NEC Ball Screen: Semifinal Saturday
Chalk reigned supreme on Wednesday night, as the top 4 seeds took care of business at home. However, at least for #1 seed Bryant and #3 seed Long Island, it wasn't easy; Central Connecticut cut Bryant's lead to as few as 5 points in the 2nd half, while Sacred Heart got to within two points of LIU with less than 10 minutes remaining.
If you work at the NEC offices, this is exactly what you wanted; an opportunity to showcase your best four teams on SNY/ESPN3 on Saturday night.
#4 Mount St. Mary's at #1 Bryant
This season: Bryant sweep (73-66 in Smithfield on 1/15; 62-61 in Emmitsburg on 2/5)
Things to Watch:
Can the Mount get back in transition? On the year, Bryant's Adjusted Tempo of 73.1 possessions per 40 minutes ranks 5th in the nation, and everyone knows that the Bulldogs want to beat you down court and get easy buckets at the rim (or open 3s on the secondary break). Well, in NEC play, no other NEC team allowed fewer opportunities in transition than Mount St. Mary's did; just 14% of opponents possessions, and their SQ PPP of 0.95 in transition was 2nd in the conference. When these two played exactly one month ago from Saturday, Bryant managed just 4 fast-break points and the result was just 1.01 ppp in that game, which was their 2nd lowest since January 16th (0.98 ppp at Long Island). Bryant is good in the half-court, but they can be deadly if you let guys like Peter Kiss and Charles Pride get downhill.
Can the Mount make shots? It's an obvious, but important, question. Dan Engelstad's team has won with defense; their 94.4 ppp allowed in league play was easily #1 in the league, however their 101.3 ppp on the offensive end was just 6th. It's not that they can't be good shooting the basketball; on Wednesday the Mount made 6 of 13 from downtown and 16 of 26 at the rim on their way to a 60.7% eFG%. It's that they've been inconsistent; over a 6-game stretch in February during which they went 1-5, they made just 26 of 114 (22.8%) from three (and that includes just 3 of 24 against Bryant). Bryant likes to run you off the three-point line (allowed just 29.9% 3P% in league play) and force you to attack their rim protectors or settle for the mid-range.
Bryant's ball-screen defense. The Mount loves to utilize the P&R Ball Screen, while Bryant does a nice job of suppressing it; opponents utilized the PnR on just 9% of their possessions this season (2nd fewest), and managed just 0.78 SQPPP (3rd lowest). And it's easy to figure out why; Bryant is so switchable thanks to their length (they don't have a rotation player shorter than 6'4"), and both bigs (Hall Elisias and Greg Calixte) are mobile as well as good/great rim protectors. I do wonder if Engelstad will go "small" more often than normal on Saturday night, with Nana Opoku at the '5' in order to try and pull the Bryant bigs away from the paint.
Charles Pride. I've gushed plenty about Pride this season, but let me do it one more time. Peter Kiss gets a lot of the pub (and rightfully so, dude leads the nation in scoring), but Pride is the heart of this team; at just 6'4" he led the league in rebounding at 8.3 per game, he finished 4th in scoring (18 ppg), and 5th in steals (1.6 spg). Do you want to get a flavor for how good he is defensively? When he's off the floor, Bryant's allowed 110.1 points/100 possessions, compared to just 99.3 when he's on the floor. He's a pure winner.
Bryant's Memory. Lest you forget; on March 9, 2011, Mount St. Mary's walked into The Chace and beat Bryant 73-68 to win the league's title. You know these players and coaches remember that, and are determined to not let that happen again.
#3 Long Island at #2 Wagner
This season: Wagner sweep (92-95 in OT in Brooklyn on 1/21; 79-64 on Staten Island on 2/5)
Things to Watch:
Wagner from deep. Yes, it's been written about all season, but without Elijah Ford it really matters. Since February 10th (the first game of the post-Ford era), Wagner's adjusted OE of 102.4 is 4th in the NEC, and a lot of that has to do with their 25.6% 3P%. In fact, in their three league losses, they shot a combined 13 for 65 from deep (20%), including 1 for 20 against Merrimack. Does that mean they can't knock down shots? Of course not! On Wednesday they made 13 of 24 against SFU, with DeLonnie Hunt (4 for 5) and Zaire Williams (3 for 6) really getting going. Hunt, the 2021 NEC Rookie of the Year, has made just 29.6% of his 3-balls after shooting 35% last season, and Williams has made just 26.6% of his 3P attempts. Also worth noting; stretch-4/5 Nigel Jackson returned to play 9 minutes on Wednesday after missing the previous 10 games due to an injury. Jackson (31.8% career 3P shooter) and 6'7" Jahlil Price-Noel (31.7% career shooter) can pull the LIU bigs away from the basket.
Seahawks Containing Cutters. Since Ford went out, Wagner isn't as quick on the perimeter, and when Bryant beat Wagner on 2/26, the Bulldogs killed Wagner on cuts to the hoop, putting up 1.54 SQPPP. Well, no team was more efficient on cuts than Long Island, as Derek Kellogg likes to get his bigs (Eral Penn, Isaac Kante, and Ty Flowers) going towards the hoop. Wagner doesn't have a ton of rim protection (Ford actually led the team with a 4.1% block rate, while Raekwon Rogers is 10th in the NEC at 3.9%), so their defenders need to keep the Sharks out of the paint.
Can LIU make Wagner become jump-shooters? No NEC team has allowed teams to get more points from 3 than LIU, as opponents have scored 35.7% of their points from beyond the arc. While that's been a problem at times, like when Merrimack made 17 of 26 from downtown back on New Year's Eve, generally speaking it's served them well as team's have shied away from attacking the paint thanks to their ability to protect the rim (13.1% block rate, 1st in the league). If the Sharks can limit transition opportunities (partially by taking care of the basketball), Wagner should find scoring efficiently to be a problem.
Alex Morales. The NEC's 2-time Player of the Year has the ability to almost "will" his team to victory. He can shoot from everywhere (38.5% from three, 53.7% eFG%), but what I find most appealing is his ability to control his body through contact at the rim. Few players at this level can combine the quickness and basketball IQ that Morales possesses, and in a close game he will be able to attack the rim.
Bashir Mason. After the Seahawks lost to Sacred Heart at home in the NEC semifinals last season, I had people in my timeline suggesting that Wagner should move on from Mason. While that is a preposterous idea (the man isn't even 40 and he's won 164 games at WC), the narrative that he's never won "the big one" remains. With him at the helm, Wagner has won at least 12 league games in five previous seasons, yet Mason has made it to the NEC title game just twice (and yet to win one). I've always believed that a coach shouldn't be judged by his team's performance in a single, 40-minute basketball game, but a loss here would feel like another on a long list of disappointing finishes over the past ten years. With no offense to Derek Kellogg (and Jared Grasso/Dan Engelstad), Mason deserves an NCAA Tournament appearance as much as anyone in the country.