NEC Reset: Everyone is 0-0
Happy New Year Everyone!
No, no...I'm not talking about 2019. I mean, I guess I hope you have a prosperous year and blah blah blah, but I'm talking about the new college basketball year. The non-conference is over, and it's time to raise the stakes.
Don’t get me wrong; I love when November arrives because we get to watch college basketball, which is quite a bit better than NOT watching college basketball. But as a fan of a mid-major team, nothing is better than conference play. I love the rhythm (Thursday and Saturday, like clockwork) and the stakes; an early December St. Francis U at American tilt means very little. But Wagner at CCSU this Thursday? SIGN. ME. UP!
Analyzing teams during the non-conference is pretty difficult; the teams are obviously not playing one another, no schedule is created the same, and coaches are trying to figure out rotations. But I think the general theme of the Northeast Conference teams over the first two months of the season has been this; the teams expected to finish at the top of the league came back to the middle of the pack a bit, and the teams most thought would struggle to get into the conference tournament perhaps are better than expected. We're in for a fun ride.
Without further ado, here are the TBDD post-non-conference, pre-conference season rankings.
1. St. Francis University- KP: 222; TR: 215
The Red Flash got as high as #167 at Kenpom after they blew out Morgan St. on November 9th. Since then, however, they simply haven't been impressive. They were 0-3 against D1 teams in November, and have really struggled to shoot the ball. But I still believe in the talent, and I fully expect them to be hosting the NEC title game in March. It's just difficult to say that they are head and shoulders above the rest of the league as was originally expected.
2. Fairleigh Dickinson- KP: 254; TR: 232
The Knights came oh-so-close to pulling off two major "do more with less" upsets; on 12/21 they lost to UMass 85-84, and on 12/29 they blew a late lead to South Florida, succumbing 60-54. Jahlil Jenkins is the kind of PG that wins in this league, and Darnell Edge has worked to become more than a shooter. There's not a ton of depth here, which will probably hurt them in the long run, but the starting 5 is perhaps better than anyone.
3. LIU-Brooklyn- KP: 261; TR: 260
This much is certain; the Blackbirds have the kind of talent to win this league. But consistency is the buzz-word for Derek Kellogg's crew. Sure, they are coming off a road win over Fordham, but a week earlier they lost a home game to Binghamton (#327 at Kenpom). I think their individual players are just as good as any team in the conference, but they need to show they can put it together.
4. Wagner- KP: 218; TR: 224
Yes, you read that right. Wagner is, as of 1/1/19, the top rated team in the Northeast Conference according to Kenpom (and #2 in T-Rank). The algorithms love Bashir Mason's defense, and rightfully so. The Seahawks have been straight-up stingy in the month of December, holding St. John's to just 1.04 PPP and St. Joe's to 0.98 PPP. The big question is; can they score?
5. Central Connecticut- KP: 254; TR: 260
Once upon a time...say, around Thanksgiving...I was convinced this was at least the #2 team in this league. But I was also worried that the hot shooting was somewhat of an anomaly. Well, after averaging a 59.8% eFG% over the first six games of the season, their eFG% since the loss at Loyola Marymount on 11/21 has been just 40.2%. Sure, there were games at Providence, Oregon St., and Virginia Tech, as well as a road game at NCA&T without star Tyler Kohl. But still, they haven't put together a good 40-minutes of basketball since before Thanksgiving.
6. St. Francis-Brooklyn- KP: 282; TR: 276
The computers "think" that there is a separation here, but how can one not believe in the Terriers? I'm all for analytics, but wins have to count for something, and they've won six games against D1 opponents! Plus they have three guards who are as good as anyone in the league. Glenn Braica's squad is legit.
7. Sacred Heart- KP: 283; TR: 280
The surprise team of the league so far, the Pioneers are a fun watch. With four freshmen and a D2 transfer in the rotation, one wouldn't think they've had as much success as they've had, but here we are. SHU has only won 3 D1 games, but they've been in a bunch of others and have not struggled to put up points. Kareem Ozier is back, and if they can figure out a way to get stops, watch out.
8. Robert Morris- KP: 291; TR: 279
The Colonials have really struggled on the offensive side of the ball (they're adjusted offensive efficiency is 336th in the nation), but the calling card for Andy Toole coached teams has been the defense, and right now RMU has the best defense in the league. Can they find a consistent scorer outside of Josh Williams?
9. Bryant- KP: 333; TR: 333
The Bulldogs certainly struggled in the non-conference, with a litany of blowout losses, but perhaps Jared Grasso has figured something out over the last two weeks; they beat a solid Dartmouth team 68-67 on 12/21, then gave #25 Iowa all it could handle, eventually losing by just 5 points. Grasso has gone to a much smaller lineup, with Bash Townes seeing major minutes at the '5', and they've begun defending better. If they can keep it up, they're going to win games.
10. Mount St. Mary's- KP: 324; TR: 311
Is there any doubt Dan Engelstad can coach? The Mount has played the 5th most difficult schedule in the country, per Kenpom, so there's not much to show for it; but this team is getting better and better. The win at American in early December was really impressive, and this young team is really figuring things out defensively. They will probably struggle to get into the NEC Tournament, but they won't be a pushover.