The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: 11/22/21
Standings: As always during non-conference play, sorted by Adjusted Efficiency Margin (aka Kenpom rankings)
NEC Team of the Week: Mount St. Mary's
Sure, the Mount went just 1-1 on the week, and their win over Robert Morris wasn't as impressive as, say, Bryant's victory over Holy Cross or Merrimack knocking off Lehigh. However, it was not a great week for the NEC as a whole, so when you knock off the school that left the league less than 24 months ago, you deserve props.
After falling 88-50 down in Lexington, Mount St. Mary's headed out to Moon Township and, early in the second half, were down by 17 points. With 12:47 left and the score 51-36, Dan Engelstad's group had just a 3.7% win probability. The Mount stormed back, and after Robert Morris missed a bevy of free throws down the stretch, Deandre Thomas knocked down a corner three with a little less than two seconds left to force overtime. A fun little nugget; Mount St. Mary's' largest lead was just 6 points, and that occurred with 21 seconds left in the extra period.
Many people expected the Mount to be a title contender, so seeing them struggle at St. Joe's last week in an 80-60 loss was surprising. However, Mount St. Mary's performed reasonable well at Kentucky, despite being overmatched. Seeing them turn around and win on the road could be a season-changer.
NEC Team Performance of the Week: Bryant 78, Holy Cross 62
After a disappointing 81-75 loss to Bethune-Cookman (#335 at Kenpom) to open the Sunshine Slam down in Daytona Beach, the Bulldogs bounced back in a big way on Sunday.
Peter Kiss put up a career-high 35 points on 14 of 25 shooting, while Hall Elisias went for 14 points, 7 boards, and 6 blocks, as the Bulldogs finally put together the type of performance you'd expect from an NEC title contender.
It started on the defensive end; Bryant held the Crusaders to just 0.88ppp by limiting them to just 13 of 31 at the rim, including 7 blocked shots. Eventually Holy Cross started settling for 2-point jumpers, where they converted just 3 of 16.
Not only was it the Peter Kiss show on the offensive end, but Bryant was all over the offensive boards, grabbing 14 misses (38%).
NEC Player of the Week: Peter Kiss, Bryant
Bryant's star wing missed the first two games of the season, returning on Monday in a loss to Clemson. And boy, did he return in a big way.
With the Bulldogs offense sputtering, the super senior scored 35 points on 25 field goal attempts on Sunday in Bryant's 78-62 win over Holy Cross down at the Sunshine Slam. But he wasn't just a one-game wonder last week; Kiss averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 boards, and 3.7 assists in three games.
It's just three games, but Kiss has a 34.5% usage rate so far, which is a far cry from his 22.5% usage last season. A 58.6% eFG% and 38% assist rate would equate to a historical season. Regression will certainly come, but it's been a nice start for Kiss.
NEC Rookie of the Week: Trenton McLaughlin, Central Connecticut
Two weeks in, and two different Blue Devils have won this award. As I write further along in this piece; get used to it.
A 6'6" "big wing", McLaughlin's calling card is his ability to stretch the defense, and he showed it last Tuesday against NC State, knocking down 3 of 6 from deep (13 points, 2 boards) in 20 minutes. After going scoreless in the loss to UMass-Lowell, he came back to go for 11 and 4 on Saturday at Quinnipiac.
On the season, McLaughlin is 3rd among freshmen at 5.2 ppg, and is shooting 35% from the perimeter (54.2% eFG%). An early contender for NEC Rookie of the Year.
Bad Start for the NEC
I was driving the NEC bandwagon during the pre-season, firmly believing we were set for a historic season thanks to the level of talent and experience that returned, to go along with an influx of transfers. And we still might be! But it hasn't been a great start.
Through two weeks and 35 games, Kenpom projected NEC teams would win ~8.4 D1 games thus far (remember, non-D1 games do not count), and they've won 7. Sure, not a huge difference. But where it really shows up is in the margin of defeat. Again using Kenpom's projections (on gameday), NEC teams were expected to be outscored by 365 points. In actuality? Teams from the Northeast Conference, on a cumulative basis, have been outscored by 585 points. That's a 60% difference!
Over at Kenpom, only Wagner and Fairleigh Dickinson have improved its respective positions from the pre-season; the Seahawks by 38 spots, the Knights by just 1, with NEC teams dropping an average of 12 spots. I figured it'd be good to compare NEC teams to its primary competition; the MAAC and America East.
I know a 12-spot difference doesn't feel like much, but that's per team. So think of it like a 120 spot cumulative change. Trust me, it's significant.
Anyway; two weeks does not a season make, and there are plenty of opportunities for Northeast Conference teams to turn it around. But the league has certainly dug itself a hole.
Tracking the Transfers
The narrative coming into the season was that Bryant was going to be made better by an influx of D1 transfers. And that certainly might be the case, but there only two of those transfers are currently playing significant minutes. Let's dig in:
Tyler Brelsford- After playing his first collegiate season at George Washington, Brelsford came to Bryant seeking a new beginning with the hopes of playing his natural PG position. Through four games it's been a struggle for the 6'4" guard; his eFG% is just 31.8% (2 for 7 from three, 4 for 14 at the rim), and he's got 9 assists and 9 turnovers. After playing 37 minutes in the season-opener at Rhode Island, he logged just 25 minutes in the two games this weekend down in Daytona Beach.
Adham Eleeda- A super senior who came in from Northern Kentucky, Eleeda had a reputation as a shooter with size. So far that has been true; Eleeda is 9 for 28 from three (just 1 for 1 from two), and 4 for 5 from the free throw line. The 6'5" wing is currently 3rd on the team with 64.4% of available minutes played, and first among the new transfers.
Merrimack's Shooting Struggles
Joe Gallo has the Warriors absolutely clicking defensively; they're forcing turnovers at a 27% clip (15th nationally), and overall their Adjusted Defensive Efficiency has cracked the top 100, which isn't easy to do as a Northeast Conference team. But is that enough?
Through 5 D1 games, Merrimack's eFG% is just 39.9%, which is 339th nationally. And it's been bad across the board; Merrimack's top 4 in playing time (Mikey Watkins, Ziggy Reid, Devin Jensen, and Jordan MInor) all have eFG% south of 38.4%, and only back-up big Justin Connolly has an eFG% above 47%.
Sure, part if it is a schedule that's included Power-5 teams Rutgers and Virginia Tech. But they've yet to score 1.00ppp in a single game, including their season opening win over D2 Emerson College (0.998), and on the season they've made just 29% of their three-pointers.
The defense is good enough for Merrimack to finish near the top of the standings despite the shooting woes. But can it lead them to a 2nd regular season title in three years? That might be pushing the limits.
Through two weeks of the season, there are just 11 NEC freshmen playing more than 20% of available minutes, and four of them play for Central Connecticut. Of course, that's selling it a bit short; there's a first year sophomore excluded from that mix, and another freshman who made his season debut on Saturday.
The most impressive of CCSU's young guns have been Trenton McLaughlin, this week's NEC Rookie of the Week, Andre Snoddy, and Jayden Brown. As we touched upon up above, McLaughlin combines size with shooting. But he's also been efficient at the rim (a perfect 4 for 4), and has done well protecting the basketball. Snoddy, another 6'6" "big wing", has been inefficient this season thanks to turnovers and a 44% eFG%. But the former St. Thomas More product is second in the league in defensive rebounding rate (28%), and can defend 1-4. Brown, a 6'8" 215 lb. big, made his debut at Quinnipiac this past Saturday, posting 7 points and 2 boards in 18 minutes, showing some nice footwork around the rim, and while he was 0-2 from beyond the arc, he came in with the reputation as someone who could be efficient from the perimeter.
While those three are all possible (likely?) All-Rookie teamers, they aren't alone. 6'0" walk-on Joe Ostrowsky, last week's NEC Rookie of the Week, has a 68.2% eFG%; 6'10" first-year sophomore Arian Dehnavi has rebounded the ball well and had 2 blocks at Quinnipiac; and 5'8" jitterbug Davonte Sweatman has been a pest on the defensive end, and has shown an ability to get into the lane and knock down perimeter shots.
While the Blue Devils are likely to take their lumps this season, head coach Patrick Sellers has really set this program up to have success down the road if he can keep this group of talented young players together.
Least Experienced Teams
Kenpom tracks experience, based on minutes played, and it's not surprise; there's quite a few "old" teams in the Northeast Conference. The league has 6 of its squads in the top half of the nation in experience, with just two teams outside the top 185; CCSU and Fairleigh Dickinson.
I covered CCSU's young guys this week. Next week; I'll go through FDU's rookies.
The Mount Rights the Ship
Friday night was Robert Morris' first game against a team from the Northeast Conference since it left for the Horizon League after the 2019 season, and Mount St. Mary's did all NEC teams a favor by knocking off the Colonials in overtime, 74-70. The Mount rallied back from a 17-point 2nd half deficit, then got a Deandre Thomas three-pointer with just under two seconds left to send it into an extra frame.
For me, this game was all about the return of the Engelstad defense; after ugly showings against Villanova, St. Joe's, and Kentucky, Mount St. Mary's held Bobby Mo to under 0.88ppp, really taking care of business in the paint; RMU was just 12 for 31 at the rim, with the Mount blocking 7 shots (3 by Nana Opoku).
It was also a breakout game for Mezie Offurum. The 6'8" "big wing" had a size advantage for much of the game, finishing 6 of 9 at the rim (6 of 12 overall), and 6 of 7 from the charity stripe, to go along with 6 boards and 2 steals. I thought the key for the Mount coming into the season was to get Offurum's jump shot going, however he's just 3 for 16 on jump shots this season. If he can get things done at the rim like he did on Friday, he could have a big season even if the jumper doesn't come along, especially if he can make free throws at a 75% clip like he has done in the early part of the season.
St. Francis-Brooklyn's Interior D
The Terriers are 0-3 with two buy-game losses (Wisconsin and Penn St.), as well as a home loss to St. Thomas, which is transition from D3 to D1. Coming into the season, my big concern was; could this team defend enough? Not only is Glenn Braica trying to assimilate a number of transfers, but last season the Terriers had the league's worst Defensive Efficiency.
So far, not great. SFC has allowed an opponents eFG% of 58.8%, which is 327th nationally, including 42.6% from three. However, it's at the rim where they've really been beaten.
Obviously it's a small sample size, but allowing 69% at the rim is not nice at all. Part of the problem is that Glenn Braica does not have rim protectors; both '5' men (Vuk Stevanic and Jack Hemphill) have yet to register a block. However, they've also struggled to contain the dribble-drive; St. Thomas, in particular, consistently beat Terrier defenders off the dribble.
However, maybe it's not so bad? According to ShotQuality, SFC's Adjusted Defensive SQ (essentially, the quality of shots they are allowing opponents to take) is in the middle of the pack in the NEC. Not great, mind you, but not terrible. It's likely that SFC's poor defensive numbers are inflated by playing two buy games, and will moderate once they play a few more mid-majors.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings: As surely everyone reading this knows, Wagner had two games canceled this week due to positive Covid-19 tests among its Tier-1 personnel. The Seahawks are one of just two teams to have games canceled due to covid, the other being Abilene Christian...Saint Francis (PA)'s Marlon Hargis played just 7 minutes in their season opening loss to George Washington, then logged 20 at Virginia Tech this past week. The 6'7" "big wing" is 6 for 9 from the field, including 5 of 6 from deep, and 5 of 6 from the free throw line. Efficient! He's also grabbed just 1 rebound. I didn't get a chance to watch the Virginia Tech game, but I can't help but wonder if Krimmel needs more from Hargis on the defensive end...Speaking of the Red Flash, we will find out a lot about them this week. They play two games against teams rated 261 or below at Kenpom (Cornell and Lehigh). Sneaking away with a road win would be nice...According to Kenpom, Long Island has played the 36th most difficult schedule in the country, so it's not surprising that they're 0-3. But if I'm a Sharks' fan, I'd be concerned that my starting backcourt of Tre Wood and Alex Rivera are a combined 4 for 24 from the field, including 0 for 13 from deep, with 8 assists against 17 turnovers. I don't care how good your frontcourt is, it's tough to win in college basketball without production from the backcourt...I considered Devon Dunn for my Player of the Week after he scored 24 points on 10 shots at St. John's, including 6 for 8 from beyond the arc. I've been critical of the idea that Dunn is a PG, and he's averaging just 2 assists and 3 turnovers per ball game. But there's no doubt he can shoot the ball, and through three games he has a 56.5% eFG%...Despite winning on Sunday, no NEC team has dropped more spots at Kenpom than Bryant (36). Sacred Heart is next (29) followed by Merrimack (28). It's worth noting that the projection systems were oddly bullish on the Warriors coming into the season, likely due to the lack of historical data since this is only their third season at the D1 level...Mount St. Mary's' Jalen Benjamin has gotten off to a rough start shooting the ball (35% eFG%), but he's currently third in the league with a 32.2% assist rate...You know who leads the league in assist rate? Peter Kiss, at nearly 38%...Merrimack has a 16.1% block rate, good for 25th nationally. Jordan Minor (11 blocks in 5 games) has done the heavy lifting, but backup big Justin Connolly (6.6% block rate) and 4-man Ziggy Reid (5.2%) have been good in that department as well...The crowd at the Pitt Center on the campus of Sacred Heart was absolutely electric on Saturday night for the Pios' battle with cross-town rival Fairfield. At least on TV, it fell a bit short of an NEC Championship game feel, but perhaps a semifinal game? Please play that game every year, on campus...Junior guard Aaron Clarke returned form an ankle injury to score 21 points for Sacred Heart on Saturday. Clarke wasn't overly efficient shooting the ball (6 for 17 from the field), but made all 7 of his free throws and had just 1 turnover in 34 minutes. Tyler Thomas is Sacred Heart's best player, but Clarke's right there in terms of importance...Sacred Heart's opponents are shooting over 40% from three, and scoring 44.6% of their points from beyond the arc (13th most in the nation). Is regression in order?...Merrimack wing Devin Jensen made 43.3% of his 141 three-point attempts two seasons ago. Last year, that number fell to 31.7%. So far this season, he's made just 6 of 27 (22.2%). His rebounding and assist rates are also down this season. Odd. Would be nice to see him get hot this week...Not many buy games this week, which means there are plenty of opportunities for wins. Teams with reasonable opportunities to get their first wins this week: LIU at home vs. Delaware St. (86% to win, per Kenpom); Central Connecticut at Maine (29%) and at home vs. Fordham (29%); St. Francis-Brooklyn on a neutral vs. McNeese St. (50%); St. Francis (PA) at Cornell (40%) and at Lehigh (47%); and Fairleigh Dickinson at NJIT (24%).