The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: 2/16/21
Standings: Normally I sort by Efficiency Margin, but at this point all we care about is who is going to qualify for the NEC Tournament, right? So this week I'm sorting the standings by Bart Torvik's projected records. As far as I'm aware, all canceled games have been rescheduled at this point except for Bryant-Sacred Heart series in Fairfield. My guess; if the Pios are in position to qualify based on winning %, the NEC figures out a way to get those games in, especially considering how close the two schools are in terms of proximity. So there's a chance every team gets their full 18-game schedule in.
NEC Teams of the Week: Mount St. Mary's and Wagner
I hate giving awards to two teams/players, but this week I had no choice. The Mount swept Long Island at home, while Wagner did the same to a surging Fairleigh Dickinson team in Teaneck. Both teams went from battling for a playoff spot to having a good shot at home-court advantage in the NECT. A huge week for both teams, to say the least.
NEC Team Performance of the Week: Merrimack's wins over Central Connecticut
Merrimack has a decent argument for "Team of the Week" as well, though given that they; a) are ineligible for the NEC Tournament, and b) the quality of opponent, their sweep over Central Connecticut wasn't as notable as the Mount's and Wagner's wins. But make no mistake; Merrimack looked like the best team in the league last week. The vaunted Joe Gallo zone defense held the Blue Devils to just 0.74ppp in two games (17 points in the 1st half in each game), and now have the league's 2nd most efficient defense behind Mount St. Mary's.
NEC Player of the Week- Damian Chong Qui, Mount St. Mary's
I can't get enough of watching this guy play. DCQ wasn't superb through the first ~38 minutes on Thursday evening, starting 1-8 from the field and dealing with leg cramps. But the thing about the Mount point guard is he consistently takes over games down the stretch. The junior lefty knocked down a big mid-range jumper with 1:29 left to give the Mount a 1-point lead, drilled a three the next time down the floor, then knocked down two free throws with 34 seconds left. A 7-0 Chong Qui run to finish the game gave Mount St. Mary's a 66-60 win.
Then on Friday, a more total performance; 16 points, 9 assists, 4 boards, and 0 turnovers. In the two games, he averaged 15.5 points, 7.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 1.5 turnovers, and made 12-14 from the charity stripe. If I had to vote today, he'd likely be my NEC Player of the Year.
NEC Freshman of the Week- Ronell Giles, Jr., St. Francis (PA)
With fellow freshman Max Land out, Giles was asked to carry heavy burden and he delivered. In the Red Flash's win over Brooklyn on Friday, the 6'4" win scored 20 points on 12 field goal attempts, and chipped in 6 boards and 3 assists. On the week, he averaged 15/5/3, and made 3 of his 7 3-point attempts.
NEC Tournament Breakdown
Only two weeks left, and nothing is figured out. Excluding Merrimack, who is ineligible for post-season play, we have a 7-team logjam for 4 NEC Tournament spots.
The #1 seed:
If you look at Torvik's projected records, you'll see three teams are clearly ahead of the pack right now; Bryant, Mount St. Mary's, and Wagner, all of which are projected to finish above .500.
If you want to just look at the current standings, Mount St. Mary's is in the driver's seat, sitting at 7-4 and holding that highly sought after #1 seed. But, as you know by now, I don't just look at the current standings. The Mount has a tough schedule over the next few weeks; six of their final 7 are against teams with at least a .500 record (Wagner, FDU, Bryant). Of those six, four are road games (they also travel to Loretto), including closing the season at Bryant, which could be must-see-TV.
Which is why the smart money remains on Bryant to earn home-court advantage for the NEC Tournament. Sure, they've been on pause for the last few weeks, but five of their final eight games are at home, and there are no long road trips (North Andover for 1, Fairfield for 2). 4-4 likely gets them into the NEC Tournament, 6-2 and their hosting this thing. Don't forget; the Bulldogs swept Wagner back in December, and that could play a huge role.
After coming off "pause", Wagner was to play 10 games in 20 days. Well, they've started off ok, winning their first 4. Next week is a stiff test; they head to Emmitsburg for two. Split those and they should be feeling mighty good about themselves, because after that is 4 games against the league's worst teams (SFU, CCSU) followed by a home series against Merrimack.
3 teams for 1 spot
While it's too early for any of the teams above to feel especially confident about qualifying for the NEC Tournament, they're all in a good spot; though, it feels like every time a team climbs near that mountain top they slide back down (I'm looking at you, FDU and LIU). However, for now those three are in their own tier. The next tier consists of three teams all projected to finish 9-9 by Torvik.
Despite not playing a game last week, Sacred Heart moved into the #4 spot thanks to Fairleigh Dickinson and Long Island getting swept. The Pios have three road games this week, at Central Connecticut Wednesday, and then they head to Brooklyn this weekend to take on the Terriers. After that, four home games against FDU and Bryant, which are obviously massive match-ups. 3-4 gets them to .500, which means they need to take care of business this week.
Fairleigh Dickinson followed up a 4-game win streak by getting swept by Wagner in a home-and-home last week, but get 4 games this week in Teaneck against St. Francis-Brooklyn and Mount St. Mary's. If they can go 2-2, that'll set up a huge series-ending series at Sacred Heart on 2/25 and 2/26. Keep in mind; FDU swept Long Island two weeks ago, so they hold that tie-breaker.
Losers of 4 of their last 5, Long Island hast just four remaining; they host Central Connecticut, then head to Smithfield. One would expect them to sweep the Blue Devils, which would put them at 9-7 and in need of at least one win at Bryant to feel good about themselves. A slip up next weekend and Sharks fans should be concerned.
Outside Looking In
St. Francis-Brooklyn likely needs to go 4-2 over their final six to have any chance at qualifying, and they play at FDU, home against Sacred Heart, at Merrimack. They've lost 5 of their last 6, and I'm not sure even 3-3 would be realistic.
Central Connecticut looked lifeless at home against Merrimack last week, and would likely have to win out. They have SHU at home this week, followed by a trip to LIU, then conclude their season next week at home against Wagner. 5-0 would be a miracle.
St. Francis (PA) is technically 3 games out of 4th place with three games remaining. *Insert Dumb & Dumber "so you're telling me there's a chance!" gif*. Realistically, even winning their final three games at Wagner and home against the Mount would only get them to 8-10, at which point they'd need a lot of help (like SHU, FDU, and LIU completely tanking).
In year's past we may have called them "small forwards". Now? I like to refer to them as versatile wings; guys who do multiple things well. This group has shooters who aren't overly reliant on the 3-ball, play-makers, rebounders, scorers, and defenders (and the best combine all of those skills).
Peter Kiss, Bryant- A true Player of the Year candidate, the Rutgers-transfer has been everything Bulldogs fans had hoped for. The 6'5" senior is averaging 17.7p/5.5r/3.3a, and has a ridiculous 113.9 O-rating on 23.4% usage (the best O-Rating of any player in the league with a usage rate north of 22%). Kiss is perhaps the most well-rounded offensive player in the conference; He can get downhill and finish at the rim, he can knock down the three (42.5%), and he'll find the open guy.
Charles Pride, Bryant- Two Bulldogs? Yup. If I had to build the perfect wing, it'd be the 6'4" sophomore; he can score it (13.5 ppg), shoot (36.7% from three), rebound (7.1 rpg), and he's one of the best defenders in the NEC, with an ability to defend 1-4. He's comfortable in his role as a #3 option, but could probably average 20 ppg at this level if asked to.
Travis Atson, St. Francis-Brooklyn- Another transfer, Atson largely plays the '4' for Brooklyn but is a true wing; like the guys above him, he does a variety of things offensively. He's averaging nearly 15/7 and has a 59% eFG% (9th in the conference), thanks to shooting north of 40% from deep. Strong, athletic, and versatile.
Honorable Mention: Will Martinez, Wagner; Unique McLean, St. Francis-Brooklyn; Greg Outlaw, Central Connecticut
Increasing reliance on Transfers
I went through the the top 30 players by Bart Torvik's PORPAGATU! over the last five seasons, as I had a theory that teams were becoming more reliant upon transfers (both from the Junior College ranks, as well as other 4-year schools). And, well, look:
In 2017, there were just four guys in the Top 30 that began their careers elsewhere. However, that number has increased in each season, and in 2020-21 there are 13 such players, including D1 transfers such as Peter Kiss, Ty Flowers, and Travis Atson. This season, there are a number of Junior College transfers playing well, including Chris Childs, Ramiir Dixon-Conover, and Alex Morales. All of those players are All-NEC candidates.
Why the increase? Well, for one that's the way the sport is going, with the Transfer Portal becoming more and more a part of the college game. But also; there are a few coaches in the NEC who have becoming increasingly reliant upon transfers. Jared Grasso has hit the transfer market particularly hard; of his 8-man rotation, 4 of them began their careers elsewhere (plus Melo Eggleston, who went out with an injury in the 1st game of the season). But it's not just Grasso; Bash Mason of Wagner has three JUCO players playing significant minutes (Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez), plus a couple of D1 transfers, Glenn Braica of St. Francis-Brooklyn has leaned upon D1 transfers Atson and Unique McLean plus JUCO guys Vuk Stevanic and David Muenkat, and Derek Kellogg loves himself some D1 transfers (Flowers, Jermaine Jackson, Jr., Alex Rivera, Virshon Cotton, Tre Wood, and Jack Ballantyne). Additionally, Central Connecticut's Donyell Marshall has been known to dabble in the JUCO ranks, and this year's roster has 4 such players (Tre Mitchell, Nigel Scantlebury, Stephane Ayamgna, and Zach Newkirk).
"Get Old, Stay Old" has been a popular phrase in college hoops, and it appears that many NEC coaches are going that route.
What's up, Sharks?
If you had told me back in December that a rotation that included Ty Flowers, Jermaine Jackson, Jr., Eral Penn, Alex Rivera, Virshon Cotton, and Tre Wood would have the 3rd least efficient offense in the NEC (98.8 points/100 possessions), I would have told you that you're crazy. Yet, here we are. After being swept by Mount St. Mary's last week, Long Island has slipped to 7-7 in the league, and are currently on the outside looking in for the NEC Tournament.
In watching LIU, it just feels like they miss a ton of shots that they should make, and that's borne out in the numbers; they take the 4th most three-pointers of any NEC team (slightly above average 38.4%), yet are dead last in 3P% at 30.1%. But it's not just the threes; they're also last in FT% (65.7%), and on mid-range jumpers (29.4%).
According to Shot Quality, they're shot quality metrics are more than solid; they're 2nd in the NEC in Adjusted Offensive Shot Quality (which adjusts for the quality of the opponents defense), they have a solid 68% "Rim & 3 Rate", and they've been one of the most unlucky teams in the country with an expected record of 9-5 based on the quality of shots they've taken.
It all comes down to making shots, and the Sharks just haven't made enough of them. It will be interesting to see if there's some positive regression that occurs over these next 4 game, or if iron will continue to be unkind.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
Fairleigh Dickinson has the 3rd best offense in the NEC (106.8 pts/100 possessions), but their defense has been dreadful (108.2 pts/100 poss). Why? Opposing teams have owned the paint. Over 40% of opponents field goal attempts have been at the rim, and they've allowed a league worst 60.8% FG% on such shots. On Saturday night, Wagner made 17 of 25 at the rim, and Herenda has been forced to dabble with ultra-big lineups. There's some rim protection there, but they've been beaten by the dribble-drive too often...Did you all see that dunk that Malik Edmead threw down on Central Connecticut last week? The Junior Robinson comparisons are inevitable because of their diminutive nature and athleticism, but Junior knocked down 32 three-pointers as a freshman (Edmead is just 2 for 13). There's not really a good comp for Edmead, who at 5'10" has a 29% assist rate and does more of his work at the rim (67.5% FG%). If he finds a reliable jump shot, he could become one of the most dynamic guards in the NEC...When I watch the Mount, I keep waiting for Mezie Offurum to break out offensively. The 6'8" forward is built like Giannis (230 lbs. and muscular), can put the ball on the floor, and has a good looking jumper. Yet it just hasn't clicked; his 41.7% eFG% is 7th worst in the NEC, and yet he takes nearly 21% of the team's shots when he's on the floor (second to Damian Chong Qui's 26%). With Jalen Gibbs gone and Dakota Leffew out for the season with an injury, Dan Engelstad doesn't have a lot of offensive weapons. I know they've won with the league's best defense, but Mount fans need to hope that Mezie starts to find that jump shot...Central Connecticut scored just 17 points in the 1st half of each of their home games against Merrimack, and on the week made just 8 of 41 from three. The Blue Devils don't get much at the rim (just 36% of their field goal attempts, lowest in the NEC), and can be tough to beat if they are hitting their jump shots. If not? They'll put up some ugly offensive performances...Wagner's Alex Morales was a very deserving NEC Player of the Week winner this week, despite me preferring Chong Qui. Morales is another guy (in addition to Jahlil Jenkins) I left off my point guard rankings a few weeks back, and that now looks silly. I don't love the jump shot (25% from three), but he's so good in getting to the rim, and he's got a ridiculous 30.4% assist rate. Morales, more-so than any other player in the NEC, looks like a high-major player. He's 6'6", athletic, and can do nearly everything on the floor...So who are the Coach of the Year candidates? Generally, I believe that award should go to the coach of the league's best team; the award isn't "who got the most out of their roster" award, and a coach's job is to win, whether it's via recruiting, development, in-game tactics, etc. With that said, this season's a bit different: Jared Grasso of Bryant has the league's best team, and I still believe they will win the league outright; Joe Gallo has Merrimack back atop the standings despite losing their three best players off last year's team and still being ineligible for post-season play (which can make recruiting difficult and attracting transfers nearly impossible); Dan Engelstad and his Mount St. Mary's team is currently in #1 seed position despite losing their leading scorer to the Transfer Portal during Christmas break; Greg Herenda has FDU at .500 after having two projected starters opt out prior to the season; Bashir Mason lost his leading scorer off a 5-13 Wagner team, added a couple of impact freshmen, and is currently 6-4 in the league with the NEC's most efficient offense; and Anthony Latina's Sacred Heart team is 6-5 despite having to rebuild with mostly freshman after losing the majority of last year's rotation, including three to the Transfer Portal. I'd probably lean Gallo right now, but could make a convincing argument for any of those six. There are so many great coaches in this league...A couple of transfers with limited impact were announced last week; Justen Anderson, the son SFU all-time leading scorer Joe Anderson, hit the Portal after never appearing in a game in 2 seasons. Collin Nnamene, a 6'9" big for Mount St. Mary's, also announced he was leaving school. Nnamene was a role-player thanks to his defensive presence (6.5% block rate in 2019-20) in his first two seasons in Emmitsburg, but had played just 1 minute this season...Wagner got their first class of 2021 commitment in point guard Javy Ezquerra, who's from Puerto Rico and is prepping at IMG Academy...It's looking more and more like the NEC winner will be a #16 seed, if not in the Play-in-Game. The NEC should be rooting for Bryant to win out, and convincingly, to get up to that 15-line.