For my final post before the NEC regular season ends, I felt like talking about a myriad of topics. There’s really no theme here, other than the Q&A I’m about to engage myself in.
What do we know going into the final week?
Well, it’s looking like my over/under prediction will wind up short, but not by much.
First one to 11 NEC wins gets the conference? Or perhaps the fairer question is over/under 11.5 wins to get at least a share of the reg season title?
— Ryan Peters (@pioneer_pride) January 6, 2019
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:
|2016-17||Mount St. Mary’s||14-4|
|2014-15||St. Francis Brooklyn||15-3|
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!