Games 28 & 29: Home vs. the Mount, and Sacred Heart
Mount St. Mary's (4-10) at Central Connecticut St. (5-9)
Thursday, 2/21, NEC FrontRow
Kenpom: CCSU 74-68 (72%)
Torvik: CCSU 74-70 (66%)
Sacred Heart (8-6) at Central Connecticut St. (5-0)
Kenpom: CCSU 80-79 (51%)
Torvik: CCSU 81-80 (53%)
About Mount St. Mary's
If I had an NEC Coach of the Year ballet, I'd probably put Dan Engelstad 3rd. The job he's done this season has been phenomenal; according to Kenpom, the Mount has the 2nd youngest team in the entire country. That's what you get when there are no juniors or seniors on your roster.
Yet, Mount St. Mary's is still in the running for an NEC Tournament berth; and believe it or not, they control their own destiny, as they have games against both CCSU and Bryant remaining.
How have they done it? Well, for one, Engelstad handed the keys to the offense over to Vado Morse, who will probably be the unanimous NEC Rookie of the Year. The 6'0" guard leads the team in scoring during conference play with 17.2 ppg, is 2nd in assists (3.7 apg), and is also adding 3.3 rpg. Of all NEC players with more than a 24% usage rate, Morse is 3rd in O-Rating (110.9). There's an argument to be made he deserves to be first team All-Conference.
Of course, he's not the only young player who has impressed. Jalen Gibbs (11.8 ppg) has been solid in his first season after transferring from Drake, Omar Habwe, who played just 11 mpg as a freshman last season, is scoring 10.5 ppg while shooting 34% from three, and freshman big Malik Jefferson has been a rebounding machine (5.1 rpg) and is improving offensively. Then there's 5'8" freshman walk-on Damian Chong-Qui, who has forced his way into the starting lineup and is averaging 8.1 ppg and 3.9 apg.
Engelstad has built the ideal NEC lineup in terms of size and skill. He's got the quick 3-guard lineup (Chong-Qui, Morse, Gibbs, Dee Barnes) who can all both put the ball on the floor and knock down perimeter shots, the stretchy-4 who can rebound and shoot (Habwe), and the big rim protector/rebounder (Jefferson, Nana Opoku).
Where they've been hurt is a lack of depth; just eight players average more than five minutes per game, and Chong-Qui, Morse, Gibbs, and Habwe are all relied upon for at least 30 mpg. This is the primary reason why they've been in a lot of games but haven't been able to close them out.
No matter what happens over the next four games, the Mount will be a trendy pick to get into the upper half of the league in 2019-20, and deservedly so. It's only a matter of time before Engelstad has this thing rockin' and rollin'.
About Sacred Heart
So about the NEC Coach of the Year. Engelstad has been great, as has St. Francis University's coach Rob Krimmel. But for my money, no one has done a better coaching job this season than Sacred Heart's head coach Anthony Latina.
The former CCSU assistant coach might have been on the hot seat coming into the season; in five seasons, he had finished above .500 just once (11-7 in 2016), and lost four rotation players off last seasons 5-13 team.
However, despite having two freshmen, a sophomore, and a D2 transfer in the starting lineup this season, Latina's Pioneers are 8-6 and in the hunt for the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.
Similar to the Mount, the Pios have done it with quickness; the three-headed backcourt of senior Sean Hoehn (17.5 ppg), and freshmen Kareem Ozier (12.4 ppg) and Cam Parker (6.8 ppg and 6.2 apg). They also have versatility off the bench in the backcourt in freshman combo-guard Aaron Clarke (7.4 ppg), who can man either guard slot.
However, it's not been just the backcourt. E.J. Anosike has been perhaps the most improved player in the NEC, as he's scoring 15 rpg and has been one of the best rebounders in the league (7.6 rpg). Oh and by the way he's 14 for 30 from three in league play.
Then there's that D2 transfer. 6'10" Jarel Spellman leads the NEC in blocks by a wide margin (he has 47, while the Mount's Nana Opoku is 2nd with 28) and his offense is coming along (54% FG%).
The major concern in Fairfield has been their defense over the past three games. After surprisingly leading the league in defensive efficiency for a time, they allowed 1.05 PPP to Mount St. Mary's, 1.47 PPP to Bryant, and 1.13 PPP LIU-Brooklyn, losing two of those games. In those three, opponents shot 30 for 59 (51%) from three. While that feels like a number that will regress, it's worth noting that they their non-conference opponents shot 37.6% from three.
Things to Watch
Converting Inside the Arc
I've come to grips with the fact that CCSU simply is not a good 3-point shooting team; after a hot start in non-conference play, they are last in the NEC with a 30.7 3P%, and also has the 2nd lowest rate of three-point attempts.
However, they've also struggled in converting two-pointers; they're 9th in the league at 46.2%. Part of that is an increased reliance on the mid-range, but part of that is a struggle to convert at the rim. Last week (both losses), Central was a combined 18 for 46 at the rim (39%).
Though they don't shoot a ton of threes, Central is allowing opponents to shoot a league high 48% of their shots from behind the arc, and they're converting at a 35% clip.
The CCSU backcourt struggles to keep quicker guards in front of them, which ultimately leaves wide open shooters on the wings. Unfortunately, both MSMU and SHU have plenty of guards capable of getting into the paint via the dribble drive, as well as shooters who can knock it down from distance.
Central is officially tied for 8th in the NEC, however due to tie-breakers they are theoretically one game behind Bryant for NEC Tournament qualification purposes with just four games remaining.
The Bulldogs are hosting Wagner on Thursday night and Mount St. Mary's on Saturday. If you are a CCSU fan, you have to be rooting hard against Bryant.
Thursday night is the season's first "must win" game.
Let's face it, Central needs to go 2-2 in the final 4 games, and have Bryant go 1-3, to qualify for the NEC Tournament.
It's hard to imagine it's come to this after how good the Blue Devils looked back in November, but here we are. Losing to the last place team, and youngest team, in the league at home when you are desperate cannot happen.
Of course, on Saturday Central gets a suddenly struggling Sacred Heart team in a winnable game. Splitting the week, is required, at minimum, but winning both games would go a long way.