Thoughts Following CCSU's 0-4 Start

The first two weeks were, quite possibly, the worst case scenario for the Central Connecticut State men’s basketball team, right? I mean, outside of a catastrophic injury, the first four games couldn’t have gone much worse; they lost 74-59 on opening night to a Hartford team without its best player, and then proceeded to lose three consecutive games by at least 30 points. Not great.

Starting out 0-4 isn’t exactly a surprise; prior to November 5, Kenpom had CCSU as underdogs in each of their first four games, with an expected win total of about 0.6 and a cumulative scoring margin of -63 points. However, it appears Kenpom actually overrated the Blue Devils; the scoring margin was exactly double of the projection, at -126.

The corresponding data has been objectively bad. The Blue Devils are turning it over on 28.6% of their possessions (348th out of 353 D1 teams), they have an eFG% of 39.3% (336th), and they’re shooting a dreadful 52.4% from the free throw line (340th). According to Bart Torvik, they’ve had Game Scores of 1, 6, 4, and 0 (out of 100); to put that into context, NEC teams have played eight games with a Game Score below 10, and CCSU has four of them. Every other NEC team has had at least one Game Score above 20, and CCSU’s best is a ‘6’. Central is currently rated #348 at Kenpom and #351 at Bart Torvik.

1. What’s going on with Jamir Coleman? Donyell Marshall was clearly relying on the program’s lone senior, especially with Ian Krishnan academically ineligible for at least the first semester, as the 6’7” forward averaged 12.1 ppg and 6.2 rpg last season and was primed for a big role in the offense. However, Coleman doesn’t even look like the same player. Check this out:

Coleman’s minutes are down largely because he’s been consistently in foul trouble; after not fouling out once in his first season in New Britain, he’s now fouled out of three consecutive games. But that’s not the only issue; he’s shooting just 29.2% from the field (47.1% as a junior), he’s got 12 turnovers in four games (he averaged just 1.5 per game last season), and he’s even struggling from the free throw line, making just 2 of his 6 opportunities. Coleman’s O-Rating of 50.5 is the 3rd worst out of the 84 NEC players who have played at least 40% of available minutes, as of this writing.

What’s the cause? Last season he was more of a third option offensively (Tyler Kohl and Deion Bute were often options #1 and #2), so perhaps carrying that burden offensively is out of his comfort zone. And of course, there’s always the chance his struggles are injury related. I won’t pretend to know (nor will I make guesses here), but CCSU could really use last season’s Jamir Coleman back.

2. On a positive note, 6’4” freshman wing Greg Outlaw seems like the real deal. His efficiency numbers aren’t great; he’s got just a 35.7% eFG%, and his 85.5 O-Rating leaves a lot to be desired. However, he’s been inarguably the Blue Devils’ best player through four games showing an ability to get to the rim with the dribble (he’s 13-25 at the rim), is the only Central Connecticut player with a positive Assist:Turnover ratio (11 assists, 8 turnovers), is getting to the free throw line a ton (15-23 from the charity stripe), and is probably the team’s best perimeter defender.

He really needs to cool it with the mid-range game…33% of his shots have come from “long 2’s” and he’s just 2-14 on such shots…and he’s got to improve his jumper (he’s 0-3 from three so far on the season, but did knock down a couple in their exhibition win over Coast Guard). However, it appears Marshall has a potential star in Outlaw.

3. The point guard position has been nothing short of a disaster for CCSU since Malcolm McMillan missed the 2014-15 season with an injury and subsequently transferred to Canisius. Through four games, not much has changed; sophomore Zach Newkirk, who is currently third on the team in minutes (26 mpg), has 4 assists and 9 turnovers and has gotten to the foul line just twice (0-2). Despite having a rotation-low 12.5% usage, he’s got a 58.6 O-Rating, which places him last among all NEC players with a usage rate lower than 18%.

Marshall has also utilized freshman Trey Tennyson at the point guard spot, though he’s clearly playing out of position at this stage in his development. However, he’s acclimated himself reasonably well; he’s 2nd on the team with a 53.3% eFG% (3 for 8 from three). The problem is that he’s got just 3 assists to 9 turnovers. Combine the two primary point guards, and you get 6 assists and 17 turnovers (Newkirk is currently 2nd in the NEC in turnover rate, while Tennyson is 9th). That’s a big issue, and Marshall responded by playing freshman Myles Baker at the point for large stretches on Saturday in the team’s loss to UMass. No, he wasn’t great either; he did have 4 assists, but also 5 turnovers. I’m not sure what the answer is it Thai Segwai, who has played just 8 minutes this season?...but Marshall needs to get his point guards to cut down on the turnovers.

Oh and in case you were curious, Tyson Batiste, who is playing his grad year at The Citadel, currently has 17 assists and 10 turnovers and is averaging 11.3 ppg (56.5% eFG%) in three games, one of which was a 10-point loss at Georgia.

4. “But Matt, when are you going to talk about shot selection??”

Through the season’s first four games, CCSU’s 28.6% of CCSU’s field goal attempts have come from “long twos”, which represents a high-point during the Donyell Marshall era, and a 0.2% increase on last season’s 28.4% mark (26.8% since the beginning of the 2016-17 season). Not only is that enough to make me cringe, but this year’s Blue Devils are making just 21.7% of those opportunities.

I’m somewhat willing to chalk up the high mid-range rate to playing superior competition; sometimes that’s simply the best shot you can get. However, this has been a trend, and there’s more than one player who has relied heavily on two-point jumpers. Greg Outlaw has taken 33% of his field goal attempts from the mid-range, shooting just 2-14. Xavier Wilson is just 3-10, Jamir Coleman is 3-11, Karrington Wallace 1-10, and Trey Tennyson 0-4. All five of those players are taking at least 25% of their shots from the mid-range, and that’s no way to be efficient shooting the basketball.

5. One area that this season’s Blue Devils have been pretty good has been getting to the free throw line; CCSU currently has a 39% free throw rate, which is good for 72nd nationally. However, they are shooting just 52.4% from the free throw line as a team.

Sometimes team FT% can be misleading; many teams have that one big-man who gets to the line a ton but struggles there, and it brings the teams shooting percentage down accordingly. That’s not what is happening here. Outside of Myles Baker, who is shooting 75% (6 for 8), there’s not a single Blue Devil who is shooting better than 67% (Division-1 average is 69.1%). Look at these numbers:

Tennyson: 8-12 (67%)

Outlaw: 15-23 (65%)

Wallace: 4-9 (44%)

Reed: 2-5 (40%)

Ayangma: 2-5 (40%)

Coleman: 2-6 (33%)

Wilson: 1-8 (12.5%)

Newkirk: 0-2

Many of these guys are decent-to-good shooters, as everyone except Wallace and Outlaw has made three-pointers this season. What’s the problem? I have no idea; I’m sure they are practicing free throws with regularity, and I’d be willing to bet most of these players are making them at a high clip in practice. Is it nerves? Lack of concentration? I won’t pretend to know, but it’s simply dumbfounding.

6. Using data to break down basketball is my comfort zone, while x's and o's is most certainly not. However, after re-watching the UMass game, I'm perhaps a bit more optimistic than I was immediately after the final horn blew.

The Minutemen went with a full-court press from the jump, and it really wreaked havoc on the young Blue Devil guards. Not only did it cause turnovers, but it sped up CCSU's offense at times, and it made them get into their half-court set often times with close to 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

I charted the first ten possessions of the game and I counted just one poor shot and one "less than ideal" shot, and instead saw a bunch of young players perhaps overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of an Atlantic-10 team.

1st Possession: FC Press, Reed tries to take his man off the dribble, passes to Outlaw with 3 seconds on the shot clock, he drives to the rim and charges (turnover).

2nd Possession: Coleman passes up wide-open three for a more contested 18-foot jumper, misses (bad shot)

3rd Possession: FC Press, Coleman gets it into frontcourt, takes it to rim, has shot blocked.

4th Possession: Outlaw steal, transition layup.

5th Possession: FC Press, Tennyson makes a bad pass in the backcourt which results in a transition bucket (turnover).

6th Possession: FC Press, 10-second call in the backcourt (turnover).

7th Possession: FC Press, Outlaw with a missed ~10 foot runner (not an ideal shot)

8th Possession: FC Press, Baker drive, nice pass to Wallace underneath the basket but he had the ball stolen (turnover).

9th Possession: FC Press, a lot of dribbling and not a single ball-screen, Reed was bailed out when he was fouled trying to penetrate; eventually Baker penetrated and kicked to Tennyson for an open made three-pointer.

10th Possession: Baker missed an open three-pointer in the corner.

Yes, there's too much dribbling (specifically by Jamir Reed and Greg Outlaw), and they aren't executing the offense well at this point, but these are things than can be worked on.

What I like is that the Blue Devils are spreading out the defense with 4 men on the perimeter and one big (usually either Karrington Wallace or Xavier Wilson), and they have a bunch of guys who have shown an ability to knock down three-pointers. The offensive execution needs to improve, specifically moving without the basketball, and they need to take better shots.

7. On the flip side, this team has done a nice job defensively, specifically in the half-court. They play hard and have quite a bit of quickness in the backcourt; we've already mentioned Outlaw's defensive prowess, but Newkirk, Tennyson and Baker have also been impressive defensively, while Karrington Wallace's 8.5% block rate is third in the NEC.

As a team, they've done a nice job on the defensive boards, allowing just a 30.3% offensive rebounding percentage; the number itself isn't that impressive, but when you consider the quality of opponent, it's more than solid. While the defensive numbers don't exactly look pretty, I'd wager that they are skewed because of how often CCSU has turned it over. Even when the turnovers don't directly result in a transition bucket, they often result in open, high-percentage shots. Once the league season starts, I think this defense will make it difficult for NEC teams to score, especially if they can begin to cut down on the turnovers.

8. This is where I remind you how young this team is; according to Kenpom, the average experience on this team is 0.60 years, which is 4th fewest among all Division 1 teams (one of those teams is Memphis, which starts five Top-100 freshmen). With five freshmen in their rotation, this team is still learning how to play basketball, and learning what it takes to be successful at this level.

With that said, this schedule did them no favors. No, I won’t place the blame on anyone; scheduling may be the most difficult part of a staff's job, especially at the mid-major level. But playing two consecutive games against high-majors, only to then turn around and fly from Tempe, AZ back home and up to Amherst, MA in two days is asking a lot of a young ballclub. Not to mention they get Vermont, which will be the best team they’ve played all season to date (they’ve already beaten St. John’s, and are probably better than Arizona St.) on Saturday night. This is a tough stretch for a young team, and it won’t help their confidence.

9. CCSU gets New Hampshire at home on Tuesday night, and forget about wins, it’d be really nice to see this team be competitive on their home floor against a team picked to finish near the bottom of the America East. The Wildcats opened up their season with a win at home against Holy Cross, then lost two road games to St. John’s (74-61) and Boston University (84-70). UNH is led by 6’5” wing Sean Sutherlin, a JUCO transfer, who is averaging 14.8 ppg, 8rpg, and 3.5 apg, while 6’5” sophomore Nick Guadarrama leads the team with 15.5 ppg.

10. For what it’s worth, Kenpom projects CCSU to finish 5-25 on the season, 3-15 in the NEC. While it has been a brutal start to the season, I think eventually, perhaps by February, this team will start to ‘click’. Ian Krishnan will (hopefully) return and their defense will keep them in games and give them a chance to win. I think they'll finish closer to 6-12 in the NEC than 3-15.