The Mid-Range Jumper: 1/12/21
Last Thursday we were supposed to have all ten NEC teams in action, at least until Fairleigh Dickinson had to pause their season due to positive Covid tests within their program. But let's look on the bright-side; we had 7 games of Northeast Conference hoops between Thursday and Friday. Thank God for NEC Frontrow.
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin.
Team of the Week: St. Francis-Brooklyn
Finally, I get to highlight a team other than Bryant here. Sure, the Bulldogs looked dominant in a sweep of Central Connecticut last week, but that's what they were expected to do. The Terriers were the lone home team that were underdogs last week, yet they went out and won both games against Mount St. Mary's and now sit at 4-2, one of just three teams with a record better than .500.
Last week the SFC defense completely shut-down Mount St. Mary's, allowing just 0.80PPP by holding the Mount to 9 of 37 from deep. Offensively they were led by senior point guard Chauncey Hawkins, who averaged 19 points and 6 assists in the two wins, turning it over just three times and shooting 12 of 16 from the charity stripe.
St. Francis-Brooklyn's roster has been bolstered by 6'5" wing Travis Atson, who began his career at Tulsa and at Quinnipiac in 2018-19 before sitting out last season. Atson leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 15 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, respectively, and has really allowed Glenn Braica to play "small-ball" while not sacrificing on the defensive boards. He's teamed up with Unique McLean (10.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) to form perhaps the most dynamic and versatile wing duo in the NEC.
Braica, the NEC's longest tenured head coach, hasn't finished above .500 since 2018 (10-8), and is still looking for this first NEC crown. Could this be the year? They've given Bryant their only conference loss, and according to Bart Torvik are 4th most likely to win the NEC's Auto-bid at 5.3%. Given that they have a stud point guard, 7 of their 8-man rotation are juniors or seniors, and they rarely turn it over (17%, 65th lowest in the nation), they should not be overlooked. The Terriers don't take the floor again until January 21st thanks to FDU's shut-down. That one, at Long Island, will be a monster match-up.
Team Performance of the Week: Bryant 93, Central Connecticut 68
The Bulldogs were supposed to beat CCSU, but in winning by 25-points Bryant put together its 2nd best performance of the season, at least by Bart Torvik's Game Score (88, just behind their '91' in their season-opening loss at Syracuse).
The Blue Devils managed just 0.82ppp, which represents the best defensive effort by a Bryant team this season (Rhode Island College managed 0.85ppp back on 12/5). The Bulldogs held CCSU to just four free throw attempts, 9-28 from three, and turned them over 18 times (21.8%).
Offensively, Bryant's 1.13PPP was their 4th best output this season, as they shot 10-26 from three-point range and managed 15 offensive boards (39.5%). Peter Kiss led the way with a triple-double (12 points, 10 assists, 10 boards), while Chris Childs poured in 20 points on 8 field goal attempts Michael Green III had 16 points and assists, and Charles Pride chipped in 14.
Player of the Week: Peter Kiss, Bryant
I'm not sure there was another option. Kiss, in his first season in the NEC after transferring from Rutgers, had the aforementioned triple-double on Thursday (the first in Bryant history), then poured in 27 points on 11-16 shooting on Friday, adding 7 boards, 3 assists, and 4 steals. Just a dominating performance against Central Connecticut.
The 6'5" wing is 5th in the conference in scoring (17.8 points), and his O-Rating of 114.4 is the highest among players with a usage rate above 23%. He's really done it all for the Bulldogs; he's got a 59.7% eFG% (17-42, 40.5%, from three), is 4th in the conference in steals (2.5 per game), and is chipping in 5.7 rpg and 3.3 apg.
Freshman of the Week: Matas Spokas, Sacred Heart
Spokas, a 6'7" stretch-4 from Lithuania, had 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in the Pios' split at Merrimack. It was on Thursday, in Sacred Heart's 97-90 overtime loss, during which Spokas made his largest impact of the two games; he scored 18 points, including on 6-9 shooting (2 of 4 from three), and 4 of 5 from the charity stripe.
Spokas has provided shooting from the forward spot for Anthony Latina, as he's made 37% of his 27 three-point attempts, and has been really good from the mid-range (7 of 14). His 118.5 O-Rating (17.7% usage) is 2nd on the team behind Mike Sixsmith, and his 14.1% defensive rebounding rate is 3rd.
After averaging just 15.5 minutes per game in Sacred Heart's first four games, he's playing 34 minutes per night over the past three, though two of those went to overtime. However, it's clear that Spokas has earned more run as a major contributor for the Pios.
As of this writing, Sacred Heart freshman Mike Sixsmith is 2nd in the nation in Offensive Rating, per Kenpom. Credit goes to Friend of the Blog Ryan Peters who tweeted this information out, but it's worth digging into this a bit.
A 6'0" wing, Sixsmith is currently making 61.5%(!) of this three-point attempts, culminating in a ridiculous 84.4% eFG%. According to Bart Torvik, the best eFG% during the T-Rank era was 80.3% (Kris Bankston of Little Rock in 2019).
Sixsmith is clearly a great shooter, and while he hasn't done much scoring inside the arc (3 for 6 on twos, 10 of 11 from the charity stripe), he's chipping in 2.1 apg and has a 15/3 assist/turnover ratio.
The freshman from New Jersey appears to be a great example of understanding ones limitations and not trying to do too much, as indicated by his uber-low 11.2% usage rate. He rarely makes bad decisions on the floor, and focuses on hitting open threes and making the right pass. Credit to the young player, and credit to Anthony Latina and his staff for putting him in position to succeed.
Merrimack: First Impressions
The Warriors finally hit the floor last week after multiple pauses related to Covid, winning in overtime over Sacred Heart on Thursday, then dropping a nail-biter 68-62 on Friday.
With Juvaris Hayes, Jaleel Lord, and Idris Joyner having graduated, the major question mark was; where would the offense come from? The answer; the sophomore frontcourt of 6'8" Jordan Minor and 6'6" Ziggy Reid. Minor was 12-24 from the field in the two games, including 10-20 at the rim, scoring 29 points and adding 19 boards, 9 on the offensive end. Reid, a stretchy-4, averaged 13 points and 7.5 rebounds in the two games, making 9 of 15 from two and 2 of 5 from three.
In the backcourt, it was 5'11" junior Mikey Watkins carrying a heavy load; a 117.9 o-rating on 20.1% usage, including 5.5 apg and 12-22 from the field (1 for 3 from three). 5'10" freshman guard Malik Edmead, who was initially expected to redshirt, showed his ability as a dynamic combo-guard, 12-22 from the field (8 for 9 at the rim), and nabbing three steals.
Perhaps most interesting; after averaging 18.5 seconds per possession last season (310th nationally), the Warriors averaged 16.9 seconds per possession last week against the Pios. In watching the games, it was clear that Joe Gallo wants his team to get into their offense a bit earlier than they did last season. Perhaps that's due to the loss of Juvaris Hayes, as he was often asked to go make a play late in the shot clock. It's tough to draw grand conclusions from two basketball games, but this is something worth watching.
The concerning thing, from a Merrimack perspective; they allowed 1.09PPP in two games against one of the nation's least experienced teams. To put that into perspective; last season, the Warriors allowed more than 1.09PPP just four times all season, and not once to an NEC team. It could be rust, or it could be that the nation's leader in steals (Hayes) is tougher to replace on the defensive end than I initially thought.
Speaking of defense, how about those Sharks? Outside of their 87-72 loss to Sacred Heart, during which the Pios scored 1.16ppp thanks to shooting 12 of 31 from deep, LIU hasn't allowed more than 0.90ppp.
Derek Kellogg has always been "defense first" dating back to his UMass days; the Minutemen finished in the top 100 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency four times in his 9 seasons (they were in the top 100 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency just twice).
Through four games, the Sharks outpace the rest of the league in Defensive Efficiency by a country mile; they're allowing 89.5 points per 100 possessions, with Bryant (95.6 points per 100 possessions) sitting in 2nd. Last week in a sweep over St. Francis (PA), the LIU defense forced 42 turnovers, many of which were as a result of a frantic full-court press.
Ty Flowers and Eral Penn are both in the top 11 in the NEC in steal rate and block rate, and with quickness on the perimeter from guys like Jermaine Jackson Jr., Tre Wood, Alex Rivera, and Virshon Cotton, the Sharks should continue to perform like one of the best defensive teams in the NEC.
It's still early in the season, but there are a few players who were expected to have huge seasons that have struggled at times. I wanted to dig in and see where those struggles are coming from. Of course, there's always the possibility there's an injury affecting play. Don't be surprised to see all four of these guys bounce back over the next two months or so.
Jamir Reed, Central Connecticut
Reed, a sophomore "big wing" from Philly, has seen his role decrease this season as he's playing fewer minutes, and his usage rate has declined from 17.7% to 14%. I can't blame head coach Donyell Marshall; while he's shot the ball reasonably well form the field (including 10 of 30 from three), he hasn't looked for his offense much and has just 9 field goal attempts at the rim. Plus, he's made just 2 of 9 at the free throw line after shooting 72% as a freshman, and his turnover rate has increased from a manageable 22.3% to 26.5%. Perhaps this is partially due to playing out of position at the '4' given the team's shortage of frontcourt players, but Central Connecticut really needs Reed to get back to what made him so good as a freshman; a versatile wing who can shoot, make plays for others, and rebound while playing under control.
Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson
Jenkins' numbers were severely affected by his first game of the season, as he shot 1 for 14 from the field in 32 minutes in a 84-66 loss at Quinnipiac back on 11/25. Since then, he's shot 37.5% from three which is nearly in line with his 40% mark a season ago. The assist numbers are down slightly, and according to Shot Quality his "SQ Passing Points Created per game" has declined from 8.4 to 7.2 this season. But again, one bad game can severely color the stats at this point, and Jenkins put up 1 assist (and 7 turnovers) at Rutgers on 11/27. As FDU gets used to playing without Xzavier Malone-Key and Devon Dunn, Jenkins' stats will look more and more like they did last season.
Aaron Clarke, Sacred Heart
A junior point guard, Clarke missed the Pios' win over Merrimack due to an injury, and has struggled a bit as Anthony Latina has relied upon him more as a scorer than in his first two seasons. Seeing his usage rate increase from 21.6% as a sophomore to 23.7% this season, his eFG% has dipped to 40% thanks to shooting just 22.2% from three (33.5% a year ago). It's not surprising to see a player struggle with efficiency as he goes from the 3rd or 4th scoring option to #1 or #2. As Clarke gets more comfortable playing with Tyler Thomas and some of the Pios' talented freshmen, he'll be fine. Let's hope he's healthy heading into SHU's matchup with CCSU on Thursday.
Myles Thompson, St. Francis (PA)
As a sophomore, Thompson was a great role player for the Red Flash as Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon did their thing. This season, Thompson has seen his role increase in both minutes (64.3% to 75.4%) and usage (20.5% to 22.7%), and the results have been mixed. One one hand, his assists are up and turnovers are down. However, he's shooting just 17.2% from three after making nearly 35% of his threes a season ago. Shot Quality's data shows that the quality of his shots haven't changed much. The Red Flash have the league's worst Offensive Efficiency through three league games (86.6 points per 100 possessions), and getting Thompson going could help cure that.
Life After Jalen Gibbs
Last week was the first time Mount St. Mary's took the floor after Jalen Gibbs entered the Transfer Portal, and freshman Josh Reaves (75% of available minutes) was the biggest beneficiary. The 6'4" freshman averaged 5 points and 4 rebounds while playing 30 minutes in each game, both losses to St. Francis-Brooklyn.
However, it wasn't just Reaves; Samford transfer Deandre Thomas logged his first minutes after becoming immediately eligible, thanks to the recent ruling by the NCAA. Playing 19 minutes in each game as the primary backup to Damian Chong Qui at the point, Thomas scored 8 points and added 6 rebounds while making 2 of 5 from three. Thomas gives Dan Engelstad size, versatility and shot-making ability, and will likely see more minutes as the season goes on.
The Mount made just 9 of 37 (24.3%) from three last week after shooting 31.2% from deep over their first five games. They'll really need more shooting from the combination of Reaves, Thomas, Dakota Leffew, and Naim Miller going forward. Reaves knocked down three of 6 from three last week, Thomas 2 of 5, though Leffew and Miller combined to go 0 for 5 from downtown.
We all agree that the NEC title is Bryant's to lose, right? I mean, they're #180 at Kenpom (LIU is 2nd, as far as NEC teams go, at #260), and Bart Torvik gives the 'Dawgs a 91.9% chance of winning a share of the crown, 82.9% of an outright regular season title. Whether you like it or not, they're the clear favorites at this point.
In my opinion, the best thing for the Northeast Conference would be to have a team dominate the league, finish high in the NET Rankings, and find themselves something other than a #16 seed.
Bryant is currently 85th in the NET (LIU is #159), as of 1/11/21. According to Bracket Matrix, as of 1/11/21, the Bulldogs average seed is 15.22, putting them as the 4th 15-seed. Here are the 15 and 16 seeds:
#15s: Siena (MAAC, #80 in the NET)), Colgate (Patriot, #20), UC Irvine (Big West, #138), Bryant (NEC, #85)
#16s: Grand Canyon (WAC, #128), Northeastern (Colonial, #127), Southern Utah (Big Sky, #148), Stony Brook (AE, #214), Texas Southern (SWAC, #213), Norfolk St. (MEAC, #181)
The NET is still a bit wonky, especially regarding conferences that did not play non-conference games (see Colgate above).
Also, Vermont is still the best team in the America East (#140) and struggled at the outset of the season after not participating in the non-conference. However, they're now 5-3 after winning 3 in a row and are favored to win the rest of their games. Don't be surprised if they push past Bryant in the NET, especially if Bryant loses a game they shouldn't.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
There have been 21 league games so far in 2020-21, and those games have averaged 73.1 possessions per 40 minutes, ranking 3rd nationally among all D1 conferences. That's quite an increase over 68 possessions per 40 minutes in 2019-20, as a number of programs have committed to getting up and down, with the only teams truly taking the air out of the ball being Mount St. Mary's and Merrimack. I guess that's the lone benefit to having Robert Morris left for the Horizon League...Quick, who are the top 2 in scoring in the NEC right now? If you said Elijah Ford and Tyler Thomas, go ahead and pat yourselves on the back. That's right, Ford is scoring 20.8 ppg after averaging just 9.5 points per game as a junior, while Thomas has improved his scoring average from 5.6ppg to 19.8ppg...Of the top 30 in Bart Torvik's PORPAGATU!, 18 are either juniors or seniors, and 10 of the 30 began their careers at different schools (either D1 or JUCO). Get old, stay old, as they say...Is this one of the best freshman classes we've seen in the NEC in quite some time? It's probably a larger topic for another time, but there are 19 freshmen playing more than 20% of their team's available minutes, and there are a number of players involved in the league's Rookie of the Year award race. Sacred Heart's Mike Sixsmith, Matas Spokas, and Bryce Johnson; FDU's Mikey Square, PO Racine and Joe Munden Jr.; SFU's Maxwell Land and Ronell Giles, Jr.; Merrimack's Malik Edmead; Wagner's Elijah Allen and DeLonnie Hunt; and Mount St. Mary's' Josh Reaves and Dakota Leffew, just to name a few...SFU's Ramiir Dixon-Conover returned from and ankle injury and continued to ball, scoring 30 points on 26 shot attempts, 9 assists (5 turnovers), and 8 boards. I was skeptical he could step in as a PG1, but he's managed to cut his turnover rate from 35.6% as a junior to 19.7% this season. That'll play...Last week, Central Connecticut's Zach Newkirk scored 28 points in two losses at Bryant, setting a career high 11 points on Thursday, then besting it with 17 points on Friday. The junior point guard has seen his O-Rating jump from 79.6 last season to 102.1 in 2020-21 despite an increased usage rate (12.5% to 16.4%). His eFG% is up from 43.4% to 56.6%, his assists are up, turnovers down, and he's a solid perimeter defender. I've been hard on Newkirk since the start of last season, but Donyell Marshall talked in the pre-season about his improvement, and we're seeing it...Of the 66 players who have played at least 40% of their team's minutes, there are just three players who have yet to attempt a three-pointer; Sacred Heart's Contavio Dutreil, Fairleigh Dickinson's Mikey Square, and Mount St. Mary's' Malik Jefferson. Is it any surprise that all three are in the top 4 in offensive rebounding rate (Merrimack's Jordan Minor is 3rd)? You don't have to be able to stretch the defense if you can get your team extra possessions...Mikey Watkins had 11 assists against 3 turnovers in the Warriors' first two games, and currently leads the league with a 3.7 A:TO ratio (SSS applies)...Bryant has four players in the top 15 in A:TO ratio; Luis Hurtado (2.1, 4th), Charles Pride (1.9, 6th), Michael Green III (1.5, 8th), and Peter Kiss (1.1, 13th)...And finally, if you're looking for a good series this week, circle LIU/Wagner. The Seahawks looked solid in two close losses at Bryant, and split with Sacred Heart. Playing on Staten Island, they could give LIU trouble.