Tag: Sacred Heart

The Best #NECMBB All-Decade Teams and a Crossword Puzzle!

As my family and I are finishing up our sixth week of quarantine here at home, it’s been…. um fun! As we continue to navigate through the unchartered waters of no sports – and for me, copious amounts of time to do other activities instead of watching sports – I figured I would have fun in what will be my last NEC Overtime! Blog post of the 2019-20 season. I want to thank everyone for reading my stuff over the past season, which remarkably ended more than one month ago in Moon Township.

As I wrap a bow on this season, I wanted to partake in some fun with this tweet from the Northeast Conference some three weeks ago.

This exercise absolutely filled some of the “no sports” gap! But rather than just give you my favorite $15 roster, I decided to come up with a series of teams, which allowed me to reminisce further on what was a terrific decade of NEC hoops. Let’s begin!

Continue reading “The Best #NECMBB All-Decade Teams and a Crossword Puzzle!”

Unique Recruiting Stories on 3 Northeast Conference Seniors

The coaches of the Northeast Conference are terrific recruiters, but you already knew that. The talent these coaching staffs have been able to bring into the league is extraordinary and sometimes the stories behind these recruitments are unique. Throughout the season, I’ve talked to coaches and compiled interesting recruiting stories, most notably pertaining to seniors. Allow me to share some recruiting stories for three seniors – center Deniz Celen, guard Adam Grant and forward Kinnon LaRose – that have been instrumental to their team’s success.

Deniz Celen, St. Francis Brooklyn

While out on a recruiting trip, Glenn Braica had a lot on his mind like most head coaches during the spring session. That’s when he got a call from his friend and then-Fairfield assistant coach, Mitch Buonaguro. He was calling to remind Braica that Deniz Celen, a former Stag who had just completed a season at Harcum College in the JUCO ranks, was planning to visit St. Francis Brooklyn later that day. 

“He just kind of wanted me to know that there was a lot of Division II interest in this Deniz Celen and I said ‘Mitch, with all due respect who is Deniz Celen?’” Braica recalled from the conversation before continuing. “He said ‘he’s the kid coming to your school today.’”

Now reminded of their meeting later that day, Braica met with the 6-foot-8, 280 pound center who was asking to join the Terriers for the 2018-19 season. On the surface Celen’s request was odd for a couple of reasons. One, the Terriers didn’t have a scholarship available – all 13 roster spots were accounted for. And two, Celen had a number of quality Division II offers as well as a Division I offer from Cal Poly to ponder. There certainly wasn’t a lack of options for the big man about to enter his junior season.

But the offers and lack of a St. Francis scholarship didn’t really matter to the Ankara, Turkey native. He simply wanted to be in Brooklyn because his uncle lived down the street from the college that made its home on Rensen Street.

“I didn’t know anybody… I went upstairs and (Braica) was real straight forward with me,” Celen said of the first time he met Braica. “He was really honest, I felt like he was a genuine nice person so that was one of the first impressions I had.”

Perhaps more importantly, the center impressed in his scrimmage with the team after the meeting, to the point where Braica offered Celen a preferred walk-on position with the program. If things went well moving forward, Braica promised, he’d find a scholarship for Celen as a senior, either for the 2019-20 or 2020-21 campaign.

That was enough for Celen, who accepted Braica’s proposal soon after. With a 3-month long summer trip to Turkey coming up, Celen received a work-out program from the St. Francis Brooklyn strength trainer. It was time to improve his physical condition after it admittedly got away from him at Harcum, a junior college nestled in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“I think it was the fact my school was a little bit isolated and there wasn’t much going on,” Celen said. “I put some weight on.”

To be frank, approximately 30 pounds were added to his already large frame, yet after taking to the strength training regiment over the summer in Turkey, the weight started to come off. It was all thanks to an intensive program that included a variation of weight lifting, conditioning and agility training 2 times per day, 6 days per week. Celen arrived in Brooklyn seemingly a new man, at 250 pounds.

“He came back and I didn’t recognize him,” Braica said upon Celen’s return near the start of the fall semester. “And then he was our best center which we didn’t expect.”

The physically fit Celen was a godsend for the Terriers that season down low. As a junior, he provided a positive contribution in 54% of the team’s minutes, registering 7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The maturation has only continued going into his senior season, to the point where Celen, now a scholarship player, has virtually improved in every aspect of his game. The analytics website BartTorvik.com denotes Celen as the 7th most valuable player in the league based on its player ranking metric.

Braica surely is thankful Celen fell into his lap, especially during a 2018-19 season where fellow big men Joshua Nurse and Milija Cosic were out due to season ending injuries. “He’s like Marc Gasol, but he can pass,” Braica said of Celen after the Terriers last non-conference game, a victory over Delaware State. “He’s a great passer, that’s his best attribute and he can score in the post and shoot.”

In the victory over Delaware State, Celen played all 20 minutes in the second half, while registering a career high 27 points in the victory. For a basket that broke a 50-50 tie, Celen received an inbounds pass on the baseline, faked a handoff, spun toward the hoop and flushed it down with authority.

The senior admits that this play wasn’t possible merely two years ago. Nor was rim running and having the energy to exert maximum effort on both ends of the floor. But now, everything is possible – he even has a chance to take home an individual award or two when the regular season ends in less than a week.

“I really want to make one of the (all-conference) teams,” Celen said prior to league play beginning in January. “I was also thinking about (the league’s) most improved player.”

The end-of-season hardware is a possibility as the senior currently stands 18th among his league mates in scoring (11.6 ppg), 13th in rebounding (6.3 rpg), 9th in blocks (1.1 bpg) and 1st in field goal percentage (57.1%). It’s been quite the journey for Celen, but for now there’s no place he’d rather be than in Brooklyn.

Adam Grant, Bryant

In the midst of an unexpected down season, Tim O’Shea was desperate to add an impact guard to Bryant’s roster, namely a shooter. He and his assistant coaches were combing the East Coast to find players that could fit O’Shea’s need.

Frankie Dobbs, the former Bryant player and then-assistant coach under O’Shea, was tipped off on a high school senior named Adam Grant while researching Grant’s teammate at Norfolk Collegiate School, a Virginia institution. What Dobbs saw in his first visit excited him – the under-recruited Grant was athletic and could fill it up from behind the arc.

“I loved Adam,” Dobbs recounted from the first time he saw Grant in-person. “I told Coach O’Shea right away, ‘hey this kid is special.’ He has the athleticism that Coach O’Shea likes, he can really shoot the ball which Coach O’Shea likes.”

A deeper dive into Grant’s character – he’s a humble kid who’s very close with his mother and family – built the case for Dobbs even more to go after the sharpshooter. The original list of four guards that the Bryant assistant coaches assembled was unofficially whittled down to Grant, as long as O’Shea confirmed everything that Dobbs was selling.

“I thought the world of Adam, I thought Adam would be great,” O’Shea said of his initial recruiting visit to Grant at Norfolk Collegiate. “It’s hard to find really, really athletic kids who can shoot the ball. And he’s a terrific shooter, he has perfect form and when he takes his jump shot – if you were to measure it out he’s probably legitimately 5-foot-11, maybe 6-foot – he’s a foot off the ground. He’s got great range and his motor – he’s got a terrific motor.”

Grant’s lift off his jump-shot has become a trademark at Bryant, and back then it was no different. And yet during recruitment Dobbs had minor concerns, despite its near perfect mechanics.

“It’s funny, I almost worried about it to a certain degree sometimes… because when he jumps so high his defender would look to try to contest and (Grant) lands on his foot,” Dobbs said of the jumper Grant developed with his uncle when growing up. “It’s just kind of a gift and a curse of the jump-shot.”

Grant acknowledges that he’ll sometimes need to let the officials know during the game that his jumping space is being impeded on when elevating vertically. “Actually, I tell the refs that because a lot of the time they think that I jumped so far forward,” Grant said. “I say ‘no, I don’t think that’s the case. I think I just jumped high.’”

Scant worries aside, Grant emerged as a no-brainer recruit for Bryant. After Grant’s official visit to the Rhode Island school, O’Shea extended the guard an offer to become the program’s 13th and final scholarship player for its 2016-17 roster. It was an opportunity Grant simply couldn’t pass up, even if there were lingering concerns about being more than 500 miles away from home.

Grant’s teammate at Norfolk and friend, SaBastian “Bash” Townes, was still waiting for his first Division I offer in the meantime, despite the fact that he almost scored 2,000 points in high school and “was the man on that team” according to Dobbs. Townes’ size as a power forward seemed to be a detriment for Division I coaches, except for the ones at Bryant.

“He’s a little undersized, but good footwork, knows how to score, he’s a good player,” O’Shea said when describing Townes, who at the time had plenty of interest from Division II suitors.

Luckily for Townes, a 2016-17 scholarship became available a couple of weeks after Grant committed when senior power forward Andrew Scocca decided his body could no longer take the physical punishment of Division I basketball.

O’Shea and his staff seized the opportunity on improving their frontcourt and making the freshman transition a little easier for Grant. “When the scholarship became available one of things in the back of my mind about bringing Bash in was I thought he’d make it easier for Adam to transition, because they had basically grown up living together during the school year at Bash’s house. They really were like brothers.”

The offer to Townes was extended and quickly accepted. “My mind was blown away by the thought of it, so when he actually committed (to Bryant), it was great,” Grant said.

Fast forward four years later and Grant sits atop Bryant’s leaderboard in most career triples made (294) and is fifth all-time in the NEC in the same category. He’s also closing in on the most minutes played in the program’s Division I history. But if you ask Grant to recall his proudest moments individually as a Bulldog, the selfless guard naturally reverts back to his team.

“I actually haven’t had time to sit back and think about all of the individual accolades,” Grant said candidly when asked about the 3-point record. “I just never thought about it until during Senior night (last Sunday versus Sacred Heart) when they started to call out the individual athletes and (I could) say ‘hey, I did do a little something, but it’s still not the end goal.”

There’s still time to change the end goal for Bryant regarding the 2019-20 campaign, but when it’s all said and done, Adam Grant will go down as one of the all-time greats in Bryant lore. And to think he was discovered by accident when Dobbs was recruiting another teammate.

Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart

It’s a story Anthony Latina will gladly tell to anybody who asks about Kinnon LaRose, his senior forward. It was about the time the LaRose boys, Kinnon and his older brother Cavan, were part of a larger group playing wiffleball one evening on a Pitt Center side court while Latina was cleaning up for the night after Dave Bike’s Sacred Heart summer basketball camp had ended.

As the LaRose brothers, then deep into elementary school, were having fun on Court 4, Latina’s 6-year old son, Luke, was mesmerized by the boy’s game. He watched the participants intently, so much so that Latina asked him to stay put while he quickly ran downstairs to put stuff away.

Upon Latina’s return, he quickly noticed Luke wasn’t occupying the same spot as he had when Latina left him a couple minutes prior.

“I look around, I’m like panicking for 30 seconds and all of sudden I saw my son has jumped into the wiffle ball game with the boys,” Latina said as he described the moment.

The LaRose brothers, several years Luke’s senior, had invited the youngster to join the game, one that was comprised of third, fourth and fifth graders. They had Luke take a turn at bat and run down to first base. It may not sound like much, but it was a cool experience for Luke nonetheless. That certainly wasn’t lost on his father.

“I remember saying to myself ‘this is really special,’” Latina recalled. “For these boys to ask a 6-year old boy, who may ruin the game, to play with them says a lot about the type of people they are.”

The act of kindness stuck with Latina, even if he and LaRose boys didn’t cross paths for quite a while after that. Their paths met again several years later when the LaRose brothers’ aunt, Sacred Heart softball coach and now Senior Associate Athletic Director Elizabeth Luckie, approached Latina regarding Cavan and his basketball program.

Cavan was once a star basketball player at Ogdensburg Free Academy in New York, but two devastating ACL tears in the same knee over a 2-year span effectively ended his dream of playing on scholarship at the Division I level. Now, he just wanted to be a part of Sacred Heart’s program, and Luckie asked Latina if Cavan could serve as the team’s basketball manager.

Latina was happy to bring Cavan on in that capacity, yet the following year Cavan expressed his desire to have a bigger role.

“The next year Cavon wanted to walk on and he still just wasn’t at the point where he could help us as a walk-on,” Latina said of his request. “He was out of shape, his knees weren’t there yet. He didn’t want to be a manager and I said ‘listen, play with the club team for a year. If you can get in shape to the point where you are running tests and things like that, I’ll reconsider it.’”

Cavan heeded Latina’s advice and got himself in terrific shape, so much so that Latina offered him a walk-on position the following year. Cavan, who Kinnon calls a role model to this day, had realized his dream of being a Division I athlete; a thrill provided by Latina that surely wasn’t lost on the LaRose family.

As Cavan began the 2015-16 season as a walk-on, his younger brother Kinnon was just beginning his collegiate endeavor with Jimmy Patsos at Siena. The Ogdensburg product didn’t see much playing time as a freshman, although he made the most of it, draining 12 of 24 shots from the floor. Nevertheless, the experience as a garbage time player wasn’t what Kinnon had envisioned, and he left the program after his rookie campaign.

To the surprise of many, there were mostly crickets on the recruitment of Kinnon as a transfer, despite the fact that he scored 1,769 points and averaged 30.2 ppg as a high school senior before embarking on Siena.

“It is what it is, I wasn’t too upset about it,” LaRose answered when asked about the lack of interest transferring out of Siena. “I just wanted to play at any level so I was content with whatever was going to happen.”

Enter Latina and Sacred Heart. Due to Cavan’s positive experiences with the program, it was easy for him to urge Kinnon to join the team. The only problem was Latina didn’t have an immediate need for a shooter and was currently trying to procure another commitment with his 13th scholarship for the 2016-17 season.

Latina, who liked Kinnon’s game very much and saw the long term value, had to make a deal. “I said, ‘Kinnon, listen I can’t promise you a scholarship in year one so here’s what I can do, if you can pay the first year, we’ll scholarship you the next three, you’ll get your masters.’”

Kinnon took the offer and was relieved the transferring ordeal was over. Now, he could go back to being a college basketball player. Later on that year though, Latina and his staff still weren’t enamored with any of the options available to take on that 13th scholarship. That’s when he decided to give Kinnon a call, a phone call that Latina would later classify as “probably one of the most rewarding phone calls I’ve ever made as a coach to a player.” He was going to give the 13th scholarship to Kinnon after all.

“It was a great phone call,” Kinnon confirmed. “I was back home, it was after the first summer session that I was here and he said ‘listen we have another opening for you, he’s like I think you deserve it, you’ve had a good summer, we’d love to give it to you now so you don’t have to pay.’”

The rest, of course, is history with Kinnon going on to be a critical member of Sacred Heart’s program, a program that’s won 32 games over the past 2 seasons.

“I’ve said this many times Kinnon is the most selfless player I’ve ever coached and it’s not even close and we’ve had some awesome kids,” Latina said. “This kid is all about the team, he cares so much about the team over himself. There’s very few players I’ve coached who I’ve wanted to leave a winner more than Kinnon LaRose.”

His aforementioned selflessness has been critical in keeping the Pioneers together through thick and thin. Kinnon has embraced his role as a senior, playing nearly 79% of the team’s minutes, second to only star forward E.J. Anosike.

“Just to be the glue guy, be the person that keeps everybody together,” Kinnon said when asked about his role as a senior. “I don’t need to go out there and score 30, 40 points, just kind of do my role, keep things steady, knock down open shots when they come to me… and just play every possession like it’s his last.”

The selflessness was apparent at the wiffleball game and remains strong to this day.

The Pioneers Continue to Contend Amid Offensive Adjustments

SHU’s Aaron Clarke (Photo: Steve McLaughlin)

Pardon me as I conjure up my inner Jon Rothstein: “Sacred Heart. More adjustments than a chiropractor.”

When Sacred Heart lost their point guard and arguably a top 10 player in the Northeast Conference, it was difficult to see how the Pioneers would remain in the perceived top tier of the league. Cam Parker possesses a unique ability to create for himself and his teammates a variety of ways – in transition, off a ball screen or just finding the gaps in a defense to get downhill with the dribble drive. It’s near impossible to replace that offensive skill set given the Pioneers current roster make-up.

At least that’s how I saw it before this four game winning streak.

It’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last time I look foolish with my in-season prognostications, yet in fairness, who saw the Pioneers winning streak coming?

Yes, the schedule broke for Latina’s squad after the dreaded western Pennsylvania trip with a visit to Central Connecticut State and a home match-up versus Fairleigh Dickinson. Those two resulted in decisive victories, and along with triumphs over the Mount and St. Francis Brooklyn, Sacred Heart’s case to remain in title contention has strengthened, even without Parker. Currently, the Pioneers are just one game back of Robert Morris for the #1 seed in the NEC tournament after winning seven of ten. (Remember, first place Merrimack isn’t eligible to compete in the postseason event.)

So what has been responsible for the Pioneers recent improvement, a surge that has the Pioneers scoring 1.13 points per possession while posting a superb 55.3% effective field goal percentage? It’s a confluence of events, to be honest, and I’ll do my best to break it down, with help from head coach Anthony Latina.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race?

Steady basketball, instead of flashy basketball, may not be the most sexy, yet that formula is currently working for Latina’s Pioneers. Minus their best playmaker, the coaching staff has worked to fine-tuned the team’s half-court execution. That can mean a number of things.

“We’re still a team that runs a ton of ball screens, but I think when Cam went down we tried to focus a little bit more on tidying up our execution,” Latina said when asked about the post-Parker adjustments. “You never want to lose a player of Cam’s caliber, but it forced us to really take a closer look at our half-court execution and try to execute better, whether that be setting screens, using screens, maybe a little more variety of sets too.”

There’s been a reduction in transition opportunities as a result, but that’s something Latina can live with when the offense is taking care of the basketball. So far, so good, with Aaron Clarke handling a majority of the point guard duties – he posted 16 assists versus 3 turnovers during SHU’s four-game winning streak. As a team, they’ve turned it over on 17.7% of their possessions over the past four contests. That’s a nice improvement after turning it over on 22.6% of their possessions in the first six league games, three of those losses.

“Aaron has been terrific, not turning the ball over,” Latina confirmed regarding his sophomore guard. “He’s not super fast, but he’s got some good quickness, change of direction type of quickness. He drives with authority and physical-ness. He does find a way to get to the rim and he’s smart, so he picks his spots.”

Originally cast as versatile, crafty, combo guard, Clarke has embraced his current role as the team’s main facilitator. His production in Saturday’s road victory over St. Francis Brooklyn (17 points, 5 assists, 1 turnover) was needed to help the Pioneers pull out a tight, back-and-forth affair. This Clarke feed to an open Kinnon LaRose helped extend SHU’s lead to six points late in the second half:

Early in the contest, Clarke’s dribble penetration got Jare’l Spellman an easy flush.

Koreem Ozier – Efficient Volume Scorer

Before the season began, I highlighted Ozier as one of the NEC wildcards, suggesting that Ozier’s performance could directly impact where Sacred Heart wants to go as a team. When NEC all-conference first teamer Sean Hoehn graduated, the Pioneers needed a player who could create offense for himself.

Ozier has filled that void, but recently he has been doing it with excellent efficiency. Over the past three contests, Ozier has scored 55 points on 38 shots. He’s filled it up all over the court, making him one of the more difficult assignments in the league currently. And his production has been off the bench as opposed to starting, which he did over Sacred Heart’s first 18 games.

“He’s such a high energy player that he really does give us a jolt when he comes into the game in different ways, whether it’s rebounding the ball, whether it’s giving us energy,” Latina said of Ozier, who was tabbed as a NEC Prime Performer on Monday. “We just felt like with the loss of Cam we needed more pop off the bench, and not many guys can do what (Ozier) does.”

It’s finishing the game that’s most important, and Ozier has certainly been part of that. This three-point play with under two minutes remaining against the Terriers was critical. 

Role Players Are Producing As Anosike Becomes The Sole Focus

One thing opposing coaches are astutely picking up on with the new-look Pioneers: they are trying their best to prevent potential NEC Player of the Year candidate E.J. Anosike from beating them in the low post. This past week, both Mount St. Mary’s and St. Francis Brooklyn were constantly doubling the power forward anytime he touched the ball in the low block.

It’s something Latina is cognizant of. “It’s something that we try to practice everyday,” he said. “We try to double EJ because we know he’s going to see that a lot.”

SHU has also increased Anosike’s touches away from the paint, allowing the versatile big to put the ball on the deck or take an open jumper. In terms of the former, here are a couple of examples:

Even as Sacred Heart gets more creative with Anosike’s touches, his production has been a little down of late with the added defensive attention. It’s forced the Pioneer role guys such as Kinnon LaRose, Tyler Thomas, Spellman and Alex Watson to have more of an impact.

“The reason I think we’ve had some success is we’ve had several different players carry us at different moments,” Latina said.

Case in point: LaRose posted a double double (16 points, 10 rebounds) at St. Francis Brooklyn, draining a team-high four triples in the win. Tyler Thomas scored a combined 25 points on 9 of 18 shooting in two wins versus Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson. Anosike and Spellman have been potent on the offensive glass, as Sacred Heart leads the conference in offensive rebounding rate by collecting 37.4% of their own misses in NEC play.

The balance has been noteworthy of late and it’s made the Pioneers more stable.

Defense, Defense, Defense

On Monday, Latina likened Spellman’s defensive prowess to that of a football player.

“Jare’l Spellman has really gotten back to where he was defensively in these 4 wins,” Latina said. “He’s gone against two of the best low-post scorers in the league in (Malik) Jefferson and (Deniz) Celen. We have basically said ‘you are guarding them by yourself,’ kind of like the equivalent of a great cornerback.”

Spellman Island has returned to Fairfield with the senior blocking and altering shots at a terrific rate once again. The 6-foot-10 center leads the league in blocked shots (59) and nationally has the 41st best block rate at 8.8%.

It’s not just Spellman, though, that’s responsible for the Pioneers allowing 0.91 points per possession during the aforementioned winning streak. A lot of the success can be attributed to staying in front of your defender and contesting shots (47% effective field goal percentage defense, 3rd in the NEC), and then allowing your studs down low to clean up the glass.

Additionally, the steady albeit less flashy offense has aided in reducing the opponent’s transition opportunities. “Because we’ve been more conservative offensively – we take less chances and turn the ball over less – it’s made our defense a lot better,” the seven-year coach confirmed. “We’re forcing teams to go five-on-five a lot more”

Add it all up and that’s the reason why the Pioneers find themselves at 7-3 in league play. The schedule is about to get harder, however, with home showdowns this week versus Robert Morris and Saint Francis U, two teams that beat Sacred Heart earlier in the year. And a road match-up in Merrimack surely won’t be easy.

Whether they can continue to thrive sans Parker remains to be seen given the schedule, yet the Pioneers are doing their best to ensure that they’ll get a very good seed in the NEC tournament with their adjustments.

Assessing the NEC After Non-Conference Play

The Northeast Conference is on the rise. For the first time in 6 seasons, the league’s aggregate KenPom conference ranking has moved up to 28th overall after nearly a 2-month sample size. It’s not a meteoric jump, but it’s progress and the first time in more than half a decade the league has been in this position nonetheless. Have a look.


KenPom Conference Rank Non-BCS Record*

Mid-Major Record


28 41-68 (0.376) 39-45 (0.464)
2018-19 30 35-63 (0.357)

32-44 (0.421)


29 37-57 (0.394) 36-42 (0.462)
2016-17 30 30-71 (0.297)
2015-16 30 30-69 (0.303)



36-60 (0.375)

2013-14 24 43-60 (0.417)


24 54-61 (0.470)


24 48-61 (0.440)
2010-11 24 52-57 (0.477)

*excludes games versus the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC

If Sacred Heart and Merrimack didn’t suffer heart-wrenching losses in the closing seconds on the final non-conference day of the season, the league would’ve finished tantalizingly close to a 0.500 finish against mid-major competition. 

I went back the past three seasons to determine the league’s “mid-major” record, although my distinction of a mid-major opponent is subjective. For this exercise, I did it by excluding all guarantee games versus the AAC, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac 12, SEC and the WCC. This group encompasses the top 10 KenPom conferences with Conference USA (14th overall) as the 11th. What remained after this omission was a composite schedule that, in my humble opinion, represented the type of opponents each NEC member would see during league play in terms of KenPom ranking.

The overall improvement relative to Division I basketball, while slight, is likely indicative of the fact that the majority of the league’s top players are upperclassmen who’ve been with their respective programs for two-plus seasons. Ten of the conference’s top 11 scorers are in their third, fourth or fifth season at their school, whereas 7 of the top 11 rebounders have met this veteran threshold. Maintaining program continuity has been a challenge, but with fewer high-impact players leaving for other schools over the past two offseasons, the league has been able to better cultivate some of its “home grown” talent.

What does this mean in terms of future NCAA tournament seeding? Probably not much, as it’s a safe bet the NEC will wind up back in Dayton for the First Four of the NCAA tournament, yet it’s not impossible for the league to avoid the “play-in game” as a true 15 or 16-seed if the league’s top three KenPom and NET squads, Saint Francis (NET #137), Sacred Heart (NET #187) or Bryant (NET #192), have a dominant regular season and somehow finish with 15 or more NEC regular season wins. Given the competitive nature of the conference, however, I wouldn’t bet on that outcome as practically every league game will have the potential to be a dogfight. 

When examining each school individually, I like to break down the mid-major games to provide a glimpse into how the league competed against similar competition in November and December. 

Team Mid-Major Record Point Margin Opponent’s AVG KenPom KenPom Predicted NEC Finish
Saint Francis U 5-1 +11 231

12-6 (T2)

Sacred Heart 6-3 +93 281

13-5 (1)


6-3 +43 257 12-6 (T2)
St. Francis Brooklyn 5-4 -30 273

7-11 (T9)


4-4 -1 251 10-8 (4)


4-6 -68 232

9-9 (T5)

Mount 3-5 -12 252

9-9 (T5)

Robert Morris

3-4 -21 237 9-9 (T5)
Wagner 2-4 -18 257

7-11 (T9)

FDU 1-4 -51 244

8-10 (8)

CCSU 0-7 -111 242

3-15 (11)

Given this data, allow me to provide tidbits across the league as we move into the first league game on Thursday.

Saint Francis University

Saint Francis won a lot of close games in non-league play, as evident from their skinny margin of victory despite being four games over against mid-major competition. Nevertheless, Rob Krimmel’s group has gotten it done of late since the Red Flash’s “embarrassing” loss to Delaware – Krimmel’s words, not mine. The group has played inspired basketball, winning four of five versus Division I with the lone defeat coming to a 11-2 Florida State program poised to compete at the top of the ACC. Breaking down those final four minutes during the 4-1 stretch, Saint Francis has scored 1.42 points per possession (PPP) and outscored opponents 62-32, a credit to the program’s veteran leadership and versatility.

Early on, Krimmel was experimenting with his rotations, exclusively using Ramiir Dixon-Conover at the point while featuring Keith Braxton off the ball. Part of that was Krimmel wanted to get as many ball handlers on the floor against aggressive defenses such as VCU and Richmond, but lately the team has slotted Braxton at the one and given more faith to playing Randall Gaskins at the three. The new dynamic has allowed Krimmel to bring Dixon-Conover off the bench as a ball handler/defensive stopper and Scott Meredith as instant offense.

It’s led to a more fluid, versatile rotation that’s nine-to-ten deep and one Krimmel doesn’t expect will shrink during league play. Most of the time these rotations tend to constrict, but barring injuries, the Krimmel doesn’t expect that to be the case. Currently, 9 Saint Francis players are in the game at least 30% of the time through 10 Division I games. This is the deepest roster Krimmel has ever had at Saint Francis.

Sacred Heart

There I was at the Sacred Heart Pitt Center, writing my Pioneer blurb for this post assuming Sacred Heart would close out Lafayette and finish with a very good non-conference mark of 7-5 against Division I competition (7-2 versus mid-major teams). It would’ve been the first time in the program’s Division I history that the Pioneers ended up with 8 non-conference victories (one came over a non-D1 program), but my narrative in the span of 16 game seconds was soon blown up.

A flurry of Sacred Heart blunders late – a missed free throw on the front end of a one-on-one, a turnover inbounding the ball, an ill-advised foul – snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to an improbable 67-66 Lafayette victory. Afterwards, a somewhat stunned Anthony Latina was asked to assess the team’s performance in the season thus far.

“We have some guys that are performing at a very good level. We showed we can win on the road, which is important. We showed we can win a couple of different ways, so that was encouraging,” Latina said regarding the team’s non-conference results. “But this was disappointing, I’m not discouraged but I’m disappointed that we didn’t finish the (Lafayette) game like we have been. We get one or two more stops, that’s an eight-to-ten point win and we feel really good about it, but that’s how it works. You do this long enough you see everything.”

The Pioneers offense, as talented and versatile as they come, hasn’t really clicked on all cylinders. They’ve been able to win a number of different ways, while overcoming a particular flaw that randomly pops up. For example in wins over Brown, Presbyterian and Hartford, Sacred Heart overcame copious amounts of turnovers (24.8% turnover rate) by dominating the interior (59.2% 2PT) and sharing the basketball (59.0% A/FGM). In the other three victories, they took care of the basketball and in some cases shot lights out from 3. Yet with the exception of Quinnipiac – a 17-point road win – the Pioneers still haven’t found consistency scoring the basketball. 

They may be in the top half of college basketball in offensive efficiency (101.7 points per 100 possessions) yet there’s a higher level of play that can be achieved for a roster ready to win the league right now.

Fairleigh Dickinson

FDU has dropped more than 50 spots in the KenPom rankings since the beginning of the season. It’s the result of playing one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the league with the Knights signing up for a league-high five guarantee games versus the likes of the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East and SEC. Xzavier Malone-Key, Jahlil Jenkins and promising rookie guard Devon Dunn all missed time due to injury, but luckily for Herenda, Malone-Key and Jenkins are back and Dunn could possibly make his return when the Knights open the NEC season at St. Francis Brooklyn on Thursday. 

Dunn is averaging 9.3 ppg and shooting 41.7% from behind the arc and should boost the team’s second unit. Though 10 Division I games this season, the Knights have been outscored 249-88 from the bench and are shooting just 30.0% from three, a far cry from the Darnell Edge led team last season (40.2% 3PT). FDU has a strong front four, but Dunn, Brandon Rush, Brandon Powell and B.J. Saliba will need to find more consistency to get the Knights back into the NEC contention conversation.

A difficult start to league play – on the road versus St. Francis Brooklyn, Bryant and LIU with one home game against Sacred Heart – could put the Knights in an early hole if the inexperienced second unit doesn’t step up. Still, I would never count a Greg Herenda coached team out, especially one that has Jenkins running it.

St. Francis Brooklyn

I descended on Brooklyn right before Christmas break to witness Glenn Braica’s Terriers, who somewhat surprisingly possess a positive mid-major record on the back of a 3-game winning streak to conclude 2019. The Terriers have pulled through in a lot of close games – three to be exact – when the contest ends within four points. 

The Terriers possess a somewhat unconventional team in the modern era. It’s a squad that relies heavily on a post-oriented big man in Deniz Celen, who wasn’t even part of Braica’s plans prior to the 2018-19 season. Now, the former walk-on turned scholarship player has become a critical focal point for a Terriers team that needs his interior production as much as they need guard playmaking from a stable of athletes including Chauncey Hawkins, Unique McLain and Rob Higgins.

Regarding the latter, I came away most impressed by the 6-foot-1 guard who hails from Middletown, New Jersey. He was under recruited playing high school ball at the Jersey Shore – these days most players out of that region settle for Division 3 offers – but luckily for him, Braica found Higgins just in time to fill Jalen Jordan’s departed scholarship. Higgins scored 17 points in the team’s victory over Delaware State, but it was his defensive impact that arguably was more valuable. His on-the-ball tenacity bothered Delaware State’s best player in the second half, and it’s a fair bet you’ll see Higgins on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer (see Adam Grant, Isaiah Blackmon, Curtis Cobb, Vado Morse) during league play. That’s how much Braica values his freshman guard.

“He can really guard, he can really move his feet laterally,” Braica said of Higgins after the Delaware State win on December 22. “His motor is unbelievable, he never stops. You can’t teach that, some guys have it or they don’t.”

Higgins isn’t being talked about yet as an NEC all-rookie team candidate, but more performances like NJIT and Delaware State, and he’ll enter the conversation quickly.


I’ve already waxed poetic about Bryant’s defense here, but here’s more reinforcement: I went back and charted the top rim-protectors the league has seen over the past decade. 


Player Team Ind Blocks Team Blocks % of Blocks NEC Wins

Reg Season Finish


Hall Elisias Bryant 39 63 0.778 ? ?
2018-19 Jare’l Spellman SHU 96 133 0.722 11



AJ Sumbry Wagner 58 129 0.450 16 1


Josh Nebo SFU 89 136 0.654 13


2015-16 Amdy Fall SFBK 57 122 0.467 11



Amdy Fall SFBK 71 149 0.477 17 1
2013-14 Naofall Folahan Wagner 89 200 0.445 13



Joe Efese CCSU 47 130 0.362 9 7
2011-12 Naofall Folahan Wagner 52 126 0.413 16



Naofall Folahan Wagner 45 119 0.378 9


Because of the imposing interior presence, 7 of the past 9 teams that rostered the player with the best block rate in the NEC has finished in the top 3 of the league’s regular season. That obviously bodes well for Jared Grasso as opponents figure out how to navigate the paint against the 6-foot-8 Elisias.

Because of the non-league success, Bryant has improved its KenPom ranking from 325 on November 5 to 206 currently, a startling 119 point improvement! That’s by far the best KenPom improvement within the league during non-conference play over the past three seasons (in 2017-18 Robert Morris improved 83 spots, while in the same season Wagner improved 82 spots). Bryant isn’t going anywhere, folks.

Central Connecticut State

There’s no question that Central Connecticut State struggled during it’s non-league tilt (I highly recommend Matt’s piece on it at The Blue Devil’s Den), yet there has been some progress with a roster that’s loaded with Division I newcomers. It may seem subtle, but defensively Donyell Marshall’s group has slowly improved over the past few games, and that was before sophomore guard Ian Krishnan (the team’s best perimeter defender) and bouncy 5-man Karrington Wallace (the team’s best rim protector) came back in their non-Division I victory over Connecticut College. 

  • November (4 mid-major games): 1.10 D-PPP, 56.1 eFG% defense, 18.3% turnover rate
  • December (3 mid-major games): 1.03 D-PPP, 53.0 eFG% defense, 19.3% turnover rate

The improvement makes sense given the difficulty of teaching defensive concepts to a turned-over roster. Now, Marshall has a team that could disturb some league counterparts, once their high effort level translates more into execution. Of course, context is important here, as even the defensive improvement in December lags behind the KenPom national averages of 1.00 D-PPP, 49.3% eFG and 19.7% turnover rate, respectively. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Also interesting was the recent insertion of 6-foot-0 point guard and walk-on Tyler Rowe, who over 16 minutes versus Connecticut College was a productive two-way player, logging 9 points, 2 assists and 3 steals. Rowe, a former Western Connecticut State standout who averaged 20.3 ppg and 3.5 apg in 2017-18 and was ineligible last season and the first semester this season, could give Marshall a viable playmaker at the point. If that occurs, then things should get easier on the offensive end for talented guards Trey Tennyson, Myles Baker and Greg Outlaw.