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Thoughts on CCSU: Pre-Season

The last time any of us watched college hoops was March 13th, as the Coronavirus was shutting down life down as we knew it. Fast forward a little more than 8 months and we are on the verge of the 2020-21 season starting. Yup, it’s going to be weird, but I truly believe we will have a season. A season that will be interrupted with game postponements and cancellations and teams shutting down, but a season nonetheless.

I haven’t written anything CCSU-centric since April 22nd, so we are long overdue. Between not much happening, and not knowing if we’d even have a season, I never felt motivated to write down words. So consider this some sort of CCSU Preview in bullet form.

If you missed my NEC Preview, I covered Central Connecticut here. But this will be further in depth.

1) Let’s get this out of the way; yes, this is the final year of Donyell Marshall’s initial five-year contract he signed back in April of 2016. I don’t know what his status will be following this season; he’s 19-53 in the NEC in four seasons, his average Kenpom finish has been league-worst #330 during that span, and the Blue Devils were picked to finish 9th in the 10-team NEC in the pre-season poll. With that said, I’ll never be one to root for someone to lose their job. Marshall is a good guy who truly cares about his players, as are assistant coaches Mike Witkoskie, Anthony Ross, Baba Diallo, and Eric Wheeler. Anyway, my point is; I don’t care to speculate on what may or may not happen next year, and this will probably be the last time I’ll mention that this is the final year of Marshall’s contract on these pages. I'll be focusing on the basketball for the time being. Now, let's get to it...

2) As I mentioned above, CCSU was picked 9th in the NEC pre-season poll, and for whatever it's worth I also picked them 9th. However, I do think that's selling the team a bit short; the 2020-21 version of the Blue Devils should be better than they were last year. From my perspective there really aren't any bad teams in the league this season, and because of that I think there will be a lot of parity from #s 5-10 (I do think FDU, LIU, Bryant, and the Mount are clearly better than the rest of the league). What do the projections think?

Bart Torvik is super high on CCSU's offense making a major jump (we'll get to why in a bit), and currently has CCSU as the 7th rated team in the NEC. Kempom is less bullish; the system sees a slight improvement, but nothing to write home about. Looking at the projections shows that, in order to qualify for the NEC Tournament (remember: only the top four make the NECT this season), the Blue Devils will have to improve significantly in both ends of the floor.

3) I don’t think it’s opinion as much as it is fact, but I believe that any improvement (or lack thereof) will be largely driven by the point guard play. Last season Marshall tried sophomore JUCO transfer Zach Newkirk, Western Connecticut transfer Tyler Rowe, and freshmen Myles Baker and Trey Tennyson, none of whom really stuck as a solid lead guard. Central assisted on just 43.4% of their made field goals, which ranked 330th nationally and was well below the D-1 and NEC average of 51.5%. There was a significant lack of play-making, which led to the team having the least efficient offense in the conference.

Instead of sitting on his hands, Marshall went out and brought in two JUCO point guards in Nigel Scantlebury (6’0” from Niagara County CC) and Lamar “Tre” Mitchell (6’3” from Phoenix College). I wrote about them both here and here back in April. On CCSU’s Virtual Tip-Off back on November 11, Marshall spoke glowingly of Scantlebury. From what I’ve heard, he’s shown a real ability to make plays off the dribble, shoot it, and be a leader on the floor. It’s also worth pointing out that Marshall did say that Zach Newkirk has come back to school significantly better than he was last season, as he “took it personally” that the staff went out and brought in two new point guards.

4) So can Scantlebury (or Mitchell or Newkirk) become an average NEC point guard this season? It’s easier said than done; an average starter is a good player! Below is a chart showing the other nine programs’ returning point guards, and their numbers from last season.

Yes, there are some really good point guards in this league. I think it may be asking quite a lot for anyone on CCSU’s roster to be an average NEC lead guard in 2020-21 (I can’t see anyone being as good as, say, Jenkins, Chong Qui, Hawkins, Jackson, Clarke, or Green), and I think the best case scenario is someone who can be league average in the assist/turnover category while being a competent three-point shooter. I’d probably sign for a point guard putting up a line similar to what Green III did last season, except more minutes; he had a high usage rate (24.4%) and turned it over more than you’d like, but his 25.6% assist rate was 6th in the NEC, and though he didn’t shoot it great, he at least kept the defense honest. Something like 10 points, 3.5 assists, 30% from three, and solid defense would really provide a major lift to this program.

5) One thing I love about Bart Torvik's site is the fact that his program provides player-level projections. Of course, with any projection system, context matters, and also it's not perfect. Anyway, let's take a look at what Torvik projects in terms of PORPAGATU! (Note: This is a stat that attempts to encompass everything a player does on the offensive end, including O-Rating, Usage, rebounding, etc. Again, it's not gospel, but it's the best we've got).

Torvik sees Krishnan as a star level player this season; in fact, only Jahlil Jenkins, the NEC Pre-season Player of the Year, has a higher projection than Krishnan at 3.5 PORPAGATU!. We'll break down what Torvik sees in Krishnan in a minute.

Torvik is clearly buying into the whole "sophomores improve at a higher rate than other years" phenomon, which I wrote about here last summer. Jamir Reed, Greg Outlaw, and Myles Baker all go from below average players to really good starters, as do Karrington Wallace and Stephane Ayangma. Reed's projection is the 23rd highest in the NEC, Wallace's is 25th, and Outlaw is 28th. Does CCSU have one of the very best players in the league and three more in the top 30? I could see it.

6) So, I certainly expect Ian Krishnan to have a really big year; he's one of the best (maybe the best) shooters in the NEC. But 1st team All-NEC level?

If you pro-rate Krishnan's 2019-20 season for a full year (he missed the 1st semester due being academically ineligible), he would have accumulated ~2.3 PORPAGATU!, which would have ranked him 9th in the NEC. That passes the sniff test; Torvik's system loves shooters, and Krishnan made 44.6% of his three-pointers on his way to a solid 53.3% eFG%.

Torvik's system projects a major jump in O-Rating from 104.1 to 110.3, which tells me it thinks Krishnan's high three-point conversion rate is sustainable, and it also expects him to increase his assist rate from 5.6% to 8.6%. Essentially; the same quality of shooting with better play-making. I'd certainly sign for those numbers if I could. Central doesn't need Krishnan to become Jahlil Jenkins, but just a bit more offense off the bounce to keep the defense on their toes would be huge.

7) What about the other guys? Let's just touch upon them quickly in order of their projections.

Jamir Reed- If you told me Reed ends up on one of the three All-Conference teams in March, I would not be surprised. His versatility should allow Marshall to tinker with different lineups, and he'll be asked to play both the wing and the '4' (and could be used as a point forward at times similar to the way Tyler Kohl was utilized). The projection shows a major jump in O-Rating (92.8 to 104.4 at similar usage rates). He made 35% from three last season, but I'd like to see him do more work at the rim (he made 53% of his attempts at the rim, but just 24% of his shot attempts came from there, which is low).

Greg Outlaw- Probably the most athletic player on the team, Outlaw made just 4 of 22 from three last year, but did a really nice job in getting to the rim (57% in 144 attempts). During the CCSU Virtual Tip-off, Marshall said that Outlaw has been shooting it a lot better, and if that's true he should see starter-level minutes. The other key for him is keeping his emotions in check; he had a tendency to show his frustration, which led to high turnover and fouling rates. Marshall did say that Outlaw came back to school much stronger, so maybe he'll be able to bump that shooting percentage at the rim up past 60%.

Karrington Wallace- Wallace can be a frustrating player at times; he's the team's best rim protector, but his shot selection was putrid; 49% of his attempts were from the mid-range, and he made just 41.5% of those shots. Torvik's system sees a major improvement in his O-Rating, which to me implies that he becomes better at finishing around the rim (51.2% last season), and takes better shots.

Myles Baker- Baker really struggled inside the three-point line last season, converting just 31.8% of those attempts (41.4% at the rim, 15% from the mid-range). However, he made 32.7% from three, which is right around average. If he's asked to do a bit less given the hopeful improvement at point guard (I could see him as an instant offense guy off the bench), perhaps Baker finds more footing. One thing to note; Marshall said that Baker grew around 2 inches and gained 15 lbs.

Xavier Wilson- Wilson seemed lost at times offensively last season, but also showed a lot of skill for a player listed at 6'7" 210 lbs. His 39.2% eFG% left a lot to be desired, but he's a really good rim protector who should be better on the boards. I see Wilson as someone who becomes really good at his role this season, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him log starter level minutes.

Stephane Ayangma- The lone senior on the roster, Ayangma seemed caught in-between at times last year. He's not a '5'; he's listed at just 6'6" and despite being the team's best rebounder, he doesn't offer rim protection, and he made just 45.5% of his shots at the rim. In a perfect world he'd come off the bench as a stretch-4 who can get out in transition. I'd really like to see him improve on that 56% from the charity stripe.

Zach Newkirk- Newkirk struggled so much in his first season at CCSU that Marshall and his staff went out and brought in two point guards. According to Marshall, Newkirk took it personally and returned to school significantly better. He really had a hard time taking care of the basketball, and that combined with his 43.4% eFG% really bogged down the CCSU offense. He's a good defender, plenty athletic, and did make 11 of his 29 three-point attempts (though the shot isn't exactly aesthetically-pleasing). It'd be a great story if he was able to show a massive improvement and be a major rotation player at Central.

Ola Olamuyiwa- Ola is an impressive human-being, but the 6'9" big is still more of a project on the basketball court. Marshall mentioned that he had knee surgery during the off-season, and is working his way up to speed. I'd assume he won't be an option early in the season, if at all.

8) I know you're all sick of me talking about shot selection, but get over it.

Anyway, I stumbled across a new site called Shot Quality which guessed it, shot quality. According to their "Adjusted Offensive Shot Quality" metric, Central Connecticut rated 345th out of 353 D-1 teams last season. Ouch!

I've talked about it plenty, but anecdotally it just feels like the Blue Devils took a lot of low percentage two-pointers last season, and that's borne out in the data. However, instead of talking about mid-range shots, I'd like to frame it a different way.

Last season, NEC teams made 55.2% of their shots at the rim (1.04 points per attempt), 33.3% of their three-point attempts (0.99 points per attempt), and 35.5% of their mid-range jumpers (0.71 points per attempt). Obviously, threes and layups are much more efficient shots, at least in a vacuum. Shot Quality tweeted out an image of D1 shot efficiency this morning, and it's worth taking a peak at:

So instead of talking about mid-range shots, let's talk about threes and layups.

In 2019-20, 68.1% of CCSU's shot attempts were either three-pointers or layups, which was by far the least among NEC Teams, and well below the league average of 77%.

In fact, if you go back to 2016-17, Marshall's first season, just 71.9% of CCSU's shots were either threes or layups, which is easily lowest in the league (SFC is 2nd lowest at 75.3%, and Sacred Heart is the highest at 81%). And it's not like Central has just been good in the mid-range; they've made 34% of their attempts, which is below the league average of 34.9% during that period, and 2nd worst in the NEC.

My hope for this season is that the additions of Scantlebury and Mitchell (and perhaps an improvement in Newkirk) result in better, and more, looks from three, and more dump-offs to the bigs in the paint, as well as more transition opportunities...essentially, fewer mid-range jumpers.

9) So what should we expect as far as a rotation goes? Marshall has generally gone with a deep bench during his time with CCSU; last season 11 players averaged between 11.5 mpg and 29 mpg, and in 2018-19 10 players averaged more than 10.6 mpg. Guys are going to play. Here's my best guess:

I think CCSU's best lineup will be Scantlebury, Krishnan, Baker, Reed, and Wallace, with Outlaw being the primary backup on the wing, Ayangma/Wilson seeing time in the frontcourt, and Newkirk getting time at the point.

I don't have Tre Mitchell playing much, but that doesn't mean he won't; he could easily take some of the minutes at the point, as well as some of the non-Krishnan playing time on the wing.

10) Random Thoughts: CCSU is opening up on Wednesday at 8pm against UConn at Gampel Pavilion. Torvik projects a 90-66 UConn win...A few people have asked; Wassef Methnani, the grad transfer from Fairfield, signed a pro contract in his native Tunisia in early September. Methnani was expected to be the starter at the '5'...Central has just 11 scholarships this season. Initially it was to be 12 (NCAA allows a maximum of 13) in what appears to be a cost-cutting initiative...Central's only other non-conference game that is currently scheduled is against Maine at Mohegan Sun on Friday. Kenpom has CCSU favored by three, Torvik by one...the Signing Period began last week, but things were quiet as far as CCSU goes. That makes sense; given that Marshall's contract is up, why would a recruit sign a NLI to play there? Plus, with just one senior on the roster, there are theoretically not many roster spots available...Trey Tennyson, who transferred to Ranger College (JUCO), recently received a couple of D1 offers; Denver and South Carolina St. I'm disappointed he chose to leave, as he was a really good shooter (43.4% from three as a freshman) and could have become a really good player for the Blue Devils...And finally; I don't blame the NEC for handling the schedule the way it did, but the Blue Devils getting both FDU and LIU on the road is a tough break. Sure, there will be no fans there, but home is still home. CCSU is the only team to get both the Knights and Sharks, who many predict to be the best two teams in the NEC, on the road.

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