Myriad NEC Tournament Thoughts: Evaluating Recent Performance and Players to Watch

Ah yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Playoff time. When every eligible team in the Northeast Conference has a dream to reel off 3 straight victories and go dancing. This season the league was loaded with parity, that is until Merrimack ripped through the conference during the month of February. 

Ron Ratner has you covered here and here, but on the NEC Overtime! Blog I’d like to share some thoughts, numbers and key players as well ahead of the much anticipated single elimination tournament. 

The Latest Performance Snapshot

To start, one exercise I like to perform prior to the NEC tournament is to take a snapshot of a team’s last 4 weeks of league play. Obviously, this is far from a foolproof way to determine who’s hot going into March, but surely we’ll be able to decipher who besides Merrimack comes in playing well. Just look at this 8-game data… oh my…

RecordPoint DiffOffense PPPDefense PPPPoss/Gm (NEC Rank)
Merrimack7-1+831.010.8669.9 (3)
Stonehill5-3+191.010.9766.5 (8)
FDU4-4+171.111.0869.8 (T-4)
SHU4-4+101.031.0170.4 (2)
SFU4-4-31.041.0469.4 (6)
Wagner4-4+60.980.9761.8 (9)
CCSU4-4-41.021.0367.4 (7)
SFBK4-4-160.940.9769.8 (T-4)
LIU1-7-850.901.0571.9 (1)

A few notes based off this data:

  • Merrimack is head and shoulders above the rest of the league currently. That’s obvious. The thing that struck me was not the 7-1 mark, but the Warriors’ increased tempo in the month of February. They went from playing their first 8 league games at a tempo of 63.1 possessions per game to 69.9 over its last eight NEC contests. Why? Gallo has given his underclassmen more offensive freedom in allowing them to attack with movement early in the shot clock, which has led to shorter possessions overall. It’s crystal clear that players like Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage are much more comfortable offensively than they were 2 or 3 months ago. All 3 players have at least a 10.0 increase in their KenPom offensive rating when going from non-conference competition to league play. It’s no wonder all three are typically logging at least 28 minutes per game these days. 
  • One reason the lower seeded Wagner and St. Francis Brooklyn programs could be dangerous is each team is for the most part defending at a high level. The Terriers attempt to drive opponents off the 3-point line (26.8 3PA/FGA defensively, 1st in NEC) and reject shots around the basket (11.7% block rate, 1st in NEC). Armed with the league’s second best adjusted defensive efficiency in NEC play, Wagner does well to extract turnovers and keep opponents away from the offensive glass (24.6% defensive rebounding rate, 1st in NEC) in order to limit second chance opportunities. Defense travels! 
  • Sacred Heart has done a respectable job defending amid all of their injuries and a shortened rotation. With Nico Galette less than 100 percent – he admitted to Ron and I in the last On The Run Pod that he’s dealt with a pulled groin and lower back issues throughout the season – and Brendan McGuire presumably done for the season with a nagging hamstring injury, Anthony Latina must ride Kenny Womack a little more than anyone originally envisioned (more on him below). When the Pioneers hold opponents to under 1 point per possession, they are 8-3 on the season. 
  • CCSU is 3-8 this season with games decided by 2 possessions or less. It’s been a major problem for Pat Sellers’ group, but recently they’ve done better closing out strong in the final minutes with their 3OT thriller over Stonehill and tight road victory versus FDU illustrating progress. The regular season finale loss to Sacred Heart was a hiccup for the Blue Devils however, as CCSU struggled to keep the Pioneers off the free throw line while missing some critical charity stripe attempts down the stretch.

Which Coach Will Rise to the Top?

This will be the most inexperienced field with respect to the head coaches competing in the NEC tournament. Only four coaches have led their teams in this playoff format, while four others come in with a record of 0-0. 

  1. Rob Krimmel, 8-8
  2. Pat Sellers, 1-1
  3. Glenn Braica, 2-10
  4. Anthony Latina, 1-7
  5. Tobin Anderson/Donald Copeland/Joe Gallo/Rod Strickland, 0-0

It’s been a struggle in the single elimination format for Braica and Latina for various reasons. Braica got his two victories during St. Francis Brooklyn’s magical 2014-15 run that fell one possession short against Robert Morris in the final. While Latina has positioned his team well with respect to NEC tournament seeding – the Pioneers have earned a top 4 seed in 4 of the last 5 tournaments – the long-time head coach only has one playoff victory to show for it – a 61-59 squeaker over Mount St. Mary’s in 2020. Can either coach exercise those demons despite trotting out rosters that have been ravaged by injuries?

Copeland and Strickland may be new to this as head coaches, but Anderson and Gallo have demonstrated success in these formats when they led winning Division 2 programs. Gallo was 4-2 with one tournament championship in 3 seasons at Merrimack when the program was a NE-10 member, while Anderson won 6 East Coast Conference tournament championships and twice was the runner-up in 9 remarkable seasons at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Neither Gallo nor Anderson will be phased by the newness of the NEC tournament. 

Key Players to Watch

We already know the superstars of these NEC rosters. In this segment, I’m more looking at guys that mostly hover under the radar (with the possible exception of the first player listed). These are four student athletes that possibly have the power to advance their team into the next round of the conference tournament.

Maxwell Land, Saint Francis – It wasn’t a seamless non-conference season for Land, but the Red Flash guard has rebounded nicely against league competition to post a career high in KenPom offensive rating (108.9) fueled by a true shooting percentage of 55% that’s tenth among all NEC players. The absence of dynamic freshman Landon Moore has forced Rob Krimmel to play Land more than 80% of the team’s minutes over the past 2 months, and for the most part the junior has delivered with Land serving as the Robin to Josh Cohen’s Batman. When he plays well, Saint Francis does well as these splits illustrate:

–        In 9 SFU wins: 16.4 ppg, 51.4% 2PT, 48.6% 3PT, 1.4 A/TO

–        In 7 SFU losses: 10.3 ppg, 44.7% 2PT, 28.2% 3PT, 1.0 A/TO

If Moore does return from a finger injury for a quarterfinal showdown versus CCSU, expectations should be tempered given his absence over the past 12 games. With Ronell Giles exhibiting inconsistency off of last season’s knee surgery and a tough ankle sprain in November, a lot of the Red Flash’s hopes may hinge on Land’s performance in NEC tournament whether that’s fair or unfair. If the lefty gives Krimmel efficiency with an ability to score anywhere on the floor, then SFU has a chance to go dancing.

Devon Savage, Merrimack – Who’s the best 3-point shooter in the Northeast Conference? If you said Savage, then you are paying attention as the James Madison transfer has been a godsend for a Merrimack team that really struggled to make open shots in the first half of the year. Over the team’s past 3 games – all wins – Savage is on an incredible run, converting 16 of 25 (64%) of his long distance attempts, with 15 of those makes coming from an assist. Not only that, Savage has picked up Gallo’s zone incredibly well, posting the 4th best steal rate (4.0%) and 9th best block rate (2.6%). He’s the true epitome of a ‘3 and D’ player, a categorization we as fans often over use. With Savage however, this classification is apt. And if the defense doesn’t account for where Savage resides on the perimeter at all times – the sophomore has made 43% of his unguarded catch-and-shoot takes this season according to Synergy – knocking off the Warriors in their home confines could be next to impossible. Pick your poison: defend Jordan Minor one-on-one in the post, or double him and risk the ball finding its way to Savage in the corner.

Kenneth Womack, Sacred Heart – With Brendan McGuire reaggravating his hamstring injury in the team’s regular season finale, Womack will once again be asked to absorb the backup point guard duties for Sacred Heart. It’s a small sample, but the football wide receiver and basketball walk-on has done incredibly well filling the backcourt void. Per Hoop Explorer, the Pioneers are scoring 7.8 points per 100 possessions more and allowing 4.8 points per 100 possessions less when Womack is on the floor (for full transparency, it’s 231 possessions on, 1,810 possessions off). His 15-point, 8-assist breakout in a critical overtime win versus FDU was likely an outlier, yet his productive minutes down the stretch versus CCSU illustrates the trust Anthony Latina has in the athletic guard. His crafty finish in the paint with 5:26 remaining and his 2 free throws in the closing seconds of a one-possession game show Womack is ready to embrace the challenge of possibly becoming the most unlikely contributor on a team in the NEC tournament’s top four.

Davonte Sweatman, CCSU – Here’s a fun fact for Blue Devil fans when Sweatman is providing an efficient spark off the bench – CCSU is 6-2 in league play when he posts an offensive rating better than average (100.0). In those contests, the shortest player in the Northeast Conference is shooting 53% from the floor while taking care of the basketball fairly well (8 turnovers in 8 games). It’s clear Sellers trusts him given his crunch time minutes of late as well. If he can provide a spark in the NEC tournament quarterfinal at Saint Francis, the Blue Devils have a real opportunity to steal one in Loretto. In Sweatman’s last game versus the Red Flash, the sophomore poured in 20 points on 10 shots while compiling 5 boards and 4 assists. The playmaking Sweatman is a wildcard for sure.

Enjoy the tournament! 

From STAC to Hackensack: FDU’s Demetre Roberts Levels Up

Credit: Larry Levanti

Demetre Roberts was ready to give it another go. After weeks of deliberation with family, friends and coaches, Roberts decided that the pros outweighed the cons for returning to St. Thomas Aquinas College for a fifth season. Despite accomplishing seemingly all there was to accomplish at the individual and team level, the ECC all-conference first teamer was poised for more. A Final Four appearance. Maybe a legitimate run at the Division II national championship. But most importantly, it was a personal goal that drove his decision making process to stick around.

“I think the ultimate goal for me was getting my Masters (degree),” Roberts said when asked for his reasons for why he decided to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as STAC, for the 2022-23 season. “In my family I’m the first one to achieve that goal, so I think that played a part in why I decided to stay at STAC.”

This all could’ve been part of Roberts’ fairy tale ending – right now he may have been in the midst of yet another 25-win season and would soon help STAC embark on another deep run in the Division II NCAA Tournament. It was set up that way, that is until the head coaching position at FDU opened up a few weeks later. And then all hell broke loose when then-STAC head coach Tobin Anderson accepted the job. 

“We’re going to be great next year (at STAC), we’re all fired up and then this whole thing happened,” Anderson explained. “For me personally and professionally if I don’t take this job that might be it. They don’t hire Division II coaches, they don’t do it.”

Both Roberts and his equally successful teammate Grant Singleton fully understood their coach’s reasoning for jumping at the once in a lifetime opportunity. For Anderson, it was a chance to prove himself at a quality Division I school close to home. But that didn’t make it any easier for Roberts and Singleton to digest and assess their current plight. 

“It was a big shocker, it just came out of nowhere but I wouldn’t lie, it definitely took a big hit on me,” Roberts admitted. 

After the news of Anderson’s hiring reached the team via social media prior to the coach meeting with them – the media leak was something that irked Anderson a little – Roberts, Singleton and Anderson huddled together after the team meeting. Anderson was about to leave for his Division I opportunity, although he had some unfinished business at STAC. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

“I told them ‘I love you no matter what. You don’t have to come (to FDU), but there’s an opportunity for you at Division I,” Anderson said to them in the impromptu and ultimately awkward meeting. 

For Singleton, it didn’t take long to decide that following his coach was in his best interest. “I needed a little bit of time to think about it, talk it over with my family,” the fifth year shooting guard said of the process. “It was an easier decision than I thought when I came to visit FDU, just being in the same system, better facility…”

Unlike his close friend and longtime teammate, Roberts needed more time to contemplate his options. If he was going with Anderson, a couple of weeks to figure things out were a must.

Eventually, the deliberate and thoughtful Roberts was on board. “I think the good part about that (situation) was he had the opportunity to bring us with him, so I think that kind of cooled everything down,” he said. 

The lightning quick point guard has never been one to make a rash decision. Back in high school at Mount Vernon, Anderson offered the dynamic, yet diminutive floor general as a junior despite the overall lack of interest in the 5’8” guard’s services. Back then, it really only was STAC and Division II counterpart LIU Post that offered Roberts, but nevertheless a lengthy waiting game ensued. 

“I recruited him all through his senior year and literally, he’ll tell you this too, he would not return (my texts and calls),” Anderson said with a smile of the arduous recruiting effort to sign Roberts. “I would text him 50 times for every time he returned my text, he would never return a text.”

Roberts was playing tough to get mainly for his wish to eventually garner some Division I interest. That interest never came, and soon after it was Mount Vernon head coach Bob Cimmino assuring Anderson that Roberts would eventually come around. It was late in the senior’s season, and Anderson decided to visit Roberts and his team during a state semifinal playoff game. At the time, Anderson was preparing to interview for a head coaching position at another school, and he felt confident he’d get the job and leave STAC. Despite this, he decided to attend Roberts’ game and keep his commitment to the high motored point guard. It was 12-plus months of recruiting up to that point, what was another weekend in the grand scheme of things?

The encounter turned out to be a positive for both parties, and after the job opportunity unexpectedly fell through, Anderson was told by Cimmino that Roberts was ready to visit STAC. The rest, of course, is history with a marriage between coach and player that has been greatly fruitful for both sides. The proof is in the pudding with 96 wins in four seasons and several Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances at STAC. 

“He wants to play professionally, so for a guy like his size and his background he’s going to have to be the hardest working guy, the toughest guy and that’s what he is,” Anderson says of his guard who’s now logged 129 career games, all with the long-time head coach. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

Now with FDU sitting at a perfect 5-0 in Northeast Conference league play, the transition from Division II to Division I hasn’t been much of an adjustment, if at all. The confident, yet humble Roberts isn’t shy to admit this. 

“I think it’s more fast paced in the NEC than the ECC, (but) we’re all basketball players, I feel like it’s the same competition,” Roberts said of the adjustment to Division I. “You just go out there and play basketball, everything else will just take care of itself.”

With more than a half of a Division I season logged, Roberts game is taking care of itself as the graduate senior finds himself third in scoring (17.0 ppg), first in assists (4.1 apg), sixth in free throw percentage (78.0%) and fifth overall in KenPom’s “Northeast Conference” rank among all NEC players. His explosive ability to score, facilitate and cause mayhem, all while staying perfectly in control – his 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is also 5th in the league – has all of the opposing coaches on notice.

“He’s got a little (former UConn guard) Shabazz Napier in him because he has the ball on a string, he puts you on his heels with the dribble and he can shoot it from deep,” Central Connecticut State coach Pat Sellers said of Roberts, who scored 18 points on 10 shots in FDU’s recent road victory over the Blue Devils. “And he’s really quick, he’s quick and he’s a tough kid.”

With roughly six weeks to go in the regular season, Roberts still has a final chapter to write in his collegiate career. One thing is for sure though, he’ll always cherish what Anderson has given him on the hardwood. 

“He’ll risk it all just for us to succeed,” Roberts said of Anderson. “He’s a gritty coach who wants the best out of his players. Everyday he’s going to push us, obviously he’s doing it just to get positive outcomes.”

A Historical Look at Other Division II Transfers Who’ve Impacting the NEC

Given the immediate successes of Roberts and Singleton as Division II transplants, and others such as Stonehill’s Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and Max Zegarowski, I wanted to take a historic look at previous Northeast Conference mainstays who were Division II transfers. Credit to NEC diehard Matt Mauro for piquing my interest on the topic:

After polling a few people, it’s clear that the Division II transfer list is decidedly small, as until recently the vast majority of dominant transfers have either come from other Division I institutions or the junior college ranks. But allow me to mine through the few impactful Division II transfers to illustrate the ones who were most successful at playing basketball in the conference.

Jare’l Spellman, Sacred Heart

Anthony Latina’s recruitment of Spellman from Division II Florida Southern went a bit under the radar, yet the 6’10” center’s impact was immediate the moment he stepped on the floor against Division I competition. He may have been lanky, yet that didn’t stop his tenacious effort at protecting the rim at an elite level. Spellman collected a school record 183 rejections and corralled 160 offensive rebounds in just 2 seasons, and it was his first season (11.9% block rate, 12th in D1) that led to a deserving NEC Defensive Player of the Year selection. Alongside rugged double double machine E.J. Anosike, the Pioneers boasted one of the most imposing 2-way frontcourts, with the duo mainly responsible for a Sacred Heart defensive efficiency that rose to the league’s top 3 during the 2019-20 campaign. 

Raekwon Rogers, Wagner

The pieces of contention were in place for Bashir Mason’s Seahawks going into the 2021 offseason, yet it was the astute recruitment and signing of Rogers, a Henderson College standout, that served as the final piece to Wagner’s puzzle in a league rife with accomplished 4th and 5th year players. Rogers, a graduate senior himself, was just what the doctor ordered for the Seahawks – he served as a stout, efficient and at times athletic post presence who embraced the physicality of being a NEC five-man. On a team loaded with stars such as Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez, it was Rogers among the Wagner regulars who led the team in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), offensive rebounding rate (12.7%) and 2-point field goal percentage (60.4%), leading to an all-conference third team selection in his lone year on Grymes Hill.

Tedrick Wilcox, St. Francis Brooklyn

Glenn Braica has been a champion of ushering in ready-to-contribute transfers for several years running, but Wilcox was Braica’s first real Division II signee who’s produced at an above average level. Currently, Wilcox sits inside Bart Torvik’s top 20 NEC players with respect to the replacement value metric PORPAGATU!, and it’s with good reason. Wilcox burst onto the scene last season at St. John’s with 19 points and 5 made triples, and since then the swingman has cast himself as the perfect blend of shotmaking, versatility and toughness to man the 3/4 position on the floor. He’s accepted the mantle of being St. Francis Brooklyn’s leading scorer over the past 3 contests, posting a combined plus/minus of +17 while scoring 1.27 points per possession per Synergy. The former Dominican College stud has all-conference upside, and he’s certainly flashing that now.

John Bunch, Monmouth

This one goes way back, but at 7-foot-2 and 320 pounds Bunch was surely memorable as a center in Dave Calloway’s attack. Much like Spellman, Bunch used his size and instincts to his advantage on the defensive end, swatting away and altering shots like none other in his time. During his senior year in 2006-07, Bunch registered the third highest block rate in the country at 17.6% and that was after posting a 16.2% block rate as a red-shirt junior. At Lincoln University, his prior stop before Monmouth, Bunch averaged a dominant 13 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks per game, while breaking the NCAA record for most blocks in a game with (get this) 18 rejections! To no one’s surprise, he also finished his senior campaign as a Hawk nationally ranked in offensive and defensive rebounding rate.

Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack

I saved the best for last, even though Hayes technically wasn’t a program transfer having spent his entire collegiate career under the tutelage of Joe Gallo at Merrimack. He did however, much like Sims and Burnett at Stonehill after him, transfer to the Division I level with the Warriors reclassification to the Northeast Conference, and did he ever dominate in his lone year. Not only did he eventually break the NCAA’s career record for steals at 457 thefts, but he also earned a spot on the NEC’s all-conference first team as well as become the league’s defensive player of the year with a league leading 121 steals and a NCAA Division I leading steal rate of 6.5%. His impact offensively was impressive as well with a 38% assist rate (12th in D1) and 19 games cracking the double digit threshold in scoring. Can someone please arrange a one-on-one contest between Hayes and Demetre Roberts, pretty please?

An Analytics Driven Breakdown of the NEC’s Non-Conference Season – Part 2

Photo: Larry Levanti

In the first part of my non-conference breakdown and look ahead for the NEC, I summarized the bottom 4 teams in the table below with respect to Bart Torvik’s regular season odd. For Part 1, go here.

Now, I will offer my analysis on the next 5 teams and how I feel they stack up when league play begins this week.

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

St. Francis Brooklyn

Non-Conference Summary: The Terriers have quietly put together a productive non-conference season, winning four games they were supposed to win (Saint Peter’s, Delaware State, Hartford twice), while staying competitive against mid-major teams in UMass Lowell (KenPom #116) and Longwood (KenPom #150) that could be considered favorites to get an auto-bid berth to the NCAA tournament through their respective conferences. Per Synergy, Glenn Braica’s group currently leads the league with a 0.84 ppp defensive mark, as they’ve been effective in holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 45% in half-court opportunities, putting them in the top 73 percentile in college basketball. To no one’s surprise, a tenacious effort on the perimeter has led the sixth best defensive three-point rate nationally (26.5 3PA/FGA) thereby forcing opponents to beat them inside the arc, where the Terriers have rejected 10.9% of their opponent’s shots (83rd in D1). This team is defending at a much higher level compared to last season, that much is evident through 12 games.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: A wild comeback at home versus Saint Peter’s qualifies as the Terriers’ best performance, as the team outscored the Peacocks 8-0 over the final 2 minutes to execute the come-from-behind victory. At one point, Saint Peter’s possessed a 90% probability to secure the win according to KenPom, but St. Francis’ resolve pushed them to the finish line in its last game at the Pope Center. Once again, the defense shined through with a 0.85 ppp effort, buoyed by holding Saint Peter’s to 31% shooting inside the arc and a splendid 0.24 A/TO. Winning ugly with defense has always been Braica’s calling card when St. Francis is firing on all cylinders, and his team’s triumph that November evening versus a MAAC rival was yet another example of that.

What St. Francis Brooklyn Needs to Do to Succeed: While the defensive profile looks promising, the Terriers could benefit with more offensive efficiency in the half court. Only three times against Division I competition have they scored at least 1.00 ppp in a game, and all three instances were against teams in KenPom bottom 10 of adjusted defensive efficiency. Much of the team’s inefficiency has been due to the Terriers’ reliance on jump shots, as they account for 50% of the team’s total takes. It’s one thing to rely on catch-and-shoot jumpers (good), but St. Francis at times has fallen in love with off-the-dribble shots (mainly bad), posting a 38% eFG on 109 “dribble jumper” attempts per Synergy. If you consider the team’s improvement when taking shots in rhythm (47% eFG on 195 attempts), it certainly would behoove Braica’s squad to shy away from isolation basketball and share the rock as much as possible. Currently, the team is 273rd nationally in assists per field goals made at 48%, and only two players (Rob Higgins at 22.2% and Tedrick Wilcox at 20.7%) have assist rates north of 20%. As a small ball 4-man, I’d expect Wilcox (93.1 offensive rating compared to 104.5 last season) to heat up against the smaller frontcourts of the NEC, and an efficiency bump would be a welcome site for Terrier fans.

If there’s one thing to nitpick with the defense, it’s that St. Francis has struggled to keep opponents off the offensive glass. In a 2 possession defeat versus Longwood for example, the Terriers allowed the Lancers to collect 14 offensive rebounds for a 40% offensive rebounding rate. In tight games going down to the wire, limiting second chance opportunities could be the difference between going 8-8 (5 or 6 seed?) or 10-6 (3 or 4 seed?) in league play. 


Non-Conference Summary: All Tobin Anderson has done in his first non-conference season with FDU was re-establish the Knights as a credible NEC contender, and that’s despite inheriting just five scholarship players from last season’s 4-win roster and getting the gig fairly deep into the spring. With a mostly turned over roster, everyone was put on blast on opening night when FDU was merely one more defensive stop away from pulling off an Atlantic 10 upset at Loyola Chicago. Anderson’s Knights continued their heartbreak tour despite experiencing heartbreak of their own in the first loss, beating Manhattan, VMI, and thoroughly bludgeoning another Atlantic 10 opponent in Saint Joseph’s (more on that later). Through it all, the offense has been the driving force, besting the league in points per possession at 0.92. Their green status on KenPom’s page in turnover rate on both ends (16.8% TO rate offensively, 21.5% TO rate defensively) has also allowed them to reel off six victories, as FDU continues to win a turnover margin battle on a game-by-game basis that Anderson holds near and dear.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Despite coming into Saint Joseph’s as a 16-point underdog per KenPom, the Knights flipped the script with a 12-1 run (kill shot!) late to give the NEC another impressive road victory after downing the Hawks, 97-80. Anderson’s reliable and heavily leaned upon threesome of Grant Singleton, Demetre Roberts and Ansley Almonor combined for 69 points, achieving this production on a startling 35 field goal attempts. The turnover margin battle was won (+6), as was the rebounding margin at +2 despite the smallish Knight rotation. And in all, it was an offensive masterpiece, with shooting percentages of 63% 2PT, 50% 3PT and 81% FT.

What FDU Needs to Do to Succeed: Improving the defense is the obvious answer, as in many ways it’s been turnovers or bust when it comes to FDU stopping their opponents to score. Knight opponents have shot 60.4% from inside the arc, and have had success filling it up from deep with a 36% conversion rate on 3-point attempts. Most of this, to Anderson’s admitting, is the Knight’s small lineup and their aggression in the backcourt when trying to generate live-ball turnovers. It’s something Anderson and his staff will focus on when NEC play commences this week, as an adjusted defensive efficiency of 114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions isn’t sustainable for long-term success (just ask Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart last year). Nevertheless, if FDU can get to the 108.0 adjusted DEff level strictly in league play, the offense and positive turnover margins can absolutely be a recipe for success.

Health is also paramount, as slashing guard Heru Bligen has missed the past 5 games as he works his way back from a concussion. Bligen currently is second among league mates with a 1.21 ppp mark, and bests all players with a 65% field goal percentage. Joe Munden, Jr. also recently missed time due to a concussion, but since returning he’s been fantastic in Anderson’s schemes, posting a career high 2PT percentage of 59% in a small sample of 7 games. Depth is important for most teams, but it’s especially critical for an Anderson led up-tempo attack that hangs its hat on frenetic full-court pressing and getting up the floor off opponent miscues. If he doesn’t have 8 to 9 guys he can trust outside of the Roberts/Singleton/Bligen/Almonor/Munden grouping, then tired legs will have a brutal time keeping NEC offenses at bay down the stretch in tightly contested games.

Saint Francis U

Non-Conference Summary: From a wins and losses standpoint, this veteran Red Flash group underachieved throughout November and December, logging just one Division I victory in 11 games and dropping 24 spots in KenPom’s rankings since the season opener.  They were competitive at various points throughout the non-conference season however, especially in guarantee match-ups, hanging around at Miami, St. Bonaventure and Hawaii before letting those games get away in the second half. It’s somewhat of an oddity when highlighting the disparity between Saint Francis’ first and second half scoring margins, as the Red Flash sit at -4 points in the first half in all of its Division I contests, while the margin negatively balloons to -131 points for the second half! Krimmel’s group has been in every game through 20 minutes for the most part, and yet only twice have they matched or beaten an opponent’s scoring output in the second half. Perhaps better depth in January and February could quell this disparity.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: It’s time to put an individual player in this category, as it’s been an incredible first half for Josh Cohen. The big man has cracked the 20-point barrier six times this season, while pouring in 98 combined points (on 58 shots!) versus Hawaii, Miami (FL) and Robert Morris in Saint Francis’ last three contests. He currently sits in the top 98 percentile in half court offense according to Synergy, registering a ppp mark of 1.25. He’s made 71% of his takes at the rim, converted 59% of his post-ups and leads the NEC in “and 1s” with 18. Quite literally, the junior has been unstoppable versus low mid-major, regular mid-majors and even high-majors opponents, but unfortunately his play hasn’t led to a sustained run of the Red Flash winning games. Nevertheless, he’s the early frontrunner for NEC Player of the Year due to his sheer dominance at playing basketball.

What Saint Francis Needs to Do to Succeed: It’s never fair to pin a team’s playoff hopes on one player, but Ronell Giles is so important to Saint Francis’ future success. An early injury at St. Bonaventure didn’t help things, as the junior proceeded to miss the next 8 games before finally coming back from a bad ankle. It’s taken some time for the playmaker to get back into a rhythm, but scoring a season high 12 points on 10 shots last time out versus Robert Morris is surely a welcome sign. Maxwell Land has struggled with his outside shot (27% 3PT) and that combined with an increased turnover rate of 18% (it was 12.8% last season) has sunk Land’s efficiency at the moment. Other veterans such as Marlon Hargis and Brad McCabe have underperformed relative to expectations as well, but I’d like to think that Giles insertion into the rotation will eventually elevate Saint Francis’ overall play. 

One thing I’m certainly optimistic about: Landon Moore (103.4 offensive rating) and Wisler Sanon (116.2 offensive rating) have impressed as rookies and filled vital holes that were evident this preseason. Sanon is third on the team with a 1.14 ppp mark and 62% eFG per Synergy, whereas Moore has steadied the ship with respect to the point guard position. If the veterans can eventually elevate their game, Krimmel has a very solid 7 to 8-man rotation ready for deployment in NEC play. Much of this is fueled by Cohen’s excellence, but Saint Francis does have the second best adjusted offensive efficiency in the league at 97.9 points per 100 possessions. If the team can start making outside shots (34% eFG on jumpers inside of 17 feet and 25% eFG on jumpers between 17 feet and the 3-point line via Synergy), then I love the prospects of this offense with Cohen as the obvious focal point. 

One last thing: for Saint Francis to return as a NEC contender, they’ll need to protect their home court in Loretto. Over the past 2-plus seasons, the Red Flash are just 8-17 in their friendly confines, a far cry from their once dominant days during a four year run from 2017-2020. 

Sacred Heart

Non-Conference Summary: It was a mixed bag in the non-conference for Sacred Heart with victories against teams they were supposed to beat, but losses where they failed to put it together for 40 total minutes. The Fairfield loss was especially cruel; the Pioneers seized control in the second half before going the final 3-plus minutes without scoring, and thereby allowing Celeb Fields to snatch victory from a game where Fairfield had a 18% probability to win just minutes early. Despite that gut punch and a -16 scoring differential in a second half at Stony Brook, five Division I wins are… well five Division I wins.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: Sacred Heart’s win at Binghamton raised my eyebrows, not because of the double-digit victory on the road, but because the team turned in its best defensive performance since the days of starting rim-protector Jare’l Spellman and elite rebounder E.J. Anosike in its frontcourt. Bart Torvik’s Game Score took notice as well, issuing a season high Game Score of 62 with the Pioneers allowing just 0.87 ppp to Binghamton. It was the type of inspired defensive effort that Latina implored his team to take part in for what seems like seasons, as last year the Pioneers had one of the worst adjusted defensive efficiencies in all of Division I. Now, they stand at a more respectable adjusted defensive efficiency of 107.9, which is a stark improvement from a 115.5 mark in 2021-22.

What Sacred Heart Needs to Do to Succeed: Injuries have been mostly a problem for everyone, yet Anthony Latina has only had his full rotation available to him for exactly the first 20 minutes of the season at Hartford. While it’s presumed everyone, including Aidan Carpenter and Brandan McGuire, will be readily available in their conference opener opposite of Stonehill, they won’t have had a chance to hone their chemistry in game action before the real season starts.

While Latina is comfortable with his offense especially with McGuire back facilitating, it hasn’t been a seamless transition from a pick-and-roll heavy attack spearheaded by Aaron Clarke and Tyler Thomas to a ball motion offense dictated by selflessness and dribble drive penetration. The McGuire and Carpenter absences have been mainly responsible, yet the Pioneers will need more consistency out of their do-everything forward Nico Galette. The junior has been consistent in reaching double figures in scoring every game, yet an increased possession rate of 27% (186th nationally) in year three has predictably led to poorer efficiency in various facets of his game. Could the inefficiency wane now that the Pioneers are finally healthy and playing against similar sized frontcourts? That’s certainly logical, but nevertheless Galette needs to somehow finish better in transition (66% FG in 2021-22 versus 49% FG in 2022-23) and when spotting up (35% FG in 2021-22 versus 32% FG in 2022-23) to give Sacred Heart a chance to compete for its first regular season title in NEC history. 


Non-Conference Summary: No team has illustrated as much consistency in the first half of the season as Wagner, as Donald Copeland has fully embraced the identity Wagner has been known for under Bashir Mason: scoring balance, a tenacious defensive effort, and an ability to punish opponents for their mistakes. The win at Temple was a statement from the get-go, but Wagner’s true resolve may have come out a mere two days later in a defeat at La Salle, where the Seahawks took a pounding in the first half (-15 scoring differential through 12 minutes) only to impressively storm back to close La Salle’s gap to 4 points right after the final TV timeout of the second half. That resolve stuck versus Fairfield (more on that soon) and in ugly, yet hard fought victories late over NJIT, Stony Brook and Delaware State. Really, there’s no disputing that Wagner had the best non-conference season.

Photo: Larry Levanti

Best Performance: In a game considered a coin flip by KenPom prior to the opening tip (Wagner was a 56% favorite), the Seahawks outscored the Stags 37-23 in the opening half, never letting Jay Young’s group believe there was ever a realistic chance of victory. A late Stags “kill shot” (10-0 run) made the game somewhat interesting late, but as has been the case all non-conference season, Wagner closed out the contest by scoring in 9 of its final 11 possessions. The defense held Fairfield to 0.85 ppp and a 0.70 A/TO, forcing a desperate team to wait for their first Division I victory of the young season. 

What Wagner Needs to Do to Succeed: With the non-conference season going according to Copeland’s plan for the most part, who am I to critique Wagner’s next steps to yet another NEC regular season crown? Mason in his 10 seasons has finished in the league’s top 2 six times, and Copeland’s team has put themselves in position to at least get off to a quick start. The team is wonderfully balanced with nine players averaging between 5.3 and 11.8 ppg. While that scoring delegation illustrates the players’ willingness to sacrifice personal stats for the betterment of the team, I’d like to see the backcourt of DeLonnie Hunt and Zaire Williams start to assert themselves more often than not.

Hunt has already popped the 13-point threshold six times this season – Wagner is 5-1 when this occurs – yet Williams has struggled to get into a shooting rhythm since returning from a knee injury that cost him three games in November. Thus far the dynamic sophomore has shot just 21% on his jump shots per Synergy, so getting out in transition and downhill in the half court could be the best elixir for Williams as he attempts to break out of his shooting slump. A career 63% conversion rate on shots near the rim shouldn’t be ignored just because Williams is desperate to help stretch the opponents’ defense. An inside/out approach could pay dividends, especially if Javy Ezquerra (43% 3PT) and Jahbril Price-Noel (49% 3PT) continue to light it up from deep. 

And there is Wagner’s proclivity to foul (51.5 FTA/FGA, 360th nationally) that usually gives opponents a decided edge per game at the charity stripe. Despite the excess hacking, Copeland isn’t at all concerned with the fouling, and to be fair Wagner’s intensity would likely wane if they weren’t putting opponents into the bonus by the second to last TV timeout of each half. Nonetheless it’s something to watch, especially in games that go down to the wire.

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.

The Anatomy of an Upset – Wagner Does It Again in November, Beating Temple on Opening Night

Wagner’s Delonnie Hunt (Credit: Max Rottenecker, WC)

It doesn’t matter who the coach is, Wagner just knows how to ruin a team’s evening in November. 

Last November it was VCU that Wagner disappointed in a hard-nosed, physical victory in Richmond, Virginia. VCU finished the season at 63 in KenPom’s rankings, en route to an impressive 14-4 campaign in the Atlantic 10. The win was a big deal, leading to Bashir Mason showing off his physique in an emotional postgame celebration. 

Nearly 12 months later to the day, AAC foe Temple was the latest Wagner victim, falling in overtime 76-73 on opening night. This time, it was Mason’s long-time friend and former assistant coach wrecking the evening for a high mid-major program.

Donald Copeland, welcome to the big time!

The victory was the fourth time in 7+ seasons that Wagner has knocked off an Atlantic 10 or AAC opponent against long odds. I have a feeling scheduling these guarantee games will only get harder and harder for Wagner next offseason.

OpponentDateKenPom Odds PregameResult
St. Bonaventure (NIT 1st round)03/16/201612.0%Wagner, 79-75
Connecticut11/11/20165.6%Wagner, 67-58
VCU11/13/202116.6%Wagner, 58-44
Temple11/7/20227.0%Wagner, 76-73 OT

While the pregame odds were set at 7.0% for Wagner, they were even longer deep into the second half on Monday night. Temple held a 99.5% chance of victory when leading 57-42 with just under eight minutes remaining in the contest. It’s incredibly early in the 2022-23 season, but that makes Wagner the most improbable win thus far according to KenPom.

What went right for Wagner in yet another upset? Let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. Defense and Toughness

On a Wagner squad that graduated its top four scorers from a veteran heavy 2021-22 roster, there were a number of question marks going into Copeland’s inaugural season. One thing that never was in question however was Copeland’s full embrace of defense and toughness. It’s a mentality that Dan Hurley and Mason made part of the Wagner fabric several years ago, and it’s something Copeland wisely intended to carry on.

Wagner lived up to its billing in that respect, out rebounding a much bigger Temple squad 37 to 35. They corralled 12 offensive rebounds for a solid 31.6% offensive rebounding rate. And that was without their senior center Ja’Mier Fletcher, forcing Copeland to rely on sophomore Rob Taylor to score 6 points, grab a career high 7 rebounds, and draw a critical charge early in overtime in 35 minutes. Think about this: Taylor didn’t compile 35 minutes as a freshman last season until he played in Wagner’s 18th game – 1 minute in a February 5 victory over LIU!

Arkansas Pine Bluff transfer Brandon Brown (6’5”) and Saint Joseph’s transfer Rahmir Moore (6’3”) also impressed off the glass, registering 11 and 7 rebounds, respectively. And that was despite Temple having five players at 6’7” or taller as part of their eight-man rotation.

Physicality surely wasn’t an issue despite Temple’s superior length, and nor was defense down the stretch. In the overtime period, Temple was held to 4 points on 9 possessions in the extra stanza (0.44 points per possession), many times settling for tough, contested shots that didn’t fall. Wagner’s ability to keep Temple off the board when it mattered most helped when the Seahawks struggled to score, as the team came up empty in their first three possessions before a Taylor lay-up gave Wagner a 71-69 lead in overtime.

  1. A Next Man Up Mentality

Taylor’s aforementioned contributions were huge, yet he was hardly alone in stepping up for Copeland and company. In order for the Seahawks to be victorious they needed offensive balance, and they got that tonight with a next man up mentality. DeLonnie Hunt, Zaire Williams and Rahmir Moore chipped in for 48 combined points. Williams matched his career high with 16 points, while Hunt continued the positive momentum from his late season accomplishments in 2021-22. Remember this: Hunt scored 70 points on 61.5% shooting in 4 of Wagner’s last 5 games of the past season. Copeland needed Hunt to continue this scoring mentality – mission accomplished for the heavily experienced junior. 

Meanwhile, there was Brown and super senior Jahbril Price-Noel coming through in the clutch for Wagner. They alone scored 13 of Wagner’s final 15 points in a 15-4 closing run in regulation, with Price-Noel’s three triples – including the game tying heave off a DeLonnie Hunt pass to send the game into overtime – coming off the catch-and-shoot from driving guards. 

In all, six Seahawks scored at least six points in the come from behind victory, and seven Wagner players registered at least one field goal. Wagner didn’t go 10 or 11 deep, but to play at least 8 players for 8-plus minutes on opening night is fairly impressive nonetheless.

  1. Wagner’s Experience Never Gave In

You aren’t allowed to quit when donning a Wagner uniform. It’s just not in their DNA. 

The Seahawks trailed by double figures multiple times in the second half, including the aforementioned 15-point deficit midway through. Wagner also trailed by 11 points going into the final TV timeout before an offensive surge improbably extended the game. 

A battle tested roster wouldn’t let the moment get too big for them down the stretch. It certainly helps when a roster has that type of experience – it’s something Copeland both inherited but also acquired on the transfer portal this offseason with Moore and Brown.

PlayerYearCareer Games (D1)
DeLonnie Hunt3rd Season45
Zaire Williams3rd Season27
Rahmir Moore3rd Season51
Brandon Brown4th Season26
Jahbril Price-Noel5th Season85

When you have that type of experience – and in many cases the experience of winning games – the mentality of giving in simply doesn’t exist.

With the victory, KenPom catapulted Wagner up to 261 in its rankings, 22 spots higher than where it was prior to last night. With Fairleigh Dickinson barely failing in a valiant effort at Loyola Chicago later on last evening, the NEC acquitted themselves very well on opening night. I have a feeling more is in store for a conference that many counted out for the 2022-23 season. 

You can bet that was a fun bus ride back to Grymes Hill for Copeland and his team last night.