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The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: An Ugly Scene in Smithfield

If you clicked this link you surely know what happened on Sunday when Bryant beat Long Island 88-81. If for some reason you have no idea, a quick Twitter search should get you caught up (I'd suggest starting with "Peter Kiss" and going from there), and of course NEC FrontRow has the full game on demand.

On Tuesday, perhaps in unprecedented fashion, the NEC came down hard on some of the bad actors in that game, suspending Peter Kiss for a game (Bryant added a 2nd game to the suspension), as well as LIU's Ty Flowers and Alex Rivera, Long Island head coach Derek Kellogg and Bryant DOBO Luke St. Lifer.

Enough has been written about the game, but I don't feel like I can maintain integrity without saying the following; Peter Kiss' act has grown tired. Yes, Ty Flowers (and others) needed to do a better job of controlling their emotions, especially in a game of that magnitude, but this is a recurring theme during Bryant games; tempers flare, words are said, and players have to be separated. And it, more often than not, seems to start with one person.

I'm all for rooting for guys who play with "chips on their shoulders", but Bryant's senior wing has become more "heel" than "intense basketball player". And, despite what others may be saying, this wasn't one game where tensions were running high. Kiss doesn't just escalate tensions, as the NEC release referenced, he creates the tension. In what could be a historic season for Bryant, players, coaches and fans across the league are rooting hard against the Bulldogs. And maybe Kiss, head coach Jared Grasso, and the rest of that program prefer it that way. But it's a shame that everyone in our little corner of the basketball universe can't just watch and enjoy this team play, because they're a very good team, and Kiss is a hell of a basketball player.

As for those suggesting the NEC somehow got it wrong in leveling a suspension against Kiss when he wasn't even ejected (like Flowers and both head coaches), two things here:

1) The league likely has intel you do not, such as first-hand accounts of whatever may have occurred in the hallway, as well as things that may not have been caught on camera.

2) There's no way you can objectively watch that game and suggest that what Flowers did in earning his two technical fouls was somehow as bad as Kiss' actions. I counted at least 4 instances where Kiss could have been given a tech or flagrant foul. In no particular order; trying to dap Flowers as he was escorted off the floor, trying to run through Rivera as if he were a fullback on the gridiron, putting his fists up as if he were ready to fight Tre Wood during the initial scrum, and throwing the ball into the stands after the final horn. If Flowers earned his ejection (he probably did, though I obviously couldn't hear what he said via the video feed), then Kiss probably deserved to be ejected twice.

Standings: As always after the start of conference play, teams are sorted by Efficiency Margin in league games only.

NEC Team of the Week: Mount St. Mary's

The Mount took are of business this past week, winning at FDU 67-56, then blowing out St. Francis (PA) 71-54 at home. Mount St. Mary's has now won 5 straight, the last three without starting '5' Malik Jefferson,

By the way; take a peak at the standings above and you'll notice that the Mount has surpassed Bryant in Efficiency Margin. That match-up down in Emmitsburg on Saturday should be spicy.

NEC Player of the Week: Peter Kiss, Bryant

Look, in my pre-amble I mentioned maintaining integrity, so here's the thing; I'm numbers-first, and Kiss had the best numbers of any player in the league last week. Plus, I could make an argument that Kiss' actions directly resulted in a Bryant win (getting Flowers ejected, for instance).

In Bryant's two wins, Kiss averaged 29.5 points and 7 boards per game, shooting 13 of 21 from two and 3 of 9 from three, as well as 24 of 30 from the free throw line. He's got his scoring average up to 22.8 ppg, and his numbers suggest he should be in the thick of the NEC POY race.

NEC Rookie of the Week: Andre Snoddy, Central Connecticut

CCSU's freshman '4' had a nice bounce-back week after being limited with tonsillitis last week; in the two games, Snoddy averaged 10 points and 9.5 boards per game, making 7 of 15 from the field and 6 of 7 from the free throw line. He also chipped in 6 assists and 4 steals in the two games.

Weekly Leaderboard: Individual 3P rate, with corresponding 3P% (minimum 40% of minutes played)

Jalen Benjamin appears to be hitting his stride

Benjamin was so good this weekend. The UAB transfer averaged 20 points and 4.5 assists (0.5 turnovers per game), making 11 of 18 from two and 4 of 11 from three.

Mount St. Mary's' point guard has been a focal point of my writing since he committed the Mount, largely because I thought it was a fascinating test case. Dan Engelstad brought back his entire rotation from last year's NEC Championship squad sans his best player; Damian Chong Qui. I wondered aloud during the summer if Gibson could potentially be better than Chong Qui, and while I think it's unnecessary to compare the two (they play the same position but are completely different players), that may ultimately be the case.

But here's where I missed the boat early in the season when Benjamin struggled; I failed to account for the learning curve, with Benjamin learning a new style with a new coaching staff, and the Mount coaches trying to figure out how to best use their new lead guard

Well; I think they may have found something:

Benjamin has been awesome for Mount St. Mary's since league-play began, and especially during their current five-game winning streak; he's made 10 of his 25 3P attempts (54.5% eFG%), and his O-Rating is 117.0 on 24.4% usage.

What I've noticed is that, at times, Engelstad has used Deandre Thomas or Dakota Leffew to get into the offense, with Benjamin seeing time off the ball. According to Shot Quality Benjamin's got a 1.10 SQPPP on catch-and-shoot 3s compared to just 0.88 on off-the-dribble 3s. Benjamin is more combo-guard than true PG, and he's being put in a better position to succeed than he was earlier in the season.

Another thing to keep an eye on; Malik Jefferson has missed the last three games for the Mount, and while Jefferson is a very good '5' in this league, Benjamin has had quite a bit of success when Jefferson's not in the game.

  • With Jefferson on the floor, Benjamin has a 97.4 O-Rating and 41.4% eFG%.

  • With Jefferson off the floor, Benjamin has a 111.3 O-Rating and 56.3% eFG%.

Why? Well, I don't exactly, but my theory is that there's more spacing for Benjamin to maneuver both with and without the basketball.

Ultimately I think there's a good chance Benjamin is able to land on the NEC All-Conference 2nd team, and could be a Player of the Year candidate in 2022-23.

What's happened to the Sacred Heart defense?

Anthony Latina-coached SHU teams have usually been more offense than defense, and that was true in 2020-21 when the Pios finished 5th in the league in offensive efficiency (102.7 pts/100 possessions) and 7th in defensive efficiency (105.6). While they certainly over-performed their peripherals in qualifying for last season's 4-team NEC Tournament, it was reasonable to expect some level of improvement in 21-22. Yet:

Through 7 league games Sacred Heart has the NEC's worst defensive efficiency, and it's not as if it's been due to some imbalanced scheduling; the Pios have yet to play Wagner (they lost that one via forfeit) and haven't faced any team twice.

In my season preview back in November, I wrote the following in regards to how SHU can compete for a title:

Despite playing with largely the same rotation as last season, Sacred Heart's defensive eFG% has gone from 51.3% (242nd nationally) to 54% (321st). In NEC play their block rate is 5.7% (8th) and they're allowing opponents to shoot nearly 53.9% on twos (8th). However, we knew coming into the season that this group would struggle to protect the rim; while Cantavio Dutreil is a serviceable rim protector (3.5% block rate, 10th in the NEC), he struggles to stay on the floor given his penchant for fouling, and both Nico Galette and Bryce Johnson are under-sized at just 6'6". And, despite my optimism in the pre-season, Sacred Heart hasn't been able to force more turnovers (they're currently last in the league at 15.3% defensive turnover rate).

It's what we did not see coming is what's concerning; they're last in defensive rebounding, allowing opponents to grab 36% of their misses (30.8% last season). What's more; they're allowing 1.10 SQPPP in transition, which is dead last in the NEC and a major drop from last season's 1.02 SQPPP mark. They're simply not doing well enough in getting back on defense, and I worry that could signal an effort issue.

If you're looking for some sort of positive regression; SHU has allowed opponents to shoot 45% in the mid-range, while Shot Quality suggests it should be closer to 38%. I'm not sure if that's enough to get this defense into the middle of the pack, but at 3-6 (including the forfeits), Sacred Heart is in danger of falling completely out of the race for a top 4 finish.

An Increasing reliance on Transfers

I was looking at Kenpom's NEC page and I noticed something; the current NEC's "all-kenpom" team has zero players who began their collegiate career at their current school; Alex Morales and Elijah Ford both came to Wagner from junior colleges, Raekwon Rogers transferred to Wagner from D2 Henderson St., Peter Kiss played at both Quinnipiac and Rutgers before landing at Bryant, and Ty Flowers joined Derek Kellogg at LIU after one year at UMass.

It's no secret that the Transfer Portal has become a bigger part of the college basketball landscape in recent years, and while there was a period of time where it felt like transfers were only leaving the NEC, lately there's been plenty of examples of guys coming into the NEC from other schools and making an impact.

I went through every player who played at least 40% of their team's available minutes (aka "rotation players") to see where how many of them began their careers in the NEC, and well, there's a pretty clear trend there:

In 2017-18, just 11.1% of the rotation players in the NEC were transfers at one point (JUCO or 4-year schools), while this season number is over 42%! Where we've really seen growth is in transfers from 4-year schools; in 2017 just 8.3% of rotation players started their careers at different 4-year schools, while this season it's nearly 27%.

So which teams are most reliant on transfers? Bryant (5 out of their 6 "rotation players" are transfers), Long Island (4/6), St. Francis-Brooklyn (4/6), and Wagner (4/6). Neither Fairleigh Dickinson nor Merrimack have a transfer in the rotation, while CCSU and Mount St. Mary's are currently at 3 out of 7.

A few other tidbits:

  • There are no JUCO players who came in during last off-season that are currently part of a rotation, while there are 9 new 4-year transfers (7 D1, 2 D2).

  • Freshmen account for less than 8% of the rotation players (5 out of 64), which continues a steady decline since 2017 (25%).

  • Similarly; seniors account for over 40% of the rotation guys, up from 18.3% in 2017. NEC teams are, by and large, more experienced than in year's past, and less reliant on young players.

Matt's NEC Positional Rankings: Power Forwards

The position that's undergone the most change over the last two decades; the "PF" used to be a rebounding, rim-running, defensive type, but that's no longer. Now many coaches prefer to utilize "big wings", or players who have size and can shoot the basketball. Of course, as you'll see on this list, there's still the under-sized forwards who present mismatch problems (I call those guys the "Howie Dickenman Specials"), and some traditional 4s thrown in there.

  1. Ty Flowers, Long Island- What can't Flowers do at the NEC level? At 6'9" he can see over most (all?) defenders, is shooting the basketball at an incredibly high clip (39.1% from three), and is 4th in the conference with 7.4 rpg. Oh yeah, and he's 4th in blocks per game (1.7). Flowers is probably the most skilled player in the league right now.

  2. Eral Penn, Long Island- Flowers and Penn are able to play together because Penn provides versatility on defense as a guy who has the lateral quickness to defend smaller, quicker wings, while Flowers is more of a '3' on offense. I don't love that Penn has fallen in love with the jump shot, which has caused his eFG% to drop to 44.3%, but that's probably more to do with Derek Kellogg's "green light offense" than anything else. Penn is one of the best rebounders in the league, is incredibly good around the rim (54.2%), and may win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

  3. Elijah Ford, Wagner- Ford only had one D1 scholarship offer, and you know why? Because players like him are vestiges of the past; a (maybe?) 6'5" wing without a jump shot. However, Ford makes up for it with explosive athleticism and an uber-high motor, plus he's in the right system in which he's able to get out in transition frequently. He will never be a 1st or 2nd offensive option (he's 4th on Wagner in usage rate), but he's a very good and versatile defender, he rebounds, makes free throws (76%), and converts around the rim (64%).

  4. Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary's- A completely different type of player than Ford, yet in a similar boat; Opoku doesn't have the physical strength to be a true 5, nor does he have the offensive game to fit a modern day 4. However, he's a great off-ball rim protector (35 blocks, 3rd in the league), can defend on the perimeter, and he's explosive around the rim (25 dunks, 67% FG% at the rim). Another thing I like; after going 36 for 137 (26.2%) in his first three years at the Mount, he's picked his spots this season (3 for 6). The only thing that's really held him back is his ability to make free throws (56% this season, 59% for his career).

  5. Mezie Offurum, Mount St. Mary's- Another teammate pair, another combination that fits well together. Offurum is, for all intents and purposes, a "big wing" in the same vein as Elijah Ford except that he's 6'8" and 230 lbs. An absolute freak of an athlete for this level, he's one of the best and most versatile defenders in the conference. Yet, for someone as skilled as Offurum, he's been merely "adequate' offensively (46.7% eFG%, 96.8 O-Rating on 22.6% usage) as opposed to good. However, he provides so much value defensively that he's one of the better players in the NEC.

  6. Mikey Square, Fairleigh Dickinson- Similar to the "small forward" position, this spot is so deep I had throw an extra guy in here. I could have made a case for any of Patrick Emilien, Nico Galette, or Myles Thompson, but Square is having a breakout sophomore season; his 62.1% eFG% is 2nd in the conference behind Josh Cohen's 64.9% and he's 7th in blocks per game (1.0). At 6'6" 195 lbs. he's not quite the explosive athlete that a guy like Ford is, and he doesn't provide a ton of size for the position, but he's skilled around the rim (61%), is developing a perimeter jumper (5 for 10 this season), and he doesn't make mistakes with the basketball. He's a future All-NEC 1st teamer if he can cut down on the fouling (5.2 fouls/40 minutes this season, 6.3 for his career) and improve at the charity stripe (61.4%).

NECT Seed Watch

If you're new here, a reminder that every NEC Tournament game is played on the home-court of the higher seed, so every seed line is important. However, the big races generally revolve around the top seed (duh) and 4th (home quarterfinal game). This year there's a new wrinkle; 7th place avoids the "play in game", while 8th place gets the play-in game at home. (all records include any forfeits)

I won't go super deep this week, but let's take a look at where we stand as far as NEC Tournament races go. And remember; Merrimack remains ineligible for post-season play.

#1 Seed: This is obviously a 2-horse race between Wagner and Bryant. These two play one another in Smithfield on 2/26, which happens to be the final day of the regular season.

#4 Seed: The Mount is sitting pretty at 6-4 and in 3rd place, and LIU is up 1.5 games on Sacred Heart for 4th place. SHU does own a victory over LIU, with these two facing off this Thursday in the re-match. It's worth noting; analytically both the Sharks and the Mount are clearly in a tier of their own, and it would be a major surprise to see any team outside of Wagner, Bryant, Mount St. Mary's, and Long Island hosting a quarterfinal game.

The rest: Fairleigh Dickinson, St. Francis-Brooklyn, St. Francis (PA), and Central Connecticut are all tied for 7th at 3-7. It's a bit too early to start taking a peak at tie-breakers, but FDU does own a win over CCSU in the only match-up of those teams this season (forfeits, I don't believe, will count towards tie-breakers). Kenpom has SFU finishing 6th at 7-11, with SFC (6-12) and FDU/CCSU (5-13) coming in behind them. The smart money is CCSU at FDU in the play-in, as things stand currently.

Curiosities, Surprises, Observations, and Musings

- How classy is Rob Krimmel and the SFU coaching staff? Krimmel is an easy guy to root for, in part because of stuff like this:

- Last week was a tough one for the Red Flash, having to play on the road at Wagner and Mount St. Mary's. Luckily they've gotten that combination out of the way. Let's hope Ronell Giles can get back.

- Sacred Heart's Cantavio Dutreil has gotten more run in league play (61.4% of the minutes in NEC play, 45.2% overall) and has responded with a 62.5% eFG% and 7 of 10 from the free throw line. Last week he grabbed 7 boards in each game, and scored 13 in SHU's loss to St. Francis-Brooklyn

- St. Francis-Brooklyn's Michael Cubbage averaged 17 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game last weekend. He's struggled shooting the ball this season, but his 35 steals is 3rd in the league.

- Mikey Watkins is averaging 7 assists per game over his last three, with just 6 total turnovers during that span.

- Jordan Minor is shooting just 47.7% from the charity stripe in league play. Minor is a special player on both sides of the ball, but for someone who gets to the free throw line as frequently as he does (5 times per game), it will be difficult to be efficient if he can't knock down foul shots.

- If the season ended today, would Alex Morales be the unanimous NEC Player of the Year? He somehow had a quiet week last week "only" averaging 19.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. He won POY last season and yet his numbers this year are leaps and bounds ahead of what they were in 20-21. And it's not just the numbers; it's how he can beat you in so many ways.

- CCSU's Ian Krishnan is shooting 40% from three and 38.2% from two. Plus he had this dagger on Thursday night:

- After I wrote about Davonte Sweatman last week, the 5'8" freshman played just 12 minutes total last week, going 0 for 4 from the field with 1 assist and 2 turnovers.

- Ryan Peters wrote a great piece on current CCSU head coach Patrick Seller's impact on Fairleigh Dickinson a few years ago.

- Mikey Square came into Sunday making just 3 of 8 from three, but he knocked down both his 3P attempts in FDU's win over Central Connecticut. After attempting just 2 3Ps in his first 10 games, he's 5 of 8 in league play. As a freshman he didn't attempt a single shot from beyond the arc. He feels like the type of player who will be making at least 1 3P per game in two years.

- Wagner freshman Zaire Williams was 5 of 13 from three in two games last week, and over his last three games he's made 9 of 19. If he can make shots, the Wagner offense will be that much better.

- Jahbril Price-Noel, who had missed the previous 9 games, returned to log 15 minutes against SFU and 21 against SFC. Price-Noel is a shooter with length at 6'7", and he was 3 for 8 from deep in the two games. The rich get richer.

- Bryant remains a 14-seed in the most recent Bracket Matrix. In the most recent Mid-Major poll, they check in at #16.

- St. Francis-Brooklyn did a nice job defensively against Wagner, holding them to 1.03 ppp by not giving up freebies around the rim and holding the Seahawks to just 8 for 12 ATR.

- Sacred Heart's Joey Reilly scored in double-figures in each of his first two games this season, and hasn't done it since.

- Sacred Heart at Merrimack, originally scheduled for this past Saturday, was postponed due to the snow storm we had. No update on the rescheduling of that game has been provided. I wonder if they will wait to see if it would have any impact on seeding for the NEC Tournament.

- A big opportunity this weekend for Mount St. Mary's, as they get Bryant without Peter Kiss. Will Hall Elisias also remain out? He missed the LIU game Sunday with a knee injury.

- With Elisias out, freshman walk-on Josh Ozabor played a season-high 8 minutes. Ozabor, who's listed at 6'5" 220 lbs., did a solid job backing up Greg Calixte.

-Chris Childs, Bryant's 3rd leading scorer in 2020-21, and Grant Coleman, the transfer from UW-Milwaukee, are both no longer with the program.

- In 4 collegiate seasons, Bryant's Luis Hurtado is a 39.1% 3P shooter. However, he's made just 53.6% of his free throw attempts, including 12 for 26 this season.

- I fully expected LIU's Isaac Kante to come into the NEC from Hofstra and dominate, and he just hasn't done that. Nearly all of his offensive numbers are below his career rates at Hofstra, and his eFG% has dipped below 50%.

- FDU's Anquan Hill had 15 and 10 last Thursday in their loss to Mount St. Mary's. However, it was what he did against CCSU that has me sold on him being a big-time player in this league down the line; he scored just 5 points, but one of those buckets was a drop step and mini-hook with his left (off) hand. You don't see many freshman bigs at this level make that kind of play.

- Jacksonville St. is 8-0 in the Atlantic Sun, and former Mount St. Mary's player Jalen Gibbs is their 3rd leading scorer at 11.7 ppg.

- Remember Joe Kasperzyk? The former Bryant guard made the NEC's All-Rookie team back in 2019. Kasperzyk is now at Southeastern Louisiana where he's averaging 9.4 ppg for the Lions, which are 11-11 overall and 3-2 in the Southland.

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