NEC Reset: Early-December Edition
What a strange couple of weeks it has been in the Northeast Conference.
Two weeks ago, my clear top four teams in the league were St. Francis U. (by a decent margin), followed by LIU Brooklyn, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Central Connecticut. So what did those four teams do? Basically make me look like an idiot.
SFU- Hung on to beat Niagara by 4 at home, then got blasted at American 95-82 Tuesday night.
LIU- Lost at home to NJIT, came back to beat a (possibly) bad Albany team by 3, then got run off the court by Marist 70-53 (the latter two games played in Belfast).
FDU- Riding a three game skid, including losses to Lafayette at home (the same Lafayette team that beat St. Francis Brooklyn and Sacred Heart already this season), and at Holy Cross (by 18!).
CCSU- Lost to North Carolina A&T by 12 (and it wasn’t even that close, trust me), then took a beat down at the hands of the Virginia Tech Hokies by 54.
On the flip side, teams that were pretty low in my previous rankings (St. Francis Brooklyn, Sacred Heart) went out and won some ballgames.
So where do we go from here? While I tend not to overreact to individual games, sometimes it’s difficult not to. Especially when there are common opponents from which to draw conclusions, but that seems to muddy the water even more. Look at a team like Lafayette, which beat Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck but lost to St. Francis Brooklyn and Sacred Heart at home. Or how about American, which beat St. Francis U. less than a week after losing to Wagner at home. Do I give credit to the Red Flash for beating Niagara at home by 4? Well, the Terriers beat Niagara on a neutral by 12. Fairleigh Dickinson lost to Holy Cross by 18, but Sacred Heart lost by just 12. Hell, we celebrated a CCSU win over Hartford; the Pioneers beat them as well! This stuff makes my head spin.
Anyway, below are my “early December” NEC rankings. A reminder: these aren’t resume rankings, but rather who would I put my money on to win the NEC regular season. I’m including the NET ratings in here because…well, I’m not sure why. It’s reasonable proxy as to what has happened on the court, thought doesn’t provide the predictive value that Kenpom and T-Rank do.
Also worth noting; I’m less confident in these rankings than I’ve ever been.
1. St. Francis U (3-5): KP-201 (1st); T-Rank-190 (1st); NET-189 (2nd)
I’m still riding with the Red Flash, despite the fact that they allowed 1.32 PPP to American. Why? Because they’re still figuring things out. Isaiah Blackmon appears to be close to 100%, at least as evidenced by his 22 points in 31 minutes Tuesday, but playing four guards (with Braxton at the 4) may not be the answer some nights. With some additional size on the roster, such as 6’9” Luidgy Laporal and 6’6” freshman Myles Thompson, Krimmel is mixing and matching a bit more.
But let’s not forget; SFU still has the best offense in the NEC, and should be able to outscore teams on most nights. Yeah, their numbers don’t look great, but it’s important to remember that they’ve played four teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations; Buffalo, UCLA, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech. They will be fine.
2. Central Connecticut (4-5): KP- 266 (4th); T-Rank-253 (4th); NET- 199 (3rd)
Yup, I went and did it. Look, the Blue Devils were 2nd in Kenpom and 3rd according to T-Rank before their recent 2018 Road Trip From Hell, which gave the computers cause for concern. But let’s face it, when “flu like symptoms” takes away your best player (Tyler Kohl) for all but two minutes on the road, it’s going to be tough to win- especially when he’s not the only guy under the weather. Plus, that same player got ejected due to a questionable “Flagrant 2” foul at Virginia Tech.
Was there any team more impressive than Donyell Marshall’s bunch heading into Thanksgiving? Nope. And nothing that’s happened over the past week has changed my opinion of this team. They are as deep and versatile as anyone in the league, and have a different lineup for every situation. They’re good, guys.
3. Fairleigh Dickinson (3-4): KP- 265 (3rd); T-Rank- 255 (5th); NET- 274 (7th)
It’s true, FDU has not been impressive to date. They are turning it over a ton (23.8% of possessions, 11th worst in D1), and are having a lot of trouble converting shots inside the arc (43.4%). But I just can’t forget how well this team played down the stretch last season, specifically after Darian Anderson went out with a season ending injury. The home loss to Lafayette wasn’t good, nor was getting blown out at Holy Cross (which beat UMass last night). But they did beat Princeton on the road, and stayed with a solid Providence team.
Plus there's this; Darnell Edge, Jahlil Jenkins, Mike Holloway, and Kaleb Bishop are all struggling to begin the season, with O-Ratings south of where they were in 2017-18. Unless the Monstars came and stole their talent, I'm pretty confident they'll figure it out.
FDU’s next three will tell us a lot; three home games against Army, NJIT, and Saint Peter’s, all of which they will likely be favored in.
4. Wagner (3-4): KP- 244 (2nd); T-Rank- 251 (3rd); NET- 239 (5th)
Maybe I was too quick to bury the Seahawks? Upon further review, none of their losses look bad; UMass-Lowell (OT loss on the road) has been solid of late, as has NJIT. And blow out losses to Seton Hall and Rider? Both are really good (Rider is the best team in the MAAC). Plus, last week they beat American on the road- the same American team that just beat up on the Red Flash.
Bashir Mason has this team playing defense, just as he always does- American managed just 0.97 PPP against Wagner, then went out and put up 1.32 PPP against St. Francis U. With Chase Freeman now back in the fold at point guard, and Romone Saunders acclimating himself to being a high usage guy, it appears Wagner may be ready to take off.
By the way; that January 3rd matchup between Wagner and CCSU in New Britain is looking might juicy.
5. Robert Morris (4-4): KP- 280 (5th); T-Rank- 243 (2nd); NET- 287 (8th)
The Colonials have had a very uninteresting season so far. They’ve won the games they were supposed to win (all against teams rated between 322-349 in Kenpom, plus a non-D1), and have lost the games they were supposed to (road games against teams rated in the top 246 per Kenpom). Sure, none of the losses served as impressive performances, but whatever, this team still has the best defense in the NEC (according to the computers), which means they will compete.
However, the offensive performance has been concerning; it’s not that they’ve been bad, it’s just that they aren’t good at any one thing. Their shooting has been below average, they turn it over slightly more often than average, they don’t rebound it especially well, and they don’t get to the line a ton. Koby Thomas as struggled so far this year after an awesome freshman campaign (he’s just 2 for 11 from three), and I think not having another guy who can create on his own offensively has hurt Andy Toole. But as I’ve always said, he’ll figure it out.
6. LIU Brooklyn (4-4): KP- 298 (8th); T-Rank- 271 (6th); NET- 271 (6th)
I just get so tantalized by the talent. Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto in the backcourt. Raiquan Clark as a big 3. Ty flowers at the 4. Julius Van Sauers at the 5. Raul Frias and Eral Penn off the bench. How many teams have a better top 7 than those guys?
Yet, the Blackbirds are just 1-4 over their past five games, including giving away a game at Milwaukee, a home loss to NJIT, and a 17-point blowout loss to Marist in Belfast. Sure, they did beat Albany in Belfast, but the Great Danes are just 1-6 against D1 competition.
From the looks of it, there’s a lot of 1-on-1 going on offensively; the blackbirds are assisting on just 46.4% of their made field goals (average is 52%), and are shooting a high volume of 3’s (47.7%, 18th highest nationally) yet aren’t making a ton (30.2%). Agosto is just 7 of 27, Batts is 8 for 34, and Frias is 8 for 35. Last year those three combined to shoot 36% from three. I still believe, but I’d like to see it in action.
7. St. Francis Brooklyn (5-3): KP- 292 (7th); T-Rank- 285 (7th); NET- 167 (1st)
Say hello to the top NEC team, according to the NET. You see, the NET likes to see you win road games, and win road games the Terriers have; they’ve won 3 of 4 against D1 teams, and all three were on the road; Lafayette, Niagara and Presbyterian. Are any of those three good? Probably not…but that doesn’t matter! How many teams in Division 1 have three true road wins at this stage of the game? I’m guessing just the Terriers, though that sounds like too much research for my liking.
How’ve they been doing it? By taking care of the basketball (only turning it over on 17% of their possessions) and making 3’s (37.9%). That’s a nice little recipe for offensive success. Defensively, it’s all about the defensive boards (77.6% DR%, 14th highest nationally).
So why aren’t they higher? Well, for one the computers aren’t buying them yet. Plus, I don’t love teams who rely on three-pointers as much as SFC does; 38% of their points are derived from behind the arc, which is 45th highest in D1. What if they aren’t falling, like in the IUPUI game when they went 4 for 16 and managed just 0.71 PPP? They do have some winnable games coming up; at NJIT, and home against UMass-Lowell and Saint Peter’s.
8. Sacred Heart (4-5): KP- 291 (6th); T-Rank- 290 (8th); NET- 237 (4th)
Is it real? I hope so, as I've always liked Anthony Latina ever since his days at Central Connecticut. Latina has a high powered offense that has put up some big numbers; 1.23 PPP in a win over Hartford and 1.19 PPP in losses to UMass-Lowell and Holy Cross. And most of that was done without their most talented freshman, Kareem Ozier, who should be back soon from a university imposed suspension.
My concern with Sacred Heart is on the other side of the ball. Sunday, in their win over Lafayette, was the first time the Pios have held a team below 1.02 PPP. The NEC has tended to be a defense-first league, and unless SHU can figure out a way to get stops, it’ll have trouble in conference play.
But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t fun to watch, especially with the freshmen on this team; Cameron Parker is averaging 7.8 assists per game, and Aaron Clarke has been really good. Plus it appears Jare’l Spellman has taken to D1 ball well, as he’s 18th nationally in block rate. Oh, and any team with Sean Hoehn has a shot to win a ballgame.
9. Bryant (2-5): KP- 334 (9th); T-Rank- 338 (10th); NET- 322 (9th)
Bryant picked up its second win of the season last weekend, a 75-65 home victory over New Hampshire. Considering the Bulldogs won just three games a year ago, that’s a big deal.
However, the problems last year (namely, defense) seem to remain; Bryant has the 3rd lowest adjusted deficiency rating, according to Kenpom, and have allowed teams to shot 44.2% from three and 53.3% from two. And their losses have not exactly been impressive; they lost by 42 points to Yale, by 34 to URI, by 24 to Brown and by 23 to Seattle. When it goes bad, it goes bad.
Will it get better when Ikenna Ndugba returns? He’s a really good perimeter defender, though I think they need more than just one guy to truly make a difference. With that said, things are looking up in Smithfield, and fans should be thrilled with the hiring of Jared Grasso.
10. Mount St. Mary’s (0-7): KP- 336 (10th); T-Rank- 329 (9th); NET- 347 (9th)
The Mount has played its last three games against teams ranked outside the top 300 in Kenpom, two on the road and one at home. They’ve lost all three by double digits.
We knew it would be a tough slog for Dan Engelstad, but I also figured they’d pick off a few wins. And they still probably will; Kenpom projects them to finish 6-23 against Division 1 competition. But from a team point of view, there hasn’t been much hope, as they’re below in average in almost every metric out there with the exception of getting to the foul line with some level of frequency.
Remember; this is almost an entirely new roster, which makes this a ground-up level rebuild. But there’s young talent here (Jalen Gibbs, Vado Morse, Malik Jefferson, Nana Opoku), enough so that there’s reasons for optimism.