2020-21 NEC Preview Part IV: The Top Tier
#2 Fairleigh Dickinson
Last Season: 11-19 (9-9 in the NEC), #289 at Kenpom; lost to LIU 73-72 in the NEC Quarterfinals
Coach: Greg Herenda- 8th season, 59-65 in the NEC, 2 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offense: 107.0 (2nd)
Defense: 106.0 (9th)
Efficiency Margin: 1.0 (T-5th)
What they did well: Shoot from three (39.8%, 1st), shoot from two (51.3%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: Defensive inside the 3-pt line (51.2%, 10th), force turnovers (17.4%, 8th)
The Guy: This wasn’t hard. Jahlil Jenkins is, by most accounts, the front-runner for NEC Player of the Year, and deservedly so. The 6’0” point guard does everything for the Knights; he led the team with 16 ppg (6th in the NEC), 3.9 apg (5th), and 1.8 steals per game (3rd), shot 39.8% from three (6th), had a 1.6:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (8th), and shot 82.4% from the charity stripe (6th), all while leading the conference in minutes played. What can he do for an encore as a senior? His shooting has improved in spades since he arrived in Teaneck; he’s gone from 30.2% from three as a freshman, to 33.3% as a sophomore, to 40% last season. However, his assist rate has gradually declined from 23.5% as a first year player to 21.3% as a junior, as he’s taken on more of a “combo guard” role. If he can continue to shoot it efficiently (he had a 50.3 eFG%, which is really good considering the volume of shots he took) while become even more of a play-maker for others, he could win the NEC POY going away.
Player to Watch: During his career at FDU, Elyjah Williams has carved out a role as a guy who does the dirty work inside, forming a strong frontcourt tandem alongside Kaleb Bishop. Bishop has graduated, and now Greg Herenda will need Williams to carry a much heavier burden than he’s used to. The 6’7”, 220 lb. versatile forward finished 10th in the NEC in eFG% (55.9%) as he was dominant at the rim, converting 64.5% of his 183 attempts inside. But he was also more than solid defensively, ranking 6th in blocks (38, 1.3 per game) and 9th in rebounds (7.3 rpg). With Bishop gone, Williams should expand his offensive game a bit; while he’s made 37% of his three-point attempts in his career, he’s only taken 57 in 90 games. Given his ability to put the ball on the floor despite his size (he did have a 15.1% assist rate last season), forcing defenses to keep him honest by stretching the floor will only add to his productivity.
They can compete for a title if…
Jahlil Jenkins plays like the best player in the league. For most guys that’s asking a lot, but not of Jenkins. He’s already shown an ability to carry this team, and as a senior who has appeared in 94 games, including scoring 20 points in the NEC Championship game as a sophomore, it’s now his time. Herenda has the luxury of putting the ball into the hands of the best point guard in the NEC and letting him do his thing.
Herenda can find a big (or three). The Knights have a solid group of wings, but Elyjah Williams is the only player listed taller than 6’5” who played significant minutes last season, and now that Kaleb Bishop has graduated, there’s a 6’8” sized hole in FDU’s lineup. While Herenda can opt to go with a small lineup at times given the fact that both Brandon Powell (14.3% DR%) and Xzavier alone-Key (10.4%) are solid rebounders for their size, that won’t be doable every game. Marc Dadika showed flashes as a red-shirt freshman as he provides size (6’8” 210 lbs.) and an ability to step out and shoot it. Sophomore Daniel Rodriguez (6’6” 250 lbs.) is said to be in better shape this season, and 7-footer Oscar Okeke has played sparingly over two seasons for FDU, but has the type of size that is not often matched at the NEC level. Another player to watch is Pier-Olivier Racine, a 6’8” freshman out of Montreal who could provide a lift at either forward position.
Malone-Key becomes more of a scorer. The X-Man was really efficient last season, making shots at a high clip everywhere on the floor last season; 36% from three, 67.5% at the rim, and a solid 41.1% from the mid-range. He also averaged 2 assists per game, and was 4th on the team in rebounds (3.3 rpg). With Bishop gone, look for that 21.8% usage rate (3rd on the team) to increase a bit, and with it his 12.3 points per game could get into the 15 ppg range. Both Jenkins and Williams were on the NEC’s Preseason All-Conference Team, but it’s probably more important that Malone-Key shows himself to be a top 10ish player in the Northeast Conference this season.
Yeah, but… While Herenda returns the entirety of his rotation from a season ago, sans Kaleb Bishop, can any of the bigs (outside of Elyjah Williams) step up and become significant pieces? Many of the NEC’s best teams this season have significant size: LIU has Eral Penn, Ty Flowers, and Jack Ballantyne; Bryant can go big with Elisias, Eggleston, Kostmayer, and Guinn; and the Mount has Malik Jefferson, Opoku, Offurum, and Nnamene. Last season Fairleigh Dickinson really struggled defensively, especially inside the three-point arc; they allowed teams to show 51.2% from two (10th). Williams does provide some rim protection, but they’ll need more. The good news? Dadika had a 6.5% block rate in limited time, while Okeke’s was 5.7%.
How I see it: The projection systems love Fairleigh Dickinson; Kenpom has FDU rated as the #1 team in the NEC heading into the season (#229 overall), while Bart Torvik agrees (#216). While that alone doesn’t mean a ton, the Knights do return the league’s best player (as the sport’s most important position), they have perhaps the best big in the conference, a really good scorer on the wing, and plenty of shooting. I do have concerns about the defense; they allowed a league high 41.6% of their opponents shot attempts from three, and if they have to play small they could get beat up down low. However, Greg Herenda’s squad should be the league’s premier offensive team, which means the defense only has to be average. It could be picking nits, but Herenda has often chosen to go with a short bench; FDU has ranked outside the top 289 in the nation in Bench Minutes each year since 2015-16. Given that the NEC is playing back-to-back days during this season, they may have to go deeper than they normally would like. Perhaps the freshmen are able to make an immediate impact, but I do worry about the depth, specifically in the frontcourt. With that said, I fully expect FDU to challenge for the league title, though it's worth noting that FDU has to travel to Long Island for their two games with the Sharks (February 4th and 5th, mark your calendars).
#1 Long Island
Last Season: 15-18 (9-9 in the NEC), #267 at Kenpom; lost to RMU 86-66 in the NEC Semifinals
Coach: Derek Kellogg- 4th season, 28-26 in the NEC, 1 NCAA Tournament appearance
Offense: 101.9 (5th)
Efficiency Margin: 1.0 (T-5th)
What they did well: Shoot from two (50.0%, 4th), get to the foul line (33.4%, 4th)
Where they can improve: Offensive Rebounding (23.9%, 10th), 2-point defense (49.9%, 9th)
The Guy: If Jahlil Jenkins doesn’t win the NEC’s Player of the Year Award this season, I’d immediately guess it was Ty Flowers who got it. The 6’9” stretchy-4 is a match-up nightmare in the NEC, with a smooth stroke from the outside (33.5% career 3P shooter), an ability to finish around the rim (59.7% last season), potentially the best rebounder in the conference (9.6 rpg last season, 2nd to E.J. Anosike), and someone who provides rim protection (59 blocks last year, 3rd in the conference). Playing out of position at the ‘5’ in 2019-20 due to the pre-season injury to Eral Penn, Flowers struggled with his shot all season; he made just 29.7% of his threes, and while it improved slightly during league play (31.6%), it was nowhere near what he did as sophomore (39.3%). Is it difficult to see him being the guy who made 72 threes two seasons ago? Absolutely not. Flowers should be a double-double machine, and with Penn back in the fold, will no longer have to spend his time on the defensive end banging down low as much. If you're in an NEC fantasy league, Flowers should be your 1st pick.
Player to Watch:
Player A is Jahlil Jenkins, who we all agree is the best PG in the league, right? Well, Player B is Jermaine Jackson, Jr. In his first season on Long Island after transferring from Detroit, Jackson showed an ability to do a variety of things in the backcourt despite having to share time with seniors Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto. Batts and Agosto have graduated, and it should be Jackson who benefits the most. Expect his minutes per game to jump from 28.5 to ~35, as he’ll be asked to help fill the void left behind by the graduation of Raiquan Clark and his 19.5 ppg. On the NEC’s Virtual Media Day, Derek Kellogg mentioned that Jackson is in much better shape this season. It wouldn’t surprise me if JJJ averaged closer to 15 points and 5 assists, especially considering Kellogg-coached teams love to push the tempo (LIU had the 23rd fastest Adjusted Tempo in the nation last season).
They can compete for a title if…
Flowers gets back to the guy who made 72 of his 183 three-point attempts as a sophomore. Can he do that? Absolutely. But LIU needs him to do it.
The transfers are better than expected. Alex Rivera was one of the best freshmen in the America East two seasons ago, averaging 9.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists for UMass-Lowell, shooting 33.3% from three. He should get significant minutes on the wing, while Tre Wood is a true point guard who struggled to find minutes for UMass as a freshman in 2018-19, averaging 3.2 points and 2.4 assists in 22 games. With Jackson’s ability to play either on or off the ball, Jackson, Rivera, Wood, and 6’2” junior Virshon Cotton (34% from three last season) form a very good, versatile, and experienced backcourt.
Eral Penn returns healthy and is able to stabilize the frontcourt. The 6’7” forward missed all of last season due to an injury suffered in the pre-season, and he’s exactly the guy last season’s team missed; he’s the ultimate glue guy down low, finishing at the rim (63.3% as a sophomore), blocking shots (7.4% block rate), and rebounding the basketball (4.5 per game in just 17.6 minutes). Of course, he struggled to stay on the floor because of his penchant for fouling (6 fouls per 40 minutes), and he doesn’t provide much shooting. However, Penn should be a key cog in the LIU rotation this season, allowing Flowers to spend more time at his natural '4' spot.
Yeah, but…Is there enough depth up front? Penn has dealt with injuries, plus as I mentioned, he struggled to stay on the floor two seasons ago. 6’8” junior Jack Ballantyne was an enigma at times last season; he has an impressive skill set for his size but tried to do too much (as evinced by his 27.4% turnover rate) and foul rate (6.6 fouls per 40 minutes). If he can cut that back and be someone who knocks down perimeter shots (7 for 17 a year ago) and finishes at the rim (nearly 60% last season), he’ll help in a big way. Ousmane Ndim, a 7-foot junior, has yet to find his footing as a rotation player. One name to watch; Anthony Kabala, a 6’8” “big wing” who dealt with injuries during high school but is one of the more talented freshmen in the NEC with “guard skills” and an ability to rebound it. He could allow Kellogg to go “small” at times, with Flowers shifting to the ‘5’.
How I see it: When you take Raiquan Clark, Jashaun Agosto, and Julian Batts off a team which finished 9-9 in the league last season, it feels strange expecting them to make a big jump. However, I just love the way the pieces fit; Kellogg has plenty of shooting, they should rebound the ball and protect the rim better this season, and Kellogg has proven an ability to succeed with transfers. Plus; unlike many of the transfers other programs are bringing in this season, Rivera and Wood were practicing with the team in 2019-20 as sit-out transfers, so they aren’t new to the program. Plus, as I mentioned above, LIU gets to host Fairleigh Dickinson for both of their matchups; I know fans won't be in the gym, but I still have to believe there's a home-court advantage, even if it's slight.I believe Jackson becomes one of the best 6 or 7 players in the NEC by March, Flowers finishes 2nd to Jahlil Jenkins in the POY race, and LIU cuts down the nets at the Steinberg Wellness Center in March.