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.

Defense, Defense, Defense: Breaking Down Merrimack’s Tenacity and Highlighting my NEC All-Defensive Team

Death, taxes and Merrimack’s defense excelling. If there’s one thing NEC fans will recall from Merrimack’s time during their Division I reclassification period, it’s that Joe Gallo’s aggressive zone is way more difficult to score on than your typical man-to-man defense. There may have been a little bit of lag in Warriors’ defense during those middle seasons, but seasons one and now four have been memorable from a historical perspective in league play. 

Program/YearHead CoachAdj Defensive EffNEC Record
Mount St. Mary’s, 2009-10Milan Brown88.613-7
Wagner, 2011-12Dan Hurley90.116-4
Merrimack, 2019-20Joe Gallo90.314-4
Robert Morris, 2009-10Mike Rice90.418-3
Merrimack, 2022-23Joe Gallo90.59-4
CCSU, 2001-02Howie Dickenman90.722-1

What’s most impressive about Merrimack’s defensive resurgence is the team’s seven scholarship newcomers have turned the Warrior backcourt into a mostly green one. Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage knew nothing about Gallo’s zone coming in this summer and yet here they are with steal rates among the top 20 of the country. It’s a big reason why Merrimack has extracted a turnover on 26.5% of their opponent’s possessions, currently the best turnover rate in all of Division I. 

It kind of started when Gallo and his coaching staff began recruiting Bennett after watching the dynamic guard dominate at a tournament in Philly. “He was just telling me ‘yeah you remind me of this guy, Juvaris Hayes,” Bennett recalled of his first recruiting encounter with Gallo. “I didn’t know who he was, but (Gallo) showed me who he was and I saw really good similarities.”

The Merrimack staff did something unusual in their recruitment of Bennett, as Gallo explained. “We knew Bennett was special, actually when we recruited him we made a video of him with his steals from AAU and high school and Juvaris Hayes steals his senior year at Merrimack,” he said. “There were about 20 for each of them – and some of them were scary in that they were like the identical play.”

The unique approach obviously paid dividends, with Bennett accepting Merrimack’s offer prior to the start of his senior season at Trinity Prep in Florida. A season later the NEC all-rookie lock possesses the nation’s second best steal rate by generating a theft on 5.7% of the opponent’s possessions. And there’s this: even though the NCAA won’t consider players on teams in the midst of their Division I transition process for counting stats (it’s a dumb rule), Bennett leads all Division I players currently with 78 steals. Bennett is one of only two freshmen inside the NCAA’s top 40 in total steals, with FIU’s Arturo Dean serving as the other rookie. 

As the “goalie” of the Merrimack zone over the better part of four seasons, Jordan Minor knows he’s been spoiled to witness both Hayes (in his freshman year) and Bennett this season. “I think they both have very quick instincts,” Minor said when comparing the two. “They both have a knack for finding the ball, especially for (Javon), being a freshman and just picking it up so quickly it’s been kind of fun to watch.”

Bennett’s elite quickness, both laterally and in a linear fashion, has been able to extract turnovers and get deflections, whereas the opportunistic Hayes possessed elite anticipation when making opponent’s lives miserable. 

“There would be times where (Hayes) would have his hands down and he would just pick them up and (the opponent) would throw him the ball,” Minor said with a chuckle. 

Of late, Merrimack has really thrived with playing the trio of Minor, Bennett and Derkack on the floor together. Per Hoop Explorer, Merrimack has an adjusted defensive efficiency of 87.8 for 328 possessions with those three, with the team’s baseline adjusted defensive efficiency for the entire season sitting at 102.0. It’s no wonder Merrimack has allowed 1.00 point per possession or less in 10 of 13 league games this season, with the Warriors sporting a record of 9-1 in those defensive minded contests. 

With 3 games remaining, Gallo has the opportunity to win his second regular season championship in 4 seasons, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Warriors aren’t yet eligible to compete in the NIT or NCAA Tournament. It’s all about the defense.

The Ryan Peters NEC All-Defensive Team

With the season winding down, I wanted to highlight the league’s best defensive players. There’s been some great individual seasons given the league’s overall challenge to score the basketball. Per KenPom, the NEC sits at 31 out of 32 conferences in adjusted offensive efficiency with a mark of 99.4. You may see it as bad offense, yet I see it as great defense! So let’s celebrate the wonderful defenders with my official NEC all-defensive team brought to you by yours truly!

Javon Bennett, Merrimack

Let’s start with the obvious: when you’re leading the country in steals and have such a profound impact on the Warriors’ zone, that’ll put you in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t care about Bennett’s freshman status, and honestly I hope that isn’t a factor when coaches consider the league’s DPOY. Bennett’s ability to disrupt offense at the top of the zone is special, not just in generating chaos with steals, deflections, and diving on the floor for loose balls, but also in contesting perimeter shots and getting Merrimack easy points in transition. League foes are making less than 32% of their 3s, and Bennett’s aforementioned quickness and athleticism plays a role in this.

Jordan Minor, Merrimack

As the premier rim protector in the NEC, Minor has rejected at least 3 shots in 13 of 20 games this season and now possesses the 39th best block rate in the country at 8.3%. Not only does Merrimack have a defensive efficiency that’s improved by 19.1 points per 100 possessions when Minor is on the floor, but opponents are shooting 12.4% worse from deep and 9.4% worse on mid-range 2s when the big man is playing. Why? Minor’s presence in the paint allows the Merrimack wings and guards to extend their coverage; it helps to know an elite shot blocker is behind you if the opponent gets into the paint versus that zone. Minor may in fact be the favorite for this year’s DPOY honor, so it’ll be interesting to see how much his experience plays a role in potentially taking down his freshman teammate.

Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill

Bennett may have the nation’s second best steal rate, but Burnett isn’t far behind with the fourth best mark nationally at 5.3%. The senior has been integral in elevating Stonehill’s defense to the second best efficiency in league play, a development that I certainly didn’t see coming with respect to Chris Kraus’ unit. Truth be told, Burnett’s ability to jump passing lanes, keep opponents in front with his 6’5” frame and stay on the floor without fouling – he’s committing a paltry 1.9 fouls per 40 minutes – is quite special. His versatility to cover all 5 positions on the floor in a pinch is a luxury most NEC coaches don’t have with respect to their backcourt players. Burnett is one of the best two-way players the conference has to offer.

Nico Galette, Sacred Heart

While Galette has been lauded for his late game heroics in recent weeks, and rightfully so, the junior’s defensive impact on the Pioneers should not be understated. As a versatile 6’6” hybrid type forward, Galette is the only NEC player in the league’s top 10 in both steal rate (3.3%) and block rate (3.2%). His unique blend of athleticism, anticipation and court awareness is a reason why Sacred Heart gives up nearly 4 fewer points per 100 possessions and enjoys a defensive turnover rate of 20.4% when he’s between the lines. Anthony Latina challenged Galette to impact the game on the defensive end more so than last season, and the Rahway, New Jersey native has stepped up to the challenge by leveraging his defensive versatility. 

Jordan Derkack, Merrimack

With all due respect, Merrimack is the league’s best defensive squad by a sizable margin, so why not put three Warriors on my all-defensive team? Derkack has given his team a different look at the top of the zone, and it’s something that’s benefitted the Warriors greatly. Just ask Gallo: “He’s as big of a guy as we’ve ever had up there. He’s super aggressive, he’s got a nose for the basketball.” Derkack’s presence alongside Bennett has allowed the lightning quick teammate to chase turnovers, but the big guard has collected a bunch in his own right, posting a 5.1% steal rate. 

I’d like to extend defensive honorable mentions to the following players: CCSU’s Abdul Momoh and his ability to defend the paint for Pat Sellers’ Blue Devils, St. Francis Brooklyn’s Josiah Harris given how much he’s toughened the Terriers’ interior presence and Wagner’s DeLonnie Hunt for his intense ball-pressure that greatly bothers the other team’s point guard consistently. I’m sure there are other players I’ve accidentally omitted from this post, but it’s tough to keep track in the year of great defense!