Coming off one of the more memorable NEC Tournament finals we’ve seen in recent memory, now is the time to reflect back on just how dominant Merrimack was during the conference season. Joe Gallo’s group excelled in 2023, victorious in 15 of 18 games while extending their current winning streak to 11 games. It’s the nation’s fourth best winning streak, and if Tuesday night’s championship was the end of their magical 2023 run, they’ll likely conclude with the country’s longest winning streak going into 2023-24.
I’m sorry, but some of the analytic algorithms need to tweak their formulas to properly access where Merrimack stands among their Division I brethren.
Bart Torvik’s ranking feels more correct at 286, but truthfully the overall analytics don’t really matter here. What Merrimack has done, both this year and throughout the entirety of its Division I reclassification process, is remarkable. Two regular season championships. One tournament title in its first ever appearance. And they’ve done it with a lean, but exceedingly efficient coaching staff.
How special was Merrimack’s run in 2023? Allow me to make two points for why the Warriors had one of the best conference seasons in quite some time.
The Defense Was Historically Good
In what many would consider a meaningless game with the regular season championship already wrapped up, Merrimack and Gallo actually had plenty to play for with respect to their last game before the conference tournament. A great defensive effort at the WRAC versus LIU would catapult the program to a new heights with respect to adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s exactly what Gallo’s group did with Merrimack holding LIU to 0.77 points per possessions (their second best effort of the season versus D1 teams), forcing 24 turnovers and generating a starling 34 points off those Shark miscues. Just another day at the office!
With all due respect to the other great NEC defensive units in the KenPom era (21 years), Merrimack’s defense deserves to be recognized as the GOAT when you also throw in these caveats:
Merrimack’s turnover rate is currently first in the nation; the Warriors extracted a turnover on an incredible 26% of the opponent’s possessions.
Merrimack’s steal rate is also the country’s best with a theft on 16.6% of the opponents’ possessions.
Despite the zone’s aggression in forcing live ball turnovers, the team had the 58th best defensive free throw rate nationally with a 26.9% FTA/FGA mark
Gallo and his staff have been offering the college basketball landscape – and the entire basketball world for that matter – a Masterclass in how to run an efficient defense. Please appreciate that we all just witnessed a historically dominant defense that’s currently approaching the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Move over Mike Rice, Milan Brown and Dan Hurley, there’s a new sheriff in town!
Merrimack Actually Met Lofty Preseason Expectations
Most of us, myself included, pegged Merrimack as our preseason number one. With accomplished, been-there-done-that veterans Jordan Minor and Ziggy Reid returning, it was easy to talk yourself into Merrimack as the NEC’s premier program going into the 2022-23 season. In Gallo we trust, right?
Some of us may have been nervous after Merrimack struggled through an arduous non-conference season, but eventually Gallo’s unit regrouped and got better as the year progressed.
With Merrimack obtaining both the regular season and tournament titles, the Warriors now become only the second NEC program in 35 years to be the preseason #1, regular season champion and tournament champion. The other program? The great 2012-13 LIU program from a decade ago under Jim Ferry. That team was in the middle of its 3-title dynasty during a breathtaking run that ended with a record of 19-2 versus NEC foes.
When Merrimack can reasonably compare itself to that 25-win juggernaut led by Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman, you’re doing something right. How’s that for living up to expectations?!
In the end, Merrimack’s awesome second half of the season may not get its proper due because of the non-conference results and the program’s ineligible status with respect to the NCAA Tournament and NIT. Don’t let those two things deflect from the past 10 weeks however, especially given that Gallo brought in 7 newcomers to learn a unique defensive zone that isn’t played much, if at all, at the high school, AAU and prep school levels.
I may not have the time nor the energy to justify calling Merrimack the greatest Division I reclassification team ever, but I feel like this may be true. In four seasons, Gallo and Merrimack have gone 47-25 (65%) in league play. It’s quite simply the best winning percentage of any NEC program in this period.
The rest of the NEC should be terrified if Merrimack returns their full assortment of players going into next year. With a chance to finally qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2023-24, the sky’s the limit for the college hoops team from North Andover. Joe Gallo has built a dynasty up there.
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.
Demetre Roberts was ready to give it another go. After weeks of deliberation with family, friends and coaches, Roberts decided that the pros outweighed the cons for returning to St. Thomas Aquinas College for a fifth season. Despite accomplishing seemingly all there was to accomplish at the individual and team level, the ECC all-conference first teamer was poised for more. A Final Four appearance. Maybe a legitimate run at the Division II national championship. But most importantly, it was a personal goal that drove his decision making process to stick around.
“I think the ultimate goal for me was getting my Masters (degree),” Roberts said when asked for his reasons for why he decided to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as STAC, for the 2022-23 season. “In my family I’m the first one to achieve that goal, so I think that played a part in why I decided to stay at STAC.”
This all could’ve been part of Roberts’ fairy tale ending – right now he may have been in the midst of yet another 25-win season and would soon help STAC embark on another deep run in the Division II NCAA Tournament. It was set up that way, that is until the head coaching position at FDU opened up a few weeks later. And then all hell broke loose when then-STAC head coach Tobin Anderson accepted the job.
“We’re going to be great next year (at STAC), we’re all fired up and then this whole thing happened,” Anderson explained. “For me personally and professionally if I don’t take this job that might be it. They don’t hire Division II coaches, they don’t do it.”
Both Roberts and his equally successful teammate Grant Singleton fully understood their coach’s reasoning for jumping at the once in a lifetime opportunity. For Anderson, it was a chance to prove himself at a quality Division I school close to home. But that didn’t make it any easier for Roberts and Singleton to digest and assess their current plight.
“It was a big shocker, it just came out of nowhere but I wouldn’t lie, it definitely took a big hit on me,” Roberts admitted.
After the news of Anderson’s hiring reached the team via social media prior to the coach meeting with them – the media leak was something that irked Anderson a little – Roberts, Singleton and Anderson huddled together after the team meeting. Anderson was about to leave for his Division I opportunity, although he had some unfinished business at STAC.
“I told them ‘I love you no matter what. You don’t have to come (to FDU), but there’s an opportunity for you at Division I,” Anderson said to them in the impromptu and ultimately awkward meeting.
For Singleton, it didn’t take long to decide that following his coach was in his best interest. “I needed a little bit of time to think about it, talk it over with my family,” the fifth year shooting guard said of the process. “It was an easier decision than I thought when I came to visit FDU, just being in the same system, better facility…”
Unlike his close friend and longtime teammate, Roberts needed more time to contemplate his options. If he was going with Anderson, a couple of weeks to figure things out were a must.
Eventually, the deliberate and thoughtful Roberts was on board. “I think the good part about that (situation) was he had the opportunity to bring us with him, so I think that kind of cooled everything down,” he said.
The lightning quick point guard has never been one to make a rash decision. Back in high school at Mount Vernon, Anderson offered the dynamic, yet diminutive floor general as a junior despite the overall lack of interest in the 5’8” guard’s services. Back then, it really only was STAC and Division II counterpart LIU Post that offered Roberts, but nevertheless a lengthy waiting game ensued.
“I recruited him all through his senior year and literally, he’ll tell you this too, he would not return (my texts and calls),” Anderson said with a smile of the arduous recruiting effort to sign Roberts. “I would text him 50 times for every time he returned my text, he would never return a text.”
Roberts was playing tough to get mainly for his wish to eventually garner some Division I interest. That interest never came, and soon after it was Mount Vernon head coach Bob Cimmino assuring Anderson that Roberts would eventually come around. It was late in the senior’s season, and Anderson decided to visit Roberts and his team during a state semifinal playoff game. At the time, Anderson was preparing to interview for a head coaching position at another school, and he felt confident he’d get the job and leave STAC. Despite this, he decided to attend Roberts’ game and keep his commitment to the high motored point guard. It was 12-plus months of recruiting up to that point, what was another weekend in the grand scheme of things?
The encounter turned out to be a positive for both parties, and after the job opportunity unexpectedly fell through, Anderson was told by Cimmino that Roberts was ready to visit STAC. The rest, of course, is history with a marriage between coach and player that has been greatly fruitful for both sides. The proof is in the pudding with 96 wins in four seasons and several Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances at STAC.
“He wants to play professionally, so for a guy like his size and his background he’s going to have to be the hardest working guy, the toughest guy and that’s what he is,” Anderson says of his guard who’s now logged 129 career games, all with the long-time head coach.
Now with FDU sitting at a perfect 5-0 in Northeast Conference league play, the transition from Division II to Division I hasn’t been much of an adjustment, if at all. The confident, yet humble Roberts isn’t shy to admit this.
“I think it’s more fast paced in the NEC than the ECC, (but) we’re all basketball players, I feel like it’s the same competition,” Roberts said of the adjustment to Division I. “You just go out there and play basketball, everything else will just take care of itself.”
With more than a half of a Division I season logged, Roberts game is taking care of itself as the graduate senior finds himself third in scoring (17.0 ppg), first in assists (4.1 apg), sixth in free throw percentage (78.0%) and fifth overall in KenPom’s “Northeast Conference all-KenPom.com” rank among all NEC players. His explosive ability to score, facilitate and cause mayhem, all while staying perfectly in control – his 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is also 5th in the league – has all of the opposing coaches on notice.
“He’s got a little (former UConn guard) Shabazz Napier in him because he has the ball on a string, he puts you on his heels with the dribble and he can shoot it from deep,” Central Connecticut State coach Pat Sellers said of Roberts, who scored 18 points on 10 shots in FDU’s recent road victory over the Blue Devils. “And he’s really quick, he’s quick and he’s a tough kid.”
With roughly six weeks to go in the regular season, Roberts still has a final chapter to write in his collegiate career. One thing is for sure though, he’ll always cherish what Anderson has given him on the hardwood.
“He’ll risk it all just for us to succeed,” Roberts said of Anderson. “He’s a gritty coach who wants the best out of his players. Everyday he’s going to push us, obviously he’s doing it just to get positive outcomes.”
A Historical Look at Other Division II Transfers Who’ve Impacting the NEC
Given the immediate successes of Roberts and Singleton as Division II transplants, and others such as Stonehill’s Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and Max Zegarowski, I wanted to take a historic look at previous Northeast Conference mainstays who were Division II transfers. Credit to NEC diehard Matt Mauro for piquing my interest on the topic:
After polling a few people, it’s clear that the Division II transfer list is decidedly small, as until recently the vast majority of dominant transfers have either come from other Division I institutions or the junior college ranks. But allow me to mine through the few impactful Division II transfers to illustrate the ones who were most successful at playing basketball in the conference.
Jare’l Spellman, Sacred Heart
Anthony Latina’s recruitment of Spellman from Division II Florida Southern went a bit under the radar, yet the 6’10” center’s impact was immediate the moment he stepped on the floor against Division I competition. He may have been lanky, yet that didn’t stop his tenacious effort at protecting the rim at an elite level. Spellman collected a school record 183 rejections and corralled 160 offensive rebounds in just 2 seasons, and it was his first season (11.9% block rate, 12th in D1) that led to a deserving NEC Defensive Player of the Year selection. Alongside rugged double double machine E.J. Anosike, the Pioneers boasted one of the most imposing 2-way frontcourts, with the duo mainly responsible for a Sacred Heart defensive efficiency that rose to the league’s top 3 during the 2019-20 campaign.
Raekwon Rogers, Wagner
The pieces of contention were in place for Bashir Mason’s Seahawks going into the 2021 offseason, yet it was the astute recruitment and signing of Rogers, a Henderson College standout, that served as the final piece to Wagner’s puzzle in a league rife with accomplished 4th and 5th year players. Rogers, a graduate senior himself, was just what the doctor ordered for the Seahawks – he served as a stout, efficient and at times athletic post presence who embraced the physicality of being a NEC five-man. On a team loaded with stars such as Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez, it was Rogers among the Wagner regulars who led the team in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), offensive rebounding rate (12.7%) and 2-point field goal percentage (60.4%), leading to an all-conference third team selection in his lone year on Grymes Hill.
Tedrick Wilcox, St. Francis Brooklyn
Glenn Braica has been a champion of ushering in ready-to-contribute transfers for several years running, but Wilcox was Braica’s first real Division II signee who’s produced at an above average level. Currently, Wilcox sits inside Bart Torvik’s top 20 NEC players with respect to the replacement value metric PORPAGATU!, and it’s with good reason. Wilcox burst onto the scene last season at St. John’s with 19 points and 5 made triples, and since then the swingman has cast himself as the perfect blend of shotmaking, versatility and toughness to man the 3/4 position on the floor. He’s accepted the mantle of being St. Francis Brooklyn’s leading scorer over the past 3 contests, posting a combined plus/minus of +17 while scoring 1.27 points per possession per Synergy. The former Dominican College stud has all-conference upside, and he’s certainly flashing that now.
John Bunch, Monmouth
This one goes way back, but at 7-foot-2 and 320 pounds Bunch was surely memorable as a center in Dave Calloway’s attack. Much like Spellman, Bunch used his size and instincts to his advantage on the defensive end, swatting away and altering shots like none other in his time. During his senior year in 2006-07, Bunch registered the third highest block rate in the country at 17.6% and that was after posting a 16.2% block rate as a red-shirt junior. At Lincoln University, his prior stop before Monmouth, Bunch averaged a dominant 13 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks per game, while breaking the NCAA record for most blocks in a game with (get this) 18 rejections! To no one’s surprise, he also finished his senior campaign as a Hawk nationally ranked in offensive and defensive rebounding rate.
Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack
I saved the best for last, even though Hayes technically wasn’t a program transfer having spent his entire collegiate career under the tutelage of Joe Gallo at Merrimack. He did however, much like Sims and Burnett at Stonehill after him, transfer to the Division I level with the Warriors reclassification to the Northeast Conference, and did he ever dominate in his lone year. Not only did he eventually break the NCAA’s career record for steals at 457 thefts, but he also earned a spot on the NEC’s all-conference first team as well as become the league’s defensive player of the year with a league leading 121 steals and a NCAA Division I leading steal rate of 6.5%. His impact offensively was impressive as well with a 38% assist rate (12th in D1) and 19 games cracking the double digit threshold in scoring. Can someone please arrange a one-on-one contest between Hayes and Demetre Roberts, pretty please?
With nearly two months of non-conference play in the books, have we learned anything tangible with respect to Northeast Conference basketball? Has a true favorite emerged from the pack? Well, if you value KenPom and BartTorvik’s numbers, and I do after 12-14 games of data, the answer to the question is Wagner. But then look at the glut of teams immediately after!
Projected NEC Record (KenPom)
Bart Torvik Reg Season Title Odds (Share)
The Seahawks may have a 50% chance to outright win or take a share of the league’s regular season title, but make no mistake most of the Seahawks’ conference counterparts have a legitimate shot to, at the very least, get into the league’s top 4 prior to the start of the single elimination NEC tournament. And as history has indicated, getting at least one home game is paramount to making a three-game run in early March that gets you dancing.
Allow me to go into each team’s prospects as I build the case with help from analytics.
Non-Conference Summary: It’s been tough sledding for the Sharks in Rod Strickland’s debut, and the 21st toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom hasn’t made things easier for a young LIU squad. By my estimation, LIU has had 5 guarantee games and squared off against some of the Big East’s best in UConn (KenPom #2), Marquette (#27) and St. John’s (#57). Even the mid-major matchups have been brutal, as UMass Lowell, Towson and James Madison (all KenPom top 100) are projected as frontrunners in their respective conference. Only 3 players – Jacob Johnson, Cheikh Ndiaye and RJ Greene – have played in all 12 LIU games, as injuries have littered the roster throughout the season. There have been games where Strickland has literally had six to eight scholarship players taking part in the pregame layup line. That’s not ideal.
Best Performance: Despite losing to Towson by 10 points in a December matchup at the WRAC, the Sharks acquitted themselves very well throughout the first 33 minutes of the contest before Towson embarked on a 10-0 run – otherwise known as a Kill Shot according to EvanMiya – to put the contest out of reach. The Sharks posted a 1.7 A/TO, scored 1.02 points per possession (ppp) and illustrated good scoring balance with Marko Maletic, Quion Burns and Greene registering at least 12 points in the quality effort. It’s no surprise Bart Torvik issued LIU a season best Game Score of 30 in the tighter than expected defeat.
What LIU Needs to Do to Succeed: Run, run and run. Per Synergy, the team has more than a 17% spread between its effective field goal percentage in transition (61.0% eFG) and half-court (43.6% eFG). Tre Wood, to no one’s surprise based on historical data, continues to excel in up-tempo environments with a 1.27 ppp mark when in transition. Jacob Johnson has converted 19 of 27 attempts in the open floor, and Maletic has been a catch-and-shoot marksman no matter the tempo, as evident by his 40.3% 3-point conversion rate when attempting a behind the arc shot in rhythm. Throw in Greene, who’s dished out 19 assists in transition opportunities according to Hoop Math, and Strickland has a roster loaded with guys who thrive in a frenetic environment.
The problem has been staying healthy, so if the first-year head coach can somehow keep 10 scholarship players dressed for a game, he may be wise to implore his team to push the pace off live-ball turnovers, defensive rebounds and even off opponent makes. Get the dynamic and shifty Wood and Greene in the open floor, and the team’s efficiency should spike as a result.
Furthermore, I’d like to see LIU’s ‘3 and rim’ rate of 70% increase for the sake of the team’s half court efficiency. One reason they hung around vs Towson was the majority of LIU’s shots were taken inside the paint or behind the arc – only three times in the contest did LIU take a mid-to-long 2-point jumper (categorized as 17 feet to the 3-point line) according to Synergy. When LIU’s slashers can get paint touches, the offense should open up in the half-court.
Non-Conference Summary: The transition to a green backcourt has proven to be more arduous than expected for the Warriors, with the team struggling to score (adjusted offensive efficiency of 85.2, 363rd DI) after turning over more than half its roster in the offseason. Like LIU, a difficult non-conference schedule has thrown the young guards/wings into the fire from the outset, and navigating through November without star Jordan Minor – a POY contender – would have been an impossible endeavor for anyone. Nevertheless, no one’s counting out Joe Gallo’s team heading into conference play, as the head coach’s past history and defensive acumen should keep Merrimack competitive in every NEC contest. Remember, Gallo has a career NEC record of 28-8 when you take out his record against Jared Grasso, Bashir Mason and Dan Engelstad, three coaches who are no longer in the league.
Best Performance: While there isn’t a specific 40-minute performance over the past 8 weeks for Merrimack to hang its hat on, the defense still trends as awesome. Despite squaring off against a top 75 strength of schedule, the Warriors have the best defensive efficiency in the league currently (102.8 adjusted defensive efficiency) and have extracted a turnover on 26.1% of their opponent’s possessions. Per Synergy, Merrimack’s zone defense has held opponents to a paltry 0.79 ppp and 41% shooting in half-court sets, and that vaunted defense gets even better out of time outs, with opponents shooting 34% and registering a meager 0.57 ppp. That speaks to Gallo and his staff being able to make adjustments on the fly, and defensively that continues to ring true despite the program dealing with its toughest stretch since Gallo started coaching at his alma mater.
From an individual standpoint, four players have steal rates at 3.0% or higher, with freshman Javon Bennett challenging his inner Juvaris Hayes with the second best steal rate in the nation at 6.3%. Devon Savage (5.1%), Jordan Derkack (4.2%) and Jaylen Stinson (3.0%) round out the team’s top four in steal rate, and all are newcomers who started their acclimation to the 2-3 zone back in the summer. Again, Gallo can really coach defense.
What Merrimack Needs to Do to Succeed: Getting the offense toward the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency relative to its NEC foes is the obvious answer, and while it’s been a slog even with Minor back, there are positive signs that the team has potential to turn the corner. Derkack has shot 53% from the field, so if it wasn’t for a high turnover rate, the freshman would have a much more favorable KenPom offensive rating (currently 79.5). At a 25% success rate, the Warriors have really struggled to score from behind the arc despite posting the 10th best rate in terms of 3-point attempt frequency. The team’s free throw percentage of 71% shows that better days are likely ahead with the program’s long-range prowess. Also, I find it hard to believe that Merrimack will continue to shoot 29% on its unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities according to Synergy. The fact that Merrimack has taken more unguarded shots (154 FGA) than guarded shots (144 FGA) this season bodes well for the argument that the offense execution is just fine going into league play. They just need to make open and semi-open shots.
Non-Conference Summary: With three Division I victories away from their friendly confines, that achievement alone shows that Chris Kraus’ veteran group has adapted well to Division I basketball. They’ve also been competitive at various points in their other non-conference match-ups as well, illustrating that Stonehill will be far from a pushover in its inaugural foray into NEC play. Against mid-major competition, Stonehill’s bevy of skilled guards and wings have scored 1.05 ppp in seven games, and currently are posting an effective field goal percentage of 50.0% in all its games combined, a respectable mark that puts them at 173rd in college basketball. Who had the Skyhawks pegged for 3rd among NEC teams with a 0.91 ppp mark going into late December?
Best Performance: The program’s win over Army in November at West Point served as a statement. The four-or-five-out motion offense flowed well that afternoon, as Andrew Sims, Thatcher Stone and Burnett combined to score 55 points on an efficient 35 attempts. The team’s collective shot chart was a thing of beauty to the analytics crowd, as the Skyhawks didn’t attempt a single long-range 2 (17 feet to the 3PT line) against the Patriot League foe according to Synergy. Even if Stonehill has to veer away from analytically friendly shots late in the clock, the team has been categorized as “very good” by Synergy with respect to being a jump shooting team, posting a league leading 1.02 ppp and 51% eFG. Furthermore, half of the team’s 24 attempts in isolation have gone in the basket (small sample size alert), grading above average relative to the other 362 Division I programs.
What Stonehill Needs to Do to Succeed: In order for Stonehill to simulate Merrimack’s improbable yet deserving conquest of the 2019-2020 NEC regular season title, Kraus’ defense will need to elevate its level to middle of the pack status at the very least, while continuing to efficiently score the basketball. One thing that bodes well for Stonehill in late game situations: their 79% mark at the charity stripe is only bested by 8 other teams in college basketball. If they can get a lead late, Kraus’ team is equipped to hold it as evident from their current 3-1 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less.
The defense needs work, but Kraus has been able to utilize the team’s quickness and perimeter comfort to generate nearly one turnover for every 5 possessions. Isaiah Burnett has been integral in that respect, with the 15th best steal rate nationally (5.3%). Winning the turnover margin and points scored off turnovers battle on a nightly basis will be critical in getting Stonehill in play for an upper-tier NEC finish.
Best Performance: In one of the more dominant performances we saw from a NEC school this non-conference season, CCSU went into Manhattan in December and led wire-to-wire. The Blue Devils had an answer every time the Jaspers attempted a run in the second half thanks to the Blue Devils stars doing exactly what Pat Sellers and many others had envisioned with this team back in the preseason. Nigel Scantlebury (12p, 6a, 5r, 2s) was the do-it-all floor general, Kellen Amos (20, 6 of 6 3PT) made shots and Jay Rodgers (15p, 6a) gave Sellers another efficient playmaker on the floor. Moreover, emerging sophomore center Abdul Momoh turned away 3 Jasper shots while also registering 11 points and 7 rebounds. It was an eye opening team performance where everyone had finally competed at a high level in the same game. It was a game that was rife with fine execution on the offensive end (1.18 ppp, 54.7% FG).
Non-Conference Summary: If it wasn’t for a nice 3 game pocket where the Blue Devils went 2-1 against the likes of Dartmouth, Fordham and Manhattan, the 2022 non-conference season would’ve been disappointing overall. There have been improvements in Sellers’ second season for sure – the team’s adjusted offensive efficiency is up 2.7 points per 100 possessions, while the defense has improved by giving up 1.8 points less per 100 possessions compared to last season. These are modest improvements and likely will tick up now that the guarantee games are behind them, but going on a sustained run will require consistency that CCSU hasn’t necessarily exhibited thus far. Perhaps somewhat concerning is CCSU’s 0-4 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less, but hopefully the experience of narrowly losing to Quinnipiac, Holy Cross and UMBC will make Sellers’ squad more resilient come February and March.
What CCSU Needs to Do to Succeed: Excuse me as I put my nerd hat on, but the Blue Devils should become more analytically friendly with its shot selection, as currently only 297 of the team’s 830 field goal attempts (35.8%) have come at the rim though 14 games. As a result, CCSU’s free throw is last nationally at 18.1 FTA/FGA. Even when the team is getting to the rim, they’ve converted less than half of those attempts (49.8%), putting them in the bottom 3% percentile per Synergy. Those numbers need to improve, and likely will against the smaller frontcourts of the NEC, but nevertheless that’s something Sellers needs to leverage better instead of having his team rely solely on jump shots. For what it’s worth, the team has been a good jump shooting team relative to all of college basketball (0.97 ppp, 48% eFG), but more versatility would most definitely help the offense click.
Amos, in particular, is someone who’s excelled around the basket (60% FG) but hasn’t gotten there a ton as only 35% of his shots have come near the rim. The uneven shot selection is even more pronounced for Rodgers (just 18% of his shots come at the rim), and he’s someone that Sellers said has a distinct ability to get downhill and attack the rim back in the preseason. This Blue Devil offense spacing should improve if Amos and Rodgers leverage their playmaking ability to get into the paint more often moving forward. CCSU is currently making 33% of their 3-point attempts – if they can get to 36% in league play then the Blue Devils will be a formidable opponent.
With the Northeast Conference less than a week away from announcing the league’s best players at regular season’s close, I wanted to highlight some lesser known guys whose value has been undervalued by most. These players aren’t going to earn an all-conference distinction, nor will they typically find their way into the league’s weekly write-up as a Prime Performer. Despite this lack of recognition, it’s generally known among the coaches that these players have been invaluable toward their respective program’s successes. Allow me to highlight six such players to shine a spotlight on the NEC’s mostly quiet contributions.
Ja’Mier Fletcher, Wagner
Here’s a pop quiz, and don’t look head over to ESPN.com or KenPom to figure out the answer. From an offensive rating and effective field goal percentage standpoint, who’s been the most productive player in the Seahawks green and white this season? If I asked anyone this – the casual fan, the diehard blogger and everyone in between – I doubt they would peg third year power forward Fletcher, but here we are. As a reserve big on Bashir Mason’s important second unit, the bruising 6-foot-7 center has been a revelation, shooting 64.3 percent from 2 while grabbing 19.6 percent of the opponent’s misses on the floor. What’s more is Fletcher has used improved fitness and added dexterity to make him more nimble and rim-run on a Wagner squad that loves to get in transition off live-ball turnovers and defensive rebounds. It’s no wonder Fletcher has posted career highs in offensive rating (125.7), free throw rate (67.4% FTA/FGM) and turnover rate (10.8 percent) as a center best utlitized for 12-20 minutes off the bench. There are many stars and well-known role guys on this Seahawks group, but don’t let Fletcher be forgotten just because he backs up star big man Raekwon Rogers.
Tre Mitchell, Central Connecticut State
It’s been a tough go of it offensively for Mitchell this season, as the senior has struggled to make perimeter shots. While his inability to generate consistent offense has been a surprise, head coach Pat Sellers has encouraged the guard to make his impact felt on the other end of the floor. Mitchell has heeded his coach’s advice over the past month, consistently being tasked to defend the opponent’s best perimeter presence, while also serving as “the point guard of the defense.” Mitchell’s high basketball IQ, athleticism and astute positioning is a big reason why the Blue Devils are significantly better defensively when Mitchell is on the floor. Per Hoop Explorer, Central Connecticut gives up nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) when the 6-foot-3 Arizona native is between the lines, a huge impact that quite frankly may not be met by any other player competing in the Northeast Conference. If the jump shot ever comes around – Mitchell has done better of late, making 10 of 30 from deep in his last 6 games – then Sellers is convinced the selfless guard would become a household name in NEC circles.
Luis Hurtado, Bryant
Here’s what one assistant coach in the NEC told me regarding Hurtado: “He’s only quiet from a number’s perspective… Super smart. Great passer. Gets them into the transition game. He’s awesome with the pieces around.” Well, there you go. WIth all of the defensive focus on the best scoring duo in the country in Peter Kiss and Charles Pride, the 6-foot-6 Hurtado is a forgotten man despite showcasing a multi-faceted skill set that’s pivotal in making Bryant’s offense tick. Just look at the analytical metrics – he’s third in offensive rating (118), first in effective field goal percentage (66.7 percent) and sixth in assist rate (24.7 percent) in league play while registering a pristine assist to turnover ratio of 3.0 (64 assists versus 21 turnovers). Not only is he a great teammate that helps contribute to Bryant’s league leading offensive efficiency, but on the other end his size, high IQ, and positioning – he’s very good at using his big frame to absorb contact and draw charges – is an underrated part of Bryant’s defense. Quite simply, he is the prototypical glue guy that keeps a shortened Bryant rotation together for Jared Grasso.
Jordan McKoy, Merrimack
In the absence of Devin Jensen for much of the season, Merrimack’s Jordan McKoy has stepped up to fill an invaluable need for the Warriors as a sharpshooting guard who’s been solid defensively in their hybrid 2-3 zone. His 21-point, 7-triple barrage several weeks ago in North Andover versus LIU single handedly carried his team to victory back then, and in other contests his complementary skill set to slashers like Malik Edmead and Mikey Watkins and post presence Jordan Minor has fit like a puzzle for Merrimack’s offensive attack. When McKoy posts a KenPom offensive rating in a contest north of 100, Merrimack is 10-5 in such games (and 3-10 in the other games). His strengths as one of the league’s most deadly catch-and-shoot weapons has been a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t go unnoticed despite being the 3rd and 4th option on the floor to score the basketball. The Warriors 3-point percentage dovetails from 34.9 percent to 26.7 percent when McKoy has a seat on the bench this season.
Kyndall Davis, LIU
While we’ve already seen plenty of Kyndall Davis’ athleticism showcased on scintillating dunks designed to end up in the NEC-9 and/or SportsCenter’s top 10, the sophomore guard is much more than just a highlight reel waiting to happen. His defensive impact is a significant reason why the Sharks are currently posting the third best defensive efficiency (97.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and steal rate (11.4 percent) in league play. Per Hoop Explorer, the Sharks are 5.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 3.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively when the Chicago native is competing. For a 6-foot-5 guard, Davis offers that unique blend of finishing near the rim (57.1 percent 2PT) while registering nationally ranked block (3.4 percent) and steal (2.5 percent) rates. That combination serves Kellogg’s group very well when they are running down the floor; over the course of LIU’s current 4-game winning streak, the Sharks have outscored their opponents in fast break points 69 to 33. Davis is a big part of that.
Oscar Berry, Fairleigh Dickinson
Last, but not least, is the youngest member of my “all-underrated team” in freshman sharpshooter Oscar Berry. Despite missing the first four games of his collegiate career due to injury, the Melbourne, Austrailia native leads all NEC freshmen (yes, all freshmen) in Bart Torvik’s PORPAGATU! metric which measures a player’s value versus replacement value. He’s second in the metric on his team, only trailing the also underrated John “Mikey” Square, while leading his teammates in KenPom offensive rating (123.2), 3-point percentage (43.1 percent) and turnover rate (12.8 percent). Furthermore, Berry’s floor spacing ability gives Greg Herenda’s unit a boost offensively, making Fairleigh Dickinson 5 points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) better on the offensive end of the floor according to Hoop Explorer. There are plenty of exciting rookies on this Knights squad, and Berry is certainly among them.