I didn’t think much of it back in October when friends asked my wife and I if we wanted to attend a Muse concert at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick’s Day. Cool, I thought, without giving the NCAA tournament much of a thought. After our run of seeing Rage Against The Machine, The Killers and Arcade Fire in 2022, adding Muse to the concert list would be fun!
Well, that’s my bad. Thankfully with the help of my IPhone and Youtube TV account, I was able to catch the last 5 minutes of Fairleigh Dickinson’s improbable and historic upset, even if my wife glanced over a couple of times as my two friends and I hunched over a cell phone during a sold out concert at the world’s most famous arena.
The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights gave my friends and the nation all the feels on Friday night, becoming only the second number-16 seed to dispatch a number-1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Going in, 16 seeds were 1-150 in such matchups, yet FDU remarkably kept it close with the Big 10 regular season and tournament champion before shutting down the Boilermakers in the closing minutes. Tobin Anderson called his shot after FDU’s dominant First Four victory over Texas Southern!
The Knights were clearly unafraid of the big moment, refusing to succumb anytime Purdue made a run. The Boilermakers posted 2 “kill shot” 11-0 runs during the contest – one in each half – yet FDU never allowed Purdue to extend their advantage past 5 points in either situation. It was a masterpiece that will go down as the greatest win in Northeast Conference history after KenPom pegged Purdue as a 98% favorite going in. Now, the Knights are still alive as they embark on a second round NCAA tournament matchup with Florida Atlantic on Sunday night at 7:45 PM.
While much has been written about FDU’s triumph over Purdue, and deservedly so, allow me to break down how exactly the Knights pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. How was Anderson and his coaching staff able to craft a near perfect game plan and will the Knights to a Bart Torvik Game Score of 96?
FDU is Finally Defending
I’ll admit I was skeptical of FDU’s viability in February and March because of their inability to defend. At one point in mid February, the Knights possessed the first or second worst defensive efficiency in the country and that was despite forcing opponent turnovers at a near elite rate. On Friday night, the Knights effectively did both – they forced 16 Purdue turnovers (on just 64 possessions) while holding the much bigger Boilermakers to 0.91 points per possession (ppp).
The defensive output wasn’t an isolated performance. Over the past 4 games, FDU has given up just 0.92 ppp while holding opponents to a paltry 17% from deep, with both statistics encompassing the Knights’ best defensive stretch of the season. Some of that depressed 3PT percentage is rooted in luck, yet credit is due to FDU for speeding up Purdue’s playmakers and making life as chaotic as possible in the half court.
There were some open looks that Purdue missed for sure – Synergy estimates that Purdue missed 14 clean looks from behind the arc – yet this buys into the notion that the moment was too big for the Boilermaker players and not for FDU, the shortest team in Division I basketball.
Back to FDU’s defensive prowess: the 7’4” Zach Edey may have logged an impressive 21 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks, yet arguably the best post presence in the country didn’t attempt a single field goal in the final 8 minutes of the contest. Thanks to a series of doubling and fronting the post, Edey barely touched the ball in the closing minutes. That was a testament to FDU’s speed and savvy in making sure the Purdue center never got comfortable in the low block.
Edey’s disappearance down the stretch and FDU’s facilitation of that was impressive in its own right, but also consider that FDU held Purdue players not named Zach Edey to a 28.6% shooting percentage. It took awhile, but Anderson’s group has really leveraged their speed, quickness and length to inflict chaos on the floor.
Sean Moore Has Arrived
In October I offered a bold prediction where I theorized that Demetre Roberts, Grant Singleton and Sean Moore would all emerge in Tobin Anderson’s rotation as Division II transfers who would be top 10 players in the NEC by the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign. My prediction was somewhat right – Roberts and Singleton had fantastic seasons and earned all-conference first and second team honors, respectively. Moore didn’t make an all-conference team however, but make no mistake, the sophomore simply needed a little more time to adjust to the rigors of Division I basketball. I can say with confidence now that there aren’t 10 players in the league who are better than Sean Moore, as the athletic wing has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor.
Moore’s defense has been there all season – he currently has the 104th best steal rate (3.2%) in the country and has collected 10 blocks over his past 8 contests – but of late the STAC transfer has been a revelation offensively. Let’s compare and contrast Moore’s first 7 games and last 7 games this season. It’s night and day, quite frankly.
First 7 Games (FDU 2-5)
Last 7 Games (FDU 5-2)
Moore’s 3 to extend FDU’s lead to 5, 61-56, with a minute remaining was a kill shot in its own right, surging the Knights’ win probability from 47% to 76% with his top of the key triple. This is big time.
Then in the closing seconds, Moore’s defensive mastery came out as well!
FDU will lose Roberts and Singleton after the two veterans exhaust their eligibility when FDU’s magical run concludes this season, so expect Moore to become a centerpiece to the Knights’ offense in the years to come. He is that good and showing his true colors when the lights shine brightest.
FDU Won the Turnover Margin Battle, Again
It’s one of Anderson’s most important stats, turnover margin. Take care of the basketball and extract live ball turnovers and you’ll win most of your contests. On Friday, the Knights did just that by bettering the Boilermakers by +8 in turnover margin and posting a +10 margin on points forced off turnovers (15-5).
For the season, FDU has the 32nd best defensive turnover rate nationally at 21.5%. Couple that with the 61st offensive turnover rate at 16.4% and the Knights have one of the best percentage differences in turnover rate across the Division I landscape. FDU is now 7-3 on the season when they extract a turnover on at least 25% of the opponent’s possessions. Their turnover rate versus Purdue on Friday night was… 25%!
Regardless of the Knights’ outcome on Sunday night versus Florida Atlantic, it’s been a wonderful season for Anderson and his Knights. Take a deep breath, buy some merch (see below!), and we’ll see you on Twitter on Sunday night as the nation roots for the FDU Knights to make history once again. I promise I won’t be at a concert this time around.
Ah yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Playoff time. When every eligible team in the Northeast Conference has a dream to reel off 3 straight victories and go dancing. This season the league was loaded with parity, that is until Merrimack ripped through the conference during the month of February.
Ron Ratner has you covered here and here, but on the NEC Overtime! Blog I’d like to share some thoughts, numbers and key players as well ahead of the much anticipated single elimination tournament.
The Latest Performance Snapshot
To start, one exercise I like to perform prior to the NEC tournament is to take a snapshot of a team’s last 4 weeks of league play. Obviously, this is far from a foolproof way to determine who’s hot going into March, but surely we’ll be able to decipher who besides Merrimack comes in playing well. Just look at this 8-game data… oh my…
Poss/Gm (NEC Rank)
A few notes based off this data:
Merrimack is head and shoulders above the rest of the league currently. That’s obvious. The thing that struck me was not the 7-1 mark, but the Warriors’ increased tempo in the month of February. They went from playing their first 8 league games at a tempo of 63.1 possessions per game to 69.9 over its last eight NEC contests. Why? Gallo has given his underclassmen more offensive freedom in allowing them to attack with movement early in the shot clock, which has led to shorter possessions overall. It’s crystal clear that players like Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage are much more comfortable offensively than they were 2 or 3 months ago. All 3 players have at least a 10.0 increase in their KenPom offensive rating when going from non-conference competition to league play. It’s no wonder all three are typically logging at least 28 minutes per game these days.
One reason the lower seeded Wagner and St. Francis Brooklyn programs could be dangerous is each team is for the most part defending at a high level. The Terriers attempt to drive opponents off the 3-point line (26.8 3PA/FGA defensively, 1st in NEC) and reject shots around the basket (11.7% block rate, 1st in NEC). Armed with the league’s second best adjusted defensive efficiency in NEC play, Wagner does well to extract turnovers and keep opponents away from the offensive glass (24.6% defensive rebounding rate, 1st in NEC) in order to limit second chance opportunities. Defense travels!
Sacred Heart has done a respectable job defending amid all of their injuries and a shortened rotation. With Nico Galette less than 100 percent – he admitted to Ron and I in the last On The Run Pod that he’s dealt with a pulled groin and lower back issues throughout the season – and Brendan McGuire presumably done for the season with a nagging hamstring injury, Anthony Latina must ride Kenny Womack a little more than anyone originally envisioned (more on him below). When the Pioneers hold opponents to under 1 point per possession, they are 8-3 on the season.
CCSU is 3-8 this season with games decided by 2 possessions or less. It’s been a major problem for Pat Sellers’ group, but recently they’ve done better closing out strong in the final minutes with their 3OT thriller over Stonehill and tight road victory versus FDU illustrating progress. The regular season finale loss to Sacred Heart was a hiccup for the Blue Devils however, as CCSU struggled to keep the Pioneers off the free throw line while missing some critical charity stripe attempts down the stretch.
Which Coach Will Rise to the Top?
This will be the most inexperienced field with respect to the head coaches competing in the NEC tournament. Only four coaches have led their teams in this playoff format, while four others come in with a record of 0-0.
It’s been a struggle in the single elimination format for Braica and Latina for various reasons. Braica got his two victories during St. Francis Brooklyn’s magical 2014-15 run that fell one possession short against Robert Morris in the final. While Latina has positioned his team well with respect to NEC tournament seeding – the Pioneers have earned a top 4 seed in 4 of the last 5 tournaments – the long-time head coach only has one playoff victory to show for it – a 61-59 squeaker over Mount St. Mary’s in 2020. Can either coach exercise those demons despite trotting out rosters that have been ravaged by injuries?
Copeland and Strickland may be new to this as head coaches, but Anderson and Gallo have demonstrated success in these formats when they led winning Division 2 programs. Gallo was 4-2 with one tournament championship in 3 seasons at Merrimack when the program was a NE-10 member, while Anderson won 6 East Coast Conference tournament championships and twice was the runner-up in 9 remarkable seasons at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Neither Gallo nor Anderson will be phased by the newness of the NEC tournament.
Key Players to Watch
We already know the superstars of these NEC rosters. In this segment, I’m more looking at guys that mostly hover under the radar (with the possible exception of the first player listed). These are four student athletes that possibly have the power to advance their team into the next round of the conference tournament.
Maxwell Land, Saint Francis – It wasn’t a seamless non-conference season for Land, but the Red Flash guard has rebounded nicely against league competition to post a career high in KenPom offensive rating (108.9) fueled by a true shooting percentage of 55% that’s tenth among all NEC players. The absence of dynamic freshman Landon Moore has forced Rob Krimmel to play Land more than 80% of the team’s minutes over the past 2 months, and for the most part the junior has delivered with Land serving as the Robin to Josh Cohen’s Batman. When he plays well, Saint Francis does well as these splits illustrate:
If Moore does return from a finger injury for a quarterfinal showdown versus CCSU, expectations should be tempered given his absence over the past 12 games. With Ronell Giles exhibiting inconsistency off of last season’s knee surgery and a tough ankle sprain in November, a lot of the Red Flash’s hopes may hinge on Land’s performance in NEC tournament whether that’s fair or unfair. If the lefty gives Krimmel efficiency with an ability to score anywhere on the floor, then SFU has a chance to go dancing.
Devon Savage, Merrimack – Who’s the best 3-point shooter in the Northeast Conference? If you said Savage, then you are paying attention as the James Madison transfer has been a godsend for a Merrimack team that really struggled to make open shots in the first half of the year. Over the team’s past 3 games – all wins – Savage is on an incredible run, converting 16 of 25 (64%) of his long distance attempts, with 15 of those makes coming from an assist. Not only that, Savage has picked up Gallo’s zone incredibly well, posting the 4th best steal rate (4.0%) and 9th best block rate (2.6%). He’s the true epitome of a ‘3 and D’ player, a categorization we as fans often over use. With Savage however, this classification is apt. And if the defense doesn’t account for where Savage resides on the perimeter at all times – the sophomore has made 43% of his unguarded catch-and-shoot takes this season according to Synergy – knocking off the Warriors in their home confines could be next to impossible. Pick your poison: defend Jordan Minor one-on-one in the post, or double him and risk the ball finding its way to Savage in the corner.
Kenneth Womack, Sacred Heart – With Brendan McGuire reaggravating his hamstring injury in the team’s regular season finale, Womack will once again be asked to absorb the backup point guard duties for Sacred Heart. It’s a small sample, but the football wide receiver and basketball walk-on has done incredibly well filling the backcourt void. Per Hoop Explorer, the Pioneers are scoring 7.8 points per 100 possessions more and allowing 4.8 points per 100 possessions less when Womack is on the floor (for full transparency, it’s 231 possessions on, 1,810 possessions off). His 15-point, 8-assist breakout in a critical overtime win versus FDU was likely an outlier, yet his productive minutes down the stretch versus CCSU illustrates the trust Anthony Latina has in the athletic guard. His crafty finish in the paint with 5:26 remaining and his 2 free throws in the closing seconds of a one-possession game show Womack is ready to embrace the challenge of possibly becoming the most unlikely contributor on a team in the NEC tournament’s top four.
Davonte Sweatman, CCSU – Here’s a fun fact for Blue Devil fans when Sweatman is providing an efficient spark off the bench – CCSU is 6-2 in league play when he posts an offensive rating better than average (100.0). In those contests, the shortest player in the Northeast Conference is shooting 53% from the floor while taking care of the basketball fairly well (8 turnovers in 8 games). It’s clear Sellers trusts him given his crunch time minutes of late as well. If he can provide a spark in the NEC tournament quarterfinal at Saint Francis, the Blue Devils have a real opportunity to steal one in Loretto. In Sweatman’s last game versus the Red Flash, the sophomore poured in 20 points on 10 shots while compiling 5 boards and 4 assists. The playmaking Sweatman is a wildcard for sure.
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 Rank
Torvik Game Score Avg
D1 Non-Conf Record
NEC Record (Point Differential)
Efficiency Margin in NEC Play
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.
PPG / RPG / APG
Josh Cohen, SFU
21.4 / 8.1 / 2.4
Jordan Minor, MC
17.1 / 9.3 / 2.3
Demetre Roberts, FDU
17.4 / 3.0 / 4.3
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:
Joe Munden, Jr., FDU
Josh Cohen, SFU
Ansley Almonor, FDU
Joey Reilly, SHU
Davonte Sweatman, CCSU
Bryce Johnson, SHU
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:
Another Stat of Note
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.
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.
Projected NEC Record (KenPom)
Bart Torvik Reg Season Title Odds (Share)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We knew going into the 2022-23 campaign that there would be plenty of unknown commodities taking the Northeast Conference by storm. With so many impactful seniors graduating last spring, the conference was rife with opportunities to shine, and several players have taken full advantage. Before I get into my favorite newcomers I’ve gotten to watch, I’d like to share Bart Torvik’s list of top players in his PORPAGATU! category. As a refresher, PORPAGATU! stands for Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage and is a measure that illustrates how much better (or worse) a particular player is versus a replacement player. I consider it a solid indicator for who’s playing at a high level. Here’s the NEC PORPAGATU! leaderboard as of December 1:
There are some notable names that we expected to be here like Josh Cohen, Nico Galette and Ziggy Reid. Some returnees such as Joey Reilly, Ansley Almonor and Davonte Sweatman have surprised and improved substantially in year two. And several others weren’t part of a NEC roster last season, hence this post. I’m here to highlight a few newcomers that have been terrific in their first month as a Northeast Conference student-athlete.
Heru Bligen, Fairleigh Dickinson
I bestowed lots of preseason hype on Tobin Anderson’s group of St. Thomas Aquinas newcomers, and rightfully so given how well Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton have played in November. But never once did I mention junior college transfer Heru Bligen when explaining why FDU would be a darkhorse NEC contender. My bad.
Through nine games, not only is Bligen among four Knights in Bart Torvik’s top 10 of PORPAGATU!, he’s actually the team’s most efficient player thanks to a pristine 67.2% conversion rate inside the arc while committing just 10 turnovers. Bligen, who came from Garden City Community College and had a myriad of DI options this offseason, isn’t your typical 6’2” guard. That much is evident when witnessing the slasher’s blend of toughness, strength and creativity in getting to the rim. Opponents know Bligen won’t attempt a long jumper, and yet, they can’t stop him despite playing a few steps off. Here are some examples:
It’s a small sample, but the advanced metrics aren’t illustrating a weakness in Bligen’s offensive repertoire, as he’s made 65.0% of his near-the-rim takes and 70.4% of his mid-range 2s, while spreading out that efficiency well both in the half-court and in transition. He also leads the team, despite his guard-like size, with 10 putbacks and a 12.6% offensive rebounding rate, the latter metric is top 125 in all of Division I. The aggressive, proficient approach on the backboards, as well as his ability to cut off-the-ball, has allowed Anderson to implement four guard sets given Bligen’s skill set as a “small-ball 4” alongside more ball dominant players in Roberts and Singleton.
Are there any historical comps within the NEC that compare to the unique offensive profile of Bligen? If you’re going off size and athleticism, former St. Francis Brooklyn guard Unique McLean is the only one who comes to my mind over the past decade, and yet there are differences in their respective profiles. These types of tough, slashing guards may be more plentiful in Division 2, yet Bligen is a rare bird we should all enjoy in Anderson’s system at FDU.
Landon Moore, Saint Francis University
There weren’t many holes Rob Krimmel needed to fill with a veteran-laden roster returning to Loretto, but point guard surely was one of them after the graduation of Ramiir Dixon-Conover. Krimmel was cognizant of this, procuring the commitments of Landon Moore and Cam Gregory for this 2022-23 class, as well as retaining veteran backup Zahree Harrison. In other words, Krimmel had 3 shots to fill the void in finding a competent playmaker next to Maxwell Land, Ronell Giles and Josh Cohen.
In the early going, Moore has seamlessly stepped in as the primary floor general, logging 80% of the Red Flash’s minutes, the 10th best mark among NEC players. The freshman’s ability to play under control without getting sped up has been notable given his jump from Western Prep Academy to Division I competition. How many rookies would have the patience here to find a paint bucket just seven games into their collegiate career?
You’d be hard pressed to find a freshman point that has reached double figures in scoring in 6 of his first 7 Division I contests as Moore has. Furthermore, his assist rate of 22.4% is third best in the league thus far, but perhaps more eye opening has been his 12.4% turnover rate and assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3. Those marks are atypical for rookies.
Additionally, Moore’s versatility has stood out in several ways. Per Hoop Math, his type of assists are well distributed with 42% of his helpers leading to a basket near the rim, 27% to a 2-point jumper and 31% to a made 3-pointer. Not only has he done well getting the ball to different areas of the floor, he’s also thrived in transition as well, posting an effective field goal percentage of 70.0% in those open floor opportunities. Despite missing Giles due to a sprained ankle for much of November, Saint Francis has posted a 58.7% eFG rate in transition, its best mark since 2017-18 thanks in large part to Moore’s efficiency in these up-tempo situations.
Once Giles and Myles Thompson are healthy, the Red Flash should be in good shape with Moore manning the point. Krimmel should possess a very solid 8-man rotation to deploy in league play if his team can get to full strength.
Brandon Brown, Wagner
In terms of sheer volume, Brown’s numbers aren’t going to overwhelm you. He’s not a volume scorer, nor is he someone who’ll take over a game by being ball dominant. His current possession rate through six games is 13.6%, the ninth highest usage rate of any Seahawk playing at least 20% of the team’s minutes. And yet, Brown’s insertion into Wagner’s rotation was an offseason coup for new head coach Donald Copeland, given his penchant to stay within himself and serve as the ultimate glue guy.
As a 6’5”, 190 pound power forward, Brown doesn’t project as a rugged presence, yet his proclivity to attack the glass (23.5% defensive rebounding rate, 122nd in D1) and give Wagner an off-the-bounce mismatch problem has gelled incredibly well with the team’s group of perimeter playmakers. Take Brown’s 14-point, 12-rebound and 3-steal masterpiece in a dominant win over Fairfield as an example. Brown routinely torched Fairfield’s slower-footed defenders off the dribble in the first half, reeked havoc by getting 3 steals defensively AND hit 2 of 4 from deep. It’s that kind of intuitiveness and athleticism that has helped Wagner get over the graduation of all-league stud Elijah Ford. Per Hoop Explorer, Wagner is +6.7 points per 100 possessions on offense and +27.4 points per 100 possessions on defense when Brown is on the floor. Those are incredible splits!
And when you can make tough baskets in transition, like this one late at NJIT, you know Brown is undoubtedly someone who doesn’t shy away from pressure situations.
When it’s all said and done, Brown may only be the fourth or fifth leading scorer on Wagner, but his impact on the program’s championship prospects is enormous. If you need a slasher, he’ll provide that. A guy who can make open 3s? Sure. A rugged rebounder and willing defender who’ll embrace Copeland’s defense first identity? Absolutely. In a way, Brown is the straw that stirs Wagner’s drink.
Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill
You can make the rational argument that Burnett, now a fifth year senior in his third year of eligibility, was solely responsible for Stonehill’s two Division I victories over Army and Holy Cross. In the pair of narrow triumphs, the shifty guard scored 49 points, procured 7 steals and shot 14 of 17 (82.4%) on his 2s and 21 of 25 (84%) from the charity stripe. The Army performance was the main reason for Burnett’s well deserved selection as a NEC Co-Player of the Week.
Like Bligen, Burnett is one of those guards who’ll gladly leverage his quickness and ability to get downhill to generate offense for Chris Kraus’ group. Per Hoop Math, Burnett has attempted 59% of his attempts at the rim, converting 68% of them. Just 8% of those near-the-rim makes were assisted, illustrating his strength of blowing by defenders. Take Quinnipiac for example!
Overall, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better two-way wing in the NEC than Burnett.