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NEC Mid-Range Jumper: The Mount Is Back

After Thursday night we will be at the half-way point of the NEC league schedule. Next week I'll start breaking down odds of both winning the regular season crown (and earning the #1 seed, as well as home-court advantage throughout the NEC Tournament) and finishing in the top 4 (and earning a QF home game).

Standings: As always after the start of conference play, teams are sorted by Efficiency Margin in league games only.

NEC Team of the Week: Mount St. Mary's

Dan Engelstad, man. The Mount finally got a pair of league games down at Knot Arena, and MSMU teams did what MSMU teams do; they played suffocating defense (0.83ppp allowed to Sacred Heart and CCSU), knocked down 3's (20 of 44), and won.

On the morning of 12/18, Mount St. Mary's was 3-8 overall and sat #318 at Kenpom. Now? They're 4-2 in actual NEC games played (4-4 including the pair of forfeits), 8-10 overall, and all the way up to #272 at Kenpom. This team is in prime position to earn a home quarterfinal game, and is, perhaps, a dark-horse NEC Tournament champion contender. It's deja vu all over again.

NEC Player of the Week: Charles Pride, Bryant

There were so many good performances this past weekend that you could name 5 co-POWs if you really wanted to. Peter Kiss (Bryant), Ty Flowers (LIU), Aaron Clarke (SHU), Alex Morales and Elijah Ford (Wagner), and Myles Thompson of SFU were all awesome. However, to me, Pride was the best of the bunch.

In the two games, the junior wing was 13 for 23 from the field (including 5 for 11 from three) for 18.5 ppg. Of course, when it comes to Chuck, it's more than scoring; he grabbed 16 rebounds in the win over Merrimack and another 8 against St. Francis-Brooklyn, plus he averaged 4.5 assists per game.

NEC Rookie of the Week: Anquan Hill, Fairleigh Dickinson

Where has Greg Herenda been hiding this guy? Hill was one of the best players (not just rookies) last weekend, putting up 29 points, 17 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 blocks in the two games, including making 3 of 4 from three and all 4 of his free throws.

At 6'9" with an ability to protect the rim, rebound, and stretch the defense, this past weekend is either a complete aberration or a breakout. It's not too late for Hill to get into Rookie of the Year contention.

Weekly Leaderboard: Adjusted Efficiency Margin in NEC play only, per Torvik.

The Case for Bryant

I presented the chart above without comment, but of course I looked up that info for a reason.

Look, I know Wagner is the odds-on favorite to win the NEC; they're currently 8-0 (including a win over Bryant and a pair of forfeit Ws), they're the highest rated team at every rating system (both predictive and performance-based), and are currently rated in every mid-major poll you can find.

However, are we sure Wagner is the best team in the NEC? Bare with me, Seahawks fans.

The Bryant Bulldogs are playing really well right now; they're the winners of 4 straight and 6 of 7, with their lone league loss in overtime on Staten Island. Remember; that 84-81 classic back on January 6th was at Wagner. In fact, since 12/8 Bryant has lost just twice in 9 games; at Stony Brook 86-78, and at Wagner.

If you look at the above graphic, Bryant has outplayed Wagner, on an adjusted basis, both offensively and defensively, and per Bart Torvik's Game Score, Bryant's average GS is 60.3 compared to Wagner's 51.3. Simply put; the data suggests that Bryant has been the better team since 12/29.

Of course, the season didn't begin on 12/29, did it? Over at Kenpom, Wagner's season-long Adjusted Efficiency Margin of +6.29 trumps Bryant's -2.31 by a wide margin (Wagner is currently #106 at KP, while Bryant is #198), and Kenpom still sees the Seahawks as a 2-point favorite on 2/26 in Smithfield (Torvik has Wagner -1).

One thing is for certain; that matchup one month from today has the chance to be historical. If both teams can win out until that point you'd have a 17-0 Wagner squad going on the road against a 16-1 Bryant team. The odds of that happening? Again using Kenpom, Wagner's chances of entering that game undefeated is 34.7%. Bryant not picking up another loss? Just 3.3%. So the chances of this game being what I want it to be? just 1.1%.


Matt's NEC Positionally Rankings: Shooting Guards

Combo-guards, low-usage shooters, 3&D guys. Shooting is at a premium across the college basketball landscape. Unlike in year's past, this is the weakest position across the conference and it shows up in the league's 3P numbers; the NEC is 19 out of 32 conferences in 3P rate (36.7% of shots), and 17th in 3P% (33.8%). In 21-22, the Northeast Conference is dominated by wings and bigs.

1- Adham Eleeda, Bryant- The grad transfer from Northern Kentucky might be the league's best shooter; he's made 51 of 140 on the year (36.4%) against D1 competition, and his 54 overall 3Ps made is tied with Ty Flowers for the league lead. He doesn't do a ton else offensively; he's attempted just 8 2-pointers, 13 free throws (he's made 11), and has a 4.8% assist rate. However, he's been solid defensively thanks to his 6'5" frame, and is averaging 4.2 rpg.

2- Ian Krishnan, Central Connecticut- After a down true junior season in which he made just 30.5% of his 3s, Krishnan has had a nice bounce-back season under new coach Patrick Sellers, making 37.7% of his attempts from downtown, 40% in league play. Krishnan leads all true 2-guards in scoring at 10.5ppg, is 4th in the league in 3-pointers made (43), and is shooting 75% from the charity stripe. CCSU has asked him to be more than a shooter at times, but that's just not what he is; he's making just 37% from inside the arc, and his assist rate is just 5.2%.

3- Alex Rivera, Long Island- In his 3rd college season, Rivera has taken off; he's making 35.5% from deep (39% in NEC play), as upped his assist rate to 18.2%, and has played solid defense. He can be streaky from the outside (he began the season 0 for his first 10), but has been one of the Sharks' best players over the past month.

4- Devon Dunn, Fairleigh Dickinson- After opting out of last season, Dunn has picked up where he left off from the perimeter, knocking down 36% of his 89 3P attempts (41.4% as a freshman). The problem? Similarly to Krishnan, Greg Herenda has asked Dunn to, at times, play point guard and provide more all-around scoring. Because of that, he's made just 34% of his 2s and has a 17.4% turnover rate. If that 21.6% usage rate was down around 16 or 17%, he'd likely be much more efficient.

5- Maxwell Land, St. Francis (PA)- The Red Flash guard has quietly put together a nice sophomore season; he's averaging 10.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest, shooting 33% on 87 3-point attempts. Land has shown an ability to finish at the rim (51.3%), but at this stage he's more shooter than scorer.

The Mount is Making Moves

Any way you slice it, there are 4 teams that, as of right now, appear to be the clear front runners to host a quarterfinal playoff game; Wagner, Bryant, Long Island, and Mount St. Mary's. As I insinuated above; I'm not sure how many saw that coming a month ago. However, the Mount has been a completely different team since league play began:

That 10.8 points worth of Adjusted Efficiency Margin improvement is 2nd only to Bryant's 11.8, and no team has seen a larger improvement on the defensive side.

After being merely "okay" during the league's first two months, the Mount has had the league's best defense in conference play no matter which way you slice it; on a points/100 possessions basis, their 92.6 easily outpaces the rest of the league (LIU is 2nd at 95.9), and on an adjusted basis 88.7 Adjusted DE in league play is well ahead of Merrimack's 98.4 mark.

The biggest difference on that side of the ball has been the Mount's ability to protect the rim; according to Shot Quality, their 1.05 SQPPP on shots at the rim is 2nd in the league, and their 14% block rate is 1st. And this makes sense, right? The size advantage Dan Engelstad has in the NEC, with a frontline of 6'8" Mezie Offurum, 6'9" Nana Opoku and 6'9" Malik Jefferson was less effective against a difficult non-conference schedule, but it poses a significant problem for other NEC teams.

Offensively, a large part of the improvement has been the emergence of the wings; namely Josh Reaves, who has made 44.4% from three (68.3% eFG%) as he's become more settled into a low usage 4th or 5th option role, as well as Dakota Leffew (56.3% eFG%), and freshman Jaylin Gibson (6 of 13 from three). With more options, Engelstad has been able to: a) rely on Jalen Benjamin a bit less; and b) utilize the three bigs together less often. Deeper and versatile is a recipe for success.

Of course, we should temper expectations a bit; three of the Mount's 4 league wins have come against teams that are currently below .500 in NEC play, and they've yet to play Wagner (they had to forfeit a home game against the Seahawks). However, despite the forfeits, Kenpom projects the Mount to finish 9-9 and a game clear of SFU for 4th place.

Shot Quality Breakdown

Inspired by this piece, I wanted to take a look at which teams a) take the best of the different shot types, and b) which teams make the most, according to the Shot Quality data. Note: this data is only in league play.

Based on this graphic alone, you can see why Wagner has been so good offensively; they get so much offense at the rim compared to the average team both in terms of quality of shot, and frequency. No, they don't make many 3s, but they don't take them either, which is a sign that Bashir Mason knows what his team is.

Central Connecticut is really good on catch-and-shoot 3s, with an SQ PPP of 1.19 on the strength of both Ian Krishnan (1.35 SQPPP on catch and shoots), and Trenton McLaughlin (1.34). The problem? They don't take a ton (just 28%, which is about average), and instead take the most midrange shots in the league (22%), which have yielded a 0.75 SQPPP. Plus; they're the worst at the rim (1.01 SQPPP). It's no wonder that their shot selection is 9th in the league, and 352nd nationally.

Long Island has utilized post-ups most of any team (10%), and while it's not generally an efficient offensive play, it's been good for the Sharks, with an SQPPP of 0.96. I think part of what makes them so good there; they can use any of their three bigs (Isaac Kante, Eral Penn, or Ty Flowers), picking out matchup problems. Penn, specifically, has been really good; 1.10 SQPPP.

Speaking of Post-Ups, that SHU 1.04 SQPPP is a bit of a mirage seeing as how they go to it very little (just 1%). This is largely a small sample size. However, Wagner is also at 1.04 SQPPP (rounding meant that the Pios got the top spot), with a frequency of 5%. Last season, the Seahawks had a 0.77SQPPP in post-ups, and went to it on just 2% of their shot attempts. The difference? Raekwon Rogers.

FDU is shooting just 34.6% from three in league play, but perhaps there's some positive regression that's about to happen? On "off the dribble" 3s their 1.00 SQPPP is 1st in the NEC, and they're 2nd on Catch & Shoots (1.18 SQPPP).

Bryant has been the most efficient team in the mid-range (0.90 SQPPP), and also take the fewest (9%). Given that coaching staff's dedication to analytics that's not a surprise, nor is the fact that they are incredibly efficient at the rim (1.29 SQPPP). One thing that jives with the eye test? Last season they had an SQPPP of 0.99 on off-the-dribble 3s, while this year that's down to 0.88. They've forced it at times.

And finally; looking for a reason for St. Francis-Brooklyn's 2-6 start? Sure, missing multiple players to covid didn't help, nor did Patrick Emilien missing a game last weekend. However, 19% of SFC's shots come from the mid-range, with a SQPPP of 0.65 (worst in the league). They take a lot of bad shots inside the arc, and just 36% of their shots come at the rim.

Wagner ran that play?

I can't go further without talking about that classic down in Staten Island Friday night between Long Island and Wagner. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here:

Down 3 with 20 seconds left, and Bashir Mason dials up a pick and pop for Raekwon Rogers?! Look; he made it, and ultimately that's all that matters. But Rogers hadn't taken a three-pointer all season, and last season at Henderson St. he was exactly 1 for 1 from three. I'm not being critical of the play call necessarily; Mason knows his team, and he's probably seen Rogers make that shot in practice dozens of times. He knew what he was doing. But Wagner appears to be living a charmed life here in 2021-22.

(And yes, I did have LIU +6.5).

Appreciating Davonte Sweatman

You know that "change my mind" meme? Well; Davonte Sweatman should be playing as many minutes as any CCSU player right now, change my mind.

In league play, Sweatman leads all CCSU players in Torvik's PORPAGATU! with 2.6 (Trenton McLaughlin is 2nd at 2.2). The 5'8" freshman guard, who would have won NEC Rookie of the Week if it weren't for Anquan Hill's breakout, has a 58.1% eFG% and a 117 O-Rating on 22.4% usage. Do you know how many players have a better O-rating on higher usage in league play? Five; Alex Morales, Ty Flowers, Aaron Clarke, Mikey Square, and Raekwon Rogers.

But it's not just the numbers; in watching this team, Sweatman is the player most likely to go make a play, something this CCSU team sorely needs right now. In Friday's late comeback at Sacred Heart, Sweatman was all over the floor making steals (2.6% steal rate) and getting in the lane with consistency.

What's more; no team in the Northeast Conference utilizes the P&R Ball Screen more than Central Connecticut (20%). Yet their SQPPP of 0.70 is 9th in the league. When Nigel Scantlebury is involved, the SQPPP is 0.53, while it's 0.84 with Sweatman. Given Scantlebury's ability to knock down 3s (42.6%), it will be interesting to see if Sellers and his staff utilize him off the ball more frequently with Sweatman as the lead guard.

Sweatman is probably out-performing his talent level right now; he's just 6 for 23 from three, and his 51.6% FG% in the mid-range feels like it's due for some regression. However, it appears Patrick Sellers has himself a special talent. Not bad for a guy who thought he was playing at D3 Keene St. until Central came calling.

Curiosities, Surprises, Observations, and Musings:

- According to Bart Torvik's T-Rank, only three teams have a better than 0% chance to win the NEC regular season crown outright; Wagner (84%), Bryant (6.1%), and Long Island (0.3%).

- Wagner is still hanging in as a #14 seed in the most recent release of the Bracket Matrix (1/24).

- Myles Thompson was a monster this weekend, willing the Red Flash to a victory over CCSU last Friday night. The true senior averaged 19 points and 4.5 boards, and has really bounced back from a down junior season. His 40% from three is a career high and he's back over 50% at the rim. That 6'6" 230 lb. frame should be a matchup problem most nights.

- On Sunday, Ramiir Dixon-Conover had 15 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, and 3 steals in SFU's win over Sacred Heart. For the senior PG, it was just the 2nd time in 8 games that he had an O-Rating above 100. In league play his eFG% is all the way down to 38.7%, and his assist rate is below 20%. To put that into perspective; in NEC play last year, his eFG% was 46.9%, and his assist rate was 28.7%. Whenever I see numbers drop like that, I wonder if there's some sort of injury involved.

- No team has improved more defensively in league play than the Red Flash; in the non-conference, their 111.8 Adjusted DE was tied for last in the league with Sacred Heart. However, so far against NEC teams they're allowing just 100.5 points/100 possessions, which is good for 5th. They've done a really nice job getting out on shooters (NEC teams are shooting 30.6% from three against them), and they have the size to protect the rim.

- Wagner's Alex Morales went for 35 and 12 in the win over LIU on Friday. However, I'm almost more impressed with his game against Merrimack; he scored just 12 points, but only because he didn't force his offense and finished 5 of 9 from the field. If other guys are rolling, Morales doesn't feel the need to go get his.

- In Wagner's win over Merrimack, Wagner freshman Zaire Williams had a career high 16 points on 4 of 6 from deep. Williams was highly touted when he committed to Bashir Mason but the shot just hasn't been there, and coming into that game he was just 8 of 37 from three. If he could get going from outside, that would make the Seahawks that much more difficult to stop.

- After shooting 35% from three as a freshman with a 14.3% assist rate, DeLonnie Hunt's 3P% is down to 24.2% (36.2% eFG%) and his assist rate is just 12.3%. However, he continues to log significant minutes (he averaged 27.5 mpg last weekend). Mason clearly trusts him.

- Few players have been better in league play than Elijah Ford; his eFG% is up to 69.5% thanks to making 64.1% at the rim. Plus, he does stuff like this on almost a nightly basis:

- Sacred Heart's Aaron Clarke has scored in double-figures in each of his last 7 games, and on the season he's averaging 16.7 points and 4.1 assists per game. The 3-ball hasn't been there consistently (just 32.1%), but he's made 61.3% as the rim. If the Pios could turn it around, Clarke could find himself in the POY conversation. I did expect a bounce-back season, but I did not expect this.

- Tyler Thomas had a tough weekend; on Friday he scored just 6 points, which was the first time since November 22nd that he scored less than 13. On the week he was just 2 for 12 from two. Want to know what kind of scoring punch he generally provides? Thomas has more games with more than 20 points (6) than games with less than 15 points (4). But it's really tough for Sacred Heart to win if he's not making shots.

- Last Friday the Mount completely blitzed Sacred Heart, beating them at The Knot 98-59. However, according to Shot Quality, based on the shots both teams took each team wins that game 50% of the time. Essentially; Mount St. Mary's shot the ball significantly better than expected in that one.

- Peter Kiss had a 35% usage rate last weekend, and it's pretty clear that Jared Grasso wants his senior wing to take as many shots as possible. In fact; just 9 D1 players have a usage rate higher than Kiss' 33.6%. It's still surprising to see his name associated with a 26.5% 3P%, but despite that he's been reasonably efficient for that level of usage.

- If you had told me that Chris Childs would fall completely out of Bryant's rotation, I don't think I would have believed it. He's played just 17 minutes over the last 4 games, and got hit with a DNP on Sunday. I can't help but wonder if it's a performance thing (29.9% from three) or he's in the doghouse.

- The Mount's Malik Jefferson was not available against CCSU last Sunday. They clearly have the depth and versatility to get by without him against the Blue Devils, but they could certainly use him against SFU's frontline on Saturday.

- Mount St. Mary's has the league's top eFG% (56.1%), yet is just 4th in Offensive Efficiency. That's what happens when you turn it over on 22.4% of your possessions. Tighten that up and I could see Engelstad running it back. Though he's well aware that turnovers are a problem.

- According to Torvik's PORPAGATU!, no one has been better in NEC play than Ty Flowers. He's shooting 41% from three (60% eFG%), has an assist rate of 24.4%, a 4.5% block rate, and 16.3% DR%. Video game numbers.

- I couldn't help but notice than during crunch-time against FDU, Derek Kellogg had freshman Andre Washington on the floor instead of Tre Wood. I'm not sure if there was an injury there, but Washington played 14 minutes on Sunday after logging just 2 minutes in the previous 6 games. Wood really struggled in his 21 minutes; 0 for 3 from the field, 2 assists and 2 turnovers. Washington was 0 for 2 from the field, but did have 3 steals.

- I still feel like Eral Penn has settled for jump shots too much this season; he's just 8 for 35 from three in league play, and on the season he's 32 for 85 in 17 games after attempting just 31 threes in 18 games last season. However; when he's on, he's on. In the OT loss against Wagner, Penn was 5 of 8 from deep and 9 of 12 from the free throw line, going for 28 points, 14 boards, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. Then in Sunday's win over FDU, he had another double-double (18 and 11). His peripheral numbers are down across the board compared to last season, but remains incredibly valuable to LIU.

- How impressive was Fairleigh Dickinson against Long Island on Sunday? Playing without Mikey Square, the 1-14 Knights battled, eventually losing 79-75. The Knights had two good looks late to tie that thing up.

-Everyone talks about the Blue Devil newcomers, but Greg Herenda also has a ton of young talent. I already wrote about Anquan Hill, but in that game Ibrahim Wattara had 8 points and 6 boards in 20 minutes, Sabastian Lamaute and Oscar Berry provided solid minutes, and even Ray Ford and Ansley Almonor got in on the action. Plus don't forget; Square, Joe Munden, Jr., and Devon Dunn are only in their second seasons, while Brandon Rush is a true junior. Herenda could conceivably keep this team together for 2 more seasons. I know Herenda isn't a big Transfer Portal guy, but if he added a "ready-to-play" PG this coming off-season, FDU could be a team we're talking about come November.

- Brandon Rush's usage rate is down to 25.3% in league play compared to 30.5% in the non-conference. It's no surprise, then, that FDU's star player has been more efficient against NEC teams, with an eFG% above 50%. He's still not where he was as a sophomore in terms of shooting the ball, but there's been a clear adjustment by the FDU staff.

- After shooting just 4 for 38 from three two weekends ago, Merrimack actually had some success from three this past weekend, making 14 of 35. However, the Warriors allowed 1.24 PPP in their two home losses. Yes, I know it was Bryant and Wagner, but this is just not what we've come to expect from a Joe Gallo defense. They're allowing NEC opponents to rebound 37.8% of their own misses (last) and they've had some fouling issues.

- Mikey Watkins' 3P% has trended in the wrong direction in his three years at Merrimack; 35.7% as a freshman, 31.1% as a sophomore, and now 28.3% as a junior.

- Patrick Emilien averaged 16 points and 9.5 boards per game last weekend. It's anecdotal, but I feel like these big wings that transfer down into the NEC have a lot of success as "small ball 4s". After making 32.6% of his 3s at Western Michigan last season, I thought Emilien would provide more perimeter scoring, but he's just 1 for 9 from deep so far this season.

- It's amazing that SFC's Tedric Wilcox had all but fallen out of the rotation in early December; across 4 games from 12/1 through 12/11 he played just 21 minutes. In league play only Emilien and Rob Higgins have played more minutes than Wilcox, who is shooting 46% from three on the season. I know he's a "tweener" defensively, as he doesn't quite have the lateral quickness to defend smaller wings or the strength to guard 4s, but it's tough to leave that kind of shot-making on the bench.

- Michael Cubbage's eFG% is all the way down to 36.6%, and I feel for the Marist transfer; when he committed he thought he'd be playing 2nd fiddle to Chauncey Hawkins. Braica and his staff have asked him to be a high usage scorer and he just doesn't have the kind of jump shot to be that guy (just 6 for 40 from deep).

- Rob Higgins has the league's best Assist/Turnover ratio at 2.2. Who knows if he can ever become an efficient shot maker (just 31.3% from three this season, 26.5% for his career), but he's been solid as a play-maker. Like many Terrier players, he's continued to have a mid-range issue, making just 8 of his 38 mid-range attempts.

- According to Jon Rothstein, Bryant received a commitment from George Mason transfer Joel Kabimba. Kabimba, who started his career at Stetson then played just 4 games for the Patriots this season before hitting the Portal, averaged 5.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks per game in 18.6 mpg in two seasons at Stetson. It's currently unclear if he'll be eligible right away as he's already used his 1-time transfer without sitting out. Ultimately, Kabimba will provide significant size at 6'8" 210 lbs. and profiles as a rebounder/rim protector type, not unlike current Bryant and former George Mason player Greg Calixte. He's now the 3rd D1 transfer that's committed to Bryant, joining Chauncey Hawkins (St. Francis-Brooklyn) and Sherif Kenney (La Salle).

- The Colonial Athletic Association has officially admitted Hampton (MEAC), Stony Brook (America East) and Monmouth (MAAC). Now we wait for more dominos to fall, especially as it relates to the NEC. There's been speculation regarding Wagner to the MAAC, and some think the America East could try to steal programs such as Merrimack and/or Bryant, among others. If a team were to leave the NEC, the University of New Haven feels like a natural choice to join the league.

- And finally; I'm so appreciative of some of the schools' Social Media teams (or whatever they call themselves). Not every program has enough people to be super active and engaging, but a few of the schools have been doing a killer job in getting fan engagement, For me, no program has done it better than Wagner. These "mini movies" are killer.

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