m the first one to achieve that goal, so I think that played a part in why I decided to stay at STAC.”

This all could’ve been part of Roberts’ fairy tale ending – right now he may have been in the midst of yet another 25-win season and would soon help STAC embark on another deep run in the Division II NCAA Tournament. It was set up that way, that is until the head coaching position at FDU opened up a few weeks later. And then all hell broke loose when then-STAC head coach Tobin Anderson accepted the job. 

“We’re going to be great next year (at STAC), we’re all fired up and then this whole thing happened,” Anderson explained. “For me personally and professionally if I don’t take this job that might be it. They don’t hire Division II coaches, they don’t do it.”

Both Roberts and his equally successful teammate Grant Singleton fully understood their coach’s reasoning for jumping at the once in a lifetime opportunity. For Anderson, it was a chance to prove himself at a quality Division I school close to home. But that didn’t make it any easier for Roberts and Singleton to digest and assess their current plight. 

“It was a big shocker, it just came out of nowhere but I wouldn’t lie, it definitely took a big hit on me,” Roberts admitted. 

After the news of Anderson’s hiring reached the team via social media prior to the coach meeting with them – the media leak was something that irked Anderson a little – Roberts, Singleton and Anderson huddled together after the team meeting. Anderson was about to leave for his Division I opportunity, although he had some unfinished business at STAC. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

“I told them ‘I love you no matter what. You don’t have to come (to FDU), but there’s an opportunity for you at Division I,” Anderson said to them in the impromptu and ultimately awkward meeting. 

For Singleton, it didn’t take long to decide that following his coach was in his best interest. “I needed a little bit of time to think about it, talk it over with my family,” the fifth year shooting guard said of the process. “It was an easier decision than I thought when I came to visit FDU, just being in the same system, better facility…”

Unlike his close friend and longtime teammate, Roberts needed more time to contemplate his options. If he was going with Anderson, a couple of weeks to figure things out were a must.

Eventually, the deliberate and thoughtful Roberts was on board. “I think the good part about that (situation) was he had the opportunity to bring us with him, so I think that kind of cooled everything down,” he said. 

The lightning quick point guard has never been one to make a rash decision. Back in high school at Mount Vernon, Anderson offered the dynamic, yet diminutive floor general as a junior despite the overall lack of interest in the 5’8” guard’s services. Back then, it really only was STAC and Division II counterpart LIU Post that offered Roberts, but nevertheless a lengthy waiting game ensued. 

“I recruited him all through his senior year and literally, he’ll tell you this too, he would not return (my texts and calls),” Anderson said with a smile of the arduous recruiting effort to sign Roberts. “I would text him 50 times for every time he returned my text, he would never return a text.”

Roberts was playing tough to get mainly for his wish to eventually garner some Division I interest. That interest never came, and soon after it was Mount Vernon head coach Bob Cimmino assuring Anderson that Roberts would eventually come around. It was late in the senior’s season, and Anderson decided to visit Roberts and his team during a state semifinal playoff game. At the time, Anderson was preparing to interview for a head coaching position at another school, and he felt confident he’d get the job and leave STAC. Despite this, he decided to attend Roberts’ game and keep his commitment to the high motored point guard. It was 12-plus months of recruiting up to that point, what was another weekend in the grand scheme of things?

The encounter turned out to be a positive for both parties, and after the job opportunity unexpectedly fell through, Anderson was told by Cimmino that Roberts was ready to visit STAC. The rest, of course, is history with a marriage between coach and player that has been greatly fruitful for both sides. The proof is in the pudding with 96 wins in four seasons and several Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances at STAC. 

“He wants to play professionally, so for a guy like his size and his background he’s going to have to be the hardest working guy, the toughest guy and that’s what he is,” Anderson says of his guard who’s now logged 129 career games, all with the long-time head coach. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

Now with FDU sitting at a perfect 5-0 in Northeast Conference league play, the transition from Division II to Division I hasn’t been much of an adjustment, if at all. The confident, yet humble Roberts isn’t shy to admit this. 

“I think it’s more fast paced in the NEC than the ECC, (but) we’re all basketball players, I feel like it’s the same competition,” Roberts said of the adjustment to Division I. “You just go out there and play basketball, everything else will just take care of itself.”

With more than a half of a Division I season logged, Roberts game is taking care of itself as the graduate senior finds himself third in scoring (17.0 ppg), first in assists (4.1 apg), sixth in free throw percentage (78.0%) and fifth overall in KenPom’s “Northeast Conference” rank among all NEC players. His explosive ability to score, facilitate and cause mayhem, all while staying perfectly in control – his 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is also 5th in the league – has all of the opposing coaches on notice.

“He’s got a little (former UConn guard) Shabazz Napier in him because he has the ball on a string, he puts you on his heels with the dribble and he can shoot it from deep,” Central Connecticut State coach Pat Sellers said of Roberts, who scored 18 points on 10 shots in FDU’s recent road victory over the Blue Devils. “And he’s really quick, he’s quick and he’s a tough kid.”

With roughly six weeks to go in the regular season, Roberts still has a final chapter to write in his collegiate career. One thing is for sure though, he’ll always cherish what Anderson has given him on the hardwood. 

“He’ll risk it all just for us to succeed,” Roberts said of Anderson. “He’s a gritty coach who wants the best out of his players. Everyday he’s going to push us, obviously he’s doing it just to get positive outcomes.”

A Historical Look at Other Division II Transfers Who’ve Impacting the NEC

Given the immediate successes of Roberts and Singleton as Division II transplants, and others such as Stonehill’s Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and Max Zegarowski, I wanted to take a historic look at previous Northeast Conference mainstays who were Division II transfers. Credit to NEC diehard Matt Mauro for piquing my interest on the topic:

After polling a few people, it’s clear that the Division II transfer list is decidedly small, as until recently the vast majority of dominant transfers have either come from other Division I institutions or the junior college ranks. But allow me to mine through the few impactful Division II transfers to illustrate the ones who were most successful at playing basketball in the conference.

Jare’l Spellman, Sacred Heart

Anthony Latina’s recruitment of Spellman from Division II Florida Southern went a bit under the radar, yet the 6’10” center’s impact was immediate the moment he stepped on the floor against Division I competition. He may have been lanky, yet that didn’t stop his tenacious effort at protecting the rim at an elite level. Spellman collected a school record 183 rejections and corralled 160 offensive rebounds in just 2 seasons, and it was his first season (11.9% block rate, 12th in D1) that led to a deserving NEC Defensive Player of the Year selection. Alongside rugged double double machine E.J. Anosike, the Pioneers boasted one of the most imposing 2-way frontcourts, with the duo mainly responsible for a Sacred Heart defensive efficiency that rose to the league’s top 3 during the 2019-20 campaign. 

Raekwon Rogers, Wagner

The pieces of contention were in place for Bashir Mason’s Seahawks going into the 2021 offseason, yet it was the astute recruitment and signing of Rogers, a Henderson College standout, that served as the final piece to Wagner’s puzzle in a league rife with accomplished 4th and 5th year players. Rogers, a graduate senior himself, was just what the doctor ordered for the Seahawks – he served as a stout, efficient and at times athletic post presence who embraced the physicality of being a NEC five-man. On a team loaded with stars such as Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez, it was Rogers among the Wagner regulars who led the team in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), offensive rebounding rate (12.7%) and 2-point field goal percentage (60.4%), leading to an all-conference third team selection in his lone year on Grymes Hill.

Tedrick Wilcox, St. Francis Brooklyn

Glenn Braica has been a champion of ushering in ready-to-contribute transfers for several years running, but Wilcox was Braica’s first real Division II signee who’s produced at an above average level. Currently, Wilcox sits inside Bart Torvik’s top 20 NEC players with respect to the replacement value metric PORPAGATU!, and it’s with good reason. Wilcox burst onto the scene last season at St. John’s with 19 points and 5 made triples, and since then the swingman has cast himself as the perfect blend of shotmaking, versatility and toughness to man the 3/4 position on the floor. He’s accepted the mantle of being St. Francis Brooklyn’s leading scorer over the past 3 contests, posting a combined plus/minus of +17 while scoring 1.27 points per possession per Synergy. The former Dominican College stud has all-conference upside, and he’s certainly flashing that now.

John Bunch, Monmouth

This one goes way back, but at 7-foot-2 and 320 pounds Bunch was surely memorable as a center in Dave Calloway’s attack. Much like Spellman, Bunch used his size and instincts to his advantage on the defensive end, swatting away and altering shots like none other in his time. During his senior year in 2006-07, Bunch registered the third highest block rate in the country at 17.6% and that was after posting a 16.2% block rate as a red-shirt junior. At Lincoln University, his prior stop before Monmouth, Bunch averaged a dominant 13 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks per game, while breaking the NCAA record for most blocks in a game with (get this) 18 rejections! To no one’s surprise, he also finished his senior campaign as a Hawk nationally ranked in offensive and defensive rebounding rate.

Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack

I saved the best for last, even though Hayes technically wasn’t a program transfer having spent his entire collegiate career under the tutelage of Joe Gallo at Merrimack. He did however, much like Sims and Burnett at Stonehill after him, transfer to the Division I level with the Warriors reclassification to the Northeast Conference, and did he ever dominate in his lone year. Not only did he eventually break the NCAA’s career record for steals at 457 thefts, but he also earned a spot on the NEC’s all-conference first team as well as become the league’s defensive player of the year with a league leading 121 steals and a NCAA Division I leading steal rate of 6.5%. His impact offensively was impressive as well with a 38% assist rate (12th in D1) and 19 games cracking the double digit threshold in scoring. Can someone please arrange a one-on-one contest between Hayes and Demetre Roberts, pretty please?

An Analytics Driven Breakdown of the NEC’s Non-Conference Season – Part 2

Photo: Larry Levanti

In the first part of my non-conference breakdown and look ahead for the NEC, I summarized the bottom 4 teams in the table below with respect to Bart Torvik’s regular season odd. For Part 1, go here.

Now, I will offer my analysis on the next 5 teams and how I feel they stack up when league play begins this week.

TeamMid-Major RecordProjected NEC Record (KenPom)Bart Torvik Reg Season Title Odds (Share)
Sacred Heart5-59-714.7%

St. Francis Brooklyn

Non-Conference Summary: The Terriers have quietly put together a productive non-conference season, winning four games they were supposed to win (Saint Peter’s, Delaware State, Hartford twice), while staying competitive against mid-major teams in UMass Lowell (KenPom #116) and Longwood (KenPom #150) that could be considered favorites to get an auto-bid berth to the NCAA tournament through their respective conferences. Per Synergy, Glenn Braica’s group currently leads the league with a 0.84 ppp defensive mark, as they’ve been effective in holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 45% in half-court opportunities, putting them in the top 73 percentile in college basketball. To no one’s surprise, a tenacious effort on the perimeter has led the sixth best defensive three-point rate nationally (26.5 3PA/FGA) thereby forcing opponents to beat them inside the arc, where the Terriers have rejected 10.9% of their opponent’s shots (83rd in D1). This team is defending at a much higher level compared to last season, that much is evident through 12 games.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: A wild comeback at home versus Saint Peter’s qualifies as the Terriers’ best performance, as the team outscored the Peacocks 8-0 over the final 2 minutes to execute the come-from-behind victory. At one point, Saint Peter’s possessed a 90% probability to secure the win according to KenPom, but St. Francis’ resolve pushed them to the finish line in its last game at the Pope Center. Once again, the defense shined through with a 0.85 ppp effort, buoyed by holding Saint Peter’s to 31% shooting inside the arc and a splendid 0.24 A/TO. Winning ugly with defense has always been Braica’s calling card when St. Francis is firing on all cylinders, and his team’s triumph that November evening versus a MAAC rival was yet another example of that.

What St. Francis Brooklyn Needs to Do to Succeed: While the defensive profile looks promising, the Terriers could benefit with more offensive efficiency in the half court. Only three times against Division I competition have they scored at least 1.00 ppp in a game, and all three instances were against teams in KenPom bottom 10 of adjusted defensive efficiency. Much of the team’s inefficiency has been due to the Terriers’ reliance on jump shots, as they account for 50% of the team’s total takes. It’s one thing to rely on catch-and-shoot jumpers (good), but St. Francis at times has fallen in love with off-the-dribble shots (mainly bad), posting a 38% eFG on 109 “dribble jumper” attempts per Synergy. If you consider the team’s improvement when taking shots in rhythm (47% eFG on 195 attempts), it certainly would behoove Braica’s squad to shy away from isolation basketball and share the rock as much as possible. Currently, the team is 273rd nationally in assists per field goals made at 48%, and only two players (Rob Higgins at 22.2% and Tedrick Wilcox at 20.7%) have assist rates north of 20%. As a small ball 4-man, I’d expect Wilcox (93.1 offensive rating compared to 104.5 last season) to heat up against the smaller frontcourts of the NEC, and an efficiency bump would be a welcome site for Terrier fans.

If there’s one thing to nitpick with the defense, it’s that St. Francis has struggled to keep opponents off the offensive glass. In a 2 possession defeat versus Longwood for example, the Terriers allowed the Lancers to collect 14 offensive rebounds for a 40% offensive rebounding rate. In tight games going down to the wire, limiting second chance opportunities could be the difference between going 8-8 (5 or 6 seed?) or 10-6 (3 or 4 seed?) in league play. 


Non-Conference Summary: All Tobin Anderson has done in his first non-conference season with FDU was re-establish the Knights as a credible NEC contender, and that’s despite inheriting just five scholarship players from last season’s 4-win roster and getting the gig fairly deep into the spring. With a mostly turned over roster, everyone was put on blast on opening night when FDU was merely one more defensive stop away from pulling off an Atlantic 10 upset at Loyola Chicago. Anderson’s Knights continued their heartbreak tour despite experiencing heartbreak of their own in the first loss, beating Manhattan, VMI, and thoroughly bludgeoning another Atlantic 10 opponent in Saint Joseph’s (more on that later). Through it all, the offense has been the driving force, besting the league in points per possession at 0.92. Their green status on KenPom’s page in turnover rate on both ends (16.8% TO rate offensively, 21.5% TO rate defensively) has also allowed them to reel off six victories, as FDU continues to win a turnover margin battle on a game-by-game basis that Anderson holds near and dear.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Despite coming into Saint Joseph’s as a 16-point underdog per KenPom, the Knights flipped the script with a 12-1 run (kill shot!) late to give the NEC another impressive road victory after downing the Hawks, 97-80. Anderson’s reliable and heavily leaned upon threesome of Grant Singleton, Demetre Roberts and Ansley Almonor combined for 69 points, achieving this production on a startling 35 field goal attempts. The turnover margin battle was won (+6), as was the rebounding margin at +2 despite the smallish Knight rotation. And in all, it was an offensive masterpiece, with shooting percentages of 63% 2PT, 50% 3PT and 81% FT.

What FDU Needs to Do to Succeed: Improving the defense is the obvious answer, as in many ways it’s been turnovers or bust when it comes to FDU stopping their opponents to score. Knight opponents have shot 60.4% from inside the arc, and have had success filling it up from deep with a 36% conversion rate on 3-point attempts. Most of this, to Anderson’s admitting, is the Knight’s small lineup and their aggression in the backcourt when trying to generate live-ball turnovers. It’s something Anderson and his staff will focus on when NEC play commences this week, as an adjusted defensive efficiency of 114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions isn’t sustainable for long-term success (just ask Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart last year). Nevertheless, if FDU can get to the 108.0 adjusted DEff level strictly in league play, the offense and positive turnover margins can absolutely be a recipe for success.

Health is also paramount, as slashing guard Heru Bligen has missed the past 5 games as he works his way back from a concussion. Bligen currently is second among league mates with a 1.21 ppp mark, and bests all players with a 65% field goal percentage. Joe Munden, Jr. also recently missed time due to a concussion, but since returning he’s been fantastic in Anderson’s schemes, posting a career high 2PT percentage of 59% in a small sample of 7 games. Depth is important for most teams, but it’s especially critical for an Anderson led up-tempo attack that hangs its hat on frenetic full-court pressing and getting up the floor off opponent miscues. If he doesn’t have 8 to 9 guys he can trust outside of the Roberts/Singleton/Bligen/Almonor/Munden grouping, then tired legs will have a brutal time keeping NEC offenses at bay down the stretch in tightly contested games.

Saint Francis U

Non-Conference Summary: From a wins and losses standpoint, this veteran Red Flash group underachieved throughout November and December, logging just one Division I victory in 11 games and dropping 24 spots in KenPom’s rankings since the season opener.  They were competitive at various points throughout the non-conference season however, especially in guarantee match-ups, hanging around at Miami, St. Bonaventure and Hawaii before letting those games get away in the second half. It’s somewhat of an oddity when highlighting the disparity between Saint Francis’ first and second half scoring margins, as the Red Flash sit at -4 points in the first half in all of its Division I contests, while the margin negatively balloons to -131 points for the second half! Krimmel’s group has been in every game through 20 minutes for the most part, and yet only twice have they matched or beaten an opponent’s scoring output in the second half. Perhaps better depth in January and February could quell this disparity.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: It’s time to put an individual player in this category, as it’s been an incredible first half for Josh Cohen. The big man has cracked the 20-point barrier six times this season, while pouring in 98 combined points (on 58 shots!) versus Hawaii, Miami (FL) and Robert Morris in Saint Francis’ last three contests. He currently sits in the top 98 percentile in half court offense according to Synergy, registering a ppp mark of 1.25. He’s made 71% of his takes at the rim, converted 59% of his post-ups and leads the NEC in “and 1s” with 18. Quite literally, the junior has been unstoppable versus low mid-major, regular mid-majors and even high-majors opponents, but unfortunately his play hasn’t led to a sustained run of the Red Flash winning games. Nevertheless, he’s the early frontrunner for NEC Player of the Year due to his sheer dominance at playing basketball.

What Saint Francis Needs to Do to Succeed: It’s never fair to pin a team’s playoff hopes on one player, but Ronell Giles is so important to Saint Francis’ future success. An early injury at St. Bonaventure didn’t help things, as the junior proceeded to miss the next 8 games before finally coming back from a bad ankle. It’s taken some time for the playmaker to get back into a rhythm, but scoring a season high 12 points on 10 shots last time out versus Robert Morris is surely a welcome sign. Maxwell Land has struggled with his outside shot (27% 3PT) and that combined with an increased turnover rate of 18% (it was 12.8% last season) has sunk Land’s efficiency at the moment. Other veterans such as Marlon Hargis and Brad McCabe have underperformed relative to expectations as well, but I’d like to think that Giles insertion into the rotation will eventually elevate Saint Francis’ overall play. 

One thing I’m certainly optimistic about: Landon Moore (103.4 offensive rating) and Wisler Sanon (116.2 offensive rating) have impressed as rookies and filled vital holes that were evident this preseason. Sanon is third on the team with a 1.14 ppp mark and 62% eFG per Synergy, whereas Moore has steadied the ship with respect to the point guard position. If the veterans can eventually elevate their game, Krimmel has a very solid 7 to 8-man rotation ready for deployment in NEC play. Much of this is fueled by Cohen’s excellence, but Saint Francis does have the second best adjusted offensive efficiency in the league at 97.9 points per 100 possessions. If the team can start making outside shots (34% eFG on jumpers inside of 17 feet and 25% eFG on jumpers between 17 feet and the 3-point line via Synergy), then I love the prospects of this offense with Cohen as the obvious focal point. 

One last thing: for Saint Francis to return as a NEC contender, they’ll need to protect their home court in Loretto. Over the past 2-plus seasons, the Red Flash are just 8-17 in their friendly confines, a far cry from their once dominant days during a four year run from 2017-2020. 

Sacred Heart

Non-Conference Summary: It was a mixed bag in the non-conference for Sacred Heart with victories against teams they were supposed to beat, but losses where they failed to put it together for 40 total minutes. The Fairfield loss was especially cruel; the Pioneers seized control in the second half before going the final 3-plus minutes without scoring, and thereby allowing Celeb Fields to snatch victory from a game where Fairfield had a 18% probability to win just minutes early. Despite that gut punch and a -16 scoring differential in a second half at Stony Brook, five Division I wins are… well five Division I wins.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Sacred Heart’s win at Binghamton raised my eyebrows, not because of the double-digit victory on the road, but because the team turned in its best defensive performance since the days of starting rim-protector Jare’l Spellman and elite rebounder E.J. Anosike in its frontcourt. Bart Torvik’s Game Score took notice as well, issuing a season high Game Score of 62 with the Pioneers allowing just 0.87 ppp to Binghamton. It was the type of inspired defensive effort that Latina implored his team to take part in for what seems like seasons, as last year the Pioneers had one of the worst adjusted defensive efficiencies in all of Division I. Now, they stand at a more respectable adjusted defensive efficiency of 107.9, which is a stark improvement from a 115.5 mark in 2021-22.

What Sacred Heart Needs to Do to Succeed: Injuries have been mostly a problem for everyone, yet Anthony Latina has only had his full rotation available to him for exactly the first 20 minutes of the season at Hartford. While it’s presumed everyone, including Aidan Carpenter and Brandan McGuire, will be readily available in their conference opener opposite of Stonehill, they won’t have had a chance to hone their chemistry in game action before the real season starts.

While Latina is comfortable with his offense especially with McGuire back facilitating, it hasn’t been a seamless transition from a pick-and-roll heavy attack spearheaded by Aaron Clarke and Tyler Thomas to a ball motion offense dictated by selflessness and dribble drive penetration. The McGuire and Carpenter absences have been mainly responsible, yet the Pioneers will need more consistency out of their do-everything forward Nico Galette. The junior has been consistent in reaching double figures in scoring every game, yet an increased possession rate of 27% (186th nationally) in year three has predictably led to poorer efficiency in various facets of his game. Could the inefficiency wane now that the Pioneers are finally healthy and playing against similar sized frontcourts? That’s certainly logical, but nevertheless Galette needs to somehow finish better in transition (66% FG in 2021-22 versus 49% FG in 2022-23) and when spotting up (35% FG in 2021-22 versus 32% FG in 2022-23) to give Sacred Heart a chance to compete for its first regular season title in NEC history. 


Non-Conference Summary: No team has illustrated as much consistency in the first half of the season as Wagner, as Donald Copeland has fully embraced the identity Wagner has been known for under Bashir Mason: scoring balance, a tenacious defensive effort, and an ability to punish opponents for their mistakes. The win at Temple was a statement from the get-go, but Wagner’s true resolve may have come out a mere two days later in a defeat at La Salle, where the Seahawks took a pounding in the first half (-15 scoring differential through 12 minutes) only to impressively storm back to close La Salle’s gap to 4 points right after the final TV timeout of the second half. That resolve stuck versus Fairfield (more on that soon) and in ugly, yet hard fought victories late over NJIT, Stony Brook and Delaware State. Really, there’s no disputing that Wagner had the best non-conference season.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: In a game considered a coin flip by KenPom prior to the opening tip (Wagner was a 56% favorite), the Seahawks outscored the Stags 37-23 in the opening half, never letting Jay Young’s group believe there was ever a realistic chance of victory. A late Stags “kill shot” (10-0 run) made the game somewhat interesting late, but as has been the case all non-conference season, Wagner closed out the contest by scoring in 9 of its final 11 possessions. The defense held Fairfield to 0.85 ppp and a 0.70 A/TO, forcing a desperate team to wait for their first Division I victory of the young season. 

What Wagner Needs to Do to Succeed: With the non-conference season going according to Copeland’s plan for the most part, who am I to critique Wagner’s next steps to yet another NEC regular season crown? Mason in his 10 seasons has finished in the league’s top 2 six times, and Copeland’s team has put themselves in position to at least get off to a quick start. The team is wonderfully balanced with nine players averaging between 5.3 and 11.8 ppg. While that scoring delegation illustrates the players’ willingness to sacrifice personal stats for the betterment of the team, I’d like to see the backcourt of DeLonnie Hunt and Zaire Williams start to assert themselves more often than not.

Hunt has already popped the 13-point threshold six times this season – Wagner is 5-1 when this occurs – yet Williams has struggled to get into a shooting rhythm since returning from a knee injury that cost him three games in November. Thus far the dynamic sophomore has shot just 21% on his jump shots per Synergy, so getting out in transition and downhill in the half court could be the best elixir for Williams as he attempts to break out of his shooting slump. A career 63% conversion rate on shots near the rim shouldn’t be ignored just because Williams is desperate to help stretch the opponents’ defense. An inside/out approach could pay dividends, especially if Javy Ezquerra (43% 3PT) and Jahbril Price-Noel (49% 3PT) continue to light it up from deep. 

And there is Wagner’s proclivity to foul (51.5 FTA/FGA, 360th nationally) that usually gives opponents a decided edge per game at the charity stripe. Despite the excess hacking, Copeland isn’t at all concerned with the fouling, and to be fair Wagner’s intensity would likely wane if they weren’t putting opponents into the bonus by the second to last TV timeout of each half. Nonetheless it’s something to watch, especially in games that go down to the wire.

An Analytics Driven Breakdown of the NEC’s Non-Conference Season – Part 1

Photo: Larry Levanti

With nearly two months of non-conference play in the books, have we learned anything tangible with respect to Northeast Conference basketball? Has a true favorite emerged from the pack? Well, if you value KenPom and BartTorvik’s numbers, and I do after 12-14 games of data, the answer to the question is Wagner. But then look at the glut of teams immediately after!

TeamMid-Major RecordProjected NEC Record (KenPom)Bart Torvik Reg Season Title Odds (Share)
Sacred Heart5-59-714.7%

The Seahawks may have a 50% chance to outright win or take a share of the league’s regular season title, but make no mistake most of the Seahawks’ conference counterparts have a legitimate shot to, at the very least, get into the league’s top 4 prior to the start of the single elimination NEC tournament. And as history has indicated, getting at least one home game is paramount to making a three-game run in early March that gets you dancing. 

Allow me to go into each team’s prospects as I build the case with help from analytics.


Non-Conference Summary: It’s been tough sledding for the Sharks in Rod Strickland’s debut, and the 21st toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom hasn’t made things easier for a young LIU squad. By my estimation, LIU has had 5 guarantee games and squared off against some of the Big East’s best in UConn (KenPom #2), Marquette (#27) and St. John’s (#57). Even the mid-major matchups have been brutal, as UMass Lowell, Towson and James Madison (all KenPom top 100) are projected as frontrunners in their respective conference. Only 3 players – Jacob Johnson, Cheikh Ndiaye and RJ Greene – have played in all 12 LIU games, as injuries have littered the roster throughout the season. There have been games where Strickland has literally had six to eight scholarship players taking part in the pregame layup line. That’s not ideal. 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Despite losing to Towson by 10 points in a December matchup at the WRAC, the Sharks acquitted themselves very well throughout the first 33 minutes of the contest before Towson embarked on a 10-0 run – otherwise known as a Kill Shot according to EvanMiya – to put the contest out of reach. The Sharks posted a 1.7 A/TO, scored 1.02 points per possession (ppp) and illustrated good scoring balance with Marko Maletic, Quion Burns and Greene registering at least 12 points in the quality effort. It’s no surprise Bart Torvik issued LIU a season best Game Score of 30 in the tighter than expected defeat. 

What LIU Needs to Do to Succeed: Run, run and run. Per Synergy, the team has more than a 17% spread between its effective field goal percentage in transition (61.0% eFG) and half-court (43.6% eFG). Tre Wood, to no one’s surprise based on historical data, continues to excel in up-tempo environments with a 1.27 ppp mark when in transition. Jacob Johnson has converted 19 of 27 attempts in the open floor, and Maletic has been a catch-and-shoot marksman no matter the tempo, as evident by his 40.3% 3-point conversion rate when attempting a behind the arc shot in rhythm. Throw in Greene, who’s dished out 19 assists in transition opportunities according to Hoop Math, and Strickland has a roster loaded with guys who thrive in a frenetic environment. 

The problem has been staying healthy, so if the first-year head coach can somehow keep 10 scholarship players dressed for a game, he may be wise to implore his team to push the pace off live-ball turnovers, defensive rebounds and even off opponent makes. Get the dynamic and shifty Wood and Greene in the open floor, and the team’s efficiency should spike as a result. 

Furthermore, I’d like to see LIU’s ‘3 and rim’ rate of 70% increase for the sake of the team’s half court efficiency. One reason they hung around vs Towson was the majority of LIU’s shots were taken inside the paint or behind the arc – only three times in the contest did LIU take a mid-to-long 2-point jumper (categorized as 17 feet to the 3-point line) according to Synergy. When LIU’s slashers can get paint touches, the offense should open up in the half-court. 


Non-Conference Summary: The transition to a green backcourt has proven to be more arduous than expected for the Warriors, with the team struggling to score (adjusted offensive efficiency of 85.2, 363rd DI) after turning over more than half its roster in the offseason. Like LIU, a difficult non-conference schedule has thrown the young guards/wings into the fire from the outset, and navigating through November without star Jordan Minor – a POY contender – would have been an impossible endeavor for anyone. Nevertheless, no one’s counting out Joe Gallo’s team heading into conference play, as the head coach’s past history and defensive acumen should keep Merrimack competitive in every NEC contest. Remember, Gallo has a career NEC record of 28-8 when you take out his record against Jared Grasso, Bashir Mason and Dan Engelstad, three coaches who are no longer in the league. 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: While there isn’t a specific 40-minute performance over the past 8 weeks for Merrimack to hang its hat on, the defense still trends as awesome. Despite squaring off against a top 75 strength of schedule, the Warriors have the best defensive efficiency in the league currently (102.8 adjusted defensive efficiency) and have extracted a turnover on 26.1% of their opponent’s possessions. Per Synergy, Merrimack’s zone defense has held opponents to a paltry 0.79 ppp and 41% shooting in half-court sets, and that vaunted defense gets even better out of time outs, with opponents shooting 34% and registering a meager 0.57 ppp. That speaks to Gallo and his staff being able to make adjustments on the fly, and defensively that continues to ring true despite the program dealing with its toughest stretch since Gallo started coaching at his alma mater.

From an individual standpoint, four players have steal rates at 3.0% or higher, with freshman Javon Bennett challenging his inner Juvaris Hayes with the second best steal rate in the nation at 6.3%. Devon Savage (5.1%), Jordan Derkack (4.2%) and Jaylen Stinson (3.0%) round out the team’s top four in steal rate, and all are newcomers who started their acclimation to the 2-3 zone back in the summer. Again, Gallo can really coach defense. 

What Merrimack Needs to Do to Succeed: Getting the offense toward the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency relative to its NEC foes is the obvious answer, and while it’s been a slog even with Minor back, there are positive signs that the team has potential to turn the corner. Derkack has shot 53% from the field, so if it wasn’t for a high turnover rate, the freshman would have a much more favorable KenPom offensive rating (currently 79.5). At a 25% success rate, the Warriors have really struggled to score from behind the arc despite posting the 10th best rate in terms of 3-point attempt frequency. The team’s free throw percentage of 71% shows that better days are likely ahead with the program’s long-range prowess. Also, I find it hard to believe that Merrimack will continue to shoot 29% on its unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities according to Synergy. The fact that Merrimack has taken more unguarded shots (154 FGA) than guarded shots (144 FGA) this season bodes well for the argument that the offense execution is just fine going into league play. They just need to make open and semi-open shots. 


Non-Conference Summary: With three Division I victories away from their friendly confines, that achievement alone shows that Chris Kraus’ veteran group has adapted well to Division I basketball. They’ve also been competitive at various points in their other non-conference match-ups as well, illustrating that Stonehill will be far from a pushover in its inaugural foray into NEC play. Against mid-major competition, Stonehill’s bevy of skilled guards and wings have scored 1.05 ppp in seven games, and currently are posting an effective field goal percentage of 50.0% in all its games combined, a respectable mark that puts them at 173rd in college basketball. Who had the Skyhawks pegged for 3rd among NEC teams with a 0.91 ppp mark going into late December? 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: The program’s win over Army in November at West Point served as a statement. The four-or-five-out motion offense flowed well that afternoon, as Andrew Sims, Thatcher Stone and Burnett combined to score 55 points on an efficient 35 attempts. The team’s collective shot chart was a thing of beauty to the analytics crowd, as the Skyhawks didn’t attempt a single long-range 2 (17 feet to the 3PT line) against the Patriot League foe according to Synergy. Even if Stonehill has to veer away from analytically friendly shots late in the clock, the team has been categorized as “very good” by Synergy with respect to being a jump shooting team, posting a league leading 1.02 ppp and 51% eFG. Furthermore, half of the team’s 24 attempts in isolation have gone in the basket (small sample size alert), grading above average relative to the other 362 Division I programs. 

What Stonehill Needs to Do to Succeed: In order for Stonehill to simulate Merrimack’s improbable yet deserving conquest of the 2019-2020 NEC regular season title, Kraus’ defense will need to elevate its level to middle of the pack status at the very least, while continuing to efficiently score the basketball. One thing that bodes well for Stonehill in late game situations: their 79% mark at the charity stripe is only bested by 8 other teams in college basketball. If they can get a lead late, Kraus’ team is equipped to hold it as evident from their current 3-1 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less. 

The defense needs work, but Kraus has been able to utilize the team’s quickness and perimeter comfort to generate nearly one turnover for every 5 possessions. Isaiah Burnett has been integral in that respect, with the 15th best steal rate nationally (5.3%). Winning the turnover margin and points scored off turnovers battle on a nightly basis will be critical in getting Stonehill in play for an upper-tier NEC finish.

Central Connecticut

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: In one of the more dominant performances we saw from a NEC school this non-conference season, CCSU went into Manhattan in December and led wire-to-wire. The Blue Devils had an answer every time the Jaspers attempted a run in the second half thanks to the Blue Devils stars doing exactly what Pat Sellers and many others had envisioned with this team back in the preseason. Nigel Scantlebury (12p, 6a, 5r, 2s) was the do-it-all floor general, Kellen Amos (20, 6 of 6 3PT) made shots and Jay Rodgers (15p, 6a) gave Sellers another efficient playmaker on the floor. Moreover, emerging sophomore center Abdul Momoh turned away 3 Jasper shots while also registering 11 points and 7 rebounds. It was an eye opening team performance where everyone had finally competed at a high level in the same game. It was a game that was rife with fine execution on the offensive end (1.18 ppp, 54.7% FG).

Non-Conference Summary: If it wasn’t for a nice 3 game pocket where the Blue Devils went 2-1 against the likes of Dartmouth, Fordham and Manhattan, the 2022 non-conference season would’ve been disappointing overall. There have been improvements in Sellers’ second season for sure – the team’s adjusted offensive efficiency is up 2.7 points per 100 possessions, while the defense has improved by giving up 1.8 points less per 100 possessions compared to last season. These are modest improvements and likely will tick up now that the guarantee games are behind them, but going on a sustained run will require consistency that CCSU hasn’t necessarily exhibited thus far. Perhaps somewhat concerning is CCSU’s 0-4 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less, but hopefully the experience of narrowly losing to Quinnipiac, Holy Cross and UMBC will make Sellers’ squad more resilient come February and March. 

What CCSU Needs to Do to Succeed: Excuse me as I put my nerd hat on, but the Blue Devils should become more analytically friendly with its shot selection, as currently only 297 of the team’s 830 field goal attempts (35.8%) have come at the rim though 14 games. As a result, CCSU’s free throw is last nationally at 18.1 FTA/FGA. Even when the team is getting to the rim, they’ve converted less than half of those attempts (49.8%), putting them in the bottom 3% percentile per Synergy. Those numbers need to improve, and likely will against the smaller frontcourts of the NEC, but nevertheless that’s something Sellers needs to leverage better instead of having his team rely solely on jump shots. For what it’s worth, the team has been a good jump shooting team relative to all of college basketball (0.97 ppp, 48% eFG), but more versatility would most definitely help the offense click. 

Amos, in particular, is someone who’s excelled around the basket (60% FG) but hasn’t gotten there a ton as only 35% of his shots have come near the rim. The uneven shot selection is even more pronounced for Rodgers (just 18% of his shots come at the rim), and he’s someone that Sellers said has a distinct ability to get downhill and attack the rim back in the preseason. This Blue Devil offense spacing should improve if Amos and Rodgers leverage their playmaking ability to get into the paint more often moving forward. CCSU is currently making 33% of their 3-point attempts – if they can get to 36% in league play then the Blue Devils will be a formidable opponent.

Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week!