The Forecaster: 1/21 & 1/22
All point spreads per Kenpom
Mount St. Mary's (-4) at Central Connecticut, 7pm
Fairleigh Dickinson at Merrimack (-1), 7pm
St. Francis (PA) (-1) at Sacred Heart, 7pm
Mount St. Mary's (-4) at Central Connecticut, 4pm
Fairleigh Dickinson at Merrimack (-1), 4pm
St. Francis (PA) (-1) at Sacred Heart, 4pm
Series to Watch #1: SFU at SHU
Things 2 Watch:
Youth Movement- It would have been very easy for Anthony Latina and Rob Krimmel, who both lost multiple All-NEC players off last season's rosters, to use their young rosters as excuses for struggling this season. Instead, both coaches have embraced having freshmen rotation players, surrounded them with veterans, and have performed above expectations (mine, anyway). The Pios, per Kenpom the 29th least experienced team in D1 and youngest in the NEC, are sitting at 4-3 in league play despite a rotation that consists of 4 freshmen, a sophomore, two juniors (including a JUCO transfer), and a senior. The Red Flash are the 2nd youngest team in the NEC, and though they are 1-3, they're still very much in the hunt for an NEC Tournament spot (I discussed why in my Mid-Range Jumper). Krimmel's rotation has 5 freshmen, including two who play more than 58% of available minutes. Reload > Rebuild.
The Red Flash offense- Through their first 9 games, SFU has scored more than 0.93ppp in a game just twice; in their season-opening win at Pitt (1.06ppp) and in last week's win over Bryant (1.04ppp). In league play (5 games), SFU has the league's worst offensive efficiency at just 91 points/100 possessions (Merrimack is 9th at 96 pts/100 poss). The problems? Nearly every facet of offense; they're struggling to shoot it from deep (30.3%, 9th in the NEC), inside the arc (46.3%, 8th), they don't get 2nd chances (27.2% OR%, 10th), and rarely get to the free throw line (21.3 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts, 10th). However, there's room for optimism; many of those games were played without Ramiir Dixon-Conover, and the addition of 6'7" wing Marlon Hargis gives Krimmel another scoring option and more lineup versatility.
The Pios from Downtown- In NEC play, Sacred Heart is shooting 32.8% from three (4th in the NEC), and 33.2% overall, but that only tells part of the story; through 8 games, the Pios are attempting 43.2% of their shots from beyond the arc, which is their highest rate in the Kenpom era, and 48th nationally. It makes a lot of sense, as Anthony Latina has filled his roster with a number of shooters; Tyler Thomas leads the NEC with 15.6% of his field goal attempts from three-point range, while Matas Spokas (9.6%), Mike Sixsmith (8%), Aaron Clarke (7.5%), and Alex Watson (7.2%) have all taken at least 7% of their shots from deep. Sixsmith, a freshman, is 2nd in the NEC with a 57% 3P%, Tyler Thomas' 22 made threes is 3rd in the league (30.6%), while Watson (37.9%) and Spokas (36.7%) have made them at a high clip. Got a young roster? Play D and shoot 3's.
Ramiir Dixon-Conover- 0.96, 1.18. The first number is SFU's ppp allowed when RDC plays the whole game, and the second number is what they've allowed when Dixon-Conover does not play the entire game (he missed most of the 2nd half against UMBC due to injury). The senior point guard has been solid offensively as a high usage player; there are just four players with a usage rate north of 28%, and his 95.6 O-Rating is first among those players (6th out of 11 players with usage rates > 25%). However, Dixon-Conover is one of the best (perhaps the best) perimeter defenders in the Northeast Conference. His 4.4% steal rate is 3rd in the league, and at 6'3" he provides good length at the '1', he's got great lateral quickness, and he's got the intensity necessary to excel on the defensive end. A clear difference maker.
Matas Spokas- A freshman out of Lithuania, Spokas has come out of nowhere to become a key cog in Anthony Latina's rotation. In this season's Blue Ribbon Preview (written by Ryan Peters), Spokas was one of the last Pios to be mentioned, with Latina describing him as "very fundamentally sound, can really shoot". Ya think? The 6'7" stretchy-4 has made 36.7% of his three-point attempts, and has really shown a knack for finding holes in the mid-range, especially along the base line. He's turned it over just 4 times on the season (7.3% rate), and is 4th on the team in defensive rebounding rate (13.2%). He probably needs to get stronger to become a 30 mpg guy at the '4', but provides a nice combination of length and shooting at this level. Playing him alongside guys like 6'7" junior Cantavio Dutreil and 6'6" freshman Bryce Johnson, both of whom are among the league's best defensive rebounders and get most of their offense done inside, is a recipe for success.
Series to Watch #2: FDU at MC
Things 2 Watch:
Layoff- Fairleigh Dickinson hasn't played a game since a 69-65 win at Fairfield on 12/22 as the team was shut down due to covid-issues within the program. While there's not a large, reliable sample to pull from, it's easy to assume that coming off a long shut-down can be tough for a team, especially when you have to play back-to-back games on the road like the Knights do. FDU currently sits at 1-1 in the league (they split with Central Connecticut in Teaneck before Christmas), and tonight begins a stretch where they will play six games in 11 days; at Merrimack, at SFU next Tues/Weds, and two at home against Bryant next weekend. That's a tough ask.
The New Merrimack- Through just 4 games, this year's version of the Warriors looks quite a bit different than last season's. In 2019-20, MC averaged 18.5 seconds per offensive possession, good for 310th nationally, and 18.7 seconds per defensive possession, which was the second most in D1. This season they are still mucking it up defensively (19.1 seconds per defensive possession, 3rd most in D1), but they are playing fast offensively; 16.3 seconds per possession, 89th fastest in the country. My theory? Without a guy like Juvaris Hayes, who could go make a play late in the shot clock, Joe Gallo is looking to get the offense started earlier in the hopes of finding a good look. Also new; this season the offense is flowing trough 6'8" sophomore Jordan Minor, who leads the starters with a 27.8% usage rate.
Defense?- I don't want to beat a dead horse, but every time I look at the NEC's Kenpom page, it's striking to see Merrimack rated 9th in the NEC in Defensive Efficiency (106.8 points/100 possessions). The Warriors are forcing turnovers at a high clip (24.4%), but have struggled on the defensive boards (31.5% opponent OR%) and defending the three (opponents are shooting 45.1%). Fairleigh Dickinson hasn't been any better on that side of the ball; they've allowed at least 1.04ppp in every game except their two wins; vs. CCSU on 12/9 (0.98ppp) and at Fairfield on 12/22 (0.95ppp). Of course, it's worth noting that those two teams are rated #334 and #329 at Kenpom, respectively. Opponents have a 54.9% eFG% (315th nationally) and are grabbing offensive rebounds at a 33.2% clip. Don't be surprised to see both teams get up past 1.05ppp in these games.
Jordan Minor- I mentioned the sophomore big man above, but let's talk more about him. Minor is impressively physically; 6'8", 240 lbs., and athletic for his size. As a freshman, he was more than solid in limited time; he had a 51.1% eFG% on heavy usage (27.1%) and was one of the best offensive rebounders in the NEC, though he played just 39.3% of available minutes. This season he's played at least 26 minutes in all four games, and is averaging 12.5 ppg and 8.3 rpg, to go along with a 3.9% block rate (9th in the NEC). While his efficiency has dropped quite a bit (his eFG% is just 40.2%), that's not a surprise when a player sees that large of an increase in his role in the offense. However, that could be a small sample size issue; he's converted just 41.7% of his shots at the rim, compared to 50.4% a season ago. Look for Minor to put a lot of pressure on FDU's frontline of Elyjah Williams and PO Racine this week.
Jahlil Jenkins- I don't care what the numbers say, when MC and FDU take the floor on Thursday evening, Jahlil Jenkins will be the best player out there. No, his numbers aren't where they've been the last couple of seasons; his eFG% is down, his assists are down, and he's not getting to the free throw line as much as he has in the past. However, over his past 4 games (all in December, obviously), Jenkins shot 8 for 16 from three, had 16 assists against 6 turnovers, and got to the charity stripe 19 times (made 17). Jenkins will be fine, and I'm looking forward to watching him torch NEC defenses over the next two months.