The Mid-Range Jumper: 1/25/21
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin
Team of the Week: Merrimack
Last week I wrote about how the Merrimack defense had not been good, as they came into the week allowing 106.8 points/100 possessions, which was 9th in the NEC. Well, the Warriors really shut me up. In sweeping Fairleigh Dickinson, Joe Gallo's zone defense allowed just 0.90ppp, holding the Knights to a 35.6% eFG% on Thursday, then forcing turnovers on 19.2% of possessions on Friday while allowing just 8 offensive boards (22.9%).
Of course, it's worth mentioning that: a) FDU was playing their first games in nearly a month (they last played on 12/22), and b) Elyjah Williams, FDU's 2nd leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and leading rebounder (6.3 rpg). Either way, sweeping FDU is a major result for a Merrimack team coming into the week at 1-3 in the league.
Team Performance of the Week: Sacred Heart 82, St. Francis (PA) 70
A night after losing 76-58 to the Red Flash, the Pios turned around and put up an impressive offensive display on Friday; scoring 1.08ppp thanks to dominating the interior (23-36 on twos, including 18-22 at the rim) and getting to the free throw line 25 times (making 18). The primary difference between Thursday and Friday? Aaron Clarke looked like Aaron Clarke for 30 minutes after a knee injury limited him to an ineffective 16 minutes in Game 1. The junior point guard scored 23 points, including 8 for 8 from the free throw line, and made a number of big plays down the stretch. Tyler Thomas added 19 points ( 5 for 6 at the rim), while Contavio Dutreil chipped in 7 points and 10 boards.
A stat that exists and means nothing: The Pioneers have played three "back to backs" so far in league play, and in each one they've lost the first game and won the second game. Maybe that says something about Anthony Latina and his coaching staff's ability to make adjustments, but I lean toward it being a fun coincidence.
Player of the Week: Damian Chong Qui, Mount St. Mary's
The 5'8" point guard was absolutely dominant last week at Central Connecticut State; in Game 1 he put up 20 points, including making 11 of 12 from the charity stripe, and made a bevy of plays down the stretch to ensure the victory. Then on Friday, the junior lefty scored 30 points and added 7 assists, consistently getting to the rim and finishing over and around bigger players. I still can't believe there were no scholarship offers for this dude coming out of high school.
Freshman of the Week: Josh Cohen, St. Francis (PA)
There were other freshmen who probably put up bigger numbers last week, but the 6'10" red-shirt freshman came up huge for the Red Flash when they needed it most. With Myles Thompson out due to an injury, Cohen averaged 19 minutes per game in the split at Sacred Heart, scoring 15 points and adding 15 rebounds (including his first career double-double of 11 points and 10 boards on Thursday). The prototypical 5-man offers a big body, nice touch around the rim, and solid fundamentals.
NEC Tournament Race
In a little more than a month, the Northeast Conference will hold its 4-team conference tournament. I know some don't like it, but with the public discourse now questioning whether conference tournaments should be played at all, it's clear that the NEC absolutely did the right thing by adjusting the format for this season, and this season only.
So who will be participating in this thing? If you look at Kenpom's projected records in the standings at the top of this post, you'll notice that his projections don't include games that have been postponed, but are likely to be made up. Bart Torvik's does, and his site projects just three teams to finish with winning records; Bryant (14-4), LIU (11-7), and Mount St. Mary's (10-8). St. Francis-Brooklyn is next at 9-9, with four teams at 8-10. Based on that, 10 wins (assuming each team plays its full 18-game schedule) may be the magic number to qualify for the NEC Tournament.
So let's take a peak at Torvik's odds of winning 10+ games (a reminder that Merrimack is still ineligible for post-season play as part of its transition to Division 1):
It's safe to say that there are at least 7 teams with legitimate chances to make the NEC Tournament, based on the assumptions above, and one could make an argument for Fairleigh Dickinson as well. Central Connecticut is currently 3-6 and would probably need to go 7-2 the rest of the way, with road trips to SFU and LIU included in those final 9 games. Possible? sure. Realistic? No, not based on what we've seen from the Blue Devils so far. But what about everyone else?
Well, we can all agree that Bryant is essentially a shoe-in to qualify for the NEC Tournament, right? The Bulldogs, currently in 1st place at 6-2, are heavy favorites to host the NEC's "Final 4", but we're talk more about that as we get get into February.
Long Island is also sitting pretty; at 4-2, they have the league's 3rd best Efficiency Margin and also one of the league's best rosters.
Mount St. Mary's is an interesting case; at 4-3 (with a +6.8 EM), Torvik's system may be overrating the Mount because of two reasons; 1) It has likely not adjusted for the loss of Jalen Gibbs to the Transfer Portal, and 2) I have a feeling their wins over Merrimack will not look as good at the end of the season as they do now, as the Warriors were highly rated by the projection systems in the pre-season based on the perceived strength of their defense. Basically, I'm not nearly as confident in Mount finishing in the top 4 as I am Bryant and LIU, but they're in a really good spot.
If you want to give Mount St. Mary's the benefit of the doubt, then it's likely a 4ish-team race for that 4th and final playoff berth. St. Francis-Brooklyn is 4-2 in conference play and have a win over Bryant that could be huge for tie-breaker purposes. They also still have two games with LIU, a road-trip to Loretto, and home games with Sacred Heart. Wagner (2-4) has already played both Bryant and LIU (with a win over the Sharks also potentially big for tie-breaker purposes), though having to play at St. Francis-Brooklyn could be an issue. St. Francis (PA) is just 2-5, but have played the league's most difficult conference schedule, and only have 3 remaining games against teams with > .500 records, and all are at home (two against SFC and one vs. Mount). Of course, SFU may be the most "Jekyll & Hide" team in the league, looking like a title contender one night, and mediocre the next. Sacred Heart? They're 5-4, but haven't played Bryant, the Mount, or St. Francis-Brooklyn. They do have a win over Long Island, however.
I'll hold off sticking the proverbial fork in Fairleigh Dickinson for now, but they're just 1-3, with those 4 games coming against CCSU and Merrimack; not exactly a murderer's row. Next week they'll play 4 games in 6 days (SFU and Bryant), and we'll know a lot more about them after that.
The morale of the story? The next 4 weeks should be fun.
Top Point Guards
Over the next few weeks, I'd like to take a look at the top 3 players in the Northeast Conference at each position. We'll start with the point guards, and also look at 2-guards (wings with > 8% of shots from 3P range), wings, stretch-4s, and True 5s. I generally don't like pigeon holing players into certain positions, but there's no other way to do an exercise like this. (Note: This only includes players with > 40% of available minutes played, and only includes stats from 2020-21). You disagree with my lists? Let's get some dialogue going.
Damian Chong Qui, Mount St. Mary's- I spent a good chunk of my week watching DCQ torch Central Connecticut, and my eyes told me he's the best lead guard in the NEC. However, that's not necessarily why he's here; the analytics agree. The 5'8" lefty is 3rd in the league in O-Rating among players with usage rates > 24% (108.9, #1 among PGs), and is #2 in Kenpom's Player of the Year rankings (behind LIU's Ty Flowers). He leads all NEC point guards in Bart Torvik's PORPAGATU!, as well as Box Plus/Minus, is 2nd in PER and Win Shares. He's got a staggering 36% assist rate (5.1 apg), and is shooting 86% from the charity stripe. If I had to pick someone to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, it's this man.
Michael Green III, Bryant- I could cop out and call MG3 #1b, as he's been the perfect point guard for what Jared Grasso wants to do (which is run, run, run). The sophomore from NYC leads all PGs in scoring, at 18.3 ppg, and performs very well with the analytics compared to other lead guards; 1st in Win Shares and 2nd in PRPG!, his 104.8 O-Rating is 5th among players with > 24% usage rate, and is #4 in Kenpom's Player of the Year ratings.
Ramiir Dixon-Conover, St. Francis (PA)- This was a tough one, as RDC isn't as conventional as some of the other point guards in this league, and also missed a good chunk of time with an ankle injury. However, the analytics do love him (3rd in BPM, PRPG!, and Win Shares), he's one of the best rebounders out of the PG position (5.4 rpg), and should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. He's a major part of the SFU offense (28.% usage rate, 2nd among PGs), and his 36% assist rate is tied atop the league with Chong Qui.
Guys who just missed: Chauncey Hawkins, St. Francis-Brooklyn; Alex Morales, Wagner
Experience vs. Performance
It's one of those cliches that make a lot of sense; "get old, stay old". Generally speaking, teams with more experience tend to perform better, especially at the mid-major level where teams aren't recruiting "one and done" or "two and through" guys. Is that the case in the NEC?
As you can see in the chart, Bryant is clearly ahead of the rest of the league when it comes to performance, yet is only the 5th most experienced team in the NEC (slightly above average). Of course, context matters; they've brought in well-traveled players like Peter Kiss, Hall Elisias, Luis Hurtado, and Chris Childs to surround sophomore studs Michael Green III and Charles Pride.
St. Francis-Brooklyn is the most experienced team, with Rob Higgins and Larry Moreno, both sophomores, as the only true rotation guys who are under-classmen. Long Island and Wagner both have older players mixed in with younger players. Curiously, Central Connecticut, which was one of the youngest teams in the country last season, has the 4th most experienced roster in the NEC thanks to a bevy of sophomores who got major playing time last season, plus five juniors (including two JUCO transfers) and a senior in the rotation. That experience hasn't paid dividends for the Blue Devils, who have the league's lowest Kenpom ranking at #335.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sacred Heart and St. Francis (PA) are the two least experienced teams in the NEC, yet have performed quite well. The Pios are currently 5-4 in the league, while SFU is ranked #261 at Kenpom (4th in the league). Both programs could be in store for a major move up the standings over the next two or three seasons, assuming the coaching staffs are able to keep those groups together.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
One name obviously missing from the point guard discussion above is Jahlil Jenkins. The pre-season All-NEC 1st teamer has really struggled to put it together through 10 games; his eFG% is all the way down to 39.6%, his assist rate is down, he's not getting to the free throw line, and he's converted just 35.3% of his attempts at the rim. I can't help but wondering if there's an injury there. Even if there's not, the combination of losing major pieces on the wing prior the start of the season, as well as covid-related shutdowns/issues, has likely played a role in his struggles. I refuse to believe this is his true talent level, and would not be shocked if he had a huge February. Jenkins has been one of my favorite players since his freshman season, and I really would like to see him finish strong...Sophomore sharp-shooter Mykel Derring was nails last week, scoring 32 points on 8-17 from three. Derring only made 28% of this three-point attempts as a freshman, and attempted just 15 shots from inside the arc. Through just 6 games, he's making 37% from beyond the arc and has already attempted 15 two-pointers (making 8), and he's already made as many free throws as he did a season ago (4). That 54.7% eFG% will play, for sure...Central Connecticut's Nigel Scantlebury hit a game-winning step-back three-pointer on Friday in what may have, at least temporarily, saved CCSU's season. The Junior College transfer was expected to be really help improve the Blue Devils' offense, and while he's been a really good playmaker (30.5% assist rate, 5th in the NEC), he's struggled to shoot the ball, making just 26% of his three-point attempts and 9 of 26 from the mid-range. What's more; Donyell Marshall has played Zach Newkirk more and more as the season has gone on. While Scantlebury has technically come off the bench lately, he's played at least 28 minutes in 4 of the last 5 games and was on the floor down the stretch in both games against Mount St. Mary's last week. He's quick and shifty, and has a knack of getting into the lane, but Central really needs him to become more consistent from three...One week after beating Bryant by playing "small ball", Rob Krimmel went big in the first half against Sacred Heart last Thursday, putting 6'9" Mark Flag and 6'10" Josh Cohen on the floor together. While I don't love it given that both players like to work in the paint, Myles Thompson was unavailable and Marlon Hargis was dealing with foul trouble. It's likely one of those "just trying to piece 40 minutes together" situations. It's worth watching, however...Let's talk about a Sacred Heart player who is one of the best rebounders in the league. And no, we're not talking about Cantavio Dutreil. Freshman Bryce Johnson is 2nd to Dutreil in the NEC in defensive rebounding rate (27.1%) , and is 4th in OR% (11%). At 6'6", Johnson has a motor that makes him relentless on the glass, with a strong body and good hands. The problem for Anthony Latina is that it's tough to play Johnson and Dutreil together, as neither really stretches the floor (Johnson is 2 for 8 from three on the year). However, they make a really good 1-2 combination at the '5'...I spent a good chunk of this season scratching my head as to why Dan Engelstad is so hell-bent on playing Mezie Offurum, Nana Opoku, and Malik Jefferson together as much as he does (and even Jalen Jefferson and freshman big Frantisek Barton being thrown into the mix). However, in watching the Mount closely last week I realized that it's really all about the defense for Engelstad. The Mount has the league's 2nd most efficient defense (93.4 points/100 possessions), and a lot of that is because: a) teams struggle to shoot over the length they have on the floor (44.3% opponents eFG% is tops in the NEC), and b) there are no offensive rebounding opportunities to find (22.5% opponents OR% is also #1 in the league). If they can continue to be an average offensive team (100.2 pts/100 poss is 5th) and an elite defensive team, they have a really good shot at getting into the NECT...According to Kenpom, just 17.6% of NEC games have been close games (defined as decided by <4 points or less, or overtime), which is 23rd out of 32 active conferences. On the flip side, there's been just 4 blowouts (>19 points). Not a lot of nail-biters, but a lot of entertaining games...over the next 1.5 months, you're going to see a lot of pundits talking about the "eye test" when it comes to NCAA Tournament at-large discussion. Ignore it; with all the data we have at our disposal, the eye test essentially means "which team I like better". It's utilized to talk up Power 5 schools (you won't hear anyone talking about Loyola-Chicago passing the eye test, though they're currently on the "bubble", but man those B1G schools LOOK GOOD!). I can't wait until there's no longer a NCAA Tournament committee, and instead we award NCAAT at-large berths based on some sort of rankings (like the NET). But until then, feel free to tweet at Jon Rothstein about how Bryant passes the eye test, just in case they fall in the NEC Tournament...And finally, we have a ton of NEC games this week. By my count there are 13 games scheduled to be played between Tuesday and Sunday. We will know a lot more about each team by the time Monday rolls around.