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.
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!
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.
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.
KenPom Conference Rank
*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.
Opponent’s AVG KenPom
KenPom Predicted NEC Finish
Saint Francis U
St. Francis Brooklyn
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.
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.
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.
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.
% of Blocks
Reg Season Finish
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.
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.
Eight years. I’ve been coming to this event at the Barclay’s Center for eight years. A lot in the NEC has happened since then with 19 different head coaches passing through representing 13 teams. There have been six programs that were NEC regular season champions with four of those programs going on to represent the league in the NCAA tournament over that time span.
NEC Social Media Day at the Barclay’s has gone on so long that the first event in 2012 took place before the Brooklyn Nets ever played a regular season game in Brooklyn!
I had a whirlwind of a day last week interviewing 10 coaches and trying to gather up as much content as I could before the regular season tips off on November 5th. Allow me to organize my thoughts and reflections in one of my favorite posts: a recap of the NEC Social Media Day!
A Pioneer Push Up the Polls
Preseason polls mean absolutely zilch in the grand scheme of things. They merely serve as fodder for the fans and, for the bottom feeding teams, potential bulletin board material. These prognostications obviously have no bearing on the real standings, nor do they provide a program any type of advantage once the first jump ball goes up in November. That is all obvious.
The poll, however, does serve as a good measuring stick in determining how a program has progressed or declined over the past several years. We also can gain insight into which teams the coaches highly respect.
For Anthony Latina, it’s been a wild ride of peaks and valleys in his attempt to reboot Sacred Heart into an annual contender. Under Latina, the Pioneers have never been selected better than fifth in the NEC Coach’s Preaseason Poll and were the only program in that time frame failing to register a single first place vote prior to this preseason. Over the past six seasons, Sacred Heart has the worst average poll position with an average of 7.8.
AVG Poll Position
Total 1st Place Votes
Saint Francis U
That poll trend reversed mightily on Wednesday with the Pioneers getting selected as the second best team. They even got 3 first place votes for the first time in more than a decade!
For Latina, it’s been a complex route in getting Sacred Heart firmly onto the championship path. They seemed destined to compete annually, but then some high level contributors up-transferred, immediately halting the program’s progress. Now, after many long recruiting trips and sleepless nights, Latina finds his Pioneers in a position they quite frankly aren’t used to.
“It’s definitely a source of pride that we took some steps back and lost some guys prematurely and that we were able to recover.” Latina answered when asked if he’s prideful about Sacred Heart’s #2 poll position. “Without question, I take great pride in our program, but I take great pride not for me, but our players and for our school.”
The coach acknowledged the preseason polls are meaningless and that the hard work has yet to come. But he also fully understands his team is built to win-now even after graduating NEC all-conference first teamer Sean Hoehn. “We will be in a position to do something that no Sacred Heart team has ever done and if that’s not motivating, nothing will be,” he said.
Time will tell if the Pioneers put themselves in a position to win their first NEC tournament game since 2009 and make their first NEC tournament final since 2008.
A New Point Guard in Loretto
Recently, 6-8 forward Tyler Stewart was declared immediately eligible by the NCAA after playing just five games with Binghamton last season. His insertion into an already crowded frontcourt – Myles Thompson, Mark Flagg, Deivydas Kuzavas – may not seem like a big deal, but for Rob Krimmel Stewart’s ability to stretch the floor and provide versatility at three positions is a real positive for his 2019-20 roster.
“(He) gives us some more depth, and some length and experience too,” Krimmel answered when asked about Stewart’s insertion into the rotation. “It was a good jolt in the arm because it gives us another piece to the puzzle that we haven’t had. He’s a legit 6’8”; he can step out and shoot it, he can handle it…”
Krimmel confirmed Stewart’s presence firmly entrenches Keith Braxton as Saint Francis’ starting point guard moving forward. The days of featuring Braxton at the four in “small-ball” lineups are numbered. Instead, the Red Flash now can role out lineups out consisting of:
Scott Meredith, an off-the-ball guard/sharpshooter, and Stewart would be the next logical pieces off the bench with Ramir Dixon-Conover spelling Braxton at times to provide selflessness and defensive tenacity at the one. It’s a different look compared to the days of alpha male and shot creation extraordinaire Jamaal King running the point.
As a result, I’d expect the Red Flash’s pace to slow down. With good effective height in various positions, the defense can focus more on containment rather than turnover generation. Jamion Christian employed a similar philosophy in his third year at the Mount, as the utilization of Andy Smeathers, Will Miller, Greg Graves, Taylor Danaher and Kristijan Krajina at the wing and frontcourt positions led to the best defensive efficiency in the league. They were able to keep defenders in front and make them take tough shots over their length. Krimmel is hopeful his team will enjoy a similar effect.
Merrimack and Their Unique Defense Enters the Fray
Merrimack head coach Joey Gallo is no stranger to the NEC. The Merrimack alum (2004) served on Andy Toole’s bench as an assistant from 2012-2016, overseeing a program that won a collective 76 games and three postseason games (2 NIT and 1 NCAA tournament) in four seasons.
While Toole’s tutelage was no doubt a positive for Gallo’s growth as a coach, it was the attacking, 2-3 zone employed by Robert Morris during the 2014 and 2015 championship seasons that likely was most beneficial in guiding Gallo’s transition to Merrimack. Back in 2014, the Colonials were down to eight scholarship players and with a lack of depth, Toole and his coaching staff abandoned their relentless man-to-man scheme and went with the unconventional zone.
It worked wonders as the Colonials finished in the top three of the league in defensive efficiency and turnover rate at the conclusion of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In the latter season, the Colonials length and athleticism on the back end of the zone – Lucky Jones, Elijah Minnie and Rodney Pryor in particular – gave NEC opponents fits.
While Toole circled back to his man-to-man roots the following season, Gallo maintained a true appreciation for the zone after leaving for Merrimack. “He really enjoyed it, he liked teaching it and he thought it fit the personnel that they had,” Toole said when asked why he thought Gallo brought the zone defense to Merrimack. “So now he’s taking it on (at Merrimack) and trying to recruit off it and it’s certainly something that’s unique and different.”
In truth, Gallo was looking for a way to distinguish his team in a NE-10 league rife with man-to-man defense and motion offenses. He had just replaced a coach that was at Merrimack for an eternity and he simply was trying to make a mark in a return to his Alma mater. “It started off as we were going to play a little bit of both (man-to-man and zone) and it just kind of evolved from there. We had success with the (zone); it fit in to how this guy plays (looking at Juvaris Hayes), a lot of steals and created turnovers.”
Last season in the NE-10, Merrimack extracted an incredible 17.4 turnovers per game, leading to an average of 19.5 points scored off of those turnovers. It’s anyone’s guess how the zone will perform against Division I competition, but for now Gallo will take a fluid approach on a game to game basis.
“It forms the shape of what we’re playing against,” Gallo said when describing the versatility of his zone. There will be some games where he’ll plan to attack the perimeter and suppress 3-point shooting and others where the opponent’s frontcourt is the point of emphasis, resulting in crowding scorers and trapping the post if needed.
Robert Morris Back to Offensive Basketball
The UPMC Events Center will open this November for the first time, and Toole is hopeful the fans in attendance will be treated to something that’s eluded his program over the past few seasons: free-flowing, high-powered offensive basketball.
It’s been a grind of late for the Colonials in terms of scoring. Toole’s squad, decimated by transfers and early departures, found themselves routinely in the bottom quarter of the league in offensive efficiency over the past four seasons. That could change in Toole’s 10th season with the Williams brother and Charles Bain in the Robert Morris system for the past two-plus seasons.
Somewhat surprisingly, KenPom projects a step back for the Colonial offense, likely due to the departures of Malik Petteway and Matty McConnell, both of whom were efficient in their own way. What KenPom cannot predict, however, is the impact of incoming junior college transfers D.J. Russell, A.J. Bramah and Jalen Hawkins. The newcomers, according to Toole, should slot in as rotation guys and provide Robert Morris with something the program has sorely lacked of late: 2-point efficiency.
Of Russell and Bramah, Toole is excited to incorporate their talents into his rotation. “Both guys are capable of making a play for themselves or a teammate,” he said.
Overall, Toole is really looking forward to see the offense’s potential and hopes it take some of the onus off the other side of the ball. “I think we have some really good offensive pieces. I think there’s a good understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing.”
More Options in Year Two for Bryant
With a core four of Ikenna Ndugba, Adam Grant, Bash Townes and Juan Cardenas in place, Grasso is searching for the options behind those players. While it’s possible someone from the freshman trio of Charles Pride, Benson Lin and Michael Green could find the starting lineup, Grasso isn’t tipping his hand. “If you walked in to watch us practice you wouldn’t know they’re freshmen. And a lot of it is their intensity, the time they’re in the gym and how they work at their game, how they work at their craft is not at the level of your average freshman,” he said.
Bryant’s depth moving into Grasso’s second season is much improved, so much so that that Grasso is hopeful his team will push the tempo and play fast, aggressive and loose. It was a philosophy he had to abandon in the middle of last season, after Bryant lost their first nine games when they had 70 or more possessions in the game (they finished 1-13 in those games). With Ndugba back and more talent to choose from in year two, it’s fair to assume Grasso will attempt to push the pace.
New Look Sharks Going Small Ball?
It’s not easy being at the top from the start, and if that wasn’t hard enough, now Derek Kellogg must navigate the first half of the 2019-20 season without a key power forward.
LIU Sharks power forward Eral Penn is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his arm, per Derek Kellogg. He’ll apply for a medical redshirt if out for all of 2019-20, although nothing is final yet.
It’s an unfortunate injury for Penn, who by all accounts had a great summer and was poised to become one of the best two-way players in the NEC. Now, LIU’s depth constricts some, yet the talent remains to contend with the league’s best.
“I think it puts more onus on the guys that played already – the four stars coming back I don’t think they can take a night off.” Kellogg answered when asked what Penn’s injury does to his rotation. “I believe those guys have to be the cornerstones every time we step on the floor and I’m hopeful the other guys can chip in and do what they do as new guys.”
The core four Kellogg is referring to are preseason first teamer Raiquan Clark, Tyrn Flowers, Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts. The roles won’t change for the veteran group, although a return to a smaller lineup may benefit Flowers some.
“It slides Ty Flowers to the 4 quite a bit more where I think he’s probably more comfortable and more of a tough match-up, so in some regards we will be fine offensively,” Kellogg said.
The addition of transfer Virshon Cotton also provides Kellogg with an element that he covets. “I love our overall team speed. I love the fact that we have three even four guys on the floor that can handle the basketball at once. I think we come at you in different ways, especially on the offensive side of the floor. Then I also like we can pressure the ball at different positions, not just from the point guard spot.”
The thing to watch in the early going is LIU’s defense, as Penn was LIU’s best rim presence, registering a block rate of 7.4% (80th nationally). Penn’s versatility and athleticism will be missed, yet his absence won’t stop Kellogg to push the pace and score as much as humanly possible. It promises to be a fun brand of basketball at the WRAC.
Wagner’s Atiba Taylor was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA recently. The 6’4″ guard, who played sparingly last season at Youngstown State as a freshman, has three years remaining and figures to have an opportunity to make Bashir Mason’s rotation.
Mount St. Mary’s has been a little banged up this preseason, as the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Vado Morse admitted to nursing a knee injury for part of the summer. While he’s currently a full go in practice, red-shirt freshman Matt Becht (eye) and true freshman Ayan Teel (ankle) are out for the foreseeable future. Becht’s shooting and Teel’s floor general attributes were expected to bolster Dan Engelstad’s second unit, but getting healthy during the non-conference portion of the schedule remains the number one priority. Of the entire roster, Engelstad singled out Damian Chong-Qui, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene as players who’ve really improved their body and respective skill sets this offseason. (Check out this feature by Ryan Raffensperger on Chong-Qui)
Speaking of injuries, St. Francis Brooklyn sophomore guard Steven Krtinic has been banged up and hasn’t practiced with the team of late. It’s highly unlikely he’s ready for the start of the season, however freshman guard Rob Higgins has impressed according to his head coach. “Higgins has been terrific, he was great in our scrimmage the other day,” Glenn Braica said of Higgins, who scored more than 2,200 points for Middletown North in New Jersey. The 6’2″ combo guard was a late recruiting get for the Terriers after a scholarship opened up from Jalen Jordan’s transfer. It’s fair to expect a healthy dose of Chauncey Hawkins, grad transfer Unique Major (2 years of eligibility remaining) and Higgins in Braica’s backcourt.
Greg Herenda was noncommittal with which players would fill out his rotation behind the obvious foursome of Jahlil Jenkins, Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams and Xzavier Malone. “I think we’re still in that process,” he admitted. “This year’s team is deeper, faster, more athletic, but it’s younger.” The likeliest candidate to start alongside FDU’s “core four” is sophomore Brandon Powell, who serves as nice complement in that he excels at moving the ball and knocking down open shots. The versatile BJ Saliba and athletic Brandon Rush should also compete for time at the two and three.
It’s clearly a rebuilding season in New Britain, yet there’s reason for optimism with the talent Donyell Marshall has recruited in year four. While he continues to evaluate the freshmen – he did note Greg Outlaw as someone who’s played well this preseason and that translated to their recent exhibition – it’s junior college transfer Stephane Ayangma and returning sophomore Karrington Wallace that should anchor the Blue Devils’ better than advertised defense. Of Ayangma, Marshall said: “We thought he was just pretty much going to be a junkyard dog, just a rebounder, physical guy, (but) he’s definitely a lot better offensively than we thought.” Wallace’s maturation has been a pleasant surprise for Marshall as he’s been “blocking shots like crazy” this preseason. The frontcourt pair, along with established perimeter stopper Ian Krishnan and junior college transfer Zach Newkirk, allow Marshall to declare this squad the best defensive team he’s been a part of since his arrival at Central Connecticut. They gave up just 0.80 points per possession versus D3 opponent Coast Guard, which is a nice start.