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2020-21 NEC Preview Part II: Tier 3

If you missed Part I of the NEC Preview, you can find it here.

#8 Merrimack

Last Season: 20-11 (14-4 in the NEC), #227 at Kenpom; Ineligible for the post-season

Coach: Joe Gallo- 5th season, 14-4 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances

Offense: 97.4 (10th)

Defense: 90.3 (1st)

Efficiency Margin: +7.1 (3rd)

What they did well: Forced Turnovers (27.2% TO rate, 1st), Defensive eFG% (44.9%, 1st)

Where they can improve: Defensive rebounding (65.9%, 10th), 2P% (47.2%, 9th)

Key Losses:

Potential Rotation:

The Guy: Only two returning NEC players made more than 2 three-pointers per game last season; Jermaine Jackson, Jr. (LIU), and Devin Jensen. Jensen, a 6’5” sharpshooter, was the perfect role player for a team that had three seniors as primary scoring options, as he was able to get good looks on his way to making 61 threes in 141 attempts (43.3%). Hayes, Joyner, and Lord have all graduated, and Joe Gallo will need more from the senior. Will he become an all-around scorer? That’s doubtful; he was super efficient last season (116.0 O-Rating), but that 13.1% usage rate implies he did very little besides shoot the basketball (he attempted just 26 two-point field goals). Merrimack won’t be able to replace the three seniors off last year’s roster with just one or two guys, so Gallo will need multiple players to step up offensively. If Jensen can get that 7.5 ppg scoring average up into the double-digits, that would go a long way in keeping Merrimack near the top of the standings. With the way he shoots it, that's certainly possible.

Player to Watch: This was a tough one, as there are a few young, intriguing guys on this roster, but let’s default to the guy who has to fill the shoes of the program’s best ever player. We’ve all read about Juvaris Hayes, and if you haven’t, go read this. Now, it’s Mikey Watkins’ turn. A 5’11” junior from New Jersey, Watkins carved out a role as a combo guard last season, averaging 7.5 points and 1.7 assists while allowing Hayes and Lord to do the heavy lifting in the backcourt. Expect Watkins, who finished 2nd in the NEC in steals with 60, to ascend to the top of the zone and cause fits for opponents. With that will come plenty of transition buckets. But can he run the offense? Hayes had a 24.1% usage rate and 38.0 assist rate last season, while Watkins was at just 17.6% and 12.2%, respectively. He shot the ball well (34% from three, 50.5% eFG%), but Gallo will need him to be a playmaker.

They can compete for a title if…

  1. The defense is elite again. It’s really hard to win a title when your offense is near the bottom of the league in efficiency, but that’s what Gallo did last season thanks to having the league’s best a country mile. Can the Warriors repeat that? With only one year of sample size to go off, it’s hard to not see the defense taking a step back; for what it’s worth, Kenpom projects Merrimack to have the 213th rated defense in the country after finishing #101 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency a year ago. Still really good, but not as good. However, even if the Warriors take a step back in terms of forcing turnovers and shutting down opponents’ perimeter game, they should be better in the rebounding category, and the additions of 6’7” Justin Connolly, who red-shirted last season but did have 28 blocks as a freshman two seasons ago, and 6’8” freshman Ryan Isaacson should help with rim protection.

  2. The frontcourt continues to develop. In his first year at Merrimack, Ziggy Reid was somewhat of a surprise, as the 6’6” stretchy-4 averaged 5 points and 2 boards a game while knocking down 34% of his three-pointers. He struggled inside the arc (including just 47% at the rim), and needs to improve upon his 11.9% defensive rebounding rate, but the talent is there. Similarly, 6’8” 220 lbs. behemoth Jordan Minor is one of the more interesting prospects in the NEC; he led the league with a 19.5% offensive rebounding rate, and had a solid 51.1% eFG% thanks to his work around the rim (including 16 dunks). The big question for Minor is; can he stay on the floor? 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes isn’t going to get it done, but it often takes time for young bigs to figure it out. This year could be the year. Add in Connolly, who shot 52% from the field as a freshman two seasons ago, and 6’8” freshman Ryan Isaacson, who has an inside-outside game, and Joe Gallo has built up a strong stable of bigs.

  3. Let’s just go with the idea that Merrimack won’t be as good defensively as they were last year. That would imply that there needs to be an improvement on the offensive end, which means Joe Gallo needs to find enough scoring to replace Lord, Hayes, and Joyner’s 31.1 points per game, and then some. We’ve already talked about Jensen and Watkins, but who else can step up and knock down shots? Sophomore Mykel Derring had an up-and-down season during which shot just 20.7% from three in November/December, then turned it around and knocked down 34% of his three-point attempts in league play. He didn’t do much else on the offensive end (4.3% assist rate, just 18 two-point attempts), but like Jensen and others; he wasn’t asked to do much. In addition to Derring, there’s senior combo-guard Khalief Crawford, who had larger roles earlier on his career, sophomore Jordan McKoy, and freshman wing James Berry III and redshirt freshmen Jaylen Davis and Ethan Helwig. If two or three of these guys can emerge as reliable scorers, that would be a major plus for Merrimack.

Yeah, but…How do you lose your top three offensive players off a team that finished 2nd to last in offensive efficiency, and actually improve dramatically? Granted they don’t need to score a ton given that they play at one of the slowest paces in the country (last season’s 63.2 possessions per 40 minutes was 348th nationally), but you do have to put the ball in the basket sometimes. It’s just difficult to see who’s going to carry this offense night-in and night-out and make plays during crunch time the way Juvaris Hayes did. If they’re going to repeat as regular season champions, they will need that from someone.

How I see it: Look, what Joe Gallo, Juvaris Hayes, and Merrimack did last season was incredible. To go from Division 2 to winning the NEC regular season title outright was one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever seen. But I’ve seen the Warriors ranked toward the top of the standings in multiple outlets, and I'm just not ready to go there. For one; it was a long off-season, and I have to think that more than one NEC coach went to work trying to solve the Merrimack defense (or, at least, figured out how to not turn it over 27% of the time). And secondly; they lost a lot. I do think the way Gallo plays…with that zone defense and ultra-slow pace…will make it so that he will rarely (if ever) find himself near the bottom of the standings. I could see Merrimack finishing with the league’s best defense yet again, but I don’t believe they’ll be as good as last season, and it’s tough to see them being efficient offensively given the lack of play-makers. Would Merrimack fans sign for a .500 season? They may be spoiled after last year, but for a 2nd year D1 program to finish around 9-9 in the league would still be quite a feat. I think they end up in that neighborhood this season, though the future will be even brighter as long as Gallo is patrolling the sidelines.

#7 St. Francis (PA)

Last Season: 22-10 (13-5 in the NEC), #176 at Kenpom; lost to RMU 77-67 in the NEC Finals

Coach: Rob Krimmel- 9th season, 78-64 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances

Offense: 110.8 (1st)

Defense: 101.8 (7th)

Efficiency Margin: +9.0 (2nd)

What they did well: eFG% (52.1, 3rd), turnover rate (17.4%, 2nd), Offensive Rebounding (35.3%, 2nd)

Where they can improve: Interior Defense (51.9% 2P% defense, 11th)

Key Losses:

Potential Rotation:

The Guy: Gone are two of the best players in Red Flash (and NEC) history in Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton, as well as 3&D wing Randall Gaskins. Who’s next? Myles Thompson is likely to be that guy. An under-sized ‘4’, Thompson scored at all three levels last season; he made 35% of his three-pointers, converted 60.5% of his shots at the rim, and made 46 of 66 (70%) at the free throw line which all added up to a 103.5 O-Rating (20.5% usage). However, that came as 3rd or 4th option in a high-powered offense; now he’s numero uno. Despite being listed at 230 lbs., Thompson’s wing skills should allow Krimmel to play “big” alongside Tyler Stewart and Mark Flagg, and he should be one of the Red Flash’s leading rebounders. Where he’ll need to improve his shot selection; he attempted 66 three-pointers last season compared to 84 mid-range jumpers, (he made just 35.7% of them). And if he can add a bit more play-making into his game, he could really take off this season.

Player to Watch: After two up-and-down seasons, it’s time for the man they call RDC to put it together. A lithe, athletic 6’3” lefty, Ramiir Dixon-Conover’s talent has not matched his results; as a junior, Dixon-Conover had just an 89.6 O-Rating (15.6% usage), which was the 3rd lowest among players who had a usage rate south of 16%. Why? Easy; his turnover rate was a league-worst 35.6%. Sure, you can be a good point guard with a high turnover rate, but not when your assist rate is a mere 17.8% (Cam Parker had a 33.2% TO rate, but a 41.8% assist rate). Simply put; a 1.2:1 Assist-to-turnover ratio just isn't going to get it done, not when the league's best point guards are closer to (or better than) 2:1. The good news? RDC made improvement shooting the basketball, getting his eFG% up to a very solid 53.8% thanks to his ability to get to the rim in both the half court and transition (34 of 49 at the rim, 69.4%). If he can cut down on the turnovers, his quickness and ability to be a plus perimeter defender should make him a solid starting point guard, which would take pressure off the frontcourt. Would he be the first point guard to put it all together as a senior? Hardly.

They can compete for a title if…

  1. Thompson, Tyler Stewart, and Mark Flagg can co-exist with one another on the court at the same time. Most teams play three guards for a reason; in this day-and-age, you have to be able to shoot (and defend) the three. However, we’ve all heard the motto "play your best five". I’m confident these three will be fine offensively; both Thompson and Stewart (15 for 49) can shoot it well enough, and both should be tough match-ups for smaller wings/4s. However, can either guy defend smaller, quicker wings for 25 minutes a night? Both are athletic for their respective sizes, but that’s a lot to ask.

  2. They get significant shooting from guys who haven’t proven it yet. By most accounts, Bryce Laskey is a knock-down shooter, and he did make 11 of 26 from three as a freshman, but missed time due to injury and, quite frankly, wasn’t needed last year. In fact, Thompson (23) and Stewart (15) are the only returning players who made more than 15 three-pointers last season. Krimmel brought in a stable of freshman guards in Zahree Harrison, Max Land, and Ronell Giles, Luke Ruggery sat out last season and should help, and Marlon Hargis, who is waiting on a waiver to play immediately, has a reputation as a shooter, though he was just 13-52 in two seasons at Holy Cross. Krimmel needs two or three of these guys to become reliable shooters on the wing.

  3. They get above-average point guard play. We’ve already talked about Dixon-Conover, and if it’s not him, it would be one of the freshmen; Harrison or Giles. Harrison has a reputation as a tough, athletic scorer, while Giles is more of a combo guard with size. It’s tough to win in college basketball without a really good lead guard, I don’t care how much size you have up front.

Yeah, but…Last season the Red Flash won by outscoring their opponents; it’s not like they were consistently good on the defensive end. In fact, over the last five seasons a Krimmel-coached team hasn’t finished better than 275th in Kenpom in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (he’s finished better than 255th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency in each of those five seasons). If we agree that this team may struggle to replace Blackmon and Braxton offensively, can they become elite defensively? While one might see the size and assume they will be elite at rim-protection, last season the Red Flash allowed the league’s highest (i.e. worst) 2P% (51.9%) and were 2nd from the bottom in block rate. Flagg is good shot blocker (34 blocks, 9th in the NEC last season), and RDC should be an elite perimeter defender, but Krimmel will need more than that.

How I see it: The NEC has always been a guard’s league, and Krimmel does not have a single guard who has played significant minutes at the D1 level. And yet, he needs to replace former league Players of the Year Blackmon and Braxton, both of whom had usage rates north of 24.5% last season. Who’s the guy on this roster who steps in and is able to score off the bounce and make plays for others? Sure, Thompson may be that guy, ditto for Stewart and/or Dixon-Conover. But they haven't done it consistently, and outside of those guys and Flagg, Krimmel has a group of unproven young players who either took a back seat to better players in previous years, or are freshmen. I think Thompson could find his way onto an All-Conference team, Flagg is a solid if unspectacular big, and Stewart is certainly talented. But unless a couple of these freshmen play like Rookie of the Year candidates, it’s difficult to see this team getting into the 4-team NEC Tournament.

#6 St. Francis-Brooklyn

Last Season: 13-18 (7-11 in the NEC), #307 at Kenpom; lost to RMU 59-58 in the NEC Quarterfinals

Coach: Glenn Braica- 11th season, 93-85 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances

Offense: 97.5 (9th)

Defense: 101.1 (6th)

Efficiency Margin: -3.6 (9th)

What they did well: Protected the ball (16.9% TO rate, 1st), Free throws (75.8% FT%, 1st)

Where they can improve: Shooting (28.1% 3P%), Defending the 3 (35.6%, 8th)

Key Losses:

Potential Rotation:

The Guy: Who doesn’t love to watch a diminutive guard make bigger players look like fools on a regular basis? Despite being listed at just 5’8”, Chauncey Hawkins played his way onto the NEC’s All-Conference 3rd team last season after averaging 15.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assist, finishing 3rd in steals (55), and carrying a solid 1.4 assist/turnover ratio. The now-senior from Spring Valley, NY was the engine for the Terriers, and his 99.4 O-Rating was 2nd highest among players with a 25% usage rate or higher (Keith Braxton had an absurd 112.0 on 25% usage). If he’s going to jump up to the 1st team as a senior, he’s going to have to improve his shot selection; he made just 25% of his threes despite having good form on the jumper, and he took a whopping 135 mid-range jumpers (making just 38.5% of them). With that said, having a guy who can go make a play for you is priceless, and Braica has a good one.

Player to Watch: Never take your eyes off Unique McLean when he’s on the basketball court. After coming to Brooklyn from UMass, McLean was one of the more…unique…players in the NEC last season. Listed at just 6’2”, McLean was one of just six players in the league to make at least 100 shots “at the rim”, and had the 3rd most dunks (26) in the NEC. He also finished 14th in defensive rebounding rate (18.9%, no other player listed 6’4” or smaller had better than a 16.5% rate). He’s a 4-man in a point guard’s body. If he could improve on a jumper that held him to just 29.4% from three, the lefty could easily put himself into the All-Conference conversation.

They can compete for a title if…

  1. They can find some reliable shooting. The Terriers return just one rotation player who shot better than 30% from three (Steven Krtinic, who shot 32% from deep), and the guys who are being counted upon to lead the backcourt all struggled; McLean made 29% of his 85 three-point attempts, Higgins just 26.3% (152 attempts), and Hawkins made threes at just a 25.2% clip (115 attempts). Those three will have to be better, though there’s reason to expect an improvement there. In order to help his three returnees in the backcourt, Braica brought in two JUCO bigs who both have an ability to step out and shoot it; 6’8” Vuk Stevanic (21 for 65, 32.3% last year) and 6’7” David Muenkat (10-32, 31.3%). Also, there’s Travis Atson, the transfer from Quinnipiac, who made just 29% of his threes in 2018-19 and Larry Moreno, who shot 29.6% in limited time last season. Braica should be able to spread defenses out with five guys who can knock down shots, but he will need his team to significantly improve upon the 28.1% 3P% the Terriers had last season.

  2. Chauncey Hawkins becomes more efficient offensively. It’s important to understand that the higher usage a player has, the less efficient they often are, and Hawkins’ 99.4 O-Rating on 25.7% usage was solid. In fact, every coach would love to have a guy of Hawkins’ caliber; someone who can do a lot of different things offensively and make plays for both himself and others. However, as I wrote above, Hawkins made just 25.2% of his threes last season (27.9% for his career) which has caused his eFG% to stay in the low 40s (42.9% in 2019-20). With natural development of guys like Higgins, McLean, and Moreno, plus the additions of Atson, Stevanic, and Muenkat, if Hawkins can get his 3P% up past 30%, and increase his assists from 3.2 to ~4 per game, I’ll take the over (i.e. better) on SFC finishing with the 9th rated offense like they did last season.

  3. The new guys are able to replace the production that Deniz Celen, Milija Cosic, and Christian Rohlehr provided in the frontcourt. Rheaquone Taylor, a 6’7” JUCO forward who was expected to contribute, is no longer with the program, which means Braica will rely upon Stevanic and Muenkat, as well as Atson, seniors Krtinic and Yaya Evans, and freshman Elijah Hardison. Stevanic is a 6’8”, 240 lb. behemoth who can do a little of everything and should take over as the ‘5’, though it’ll be nearly impossible to fill Celen’s shoes. Muenkat is an athlete who should finish in transition, while Atson is a “small ball 4” who had a 15.8% defensive rebounding rate at Quinnipiac. Evans started 30 games last season and averaged nearly 5 rebounds per game, but struggled shooting the ball (27.7% from there, 35.1% eFG%). They have the bodies; can they get the production?

Yeah, but…It’s 2020; you have to be able to shoot the deep ball in order to compete. Not only did the Terriers finish dead last in 3P% last season, but it wasn’t even close; Wagner finished 10th at 29.9%, and Bryant was 9th at 32.2%. In order to become even average at shooting the three (~33.3%), multiple players will have to improve dramatically. For comparisons; Mount St. Mary’s, which shot a slightly below average 32.4% as a team last season, had five players shoot better than 31.6%. Are there five (or more) Terriers who can shoot better than 30% from there? Maybe.

How I see it: I don’t think the Terriers need to shoot a ton better from three to improve on that offense, not when you have a guy like Hawkins, who just makes everyone better, to pair with what McLean can do on the wing and Higgins, who will surely improve as a sophomore. We’re hearing rave reviews of Stevanic, and Braica should be able to play small at times with the way McLean and Atson can rebound on the wings. I do think the frontcourt will take a step back this season, especially since Taylor is no longer a part of this roster. St. Francis-Brooklyn is clearly behind the teams listed in the top two tiers, but there’s no reason they can’t get to, or slightly above, .500 in league play this season, but it'll largely hinge on if the shooting comes along.

#5 Wagner

Last Season: 8-21 (5-13 in the NEC), #329 at Kenpom; Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament

Coach: Bashir Mason- 9th season, 83-59 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances

Offense: 98.9 (8th)

Defense: 110.7 (10th)

Efficiency Margin: -11.8 (10th)

What they did well: Offensive Rebounding (31.5%, 4th), Free Throw shooting (73.5%, 3r)

Where they can improve: Defensive 3P% (39.3%, 11th), Defensive Rebounding (69.3%, 9th)

Key Losses:

Potential Rotation:

The Guy: Though he was overshadowed a bit by Curtis Cobb last season, Alex Morales was perhaps one of the more underrated players in the NEC. The 6’6” wing, who was playing in his first season in the NEC after coming in from Prince George’s CC, led the team in both rebounding (5.8 rpg) and assists (3.1) while running the 2nd highest usage rate in the conference (27.7%). Playing as a “point forward”, his assist rate of 22.3% was 8th in the league, and he shot it well from behind the arc (23 of 66, 34.8%). In 2020-21, he’ll probably be asked to improve upon his 13.6 ppg (2nd on the team behind Cobb), and would do well to improve on his shot selection (he attempted 86 2-point jumpers, making just 32.6% of them) that caused him to have a below-average 47.1% eFG%. Morales is a match-up problem on the wing given his size and ability to get downhill, and if he can become a bit more efficient scoring the ball, could be a top 10ish player in the league this season.

Player to Watch: Bashir Mason is the only coach to have an experienced 6’10” big on their roster, making Justin Brown a potential difference maker in his first year on Staten Island. Brown began his career at UT Chattanooga, where he struggled to find regular minutes; in two seasons (he sat out his first season as a medical redshirt), Brown appeared in 46 games (1 start), averaging nearly 9 minutes per contest. What he was able to show was an ability to block shots (a career 5.5% block rate, which would have ranked 5th in the NEC last season). Dropping down a level from the SoCon, Brown should be able to provide rim protection for a Seahawks club that finished 9th in the NEC in block rate in 2019-20. Anything they get offensively from Brown, whose offense will likely be limited to post-ups and dump-offs, will be a bonus.

They can compete for a title if…

  1. They get back to defending. In four of Mason’s first six seasons at the helm, Wagner finished either 1st or 2nd in the Northeast Conference in Defensive Efficiency. However, last season Wagner fell all the way down to 10th (narrowly edging out CCSU) thanks to an inability to defend the three-ball; teams attempted a league high 42.4% of their shots from three against Wagner, and made a league high 39.3%. That’s…not good. If you’re looking for me to explain how Mason can improve in that area, I can’t. However, given that the majority of the personnel in the backcourt returns, common sense tells me this will continue to be an issue. It’s tough to ask big wings (like Morales and Martinez) to guard smaller, quicker guards. Perhaps this opens up an opportunity for freshmen DeLonnie Hunt and Elijah Allen to steal minutes, if they can prove they can guard at the D1 level.

  2. They can find adequate shooting. Mason returns no players who had an eFG% better than 47.5% (NEC average last season was 49.6%), and a few guys, namely Will Martinez, Cobb, Nigel Jackson, and Alex Morales had “mid-range” problem, taking more than 28% of their shots from there. Morales and Jackson are the only returning Seahawk players to shoot better than 28% from downtown, though Chase Freeman made 33% of his threes as a sophomore (just 27.7% last season), and both Atiba Taylor and Jordan Mason have reputations as good shooters from beyond the arc. Shooting below 29.9% from three in league play, like Wagner did last year, won’t get it done, but there should be some positive regression there.

  3. They can rebound. The Seahawks struggled last season rebounding the basketball, finishing 9th in defensive rebounding rate. Of course, Nigel Jackson missed most of the season with an injury, ditto for Ja’Mier Fletcher, which made Wagner awfully small. Getting full seasons of Jackson and Fletcher, to go along with Brown and under-sized 4 Elijah Ford (9.1% offensive rebounding rate, 8th in the NEC) should, in theory, get Wagner back to at least the middle-of-the-pack in rebounding. Additionally, the sheer size of those guys should help keep opponents off the charity stripe, as they allowed a league high 42.5% free throw rate.

Yeah, but…Even if they can improve defensively, it’s hard to see them going from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to near the top of the conference, yet that’s what they will have to do unless they improve dramatically offensively. Wagner finished 8th in the league in offensive efficiency, and lost their leading scorer. As I mentioned earlier, shooting may be an issue, and Mason needs a few of the new faces (Taylor? Mason? Allen? Duquesne transfer Ashton Miller?) to become consistent deep threats, and Morales and Martinez to become more efficient on the wings. If that happens, the Seahawks could do some major damage. But that’s lot of “ifs”.

How I see it: Once upon a time (like, in 2018) it was easy to pencil Wagner into the “top 4” because you knew Bashir Mason would have his team defending. Will Mason, who’s still only 36 by the way, get the Seahawks back there? I don't see why not, and this season could be the year. The Seahawks were snake-bitten by injuries last season, with Nigel Jackson (played 12 games), Ja’Mier Fletcher (12 games), Atiba Taylor (played 1 game after transferring from Youngstown St.), and Jordan Mason (medical redshirt) all missing significant time. If all those players are healthy, plus the addition of Brown, potentially Ashton Miller (awaiting a waiver to play immediately after transferring from Duquesne) and some interesting freshmen in Hunt and Allen, that’s a lot of talent (and size). And don’t overlook the experience on this roster; Chase Freeman has started the majority of games at point guard over the last two years, and he's one of five seniors who should be in the rotation, plus Brown has two years under his belt in D1, while Taylor and Miller each have D1 experience. I don’t know if there’s enough there to get the Seahawks into the Top 4, but they should significantly improve upon their 5-13 record from last season.

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