Plenty of Intrigue in the NEC Awards Race Remains with One Week Left in the Regular Season

Just one week remains in the Northeast Conference regular season! There are several major awards that could go down the wire, so I thought this was a great time to ask myself some questions! Let’s dive right into it.

As a side note: Ron Ratner does a great job here breaking down where all the teams stand with respect to their NEC Tournament positioning. 

Who Will Win the NEC Coach of the Year?

In early February, most people believed one newcomer was a shoe-in for the NEC’s Jim Phelan Coach of the Year honor. 

I’m not picking on this Twitter user, as most of us felt this way back on Groundhog Day. But Chris Kraus and Stonehill have really been cooking ever since, pushing Anderson off as a no-brainer for the award. After starting their NEC season at 3-3, the Skyhawks have embarked on a 7-2 stretch in league play to not only improbably catapult FDU in the standings, but also remain in play for a regular season championship. Those lofty goals may have been bruised considerably after their 3 OT defeat at the hands of CCSU, but Stonehill’s inspired play has made this COY honor a legitimate 2-person race, especially with FDU struggling to defend and close out games down the stretch. 

Both programs had low expectations going in. Anderson inherited a 4-win group from a season ago and had to fill 8 scholarships once he got the job deep into the spring. Stonehill was coming off a respectable albeit middle-of-the-pack NE-10 finish and had graduated 4 of their top 8 scorers. I don’t mind anyone making the argument for either guy at this point, especially after FDU was picked tied for sixth and Stonehill ninth in the preseason coach’s poll (I picked FDU fifth and Stonehill eighth in Blue Ribbon, for what it’s worth). Kraus has exceeded our expectations a little more, yet FDU has a small advantage when you break down the overall resume.

KenPom/ Torvik RankTorvik Game Score AvgD1 Non-Conf RecordNEC Record (Point Differential)Efficiency Margin in NEC Play
FDU318/317275-89-5 (+52)+5.3
Stonehill332/324253-1010-5 (+39)+3.9

It’s pretty close. If FDU and Stonehill finish with identical league records, I would assign a slight lean to Anderson given that the Knights’ have had more success in non-conference play with a dominant Quad 3 win at St. Joseph’s leading the way. The minimal edge in a myriad of analytics for league play helps bolster Anderson’s argument as well. Should Stonehill find themselves ahead of FDU in the league standings as of this weekend however, perhaps honoring Kraus off an improbable 11-5 NEC season is the way to go. 

It’s a tight race where both coaches have very good cases to be made. Both have a challenging second year ahead of them with all of their exceptional talent moving on, but neither of these coaches will sneak up on NEC competition ever again.

I should also mention that Joe Gallo’s probable regular season championship with Merrimack puts him in consideration of this award as well, as the coaches have historically rewarded the regular season champs with a coach of the year honor. Merrimack was picked first in NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll though, as many of them, and us, expected the Warriors to be here. That’s why I’d vote Gallo third in this race, although I wouldn’t put anything past a majority of coaches to vote Gallo as COY if both FDU and Stonehill stumbled in their final week. 

What About the League’s Player of the Year?

Just from what I’ve seen with my eyes this season with added weight during league play, I respect anyone who thinks this is a 3-man race between Josh Cohen, Jordan Minor and Demetre Roberts vying for the league’s most outstanding player title.

It’s fitting that all three deserving players are on teams inside the conference’s top 4, as their consistency has been a hallmark for why I’d consider them over anyone else. If you took any of them off their respective roster, that squad would be worse, as Minor’s absence in November can attest. Nevertheless, this is a player of the year award and not the most valuable player, so I’m more interested in the sheer numbers and statistical analysis between the three standouts. 

PlayerPPG / RPG / APGOffensive RatingeFG%Torvik PORPAGATU!KenPom Rank
Josh Cohen, SFU21.4 / 8.1 / 2.4119.158.3%4.8 (1st)1
Jordan Minor, MC17.1 / 9.3 / 2.3100.551.7%2.3 (5th)2
Demetre Roberts, FDU17.4 / 3.0 / 4.3108.949.6%2.9 (3rd)4

Cohen has cracked the 18-point threshold 19 times this season, Roberts 16 times and Minor has done it in 10 times (he missed 6 games in November due to injury). Minor leads Cohen in double doubles, 11 to 5, whereas Roberts has posted at least 5 assists in a game 12 times, and has averaged just 2.2 turnovers in those contests. Cohen leads the group, and the NEC, in points per possession at 1.11 despite a massive usage rate of 29%. Roberts is 18th at 0.97 ppp while Minor sits just inside the top 30 at 0.91 ppp. Minor may have the slightly less impressive scoring analytics, but he’s first among NEC individuals in offensive rebounding rate (15.1% in league play) and second in block rate at 8.1%, as he’s easily the most impactful among this trio on the other side of the ball. 

You can really slice and dice these numbers anyway you’d like, but for me Cohen is the guy. His ridiculous efficiency, wonderful consistency and clutchness in late game situations gives him the POY nod if I had a vote. That isn’t a knock on Minor or Roberts, but Cohen’s been unstoppable in the post. And he’s done it not just against NEC competition, but also versus teams like Miami (30 points on 16 shots, 9 rebounds), Hawaii (40 points on 23 shots, 9 rebounds) and St. Bonaventure (21 points on 11 shots, 7 rebounds). 

As long as Saint Francis doesn’t collapse in these final two games, the 6’10” post dynamo would be my pick. To round out my all-conference first team, I would include Nico Galette and Grant Singleton in my top 5 for those of you scoring from home. And as I alluded to in my ‘Merrimack is Awesome on Defense’ post, I do believe Minor should get the Defensive Player of the Year hardware when it’s all said and done. 

Who’s the Favorite to Win the NEC’s Most Improved Player Award?

Thanks to conference realignment and lots of turnover on NEC rosters this offseason, there hasn’t been a ton of returning players back. Despite this, there still have been credible candidates that have elevated their game to a NEC Most Improved (MIP) level. For simplification purposes, I decided to wade through the choices by using Torvik’s replacement player measure, PORPAGATU!. That metric stands for “Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage.” It’s not the end all, be all by any stretch, but for this exercise I found it to be a useful measure to track a player’s improvement from one year to the next. Here were the top 6 improvers using 2021-22 as the starting point:

2021-22 PORPAGATU!2022-23 PORPAGATU!Improvement
Joe Munden, Jr., FDU-0.81.4+2.2
Josh Cohen, SFU2.94.8+1.9
Ansley Almonor, FDU0.62.0+1.4
Joey Reilly, SHU0.61.8+1.2
Davonte Sweatman, CCSU0.41.1+0.7
Bryce Johnson, SHU0.61.1+0.5

I think we have our top three MIP candidates in Joe Munden, Ansley Almonor and Joey Reilly. As last year’s NEC Most Improved recipient, Cohen will be eliminated from my consideration. As a quick aside, Cohen’s PORPAGATU! improvement is actually greater this season than it was going from 2020-21 to 2021-22 where he improved by “just” +1.3. Galette, who I thought was destined to become the 2021-22 MIP only to be denied by Cohen, actually improved his PORPAGATU! by +2.3 as a sophomore. But that’s a debate for another time…

With the pair of FDU’s players and Reilly assigned as my top 3 for MIP consideration, let’s dig a little deeper into each player’s statistical improvement from last season to now:

PPG IncreaseRPG IncreaseAPG IncreaseAnother Stat of NoteORtg Increase
Joe Munden+5.8+1.9-0.2+19.4% 2PT+33.2
Ansley Almonor+10.6+3.1+1.3+0.6 bpg-5.7
Joey Reilly+6.7+0.5+0.5+1.0 spg+7.1

As far as a floor goes, Munden is coming off the most difficult season among this threesome, registering an offensive rating of 73.6 as a sophomore after a promising rookie campaign that saw him rightfully land on the league’s all-rookie team. With that sophomore floor, Munden’s offensive rating improvement as well as his correlating shooting percentages have skyrocketed under Tobin Anderson. He’s been cast this season as a near perfect swingman in FDU’s scheme. 

Almonor’s efficiency has remained above average going from his freshman (small sample) to sophomore season (substantial sample); his biggest difference is a three fold increase in playing time that’s seen his counting numbers surge as a result.

Reilly has effectively done both – his playing time has nearly doubled to 77% of Sacred Heart’s minutes, yet he’s also enjoyed a 6.9% bump in his effective field goal percentage. His possession rate (16.8%) however, isn’t as impressive as Munden’s (24.2%) or Almonor’s (23.9%) and categorizes him more as a role player instead of the leading men that the Knights’ duo has become. 

So who is it? This is another tough call, but I’ll peg Almonor as my guy. The 6’6” center’s insertion into Anderson’s starting five has opened up the Knights offense considerably as opposing bigs must respect Almonor’s ability to make a perimeter jumper anywhere on the floor. He’s more likely than the other two to land on an all-conference team (although I think Munden and Reilly have a chance for the third team) thanks to his current top 10 finishes in scoring (14.1 ppg, 9th), rebounding (4.8 rpg, 10th), 3-pointers made (2.0 per game, 4th) and blocks (0.8 bpg, 8th).

This is nothing against Reilly and Munden, as both have had excellent bounceback seasons in their own right. But for Reilly, his usage rate dings him, whereas Munden exhibited a better level as a rookie before struggling the following season. I give the junior a ton of credit for restoring his game under Anderson, but if we’re being honest Munden’s rookie season with a PORPAGATU! of 0.9 could reasonably be assigned as the benchmark instead of -0.8 from the following year. 

With all of these awards, a lot (including my mind) could change with two games remaining. The debate should be fierce for these honors and the all-conference teams until the bitter end, giving us fans and alums even more excitement when watching the final week of the league’s regular season. There’s great intrigue no matter where you look.

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. 

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“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.