2020-21 NEC Preview Part III: Tier 2
#4 Mount St. Mary’s
Last Season: 11-21 (7-11 in the NEC), #298 at Kenpom; lost to SHU 61-59 in the NEC Quarterfinals
Coach: Dan Engelstad- 3rd season, 13-23 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offense: 101.1 (6th)
Defense: 103.9 (8th)
Efficiency Margin: -2.8 (8th)
What they did well: Got to the Free Throw Line (37.2% free throw rate, 2nd), Defensive Rebounding (26.9% opponent OR%, 3rd)
Where they can improve: Shooting (47% eFG%, 9th), defending the three (opponents shot 36.5% from three, 9th)
The Guy: A 5’8” guy goes from walk-on as a freshman to pre-season All-Conference teamer. It only happens in mid-major league, and it’s awesome! People like Damian Chong Qui are what I love about college hoops, and last season he did pretty much everything you’d want from a point guard; he averaged nearly 4 assists per game to go along with a 25.9% assist rate (5th in the NEC), knocked down 37% from deep, shot 84% from the charity stripe (119 makes), and he played over 34 minutes per game as he earned the conference’s Most Improved Player award. He made a jump in pretty much every facet of the game from his freshman season, so where does he go from here? With Vado Morse gone, expect DCQ to carry an even heavier burden than his 20.7% usage rate last season, and he can be even more effective if he could do a little better job finishing at the rim where he converted just 44.5% of his attempts last year (not easy for a player of his stature). If he can remain efficient as a higher usage player, he could push FDU’s Jahlil Jenkins as the league’s premier point guard.
Player to Watch: Not many teams in this league have a 6’9”, 230 lb. monster in the middle that is capable of playing nearly 30 solid minutes per game at the D1 level, yet that’s exactly what Dan Engelstad has in Malik Jefferson. A junior from Virginia, Jefferson led the team in rebounding with 7 per game, and was 4th in scoring at 9.7ppg. He was dominant at times in the interior; he had the league’s 6th highest offensive rebounding rate (10.2%), and a 54% eFG% thanks to making nearly 60% of his shots at the rim, including 17 dunks. Defensively, he cut his foul rate nearly in half from 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes as a freshman to just 3.7, which allowed him to stay on the floor longer. However, that accompanied a drop in his block rate from 3.6% to 2.1%. If he can find a way to protect the rim a bit better while not fouling, and also improve on his free throw shooting (39.7% last season, 44.6% for his career), he could be an all-league player.
They can compete for a title if…
They find a good wing (or three). Engelstad returns 4 starters in Chong Qui, Jalen Gibbs, Nana Opoku, and Jefferson, but there’s no clear wing that is primed to take over for Vado Morse, who now plies his trade for James Madison. Some think it will be 6’4” freshman Josh Reaves, who is a high level athlete who can shoot it well. Samford transfer DeAndre Thomas, a 6’5” junior awaiting a waiver to play immediately, is a combo-guard who struggled to shoot it last season (27.8% from three, 40.7% eFG%), but he did make 49% of his threes as a freshman. 6’4” sophomore Naim Miller had opportunities as a freshman, but he went just 8 for 43 from downtown, and 6’5” freshman Dakota Leffew could get an opportunity as a scorer. It doesn’t really matter who it is, but Engelstad needs to find a couple of guys who can knock down shots as defenses key on DCQ, Gibbs, and Jefferson.
Mezie is the man. As in Mezie Offurum, a 6’8” 220 lb. “big wing” who previously played for Jamion Christian at George Washington. Offurum played in 45 games over two seasons in the Atlantic 10, carrying a 41.7% eFG% (4 for 19 from deep), and 2.7% block rate in nearly 9 mpg. His versatility could allow Engelstad to play “big” at times, with Offurum, Jefferson, and Nana Opoku all on the floor together. Not many teams in the Northeast Conference have the kind of depth in the frontcourt that Engelstad has, especially when you include 6’9” junior Collin Nnamene, 6’7” junior Jalen Jefferson (Malik’s twin brother), and 6’7” freshman Frantisek Barton.
Jalen Gibbs takes the next step. Don’t get me wrong, the 6’3” wing was a solid player last year, finishing 2nd on the team in scoring with 11.2 ppg. Yet, I think Mount fans have been waiting for him to explode since he transferred in from Drake, and it just hasn’t quite happened. Gibbs’ eFG% was just 44.8% last season; while he shot a solid 32.7% from three, he made just 44% of his attempts at the rim, and shot just 63.7% from the free throw line. As a sophomore he made nearly 58% of his shots at the rim (and 71.4% of his free throw attempts), so perhaps there was an injury there, but the Mount probably needs Gibbs to up that scoring average a bit.
Yeah, but…It feels like a common theme amongst a few teams in the middle tier but; is there enough shooting? Chong Qui knocked down 37% of his threes, Gibbs 32.7%, and Opoku 31.6% (18 made threes). But Engelstad will need at least two more (probably three) shooters to get near the top of the standings. Reaves has the reputation as a shooter and Thomas had a great season as a freshman for Samford, but I'm not sure that's enough. Don’t forget, the Mount lost Morse (31.6%) and Omar Habwe (34.5%) off a team that finished 8th in 3P% (and 10th in 2P%).
How I see it: Looking at the roster, it’s surprising to me that this team struggled so much last season, finishing with the 7th best Efficiency Margin in the conference. Defensively they really had a difficult time defending the three, allowing opponents to make 36.5% of their threes; that’s at least partly due to rolling out a backcourt that went 5’8” and 6’0” (Morse), but that could also be due to luck (the same lineup limited teams to making 35.1% from deep the year prior). I love the 4 returning starters; not just the players, but how they fit together, and I think Offurum will be a huge addition to this team. Is Josh Reaves the real deal? Some think so, but I’ve seen plenty of highly touted freshman in this league not fit the bill. I believe that one of Reaves, DeAndre Thomas (if he gets a waiver), and Naim Miller will step up to give Dan Engelstad a very solid top 6, but I do worry about the depth here, specifically on the wing. There will be a stark improvement upon their 7-11 finish, and I think they’ll be fighting for a top 4 finish, but they’re a year away from challenging for a title.
Last Season: 15-17 (7-11 in the NEC), #234 at Kenpom; lost to SFU 87-61 in the NEC Quarterfinals
Coach: Jared Grasso- 3rd season, 14-22 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offense: 100.1 (7th)
Defense: 100.1 (4th)
Efficiency Margin: 0.0 (7th)
What they did well: Defend the three (30.9%, 2nd), defensive rebound (26.7% opponents OR%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: shooting (47.8% eFG%, 8th), turnovers (21.3% TO rate, 11th)
The Guy: It’s difficult to figure out who the best player on this roster is, as it could be any one of 4 or 5 guy. But, to me, The Guy is Michael Green III. MG3, last season’s Rookie of the Year in the NEC, is as dynamic a lead guard as you see at this level; he’s lightning quick in transition, he makes plays for others (25.6% assist rate, 6th in the NEC), has shown an ability to score at all three levels, and can defend on the perimeter. Plus, by all accounts, he’s a leader on the floor. Of course as a freshman there were growing pains; while splitting time with Ikenna Ndugba, he struggled from three (27% on 74 attempts), and at the rim (44.3%), and took a whopping 108 mid-range jumpers (converting just 38%), plus his 22% turnover rate was higher than you’d want. Basically, he looked like a really good freshman point guard; talented but inconsistent with some questionable decisions thrown in. Ndugba is gone, and it appears Green has the keys to the offense (he was recently named a co-captain despite being just a sophomore). With the number of offensive options around him, it’ll be interesting to see if Green can become more of a facilitator in Year 2, getting his teammates involved a bit more, turning it over less, and taking better (and, perhaps fewer) shots. If he’s an All-NEC 1st teamer by year’s end, I’ll assume Bryant finished near the top of the standings.
Player to Watch: Usually we see players leave these parts for conferences like the Big Ten, but rarely do we see guys coming to the NEC from high-major schools. After averaging 13 points and 5.6 rpg as a freshman at Quinnipiac in 2016-17, Peter Kiss transferred to Rutgers after head coach Tom Moore was fired, and after sitting out the 2017-18 season started 12 games for the Scarlet Knights, averaging 6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game two seasons ago (he played just two games for Rutgers last season before leaving the team). Now Kiss arrives with potentially two seasons of eligibility, and should step into a role as a “big wing” who can shoot from deep (30.2% on 96 attempts as a RS sophomore at Rutgers), rebound the ball (he had 16.5% defensive rebounding rate as a freshman at Quinnipiac, which would have been 18th in the NEC last season), and convert around the rim. He could see time as a stretchy-4 in a small-ball lineup, but given the depth Jared Grasso has in the frontcourt, will likely see himself matched up with smaller opponents on the wing in league play. There are many who see him as an All-League player (for what it's worth, Bart Torvik projects Kiss to be one of the top few players in the NEC with 2.8 PRPG!), and he could put up some huge numbers for the Bulldogs, especially if Grasso looks to push the tempo like I expect.
They can compete for a title if…
Kiss and Melo Eggleston are as advertised. We’ve already talked about Kiss, who has proven it at the D1 level in both the MAAC and the Big Ten, but Eggleston is a different story. He's a former Top-100 recruit who began his career at Wake Forest (21 games, 5 mpg), then played last season at Arkansas St. where he averaged 8.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in nearly 20 minutes per game. He profiles as a “grab and go 4” who could be one of the best rebounders in the NEC (he had a 23.5% DR% in the Sun Belt). He did struggle offensively in his two stops, with a career 16.7% 3P% (5-30) and 39.9% eFG%, but his size and athleticism should allow him to be difficult to match up with. These two, combined with Green, Pride, and Elisias, could form the best starting lineup in the NEC.
Elisias dominates defensively. Last season Hall Elisias was maybe the best defensive players in the NEC; sure, Juvaris Hayes won the DPOY, and Jare’l Spellman led the league in blocks with 87 (Elisias finished 2nd with 78), but Elisias had the league’s highest block rate by far (13.2%, compared to Spellman’s 9.1%), and he also had the 7th highest defensive rebounding rate in the NEC. However, Elisias missed two games and played sparingly in a few others as he battled injuries, and also had a higher fouling rate than I’m sure Jared Grasso would like (4.9 fouls per 40 minutes). If he can improve his minutes per game from 19.4 to, say, 25ish and continue to be a dominating rim-protector and rebounder, it will allow Grasso’s backcourt to gamble more and try to force more turnovers (they finished dead last in the NEC with a 15% defensive turnover rate last season).
The shooting materializes. Jared Grasso likes to shoot the three-ball, as the Bulldogs took nearly 42% of their shots from deep last season (2nd highest in the NEC). However, they only made 32.2% of those shots in conference play. Adam Grant and his 99 three-pointers are gone, as is Benson Lin (51 threes, 33.1%), and both Green and Charles Pride struggled overall from three-point land last season (both shot 27%). Grasso brings in a ton of guys who have the potential to be plus shooters in the NEC, though only Kiss has shown it at the D1 level. JUCO transfer Chris Childs’ calling card is perimeter shooting, as he made 45% from three at Indian Hils CC last season. Darius Guinn (38%) is another JUCO shooter, Luis Hurtado played sparingly in two seasons at UAB but has a reputation as a knock-down shooter, Luke Sutherland didn’t get many opportunities at Siena but is another guy who should be able to make the three-ball, Erickson Bans is the all-time leading scorer in Rhode Island history, and freshman Kai Kostmayer is 6’8” but likes to shoot it. Making shots at other levels is not the same as making them in D1 games, but Grasso should have plenty of shooting.
Yeah, but…Point guard? Check. Size? Check. Shooting? Check, I think. Scoring? Check. Versatility? Check. Experience? Check. The Bulldogs roster appears to check all the boxes, but I have major questions regarding how Grasso can get this team to be a cohesive unit. The 3rd year head coach brought in nine (9!) new players; 4 D1 transfers, 3 freshmen, and 2 JUCO transfers, plus he has three returning rotation players and one guy who red-shirted last season. That’s a lot of bodies, and a lot of guys who have an expectation of significant playing time. In his first two seasons at the helm, Grasso rarely went deeper than 8 players consistently, and there’s only one ball; are there enough players on this roster willing to be role players or backups? Time will tell.
How I see it: I think Kiss will be one of the best players in the league, I expect Green to be one of the top 3 or 4 point guards in the NEC, and guys like Eggleston, Hurtado, and Kostmayer provide size and versatility that should allow Grasso to tinker with different lineups. And of course, no one has a defensive presence like Elisias. Plus, Charles Pride is the type of player I could see winning an NEC Player of the Year Award down the line. However, as I mentioned above, I have difficulty trusting a team with so many new players. I could see this team clicking and winning the league, and I could also see them stumbling to a 9-9 record and missing the NEC Tournament. One thing is for certain, however; Grasso has this program headed in the right direction, and if he can bring most of this rotation back in 2021-22, they should be the heavy favorites.