Mount St. Mary’s #MarchMadness Tweet Sheet

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Fresh off the 2021 #NECMBB Tournament title, Dan Engelstad’s Mountaineers are batting leadoff in the NCAA Tournament lineup.

The Mount will tip off NCAA First Four action against SWAC champion Texas Southern on Thursday, March 18 at 5:10 pm ET on TruTV.

FWIW, former President Barack Obama has Mount St. Mary’s advancing…

 

#MarchMadness Tweet Sheet

Elite Coaching, Defense and Point Guard Play Bind Mount Championship Teams 13 Years Apart

Only three times in the history of the Northeast Conference tournament had a number-4 seed broken through and hoisted the trophy. Mount St. Mary’s associate head coach Will Holland was determined to tell his players about the first time it happened 13 years ago. Holland was an expert on the subject matter – back in 2008, Holland played for the fourth seeded Mountaineers squad that stunned Robert Morris and Sacred Heart in back-to-back road tournament games to win it all.

And so on the championship eve of the 2021 NEC tournament finals, head coach Dan Engelstad asked Holland to address the team and educate them on the moment when the 6-foot-4 wing, then a sophomore, became a champion after his team defeated Sacred Heart at the Pitt Center, 68-55, in front of a crazed crowd of 2,700 Pioneer fans.

There were a lot of similarities between the two tough, defensive minded squads of 2008 and 2021, and Holland was there to remind them of that. “When things were going really good for us, just staying with it and when things ended up going bad with us, not getting too down. Just trying to stay even the entire way through,” Holland said when describing what he said to the players that night.

The five-year coach then challenged the league’s best defensive unit hours before their showdown at the Chace Athletic Center as a significant underdog. 

“Coach Holland, the way he left it was: so when you guys win tomorrow, tell me how it feels. Tell me how it feels, because I can’t even describe it,” Engelstad said when recalling the end of Holland’s now famous talk.

One evening later, there was Damian Chong Qui and Nana Opoku at the postgame press conference being asked to describe their emotions after a nearly flawless performance that resulted in a surprising 73-68 victory over the hosting Bulldogs.

“This is the greatest feeling of my life, I can’t even put it into words,” Chong Qui, sporting a white championship t-shirt, said in the Zoom conference call.

Opoku, rightfully selected as the tournament’s most valuable player, followed it up later on with: “This is just something you can’t even describe.”

Like Holland, Engelstad was part of both championship teams – he was on Milan Brown’s staff as a first year assistant for the 2007-08 season – although it was a fortuitous moment that led to Engelstad’s involvement with the team. 

“I was making good money for a 22-year old,” Engelstad said when asked what he was doing after graduating from St. Mary’s as the Division III program’s all-time assist leader with 413 helpers. “One of my close friends and I were going to go into business together; we created a LLC called Fast Break Training.”

As Engelstad and his friend were literally about to sign a contract to rent a facility for their hoops training business, Brown interrupted the meeting with a call. He was looking for a third person to join his staff and got a recommendation from his trusted assistant coach Kevin Robinson, who also was a St. Mary’s alum. “(Brown) offered me $5,000 and grad school, but it also was a third assistant coaching position,” Engelstad said of the call.

Despite the allure of starting a promising business, Engelstad couldn’t say no to the opportunity to get his foot in the door with a Division I program. He took the offer, cancelled the meeting and the rest is history.

Brown certainly doesn’t regret Engelstad’s spur-of-the-moment decision. “I knew that in the role he was going to be in as a third assistant not making a lot of money, I wouldn’t have to wind him up to be a go-getter,” Brown, now an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, said of Engelstad. “He was a self motivated guy. That was the thing that was most impressive to me.”

As Mount St. Mary’s capped off its fourth championship in 14 seasons, the parallels between the first and last championship are hard to ignore and it goes far beyond Holland and Engelstad’s involvement with both teams. Allow me to go through the similarities between each roster. 

Winning Point Guard Play

While both NEC all-conference first teamer Damian Chong Qui and all-time Mount great Jeremy Goode (2006 – 2010) didn’t necessarily possess exact skill sets when serving as their respective team’s floor general, their statistical profiles are strikingly similar.

PPGAPGRPGKenPom ORtg% PossAssist RateTO RateSTL RateeFG%
Goode, ‘0814.55.53.2102.427.435%21%3.1%46.7%
Chong Qui ‘2115.15.54.2104.226.534%18%1.6%44.0%

Chong Qui clearly served as the team’s backbone and leader this season, whereas Goode, as a sophomore, was surrounded by veterans that helped spread out leadership roles. Goode’s impact on the court nevertheless wasn’t understated. 

“He had elite speed and because of his size, his toughness that he played with (was elite),” Brown said when asked to describe Goode’s game. “He never stopped going into the paint. It didn’t matter what they did to him or how they hit him, he never stopped.”

While Goode exerted his will off the bounce and got to the charity stripe a superb 740 times during his storied career, Chong Qui is a little more perimeter oriented with a standout ability to score in the mid-range game and behind the arc. The 5-foot-8 guard’s two clutch threes in the second half of the championship win was evidence of that. Despite the differences however, the two point guards have several overlapping qualities: speed, toughness and the willingness to do anything for their team in order to win. They were the engines that drove their programs to success, and now the NCAA tournament.

An Elite Defense to Fall Back On

Here’s another statistical overlay to get my point across:

Mount SeasonKenPom DRtg (pts/100 poss)eFG%DReb RateBlock Rate3PA/FGA
2007-0895.1 (2nd NEC)44.6%71.4%12.4%30.7%
2020-2194.8 (1st NEC)44.3%75.4%10.6%32.8%

The defensive philosophy for both rosters has been essentially the same – play very solid half-court defense by keeping opponents in front, force them into contested jumpers and shut down off any second chance opportunities. Both squads’ length at the wing and frontcourt positions, in particular, was a real problem for league opponents to contend with. Mezie Offurum, standing tall at 6-foot-8, gives Engelstad enviable length and athleticism at the wing, whereas Brown enjoyed length and toughness in 2008 from Holland, Kelly Beidler (4.2% block rate, 1.8% steal rate) and Jean Cajou (2.1% steal rate).

In the frontcourt, the 2008 Mountaineers were buoyed by their stoic upperclassmen bigs, Sam Atupem (6.0% block rate) and Marcus Mitchell (2.7% block rate, 18.4% defensive rebounding rate).

“They did all of the little things, all of the dirty work  – being physical, unselfish, protecting the rim, defended one on one in the post,” Brown said of their duo’s defensive impact. “These two guys were our rocks.”

In the same respect, Opoku (6.3% block rate), Malik Jefferson (21.7% defensive rebounding rate) and Offurum (3.1% steal rate, 15.8% defensive rebounding rate) have been a fantastic trio in their own right, astutely utilizing with their size, physicality and ability to hunt rebounds off of the defensive glass.

“We have really good defensive pieces,” Engelstad said of his group. “We do one-on-one drills every day where you have to guard your man and I think that’s where we’ve given some team fits here as of late. It’s hard to score one-on-one versus Mezie, it’s hard to score one-on-one versus Nana.”

It’s a critical reason why in a one game setting – 2008 against a sharpshooting Sacred Heart squad and 2021 versus a versatile and skilled Bryant group – the Mountaineers have been difficult to beat come March.

Never Giving Up When Your Back is to the Wall

As good as each program was in the NEC tournament, it wasn’t easy sledding by any stretch as they navigated deep into February. The 2007-08 Mountaineers were middling at 6-6 in league play after a tough home loss versus Wagner. The 2020-21 Mount St. Mary’s club found themselves in a similar predicament at 7-7 and trailing by 10 points midway through their road game at Fairleigh Dickinson. And yet both teams found a way to get hot at the right time.

For Brown, the turning point of his season was allowing his guys to play with more freedom offensively. The philosophy shift immediately paid dividends – the Mount scored 1.11 points per possession in their final nine games, eight of them wins, to close out their conference season. Prior to that, they were at 0.95 points per possession in 12 conference tilts.

Brown learned to not harp on the 25-footers, stepbacks or lobs on the offensive end if his guys exerted their effort on the other end. “If you’re defending, then I don’t have anything to say,” he said.

For Engelstad’s group, the team defied expectations with their innate ability to make up the FDU and Saint Francis University deficits when their backs were to the wall. The comeback win in Loretto serves as one of the top in-game recoveries in college basketball.

But through it all, it’s critical to defend and stop the opponent for long stretches.

“Both of these teams kind of took off because of the defense as the backbone and when you figure out how to score along with that defensive prowess,” Engelstad said of both rosters. “That’s when you have a chance to be really good and become dominant.”

Brown wholeheartedly agrees. “Defense travels. You may miss some shots, but your defense travels wherever you go, you can always pack that.”

With the 2020-21 Mountaineers script yet to be finished, one thing is for certain: the defense, point guard strength and never-say-die-attitude will make Engelstad’s group quite formidable wherever they end up in the NCAA tournament bracket.

Here’s to hoping they can win at least one game like Brown’s team did in 2008, when they dropped Coppin State 69-60 in the NCAA Tournament play-in game.

The Great Mount Comeback, Damian Chong Qui and My #NECMBB All-Defensive Team

Photo by David Sinclair

With Mount St. Mary’s qualifying for the NEC tournament in unexpected fashion this past Sunday, it brought to mind how remarkable the Mountaineers final regular season win at Saint Francis was. It’s a game honestly that should hold a spot in the program’s annals when citing great moments.

I, for one, will fondly remember it as the great comeback in Loretto that kept Mount St. Mary’s 2020-21 season alive, even if we didn’t fully know it at the time.

As a refresher, Mount St. Mary’s trailed by seven points with just over a minute remaining after Mezie Offurum’s runner fell short off the glass. Saint Francis’ Marlon Hargis secured the rebound, a tie-up situation ensued, and the possession arrow favored the Red Flash. For all intents and purposes, Saint Francis was going to hold on and defeat a shorthanded Mount squad that came in desperate for a victory to improve their NEC tournament qualification chances. This is where I’ll let Ken Pomeroy’s game flow chart illustrate the gravity of the moment:

That’s quite a valley with one minute left in regulation! At the point when SFU had the ball, up seven with 56 seconds remaining, the Mount possessed a 1.3% chance of winning the game, according to KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability metric. That means you could simulate this game from that exact point and the Mount would come out victorious roughly 13 out of every 1000 times!

Enter Damian Chong Qui, who’s emerged as one of the most clutch players in recent NEC memory. Here were the ensuing possessions that brought Mount St. Mary’s back from the dead, in other words making up a seven-point deficit in less than a minute:

  • Chong Qui layup, after a steal thanks to ball pressure 90 feet from the Red Flash basket (SFU leads 59-54, 48 seconds left)
  • DeAndre Thomas made 3, assisted by Chong Qui after driving the lane and kicking out to an open Thomas in the corner (SFU leads 60-57, 34 seconds left)
  • Chong Qui layup and one (SFU leads 61-60, 17 seconds left)
  • Chong Qui made 3 (Game tied 63-63, 8 seconds left)

In the span of 50 seconds, Chong Qui had 8 points, 1 assist and 1 steal and the Mount registered 2.75 points per possession! The Red Flash didn’t help their cause with a turnover and 2 missed free throws during that sequence, but the effort to send the game into overtime was remarkable nevertheless, especially once the Mount outscored the Red Flash nine to two in the overtime period to earn their ninth conference win.

That effort from Chong Qui, now a junior, continues to add to his legend of being clutch and stoic when the lights are shining the brightest.

His head coach, Dan Engelstad, attempted to explain Chong Qui’s innate ability to take over a game while reliving the SFU comeback: “We’re down ten (points), (Chong Qui) just kept saying the right stuff in the huddle, like keeping the guys going,” he said of his floor general. “His work ethic is unmatched; the kid is just obsessed with the game and he wants the moment. He always wants the moment.”

Engelstad recalled a game from Chong Qui’s freshman season at Robert Morris where he missed two critical free throws late in the contest that hurt the Mount’s chances to pull off the upset in Moon Township. Since then, the 5-foot-8 guard has been laser focused in those pressure packed moments.

“He’s our engine and he’s our heartbeat,” Engelstad said of the team’s leading scorer, assist man and free throw maker. “We follow him, there’s no hiding behind him. Damian is a huge piece to what we do.”

That much is certain given the Mount’s unexpected departures in-season and freshman Dakota Laffew’s broken hand that prematurely ended his once-promising rookie campaign. As a result, the Mount’s backcourt has considerably thinned out, forcing the dynamic point guard to exert himself even more. Chong Qui has played the second most minutes and has the fifth highest possession rate in the conference, putting Mount St. Mary’s in a position as one of four teams attempting to represent the NEC in the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.

Really though, it’s a credit to every player’s resiliency and toughness to find themselves heading to the Spiro Center to take on Wagner in the NEC tournament semifinals this Saturday. “Credit to our guys, they scrap, they fight, they haven’t quit – I told them that’s the moral of the story for life no matter what happen, whatever the circumstance is… you just always fight,” Engelstad said of his team. “That was (Saint Francis) PA for them to pull a game out like that.”

This wasn’t the first fanatical comeback Engelstad has been a part of as a head coach. Six years ago when he was patrolling the sidelines at Southern Vermont College, his Mountaineers (yes, the same mascot as the Mount’s) eliminated a 12-point deficit with 2:58 remaining to Regis College in the New England Collegiate Conference championship game. But unlike last Thursday’s comeback, Southern Vermont fell to Regis in the final seconds after tying the content with six seconds remaining.

With respect to the Mount’s comeback and how it compares historically, if KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability is your metric, then Mount St. Mary’s win over Saint Francis is tied for the 10th best comeback in college basketball this season. For conference only games, you’d have to go as far back as February 4, 2017 when Central Connecticut stunned the same Mountaineers program in a 74-72 comeback victory at the Knott Arena to find the last NEC contest that resulted in an improbable comeback. The Blue Devils had a 1.1% chance to win after trailing by 15 points with 14 minutes remaining.

The NEC All-Defensive Team

DSPics.net Photo

With so many credible candidates vying for the NEC’s coveted Defensive Player of the Year award, I decided to come up with my own team from the respectable sample size that’s been the 2020-21 season. One of these players will win the award on Friday, but each of them have been critical to their team’s defensive identity. I’ll order my team in terms of height, with the shortest player listed first!

Mikey Watkins, Merrimack – The junior is the engine leading the vaulted Warrior 2-3 zone, a defensive scheme that boasts the second best defensive efficiency in the league (97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite graduating theft artist Juvaris Hayes and charge taker Idris Joyner. Watkins is a big reason why the Merrimack defense is still very difficult to comfortably score on, as evidenced by his 3.2% steal rate that’s 128th nationally. Like Hayes, Watkins’ anticipation, long wingspan and quick lateral movement makes life rough for opponents trying to create plays near the perimeter.

Eral Penn, LIU – Not since Mount St. Mary’s forward Chris Wray has the league seen such a versatile defensive talent as Penn. The three-year power forward leads the league in rebounding at 10.4 boards per game, is tied for fourth in steals at 34 and has the fourth most blocks at 29. What more do you need from an athletic, 6-foot-7 five-man who can provide elite rim protection while also unpredictably blitzing hedges and stripping opposing guards of the ball? It’s no coincidence that LIU’s adjusted defensive efficiency was three points per 100 possessions lower with Penn in the lineup compared to last season.

Mezie Offurum, Mount St. Mary’s – I’ll let Engelstad do the talking on this deserving selection: “He’s such a versatile defender because he can bang with any physical big in the league and he can also, for the most part, keep most of the guards and wings in front and use his length to frustrate them.” The 6-foot-8 wing is an anomaly in a league accustomed to rostering smaller swingmen, and yet Offurum’s length, athleticism and strength is the perfect recipe for the Mount forcing offenses to shoot over the team’s size. Mount opponents have the lowest effective field goal percentage in league play at 44.3% – the GW transfer is a critical reason for that.

Hall Elisais, Bryant – Similar to the former great shot-blockers of NEC lore in St. Francis’ Amdy Fall and Sacred Heart’s Jare’l Spellman, Elisais is a slashing players’ nightmare to deal with around the rim. Now with 124 career blocks in just 49 games (2.5 bpg!) as a Bulldog, the bouncy big with high-major athleticism allows Bryant’s guards and wings to take chances on the perimeter. Why worry if you get beat knowing Elisais is protecting the rim should an opponent get through the Bulldogs’ first layer of zone defense.

Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary’s – It’s only fitting that the league’s best defense gets two players on my all-defensive team. Again, I’ll let Engelstad state his case for why Opoku may be the most valuable defender in the NEC: “He impacts the game on the ball and off the ball, just the threat of him on the back-line changes shots,” he said. “He’s improved as a rebounder, his rebounding is way up from what it’s been in the past.” Like Penn, Opoku is another big that can guard one through five in a pinch, and do it well. On a Mountaineer team that leads the conference in defensive efficiency by a significant margin, Opoku is the critical centerpiece of the Mount’s attack.

Highlighting the Terrific NEC Coaching of the 2020-21 Season

I’ve seen some banter on Twitter of late debating who the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year should be. I’ve seen viable arguments for at least three different coaches, as there are a lot of worthy candidates in this pandemic shortened season. Allow me to offer objective (at least as best I can) arguments on behalf of the coaches who could receive votes next week for the award. 

Jared Grasso – If you take into account Bryant’s entire body of work – non-conference included – the Bulldogs have had the best regular season of anyone in the league at 14-5 overall. It’s not even close in that respect. Out of conference wins over UMass, Stony Brook and New Hampshire as well as a nail-biting loss in the Carrier Dome to Syracuse was mainly responsible for soaring Bryant’s KenPom ranking more than 100 spots from 312 in late November to 187 prior to their NEC showdowns in early January with Central Connecticut. Now sitting at 185 on KenPom’s ledger, they lead the NEC in this ranking as well as overall offensive efficiency (103.1 points scored per 100 possessions). The latter is quite impressive when considering Bryant’s nine newcomers among their 13 scholarships this season.

DSPics.com Photo

If you need another analytical metric to bolster Grasso’s case, Bryant’s Game Scores on Barttorvik.com have been consistently good – Syracuse, UMass, Central Connecticut game 1, Merrimack game 2 – and have illustrated the third-year head coach’s ability to get his team to 1) consistently perform in the early, middle and late part of the season despite a COVID-19 pause sprinkled in-between and 2) play well and be successful against different schemes and tempos.

Furthermore, the Bulldogs are currently in the driver’s seat to win the NEC regular season title. Preseason expectations aside (Bryant was tied for third in the preseason poll), the coaches have put significant value on winning the league for this award in the past, and I wouldn’t expect 2020-21 to be any different. It’s very plausible to see the coaches (aka the voters) rewarding Grasso for not just a first place finish but also for turning a 3-win program three years ago into arguably the favorite to get to the NCAA tournament. 

Bashir Mason – If shock value is your thing, surely Wagner going from 1-4 in the NEC (1-5 overall if you include a lopsided loss to Seton Hall) to 11-5 in second place is the best thing going in the 2020-21 college basketball season. Before their recent hiccup at Central Connecticut, Wagner had a NEC-leading 10 game winning streak and soared from a “team trying to find its way” to “bonafide NEC contender.” It’s prudent to mention that Wagner was picked eighth in the NEC preseason poll, and most likely the Seahawks will be no worse than the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.

How has Mason, a two-time Jim Phelan Coach of the Year recipient already, done it? By developing his talent to the point where Wagner has a 4-headed monster in Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez and DeLonnie Hunt. The former two are destined for an all-conference team nod and Morales is quite honestly a Player of the Year candidate, whereas the latter in Hunt will most likely become the NEC’s Rookie of the Year thanks to his mesmerizing blend of quickness, toughness and shotmaking. Considering the way these four started the season, to have these players, as well as guys like Nigel Jackson, Ja’Mier Fletcher and Elijah Allen, contribute at an all-above average level is a testament to the job Mason and his staff have done in developing their student-athletes. Additionally, Wagner has done well to embrace the roster’s strengths as a versatile, slashing squad that leads the NEC in offensive rebounding rate and is second in effective field goal percentage. 

Raise your hand if you thought Wagner would have the league’s best offense in NEC play going into March. Yeah, that’s what I thought!

Anthony Latina – Picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, Sacred Heart has significantly defied expectations in the same way they did in the 2018-19 campaign when they went from ninth in the poll to a 11-7 regular season finish and #3 seed in the NEC tournament. Now with the youngest roster in the conference and the 317th least experienced team in the country per KenPom, Latina has somehow harbored the guard play of Tyler Thomas (Most Improved Player candidate), Aaron Clarke and Alex Watson (1.7 ppg to 7.4 ppg) into a 9-7 NEC finish. And he’s done it with three freshmen – Mike Sixsmith, Bryce Johnson and Matas Spokas – playing significant roles. All three players are posting above average efficiency ratings, not an easy thing to do for any Division I novices. 

It’s not a certainty that the Pioneers play in the NEC tournament, although it’s fairly likely at the moment. And for Latina to lose five of his top six scorers (Clarke was the lone holdover) AND lose his starting four-man in Zach Pfaffenberger in the preseason due to injury and to still sneak into the league’s top four is a special accomplishment.

The analytical metrics, particularly efficiency margins and KenPom rating, haven’t been terribly kind to Sacred Heart over the course of 2020-21. That’s mainly due to blowout losses to Wagner (game 1), LIU (game 1) and Saint Francis (game 1). But the Pioneers’ penchant to bounce back and win the second part of these back-to-backs – they did it a remarkable six times this season – should not be discounted in any way. Latina and his staff’s ability to make adjustments on the fly and split all of these series is a major reason why the Pioneers are in an advantageous position here in late February.

Honorable mention goes to Joe Gallo and Dan Engelstad for the jobs they’ve done as well, although I think the trio mentioned above would make up most people’s top three. 

Gallo, however, has taken a team who lost three standout seniors, including all-conference first teamer Juvaris Hayes, to being tied for third place going into their final week of the season. And they did it with a massively long COVID-19 pause from Thanksgiving to late December where the team practiced seven times over a 40-day stretch. Engelstad, in his own right, has done very well to get Mount St. Mary’s in the position they’re in, especially after losing Jalen Gibbs, the Mount’s leading scorer at the time, to the transfer portal and having Dakota Laffew go down due to injury. The Mountaineers stand as the league’s best defensive unit going into their pivotal back-to-back showdown at Bryant next week.

We all have biases in this race, myself included, but I wanted to best lay out the arguments for each coach. There are so many great coaches in this league and I can’t wait to see who’s the next Jim Phelan Coach of the Year! Who the coaches decide among their peers will be fascinating.

Tracking the Most Exciting Newcomers in the NEC

Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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