FDU’s Elyjah Williams’ Impact is Undeniable, Both On and Off the Court

Greg Herenda doesn’t usually have a guest accompany him when he attends Fairleigh Dickinson’s annual graduation ceremony at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The spring of 2017 was different though, as Herenda swung by Newark Airport beforehand to pick up his guest. 

The guest was 6-foot-7, 220-pound Chicago area native Elyjah Williams. The high school senior from Evanston, Illinois was just starting an official visit to FDU that May, late as it may have been in the recruiting season.

As Williams made his way into MetLife Stadium, the physically imposing, yet affable kid had the look of a football player because, well, he was a football player. And a good one at that. The former tight end and defensive lineman at Evanston High had thoughts about playing on the collegiate gridiron, especially after receiving a couple of serious Division I offers. But basketball was his true love, so there he was serving as Herenda’s wing man on graduation day.

That didn’t stop the gregarious Herenda from having a little fun at the FDU graduation ceremony as he brought Williams around to meet the university’s students and facility. His guest, Herenda quipped, was a free agent football player looking to sign with the New York Giants.

“It was actually pretty funny,” Williams said with a chuckle when recalling the event. “A couple of people I think actually believed him.”

The next day Herenda brought Williams to Prestos Pizza, a popular restaurant in Hackensack less than a mile away from the Rothman Center, the Knight’s home basketball court. Herenda likes to bring prospective student-athletes to his favorite pizza joint – it’s part of the process and a way to get to know his recruits in a one-on-one setting. It was on that day at Prestos where Herenda witnessed Williams’s attention to detail firsthand.

“I asked him to grab me a Diet Coke out of the case and it took him about five minutes,” Herenda said. “The next thing you know he comes back with a Diet Coke and on the back of it, it said the name Greg.”

Williams has astutely used Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign to impress his soon-to-be head coach. The teen had meticulously searched Prestos’ entire stock of 20-ounce Diet Coke bottles before finally finding a “Greg” on the back of one. According to Herenda, Williams even spun the bottle around perfectly when presenting the coach’s drink in the sitting booth. 

Shortly thereafter on the visit, Williams was offered one of the Knights’ final scholarships for their 2017-18 roster. He swiftly accepted and the ordeal of being in recruitment limbo – should he or shouldn’t he go to prep school to extend his Division I dream – was thankfully over. 

“It was definitely a rough process for me personally,” Williams, who a few months earlier had an offer from Holy Cross fall through, said. “When I came to the East Coast I really liked it a lot.”

With a versatile game centered around a myriad of skills and physicality, Williams made an immediate impact as a freshman. It wasn’t easy to do given FDU’s talent base and incoming recruiting class, which also included Jahlil Jenkins and Noah Morgan. Nevertheless, Williams was part of the Knights’ rotation for much of the 2017-18 campaign. 

His effort that season in a January road game versus Bryant opened some eyes. On the very first play, Williams received the ball on the left baseline, made a move toward the basket, and flushed it home. The play was a harbinger of things to come in the game – he finished with then-career highs of 16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals – and it showcased his immense potential.

The following season illustrated Williams’ maturation, so much so that Herenda nearly doubled his minutes on the floor. The power forward’s impact during FDU’s magical NEC tournament run may have been understated alongside stars Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway and Jahlil Jenkins. But it surely wasn’t forgotten by the program bearer.

“Back then Elyjah just was a steady force on that team,” Herenda said of Williams’ impact as a role player. “He always did what was necessary of him.”

After procuring two critical offensive rebounds in the final minute of tight tournament semifinal victory over Robert Morris, Williams was fully entrenched as the Knights’ 3-man alongside Holloway and Kaleb Bishop in the finals. His insertion into the lineup to replace Xzavier Malone-Key, who missed the entire NEC tournament due to injury, created significant matchup problems for the number-1 seeded, perimeter centric Saint Francis U Red Flash.

“I think Elyjah Williams was the reason they were able to come in and knock us off, because of his physicality, and because of his versatility, and because of his skill set,” Saint Francis head coach Rob Krimmel said when reliving that painful loss in Loretto. “It was a better matchup for us with Malone-Key, and Malone-Key was a good player.”

In the nationally televised game, Williams played nearly 40 minutes, then a career high, and was terrific on both ends of the floor. The then-sophomore finished with 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting to go along with 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. The Knights were practically perfect offensively and won the championship game going away, 85-76. The Knights were bound for Dayton for the second time in four seasons. 

But afterwards, Williams’ actions caught Krimmel’s eye once again. As the FDU players and coaches celebrated their triumph on the DeGol Arena floor, Williams ran past Krimmel and into the back hallway toward the Red Flash locker room. The Saint Francis coach initially thought something was amiss, so he quickly worked his way toward the hallway. 

“I walk back and peek my head back and all (Williams) did was respect and congratulate Jamal (King) and Keith (Braxton),” Krimmel said of the moment. “Here his team is celebrating and he’s back in our hallway congratulating (SFU players). That’s a credit to the type of kid he is.”

Now merely games away from closing out his fourth season, the burly Williams has emerged as a top 10 player within the league. His impact on both ends is unmistakable, as he currently sits among the NEC leaders in a variety of categories such as effective field goal percentage (60.8%, 5th), blocks per game (1.4, 4th), scoring (14.2 ppg, 5th) and rebounding (7.5 rpg, 6th). And that production is there despite being quarantined due to COVID contract tracing protocols for more than 20 days during this season.

Among the impressive numbers, Williams’ versatility at his size is truly unique and a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. “He just has a real physical presence,” Herenda said. “When he goes downhill with the ball, especially in the open court he’s had highlights.” The coach also compared Williams’s transition game to watching a bruising running back barrel his way toward the goal line. 

While the on-the-court production is nice, Herenda and Williams will forever cherish their close relationship – there are frequent one-on-one discussions far beyond the scope of basketball – both in the good times and the bad. The thing that Herenda most admires about his senior forward is his kindness and consistency, day in and day out. 

“After every single game he comes and grabs me and gives me a pound or a hug,” Herenda said of Williams. “And we’ve lost some really hard games, we’ve won some big ones, but he’s very consistent in that. He’s a great sport.”

Williams’ future as a Knight is uncertain – he and Jenkins will discuss their future with Herenda at the conclusion of this season – but his impact is immense, whether there’s just two or 32 games left. After signing with the Knights late in the recruiting season, Williams has entrenched himself as an easy to root for champion and all-time great in FDU lore.

Tracking the Most Exciting Newcomers in the NEC

Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Childs, Bryant – Honestly, there are plenty of exciting newcomers to choose from Jared Grasso’s recruiting war chest, and while most would put Peter Kiss here, I’m going with Childs, a 3-point extraordinaire that undoubtedly improves Bryant’s long range prowess. Scoring from deep with consistency is something that’s eluded Grasso in his first two seasons, as the Bulldogs collectively shot 32.2% from distance during that time span. Now, Childs along with others – Kiss included – adds a deadly dimension to the Bulldogs’ high-tempo attack. The ability to fill it up in bunches.

In the young season, Child has lived up to his reputation as a long-distance savant in the JUCO ranks, converting more than half of his 3-point attempts (19 of 34, 55.9%). His 131.0 KenPom offensive rating (a 100.0 rating is considered average) illustrates his hyper efficiency. Furthermore, from a performance standpoint Childs has emerged as part of a very consistent quartet (Michael Green, Charles Pride and Kiss as the others), scoring between 12 and 19 points in six straight contests to kick off his Division I career. Sure, Kiss or Luis Hurtado (who in their right mind wouldn’t want a skilled 6-foot-6, 210 pound point forward?!) may tickle your fancy as Bryant’s most exciting newcomer, but for me I’m going with the guy who’s perimeter savvy is critical in Bryant’s offensive attack. From way downtown, Childs has Karvel Anderson and Darnell Edge type of potential.

Tre Mitchell, Central Connecticut – Word on the street this preseason was that Nigel Scantlebury would emerge as the multi-skilled point that Donyell Marshall had coveted for years, and thus far, there’s no disputing his impact on the Blue Devils’ offense with a 30.8% assist rate and 62.7% free throw rate. While Scantebury surely looks like a significant rotation piece moving forward, I’ve been most excited about Mitchell’s game in a CCSU uniform. His playmaking ability adds yet another athletic perimeter type that can find himself or others shots at any point during an offensive set.

Consider this: Mitchell’s 5.0 turnover rate is in the top 100 nationally, as he’s made 21 field goals while just coughing it up two times. While the mid-range game in college hoops is something of a lost art, Mitchell has been proficient there, making 6 of 7 “2-point jumpers”, according to Hoop Math. That percentage isn’t sustainable, but the early sample and the eye test indicates Mitchell isn’t forcing any bad shots either. His shot distribution, in fact, is something that should thrill Marshall, as he’s taken 14 shots near the rim, 7 as 2-point jumpers and 19 from behind the arc. That’s an excellent balance that perhaps could even influence his athletic teammates, namely Greg Outlaw and Myles Baker, to improve their shot selection over time as well. 

Joe Munden, Jr., Fairleigh Dickinson – Greg Herenda and his staff always do a fantastic job bringing in talented newcomers, and the 2020-21 FDU recruiting class is no exception. While P.O. Racine fills in as a quality big alongside star Elyjah Williams, and Mikey Square, Jr. occupies a current role, it’s Munden’s blend of length, athleticism and defensive versatility that garners the most immediate upside to the program’s near-term prospects. 

Most surprisingly, at least to me, is Munden’s prowess from deep. Through six games, the rhythm shooter from the Bronx has drained 8 of 16 from behind the arc, giving Herenda the power forward pop that Kaleb Bishop once supplied as part of his compelling inside/out game. The shooting may ebb and flow throughout the season, yet Munden’s long wingspan, defensive instincts and leaping ability may lead to lots of playing time as a rookie. For example, a lineup of Jenkins, Rush, Powell, Munden and Williams gives FDU shooting at every spot, while not necessarily sacrificing the defensive rebounding needed to open up transition opportunities. At 6-foot-4, Munden has shown he could hold his own on the glass, grabbing more than 15 percent of the opponent’s misses thus far.

Mezie Offurum, Mount St. Mary’s – If you hadn’t considered Offurum as a true wildcard for Dan Engelstad’s squad in 2020-21, then the Mount’s conference opening win vs Saint Francis University may convince you otherwise. Offurum was electric on both ends of the Knott Arena floor (19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists in 35 minutes), showcasing a slashing, off-the-bounce offensive portfolio that’s a handful for any NEC squad to defend. His energy was infectious early, as he posted 6 points, 1 assist and 1 block all within the first 8 minutes of the contest.

While he’s not established as a 3-point shooting threat as of yet, Offurum’s 6-foot-8 frame and physicality at the wing gives Engelstad a wealth of length, especially when Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson share the floor. Additionally, his size can easily slot into a power forward position on nights when either Opoku or Jefferson confront foul trouble. If he can channel more performances like the one from this past Tuesday, while being a disruptive pest defending the opponent’s basket, then the Mount has a legitimate opportunity to claim one of the top spots needed to qualify for the NEC tournament in March.

Maxwell Land, Saint Francis University – If there ever was a perfect time to introduce yourself into college hoops, it would be Maxwell Land’s freshman debut against a Big 5 program on the road. The guard set the tone for his Red Flash, scoring 5 points in the team’s opening 10-2 spurt while drilling back-to-back dagger 3s that extended Saint Francis’ advantage over Pittsburgh to 20 points early in the second half. Since that magical night, Land has been a consistent role guy in Rob Krimmel’s rotation, logging 68% of the team’s total minutes while posting a 61.5% effective field goal percentage. 

At 6-foot-4, Land is as adaptable as they come, as his strength, comfort in transition and shooting ability – he’s made 6 of 9 from deep thus far – affords him the opportunity to play a number of different positions on both ends. For now, he’s rightfully entrenched as Krimmel’s 3-man.

Travis Atson, St. Francis Brooklyn – So far, so good for Atson, a Tulsa and Quinnipiac grad-transfer, who’s apparently found a home in Brooklyn. The 6-foot-5 stretch four averaged an impressive 18.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.5 apg in a split with Bryant this past week, illustrating a “a tremendous feel for the game” according to Glenn Braica. The luxury of Atson as a big guard who can slot into the four gives Braica plenty of ball handling, passing ability and shooting in a small-ball lineup. He may be a smallish power forward, however his toughness makes up for his size deficit. If there’s one thing Braica values most about his players, it’s toughness.

Cantavio Dutreil, Sacred Heart – In the NEC, Dutreil undoubtedly will serve a high rebounding, rim-protecting big for Anthony Latina’s otherwise very young frontcourt. It’s only one game, but in Sacred Heart’s opener at Rutgers, Dutreil grabbed 11 rebounds and swatted away 2 shots in 22 active minutes. Staying out of foul trouble is the biggest key to JUCO transfer, and early on in the conference season, Latina may have to junior come off the bench to protect him from getting auto-benched for the majority of the first half. Nevertheless, that energy as a 6-man will be an asset for the Pioneers.

The Best #NECMBB All-Decade Teams and a Crossword Puzzle!

As my family and I are finishing up our sixth week of quarantine here at home, it’s been…. um fun! As we continue to navigate through the unchartered waters of no sports – and for me, copious amounts of time to do other activities instead of watching sports – I figured I would have fun in what will be my last NEC Overtime! Blog post of the 2019-20 season. I want to thank everyone for reading my stuff over the past season, which remarkably ended more than one month ago in Moon Township.

As I wrap a bow on this season, I wanted to partake in some fun with this tweet from the Northeast Conference some three weeks ago.

This exercise absolutely filled some of the “no sports” gap! But rather than just give you my favorite $15 roster, I decided to come up with a series of teams, which allowed me to reminisce further on what was a terrific decade of NEC hoops. Let’s begin!

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The Hammel Coaching Tree: Greg Herenda and Joe Gallo Share a Unique Bond as Northeast Conference Competitors

Greg Herenda had enough. Sore, mentally fraught and feeling disenfranchised, the 19-year old point guard secretly boarded a bus and began his sojourn from Merrimack College, a small Augustianian school in North Andover, Massachusetts, to the Garden State. 

It was a rough sophomore season for fiery Herenda, one that saw decreased playing time with a new coach keen to establish his way or the highway. Head coach Bert Hammel, in replacing local legend Frank Monahan before the start of Merrimack’s 1980-81 season, sought to institute a new system that drew parallels with Bob Knight at Indiana University. Now there were 5:00 AM lifts, constant running drills on an overgrown ski slope, mandatory study halls, and something that was of a particular annoyance to Herenda, strict curfews.

Several players quit throughout Hammel’s inaugural season as the taskmaster implemented his unforgiving culture. Others like Herenda endured the physical and mental torture in hopes that their standing with the Merrimack coach would improve and basketball would be fun again, as it had been under Monahan.

That didn’t happen, and as Herenda sat on the bus that spring night heading toward the Port Authority in New York City, he felt relief. Relief that the hellish year was coming to a close and that he could start anew somewhere else. The sudden exodus felt right. 

That is until his mother, the following morning in their North Bergon, New Jersey home, asked her son a simple question after breakfast. “My mother was street smart, she’s like ‘well, who is going to give you a scholarship,’” Herenda recalled from that emotional moment.

Once Herenda’s mom injected her son with a dose of reality – there wasn’t a portal that afforded student-athletes an easy way to transfer back then – it wasn’t long before Herenda was on a bus returning to Merrimack. His next meeting with the fastidious Hammel became a turning point in his young life, even if Herenda was oblivious when he walked into the office.

“I had a meeting and I’ll never forget it,” Herenda said with respect to that end-of-season sitdown. “In my second year, I averaged like nine minutes a game and he told me I was going to be a nine minute player if I came back. I don’t think he really was begging me to come back and I just remember saying ‘Ok man, that’s it. I’m going to show this guy.’”

Always the fierce competitor, Herenda devoted himself from that point forward, and by the time the following season commenced, Herenda was the Warriors’ starting floor general. His upperclassman seasons were fruitful, culminating with a splendid senior campaign. The captain averaged nine assists per game and posted a record setting 22 helpers in a victory over rival Bentley College. Over the course of his final season, Herenda developed into a coach on the floor, routinely calling out defensive coverages and making suggestions to Hammel while competing on the hardwood.

“My relationship with him and the game really changed over my four year career,” Herenda said looking back. Shortly after his playing career was over, Hammel gave Herenda his first opportunity to be an assistant coach. It certainly was an arduous path to get there, but things had officially come full circle for the man who’d eventually coach young men to championships, first at UMass Lowell and next at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

———-

Nearly two decades after Herenda was exposed to Hammel’s coaching, the then-assistant coach at East Carolina University got a call from Alan Taback, the long-time high school coach at Princeton Day School in New Jersey. Things weren’t going well for one of Taback’s former stars, Justin Leith, at Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC Wilmington and he needed Herenda’s input. Leith wanted to find a better fit collegiately, leading to Herenda suggesting he look into a small Division II school near Boston.

Leith took Herenda’s advice, and soon after his freshman season committed to Merrimack and Coach Hammel. On one of his next trips up to the campus, Leith brought along a former high school teammate to play in a scrimmage with his new team. The teammate’s name was Joe Gallo.

By the time Gallo signed onto the Warriors program as a walk-on in 2000, Hammel had softened his persona to the point where he fostered a better connection with his players. The intensity on the court, however, never waned as the grizzled veteran coach acquired experience.

“He was very honest, but it always came from a great place, you always knew he cared for you,” Gallo said when asked about playing for Hammel, then entering his third decade of leading Merrimack. “The guy in between the lines was tough, but he was a big teddy bear once you got him off the court back in the office.”

Herenda took his former coach and mentor’s softening to another level. “By the time Joey got to (Coach Hammel), forget it, he was a marshmallow I think,” he laughed.

No matter if he was a teddy bear or marshmallow, Gallo benefited greatly from Hammel’s tutelage. He ascended to become the Warrior’s backup point guard as a junior, a noteworthy accomplishment as a walk-on. And despite missing the entirety of his senior season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the setback inevitably led to Gallo’s next calling in life. It gave him an invaluable exposure into coaching.

“Coach Hammel had me sit up front on the bench with him and the assistant coach rather than in the back with the players,” Gallo said of his senior season. “I was almost like a student (coaching) assistant, so to say, that year.”

Like Herenda before him, the coaching apprenticeship as a player led to a full-time assistant coach position right next to Hammel, merely six months after Gallo graduated from Merrimack. That was the start of a productive career as an assistant coach with stops at Dartmouth and Robert Morris along the way.

———-

After 36 years of patrolling the sidelines, the Merrimack athletic department and Hammel decided to part ways. Then 64 years old, Hammel had given Merrimack a treasure trove of success on and off the court – 526 wins, five NCAA Division II tournament appearances, three NE-10 conference titles and a lifetime of charitable work that originated at the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence. His foundation and legacy, which also produced a slew of coaches including long-time University of New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, left a lasting impression on the hundreds of players he guided over a remarkable four decades. The college even honored the coach in 2011 by naming the basketball facility “Hammel Court.”

Despite the successes, the split between Hammel and Merrimack after the 2015-16 season wasn’t completely amicable. It led to a layer of trepidation for potential candidates; taking over a program that was in great hands for a long time was surely an intimidating prospect for some.

While the college swiftly expressed interest in Gallo as Hammel’s successor given his success as a Robert Morris assistant under Andy Toole, the Warrior alum needed approval from the mentor responsible for jump starting his coaching career.

“The first person that I did call was Coach Hammel,” Gallo said. “He called me back and left me this long-winded message of how proud he would be of me and how there’s no one else he’d rather take over the keys of the program that he had… Before I inquired with anyone over (at Merrimack), I wanted to make sure I got Bert’s blessing. Once I got the OK with him, I could really care less what anyone else thought, whether it was other alums or people close to him.”

The rest, of course, is history with Gallo continuing Hammel’s legacy of achievement at Merrimack with three consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances and a NE-10 championship in 2019 to boot. 

Now Division I and Northeast Conference competitors, Gallo and Herenda share the unique coaching bond that got them into the business, albeit in different ways. And they will square off against each other for the first time when Fairleigh Dickinson visits Merrimack on January 23.

Toole has the unique perspective of having coached against both Hammel disciples, while even employing one for four seasons. He playfully attempted to compare Gallo and Herenda, two distinct personalities whose foundations began at Merrimack. 

“You watch Joe and Greg and they have some great sideline behavior,” Toole deadpanned. “Both of them have shown their vertical, or lack thereof vertical, at times during games. Both of them jumping up and down at times, waving their arms.”

Gallo notes that the famous Herenda foot stomp, a sideline move that may have consequences on 58 year old’s hips in due time, originated with the animated Hammel. 

Joking aside, Toole further elaborated on the two men who coached their respective programs to league championships during the 2018-19 season. “Both of them definitely have a command of their teams; the players are connected to their coach,” he said. “I think all their feelings toward Coach Hammel were as hard and as tough a coach he was, they all had great respect for them, they knew that he cared about them greatly and I think you see that in Joe, you see in Greg and they wouldn’t have had some of the successes that they had if they didn’t approach it that way.”

Herenda will undoubtedly be emotional when he steps onto Hammel Court before Thursday’s tip for the first time since his Hammel’s unfortunate passing in October of 2018. Gallo has already confronted those emotions, while Herenda isn’t completely sure of how he’ll feel.

“That’s where I grew up, it’s where I (went) from a high school kid to a man,” Herenda said two days before the game. “And I coached there with Bert for four years. And now the court’s named after him.”

No matter the score, it will undoubtedly be a special night. And rest assured Bert Hammel, the man who started an indelible legacy at Merrimack, will be smiling down on his former players from above. For a legendary coach that was fiercely intense and competitive, there likely are no losers after Thursday’s contest on Hammel Court.

Assessing the NEC After Non-Conference Play

The Northeast Conference is on the rise. For the first time in 6 seasons, the league’s aggregate KenPom conference ranking has moved up to 28th overall after nearly a 2-month sample size. It’s not a meteoric jump, but it’s progress and the first time in more than half a decade the league has been in this position nonetheless. Have a look.

Year

KenPom Conference Rank Non-BCS Record*

Mid-Major Record

2019-20

28 41-68 (0.376) 39-45 (0.464)
2018-19 30 35-63 (0.357)

32-44 (0.421)

2017-18

29 37-57 (0.394) 36-42 (0.462)
2016-17 30 30-71 (0.297)
2015-16 30 30-69 (0.303)

2014-15

26

36-60 (0.375)

2013-14 24 43-60 (0.417)

2012-13

24 54-61 (0.470)

2011-12

24 48-61 (0.440)
2010-11 24 52-57 (0.477)

*excludes games versus the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC

If Sacred Heart and Merrimack didn’t suffer heart-wrenching losses in the closing seconds on the final non-conference day of the season, the league would’ve finished tantalizingly close to a 0.500 finish against mid-major competition. 

I went back the past three seasons to determine the league’s “mid-major” record, although my distinction of a mid-major opponent is subjective. For this exercise, I did it by excluding all guarantee games versus the AAC, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac 12, SEC and the WCC. This group encompasses the top 10 KenPom conferences with Conference USA (14th overall) as the 11th. What remained after this omission was a composite schedule that, in my humble opinion, represented the type of opponents each NEC member would see during league play in terms of KenPom ranking.

The overall improvement relative to Division I basketball, while slight, is likely indicative of the fact that the majority of the league’s top players are upperclassmen who’ve been with their respective programs for two-plus seasons. Ten of the conference’s top 11 scorers are in their third, fourth or fifth season at their school, whereas 7 of the top 11 rebounders have met this veteran threshold. Maintaining program continuity has been a challenge, but with fewer high-impact players leaving for other schools over the past two offseasons, the league has been able to better cultivate some of its “home grown” talent.

What does this mean in terms of future NCAA tournament seeding? Probably not much, as it’s a safe bet the NEC will wind up back in Dayton for the First Four of the NCAA tournament, yet it’s not impossible for the league to avoid the “play-in game” as a true 15 or 16-seed if the league’s top three KenPom and NET squads, Saint Francis (NET #137), Sacred Heart (NET #187) or Bryant (NET #192), have a dominant regular season and somehow finish with 15 or more NEC regular season wins. Given the competitive nature of the conference, however, I wouldn’t bet on that outcome as practically every league game will have the potential to be a dogfight. 

When examining each school individually, I like to break down the mid-major games to provide a glimpse into how the league competed against similar competition in November and December. 

Team Mid-Major Record Point Margin Opponent’s AVG KenPom KenPom Predicted NEC Finish
Saint Francis U 5-1 +11 231

12-6 (T2)

Sacred Heart 6-3 +93 281

13-5 (1)

Bryant

6-3 +43 257 12-6 (T2)
St. Francis Brooklyn 5-4 -30 273

7-11 (T9)

LIU

4-4 -1 251 10-8 (4)

Merrimack

4-6 -68 232

9-9 (T5)

Mount 3-5 -12 252

9-9 (T5)

Robert Morris

3-4 -21 237 9-9 (T5)
Wagner 2-4 -18 257

7-11 (T9)

FDU 1-4 -51 244

8-10 (8)

CCSU 0-7 -111 242

3-15 (11)

Given this data, allow me to provide tidbits across the league as we move into the first league game on Thursday.

Saint Francis University

Saint Francis won a lot of close games in non-league play, as evident from their skinny margin of victory despite being four games over against mid-major competition. Nevertheless, Rob Krimmel’s group has gotten it done of late since the Red Flash’s “embarrassing” loss to Delaware – Krimmel’s words, not mine. The group has played inspired basketball, winning four of five versus Division I with the lone defeat coming to a 11-2 Florida State program poised to compete at the top of the ACC. Breaking down those final four minutes during the 4-1 stretch, Saint Francis has scored 1.42 points per possession (PPP) and outscored opponents 62-32, a credit to the program’s veteran leadership and versatility.

Early on, Krimmel was experimenting with his rotations, exclusively using Ramiir Dixon-Conover at the point while featuring Keith Braxton off the ball. Part of that was Krimmel wanted to get as many ball handlers on the floor against aggressive defenses such as VCU and Richmond, but lately the team has slotted Braxton at the one and given more faith to playing Randall Gaskins at the three. The new dynamic has allowed Krimmel to bring Dixon-Conover off the bench as a ball handler/defensive stopper and Scott Meredith as instant offense.

It’s led to a more fluid, versatile rotation that’s nine-to-ten deep and one Krimmel doesn’t expect will shrink during league play. Most of the time these rotations tend to constrict, but barring injuries, the Krimmel doesn’t expect that to be the case. Currently, 9 Saint Francis players are in the game at least 30% of the time through 10 Division I games. This is the deepest roster Krimmel has ever had at Saint Francis.

Sacred Heart

There I was at the Sacred Heart Pitt Center, writing my Pioneer blurb for this post assuming Sacred Heart would close out Lafayette and finish with a very good non-conference mark of 7-5 against Division I competition (7-2 versus mid-major teams). It would’ve been the first time in the program’s Division I history that the Pioneers ended up with 8 non-conference victories (one came over a non-D1 program), but my narrative in the span of 16 game seconds was soon blown up.

A flurry of Sacred Heart blunders late – a missed free throw on the front end of a one-on-one, a turnover inbounding the ball, an ill-advised foul – snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to an improbable 67-66 Lafayette victory. Afterwards, a somewhat stunned Anthony Latina was asked to assess the team’s performance in the season thus far.

“We have some guys that are performing at a very good level. We showed we can win on the road, which is important. We showed we can win a couple of different ways, so that was encouraging,” Latina said regarding the team’s non-conference results. “But this was disappointing, I’m not discouraged but I’m disappointed that we didn’t finish the (Lafayette) game like we have been. We get one or two more stops, that’s an eight-to-ten point win and we feel really good about it, but that’s how it works. You do this long enough you see everything.”

The Pioneers offense, as talented and versatile as they come, hasn’t really clicked on all cylinders. They’ve been able to win a number of different ways, while overcoming a particular flaw that randomly pops up. For example in wins over Brown, Presbyterian and Hartford, Sacred Heart overcame copious amounts of turnovers (24.8% turnover rate) by dominating the interior (59.2% 2PT) and sharing the basketball (59.0% A/FGM). In the other three victories, they took care of the basketball and in some cases shot lights out from 3. Yet with the exception of Quinnipiac – a 17-point road win – the Pioneers still haven’t found consistency scoring the basketball. 

They may be in the top half of college basketball in offensive efficiency (101.7 points per 100 possessions) yet there’s a higher level of play that can be achieved for a roster ready to win the league right now.

Fairleigh Dickinson

FDU has dropped more than 50 spots in the KenPom rankings since the beginning of the season. It’s the result of playing one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the league with the Knights signing up for a league-high five guarantee games versus the likes of the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East and SEC. Xzavier Malone-Key, Jahlil Jenkins and promising rookie guard Devon Dunn all missed time due to injury, but luckily for Herenda, Malone-Key and Jenkins are back and Dunn could possibly make his return when the Knights open the NEC season at St. Francis Brooklyn on Thursday. 

Dunn is averaging 9.3 ppg and shooting 41.7% from behind the arc and should boost the team’s second unit. Though 10 Division I games this season, the Knights have been outscored 249-88 from the bench and are shooting just 30.0% from three, a far cry from the Darnell Edge led team last season (40.2% 3PT). FDU has a strong front four, but Dunn, Brandon Rush, Brandon Powell and B.J. Saliba will need to find more consistency to get the Knights back into the NEC contention conversation.

A difficult start to league play – on the road versus St. Francis Brooklyn, Bryant and LIU with one home game against Sacred Heart – could put the Knights in an early hole if the inexperienced second unit doesn’t step up. Still, I would never count a Greg Herenda coached team out, especially one that has Jenkins running it.

St. Francis Brooklyn

I descended on Brooklyn right before Christmas break to witness Glenn Braica’s Terriers, who somewhat surprisingly possess a positive mid-major record on the back of a 3-game winning streak to conclude 2019. The Terriers have pulled through in a lot of close games – three to be exact – when the contest ends within four points. 

The Terriers possess a somewhat unconventional team in the modern era. It’s a squad that relies heavily on a post-oriented big man in Deniz Celen, who wasn’t even part of Braica’s plans prior to the 2018-19 season. Now, the former walk-on turned scholarship player has become a critical focal point for a Terriers team that needs his interior production as much as they need guard playmaking from a stable of athletes including Chauncey Hawkins, Unique McLain and Rob Higgins.

Regarding the latter, I came away most impressed by the 6-foot-1 guard who hails from Middletown, New Jersey. He was under recruited playing high school ball at the Jersey Shore – these days most players out of that region settle for Division 3 offers – but luckily for him, Braica found Higgins just in time to fill Jalen Jordan’s departed scholarship. Higgins scored 17 points in the team’s victory over Delaware State, but it was his defensive impact that arguably was more valuable. His on-the-ball tenacity bothered Delaware State’s best player in the second half, and it’s a fair bet you’ll see Higgins on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer (see Adam Grant, Isaiah Blackmon, Curtis Cobb, Vado Morse) during league play. That’s how much Braica values his freshman guard.

“He can really guard, he can really move his feet laterally,” Braica said of Higgins after the Delaware State win on December 22. “His motor is unbelievable, he never stops. You can’t teach that, some guys have it or they don’t.”

Higgins isn’t being talked about yet as an NEC all-rookie team candidate, but more performances like NJIT and Delaware State, and he’ll enter the conversation quickly.

Bryant

I’ve already waxed poetic about Bryant’s defense here, but here’s more reinforcement: I went back and charted the top rim-protectors the league has seen over the past decade. 

Season

Player Team Ind Blocks Team Blocks % of Blocks NEC Wins

Reg Season Finish

2019-20

Hall Elisias Bryant 39 63 0.778 ? ?
2018-19 Jare’l Spellman SHU 96 133 0.722 11

T3

2017-18

AJ Sumbry Wagner 58 129 0.450 16 1

2016-17

Josh Nebo SFU 89 136 0.654 13

T3

2015-16 Amdy Fall SFBK 57 122 0.467 11

T2

2014-15

Amdy Fall SFBK 71 149 0.477 17 1
2013-14 Naofall Folahan Wagner 89 200 0.445 13

2

2012-13

Joe Efese CCSU 47 130 0.362 9 7
2011-12 Naofall Folahan Wagner 52 126 0.413 16

2

2010-11

Naofall Folahan Wagner 45 119 0.378 9

T6

Because of the imposing interior presence, 7 of the past 9 teams that rostered the player with the best block rate in the NEC has finished in the top 3 of the league’s regular season. That obviously bodes well for Jared Grasso as opponents figure out how to navigate the paint against the 6-foot-8 Elisias.

Because of the non-league success, Bryant has improved its KenPom ranking from 325 on November 5 to 206 currently, a startling 119 point improvement! That’s by far the best KenPom improvement within the league during non-conference play over the past three seasons (in 2017-18 Robert Morris improved 83 spots, while in the same season Wagner improved 82 spots). Bryant isn’t going anywhere, folks.

Central Connecticut State

There’s no question that Central Connecticut State struggled during it’s non-league tilt (I highly recommend Matt’s piece on it at The Blue Devil’s Den), yet there has been some progress with a roster that’s loaded with Division I newcomers. It may seem subtle, but defensively Donyell Marshall’s group has slowly improved over the past few games, and that was before sophomore guard Ian Krishnan (the team’s best perimeter defender) and bouncy 5-man Karrington Wallace (the team’s best rim protector) came back in their non-Division I victory over Connecticut College. 

  • November (4 mid-major games): 1.10 D-PPP, 56.1 eFG% defense, 18.3% turnover rate
  • December (3 mid-major games): 1.03 D-PPP, 53.0 eFG% defense, 19.3% turnover rate

The improvement makes sense given the difficulty of teaching defensive concepts to a turned-over roster. Now, Marshall has a team that could disturb some league counterparts, once their high effort level translates more into execution. Of course, context is important here, as even the defensive improvement in December lags behind the KenPom national averages of 1.00 D-PPP, 49.3% eFG and 19.7% turnover rate, respectively. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Also interesting was the recent insertion of 6-foot-0 point guard and walk-on Tyler Rowe, who over 16 minutes versus Connecticut College was a productive two-way player, logging 9 points, 2 assists and 3 steals. Rowe, a former Western Connecticut State standout who averaged 20.3 ppg and 3.5 apg in 2017-18 and was ineligible last season and the first semester this season, could give Marshall a viable playmaker at the point. If that occurs, then things should get easier on the offensive end for talented guards Trey Tennyson, Myles Baker and Greg Outlaw.