NEC Tournament Semifinals Preview
Of course, we all wish this was a normal season with an 8-team NEC Tournament. But, thanks to the pandemic we get only get a Final 4, though I'm honestly just grateful that we get to watch NEC hoops.
First off, kudos to Noreen Morris, Ron Ratner, and the rest of the folks over at Northeast Conference HQ; thanks to their careful scheduling there were just 4 games canceled and never made up. A huge accomplishment!
Now to the games; on Wednesday it was announced that Bryant will be participating in the NEC Tournament despite having to go on pause this past week due to a positive test within the program.
Here's the bracket:
All point spreads courtesy of Kenpom
Game 1: Sacred Heart at Bryant (-10), 12p
Who is available for Bryant? While Bryant met protocols to be able to participate in the NEC Tournament on Saturday, reports out of Smithfield is that they will "more than likely" be without a full roster. We likely won't know who is and isn't in uniform until shortly before tip-off, but suffice it to say that if the Bulldogs are missing any of their 7-man rotation, it would be a major problem.
The Pios and the Deep Ball- Assuming Bryant is at full-strength, the analytics suggest that Sacred Heart is a major underdog (Kenpom as them at just 17% to win the game). The best way to upset a team better than you? Make 3s. No team in the NEC took more three-pointers, on a rate basis, than the Pios (41.7% of their shots). Now, they weren't particularly efficient, shooting at a 32.5% clip, but all it takes is one hot 40-minute stretch, right? In their 9 wins, SHU made 36% from beyond the arc, but just 30% in their 7 losses. The Problem? Bryant held opponents to just 28% from three in league play, tops in the league.
Will Bryant take care of the ball? Perhaps because they like to push the tempo so much, the Bulldogs had the league's worst turnover rate at 21.4%, which is why they only finished 4th in Offensive Efficiency in the NEC despite having the league's 2nd best eFG% (52.5%). Anthony Latina's defense didn't do much in the turnover department (just 15.3% turnover rate, lowest in the league). Could he perhaps have something up his sleeve to try to get some easy buckets?
Charity Stripe- Both teams were #1 and #2 in the NEC in both free throw rate and free throw %; they get to the line often, and they make them. If it's close and late, it may be difficult to mount a comeback.
Depth- What's the Bulldogs conditioning like? Obviously they like to get up and down (the 7th fasted adjusted tempo), but how much have they been able to practice since knocking off LIU on 2/26? Bryant looked fine coming off their last pause, winning 4 in a row (2 at Merrimack, 2 vs. LIU), but the fact that Jared Grasso largely plays just 7 players could come into play. Anthony Latina likes to go ~9 deep, so the Pios won't wear down.
Battle Down Low- We all know how good Hall Elisias has been...he leads the league in blocks (8.4% block rate), has a 64.7% eFG%, and is 5th in the NEC in rebounds at 7.9 rpg...but Sacred Heart's Cantavio Dutreil has also been really good, at least when it comes to rebounding the ball. The 6'7" senior has the league's highest OR% and DR%, though only plays 46% of minutes because of his 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes (2nd in the NEC). Elisias can also be foul prone (5.2 fouls/40) which means the backup bigs could see major run in this one. Nathaniel Stokes, a 6'8" sophomore, gives Bryant a different look with his ability to knock down shots from the perimeter (34.4% from 3), but he's neither the rim protector nor rebounder that Elisias is. Sacred Heart's Bryce Johnson, who I had on my All-Rookie Team, is a really good rebounder (9% OR%, 24% DR%), but undersized at 6'6", 210 lbs. Asking him to guard Hall Elisias for 25 minutes could prove to be difficult. I wonder if Latina would counter with a zone in that situation.
Game 2: Mount St. Mary's at Wagner (-4), 2pm
Is it difficult to beat a team three times? Wagner swept Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg back on 2/16 and 2/17, and many talking heads will tell you that it's extra difficult to beat a team three times in a season. Jordan Sperber ran these numbers, and found that when Team A won the previous two games against Team B, over the past decade Team A won the 3rd game 71% of the time . In other words; no, it's not any more difficult that if they hadn't played previously. The Mount might win, but it won't be because they lost the first two matchups.
Defense wins championships? Wagner comes into the NEC Tournament with the league's most efficient offense (107.6 points/100 poss), while Mount St. Mary's has the best defense (94.8 pts/100 poss). While I don't particularly subscribe to this cliche either, it'll be interesting to see if Wagner is able to get 2nd chance points; Mount St. Mary's was the best defensive rebounding team in the NEC, and when these teams played the Seahawks were held below their season average 35.1% offensive rebounding rate.
Damian Chong Qui- In the first matchup between these two, the Seahawks found a way to keep All-NEC 1st teamer DCQ quiet; he scored just three points on 1-6 shooting and had just 1 assist in the 61-39 Wagner win. The next night? Chong Qui scored 18 points on 10 shots (plus 6 for 6 from the line) and had 6 assists, and the Mount lost by just two. On the offensive end, the junior point guard is by far Dan Engelstad's best player, and he needs to be aggresive form the get-go. Ultimately I'd like to see him take 15+ shots Saturday afternoon.
Slow Tempo- We all know by now that Dan Engelstad wants to slow this thing down, but it's not like Bashir Mason has his team playing uptempo either; Wagner's 66.8 possessions/40 minutes ranked 9th in the NEC, and these two averaged 56.5 possessions in their two games against each other in February. The first to 60 wins?
Wagner In the Paint- The Seahawks shot 51.4% on 2-pointers in league play (2nd in the conference), but in the previous matchups between these two Wagner made just 33 of their 80 attempts (41.3%). The Mount not only has shot-blockers like NEC DPOY Nana Opoku (5.8% block rate), but Malik Jefferson takes up a lot of space on the interior, and Mezie Offorum provides size and versatility on the wing. Perhaps one of the keys for Wagner is getting some outside shooting from Nigel Jackson. The 6'7" senior made 35% of this 3s, and could pull Malik Jefferson out of the paint. In Game 1 between these two, Jackson made 3 of 5 from depe in 28 minutes, and Jefferson played just 18 minutes as Engelstad went with a smaller lineup.
Veteran Presence- The Seahawks have a ton of experience on this squad; four members of their rotation are seniors, plus 4-year senior Chase Freeman came off the bench to provide a spark in Wagner's sweep of Merrimack. On the other side, the Mount doesn't play any senior, but their rotation is largely made up of juniors, all of whom are in their 3rd year in D1. Neither team should be fazed by the stakes.
Star Power- Mount St. Mary's has the best true point guard in the NEC in DCQ, plus Nana Opoku, Malik Jefferson, and one of the best freshmen in the NEC is Josh Reaves. Wagner? Alex Morales was the POY, Elijah Ford was a 1st teamer, DeLonnie Hunt earned the ROY, and Will Martinez was probably considered for one of the 3 All-NEC teams.