I’ve seen some banter on Twitter of late debating who the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year should be. I’ve seen viable arguments for at least three different coaches, as there are a lot of worthy candidates in this pandemic shortened season. Allow me to offer objective (at least as best I can) arguments on behalf of the coaches who could receive votes next week for the award.
Jared Grasso – If you take into account Bryant’s entire body of work – non-conference included – the Bulldogs have had the best regular season of anyone in the league at 14-5 overall. It’s not even close in that respect. Out of conference wins over UMass, Stony Brook and New Hampshire as well as a nail-biting loss in the Carrier Dome to Syracuse was mainly responsible for soaring Bryant’s KenPom ranking more than 100 spots from 312 in late November to 187 prior to their NEC showdowns in early January with Central Connecticut. Now sitting at 185 on KenPom’s ledger, they lead the NEC in this ranking as well as overall offensive efficiency (103.1 points scored per 100 possessions). The latter is quite impressive when considering Bryant’s nine newcomers among their 13 scholarships this season.
If you need another analytical metric to bolster Grasso’s case, Bryant’s Game Scores on Barttorvik.com have been consistently good – Syracuse, UMass, Central Connecticut game 1, Merrimack game 2 – and have illustrated the third-year head coach’s ability to get his team to 1) consistently perform in the early, middle and late part of the season despite a COVID-19 pause sprinkled in-between and 2) play well and be successful against different schemes and tempos.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs are currently in the driver’s seat to win the NEC regular season title. Preseason expectations aside (Bryant was tied for third in the preseason poll), the coaches have put significant value on winning the league for this award in the past, and I wouldn’t expect 2020-21 to be any different. It’s very plausible to see the coaches (aka the voters) rewarding Grasso for not just a first place finish but also for turning a 3-win program three years ago into arguably the favorite to get to the NCAA tournament.
Bashir Mason – If shock value is your thing, surely Wagner going from 1-4 in the NEC (1-5 overall if you include a lopsided loss to Seton Hall) to 11-5 in second place is the best thing going in the 2020-21 college basketball season. Before their recent hiccup at Central Connecticut, Wagner had a NEC-leading 10 game winning streak and soared from a “team trying to find its way” to “bonafide NEC contender.” It’s prudent to mention that Wagner was picked eighth in the NEC preseason poll, and most likely the Seahawks will be no worse than the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.
How has Mason, a two-time Jim Phelan Coach of the Year recipient already, done it? By developing his talent to the point where Wagner has a 4-headed monster in Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez and DeLonnie Hunt. The former two are destined for an all-conference team nod and Morales is quite honestly a Player of the Year candidate, whereas the latter in Hunt will most likely become the NEC’s Rookie of the Year thanks to his mesmerizing blend of quickness, toughness and shotmaking. Considering the way these four started the season, to have these players, as well as guys like Nigel Jackson, Ja’Mier Fletcher and Elijah Allen, contribute at an all-above average level is a testament to the job Mason and his staff have done in developing their student-athletes. Additionally, Wagner has done well to embrace the roster’s strengths as a versatile, slashing squad that leads the NEC in offensive rebounding rate and is second in effective field goal percentage.
Raise your hand if you thought Wagner would have the league’s best offense in NEC play going into March. Yeah, that’s what I thought!
Anthony Latina – Picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, Sacred Heart has significantly defied expectations in the same way they did in the 2018-19 campaign when they went from ninth in the poll to a 11-7 regular season finish and #3 seed in the NEC tournament. Now with the youngest roster in the conference and the 317th least experienced team in the country per KenPom, Latina has somehow harbored the guard play of Tyler Thomas (Most Improved Player candidate), Aaron Clarke and Alex Watson (1.7 ppg to 7.4 ppg) into a 9-7 NEC finish. And he’s done it with three freshmen – Mike Sixsmith, Bryce Johnson and Matas Spokas – playing significant roles. All three players are posting above average efficiency ratings, not an easy thing to do for any Division I novices.
It’s not a certainty that the Pioneers play in the NEC tournament, although it’s fairly likely at the moment. And for Latina to lose five of his top six scorers (Clarke was the lone holdover) AND lose his starting four-man in Zach Pfaffenberger in the preseason due to injury and to still sneak into the league’s top four is a special accomplishment.
The analytical metrics, particularly efficiency margins and KenPom rating, haven’t been terribly kind to Sacred Heart over the course of 2020-21. That’s mainly due to blowout losses to Wagner (game 1), LIU (game 1) and Saint Francis (game 1). But the Pioneers’ penchant to bounce back and win the second part of these back-to-backs – they did it a remarkable six times this season – should not be discounted in any way. Latina and his staff’s ability to make adjustments on the fly and split all of these series is a major reason why the Pioneers are in an advantageous position here in late February.
Honorable mention goes to Joe Gallo and Dan Engelstad for the jobs they’ve done as well, although I think the trio mentioned above would make up most people’s top three.
Gallo, however, has taken a team who lost three standout seniors, including all-conference first teamer Juvaris Hayes, to being tied for third place going into their final week of the season. And they did it with a massively long COVID-19 pause from Thanksgiving to late December where the team practiced seven times over a 40-day stretch. Engelstad, in his own right, has done very well to get Mount St. Mary’s in the position they’re in, especially after losing Jalen Gibbs, the Mount’s leading scorer at the time, to the transfer portal and having Dakota Laffew go down due to injury. The Mountaineers stand as the league’s best defensive unit going into their pivotal back-to-back showdown at Bryant next week.
We all have biases in this race, myself included, but I wanted to best lay out the arguments for each coach. There are so many great coaches in this league and I can’t wait to see who’s the next Jim Phelan Coach of the Year! Who the coaches decide among their peers will be fascinating.
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!
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
*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.
Opponent’s AVG KenPom
KenPom Predicted NEC Finish
Saint Francis U
St. Francis Brooklyn
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.
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.
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.
% of Blocks
Reg Season Finish
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.
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.
There’s a lot of talent coming back to the Northeast Conference this fall, likely resulting in an improved product on the floor. Opportunities for newcomers and previously underutilized players to shine however are abound, even for the rosters that return a vast majority of their scoring, rebounding and facilitating.
With the season merely a day away, I attempt to highlight the biggest wildcards whose performance could stand between a mediocre season and a championship season.
Virshon Cotton, Long Island University – Before I even had a chance to ask Derek Kellogg about Cotton’s potential impact, he offered this tidbit unprovoked: “Virshon is kind of in a good way a wildcard for us. I think he has the chance to breakout, be a really, really good player who could score the basketball. His athleticism allows him to really pressure the ball and cause some havoc on the defensive end of the floor.”
Of course, being a season removed from true competition on the hardwoods could lead to inconsistent play in the early going, but there’s no denying what Cotton brings to a Sharks roster that played Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts a sizable amount of minutes last season. Cotton can handle the ball, set up teammates (16.8% assist rate in 2017-18), stroke it from long range (career 37.4% 3PT) and seamlessly guard one through three.
That’s a heck of a weapon to deploy on a title contender that already brings back their top four players.
Koreem Ozier, Sacred Heart – The Pioneers are ready for contention. As Matt and John articulated in their superb NEC preview, Sacred Heart is loaded with depth, playmakers, sharpshooters, rim protectors and veterans. It’s clearly a win-now roster, and yet, the biggest key to their team is a sophomore who barely played half of the team’s minutes last season? It may be unfair to place the burden of Sacred Heart’s upcoming season on the shoulders of Ozier, yet the 6’1″ guard is the most equipped athletically to emerge as Anthony Latina’s go-to scorer. If there was anything the program missed last season, it was that clutch player – such as Raiquan Clark, Isaiah Blackmon, Vado Morse – who could manufacture a clean look late in the game.
While Anthony Latina hedged his bets to take pressure off of Ozier at NEC Social Media Day, he did infer his guard is a candidate to get the ball late. “Koreem does have a unique ability to get a shot at any time,” Latina said. “Some guys just have that, he can get himself a look, whether it’s a mid-range game, whether it’s off the dribble, whether it’s get to the free throw line, so there’s no question he’s a guy whose number you can call late in the game and he’s a gamer and he likes the big spot.”
If Ozier has a productive season worthy of a spot on a league’s all-conference team, then it’s very hard to see how Sacred Heart doesn’t finish in the NEC top 3.
Ikenna Ndugba, Bryant – It’s easy to forget the red-shirt junior averaged 13.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2 steals per game two seasons ago, but that’s the kind of production Grasso has coming back in his second season in Smithfield. And it’s far more than production that Ndugba provides. Despite his 6’0″ stature, the point guard’s insertion into Bryant’s rotation adds an element that makes the Bulldogs much more versatile. The Bulldogs struggled without a true facilitator last season, but with a healthy Ndugba occupying that role everyone else’s job should fall better into place.
Grasso agrees with that sentiment when discussing what Ndugba brings to his program after a lost year due to a shoulder injury. “I think offensively he’s another guy who can get someone a shot, can score the ball and has an IQ, and knows how to play so I think he just makes us a better offensive team because of that,” he said.
Defensively, Ndugba posted the 104th best steal rate in Division I basketball during the 2017-18 campaign with a steal on 3.1 percent of the opponent’s possessions. He can be a game changer on both ends of the floor, especially when paired with Juan Cardenas and freshman Charles Pride.
Curtis Cobb and Alex Morales, Wagner – With ten newcomers on Bashir Mason’s roster – the most turnover he’s experienced in his decorated Wagner career – the vast majority of pundits are putting the Seahawks in the bottom half of their preseason standings. It’s a simple concept- what you don’t know usually results in a modest prognostication, hence the program’s current standing in our minds. But Cobb and Morales can easily blow out those expectations given their exceptional talent.
“Alex and Curtis, the talent jumps out right away,” Mason said at NEC Social Media Day. “You don’t know how they are going to take to our culture, playing hard and defending and all that stuff, but they’ve been pretty bought in since day one.”
Most understand that Cobb’s move from the Atlantic 10 to the NEC could lead to a top 5 scoring type of season. His production at Fairfield, although inconsistent, provides a glimpse into his potential with seven games at 20 points or more as a sophomore. Morales, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown, yet those in the junior college circles will tell you Mason signed a game changer. He’s coming off a special season at Prince George’s Community College that earned him a Maryland JUCO Conference Player of the Year honor.
“There’s nothing he can’t really do on the basketball court and that he also has the IQ to go along with it, which is great,” Mason said about Morales back in August.
Wagner’s model of success relies on scoring balance, which they didn’t possess last season. For that trend to reverse, the duo of Cobb and Morales must take a leading role and allow others like Nigel Jackson, Chase Freeman and Will Martinez to slot in as complementary pieces. Wagner could surprise if such a scenario comes to fruition.
D.J. Russell and A.J. Bramah, Robert Morris – It’s not groundbreaking that I’m highlighting two more unknowns, both of whom emanating from the JUCO scene. Russell and Bramah have been raved about throughout the league, and it’s a poorly kept secret that if they provide Andy Toole with the kind of production he expects, the Colonials are back in the thick of the NEC title race.
Of Russell, he gives Robert Morris with a playmaker down low. “I think DJ is a really good rebounder, he’s good at scoring around the rim,” Toole said. “He has a good touch, he can use his right and left hands.” Bramah’s athleticism, meanwhile, gives Toole the ability to roll out versatile defensive lineups that could even include Bramah, Charles Bain and Yannis Mendy at the five.
Overall, quality play from those two should make up for the loss of Matty McConnell and Malik Petteway and, at the very least, improve Robert Morris’ 2-point efficiency. Over the past three seasons, the program has shot 43.8%, 45.9% and 47.3% from inside the arc, respectively. A return to the middle of Division I in that department (49 to 50%) paired with the 3-point prowess of the Williams brothers and Bain significantly improves Toole’s offense.
Others to Consider:
Karrington Wallace, Central Connecticut – After an inconsistent freshman campaign, which is typical for freshman bigs, Marshall awarded Wallace’s productive summer with a start in their exhibition contest versus Coast Guard. He produced with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks and certainly has the hops to become a notable rim protector. An improvement off of a 4.6% block rate and 14.6% defensive rebounding rate last season would anchor a Blue Devils defense that could surprise league counterparts.
Myles Thompson, Saint Francis University – As I illustrated last week, Krimmel’s stable of frontcourt players allows him to position reigning POY Keith Braxton as his true point guard. Clearly, if Krimmel didn’t have the confidence to give significant minutes to Thompson, a sophomore who last season showed glimpses in his first NEC rodeo, then Braxton’s move from the four to the one may not happen. As an undersized NEC big, Thompson has the skills and nose for the basketball to become one of the better rebounders in the league. Additionally, an improvement out on the perimeter would open up his scoring.
Malik Jefferson, Mount St. Mary’s – I love Jefferson’s game as a throwback – his post skills are somewhat unusual in an era where stretch fours and face up bigs dominate the scene. As a freshman, Jefferson posted an impressive 108.7 KenPom offensive rating, buoyed by a 59.4% conversion rate on 2s and a manageable 15.3% turnover rate. If Jefferson can improve his conditioning and footwork to avoid foul trouble, then the Mount should be sniffing the upper half of the league standings by season’s end with a promising frontcourt trio of Jefferson, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene.
Do you have a wildcard in mind? Feel free to share in the comments section!
Eight years. I’ve been coming to this event at the Barclay’s Center for eight years. A lot in the NEC has happened since then with 19 different head coaches passing through representing 13 teams. There have been six programs that were NEC regular season champions with four of those programs going on to represent the league in the NCAA tournament over that time span.
NEC Social Media Day at the Barclay’s has gone on so long that the first event in 2012 took place before the Brooklyn Nets ever played a regular season game in Brooklyn!
I had a whirlwind of a day last week interviewing 10 coaches and trying to gather up as much content as I could before the regular season tips off on November 5th. Allow me to organize my thoughts and reflections in one of my favorite posts: a recap of the NEC Social Media Day!
A Pioneer Push Up the Polls
Preseason polls mean absolutely zilch in the grand scheme of things. They merely serve as fodder for the fans and, for the bottom feeding teams, potential bulletin board material. These prognostications obviously have no bearing on the real standings, nor do they provide a program any type of advantage once the first jump ball goes up in November. That is all obvious.
The poll, however, does serve as a good measuring stick in determining how a program has progressed or declined over the past several years. We also can gain insight into which teams the coaches highly respect.
For Anthony Latina, it’s been a wild ride of peaks and valleys in his attempt to reboot Sacred Heart into an annual contender. Under Latina, the Pioneers have never been selected better than fifth in the NEC Coach’s Preaseason Poll and were the only program in that time frame failing to register a single first place vote prior to this preseason. Over the past six seasons, Sacred Heart has the worst average poll position with an average of 7.8.
AVG Poll Position
Total 1st Place Votes
Saint Francis U
That poll trend reversed mightily on Wednesday with the Pioneers getting selected as the second best team. They even got 3 first place votes for the first time in more than a decade!
For Latina, it’s been a complex route in getting Sacred Heart firmly onto the championship path. They seemed destined to compete annually, but then some high level contributors up-transferred, immediately halting the program’s progress. Now, after many long recruiting trips and sleepless nights, Latina finds his Pioneers in a position they quite frankly aren’t used to.
“It’s definitely a source of pride that we took some steps back and lost some guys prematurely and that we were able to recover.” Latina answered when asked if he’s prideful about Sacred Heart’s #2 poll position. “Without question, I take great pride in our program, but I take great pride not for me, but our players and for our school.”
The coach acknowledged the preseason polls are meaningless and that the hard work has yet to come. But he also fully understands his team is built to win-now even after graduating NEC all-conference first teamer Sean Hoehn. “We will be in a position to do something that no Sacred Heart team has ever done and if that’s not motivating, nothing will be,” he said.
Time will tell if the Pioneers put themselves in a position to win their first NEC tournament game since 2009 and make their first NEC tournament final since 2008.
A New Point Guard in Loretto
Recently, 6-8 forward Tyler Stewart was declared immediately eligible by the NCAA after playing just five games with Binghamton last season. His insertion into an already crowded frontcourt – Myles Thompson, Mark Flagg, Deivydas Kuzavas – may not seem like a big deal, but for Rob Krimmel Stewart’s ability to stretch the floor and provide versatility at three positions is a real positive for his 2019-20 roster.
“(He) gives us some more depth, and some length and experience too,” Krimmel answered when asked about Stewart’s insertion into the rotation. “It was a good jolt in the arm because it gives us another piece to the puzzle that we haven’t had. He’s a legit 6’8”; he can step out and shoot it, he can handle it…”
Krimmel confirmed Stewart’s presence firmly entrenches Keith Braxton as Saint Francis’ starting point guard moving forward. The days of featuring Braxton at the four in “small-ball” lineups are numbered. Instead, the Red Flash now can role out lineups out consisting of:
Scott Meredith, an off-the-ball guard/sharpshooter, and Stewart would be the next logical pieces off the bench with Ramir Dixon-Conover spelling Braxton at times to provide selflessness and defensive tenacity at the one. It’s a different look compared to the days of alpha male and shot creation extraordinaire Jamaal King running the point.
As a result, I’d expect the Red Flash’s pace to slow down. With good effective height in various positions, the defense can focus more on containment rather than turnover generation. Jamion Christian employed a similar philosophy in his third year at the Mount, as the utilization of Andy Smeathers, Will Miller, Greg Graves, Taylor Danaher and Kristijan Krajina at the wing and frontcourt positions led to the best defensive efficiency in the league. They were able to keep defenders in front and make them take tough shots over their length. Krimmel is hopeful his team will enjoy a similar effect.
Merrimack and Their Unique Defense Enters the Fray
Merrimack head coach Joey Gallo is no stranger to the NEC. The Merrimack alum (2004) served on Andy Toole’s bench as an assistant from 2012-2016, overseeing a program that won a collective 76 games and three postseason games (2 NIT and 1 NCAA tournament) in four seasons.
While Toole’s tutelage was no doubt a positive for Gallo’s growth as a coach, it was the attacking, 2-3 zone employed by Robert Morris during the 2014 and 2015 championship seasons that likely was most beneficial in guiding Gallo’s transition to Merrimack. Back in 2014, the Colonials were down to eight scholarship players and with a lack of depth, Toole and his coaching staff abandoned their relentless man-to-man scheme and went with the unconventional zone.
It worked wonders as the Colonials finished in the top three of the league in defensive efficiency and turnover rate at the conclusion of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In the latter season, the Colonials length and athleticism on the back end of the zone – Lucky Jones, Elijah Minnie and Rodney Pryor in particular – gave NEC opponents fits.
While Toole circled back to his man-to-man roots the following season, Gallo maintained a true appreciation for the zone after leaving for Merrimack. “He really enjoyed it, he liked teaching it and he thought it fit the personnel that they had,” Toole said when asked why he thought Gallo brought the zone defense to Merrimack. “So now he’s taking it on (at Merrimack) and trying to recruit off it and it’s certainly something that’s unique and different.”
In truth, Gallo was looking for a way to distinguish his team in a NE-10 league rife with man-to-man defense and motion offenses. He had just replaced a coach that was at Merrimack for an eternity and he simply was trying to make a mark in a return to his Alma mater. “It started off as we were going to play a little bit of both (man-to-man and zone) and it just kind of evolved from there. We had success with the (zone); it fit in to how this guy plays (looking at Juvaris Hayes), a lot of steals and created turnovers.”
Last season in the NE-10, Merrimack extracted an incredible 17.4 turnovers per game, leading to an average of 19.5 points scored off of those turnovers. It’s anyone’s guess how the zone will perform against Division I competition, but for now Gallo will take a fluid approach on a game to game basis.
“It forms the shape of what we’re playing against,” Gallo said when describing the versatility of his zone. There will be some games where he’ll plan to attack the perimeter and suppress 3-point shooting and others where the opponent’s frontcourt is the point of emphasis, resulting in crowding scorers and trapping the post if needed.
Robert Morris Back to Offensive Basketball
The UPMC Events Center will open this November for the first time, and Toole is hopeful the fans in attendance will be treated to something that’s eluded his program over the past few seasons: free-flowing, high-powered offensive basketball.
It’s been a grind of late for the Colonials in terms of scoring. Toole’s squad, decimated by transfers and early departures, found themselves routinely in the bottom quarter of the league in offensive efficiency over the past four seasons. That could change in Toole’s 10th season with the Williams brother and Charles Bain in the Robert Morris system for the past two-plus seasons.
Somewhat surprisingly, KenPom projects a step back for the Colonial offense, likely due to the departures of Malik Petteway and Matty McConnell, both of whom were efficient in their own way. What KenPom cannot predict, however, is the impact of incoming junior college transfers D.J. Russell, A.J. Bramah and Jalen Hawkins. The newcomers, according to Toole, should slot in as rotation guys and provide Robert Morris with something the program has sorely lacked of late: 2-point efficiency.
Of Russell and Bramah, Toole is excited to incorporate their talents into his rotation. “Both guys are capable of making a play for themselves or a teammate,” he said.
Overall, Toole is really looking forward to see the offense’s potential and hopes it take some of the onus off the other side of the ball. “I think we have some really good offensive pieces. I think there’s a good understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing.”
More Options in Year Two for Bryant
With a core four of Ikenna Ndugba, Adam Grant, Bash Townes and Juan Cardenas in place, Grasso is searching for the options behind those players. While it’s possible someone from the freshman trio of Charles Pride, Benson Lin and Michael Green could find the starting lineup, Grasso isn’t tipping his hand. “If you walked in to watch us practice you wouldn’t know they’re freshmen. And a lot of it is their intensity, the time they’re in the gym and how they work at their game, how they work at their craft is not at the level of your average freshman,” he said.
Bryant’s depth moving into Grasso’s second season is much improved, so much so that that Grasso is hopeful his team will push the tempo and play fast, aggressive and loose. It was a philosophy he had to abandon in the middle of last season, after Bryant lost their first nine games when they had 70 or more possessions in the game (they finished 1-13 in those games). With Ndugba back and more talent to choose from in year two, it’s fair to assume Grasso will attempt to push the pace.
New Look Sharks Going Small Ball?
It’s not easy being at the top from the start, and if that wasn’t hard enough, now Derek Kellogg must navigate the first half of the 2019-20 season without a key power forward.
LIU Sharks power forward Eral Penn is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his arm, per Derek Kellogg. He’ll apply for a medical redshirt if out for all of 2019-20, although nothing is final yet.
It’s an unfortunate injury for Penn, who by all accounts had a great summer and was poised to become one of the best two-way players in the NEC. Now, LIU’s depth constricts some, yet the talent remains to contend with the league’s best.
“I think it puts more onus on the guys that played already – the four stars coming back I don’t think they can take a night off.” Kellogg answered when asked what Penn’s injury does to his rotation. “I believe those guys have to be the cornerstones every time we step on the floor and I’m hopeful the other guys can chip in and do what they do as new guys.”
The core four Kellogg is referring to are preseason first teamer Raiquan Clark, Tyrn Flowers, Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts. The roles won’t change for the veteran group, although a return to a smaller lineup may benefit Flowers some.
“It slides Ty Flowers to the 4 quite a bit more where I think he’s probably more comfortable and more of a tough match-up, so in some regards we will be fine offensively,” Kellogg said.
The addition of transfer Virshon Cotton also provides Kellogg with an element that he covets. “I love our overall team speed. I love the fact that we have three even four guys on the floor that can handle the basketball at once. I think we come at you in different ways, especially on the offensive side of the floor. Then I also like we can pressure the ball at different positions, not just from the point guard spot.”
The thing to watch in the early going is LIU’s defense, as Penn was LIU’s best rim presence, registering a block rate of 7.4% (80th nationally). Penn’s versatility and athleticism will be missed, yet his absence won’t stop Kellogg to push the pace and score as much as humanly possible. It promises to be a fun brand of basketball at the WRAC.
Wagner’s Atiba Taylor was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA recently. The 6’4″ guard, who played sparingly last season at Youngstown State as a freshman, has three years remaining and figures to have an opportunity to make Bashir Mason’s rotation.
Mount St. Mary’s has been a little banged up this preseason, as the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Vado Morse admitted to nursing a knee injury for part of the summer. While he’s currently a full go in practice, red-shirt freshman Matt Becht (eye) and true freshman Ayan Teel (ankle) are out for the foreseeable future. Becht’s shooting and Teel’s floor general attributes were expected to bolster Dan Engelstad’s second unit, but getting healthy during the non-conference portion of the schedule remains the number one priority. Of the entire roster, Engelstad singled out Damian Chong-Qui, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene as players who’ve really improved their body and respective skill sets this offseason. (Check out this feature by Ryan Raffensperger on Chong-Qui)
Speaking of injuries, St. Francis Brooklyn sophomore guard Steven Krtinic has been banged up and hasn’t practiced with the team of late. It’s highly unlikely he’s ready for the start of the season, however freshman guard Rob Higgins has impressed according to his head coach. “Higgins has been terrific, he was great in our scrimmage the other day,” Glenn Braica said of Higgins, who scored more than 2,200 points for Middletown North in New Jersey. The 6’2″ combo guard was a late recruiting get for the Terriers after a scholarship opened up from Jalen Jordan’s transfer. It’s fair to expect a healthy dose of Chauncey Hawkins, grad transfer Unique Major (2 years of eligibility remaining) and Higgins in Braica’s backcourt.
Greg Herenda was noncommittal with which players would fill out his rotation behind the obvious foursome of Jahlil Jenkins, Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams and Xzavier Malone. “I think we’re still in that process,” he admitted. “This year’s team is deeper, faster, more athletic, but it’s younger.” The likeliest candidate to start alongside FDU’s “core four” is sophomore Brandon Powell, who serves as nice complement in that he excels at moving the ball and knocking down open shots. The versatile BJ Saliba and athletic Brandon Rush should also compete for time at the two and three.
It’s clearly a rebuilding season in New Britain, yet there’s reason for optimism with the talent Donyell Marshall has recruited in year four. While he continues to evaluate the freshmen – he did note Greg Outlaw as someone who’s played well this preseason and that translated to their recent exhibition – it’s junior college transfer Stephane Ayangma and returning sophomore Karrington Wallace that should anchor the Blue Devils’ better than advertised defense. Of Ayangma, Marshall said: “We thought he was just pretty much going to be a junkyard dog, just a rebounder, physical guy, (but) he’s definitely a lot better offensively than we thought.” Wallace’s maturation has been a pleasant surprise for Marshall as he’s been “blocking shots like crazy” this preseason. The frontcourt pair, along with established perimeter stopper Ian Krishnan and junior college transfer Zach Newkirk, allow Marshall to declare this squad the best defensive team he’s been a part of since his arrival at Central Connecticut. They gave up just 0.80 points per possession versus D3 opponent Coast Guard, which is a nice start.