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.

After Movin’ On Up, Sky’s the Limit for Stonehill

Photo by Brian Foley for

Most of us picked Stonehill near the bottom of the NEC standings in the preseason. When I researched the program for the first time this past summer, I saw a veteran Skyhawks jumping up a level after going 10-9 in the respected NE-10 during the 2021-22 season. Merrimack executed a similar jump 4 years ago, and who could forget the Warriors’ improbable regular season title at 14-4. 

But Merrimack was coming off 3 consecutive Division 2 NCAA tournament appearances at the time, not to mention a NE-10 regular season title and a veteran team led by Juvaris Hayes, one of the greatest stealers in the history of college basketball. Stonehill came in with a different playing style/scheme, more moderate success and had 4 of their top 8 scorers depart after last season. Maybe Chris Kraus’ group would be competitive some nights, but a middle of the pack finish could be construed as a best case scenario for 2022-23.

Now into February, Stonehill has defied these expectations and then some. More than halfway through the league’s conference schedule, the Skyhawks sit one game back of first place FDU at 6-3. The group has won several different ways: outscoring opponents, grinding it out defensively and making clutch plays when it matters most. Does any of this success, especially in league play, surprise Kraus at all?

“I think you have to be, for us to be sitting at second place in the league,” Kraus, now in his 10th year at Stonehill, said. “I think there’s a little bit of surprise and excitement at the same time, but I think overall it certainly shows how good our program, our team and our players are but also how good the Northeast-10 conference is.”

How exactly has Stonehill done it? Allow me to map out Stonehill’s successes for why they’re currently in the running for an improbable regular season title with just four weeks remaining. 

Experience Matters, Even if It Isn’t Division I Experience

Don’t let the lack of Division I playing time on this Skyhawks roster fool you, as I was. Per KenPom, the Skyhawks may be 361st (out of 363 programs) in its experience metric, yet the team is loaded with accomplished veterans such as Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and others. It’s a major reason why Stonehill doesn’t get fazed in big moments. The team’s top 5 scorers are all in their fifth year of playing college basketball and regardless of the level, you can’t discount how much their experience has helped sculpt this group into a formidable opponent. 

In actuality, no one in the league is older than Stonehill, and that’s significant after several NEC programs graduated their grizzled 22 and 23 year olds from rosters last offseason. Here’s a snapshot of the league’s current experience in terms of playing at the Division I level:

TeamKenPom ExperienceNational RankNEC Record
Merrimack1.96 years1705-4
Sacred Heart1.89 years1874-5
Wagner1.70 years2294-4
Saint Francis University1.45 years2805-3
CCSU1.19 years3084-5
St. Francis Brooklyn1.10 years3194-5
LIU0.85 years3431-9
FDU0.60 years3547-2
Stonehill0.29 years3616-3

Interestingly enough, FDU finds themselves in a similar boat with respect to how their Division I experience compares to the rest of the league. That’s because star guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton have 8 years of collective experience at St. Thomas Aquinas College, but zero at the Division I level. It makes me question my prognostication skills a bit – why didn’t I value that Division II experience more instead of ranking FDU fifth and Stonehill eighth in my NEC preseason standings in Blue Ribbon?

Nevertheless, Kraus’ players are now in the stage of their careers where proving everyone wrong has become a daily mantra. 

“I think all of these kids who have transferred up…  they come up and show they belong, we always felt the NE-10 was a Division I league. It just happened to have a Division 2 title, I think people are seeing that,” Kraus said.

The 3-Pointer Has Opened Things Up for Stonehill’s Offense

Stonehill’s long distance prowess has experienced a positive bump, and it really can be traced to 2 players: Shamir Johnson and Max Zegarowski. The 5th year sharpshooters are shooting a combined 39.8% from deep and have made 42.1% of their guarded catch-and-shoot 3-point takes, according to Synergy. Their court presence is a major reason why the Skyhawks have enjoyed a 2.8% increase in 3-point shooting compared to last season at the Division 2 level. 

Photo by Brian Foley for

“We have more shooting across the board on this current roster than we did last year, and it’s allowed Andrew Sims to play more one on one or we’ve game planned it a little more differently versus last year’s team,” Kraus said of a team that’s second in league play with a 54.1% eFG and 36.4% free throw rate.

While Johnson and Zegarowski are predominantly jump shooters – 73.1% of their shots this season have been jumpers – their shotmaking has opened up the floor for the Stonehill slashers and interior presences. The aforementioned Sims has more room to operate out of the post, landing in the top 30 percentile of Division 1 with a 49% success rate on his post opportunities. Burnett has gotten downhill more effectively as well, finishing at the rim 65% of the time. And others such as Josh Mack have added efficiency to their games – Mack in particular has an effective field goal percentage of 62%, a tremendous number for a 6’0” guard getting his first taste at the Division I level.  

It’s mainly due to Johnson and Zegarowski spacing the floor in Stonehill’s 4 or 5-out motion offense. It’s a tough set to guard with the complementary pieces, and especially so with Zegarowski pulling opposing bigs out of the paint. 

“He’s done such a great job spacing the floor, with his IQ, his feel, his awareness with his ability to shoot it,” Kraus said of Zegarowski, who also played in the NE-10 at Franklin Pierce last season before transferring to Stonehill. “We can put him in spots on the floor besides Burnett, besides Sims and say ‘ok, pick your poison.’”

Case in point:

One bonus analytic on Zegarowski: per Hoop-Math, the 6’8” stretch big has made 47% of his 3-point attempts when the shot clock is at 10 seconds or less. What a dagger it must be for the other team to play tenacious defense for 20-plus seconds, only to have Zegarowski drain one over the top of you.

The Defense Has Improved Throughout the Season

In the early going when Quinnipiac, Holy Cross, Illinois Chicago and other opponents were routinely getting above 1.00 point per possession (ppp) in their non-conference battles with Stonehill, it didn’t seem like this was a team built for grinding games out. And yet, nine games into league play, Stonehill has the conference’s third best adjusted defensive efficiency (97.0 DRtg) thanks to a unit that holds opponents to shooting percentages of 47.8% 2PT and 29.8% 3PT. 

The Skyhawks aren’t equipped to rebound, nor have they extracted a lot of turnovers from their opponents on a nightly basis. For Kraus, it’s all about tailoring a plan that fits the strengths of his players. 

“If we’re on the perimeter with a motion concept (offensively) with four guys or five guys, whatever it is, you sort of build in your transition defense or conversion defense to fit what we’re doing offensively,” he said. 

With more shotmakers to rely on, Kraus has taught its players to be careful about crashing the glass, and instead making sure they are back on defense after a miss. The philosophy bodes well; currently Stonehill’s 50.0% eFG mark on defense in transition opportunities is bettered only by Wagner (49.4% eFG) within the NEC. For perspective, 6 NEC programs sit at 54% eFG or worse when playing transition defense. 

Furthermore, better size at the guard and wing spots – their effective height at the 1, 2 and 3 is either average or above average per KenPom – has allowed Stonehill to better contest shots in the half-court, hence the depressed shooting percentages.

It also helps when you have this guy, armed with a 4.8% steal rate that’s ranked 18th nationally, giving you a nightly pick-6. You can make the argument that Burnett won Stonehill the game in that second half against Wagner.

Kraus is Trying to Find an Edge Anyway He Can

This is really true of any head coach, as coaches are always mining for hidden gems that’ll give them even a 1 or 2-point edge over the course of 40 minutes. For Kraus, he’s always loved to design plays out of timeouts, so it’s no surprise that Stonehill currently ranks in the top quarter of the nation in offensive efficiency (0.922 ppp, 52.3% eFG) out of those play stoppages. 

Photo by Brian Foley for

“For me, I always loved ATO (after time outs) stuff whether it’s baseline out of bounds or like special situational things,” Kraus answered when asked why Stonehill does well in those situations. “I think as a coach it’s a fun time to be creative if you want to or hone in on certain areas to attack.”

This isn’t new for Kraus – Stonehill ranked seventh in all of Division 2 basketball in offensive efficiency after time outs at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season as well. Now, with veteran players that each possess unique skills relative to each other, it allows Kraus to put each of them in positions of strength.

Sims, Burnett and Zegarowski are all inside the NEC’s top-10 in effective field goal percentage out of time outs, illustrating how dangerous Stonehill is when Kraus is given time to draw up a play.

Now with seven games left in their season, Stonehill is in position to do something special similar to what Merrimack did 3 years ago. Win or lose the rest of the way, the Skyhawks have acquitted themselves very well into Division I basketball; the future is bright in North Easton.

An Analytics Driven Breakdown of the NEC’s Non-Conference Season – Part 1

Photo: Larry Levanti

With nearly two months of non-conference play in the books, have we learned anything tangible with respect to Northeast Conference basketball? Has a true favorite emerged from the pack? Well, if you value KenPom and BartTorvik’s numbers, and I do after 12-14 games of data, the answer to the question is Wagner. But then look at the glut of teams immediately after!

TeamMid-Major RecordProjected NEC Record (KenPom)Bart Torvik Reg Season Title Odds (Share)
Sacred Heart5-59-714.7%

The Seahawks may have a 50% chance to outright win or take a share of the league’s regular season title, but make no mistake most of the Seahawks’ conference counterparts have a legitimate shot to, at the very least, get into the league’s top 4 prior to the start of the single elimination NEC tournament. And as history has indicated, getting at least one home game is paramount to making a three-game run in early March that gets you dancing. 

Allow me to go into each team’s prospects as I build the case with help from analytics.


Non-Conference Summary: It’s been tough sledding for the Sharks in Rod Strickland’s debut, and the 21st toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom hasn’t made things easier for a young LIU squad. By my estimation, LIU has had 5 guarantee games and squared off against some of the Big East’s best in UConn (KenPom #2), Marquette (#27) and St. John’s (#57). Even the mid-major matchups have been brutal, as UMass Lowell, Towson and James Madison (all KenPom top 100) are projected as frontrunners in their respective conference. Only 3 players – Jacob Johnson, Cheikh Ndiaye and RJ Greene – have played in all 12 LIU games, as injuries have littered the roster throughout the season. There have been games where Strickland has literally had six to eight scholarship players taking part in the pregame layup line. That’s not ideal. 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Despite losing to Towson by 10 points in a December matchup at the WRAC, the Sharks acquitted themselves very well throughout the first 33 minutes of the contest before Towson embarked on a 10-0 run – otherwise known as a Kill Shot according to EvanMiya – to put the contest out of reach. The Sharks posted a 1.7 A/TO, scored 1.02 points per possession (ppp) and illustrated good scoring balance with Marko Maletic, Quion Burns and Greene registering at least 12 points in the quality effort. It’s no surprise Bart Torvik issued LIU a season best Game Score of 30 in the tighter than expected defeat. 

What LIU Needs to Do to Succeed: Run, run and run. Per Synergy, the team has more than a 17% spread between its effective field goal percentage in transition (61.0% eFG) and half-court (43.6% eFG). Tre Wood, to no one’s surprise based on historical data, continues to excel in up-tempo environments with a 1.27 ppp mark when in transition. Jacob Johnson has converted 19 of 27 attempts in the open floor, and Maletic has been a catch-and-shoot marksman no matter the tempo, as evident by his 40.3% 3-point conversion rate when attempting a behind the arc shot in rhythm. Throw in Greene, who’s dished out 19 assists in transition opportunities according to Hoop Math, and Strickland has a roster loaded with guys who thrive in a frenetic environment. 

The problem has been staying healthy, so if the first-year head coach can somehow keep 10 scholarship players dressed for a game, he may be wise to implore his team to push the pace off live-ball turnovers, defensive rebounds and even off opponent makes. Get the dynamic and shifty Wood and Greene in the open floor, and the team’s efficiency should spike as a result. 

Furthermore, I’d like to see LIU’s ‘3 and rim’ rate of 70% increase for the sake of the team’s half court efficiency. One reason they hung around vs Towson was the majority of LIU’s shots were taken inside the paint or behind the arc – only three times in the contest did LIU take a mid-to-long 2-point jumper (categorized as 17 feet to the 3-point line) according to Synergy. When LIU’s slashers can get paint touches, the offense should open up in the half-court. 


Non-Conference Summary: The transition to a green backcourt has proven to be more arduous than expected for the Warriors, with the team struggling to score (adjusted offensive efficiency of 85.2, 363rd DI) after turning over more than half its roster in the offseason. Like LIU, a difficult non-conference schedule has thrown the young guards/wings into the fire from the outset, and navigating through November without star Jordan Minor – a POY contender – would have been an impossible endeavor for anyone. Nevertheless, no one’s counting out Joe Gallo’s team heading into conference play, as the head coach’s past history and defensive acumen should keep Merrimack competitive in every NEC contest. Remember, Gallo has a career NEC record of 28-8 when you take out his record against Jared Grasso, Bashir Mason and Dan Engelstad, three coaches who are no longer in the league. 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: While there isn’t a specific 40-minute performance over the past 8 weeks for Merrimack to hang its hat on, the defense still trends as awesome. Despite squaring off against a top 75 strength of schedule, the Warriors have the best defensive efficiency in the league currently (102.8 adjusted defensive efficiency) and have extracted a turnover on 26.1% of their opponent’s possessions. Per Synergy, Merrimack’s zone defense has held opponents to a paltry 0.79 ppp and 41% shooting in half-court sets, and that vaunted defense gets even better out of time outs, with opponents shooting 34% and registering a meager 0.57 ppp. That speaks to Gallo and his staff being able to make adjustments on the fly, and defensively that continues to ring true despite the program dealing with its toughest stretch since Gallo started coaching at his alma mater.

From an individual standpoint, four players have steal rates at 3.0% or higher, with freshman Javon Bennett challenging his inner Juvaris Hayes with the second best steal rate in the nation at 6.3%. Devon Savage (5.1%), Jordan Derkack (4.2%) and Jaylen Stinson (3.0%) round out the team’s top four in steal rate, and all are newcomers who started their acclimation to the 2-3 zone back in the summer. Again, Gallo can really coach defense. 

What Merrimack Needs to Do to Succeed: Getting the offense toward the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency relative to its NEC foes is the obvious answer, and while it’s been a slog even with Minor back, there are positive signs that the team has potential to turn the corner. Derkack has shot 53% from the field, so if it wasn’t for a high turnover rate, the freshman would have a much more favorable KenPom offensive rating (currently 79.5). At a 25% success rate, the Warriors have really struggled to score from behind the arc despite posting the 10th best rate in terms of 3-point attempt frequency. The team’s free throw percentage of 71% shows that better days are likely ahead with the program’s long-range prowess. Also, I find it hard to believe that Merrimack will continue to shoot 29% on its unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities according to Synergy. The fact that Merrimack has taken more unguarded shots (154 FGA) than guarded shots (144 FGA) this season bodes well for the argument that the offense execution is just fine going into league play. They just need to make open and semi-open shots. 


Non-Conference Summary: With three Division I victories away from their friendly confines, that achievement alone shows that Chris Kraus’ veteran group has adapted well to Division I basketball. They’ve also been competitive at various points in their other non-conference match-ups as well, illustrating that Stonehill will be far from a pushover in its inaugural foray into NEC play. Against mid-major competition, Stonehill’s bevy of skilled guards and wings have scored 1.05 ppp in seven games, and currently are posting an effective field goal percentage of 50.0% in all its games combined, a respectable mark that puts them at 173rd in college basketball. Who had the Skyhawks pegged for 3rd among NEC teams with a 0.91 ppp mark going into late December? 

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: The program’s win over Army in November at West Point served as a statement. The four-or-five-out motion offense flowed well that afternoon, as Andrew Sims, Thatcher Stone and Burnett combined to score 55 points on an efficient 35 attempts. The team’s collective shot chart was a thing of beauty to the analytics crowd, as the Skyhawks didn’t attempt a single long-range 2 (17 feet to the 3PT line) against the Patriot League foe according to Synergy. Even if Stonehill has to veer away from analytically friendly shots late in the clock, the team has been categorized as “very good” by Synergy with respect to being a jump shooting team, posting a league leading 1.02 ppp and 51% eFG. Furthermore, half of the team’s 24 attempts in isolation have gone in the basket (small sample size alert), grading above average relative to the other 362 Division I programs. 

What Stonehill Needs to Do to Succeed: In order for Stonehill to simulate Merrimack’s improbable yet deserving conquest of the 2019-2020 NEC regular season title, Kraus’ defense will need to elevate its level to middle of the pack status at the very least, while continuing to efficiently score the basketball. One thing that bodes well for Stonehill in late game situations: their 79% mark at the charity stripe is only bested by 8 other teams in college basketball. If they can get a lead late, Kraus’ team is equipped to hold it as evident from their current 3-1 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less. 

The defense needs work, but Kraus has been able to utilize the team’s quickness and perimeter comfort to generate nearly one turnover for every 5 possessions. Isaiah Burnett has been integral in that respect, with the 15th best steal rate nationally (5.3%). Winning the turnover margin and points scored off turnovers battle on a nightly basis will be critical in getting Stonehill in play for an upper-tier NEC finish.

Central Connecticut

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: In one of the more dominant performances we saw from a NEC school this non-conference season, CCSU went into Manhattan in December and led wire-to-wire. The Blue Devils had an answer every time the Jaspers attempted a run in the second half thanks to the Blue Devils stars doing exactly what Pat Sellers and many others had envisioned with this team back in the preseason. Nigel Scantlebury (12p, 6a, 5r, 2s) was the do-it-all floor general, Kellen Amos (20, 6 of 6 3PT) made shots and Jay Rodgers (15p, 6a) gave Sellers another efficient playmaker on the floor. Moreover, emerging sophomore center Abdul Momoh turned away 3 Jasper shots while also registering 11 points and 7 rebounds. It was an eye opening team performance where everyone had finally competed at a high level in the same game. It was a game that was rife with fine execution on the offensive end (1.18 ppp, 54.7% FG).

Non-Conference Summary: If it wasn’t for a nice 3 game pocket where the Blue Devils went 2-1 against the likes of Dartmouth, Fordham and Manhattan, the 2022 non-conference season would’ve been disappointing overall. There have been improvements in Sellers’ second season for sure – the team’s adjusted offensive efficiency is up 2.7 points per 100 possessions, while the defense has improved by giving up 1.8 points less per 100 possessions compared to last season. These are modest improvements and likely will tick up now that the guarantee games are behind them, but going on a sustained run will require consistency that CCSU hasn’t necessarily exhibited thus far. Perhaps somewhat concerning is CCSU’s 0-4 record in games decided by 2 possessions or less, but hopefully the experience of narrowly losing to Quinnipiac, Holy Cross and UMBC will make Sellers’ squad more resilient come February and March. 

What CCSU Needs to Do to Succeed: Excuse me as I put my nerd hat on, but the Blue Devils should become more analytically friendly with its shot selection, as currently only 297 of the team’s 830 field goal attempts (35.8%) have come at the rim though 14 games. As a result, CCSU’s free throw is last nationally at 18.1 FTA/FGA. Even when the team is getting to the rim, they’ve converted less than half of those attempts (49.8%), putting them in the bottom 3% percentile per Synergy. Those numbers need to improve, and likely will against the smaller frontcourts of the NEC, but nevertheless that’s something Sellers needs to leverage better instead of having his team rely solely on jump shots. For what it’s worth, the team has been a good jump shooting team relative to all of college basketball (0.97 ppp, 48% eFG), but more versatility would most definitely help the offense click. 

Amos, in particular, is someone who’s excelled around the basket (60% FG) but hasn’t gotten there a ton as only 35% of his shots have come near the rim. The uneven shot selection is even more pronounced for Rodgers (just 18% of his shots come at the rim), and he’s someone that Sellers said has a distinct ability to get downhill and attack the rim back in the preseason. This Blue Devil offense spacing should improve if Amos and Rodgers leverage their playmaking ability to get into the paint more often moving forward. CCSU is currently making 33% of their 3-point attempts – if they can get to 36% in league play then the Blue Devils will be a formidable opponent.

Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week!

Breaking Down the NEC’s Most Exciting Newcomers

FDU’s Heru Bligen (Photo: Larry Levanti)

We knew going into the 2022-23 campaign that there would be plenty of unknown commodities taking the Northeast Conference by storm. With so many impactful seniors graduating last spring, the conference was rife with opportunities to shine, and several players have taken full advantage. Before I get into my favorite newcomers I’ve gotten to watch, I’d like to share Bart Torvik’s list of top players in his PORPAGATU! category. As a refresher, PORPAGATU! stands for Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage and is a measure that illustrates how much better (or worse) a particular player is versus a replacement player. I consider it a solid indicator for who’s playing at a high level. Here’s the NEC PORPAGATU! leaderboard as of December 1:

There are some notable names that we expected to be here like Josh Cohen, Nico Galette and Ziggy Reid. Some returnees such as Joey Reilly, Ansley Almonor and Davonte Sweatman have surprised and improved substantially in year two. And several others weren’t part of a NEC roster last season, hence this post. I’m here to highlight a few newcomers that have been terrific in their first month as a Northeast Conference student-athlete. 

Heru Bligen, Fairleigh Dickinson

I bestowed lots of preseason hype on Tobin Anderson’s group of St. Thomas Aquinas newcomers, and rightfully so given how well Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton have played in November. But never once did I mention junior college transfer Heru Bligen when explaining why FDU would be a darkhorse NEC contender. My bad.

Through nine games, not only is Bligen among four Knights in Bart Torvik’s top 10 of PORPAGATU!, he’s actually the team’s most efficient player thanks to a pristine 67.2% conversion rate inside the arc while committing just 10 turnovers. Bligen, who came from Garden City Community College and had a myriad of DI options this offseason, isn’t your typical 6’2” guard. That much is evident when witnessing the slasher’s blend of toughness, strength and creativity in getting to the rim. Opponents know Bligen won’t attempt a long jumper, and yet, they can’t stop him despite playing a few steps off. Here are some examples:

It’s a small sample, but the advanced metrics aren’t illustrating a weakness in Bligen’s offensive repertoire, as he’s made 65.0% of his near-the-rim takes and 70.4% of his mid-range 2s, while spreading out that efficiency well both in the half-court and in transition. He also leads the team, despite his guard-like size, with 10 putbacks and a 12.6% offensive rebounding rate, the latter metric is top 125 in all of Division I. The aggressive, proficient approach on the backboards, as well as his ability to cut off-the-ball, has allowed Anderson to implement four guard sets given Bligen’s skill set as a “small-ball 4” alongside more ball dominant players in Roberts and Singleton.

Are there any historical comps within the NEC that compare to the unique offensive profile of Bligen? If you’re going off size and athleticism, former St. Francis Brooklyn guard Unique McLean is the only one who comes to my mind over the past decade, and yet there are differences in their respective profiles. These types of tough, slashing guards may be more plentiful in Division 2, yet Bligen is a rare bird we should all enjoy in Anderson’s system at FDU. 

Landon Moore, Saint Francis University

There weren’t many holes Rob Krimmel needed to fill with a veteran-laden roster returning to Loretto, but point guard surely was one of them after the graduation of Ramiir Dixon-Conover. Krimmel was cognizant of this, procuring the commitments of Landon Moore and Cam Gregory for this 2022-23 class, as well as retaining veteran backup Zahree Harrison. In other words, Krimmel had 3 shots to fill the void in finding a competent playmaker next to Maxwell Land, Ronell Giles and Josh Cohen.

In the early going, Moore has seamlessly stepped in as the primary floor general, logging 80% of the Red Flash’s minutes, the 10th best mark among NEC players. The freshman’s ability to play under control without getting sped up has been notable given his jump from Western Prep Academy to Division I competition. How many rookies would have the patience here to find a paint bucket just seven games into their collegiate career?

You’d be hard pressed to find a freshman point that has reached double figures in scoring in 6 of his first 7 Division I contests as Moore has. Furthermore, his assist rate of 22.4% is third best in the league thus far, but perhaps more eye opening has been his 12.4% turnover rate and assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3. Those marks are atypical for rookies. 

Additionally, Moore’s versatility has stood out in several ways. Per Hoop Math, his type of assists are well distributed with 42% of his helpers leading to a basket near the rim, 27% to a 2-point jumper and 31% to a made 3-pointer. Not only has he done well getting the ball to different areas of the floor, he’s also thrived in transition as well, posting an effective field goal percentage of 70.0% in those open floor opportunities. Despite missing Giles due to a sprained ankle for much of November, Saint Francis has posted a 58.7% eFG rate in transition, its best mark since 2017-18 thanks in large part to Moore’s efficiency in these up-tempo situations. 

Once Giles and Myles Thompson are healthy, the Red Flash should be in good shape with Moore manning the point. Krimmel should possess a very solid 8-man rotation to deploy in league play if his team can get to full strength.

Brandon Brown, Wagner

In terms of sheer volume, Brown’s numbers aren’t going to overwhelm you. He’s not a volume scorer, nor is he someone who’ll take over a game by being ball dominant. His current possession rate through six games is 13.6%, the ninth highest usage rate of any Seahawk playing at least 20% of the team’s minutes. And yet, Brown’s insertion into Wagner’s rotation was an offseason coup for new head coach Donald Copeland, given his penchant to stay within himself and serve as the ultimate glue guy. 

As a 6’5”, 190 pound power forward, Brown doesn’t project as a rugged presence, yet his proclivity to attack the glass (23.5% defensive rebounding rate, 122nd in D1) and give Wagner an off-the-bounce mismatch problem has gelled incredibly well with the team’s group of perimeter playmakers. Take Brown’s 14-point, 12-rebound and 3-steal masterpiece in a dominant win over Fairfield as an example. Brown routinely torched Fairfield’s slower-footed defenders off the dribble in the first half, reeked havoc by getting 3 steals defensively AND hit 2 of 4 from deep. It’s that kind of intuitiveness and athleticism that has helped Wagner get over the graduation of all-league stud Elijah Ford. Per Hoop Explorer, Wagner is +6.7 points per 100 possessions on offense and +27.4 points per 100 possessions on defense when Brown is on the floor. Those are incredible splits!

And when you can make tough baskets in transition, like this one late at NJIT, you know Brown is undoubtedly someone who doesn’t shy away from pressure situations. 

When it’s all said and done, Brown may only be the fourth or fifth leading scorer on Wagner, but his impact on the program’s championship prospects is enormous. If you need a slasher, he’ll provide that. A guy who can make open 3s? Sure. A rugged rebounder and willing defender who’ll embrace Copeland’s defense first identity? Absolutely. In a way, Brown is the straw that stirs Wagner’s drink.

Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill

You can make the rational argument that Burnett, now a fifth year senior in his third year of eligibility, was solely responsible for Stonehill’s two Division I victories over Army and Holy Cross. In the pair of narrow triumphs, the shifty guard scored 49 points, procured 7 steals and shot 14 of 17 (82.4%) on his 2s and 21 of 25 (84%) from the charity stripe. The Army performance was the main reason for Burnett’s well deserved selection as a NEC Co-Player of the Week.

Like Bligen, Burnett is one of those guards who’ll gladly leverage his quickness and ability to get downhill to generate offense for Chris Kraus’ group. Per Hoop Math, Burnett has attempted 59% of his attempts at the rim, converting 68% of them. Just 8% of those near-the-rim makes were assisted, illustrating his strength of blowing by defenders. Take Quinnipiac for example!

Defensively, Burnett is surely unique within the Skyhawks system, as he’s the only player with a steal rate north of 2.2%. His rate of 4.6% is the best mark among NEC players and is 60th nationally. That’s critical for a team with a middling defensive turnover rate of 18.6%.

Overall, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better two-way wing in the NEC than Burnett.