2021-22 NEC Preview
Is this the year Jared Grasso gets Bryant into the NCAA Tournament? Hint: Maybe.
We're back, baby! Opening day of the college hoops season is a little more than one week away, and everyone has had their say as to what's going to happen in the Northeast conference this year. Well, now it's my turn.
What am I most looking forward to? A normal season! A full non-conference season, no (or very limited) pandemic-related shut-downs, fans in the stands, and an 8-team NEC Tournament.
If you watched the NEC's Media Day last week, you may have noticed a theme just about every coach thinks the Northeast Conference will be better than usual. And while often times that sort of message is largely "coach speak", that's not the case this season; the NEC, and college basketball as a whole, is going to be very good in 21-22. Why? Easy; because the NCAA granted all players an extra year of eligibility. Because of that, there was limited turnover in our little corner of the college basketball universe; nine players from the three All-NEC teams last season have returned, and 7 of the 10 programs bring back all, or nearly all, of their rotations from a season ago. Oh, and there are 14 newcomers who arrived from other D1 basketball programs. Continuity, talent, experience; oh man, this season is going to be fun!
Of course, the off-season wasn't all good; the NEC lost some guys. Clutch shot-maker Damian Chong Qui, formerly of Mount St. Mary's, is now at Purdue-Fort Wayne, Former Bryant PG Michael Green III is playing for ol' friend Andy Toole at Robert Morris; Jahlil Jenkins is at Stony Brook, while is former FDU teammate Elyjah Williams went back home to Chicago to pay for Northwestern, and SFC star guard Chauncey Hawkins is sitting out this season, only to return in 2022-23 for Bryant.
What else is new? We had our first coaching change since Dan Engelstad and Jared Grasso got their first head gigs in 2018; Central Connecticut hired alum Patrick Sellers to replace Donyell Marshall, whose contract expired after going 40-104 in 5 seasons. The NEC is better when the Blue Devils are good, so here's to hoping Sellers can get that thing rolling again like it was in the early-to-mid aught's.
There are so many story lines heading into 2021-22 that it may be hard to keep track; can Dan Engelstad run it back after losing DCQ? Will this be the year Bashir Mason finally breaks through and gets Wagner into the NCAA Tournament? Ditto for Jared Grasso, who was *this* close last season? Can the NEC champion finally get off the 16-line for the first time since LIU back in 2011?
Another story line I'm watching closely is; is the NEC still a "guard's league"? That's been said approximately 549,716 times over the last few seasons, and well...I'm not so sure. The league has a number of elite big men, including at least a couple of programs that intend to play three bigs together and a few others who have that ability.
Rather than linking throughout, here are a few hat tips to websites that I used in drafting this thing: Kenpom, Bart Torvik, Shot Quality, Hoop-Math, Hoop-Explorer, and the NEC MBB site. Also; if you're looking for great follows and/or previews; Ryan Peters (Blue Ribbon Preview and the NEC Overtime Blog), Nelson Castillo and the NEC Insider Blog, and of course the czar of NEC Men's hoops, Ron Ratner. Also, check out the 3 Man Weave NEC preview if you're into great hoops content with an analytical twist.
Without further ado, here is my NEC preview. One word of caution; these rankings were more difficult than usual, if only because I believe there is a ton of parity. Not "a bunch of mediocre teams" parity, but "programs with a ton of talent, continuity, and great coaches" parity. Particularly, teams ranked 3 through 7 could be put in any order and I wouldn't push back. Ultimately, I think it'll be difficult for any team to finish with anything better than 12-6 in this conference; there will be no "gimmie's" on the road this year, especially with butts in seat this season.
Let's do this..
#10 Central Connecticut St.
Last Season: 5-16 (5-13 in the NEC), #345 at Kenpom. Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament.
Coach: Patrick Sellers- 1st season
Offensive Efficiency: 96.4 (10th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.8 (8th)
Efficiency Margin: -9.4 (10th)
Tempo: 71.6 possessions/40 mins (5th)
What they did well: Force turnovers (20.4% TO rate, 3rd); Shoot threes (33.4%, 4th)
Where they can improve: Interior defense (54.1% opponent 3P%, 10th); Rebound (67% DR%, 10th)
The Guy: It's always nice when the analytics and the eye test agree, and while Ian Krishnan and Nigel Scantlebury have both been good since arriving in New Britain, it's Tre Mitchell who was the Blue Devils' best player a season ago. A 6'3" combo guard who came to CCSU as a JUCO transfer, Mitchell had a really nice first season in D1, putting up a 40/37%/71% shooting line while being one of the best in D1 at taking care of the basketball (10.9% turnover rate).
After arriving at Central with the reputation as a point guard, Mitchell proved to be more of a three-level scorer than playmaker; he made 55% of his shots at the rim and 35% from the mid-range, while his assist rate was just 8.2%. He was also one of CCSU's best perimeter defenders, using his long arms and quickness to put together a 2.6% steal rate, good for 13th in the NEC.
Mitchell only played 51% of Central's available minutes last season, but that was more to do with Donyell Marshall spreading minutes around (no player saw more than 68% of minutes) than Mitchell's game; he was their most efficient offensive player, and best all-around guy. Expect Tre to log heavy minutes for this year's squad, and the Blue Devils need him to become more aggressive as a play-maker and scorer.
Player to Watch: Did you know that Ian Krishnan is the only player from the 2018-19 NEC All-Rookie Team who is still in the NEC? The others; Joe Kasperzyk (Bryant), Vado Morse (Mount St. Mary's) and Koreem Ozier and Cameron Parker (Sacred Heart) have all moved on, though are all still playing D1 hoops. What started as an exciting beginning to a career has become enigmatic; after shooting nearly 35% from deep as a freshman, including numerous big shots, Krishnan made nearly 45% from three as a sophomore after missing the 1st semester due to academic issues. His junior season? One to forget
Many people thought Krishnan would take the next step and become one of the best wings in the NEC last season, and it ended up not happening for the 6'2" guard; his eFG% dipped from 53.3% to 46.2%, he played fewer than half of the minutes available to him (including missing 4 games), and found himself on the bench during crunch time late in the season.
While Krishnan may not become a true scoring wing, when he's on he may have the best looking stroke in the NEC; he gets good lift, gets it off quickly, and is unafraid to take a shot. Throughout his career he's developed an ability to attack a close-out (his free throw rate doubled from his freshman to sophomore season), and given his impressive athleticism, he should be able to do more damage inside the three-point line. If he can make strides there while making a commitment to being a good perimeter defender, he should team with Mitchell and Nigel Scantlebury to form one of the better backcourts in the NEC.
Central Connecticut can compete for a title if it...
1. Mitchell, Krishnan, and Scantlebury play like top 15 players in the league. I've already talked about Mitchell and Krishnan, but point guard Nigel Scantlebury is also back; a JUCO transfer, the 6'0" lefty had the league's 3rd highest assist rate (28.7%) and a 1.9:1 assist to turnover rate. Oh, and he shot 35% from three for good measure. CCSU's problems offensively, at least in part, were because these three didn't play together a ton. Check it:
The Blue Devils were a good offensive team with Krishnan, Scantlebury, and Mitchell on the floor at the same time (and slightly better defensively, though still bad); unfortunately, according to hoop-explorer, that only occurred on ~10% of the offensive possessions in 20-21. Expect Sellers to live or die with these three.
2. at least one of the freshman bigs are Rookie of the Year level players. The Blue Devils have just one player taller than 6'5" who has played significant collegiate minutes; 6'6" super senior Stephane Ayangma. Ayangma has been productive player at times for the Blue Devils; he's undersized for a big, but was Central's best rebounder a season ago. However, the rest of the frontcourt minutes will be logged by first year players. The staff is high on 6'6" versatile forward Andre Snoddy because of his ability to do a lot of things, including defend multiple positions. Jayden Brown, a 6'8" 215 lb. big, was productive at the Tilton School and should see minutes at the '5'. Abdul Momoh, a 6'7" 235 lb. athlete, and 6'10" Arian Dehnavi will also compete for playing time. Sellers needs rim protection and rebounding, as well as inside scoring, from multiple new guys. Long story short; Central needs a couple of freshmen to play like upper-classmen.
3. Patrick Sellers is able to significantly improve the defense. During his tenure as head coach, Donyell Marshall never finished better than 296th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and over the last two seasons CCSU was 340th and 336th. Sellers has been open about trying to get this year's version of the Blue Devils near the top of the league in defensive efficiency. Absent bringing in immediate star-level talent, building a defensive foundation is the quickest way to move up the league standings. Dominating on defense while getting just enough offensively is a recipe that has worked before; two seasons ago, Merrimack finished next to last in offensive efficiency, but because they allowed just 90.3 points/100 possessions (by far tops in the NEC), they finished 14-4 and in 1st place in the conference.
But...In a league with coaches like Joe Gallo, Bashir Mason and Dan Engelstad, not to mention the LIU frontline and the way Jared Grasso teams take away 3s and protect the rim, I'm not sure it's possible for this year's Blue Devils to even crack the top half of the league in terms of defensive efficiency. While a change in style should pay immediate dividends, Sellers has no experienced rim protectors and will be relying on a number of young players in key spots.
How I see it: I truly believe the CCSU administration hit a home run with the hiring of Patrick Sellers; he's an experienced alum who knows what it takes to win at multiple levels, and has said all the right things since getting the job in the spring. He's a man with a plan, is putting a focus on the classroom, and trying to build a strong foundation both on-and-off the court.
Can the Blue Devils surprise and challenge for a league title in 2021-22? Quite frankly; they just don't have the roster. Don't get me wrong; I really do love the backcourt, and I think some of the newcomers have a chance to be good players in this league, plus grad senior Hegel Augustin, who arrives from D2 Glenville St., should provide quality minutes as a wing who can do a little bit of everything (shoot, defend, rebound). But as you'll see when (not if!) you continue reading; this is perhaps the deepest and most talented the NEC has been in recent history. The majority of the 15 All-NEC members have returned, and seven programs return the vast majority of their rotations from a year ago. In a normal season, Sellers may be able to take this roster and drastically improve their league record in Year 1. But this is nowhere close to a normal season, and Central will be one of only two or three programs that are even playing freshmen, let alone relying on multiple new guys in the rotation.
What I do believe will happen, is that the Blue Devils will exceed their modest expectations this season. Sellers has already breathed some life into a fan base that hasn't had much to cheer about for the better part of a decade, and a more modern style of play will likely result in career years for the players who chose to return. This is truly a rebuilding year for Patrick Sellers; expect to see Central improve defensively and get better as the season goes on. If that happens, it could set the stage for a major jump in 2022-23.
#9 St. Francis (NY)
Last Season: 9-10 (9-9 in the NEC), #301 at Kenpom. Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament.
Coach: Glenn Braica- 11th season, 102-94 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 106.0 (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.2 (10th)
Efficiency Margin: -2.2 (7th)
Tempo: 75.3 possessions/40 mins (3rd)
What they did well: Take care of the ball (16.1% TO%, 1st); shoot free throws (73.5%, 5th); make 3s (33.3%, 4th)
Where they can improve: Defend the 3 (38.3%, 10th); fouling (39.3 opponent FTA/FGA, 9th)
The Guy: Chauncey Hawkins, SFC's do-it-all-PG, was expected to lead this roster in 21-22. However, Hawkins left school in September and has committed to join Jared Grasso at Bryant next fall. Luckily, over the summer Glenn Braica brought in another guard who can do a little bit of everything; Michael Cubbage. A "jack of all trades", in 2019-20 the 6'4" wing led the Red Foxes in scoring (9.6 ppg), rebounding (6.1 rpg), and assists (3.4 apg) in his first D1 season following a red-shirt year.
The problem? He was largely inefficient; he made just 15 of his 72 three-point attempts, which correlated with a 35.2% eFG% and 82.3 O-Rating (24% usage). It appeared he had begun making strides as a senior last season, putting up a 51.5% eFG% through 2.5 games before missing the remainder of the season with a foot injury.
Assuming he's healthy, Cubbage should provide Glenn Braica with a playmaker on the wing who can rebound and defend, while allowing SFC the versatility to utilize different lineups. If he can shoot it from the perimeter (he did knock down 37% of his 3s in 2017-18 at Paris JC), Cubbage should end up being an All-NEC level player who puts up strong per-game numbers.
Player to Watch: Whenever I watch the Terriers play, Rob Higgins jumps out; he plays hard on both ends of the floor, has a smooth stroke, and the athleticism to get his own shot and make plays for others. However, the production hasn't quite matched the "eye-test"; through two seasons, the 6'1" combo-guard has a 41% eFG% (25% from deep) and a 10.5% assist rate. Of course, over the last few seasons Hawkins has largely dominated the basketball.
With Hawkins gone, Glenn Braica needs a point guard, and Higgins could be that guy. Braica clearly trusts him; as a sophomore last season, Higgins played 79% of available minutes (tied with Unique McLean for tops on the team). Plus, when Hawkins was off the floor, it was Higgins who saw an increase in both usage and assist rate.
Torvik projects Higgins to make a major jump; last season he had a 95.6 O-Rating on 19.5% usage, and the system spit out a projection of 105.5 O-Rating on 20.8% usage. If Higgins can be that kind of offensive player, the Terriers should be able to find some success in 21-22. If you're looking for a "Most Improved Player" in 21-22, the junior guard could be your guy.
St. Francis (NY) can compete for a title if it...
1. gets significant production from the incoming transfers. Brooklyn is a cool spot to live for a guy in his 20s (or so I'd imagine), so it's no surprise that Glenn Braica has had quite a bit of luck bringing in transfers over the past few seasons. This year is more of the same; I've already mentioned Cubbage, but he's just the tip of the iceberg. Patrick Emilien, a 6'7" versatile forward, arrives after three seasons as a role player for Western Michigan. Emilien has a lot of the same qualities as Travis Atson; size, an ability to shoot it (32.6% from three last season), rebounding, and even some rim protection. Bahaide Haidara, a 6'6" non-shooting wing who played at George Mason, has the athleticism and size to be a versatile defender while putting up strong rebounding rates (17.3% OR%). Jack Hemphill, a 6'9", 230 lb. big who played at Boston University, should see minutes at the '5' thanks to his ability to stretch the defense (33.3% from deep) and rebound. He also fits into Braica's offense as a big who can pass the basketball, a la Deniz Celen (15.1% assist rate). And finally, Tedrick Wilcox, a 6'6" big wing, comes to SFC after earning a spot on the CACC All-Conference team at D2 Dominican College. Wilcox averaged 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, excelling as a three-point shooter (17 of 36).
2. gets good seasons from a trio of returning guards. While it's true that SFC brought in a collection of transfers, many of the backcourt minutes should go to returnees. I talked about Higgins above, but Larry Moreno and Trey Quartlebaum were solid in limited minutes as sophomores last season. Moreno is a 6'0" lefty who has a smooth jumper (45% from three last season) and the athleticism to be a good perimeter defender. Quartlebaum slowly worked his way into the rotation last season, showing an ability to score in multiple ways. Braica needs productive minutes from at least two of these guys, if not all three.
3. can improve defensively. In three of the past five seasons, St. Francis-Brooklyn has finished outside the top 300 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, according to Kenpom, including #330 in 2020-21. Last season, the Terriers really struggled to defend the three, allowing opponents to shoot 38.3% from deep, but the problems went deeper than that; because Braica often went small, with 6'5" Travis Atson at the '4', rebounding was an issue at times, as was allowing opponents to get to the free throw line. The good news is that Braica clearly tried to address this issue by bringing in size with experience; Cubbage, Haidara, Hemphill, and Emilien all had defensive rebounding rates above 16% at the D1 level last season, and Braica will have the opportunity to play both big (with, perhaps returning 6'8" big Vuk Stevanic teaming with Hemphill and/or Emilien) and small (putting Haidara at either forward spot, or Cubbage as a "small ball 4"). Braica has been able to roll out strong defensive teams; from 2011 through 2016, the Terriers were regularly one of the most efficient defensive teams in the conference. If this group is going to surprise, they will have to recreate that kind of success.
But...I like that Glenn Braica attempted to reload, rather than rebuild, but is it possible to replace Chauncey Hawkins, Unique McLean and Travis Atson? Those three combined to average nearly 44 points, 17 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game last season; incredibly productive and versatile. In comes five experienced transfers, including four from the D1 level, but here's the truth; only Michael Cubbage has ever averaged more than 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds at the D1 level. Cubbage, Emilien, Hemphill, Haidara, and Tedrick Wilcox are all talented players who might have success in the NEC, but asking them to fill the shoes of the players who have left may be a lot to ask.
How I see it: I really dig the frontcourt Braica has put together; 6'8" senior Vuk Stevanic was a nice find last season as a JUCO transfer, putting up 6 points and 3 boards in nearly 20 mpg, and he should team with 6'9" 230 lb. BU transfer Jack Hemphill to form a nice tandem at the '5'. 6'7" Patrick Emilien and 6'6" Bahaide Haidara should both see time at the '4', and both offer completely different skillsets; Emilien as a modern day '4', and Haidara as a rim-running point forward. And Cubbage should be capable as a big guard who can do a lot of different things. And of course, there's 6'6" Tedrick Wilcox, who should provide the always coveted "shooting with length", and 6'7" returning sophomore Elijah Hardison showed flashes as a rim protector.
My concerns are in the backcourt; namely, is there enough shooting and playmaking? Outside of Cubbage, there is no one on the Terriers' roster who had an assist rate better than 16.4% (Emilien) last season. Higgins, Moreno, and Quartlebaum are all better off the ball, but may be pressed into duty as a primary ball-handler, unless a freshman like D'Andre Howell or Nick Folk earn their way into the rotation at the '1'. But let's face it; there's no one currently enrolled at SFC that is going to make us all forget about Chauncey Hawkins.
If you're betting on the Terriers, you're banking on the new guys having big seasons. Integrating a group of transfers is often easier said than done, and even if all goes according to plan, I'm not sure there's an all-NEC player on this roster; per Bart Torvik, Higgins, Stevanic, and Cubbage are all projected for 2 PORPGATU!, which is outside the NEC's top 20. Meanwhile, Kenpom projects SFC as #323 nationally, which is 8th in the NEC. I think Higgins is primed for a breakout, and Cubbage should be one of the best newcomers in this league, but is their ceiling higher than .500 in league play? I'm not so sure, largely because I generally don't trust teams without a proven point guard, nor do I bet on squads that are built on the backs of transfers.
#8 Fairleigh Dickinson
Last Season: 9-15 (8-10 in the NEC), #299 at Kenpom. Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament.
Coach: Greg Herenda- 9th season, 67-75 in the NEC, 2 NCAA Tournament appearances (2016 and 2019)
Offensive Efficiency: 106.8 (2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.6 (9th)
Efficiency Margin: -0.8 (6th)
Tempo: 71.7 possessions/40 mins (4th)
What they did well: Shoot the 3 (38.1%, 2nd); 2P% (50.3%, 3rd); Protect the rim (10.3% block rate, 2nd)
Where they can improve: Force misses (52.9% opponent eFG%, 10th); Defensive rebounding (67.8% DR%, 9th)
The Guy: Last season, I had Brandon Rush as the most improved player in the league (Tyler Thomas won the award, and he was also deserving); as a freshman, the lefty wing was a bit player, playing just 39% of the team's available minutes while putting up an O-Rating of 92 on 14.8% usage. He shot it okay (32% from three), but didn't do much else.
When it was announced that both Xzavier Malone-Key and Devon Dunn would opt out of the 2020-21 season, there were major concerns regarding who would step up as a scoring option on the wing for the Knights. Enter the 6'3" sophomore, who shot 48%/40%/74% on his way to averaging 14.3 points and 4 boards per game while doubling his assist rate and cutting down on his turnovers.
With Jahlil Jenkins (Stony Brook) and Elyjah Williams (Northwestern) gone, Rush should now be "the man" for Greg Herenda's club. Last season's 20.4% usage rate will probably jump up a bit, as FDU will need Rush to carry a heavier offensive load. Given his ability to shoot it and finish over defenders, he should be up to the task.
Player to Watch: A year ago, Devon Dunn was supposed to be the zone buster that would allow Jahlil Jenkins, Elyjah Williams, and Xzavier Malone-Key the room necessary to get to the rim; as a freshman in 2019-20, the 6'1" guard put up a 44%/42%/83% shooting line and earned more run late in the season, including 31 minutes in a 73-72 loss to LIU in the NEC Quarterfinals.
Unfortunately for FDU, though understandably, Dunn opted out of the 2020-21 season. Fortunately, Dunn wasn't as sorely missed as expected; The Knights still shot 38% from deep (2nd in the NEC), as five different players shot it better than 38% from three. However; only two of those guys return (Rush and Joe Munden). Dunn's return is paramount.
The key will be; what steps did Dunn take towards becoming an all-around scorer? Of his 124 field goal attempts as a freshman, over 70% of them came from beyond the 3-point line, and his 15.3% usage suggests and more one-dimensional offensive game. Greg Herenda has never been overly-reliant on an one offensive player; in fact, since 2014, only Darian Anderson (2015-17) has had a single-season usage rate higher than 24.3%:
Last season, four players had usage rates north of 20%, and three of them are gone (Jenkins, Wlliams, and Brandon Powell). It's unlikely that Rush will ascend to the top of this list, which means Herenda needs multiple players to see increased offensive roles this season. Dunn could be first in line.
Fairleigh Dickinson can compete for a title if it...
1. Brandon Rush plays like a POY candidate. I've already talked about Rush above, but it's worth hammering home the point; FDU needs the junior wing to put up big point and assist totals, similar to Tyler Thomas of Sacred Heart last season. Rush was very efficient last season; his 59.2% eFG% was 6th in the NEC, and a large part of that was due to shot selection; according to Shot Quality, 83% of Rush's field goal attempts were either at the rim or from deep, which was among the highest in the NEC. The next step Rush needs to take is to become more of a playmaker; his assist rate last season was just 8.4%. If he can get better at putting the ball on the deck and make plays for others, FDU could surprise.
2. finds someone to be an average NEC point guard. A reminder; Jahlil Jenkins, owner of nearly 1700 points and 480 assists at FDU, is now plying his trade at Stony Brook. Perhaps there was no loss in the league this off-season that cut as deep as Jenkins, who was an All-NEC 2nd teamer last season, and the engine for the FDU program. With him gone, it will likely fall to a pair of newcomers to handle point guard duties; Antoine Jacks and Sebastien Lamaute. Jacks is a physical and heady true lead guard who likes to push the tempo, and should be a solid perimeter defender. Lamaute is more of a combo-guard who was previously committed to play at McGill University in Toronto, which did not play in 20-21 due to the pandemic. The Knights will likely be the only program playing a PG without D1 experience, and it may be asking a lot for either guy to step in and be good in Year 1.
3. the sophomores in the frontcourt make a major jump. While it was a tough season for FDU, one of the bright spots was a trio of freshmen: Joe Munden, Jr.; Pier-Olivier Racine; and John Square, Jr. Munden, who earned a spot on the All-Rookie team last season after averaging 7 points and 5 boards per game, shot over 40% from deep while being one of the best rebounders on the team a year ago (17.2% DR%), despite being listed at just 6'4". He provides versatility on both sides of the ball, and should see minutes at both the '3' and '4'. Racine, a 6'8" big, was incredibly efficient at the rim (73.6%), and showed an ability to protect the rim (6.5% block rate), as well as stretch the defense (3 for 5 from three). Square, a 6'6" undersized-4, was a force on the offensive boards (12.9% OR%), and efficient around the rim (58%), while getting to the line with regularity and making them at a 76% clip while playing behind Elyjah Williams. All three should receive ample opportunity on the floor this season, and should improve.
But...FDU returns just 6 players with D1 experience; fine in a normal season, but not in 21-22 when the vast majority of NEC teams return nearly all of their rotations (and/or are bringing in experienced transfers). Herenda opted against fishing in the Transfer Portal, which means he will need at least a few first year players to step into the rotation. It's always tough to rely on inexperienced players in prime roles, but it's even more difficult when your opponents have older, proven guys. Herenda has 7 first-year scholarship players, and at least a few of them have to be good for the Knights to get near the top of the standings.
How I see it: In Greg Herenda's 9 seasons at the helm, his team's have finished in the top 300 at Kenpom in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency exactly one time; in 2019, when they were 295th. While that would be normally be a huge red flag, it hasn't mattered much; since 2016, he's won two NEC titles (in 2016 and 2019), and finished below .500 in league play just once (8-10 last season). Why? Because he always figures out a way to score, and he knows how to develop stars.
First came Darian Anderson and Marques Townes, then Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway, and most recently Jahlil Jenkins and Elyjah Williams. Brandon Rush appears to be the next Knight in-line to be an NEC POY candidate, and it's likely that another player or two emerge as sidekicks.
With all that said, do I think FDU can challenge for a league title? I do not; I just think there's too much inexperience there, especially at the point guard position. However, I believe in Herenda as a coach who will get the most out of his roster, and I think two things will happen; they will continue to get better, becoming a tough out in February; and they will finish higher than their projected finish (9th, according to the coaches). The future is bright for this group, even if this season might not be fruitful.
#7 St. Francis (PA)
Last Season: 6-15 (5-13 in the NEC), #312 at Kenpom. Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament.
Coach: Rob Krimmel- 10th season, 83-77 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 98.6 (8th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.7 (6th)
Efficiency Margin: -4.1 (9th)
Tempo: 69.6 possessions/40 mins (6th)
What they did well: Defensive Rebounding (72.6%, 2nd); get to the free throw line (33.7 FTA/FGA, 3rd)
Where they can improve: Make 3s (30.6%, 9th); limit turnovers (20.5%, 9th); protect the rim (52.5% opp 2P%, 8th)
The Guy: When Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon graduated, it was Ramiir Dixon-Conover who ascended to the top of the food chain for the Red Flash after having a limited role in his first two seasons in Loretto. The man they call RDC averaged a team-high 15.5 ppg a season ago, thanks to the 4th highest usage rate in the NEC (27.6%), and finished 2nd in assist rate (29.5%), cut his turnovers from 35.6% in 19-20 to 20.8%, and was arguably the best perimeter defender in the league (3.1% steal rate).
A rare example of a guard who excels without having much of a jumper; he's made just 28.3% of his 3-point attempts since arriving in Loretto, Dixon-Conover excels at getting downhill and either getting to the rim (122 attempts in 20-21) or setting up teammates. The Red Flash were a different team when RDC was off the floor (he missed 3.5 games early in the season due to an injury) thanks to his ability to effect the game on both ends of the court.
Last season, RDC massively cut down on his turnovers while increasing his assist rate substantially. Not easy to do! Given the number of scoring options SFU has, it will be interesting to see if that usage rate can come down a bit and if Dixon-Conover can be less of a scoring PG and more of a true facilitator and play-maker.
Player to Watch: When Marlon Hargis became eligible on January 14th, he immediately made an impact. A wing/4 who transferred to SFU after two underwhelming seasons at Holy Cross, Hargis went for 14 points and 7 boards in an 89-82 win over 1st place Bryant in his first game for the Red Flash, exhibiting impressive athleticism for his size (6'7" 205 lbs.), an ability to stretch the defense (10 for 24 on the season) and rebound.
Krimmel has a ton of frontcourt depth, but only returns three guards who played more than 50% of available minutes (RDC, Ronell Giles, Jr., and Max Land). If Hargis can repeat his 51/42/84 shooting line and show an ability to defend smaller wings, he could see time on both the wing, as well as a stretch-4, providing versatility to the Red Flash lineup.
With Bryce Laskey gone, Krimmel needs to find more shooting; the Red Flash made just 30.6% of their three-pointers a season ago. Hargis could be that missing piece while also helping SFU match up with a few teams expected to play "big" lineups, such as Long Island and Mount St. Mary's.
St. Francis (PA) can compete for a title if it...
1. sees continued development from the sophomore wings. Both Maxwell Land and Ronell Giles, Jr. had impressive freshman campaigns, and while I'm lumping them in here together, they are very different players. Land, who earned a place on the NEC's All-Rookie team despite missing 5 games due to an injury, is a knock-down perimeter shooter (41.1%) who uses his 6'4" frame to provide some defensive rebounding. Giles, who is also 6'4", likes to use the bounce to attack the rim (50% at the rim) and make plays (16.7% assist rate), while also having a good jumper (32.7% from deep). If Land can become a bit more assertive offensively, and Giles can be more efficient (42.5% eFG%), both could become stars in this league down the road.
2. gets a rebound season from Myles Thompson. After averaging 10.2 points and 5 boards per game as a sophomore, I was waiting for the 6'6", 230 lb. 4-man to take the next step, and in last year's preview I labeled him "The Guy" for SFU. And quite frankly; it just didn't happen. His eFG% dropped from 50.6% in 20-21 to 41.3% last year, in part because his perimeter shot all but abandoned him; he made just 25% of his 68 attempts after shooting nearly 35% the year prior. But it wasn't just the outside shot; as a sophomore, Thompson did much more work in the paint, and last season settled too often for jumpers.
Thompson is a good, but not great, three-point shooter who really did a good job in the paint during the first two seasons of his career. Rob Krimmel has implied that the pandemic had a major impact on Myles last season. I expect to see Thompson get back to what he was two years ago, which was an efficient match-up problem who used his 230 lb. body to do work inside.
3. takes better care of the basketball. In 2020-21, the Red Flash scored just 98.6 points per 100 possessions in NEC play, well below the league average of 101.8. At least part of the issue on the offensive end was the fact that they turned it over on 20.5% of their possessions, 2nd worst in the NEC. Max Land's 27.7% turnover rate was 4th highest in the league, while both Dixon-Conover and Ronell Giles, Jr. had turnover rates north of 19.5%.
But...The other part of St. Francis' offensive inefficiency was the fact that they didn't take, or make, many three-pointers. Now, Rob Krimmel-coached teams don't exactly take a ton of threes; since his first three seasons in Loretto when the Red Flash were in the top 50 nationally in 3PA%, that rate has generally been in the low-to-mid 30s (35.9% in 2019, 29.8% in 2020, and 33% in 2021). The biggest difference last season was that they didn't make many, just 31%. In fact, only Max Land was above average amongst players who made more than 10 three-pointers. Giles was close (32.7%), but the rest of the roster really struggled; Bryce Laskey, who has since transferred, shot 31.1%; RDC 29%, Thompson 25%, Luke Ruggery 5 for 26, Zahree Harrison 2 for 17. What are the odds that multiple players improve significantly upon their shooting numbers from a year ago?
How I see it: I don't think there's a single NEC program that experienced as much bad luck in 2020-21 as the Red Flash did (I'd hear an argument for Bryant due to when their covid issues happened). Numerous players either missed games or pushed through injuries, which added up to 9 different starting lineups in just 22 games for Rob Krimmel . Let's not forget; SFU beat Pitt 80-70 on opening night and looked like they were legitimate contenders for an NEC crown. That performance was clearly an anomaly; per Bart Torvik, their Game Score in the Pitt win was '96', and their 2nd best output was '67' in a 76-58 win over Sacred Heart on January 21st.
I absolutely love the frontcourt; Mark Flagg is one of the premier bigs in the NEC who provides rebounding, rim protection, inside scoring, and passing, and Josh Cohen was a pleasant surprise last season as a back-up 5 who can give opponents a slightly different look. Combine those guys with a bounce-back season from Myles Thompson and a versatile forward in Hargis, and Krimmel has the size to hang with anyone in this league.
However, I do have concerns, namely; outside shooting, backcourt depth, and defense. I see no way SFU repeats its 5-13 NEC record from last season, but if they want to climb up the standings they will need someone like Luke Ruggery and/or Zahree Harrison to step-up and become a legitimate option off the bench. Plus, they need to become a better defensive unit after allowing a 50.9% eFG% in NEC play. I do think we see a bounce-back, as a .500 league record is certainly attainable. But a lot would have to go right for the Red Flash to challenge for a league title this season.
#6 Sacred Heart
Last Season: 9-8 (9-7 in the NEC), #324 at Kenpom. Lost to Bryant 85-55 in the NEC Quarterfinals.
Coach: Anthony Latina- 9th season, 67-73 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 102.7 (5th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.6 (7th)
Efficiency Margin: -2.9 (8th)
Tempo: 68.2 possessions/40 mins (7th)
What they did well: Free throw % (74.9%, 1st); Got to FT line (35.9 FTA/FGA, 2nd); TO% (18.9%, 4th)
Where they can improve: Protect the rim (5.2% block rate, 10th); force turnovers (15.3%, 10th) 2P% (48.7%, 8th)
The Guy: The NEC's leading scorer at 19.1 ppg last season, Tyler Thomas is just the latest in a long line of Pio wings to come out of seemingly nowhere to put up huge numbers; as a freshman he averaged just 5.6 points in 18.7 mpg. The improvements for Thomas came all over the floor; his 3P% went from 27.6% to 33.1%, his assist rate jumped from 5.8% to 19.6%, and he got to the free throw line more (where he made 81.3% of his attempts).
Thomas is very good with the ball in his hands, with an impressive ability to create his own shot. However, he's not just a scorer; his 2.9 apg was tied with Aaron Clarke for the team lead. Essentially nearly every Pioneer possession went through the 6'3" sophomore, who plays bigger than his listed height given his ability to finish at the rim (54%).
So what can Tyler Thomas do for an encore? Given Thomas' usage rate (28.2%), his O-Rating of 103.1 is certainly solid, However, according to Shot Quality, his 0.85 SQPPP ranked in the 28th percentile in Division-1. Long story short; he needs to take better shots. According to Hoop-Match, 21% of his shots were 2-point jumpers, and he made just 36% of them. Of course, some of that was out of necessity; with Clarke banged up for much of the season, there wasn't a ton of help offensively for Thomas, who shouldered much of the scoring load. Expect to see Thomas finish among the leagues leaders in scoring again, but do it more efficiently.
Player to Watch: You all know I like analytics, and players like Mike Sixsmith continue to mess with the computers; last season, Bart Torvik had the freshman as a Top 10 player in the NEC, as did the metric Box +/- (7th), while his O-Rating was a whopping 136. Of course, on the flip side of that is the fact that Sixsmith played just 64% of the team's minutes; great playing time for a first year player, but not what you'd expect from one of the most valuable players in the league.
So, what is Sixsmith? A high volume shooter, he made 54.2% of his 3-pointers last season and 91% of his free throws, which all added up to an ungodly 76.5% eFG%. The numbers suggest he's a one-dimensional offensive player, as evidenced by his low 12.2% usage rate and the fact that he only attempted 22 two-point shots compared to 59 three-pointers. However, if you watched Pio hoops last season you saw a guy with a high IQ who has enough athleticism to be more than "just a shooter".
As I mentioned above regarding Thomas, Anthony Latina has a long history of developing talented wings. If Sixsmith can develop as an all-around scorer and secondary ball-handler (he did have an 18.3% assist rate last season), it would take quite a bit of pressure off of Tyler Thomas. Don't be surprised to see Sixsmith pull a "Tyler Thomas" and explode as a sophomore.
Sacred Heart can compete for a title if it...
1. gets a bounce-back season from Aaron Clarke. In 2019-20, when then-PG Cameron Parker went down with a knee injury in January, it was Aaron Clarke to the rescue; from that point on, the lefty had a 22.1% assist rate and shot 35% from three. However, last season was a tough season for Clarke; dealing with injuries of his own (he missed two games in January), Clarke had a career low 41.6% eFG%, including 26% from three. Of course, it wasn't all bad, and Clarke closed the season strong; in six games in February, the New Jersey native averaged 16.8 points per game, to go along with a 22.8% assist rate, 8.3% turnover rate, and got to the free throw line 37 times, making 30. If that Aaron Clarke is here for the 21-22 season, that backcourt will be tough to stop.
2. gets more multi-dimensional production from the frontcourt. In 20-21, Anthony Latina used three bigs more than 25% of available minutes, and the reviews were largely mixed. Bryce Johnson, an under-sized forward at 6'6", was probably the best of the them; as a freshman, he put up outstanding rebounding rates (25% on the defensive side, nearly 9% OR%) while scoring efficiently around the rim (60% eFG%) However, he's not a guy that's shown an ability to protect the rim or stretch the defense (2 for 9 from deep). 6'7" forward Matas Spokas (54% of minutes) showed flashes as an efficient stretchy-4 who knocked down 30% of his 3-pointers, and scored 18 points in back-to-back games. Defense was a struggle at times, and his rebounding rates weren't what you'd want from a forward. Cantavio Dutreil (46%), a transfer from North Alabama, led the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, yet struggled offensively (45.5% eFG%, 56.4% from the free throw line), and averaged 5.6 fouls/40 minutes. 6'8" senior Zach Pfaffenberger, who returns after missing last season with an injury, proved to be a good offensive rebounder in limited minutes as a true sophomore, though he struggled with fouling and shot selection. Latina has plenty of bodies, but finding a couple of efficient combinations in the frontcourt is easier said than done:
Spokas and Johnson were clearly efficient together offensively, but which group can get stops?
3. improves defensively. Speaking of getting stops, last season, Sacred Heart's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of 113.5 was 348th out of 357 D1 teams which is...not good. While Latina's teams have historically been more offense than defense, 20-21 was his worst defensive season during his tenure as head coach. The good news? There's no other way to go but up. The bad news? It's difficult to see a major improvement without a change in personnel. They were generally good at limiting good shots (allowed a 49% eFG% in league play, which was 4th), but they had the lowest block and turnover rates. Improving in one, or both, areas would be a start.
But...If you're a Sacred Heart alum, you may be looking at last season's 9-7 NEC record and be thinking "let's run it back!". However, it's important to note; the Pio's' Efficiency Margin in league play was -2.8 points/100 possessions, 3rd worst in the league. In other words; SHU over-achieved. The offense was more or less average, and the defense wasn't great. Yes, there's a lot of roster continuity, but just about every program in the NEC brought back all, or most, of their rotations.
How I see it: Tyler Thomas is a star, and he's got three really good running mates in the backcourt in Aaron Clarke, Mike Sixsmith, and Alex Watson, who provides a little bit of everything as a combo-guard with experience. Plus, Cantavio Dutreil was a pleasant surprise as a guy who dominated the boards (8.9 rpg), and the group of freshmen that debuted last season showed a lot of promise.
In a normal season, that level of continuity would set the stage for ultra high expectations, similar to St. Francis (PA). However, with the extra year of eligibility and level of talent returning to the NEC, that might not be enough. Both Kenpom and Torvik have Sacred Heart as the 6th best team in the league in their respective pre-season ratings, and that feels right.
With all that said, the difference between teams 3-7, at least in my eyes, is pretty negligible; one could order those teams in any way and I wouldn't really push back. It doesn't take a wild imagination to see Sacred Heart finishing in the top 4 again; Latina has the chops to figure out some defensive adjustments (maybe they turn up the ball pressure and try to force more turnovers), at least a couple of the freshmen could (should?) make a big jump, and Thomas could be a POY candidate. I think this group has a high floor, and should be competing for a home NEC quarterfinal game when it's all said and done.
#5 Long Island
Last Season: 9-9 (9-9 in the NEC), #271 at Kenpom. Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament.
Coach: Derek Kellogg- 5th season, 37-35 in the NEC, 1 NCAA Tournament appearance (2018)
Offensive Efficiency: 99.3 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: 97.9 (4th)
Efficiency Margin: +1.4 (4th)
Tempo: 74.5 possessions/40 mins (2nd)
What they did well: Force turnovers (20.9%, 2nd); defend the 3 (32%, 3rd); Off Rebounding (32.9%, 3rd)
Where they can improve: shoot 3s (28.7%, 10th); make free throws (66.7%, 9th)
The Guy: While it could be argued who LIU's best player is, it's clear who is the most important; Ty Flowers. The 5th year senior is a 3-time All-NEC player; 3rd team in 18-19 and 2nd team in both 19-20 and 20-21, and led the team in scoring at 17.3 ppg and assists (3.6 apg) while chipping in 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. The fact that Flowers returned after initially entering the Transfer Portal is a major win for the program, especially after losing Jermaine Jackson, Jr. and Virshon Cotton, among others.
Flowers is an impossible match-up for NEC teams given his 6'9" frame, long arms, and face-up offensive game. As a stretch-4, Flowers does nearly everything you could want him to do; he scores in a variety of ways (65% at the rim), rebounds at a high level (18.9% DR%, 11th in the NEC), protects the rim (3.6% block rate, 8th), and makes plays for others (23.1% assist rate, 7th).
The problem, if there's been one, is that his perimeter shot has seemingly left him; after knocking down 72 of 183 (39.3%) from downtown as a sophomore, the Waterbury, CT native has made less than 30% of his attempts over the past two years. Despite the 3-point struggles, he's remained efficient (51.5% eFG%), though nowhere near where he was as a sophomore (58.1% eFG%). Given LIU's struggles from the perimeter as a team in 20-21, and the lack of backcourt options for Derek Kellogg, Flowers regaining his shooting form would go a long way for the Sharks. The good news; when Derek Kellogg played three bigs together (with Jack Ballantyne at the '5'), Flowers was much better; his eFG% was 57% in such situations, and he made 33% from three. With Isaac Kante now in the fold, Flowers not having to bang down low with stronger players should help him offensively.
Player to Watch: How often does a 2nd-team All-Colonial League player transfer to an NEC school? Well, I'm not going to look it up, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Isaac Kante is the first player to do such a thing. The 6'7", 240 lb. behemoth averaged 13 points and 10 boards for Hofstra last season while putting up a 56.2% eFG%. The former Georgia Bulldog can score with his back to the basket, get the free throw line with frequency, and was one of the best rebounders in the CAA.
The thing is; Derek Kellogg didn't need a big. The Sharks were one of the better inside scoring teams (58% at the rim) and rebounding squads in the NEC. However, no matter who you have on the roster, any coach would be silly to turn away Kante, who could be an All-NEC player and the best newcomer in the league.
The addition of Kante means that LIU now has perhaps the most imposing frontcourt in the NEC; between Kante, Flowers, and Eral Penn, Derek Kellogg now boasts three of the best rebounders in the NEC, plenty of rim protection, and some dominant in-the-paint scoring.
Long Island can compete for a title if it...
1. gets some productivity out of the backcourt. Last season, Jermaine Jackson, Jr. and Virshon Cotton combined to average 24.4 points and 6.7 assists per game, with Jackson making over 34% of his three-point attempts. Both guys are gone, which has created a need for play-makers in the backcourt. Alex Rivera had a solid first season after transferring from UMass-Lowell; earning starter-level minutes and shooting 33% from three (51.1% eFG%). Tre Wood, who came to LIU from UMass, struggled with turnovers and shooting the ball (was just 1 for 21 from deep and had an overall FG% of 29.1%). Kellogg did bring in reinforcements; senior wing Tyree Pickron comes over from Quinnipiac where he averaged 2.5 ppg in three seasons in Hamden, but he's neither a sharp-shooter (career 25.4% from deep), or a play-maker (career 6% assist rate). Of course, the answer at the '1' could be freshman Andre Washington, who can do a bit of everything at the PG spot, or 6'5" athlete Kyndall Davis.
2. the three bigs can coexist. You don't often see teams play three true forward/centers this day-and-age, but you don't have to look far to see where it can succeed; the 2020-21 Mount St. Mary's team rode a frontcourt of 6'8" Mezie Offurum, 6'9" Nana Opoku, and 6'9" Malik Jefferson to an NEC title last season. Of course, that team also had Damian Chong Qui and his late-game heroics, and it wasn't all rosy; the Mount really struggled to score efficiently. Is LIU destined to be a dynamic defensive squad that lacks floor spacing? The key is; can Eral Penn continue to become more of an all-around offensive player? After taking zero three-pointers as a freshman and 13 as a sophomore, Penn made 10 of his 31 three-pointers last season, though that number is a bit misleading; he had an 8-game stretch where he was 10 for 14 from deep, then missed his final 12 the season's last 6 games. Ultimately, however, Penn has been a guy who does most of his work in the paint:
Penn and Kante have been largely similar offensive players, and it'll be very interesting to see if there is enough room in the paint (both literally and figuratively) for both of these guys.
3. finds some depth. As it stands right now, Derek Kellogg has just 7 players on his roster who have seen any real playing time at the D1 level; I mentioned the guards above, though 6'5" sophomore wing Kyndall Davis was intriguing as a freshman, showing flashes due to his impressive athletic ability and defensive acumen. Can either 6'5" wing Noble Crawford or 6'8" Anthony Kabala bounce back after missing last season due to injury? Can freshman wing Quion Burns provide minutes? There's lots of opportunity there.
Yeah, but...Unless you're going to be absolutely dominant on the defensive side of the ball, you have to figure out a way to be efficient offensively, and that's difficult without three-point shooting. LIU finished dead last in the NEC with a 28.7% 3P%, and their best shooter (Jermaine Jackson, Jr.) is gone. What's more; Kellogg brought in two transfers, neither of whom have been perimeter threats in their careers. In fact; outside of Alex Rivera and Eral Penn, no one on this roster shot better than 30% from deep last season. Sure, Ty Flowers could regain his form, but he's played 4 years in college and shot no better than 30.6% in three of them. Sure, Eral Penn could become a major threat outside, but he's made just 15 three-pointers in his career. Tyree Pickron was 6 of 27 last year, Kyndall Davis just 3 of 22, and Tre Wood made just 1 of his 21 3P attempts. Opposing teams will have no choice but to double Isaac Kante, or whichever big gets the ball on the block. And remember; there's a number of NEC programs who are willing, or prefer, to go zone. LIU will struggle in games when they can't shoot their way out of a zone defense.
How I see it: Look, the LIU frontcourt includes three of the top 10 players in the league, and that may be underselling the size and talent that Derek Kellogg has put together. Defensively, they will be long, athletic, and versatile, especially with Eral Penn having the ability to guard smaller wings and bang inside when he has to. There's plenty of rim protection there, and good luck getting an offensive rebound. Will it work offensively? I think there will be times when they struggle with spacing, but playing that big front line will easily be an overall net positive.
However, I'm a firm believer that teams only go as far as their point guards take them. Can Tre Wood bounce back from two subpar collegiate seasons and lead this team? Will talented freshman Andre Washington step in and provide quality minutes at the '1' from the jump, or can Kyndall Davis be effective while playing out of position as a primary ball-handler? I've been a believer in Alex Rivera since his UMass-Lowell days, and I think he makes a step toward being more of an all-around scorer, as opposed to a shooter, but the Sharks desperately need someone with play-making ability to step-up.
Overall, I think LIU's ability to rebound and defend raises their floor; I think they have a shot to lead the conference in defensive efficiency, which means there just won't be many games they are out of early, and because of that I don't see a scenario where they struggle for long stretches. If Kellogg can find an answer at the '1', LIU will contend for a spot atop the NEC standings. And even if they don't, I struggle to see this team finishing any worse than .500.
Last Season: 9-9 (9-9 in the NEC), #287 at Kenpom. Ineligible for the NEC Tournament (D1 transition).
Coach: Joe Gallo- 5th season, 23-13 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 96.8 (9th)
Defenssive Efficiency: 97.4 (2nd)
Efficiency Margin: -0.6 (5th)
Tempo: 68.0 possessions/40 mins (8th)
What they did well: Force turnovers (21.8%, 1st); Make twos (54.1%, 1st);defend twos (46.1%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: Offensive Rebounding (20.8%, 10th); FT% (66.3%, 10th); turnovers (19.9%, 8th)
The Guy: An All-NEC 3rd teamer a season ago, Mikey Watkins is the glue to this Warriors team. As a junior, he was charged with attempting to replace Juvaris Hayes' gigantic shoes and did an admirable job; playing atop of that vaunted Merrimack Zone, Watkins finished 4th in the league in steal rate (3.2%) while finishing 6th in the NEC in assists per game (3.8).
Through his first two years at the D1 level, Watkins has really struggled with taking care of the basketball (career 24.7% turnover rate). Because of that, as well as the fact that the Warriors' struggles offensively had a lot to do with their 19.9% turnover rate as a team, I would expect to see Joe Gallo use Watkins off-the-ball more frequently, with dynamic sophomore guard Malik Edmead getting more time at the '1'.
But let's be clear; Watkins is still The Guy. His quickness on the perimeter causes fits for opponents and transition opportunities for Merrimack. Plus, he's got a smooth stroke that can do damage from the perimeter (34 for 101 in his career). One thing to note; as a freshman, he was mostly a catch-and-shoot guy, making nearly 36% of his threes, with 90% of those makes having been assisted on. In 20-21?
Just 57% of his makes were assisted on; essentially, he was forced to do more off the dribble, which likely resulted in the decline in his 3P% (31.1%). If he can get better looks from the perimeter, combined with his ability to make plays off the bounce, Watkins could have a big year.
Player to Watch: As a freshman, Malik Edmead burst on the scene and was...ok? Playing just 35% of the team's minutes (15 mpg), the 5'10" combo-guard really struggled to shoot it (3 for 17 from deep, 57.6% from the free throw line), and at times tried to do too much, which all added up to a 93.1 O-Rating on 31.6% usage, which was the highest among all NEC players who played at least 35% of their team's available minutes.
So why's he the "Player to Watch"? Because the talent is undeniable; one of the quickest players in the NEC, Edmead is a high-flyer who has the ability to be a playmaker (26.8% assist rate), a pest on the defensive end (3% steal rate), and can really finish at the rim (67%).
It's not easy to see the floor as a 1st year player in Joe Gallo's system; it takes time to learn, and get comfortable, in that intricate zone defense. With one year under his belt, and a full summer of practice, Edmead should have the defensive chops to earn Gallo's trust. But the real value will be on the offensive end; Edmead at the '1' means Watkins can see more time off the ball, and the Warriors don't have to play through Jordan Minor as much.
Merrimack can compete for a title if it...
1. gets Top 10 production from Jordan Minor. A 6'8", 240 lb. monster of a man, Jordan Minor also earned 3rd team All-NEC honors after putting up 13 double-doubles on his way to averaging 12 points, 8 boards, 2 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game. As a sophomore, Minor was one of the best rebounders in the conference, finishing 4th in OR% (12.4%) and 9th in DR% (19.7%), while also finishing with a 5.1% block rate. Offensively, Minor carries a heavy load thanks to his ability to pass out of the post (13.7% assist rate), and finish at the rim. However, his high usage rate (28.4%) causes him to be inefficient at times; he made just 50% of his attempts at the rim last season (48.3% eFG%), and has struggled at the free throw line (57% in his two years at Merrimack). Given the number of quality bigs in the Northeast Conference, Minor will have his hands full on a night-in and night-out basis. However, as he's shown in his first two seasons, he'll be up for the challenge. If he can become a bit more efficient, don't be surprised to see him end up being one of the top 10 players in this league.
2. sees an improvement in the perimeter shooting. Gallo teams like to shoot the three; in each of the last two seasons, 41.2% of their field goal attempts came from beyond the arc. One of the major differences between their regular season championship season and last year? The Warriors shot 37.1% from deep in '20, and just 31.7% last season. I've already mentioned Mike Watkins' numbers, but he wasn't alone; 6'5" wing Devin Jensen saw his 3P% drop from 43.3% to 31.7%, and 6'6" 4-man Ziggy Reid went from 34% to 29%. Sure, part of that was the result of seeing increased playing time and responsibility with the graduations of Juvaris Hayes, Idris Joyner, and Jaleel Lord. However, Gallo does have the shooters necessary to get back into the top half of the league in 3P%; Jensen, Reid, and Watkins both made more than 35% of their 3P attempts over the team's final 10 games, and junior guard Mykel Derring (36.4%) was good all season.
3. finds some depth in the frontcourt. As sophomores, both Minor and Reid logged heavy minutes, both over 29 mpg, which may be too much considering their defensive responsibilities. The problem was, it doesn't appear Gallo had a back-up big who he trusted. Justin Connolly, a 6'7" senior with ability to protect the rim, played just 18% of available minutes, while Ryan Isaacson, a 6'8" sophomore, saw limited time in 11 games. Can one of them earn more time on the floor?
Yeah, but...When Merrimack shocked everyone and won the regular season title in 2020, Joe Gallo had some star power; namely, Juvaris Hayes. It wasn't just the defense; Merrimack likes to slow the tempo offensively, and it was Hayes who bailed out the Warriors late in the shot clock time and time again. It's tough to see this Merrimack defense not finishing near the top of the league in defensive efficiency, and there is plenty of talent on this roster, but is there a star who can get it done on the offensive side of the ball? Both Watkins and Minor made the NEC's 3rd team, but neither were pick as 1st team All-NEC this pre-season. It's difficult to see a team winning a title without a truly elite player.
How I see it: You know the saying; fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, and I'm an idiot. In 2019 I picked them to finish last because, well, they were transitioning to D1 so wtf? Last year I picked them 8th because they lost three starters. Well, Joe Gallo, enough is enough, you're not making me look stupid again this year.
In all seriousness though; what are we worried about with this Merrimack team? Last season they finished tied for 2nd with Bryant in terms of Defensive Efficiency in league play, and that was after being shut-down nearly all of December because of covid issues. Again; it takes time to learn how to play this defense, and Gallo didn't have the time necessary.
Am I concerned that the Warriors lost 5 of their final 6? A bit; but that included two losses at Wagner (by a total of 13 points) and a 2-point loss in Smithfield. A number of players will improve upon what they did last season on the offensive end while Gallo's defense finishes atop the league in defensive efficiency, which all adds up to a top 4 finish. I do think they fall short of competing for a title, ultimately finishing in the 13-7 range.
#3 Mount St. Mary's
Last Season: 12-11 (9-7 in the NEC), #237 at Kenpom; Beat Bryant 73-68 in the NEC Finals, lost to Texas Southern 60-52 in the Play-in Round of the NCAA Tournament
Coach: Dan Engelstad- 4th season, 22-30 in the NEC, 1 NCAA Tournament appearance (2021)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.2 (6th)
Defensive Efficiency: 94.8 (1st)
Efficiency Margin: +5.4 (3rd)
Tempo: 63.3 possessions/40 mins (10th)
What they did well: defend the paint (44.2% opp 2P%, 1st); Block shots (10.6%, 1st), defend the 3p line (29.7%, 2nd), defensive rebound (75.4%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: make 2s (47.6%, 10th); Free Throw rate (27.3%, 10th); FT% (66.9%, 8th)
The Guy: Clutch performer and 2nd team All-NEC point guard Damian Chong Qui is off to Purdue-Fort Wayne, and the big question will be; who can replace his 15 ppg and 26.5% usage? Well, I'm here to tell you that Jalen Benjamin should be that guy. The former Alabama-Birmingham Blazer earned his way onto the Conference USA All-Freshman team back in 2019-20, then put up an efficient 101.7 O-Rating on 23.8% usage for a UAB team that finished 13-5 in league play (#102 at Kenpom).
The 5'10" combo guard isn't the same type of player as DCQ was; he's more of a scorer than a playmaker (his 14.2% assist rate pales in comparison to Chong Qui's 33.3%). In two years in Birmingham, Benjamin was a high-volume shooter who made nearly 33% of his 329 three-point attempts (9 per 40 minutes) and took good care of the basketball (a 13.8% turnover rate as a sophomore).
It'll be interesting to see if Benjamin sees more time on, or off, the ball in 21-22, as there are no true point guards on this roster. No matter what, we don't often see this level of talent in the NEC, and Benjamin could be...*ahem*...even better than Damian Chong Qui was.
Player to Watch: I've said it before and I'll say it again; Mezie Offurum is an absolute physical freak. Listed at 6'8" 230 lbs. with an uncanny resemblance to Giannis, Offurum has the quickness of a guard, is a big-time leaper, and has the wing-span of a '5'. However, he also had a 42.6% eFG% last season thanks to making just 15 of 67 from deep, and in three collegiate seasons (the first two spent at George Washington) has a 39/22/69 shooting line (42.3% eFG%).
As a junior, Offurum was efficient at the rim (56.9%), which makes sense given his size and athletic ability. However, he tended to wander around the perimeter at times, especially when the Mount went big (with Mezie at the '3'). The result? Just 29% on shots away from the rim, and according to Shot Quality, Offurum's 0.91 SQ PPP was in the 43rd percentile of players in D1, well below what you'd expect from a player of his talent.
With Offurum's ability to rebound (17.4% DR%) and be a play-maker from the forward position (13.8% assist rate), if he could find a jump shot that was anywhere close to average (~33% from deep), Mezie could become an All-NEC level player. Especially when you consider the fact that he's one of the best defenders the Northeast Conference has to offer, with an ability to guard 1-5.
Mount St. Mary's can compete for a title if it...
1. continues to defend at a high level. Dan Engelstad's defense was flat out dominant in 2020-21; they led the league by allowing just 94.8 points/40 possessions in NEC play (Merrimack was 2nd at 97.4). Because of a big and versatile front line that included NEC dPOY 6'9" Nana Opoku, Offurum, and 6'9" Malik Jefferson, the Mount guards were able to close out on shooters with abandon, which led to allowing the league's fewest three-point attempts (32.8%) and 2nd worst 3P% (29.7%). Is it any surprise, then, that teams took a league-high 29% of their shots from the mid-range? That's a recipe for success.
2. stretches the defense more. While that frontcourt makes it nearly impossible for opponents to score efficiently, it also caused the Mount to struggle making shots; neither Offurum or Opoku (20.6% 3P%) were able to consistently knock down shots from deep, which allowed opposing defenses to clog the middle. The result: a league-worst 47.6% on twos. Engelstad has shooters; obviously Benjamin can knock down shots, but he's not alone. 6'5" wing DeAndre Thomas shot nearly 41% from three after becoming eligible in the 2nd semester last season; Josh Reaves shot 37.7% as a freshman, and Dakota Leffew was 10 for 27 in 11 games before missing the season's final two months with an injury. The question will be; how can he work in those shooters while maintaining the defensive integrity.
3. can replace Damian Chong Qui. DCQ put up 15 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game last season, while having one of the most clutch seasons of any player in recent memory; he consistently took over games late; who can forget when he had 8 points, an assist, and steal in the final 56 seconds of a comeback over St. Francis (PA) back in February? Chong Qui is gone, and there's a hole at not just point guard, but floor general. Benjamin is the most likely player to replace Chong Qui but he's not the only one; DeAndre Thomas, a 6'5" combo guard who became eligible in the 2nd semester after coming over from Samford, was dynamite as a shooter and secondary ball-handler, especially once February rolled around:
Thomas was a killer from deep, but I think there's more there as a play-maker (no one else on the roster was going to have the ball in their hands much as long as DCQ was on the floor). In addition, Engelstad brought in Elijah Elliott, a sophomore transfer from D2 Oklahoma Christian where he averaged 15.5 points and 4.5 assists per game earning a place on the All-Lone State Conference third team and All-Freshman team. Between Benjamin, Elliott, and fellow sophomores Josh Reaves and Dakota Leffew, Engelstad has some scoring punch in the backcourt. But does he have enough playmaking?
Yeah, but...A lot of people will focus on the fact that Mount St. Mary's won the NEC Championship last March, but it's important to remember that the Mount was, at best, the 3rd best team in the league last season, finishing 9-7 while never having to face Bryant in the regular season (those games were canceled due to COVID issues). When they beat Bryant in the NEC title game, the Bulldogs were coming off their 2nd covid pause in a few weeks, and had limited practice time with its full roster. Flags fly forever, and the NEC title was well-earned, but the fact is Mount St. Mary's was a .500ish team last season despite being completely dominant on the defensive side of the ball, and they've lost their best player. Can they be equally efficient defensively and at the same time significantly improving on the offensive end while replacing Chong Qui's minutes?
How I see it: The answer to that question above really might be "yes". For one; Jalen Benjamin should step right in and be an All-NEC level player. But it's not just Benjamin; the depth in the backcourt should be significantly deeper than it was at any point last season; Deandre Thomas provides shooting and size, Josh Reaves and Dakota Leffew should see jumps in Year 2, and Elijah Elliott should be able to provide some scoring off the bench.
Watching the Mount last season, I believed that they struggled offensively when Offurum, Opoku, and Malik Jefferson were on the floor together, but just wasn't true; lineups featuring those three averaged 104.3 points per 100 possessions. With only 2 (or fewer)? 96.3! Essentially; good luck grabbing a rebound when those three bigs are on the floor.
Given the way Engelstad has quickly rebuilt this program after the cupboard was essentially bare just a few seasons ago, I can't help but give him the benefit of the doubt. Look for Mount St. Mary's to battle for a top 4 finish and home quarterfinal game, and if guys like Benjamin and/or Offurum have even better seasons than expected, they should challenge for a regular season title.
Last Season: 13-7 (13-5 in the NEC), #224 at Kenpom; Lost to Mount St. Mary's 66-60 in the NEC Quarterfinals
Coach: Bashir Mason- 10th season, 96-64 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 107.6 (1st)
Defensive Efficienc: 100.3 (5th)
Efficiency Margin: +7.3 (2nd)
Tempo: 66.8 possessions/40 mins (9th)
What they did well: Offensive Rebounding (35.1%, 1st); Turnovers (18.2%, 2nd); 2P% (51.4%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: Opponent FT Attempts (41.7%, 10th); FT Attempts (28.4%, 9th)
The Guy: The reigning NEC Player of the Year, Alex Morales did just about everything for the Seahawks; he finished 5th in scoring (16.8 ppg), 4th in assists (4.3 apg), 10th in rebounding (7.2 rpg), and 7th in steals (1.8 spg). The fact that he rarely comes off the floor (35.4 mpg), and always has the ball in his hands (league high 28.7% usage), tells you all you need to know about how much the 5th year senior will mean to the 21-22 Wagner club.
Dig a bit deeper, and it's easy to see why head coach Bashir Mason trusts Morales so much; despite carrying such a heavy load, he was able to remain efficient thanks to a 1.3:1 assist to turnover ratio (5th) and a 47.5% eFG%, which is fine for most players, but strong when you remember that he took 282 field goal attempts in 20-21, by far the most by a Seahawk. Oh, and his combination of quickness and length on the perimeter can be problematic for opposing wings.
So where does Morales go from here? He initially declared for the NBA draft this past spring, and I'd have to think that at least part of the feedback was go to go back to school and improve upon his 31.7% 3P%. With some of the reinforcements Mason brought in, I wouldn't be surprised to see his usage rate pull back a bit, which would only help his efficiency. He has competition, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see him take home back-to-back NEC Player of the Year awards.
Player to Watch: Bashir Mason brings back his "big 3" of Morales, Elijah Ford, and Will Martinez. However, it's DeLonnie Hunt who may be the Seahawks' most important player heading into 21-22. The reigning NEC Rookie of the Year, Hunt was a capable three-point shooter and secondary ball-handler as a freshman, averaging 10.6 points and 2.7 assists in just over 34 mpg (2nd on the team) while shooting 35% from deep. Essentially, Hunt was really good as a 4th option offensively; when Morales, Will Martinez, and Elijah Ford were on the court, Hunt's eFG% was 60.3%. When at least one of those three were on the bench, it cratered to 38%.
While Hunt showed flashes as a quick-combo guard who can do a bit of everything, in year 2 it'll be interesting to see if he can become more efficient offensively, specifically inside the three-point arc; Hunt made below 40% of his two-pointers, including just 41.5% at the rim (35.7% in the mid-range). Getting stronger should help him finish around the rim a bit better, and taking better shots overall will help him become more efficient; per Shot Quality, just 16% of his possessions qualified as "good".
If Hunt is merely solid again, Wagner should be considered a title contender. But if he can make a leap and become an all-around scoring combo-guard- I'd love to see that 14.3% assist rate tick up a bit- then the Seahawks could be considered a favorite.
Wagner can compete for a title if it...
1. makes more threes. Look, let's not over-complicate this; there is more than 1 way to skin a cat (that's an odd saying, no?), and Wagner led the NEC in offensive efficiency despite taking the 2nd fewest 3-pointers in the conference. How? Partially because they led the league in offensive rebounding, and partially because 44% of their field goal attempts came "at the rim". However, their lack of perimeter shooting was amplified in the QF loss to the Mount; Dan Engelstad's massive front line held Wagner to just 7 of 24 at the rim, forcing them to become a jump shooting team, and we all know what happened; they scored just 0.92PPP in the home loss. The good news? Jahbril Price-Noel, who comes to Staten Island after making 34.5% from deep in three years at Pacific and should be able to help in this department, as could the addition of Ashton Miller, who sat out last season after transferring in from Duquesne. Watch for freshman Zaire Williams; the 6'4" wing can really shoot it, and had some high major interest as a 2022 product. The Seahawks are deep on the wing, but if Williams can make shots at a high level, he will play.
2. gets more production out of the '5'. In 2020-21, Bashir Mason largely went with a 60/40 time-share at the '5' with Nigel Jackson and Ja'Mier Fletcher. Jackson, a 5th-year senior, is a stretch 5 who shot 35.1% from three and, while his rebounding rates were lower than what you want, proved to be a solid defender. Note the precipitous drop-off when Jackson came off the floor:
Fletcher, a junior, is a 230 lb. bruiser who put up a 19% defensive rebounding rate though was limited offensively. Price-Noel could see time as a stretchy-big, while 6'7" 230 lb. Raekwon Rogers profiles as a prototypical NEC big. A 4-year player at D2 Henderson St., the southpaw scored over 1,000 points and grabbed over 500 rebounds in his career, and last season earned 1st team All-Great American Conference after averaging 14.5 points and 8 boards per game. He won't stretch the defense, but he can score in the paint (61% from the field) and shot 76% from the charity stripe. Rogers fills a need, and should see significant time on the Wagner front line.
3. stays healthy. Again, let's not over-think this; opposing coaches were surely lamenting the fact that Morales, Will Martinez, Elijah Ford, and Nigel Jackson all returned for 5th seasons, as they provide so much ability and versatility, not to mention experience. Combine those 3 with reigning NEC Rookie of the Year DeLonnie Hunt, two high-end transfers, and some intriguing freshmen, and what could go wrong? Obviously an injury to someone like Morales would dampen the Seahawks' hopes, otherwise even with some regression on the offensive side, I struggle to see Wagner not being there at the end.
Yeah, but...You all know by now that I lean heavily on the numbers, so here's what you need to know; regression is inevitable. I know that Wagner had the most efficient offense last season, but I also know that according to Shot Quality, they actually outperformed their expected record by 2.5 games (based on SQ's data, they played more like a 10.5-9.5 team than a 13-7 team). What's more; while they won the regular season title, their Efficiency Margin trailed Bryant by quite a bit (8.4 to 7.3) as there were a number of close wins (6 of their 13 wins were by 5 points or less). So here's the truth: Wagner was not the best team in the NEC last season (that honor goes to Bryant). Throw in the fact that the NEC will be a gauntlet this season with the majority of teams returning their rotations, and Wagner will have to be better than they were last season if they want to win the league.
How I see it: People are going to tell me about Bashir Mason's "inability" to win big games, so here's my response: I refuse to draw grand conclusions from one, 40-minute basketball game. With that said, the NEC Tournament has been a House of Horrors for Wagner over the past few seasons, the 66-60 loss to Mount St. Mary's on March 6th being the most recent. But look, there have been coaches all across sports who "couldn't win the big one", at least until they did. Did you know that Mason's .600 winning percentage is 2nd among current NEC coaches? That's right, in 9 seasons Mason is 96-64 (Joe Gallo is 23-13 in two seasons). I'll bet on regular season success turning into post-season success anytime.
The Seahawks have the league's best player, and probably the most versatile lineup; Will Martinez is almost "Morales light" in his ability to use his length on the wing to score, rebound, and make plays for others, while Elijah Ford may be the best transition finisher in the conference, is one of the best rebounders in the NEC despite being listed at 6'5", and gives opposing wings fits on the defensive side of the ball. DeLonnie Hunt provides outside shooting, ball handling, and playmaking as a combo-guard and should see a jump in Year 2. I still worry about the shooting, but quite honestly they don't need to become world-beaters from beyond the arc; just do enough to keep the defense honest so that the wings can feast at the rim.
I think the additions of Price-Noel and Rogers add dimensions to this roster that the Seahawks did not have last season, and while I expect the offense to experience some regression, I also expect that Wagner defense to play better than it did last season when it finished 5th in defensive efficiency. I fully expect Mason & Company to be right there with Bryant atop the league standings all season, and wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Last Season: 15-7 (10-4 in the NEC), #185 at Kenpom; Lost to Mount St. Mary's 73-68 in the NEC Semifinals; Lost to Coastal Carolina 93-82 in the CBI Quarterfinals
Coach: Jared Grasso- 4th season, 24-26 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offensive Efficiency: 105.8 (4th)
Defensive Efficiency: 97.4 (3rd)
Efficiency Margin: +8.4 (1st)
Tempo: 75.5 possessions/40 mins (1st)
What they did well: 3P% (38.2%, 1st); d3P% (27.9%, 1st); Free throw rate (36.6%, 2nd); FT% (73.9%, 2nd)
Where they can improve: Turnovers (21.5%, 10th), dTO% (18%, 8th); Block rate (6.9%, 8th)
The Guy: An All-NEC 1st teamer in 2020-21, Peter Kiss finished 6th in the NEC with 16.6 ppg thanks to shooting 42.4% from three, but he's far from a one-dimensional offensive player; his 18.1% assist rate was 3rd on the team, he converted 58% of his shots at the rim, and he got to the free throw line 77 times in 22 games (making 87%). Defensively, his 5.0 defensive rebounds per game ranked 10th, and his 1.9 steals per game were 6th in the league.
After having a standout freshman year at Quinnipiac, then two up-and-down seasons at Rutgers, Kiss has found a home at Bryant where he's settled in as the team's go-to scorer and leader. Ultra competitive, Kiss plays with a chip on his shoulder that can sometimes draw the ire of opponents.
Kiss, who essentially has no weaknesses in his game, may be asked to do even more in 21-22 after Michael Green III and his 25.8% usage left to go play for Andy Toole at Robert Morris. Kiss was ultra efficient at 22.5% usage (114 O-Rating) thanks to a 56.9% eFG%. However, it's worth noting that Kiss' eFG% was just 45% when Green was not on the floor last season. There may be a bit of a transition period, but ultimately Kiss should be able to handle anything Grasso throws at him this season (including playing some '1'?).
Player to Watch: While Kiss is surely the most talented player on the Bryant roster, I don't think anyone is as important at Charles Pride. "Chuck" combines immense skill with a workmanlike attitude on the wing, and the numbers speak for themselves; 13.5 points, 7 boards, and 2.5 assists per game. He's efficient offensively (56.8% eFG%), is a solid secondary ball-handler, and defends 1-3 at a high level.
What I loved to see last year was how he improved as a shooter from his freshman to sophomore seasons; after making just 27.4% of his threes, that ballooned to 40.9%. Combine an ability to shoot it with knowing the difference between a good and bad shot (his Rim&3 rate was 78%), and you're going to be an efficient offensive player. As I said with Kiss; with MG3 gone, look for Pride to become more of a focal point of the offense. Pride could be a dark-horse MVP candidate, and don't be surprised to see him wind up being an All-NEC 1st teamer when it's all said and done.
Bryant can compete for a title if it...
1. can fill Michael Green III's shoes. An All-NEC 2nd teamer as a sophomore, MG3 was Bryant's engine last season; he had a team-high 26.1% usage, and was 2nd on the team in scoring (16.2 ppg) while leading the team in assists (3.8 apg). Is losing Green addition through subtraction?
Clearly there wasn't much difference in Bryant's peripheral numbers when he was off the floor; their Net Rating (adjusted for quality of competition) was -0.6 with Green III, and -1.6 without him. However, there's a reason why he played over 82% of available minutes, and him hitting the Transfer Portal opened up a huge hole in the rotation, though it appears Jared Grasso believes Tyler Brelsford could be the answer. A transfer from George Washington, Brelsford was a rotation player for Jamion Christian last season, though his calling card is his perimeter shot (11 for 31 from deep). At GW he was asked to play off the ball, and wanting to play his natural position of point guard led him to Smithfield where he will likely get the first crack at the '1'. In addition, Grasso has Luis Hurtado, who despite being 6'6" 210 lbs., saw time as a "point forward" last season. Hurtado is a very good passer who put up a 19.1% assist rate last season. Sophomores Erickson Bans and Joe Moon IV could get looks there as combo-guards, as well.
2. takes better care of the basketball. In NEC play last season, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on 21.4% of their possessions, which was the worst in the league by a decent margin (SFU was next with a 20.5% TO rate). Now, part of that is how quickly and aggressively Grasso likes to play on offense, and part of that was Green III, who averaged 3.6 turnovers per game. However, Bryant has had the worst turnover rate in the NEC two seasons running, and that likely needs to change. It'll never be the lowest, and it doesn't have to be. But given the number of shooters and scorers Grasso can put on the floor, empty possessions can be a killer, especially in a close game.
3. gets production from the new guys. Grasso has brought in a number of transfers this season; in addition to Brelsford, there's high-level shooter Adham Eleeda (Eastern Kentucky), 6'8" 235 lb. big Greg Calixte (George Mason), and stretch 4 Grant Coleman (UW-Milwaukee). Unlike some other NEC programs, Grasso doesn't need any of the transfers to be stars for Bryant, not with Peter Kiss, Charles Pride, Chris Childs, and Hall Elisias still around. But can they be high level players off the bench? Last season Grasso largely rolled with a 7-8 man rotation, but given the tempo at which he likes to play, going 10-deep is not inconceivable.
Yeah, but...Does Bryant truly have a lead guard on this roster? Brelsford is surely a talented player; you don't play 20 mpg in the A-10 as a freshman without having significant ability. I know Grasso is planning on utilizing him differently than Jamion Christian did, but he had just 16 assists against 15 turnovers in 14 games. I have no doubt he can handle the basketball and he has a reputation as a big-time shooter, but can he use the dribble to get into the lane and get the ball to the Bryant scorers? If Brelsford is not the guy, I'm not sure where Grasso goes; Hurtado is a good fill-in as a point forward, but can they play at tempo with him as a primary ball-handler? Neither Bans nor Moon profile as a playmaker. Maybe Grasso pulls a Rob Krimmel and installs Peter Kiss as his point guard like the Red Flash did with Keith Braxton in 2019-20. Grasso and his staff surely have this figured out (or at least, think they have it figured out). However, in my opinion, this question will hang over the Bryant program until we see them in action on November 12th at Rhode Island.
How I see it: Grasso has gone all-in on winning the Northeast Conference in 2021-22; he was able to bring back the majority of his rotation from a season ago, he's bringing in 4 experienced D1 transfers, and he has just one true freshman scholarship player in Mike Iuzzolino, Jr., the son of the former SFU star (and current Robert Morris assistant coach).
Not to mention; Bryant University has heavily invested in Grasso and this program. They've got the largest coaching staff in the NEC, which includes a Director of Scouting and Video Analysis (former Duke star Chris Duhon), a Director of Basketball Innovation Analytics, and a Director of Basketball Analytics. That kind of fire-power should help them win at the margins while the rest of the league plays catch-up.
And lest anyone forget; it was Bryant that had the best team in the NEC last season. Not Wagner (the regular season champs) or Mount St. Mary's (the tourney champs); it was the Bulldogs who had the highest rankings at Kenpom (185 compared to Wagner's 224) and Bart Torvik (175, Wagner was 208), and it was Bryant who had the league's best efficiency margin. In fact, 2021 could have been "the year" for Bryant to break into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history if Covid hadn't ravaged their roster during the NEC playoffs.
I remain worried about the point guard situation, but I also trust that Grasso and his staff have the answers. There's probably not a better roster in the league, both in terms of talent and depth, and there may not be a better coaching staff in the NEC, and that's saying something. There will be hiccups along the way, and I think there will be a logjam at the top of the standings, but I believe it'll be the Bulldogs still standing at the end of the 2021-22 season.