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

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

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

Who Will Win the NEC Coach of the Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the League’s Player of the Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Cohen and Mikey Square – A Breakdown on 2 Emerging NEC Bigs

There are plenty of quality frontcourts in the Northeast Conference this season with five players – Eral Penn, Ty Flowers, Jordan Minor, Elijah Ford and Nana Opoku – all receiving hardware last season after playing predominantly as a four or five-man. And Hall Elisias arguably has been extremely close to grabbing a NEC Defensive Player of the Year honor, if it wasn’t for extraordinary defensive seasons out of Juvaris Hayes and Opoku.

In other words, the frontcourt play is at a high level and getting better with the recent emergence of two players highlighted below. Both showed flashes in a productive rookie season, yet neither of them cracked the NEC All-Rookie team most likely due to a minutes crunch. Nevertheless, both of these unique talents have an opportunity to become household names in league circles if their level of play continues at a pristine level. Let’s discuss these two standout sophomores.

Josh Cohen, Saint Francis University

“His ball goes in”

Those were the first words uttered out of Rob Krimmel’s mouth in the summer of 2019 when I asked him about incoming freshman Josh Cohen for my Blue Ribbon preview. The 6-foot-10 guard turned center – he had a major growth spurt early in high school – had received mild interest from Division I programs, yet Krimmel and his staff fully bought in to lure the Lincroft, New Jersey product to Loretto. Cohen wasn’t your prototypical versatile, athletic 5-man, so the tepid Division I interest wasn’t overly surprising.

I’ll be honest: I was even skeptical of the center’s future impact when writing my Saint Francis Blue Ribbon preview that summer. I’ve spoken to NEC coaches for at least a decade and a handful of times there was a long, 6-foot-10 or taller kid they were touting, the player who’d eventually become a dominant post presence, rim protector and difference maker in a league full of smaller, albeit bouncy 5-men. Unsurprisingly, most of those true center types had failed to make a meaningful impact, yet here was Krimmel expressing his optimism of Cohen.

It was my mistake: I should never doubt Krimmel and his staff when it comes to developing big men, as lesser known recruits turned all-conference stalwarts have already advanced on Krimmel’s watch before Cohen landed in 2019. With assistant coach Eric Taylor, a former NEC star power forward himself, and long-time associate head coach Andrew Helton as part of SFU’s staff, players like Earl Brown, Ronnie Drinnon and Josh Nebo became all-conference studs. And Mark Flagg has developed into a nice rim-protector, rim-runner and post presence over the past four plus years.

With Cohen, Helton always saw the upside for the now-sophomore to become the next efficient post player in Loretto. “He has a really good skill set and he came to us with an understanding of how to pass and how to play and the one thing with him that’s true is he has an incredibly soft touch,” Helton said when asked about Cohen’s recruiting profile. 

Exhibiting a soft touch is one thing, but there were a few facets of the game Cohen needed to work on that led to his red-shirt assignment for 2019-20 according to Helton. “We just felt Josh needed the year,” he said. “He needed the year to adjust to the school, to get stronger.”

It wasn’t like the Red Flash had a critical need in the frontcourt that season as they competed for a championship. They already possessed a stout frontcourt led by former NEC Player of the Year, and atypical 4-man, Keith Braxton. And around him were other meaningful pieces in the more traditional sense of a big man in Flagg, Myles Thompson and Deivydas Kuzavas. 

Nevertheless, Cohen didn’t waste the opportunity to get better while on scholarship in year one. To this day he’s put on 20-25 pounds of muscle, allowing him to acclimate better to the physicality of Division I basketball. 

“The weakness he had two years ago was physical strength and the ability to move his feet… and he’s really worked at getting better in those things,” Helton said. “He’s not going to be Joel Embiid, he’s not going to be the bounciest kid in the world, but he’s gotten better in those areas.”

Embiid he’s not, no one at the mid-major level is, but there’s no disputing the sizable impact he’s had on Saint Francis this season. During Cohen’s 23-point, 8-rebound performance at American on December 8th, this play embodies Cohen’s burgeoning strength, footwork and tenacity to keep moving until he got himself in an advantageous position to score.


At 6-foot-10 with an equally long wingspan, he doesn’t need a lot of space to get off his shot in the post. He’ll just shoot it over to the top as he did versus Hartford on Tuesday night. The only mistake on this play was the Hartford announcer mistakenly thinking Flagg scored the bucket.

Both makes came from the left block, yet per Shot Quality, Cohen has been equally lethal from both sides of the paint, registering identical shot quality metrics on the left (1.16 SQ PPP) and right block (1.10 SQ PPP). Those post-up numbers have put Cohen in the top 85th (right block) to 90th percentile (left block) among Division I players.

He also has thrived out on the perimeter, either stationed in the high post or setting the screen on pick-and-rolls. In the former, Cohen’s high IQ and instincts give him the ability to put teammates in a position to score. His positive assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.33 is evidence of that.

“I think the thing that he really gives you is if you notice he has more assists than turnovers, that’s very unique for a five-man,” Helton said of Cohen, who has 12 assists versus 9 turnovers this season.

And in the pick-and-roll, teams must pick their poison between Ramiir Dixon-Conover/Cohen or Ronell Giles/Cohen. For example, the defending big man can try to ice the ball handler in RDC or Giles and prevent the dynamic slasher from getting downhill, but then the astute Cohen can react by rolling hard to the bucket.

Throw in the spectacular mid-range game (he’s made 62% of his career 2-point jumpers per Hoop Math), sneaky quick leaping ability that allows him to grab an offensive rebound on 12.7% of the Red Flash’s misses and it’s fair to say Cohen has a chance to join Sacred Heart’s Kibwe Trim (2005) and Monmouth’s Keith Owens (2003) as the only players at 6-foot-10 or taller this century to earn a NEC all-conference selection. 

“He just has a knack to put the ball in the basket and that comes from 15 feet in,” Helton said. “He can score in different ways, there’s no doubt.”

Quite simply, his ball goes in.

John “Mikey” Square, Fairleigh Dickinson

It’s been a challenging start to FDU’s season. The 31st hardest schedule in the country according to KenPom, as well as a roster featuring seven talented, albeit green freshmen will do that to you. Nevertheless, there have been bright spots and reasons for optimism, chief among them the performance of 6-foot-6 sophomore John “Mikey” Square. 

The DMV product – he went to the same high school as Knight great Darian Anderson and Devon Dunn – leads his teammates who’d played at least eight games in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), 2-point field goal percentage (56.5%) and offensive rebounding rate (10.3%) by a wide margin and presents high grades no matter which analytical site you peruse. Shot Quality puts Square in the 71st percentile in terms of shot quality points per possession, meaning that his shot attempts are good looks.

Greg Herenda is starting to entrust Square more in his sophomore season – his minutes continue to trend up and with good reason. Per Hoop Explorer, the Knights score 9.9 more points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off.

“He’s just dependable, he doesn’t really turn it over a heck of a lot,” Herenda said of his leading rebounder. “He’s hard to guard because he can use his strength and his quickness depending on if he’s getting played by a big or played by a smaller guy and he’s just unorthodox down there. 

Cohen’s post moves and footwork maximizes the sophomore’s length and ability to shoot over the top. At 6-foot-6, Square uses quickness and swift decision making to get buckets with his back to the basket. It may not be text book, yet it’s effective. Case in point:

While P.O. Racine has seen inconsistent minutes this non-conference season, it remains safe to assume Racine and Square will be featured plenty once league play commences. Racine’s 12-point performance against a tough Fairfield team on Wednesday night illustrates the sophomore’s upside. And when you have a four-man in Square who can also defend and move like this, Herenda can’t afford to leave him on the bench for very long.

“He’s got a huge heart and he’s got a huge will and he’s got a fierce sense of competitiveness,” Herenda said. “I’m an old school coach and he’s an old school player, so it’s a good fit.”

Expect the impact of Square to only grow as we progress into the 2021-22 season.