The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: 11/15/21
The first week of the college hoops season is in the books, and it was a reasonably strong one for the NEC; Kenpom projected the league would win ~4.3 games (against D1 competition), and Northeast Conference teams won...4 games. What could have been a huge week for the league flamed out over the weekend with St. Francis-Brooklyn and Sacred Heart both losing home games in which they were favored.
Standings: During the conference season, I'll sort the standings by Efficiency Margin in league games. However, during the first two months of the season, they will be sorted by Adjusted Efficiency Margin (aka Kenpom ranking).
NEC Team of the Week: Wagner
You knew this was coming, right? The Seahawks followed up an impressive home win over the reigning America East Tournament champs (Hartford) with a dominant road win at Virginia Commonwealth. Through just two games, Wagner improved 40 spots at Kenpom and 53 spots at Torvik. You really couldn't draw up a better start to the season if you're Bashir Mason.
Per Bart Torvik's 'Game Score', Wagner averaged 90.5; outside of Merrimack's 87 score in its win over NJIT last week, no other NEC team had a GS better than 48 (Sacred Heart, in its win over La Salle). Dominant.
As someone who picked Wagner to finish 2nd in the league, I'm most impressed with the Seahawks' defense; it held a good Hartford team to just 0.87ppp, then VCU scored fewer than 0.73 points per possession. Last season Wagner held just three teams to fewer than 0.89ppp, and ended up finishing 5th in the league in Defensive Efficiency; solid, sure, but not near the top of the league.
In watching Wagner, it appeared that the defensive intensity was turned up quite a bit from last season; they were forcing turnovers (nearly 26% of defensive possessions), and really closing out on shooters (they allowed just 27% 3P%). With the offensive firepower Wagner has, finishing at, or near, the top of the league in DE would certainly put them as front-runners to win the NEC.
NEC Team Performance of the Week: Wagner 58, VCU 44
VCU was picked 4th by the A-10 coaches coming into the season, and is a squad with legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes. And yet, Wagner was clearly the better team on Saturday night.
It was a struggle offensively for the Seahawks; they scored just 0.96ppp thanks to making just 3 of 17 from deep. But VCU has been known for its defense since the Shaka Smart days, so putting up nearly 1 point per possession is a solid showing. However, Saturday night was all about the D. The Seahawks forced 15 turnovers on just 61 possessions (nearly 25%), held VCU to 3 of 11 from deep, and allowed just 4 offensive rebounds.
On the offensive end, it was the Alex Morales show; the reigning NEC Player of the Year scored 20 points on 10 field goal attempts (including making all 6 free throw attempts), and also added 11 boards.
NEC Player of the Week: Alex Morales, Wagner
Despite the fact that Morales won NEC POY last season, many pundits picked Peter Kiss to win the award this season (I had him as the top player in the league, FWIW). Well, maybe Wagner's star player took offense? The super senior was fantastic in both Wagner wins; he put up 15 points, 5 boards, and 4 assists in the victory over Hartford, then went for 20 and 11 against VCU. Sure, the 5 turnovers were more than you'd want, but that's nitpicking.
The thing I wanted to see from Morales was for him to improve the jumper, and maybe he's done that? It's a small sample size to be sure, but he's 3 for 3 from deep in two games, and 8 for 10 from the free throw line. Plus, in watching him, he seemed like an even more willing passer than he was a year ago, consistently looking to set up plays for teammates.
Through two games, his usage rate is down a bit (from 28.7% to 26.6%) and he's got a 75% eFG% and 123.1 O-Rating. That'll do.
NEC Freshman of the Week: Joe Ostrowsky, Central Connecticut
Let's be clear right off the bat; there aren't many freshmen getting playing time this season, not with the number of "super seniors" we have in the league. In fact, just 9 freshman played more than 25% of their team's minutes in the first week, 11 if you count a couple of guys listed as sophomores but are in their first collegiate seasons.
Anyway, back to Ostrowsky; he's a fun story as a guy who is listed as a walk-on, but appears to be part of Patrick Sellers' rotation. A 6'0" combo guard originally from Michigan who prepped at Cheshire Academy, Ostrowsky came off the bench to score 17 points in 38 minutes across two games, including 3 of 5 from three, chipping in 5 boards and 2 assists.
Tracking the Transfers
This past week we saw a bunch of transfers make significant impacts on their respective teams. Instead of talking about all of them now, I'll take a peek at a few different guys over the next few weeks. First up, a couple of Terriers:
Michael Cubbage- I watched all 40 minutes of SFC's loss to St. Thomas, and Cubbage is exactly what I expected; a high usage wing who can do a little of everything, but may not be super efficient. His 25.2% usage rate through two games leads the rotation so far, and while he's shown an ability to score at all three levels (6 of 12 at the rim, 6 of 8 in the mid-range), he's just 1 for 8 from deep, and has just one assist through two games. However, despite being just 6'4", he's averaging 7 boards per game. A big add for Glenn Braica.
Patrick Emilien- The 6'7" grad transfer from Western Michigan leads St. Francis-Brooklyn in minutes played (34 mpg), and has shown himself to be exactly the kind of "small ball 4" that Braica likes. He's got a smooth jump shot (5-8 from the mid-range, 1-5 from three), and will put up strong defensive rebounding rates in NEC play (15.8% through two games). His 18 point, 5 board debut at Wisconsin was a welcome sight.
LIU's Tough West Coach Trip
The Sharks weren't expected to win either game last week as they headed out west to take on San Francisco and Fresno St. But most people expected a better showing than a 98-64 drubbing at USF and an 84-60 loss in Fresno. Long Island's ranking over at Torvik dropped from 198 to 247 after just two games. A disappointing start, to say the least.
Let's start with the defense; despite Derek Kellogg going with the big front line of Ty Flowers, Eral Penn, and Isaac Kante, LIU allowed their opponents to make 67.3% at the rim last week. On offense, a 23% turnover rate didn't do LIU any favors, and they surprisingly struggled to grab their own misses (just 21.9%).
A rougher than expected start for Hofstra transfer Isaac Kante, who was just 5 of 18 from the field, including 0 for 6 from three. What's interesting is that Kante had never even attempted a three-pointer in his three-year collegiate career. The starting backcourt of Tre Wood (4 points, 4 assists, 8 turnovers) and Alex Rivera (0 for 6 from three) also struggled last week.
If you're looking for some silver lining; Ty Flowers was 7 of 17 from deep last week after making just 29% of his 3PA over the last two seasons. Him regaining his shooting form from his sophomore year (39.3%) would be huge.
Sacred Heart's Up-and-Down Week
When the Pioneers knocked of La Salle on the road on opening night, it was a massive win for the Sacred Heart program. Then, when the Pios hung with Providence for ~25 minutes before succumbing to the Friars' size and athleticism, there was even more reason for optimism down in Fairfield. Which made Sunday so surprising.
Binghamton, which fired their Tommy Dempsey in April and gave Lavell Sanders the "interim tag", was picked dead last in the America East heading into the season. Despite the Pios being favored by 7.5, Binghamton whooped Sacred Heart 72-60, and it wasn't even that close. Playing without senior point guard Aaron Clarke for the 2nd game in a row, SHU managed just 0.90ppp thanks to making just 5 of 19 rom deep. A more concerning stat? Just 6 assists against 14 turnovers.
With that said, there's a lot to take-away from the opening week for Sacred Heart. For one; we know this team is going to score, especially when Clarke is back from his ankle injury and a backcourt that can really knock down shots. The concern for me, heading into the season, was; can this team defend? Holding La Salle to 0.97ppp was a nice start, and while Binghamton put up 1.08ppp, one could chalk it up to the Bearcats just getting hot from deep (10 of 20).
Joey Reilly, a walk-on transfer from Holy Cross, appears to be a nice find; he made 7 of 13 from deep across three games, while Aaron Watson made 6 of 12 from three. However, it's the front line that should have Pio fans excited. Nico Galette, who rarely played as a freshman, averaged 8 points and 6 boards in the three games, including making three 3-pointers, while fellow sophomore Bryce Johnson chipped in nearly 7 points and 6 boards per game. Those two combine rebounding with an ability to stretch the defense, and should be productive offensively for Anthony Latina this season.
Joe Gallo is at it again
Joe Gallo, man. Look, I'm wrong a lot and I gladly admit it, but I expected the Merrimack defense to be much better than it was in 20-21 when it finished only 2nd in the league in Defensive Efficiency. Why? Because the Warriors program was hit hard by Covid pauses last season, which really affected their ability to get on the practice floor. A full summer of workouts, plus a normal pre-season, was just what the Merrimack staff needed. Here is what I wrote in my NEC Preview:
Well, through two D-1 games, the Merrimack defense has been straight-up dominant. The Warriors forced turnovers on 29% of NJIT's possessions, and limited NJIT and Rutgers to just 28.6% from three and 34.8% from two (37.6% eFG%, which is currently 14th nationally). You're not getting a good look from three, and good luck getting to the rim with Jordan Minor standing there (he had 4 blocks at Rutgers).
In 2019-20, Merrimack showed that if you can be dominant defensively, you can win this league without scoring much, which in my opinion puts the Warriors clearly in the same sentence as Wagner and Bryant as title contenders. But can they get enough done offensively? They made just 36% of their twos last week (38% eFG%), including just 0.61ppp at Rutgers, and outside of Ziggy Reid (5 of 13) and Mykel Derring (3 of 6), it's been a struggle beyond the arc.
Peter Kiss, Missing In Action
Bryant super-senior Peter Kiss, an All-NEC 1st teamer last season, was noticeably absent during Bryant's first two games, a 122-54 win over Fischer College and an 83-64 loss at URI. Jared Grasso referred to it as a "violation of team rules", and did say he would return at Clemson on Monday night.
Without Kiss, the Bulldogs really struggled to score in the 2nd half of the loss to Rhody, making just 7 of their 31 field goal attempts, including 3 of 14 from deep. Most noticeably, there was a lack of play-making; Charles Pride did what he could (25 points on 20 field goal attempts), but Tyler Brelsford, a transfer from George Washington, struggled in his D1 debut for Bryant, finishing just 1 for 12 from the field (0 for 8 at the rim), with 5 assists and 4 turnovers.
Assuming he returns on Monday, it will be interesting to see if Kiss sees time at the '1', which is something Grasso hinted at during the pre-season.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings: Mount St. Mary's sophomore wing Dakota Leffew, who missed last season's final 12 games due to an injury, averaged 11 points and 4 boards last week, including a 15-point outburst in an 80-60 loss at St. Joe's. Leffew shot 37% from deep as a freshman, but so far has done all of his damage inside the arc, going 7 for 11 from two and 8-10 at the charity stripe...Speaking of the Mount, against D1 opponents last week they made just 6 of their 23 three-point attempts. Jalen Benjamin was just 1 for 7, and only Josh Reaves (2 for 5) made more than two treys...In St. Francis (PA)'s 65-62 loss at George Washington, Mark Flagg certainly looked like a dominant big man. Logging 30 minutes, the super senior scored 17 points and grabbed 17 boards, adding a couple of blocks. In a league full of good bigs, he's one of the best...Staying on the topic of of big men, Malik Jefferson was the best player for the Mount last week, averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 boards per contest. The 6'9" senior was 11 for 18 from the field, 3 for 3 from the free throw line, and also chipped in 3 blocks...Starting at PG for the first time in his career, FDU guard Devon Dunn had a rough 21-22 debut after sitting out last season; 5 points on 10 FGA, 1 assist and 3 turnovers in 26 minutes. Dunn is a knock-down three-point shooter, but I need to see more from him as a play-maker. It won't get easier for him going up against Northwestern and St. John's this week...Don't ask me why, but I always find it interesting when guys start then play limited minutes. In CCSU's opening loss to UConn, senior big Ola Olamayiuwa was in the starting 5, then played just 3 minutes...Henderson St. (D2) transfer Raekwon Rogers has been the best big man for Wagner so far. In the Seahawks' two wins, the senior averaged 8.5 points and 3.5 boards in 18.5 mpg...St. Francis-Brooklyn's freshman wing Di'Andre Howell-South looks like he'll be part of the rotation, and he played more than incoming transfers Tedrick Wilcox, Bahaide Haidara, and Jack Hemphill...Speaking of the Terriers, Trey Quartlebaum looks to be breaking out. The junior wing averaged 12 ppg last week, making 5 of 10 from three...Sophomore wing Kyndall Davis was a bright spot for Long Island, making all three of his 3-point attempts in the Sharks' loss to San Francisco, finishing the week going 9 of 16 (65.6% eFG%) from the field. Given the way he can defend and finish at the rim, if he can knock down shots he will become an integral part of the LIU rotation...Aaron Clarke rolled his ankle in the Pios' win over La Salle, hit the game-tying three to send it to overtime, then missed Sacred Heart's two losses. Let's hope he can get/stay healthy this season...Just 12 NEC players listed as freshmen have played more than 20% of their team's minutes so far, and 4 of them play for Central Connecticut. Blue Devil forward Andre Snoddy, at 61% of minutes, has played the most of any of the league's freshmen, and may be the front-runner for ROY. He's just 2 of 6 from the field and had 7 turnovers at UConn, but is averaging 8 rebounds per game and has been impressive defensively so far...Wagner's Will Martinez was my runner-up for NEC Player of the Week after going for 18, 8 and 5 assists in their win over Hartford...St. Francis-Brooklyn allowed St. Thomas, in its first season in D1 after moving up from Division 3, to score 1.27ppp. Sure, the Tommies knocked down 14 of 31 from beyond the arc, but the Terriers were consistently getting beat off the dribble. Defense might be an issue for SFC...And finally, perhaps the best game of the upcoming week is Wagner hosting MAAC contender St. Peter's on Tuesday. I won't see that one; I'll be at Mohegan Sun watching Central Connecticut take on NC State, but thankfully I can watch the replay on NEC FrontRow.