Is LIU's Hot Shooting Enough?
If you were simply looking at the Northeast Conference's standings to identify potential title contenders, Long Island probably wouldn't jump out at you; they're currently just 3-7, with no notable wins on their resume. But as well all know around these parts, win-loss records can be deceiving.
The team formerly known as the Blackbirds (I'm still not used to it, though I dig the color scheme) has played a non-conference schedule that ranks 108th nationally (aka, pretty tough), and has performed well against some high major competition:
Lost 76-65 at Rhode Island (currently #81 at Kenpom)
Lost 80-74 at George Mason (#120)
Lost 81-64 at San Diego St. (#32)
Plus there are losses to Texas Tech (#24), Rider (#132), and North Florida (#190), all away from home. The only "bad" loss was a home defeat to UMass-Lowell in which the Sharks made just 8 of their 33 three-point attempts. Off nights happen. But even the River Hawks should be a factor in the America East.
According to the computers, which don't care about wins and losses, LIU has clearly been one of the best teams in the NEC, as they're ranked 3rd at Torvik (#218 overall), and 4th at both Kenpom (#241) and the NET (#224). And they have perhaps the best, and certainly the most up-tempo, offense in the league.
For Derek Kellogg, it all starts by getting good looks in the paint, and it's largely because of Raiquan Clark. The 6'6" senior, an All-NEC 1st teamer a season ago, has made a career of attacking the rim. As a junior, only three players in the entire nation attempted more shots at the rim than Clark (302), and he converted at a 58.3% clip. This season? That rate is down (his usage has declined from 31.5% to 27.2%), but his efficiency is up; he's converting 74.5% of his shots at the rim, and his 64.4% eFG% is tops in the Northeast Conference. Simply put, Clark opens up the floor for all the shooters Kellogg has at his disposal. And there is plenty of shooting.
The Sharks are currently 7th nationally with nearly 50% (49.7%, to be exact) of their shot attempts coming from behind the three-point line. Oh, and they make them at a 35.3% clip, which is well above the D1 average of 33.1%. I mean, check out these individual shooting numbers:
Jermaine Jackson Jr.: 18-41 (44%)
Julian Batts: 14-41 (42%)
Raiquan Clark: 11-20 (55%)
Ashtyn Bradley: 15-46 (33%)
Jashaun Agosto: 5-16 (31%)
Virshon Cotton: 14-47 (30%)
And Ty Flowers is shooting just 25% (19-75), though he made 39% of his three-point attempts last season. It's only a matter of time before he gets going.
According to Bart Torvik, Derek Kellogg teams rarely take shots from the mid-range; last season, just 12.7% of Long Island's shot attempts were classified as "farther twos", which was 3rd fewest in the entire nation. This year that number has crept up to a still-manageable 19.1%, which is higher than Merrimack and Sacred Heart, but well below the national average (for comparison's sake, CCSU is at 27.4%, Wagner at 30.1%, and St. Francis-Brooklyn 30.9%). Plus, that number will likely come down as they get into conference play and don't have to face the likes of Texas Tech, San Diego St., and Rhode Island.
What makes this all the more fun is that the Sharks like to get up and down in a hurry. Derek Kellogg has liked to push the tempo his entire career; from 2012-2014, his UMass squads finished 3rd, 8th, and 11th nationally in Adjusted Tempo, according to Kenpom. This season, LIU is averaging 75.2 possessions per 40 minutes, which is 19th nationally and faster than in Kellogg's first two years at the helm. But unlike the previous two seasons, they've been efficient. Their eFG% has improved from a year ago (50.7% to 53.3%) despite the increased three-point distance, and their turnover rate has dropped from 20.1% to 19.5%. Good offense with lots of possessions? Yes, I'd like to watch that.
The big question for Long Island is; can their defense be just good enough? Their Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of 105.0 points per 100 possessions currently ranks 6th in the NEC, which isn't horrible, and they've done a nice job limiting good looks (their opponents have a 49.9% eFG%, which is only slightly worse than the average of 49.3%). Where they struggle is on the defensive boards; their opponents' 32.4% Offensive Rebounding rate ranks 306th nationally, and is up significantly from last season's 29.5% mark. That's what happens when you lose your best defensive '5' (Eral Penn) to injury in the pre-season. Kellogg has been forced to go small with Flowers at the '5' and Clark at the '4', and while both are good rebounders, neither have the size and/or bulk to contend with opposing true bigs. Meanwhile, reserves Jack Ballantyne (6'9", 240 lbs.) and Ousmane Ndim (7'0", 235 lbs.) haven't been able to crack the rotation significantly.
The NEC has a myriad of bigs who are adept at finding offensive rebounds; Bryant (Patrick Harding and Hall Elisias), Sacred Heart (E.J. Anosike, Jare'l Spellman), Saint Francis (Mark Flagg), Robert Morris (Yannis Mendy, A.J. Bramah), St. Francis-Brooklyn (Deniz Celen), Mount St. Mary's (Malik Jefferson), and even Merrimack (Jordan Minor). If LIU struggles from the field and loses, it will probably be because one of these guys had a big game. But with the shooting Derek Kellogg has, it may not matter.