The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: Non-Conference Recap Edition
I prefer to look at the season in two parts; the non-conference season, and the part that counts. That's not how we're conditioned as college basketball fans, especially if you're favorite school is in a multi-bid league. But quite frankly, if you're an NEC program, anything that happened prior to Christmas ultimately does not matter unless you've performed historically strong non-league like, say, Wagner. The Seahawks were so good in the non-conference that getting off the 16-line is still in the cards if they were to win the NEC Tournament. But for the other 10 programs? It doesn't matter if they were 0-10 or 5-5; it's a clean slate.
What follows is my non-conference recap; my personal updated rankings, as well as some awards. At the end of the season when I post my All-NEC teams, I will only use data from conference games (with non-conference games used as a tie-breaker, perhaps). I know that's not how most people view it, but I care more about how a player played in January-February than how he did in November-December. These first few weeks were just a build-up to the real season.
But first; in case you missed it, the NEC is keeping it's forfeiture rules in place; if you can't play because of covid-issues (or other reasons, I'd guess), you get an 'L'. To make things fair, the league allowed for a one-time expansion of the NEC Tournament to allow every eligible team to participate in the league play-offs. I wrote about that ruling last week.
Also; yesterday, the CDC announced that it was shortening isolation guidelines for people who test positive for Covid. I'd expect sports leagues across the country, including the NEC, to follow suit, which theoretically would shorten any covid-pauses by half.
Standings: As always during non-conference play, sorted by Adjusted Efficiency Margin (aka Kenpom rankings). Note: I've added Net Rankings into the graphic. Beginning next week the standings will be sorted by Efficiency Margin in NEC games.
Most Impressive Team: Wagner
This was obvious, right? The Seahawks improved 74 spots at Kenpom, up to #118 after their road win at Fairfield, and went a perfect 5-0 against non-P5 schools, with road wins over VCU, Stony Brook (by 29 points!), and Fairfield. According to Bart Torvik's Game Score, Wagner had the 3 best performances by any NEC team in the season's first months, 4 of the top 7, and 5 of the top 11. Both Kenpom and Torvik project a league record of 15-3 for WC, with no other team within 3 games of that. A potentially dominant NEC team.
Most Disappointing Team: Merrimack
I could have gone Bryant here, but I opted for the Warriors, who have dropped 64 spots at Kenpom and 116 spots at Torvik since the pre-season (though I did write in the pre-season about how Merrimack was being over-valued by the computers). According to Torvik, the defense has been expectedly good; their 98.3 Adjusted DE is 2nd in the NEC behind Wagner's 88.4(!), but the offense has been brutally bad. Merrimack's 87.9 Adjusted OE is not only last in the NEC by a rather large margin, but it's 342nd nationally, and below last season's 92.9 mark despite bringing back their entire rotation.
Non-Conference NEC Player of the Year: Alex Morales, Wagner
This one wasn't as easy as I expected, largely because Morales missed the Seton Hall game (due to covid reasons), and hasn't logged the kind of minutes you'd expect due to a few blowouts. However; when he's been on the court, he's been the best team's best player, and that counts for a lot. The counting numbers are there (15.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.0 steals per game), as are the peripherals; a 116.3 O-Rating on 27% usage, 29% assist rate, 20.2% defensive rebounding rate, and 61.1% eFG%. He's being asked to do a bit less offensively this season, and he (and the team) has become more efficient because of it.
Non-Conference NEC Rookie of the Year: Jayden Brown, Central Connecticut
This is not the year for freshmen; just 2 first-year guys are playing more than 45% of their team's available minutes, down from 9 last season and 11 in 2019-20. However, Central Connecticut has some interesting freshmen, and Jayden Brown is one of them. After missing CCSU's first 4 games due to an injury, the 6'9" big leads all freshmen in scoring (7.6ppg), is 2nd in rebounding (4.6 rpg), and 3rd in minutes (20.5 mpg).
Non-Conference NEC Most Impactful Transfer: Jalen Benjamin, Mount St. Mary's
I'd make the argument that, by a slight margin, Isaac Kante from LIU has been the better overall player, but Benjamin has made a larger impact, as he attempts to fill the void left by Damian Chong Qui. The shifty lead guard has a 25.6% usage rate (8th highest in the league), and leads his team in points (13.4) and assists (a league high 4.4).
Non-Conference NEC Most Improved Player: Josh Cohen, St. Francis (PA)
After playing very well in a part-time roll as a red-shirt freshman, Cohen has exploded in the season's first two months. He's become more efficient shooting the ball (67.2% eFG%) despite seeing an increase in usage from 18.4% to 22.6%. He's passing the ball better, and his block rate is up from 1.9% to 2.8%. He's essentially gone from a nice bench piece to one of the best big men in the Northeast Conference, as he's taken minutes away from super senior Mark Flagg.
Non-Conference NEC All-Conference 1st & 2nd Team:
Ramiir Dixon-Conover, St. Francis (PA): 49% eFG% and 21.4% assist rate. Leads league with 2.2 steals per game
Jordan Minor, Merrimack: 96.7 O-Rating despite nearly 33% usage. Top 7 in both DR% and OR%. 2nd in block rate (7.7%)
Alex Morales, Wagner: Best player on the best team, 61% eFG% on 27% usage
Eral Penn, Long Island: Over 15 points and 6 boards per game, 1 of just 2 NEC players with a 100+ O-Rating on 25%+ usage.
Tyler Thomas, Sacred Heart: Leads the league in scoring (19.7 ppg)
Aaron Clarke, Sacred Heart: 114.2 O-Rating on 24.7% usage, 25.3% assist rate, 15.4 ppg.
Ty Flowers, Long Island: 15p, 6.6r, 2.7a, 1.7s. Shooting 36% from three.
Peter Kiss, Bryant: 19.4p, 5.8r, 3.5a. League-high 33.6% usage, also 1.8 steals per game.
Charles Pride, Bryant: 6th in league in scoring (14.4 ppg) and 3rd in rebounding (7.3 rpg).
Nigel Scantlebury, Central Connecticut: 50% eFG%, including 44% from three, and a 28% assist rate.
Non-Conference NEC All-Rookie Team:
Jayden Brown, Central Connecticut: 10.4% OR%, 1 of 4 freshman playing 20+ mpg.
Sebastian Lamaute, Fairleigh Dickinson: 5.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg and 1.2 apg in 20.3 mpg.
Andre Snoddy, Central Connecticut: League-high 23.4% DR%. 1st among freshman with 6.3 rpg, 2nd in scoring (6.2 ppg).
Ibrahim Wattara, Fairleigh Dickinson: 3rd among freshman in rebounding (3.4 rpg) and 6th in scoring (5.3 pg). 18.7% DR%.
Zaire Williams, Wagner: 6.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, and 2.4 spg in 22.5 mpg.
Matt's Updated Projected Standings
As I always say when I provide my projected standings; pay more attention to the tiers than to the ranking itself. If you want to go back and see my pre-season rankings, you can find them here. I was clearly too low on Wagner, but outside of the Seahawks teams are generally where I expected them to be.
As you can tell by looking at the standings at the top of this post; Wagner was really good over the season's first two months, even under tough circumstances. The season-opening win over Hartford doesn't look as good as it did on 11/9, but road victories at VCU, Stony Brook (by 29 points) and Fairfield are three of the league's best wins. They let a nice opportunity slip with a blowout loss at Penn State, but let's keep it all in perspective; this is a team that was one of the first squads to go on a covid-induced pause. All-in-all a dream non-conference season if you're Bashir Mason.
Last season, Wagner led the league in Offensive Efficiency during conference play, and it appears that the Seahawks have one of, if not the, best offenses in the league. Alex Morales has really allowed the game to come to him more than he has in the past (his usage rate is down from 28.7% to 26.9%), which has allowed him to be more efficient, while D2 Henderson St. transfer Raekwon Rogers (9.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) has given Mason the type of post-presence that he did not have in 2020-21. Will Martinez has really improved his efficiency (55.7% eFG%), and Wagner has any number of guys who can beat you as a secondary scorer, including DeLonnie Hunt and Elijah Ford.
It's on the defensive end that this team has been surprising; Mason has generally been a defensive minded coach, however they had slipped over the past two seasons. So, then; how in the world did they go from having the 252nd rated Adjusted DE to #104 this season (excluding pre-season bias)?! Well, by getting better in nearly every defensive category! From Kenpom (the top row is this season, the bottom row is last year):
For starters; they've really increased the ball pressure, as evidenced by forcing turnovers on 24% of their defensive possessions. However, it's not just the data; just watch a Wagner game, and they're much more aggressive defensively, especially in the passing lanes. My theory; they're deeper. A year ago, Mason rolled with largely a 7-man rotation. So far in 21-22, 11 guys are playing more than 20% of the team's available minutes, as freshman Zaire Williams has provided length on the wing, Rogers has provided size, Mason clearly likes Javy Esquerra as a back-up PG, Ashton Miller has come over from Duquesne to give them another scoring option, and Jahbril Price-Noel is a shooter with size. Because of that depth no one has to play 35 mpg, and instead can provide more energy on the defensive end.
As I mentioned above, both Kenpom and Torvik are projecting a 15-3 record. I do think this team has the talent and experience to pull off that kind of record, but remember; league road games are tough, man. I do think the Seahawks are the class of the NEC by a rather large margin, and if they can get off to a good start (they open up on the road at SFU, then at the Mount), we can start monitoring their chances of getting off the 16-seed line if they were to win the NEC Tournament.
I'd have to think that, if you're a Bryant fan, it was a largely disappointing non-conference season. It started out with Peter Kiss being suspended for the season's first three games, including what would have been a winnable matchup with in-state rival URI had Kiss been active (they lost 83-64). Then after losing at Clemson, the Bulldogs went down to the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach and lost to a bad Bethune-Cookman team 81-75. Don't get me wrong, there were some nice performances in there; a 65-59 win at Brown and 76-59 win against New Hampshire (which played without their 2nd leading scorer), both of which certainly boost their resume, as did an 86-78 loss at Stony Brook which came without Kiss and Hall Elisias (who were held out due to covid). All-in-all, however, Bryant dropped 26 spots at Kenpom, and last played on December 11th after having to go on a covid-related pause.
The big question coming into the season was; could Jared Grasso replace Michael Green III, who transferred to Robert Morris? The pre-season expectation was that George Washington transfer Tyler Brelsford would be the guy and that hasn't exactly worked out; after starting the season's first 4 games, he's averaged just 10 minutes per game over the past 7. Instead, Grasso has installed his best player, Peter Kiss, to handle primary ball-handling duties. The 6'5" super-senior has put up big numbers; in 8 games, he's averaging 19.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. However, he's being tasked with a lot; he's taking 36% of the teams shots when he's on the floor, which is the 5th highest in the entire nation, and while he's done well inside the arc (55% on twos), he's made just 11 of 48 from three. And of course, Kiss is not alone. Playing without a true '1', Bryant isn't getting nearly as good of looks from the perimeter as they got a season ago, and they may be forcing it from the perimeter:
The Bulldogs are taking a ton of threes, and not making nearly enough. And while you may be thinking that they are due for some natural regression in league play, I wouldn't tell you you're wrong. However, transition three-point attempts are one of the most efficient shots in basketball, and well, it's hard to get those shots when you are being forced into the half-court more than last year.
Getting out in transition was the key to Bryant's offensive success last season. However, without a guy like MG3 to push the pace and find scorers and/or shooters on the wings, the Bulldogs have been forced to slow it down more frequently.
Through 10 D1 games, Bryant has the 4th best Adjusted OE and Adjusted DE in the Northeast Conference, which is essentially what they were a season ago (4th in OE, 3rd in DE); essentially, BU is the only team, in addition to Wagner, that is good on both sides of the ball, at least as far as NEC teams are concerned. I'd be shocked if the Bulldogs didn't shoot it better during league play; they're not a 28.5% 3P shooting team, even without a true PG, and I fully expect guys like Kiss and Charles Pride (28.3%) to get back near their career rates, as should Chris Childs (34% so far this year, 40% last season). I am somewhat concerned about the depth; transfers Brelsford and Grant Coleman have provided very little, as has sophomore Erickson Bans, but that top 6 in Bryant's rotation is as good as anyone. I cannot wait for that 1/6 matchup on Staten Island, when the Bulldogs take on Wagner.
On November 23rd, Merrimack had just beaten Hartford 75-60, and was 3-3 in D1 games with wins over NJIT and Lehigh, in addition to UHart, and losses at Rutgers, Army, and Virginia Tech. They were up big two games in a row and lost them both (at Boston U., at home against UMass- Lowell), then were blown out thrice in a row at Brown, Gonzaga, and Indiana. The Warriors were able to win their final non-conference game at Maine, but it was unimpressive; Maine is ranked #351 at Kenpom, is yet to win a D1 game, and had previously lost to CCSU at home 64-56.
Joe Gallo's defense continues to be awesome; their adjusted DE of 98.3 is 2nd in the NEC behind Wagner's ridiculous 88.4 mark, and they continue to force turnovers at a high clip (24.5%, 18th nationally). The issue is an offense that has the 343rd rated Adjusted OE in the entire nation (and worst in the league). While the Warriors finished 9th in the NEC in OE during conference play last season, given that they returned their entire rotation, the expectation was that they'd see at least some sort of improvement on the offensive end. However, they just...haven't made shots. Via ShotQuality:
Shockingly, every Merrimack rotation player has seen his eFG% decline so far in 21-22:
Joe Gallo continues to play through Jordan Minor in a variety of different ways: in post-ups, as a roller in the P&R, and in isolations. Minor's usage rate of 32.8% is 2nd highest in the NEC behind Peter Kiss, and is an increase from 28.4%. His change in eFG% is largely attributed to taking slightly more jump shots, of which he's made just 4 of 23. However, Mikey Watkins has made just 6 of 31 from downtown, and just 30% from the mid-range; Ziggy Reid is shooting just 37% from three and 6 of 24 at the rim; and Devin Jensen is just 9 of 36 from three.
So why am I picking them 3rd?! Well; did you know that in 2019-20, Merrimack won the league's regular season title while finishing 10th out of 11 teams in Offensive Efficiency? Joe Gallo has shown that he can win despite an offense that struggles to score the ball by causing all sorts of problems on the defensive end, and slowing the tempo. Jordan Minor, Malik Edmead, and Mikey Watkins are all in the top 11 in the NEC in steal rate, while Minor's 7.7% block rate is 2nd behind Hall Elisias. But also; I have a hard time believing that Merrimack is somehow worse offensively than they were a season ago. I'm not sure they'll approach being an average offensive team, but as long as they're not one of the 2 or 3 worst offensive teams in the league, they'll be fine.
4. St. Francis (PA)
The "anti-Merrimack", if you will, the Red Flash have exploded offensively during the non-conference season; their adjusted Offensive Efficiency of 101.8 (excluding pre-season bias) is tops in the league, and 152nd nationally. However, similar to Bryant, one could argue that the results just weren't there in the non-conference. Their 3 wins all came against teams ranked #295 or worse at Kenpom, though they were all impressive: two on the road (Lehigh and Hartford), and all three by double-digits. And sure, there were expected losses at Virginia Tech, Ohio, and Illinois. But SFU also lost to Robert Morris (#303) at home last week, which was Bobby Mo's first D1 win; fell at American (#323), and let nice opportunities at George Washington (#250) and Cornell (#228) slip away.
So, why the improvement over last season's 94.8 Adjusted OE mark? For starters; they're attacking the rim more frequently, rather than settling for jump shots:
2021-22: 46% of shots at the rim, 15% mid-range
2020-21: 43% of shots at the rim, 18% mid-range
In a recent Solving Basketball podcast, Colorado St. head coach Nico Medved used the line "love the rim, like the 3", and that feels apt here. SFU is taking fewer threes (33% of their shot attempts last season, 27% this season), but are making them at a higher clip (34.5% so far this season, 30.9% a season ago). Stylistically, Krimmel has gone to Ramiir Dixon-Conover more frequently in the pick-and-roll, utilizing his ability to get downhill to either finish at the rim, or find an open man. Plus; I think Krimmel realized that RDC was being tasked with doing too much at times last season, and instead has opted to reign him in a bit.
It's not surprise, then, that the Red Flash have improved tremendously at taking care of the ball (15.6% turnover rate, which is 25th nationally), as Krimmel has leaned more on alternative offensive options such as Ronell Giles, Myles Thompson, and Josh Cohen.
So, why are they only 4th? Because their defense has been atrocious, putting up a 112.7 Adjusted DE, good for 344th nationally (and worst in the NEC). Despite having two good offensive bigs in Cohen and Mark Flagg, there's very little rim protection to speak of, as opponents are making nearly 56% of their twos (57.1% eFG% overall), and they don't rebound well defensively. One of biggest changes from year-to-year has been their ability (or lack thereof) to defend the P&R; according to Shot Quality, in 2020-21 their SQ PPP in those situations was 0.77, while it's risen to 0.91 so far this season. It's not something that shows up in the data, but my theory is that Josh Cohen, while the superior offensive player to Mark Flagg, isn't as quick defensively.
Ultimately, some of those defensive numbers are skewed by playing teams like Virginia Tech, Ohio, and Illinois, but that can be said for the other NEC squads as well. Can SFU finish above .500 with the league's best offense and worst defense? I'm not so sure, though I think their ability to force turnovers will do them well in league play, and should bolster their defensive numbers a bit. I remain concerned about their ability to win a game in which the offense struggles; against Bobby Mo they were just 13 of 37 on two-pointers, and allowed 1.14ppp in a 75-67 loss. They're going to lose games they probably shouldn't have, and will get hot and win a game or two in which they were underdogs. RDC and Josh Cohen are difference makers, and I expect one of the quarterfinal games to be played in Loretto.
5. Long Island
After the Sharks' first three games, I was starting to convince myself that the way Derek Kellogg constructed this roster, rolling with three bigs and an inexperienced point guard, just wasn't going to work. Sure, that 0-3 start came on the road against teams all ranked in the top 62 at Kenpom (San Francisco, Fresno St, and UConn), but those L's came by an average of 37 points per game.
But then they started to figure it out. Over the next 5 games, LIU went 2-4, though they were competitive in the four road losses, and the two wins were home blowouts over Delaware St. and Army.
Sure, those first three games were really bad. But it's natural to take time to gel when you have some roster changes. The Sharks have really defended, holding teams to 27% from three and under 50% from two. Perhaps they are due for a bit of regression, however with all that size they can afford to be aggressive on close-outs knowing there is ample rim protection. Offensively; I still don't love it. I wrote a few weeks ago about the struggles of the LIU frontcourt, and it remains true; Ty Flowers and Eral Penn have been asked to spend more time on the perimeter, which has had a negative affect on their offensive performance. However, I think they'll be so good inside and on the offensive boards that they'll be reasonably efficient in league play.
In their two wins, both home games, they made 40 of 74 from beyond the arc (40.5%), and in their 7 road losses they shot just 26.6%. If LIU is just going to get hot once every 5 games or so and put up a big point total, that won't be enough to get to .500 in this league. Plus, I do have concerns over the point guard play; Tre Wood has 29 assists against 30 turnovers, a 41.7% eFG%, and he's attempted just 7 free throws (making 4). Ultimately, I think Long Island has the talent to approach .500 in NEC play, but I just have a hard time seeing them contending with the likes of Wagner and Bryant.
6. Sacred Heart
Sacred Heart, like many NEC teams, had an overall disappointing non-conference campaign despite some nice performances; the knocked off the A-10's La Salle in OT to start the season, won a couple of road games over bad teams (Lafayette, Columbia), battled URI (without Aaron Clarke) before falling 72-62, and nearly took out a good Stony Brook team on the road, eventually falling 75-72. However, there were also some duds; like losing at home to a Binghamton team ranked #322 at Kenpom (also without Aaron Clarke), and giving UHart its second D1 win, in Fairfield, 78-71. Overall, the Pios dropped 26 spots at Kenpom since opening night.
So, despite returning its entire rotation, Sacred Heart has gotten worse since last season, when they finished 9-7 in the NEC and played in the league's "Final 4"? Umm...not exactly. Here's what I wrote in my NEC Preview:
So, let's compare this year's version of the Pios to last season's team:
Based on those numbers, Sacred Heart is nearly exactly what it was offensively last season, though it's taken a slight step forward on the defensive end. Tyler Thomas, who currently leads the league in scoring at 19.7 ppg, has seen his usage increase a bit overall (likely due to Aaron Clarke missing a couple of games), and while his eFG% has ticked up a bit (from 48% to 49.5%), his assist rate is down, and he hasn't gotten to the free throw line with as much frequency. If you're worried about Thomas...just stop. He'll be fine. Aaron Clarke, despite battling a nagging ankle injury, has gotten back to being Aaron Clarke, and through 9 games he's got career highs in O-Rating (and usage), eFG%, and assist rate. Add in an improved frontcourt, largely led by Nico Galette, who is certainly in the Most Improved Player discussion, and Bryce Johnson, as well as guards Joey Reilly, Alex Watson, and Mike Sixsmith, and the Pios can but up some offensive numbers in a hurry.
Sacred Heart is kind of SFU-lite; their offense is good (though not quite as good), and their defense is bad (though not quite as bad). The lack of rim protection remains a concern; both Galette and Johnson are listed at 6'6", and neither cause much concern when opponents drive the rim. But it's not just a lack of size; the Pio guards get beaten off the dribble too frequently, which often results in open three-pointers, where opponents are making over 55% of their 3P attempts. Similar to the Red Flash, the Pios will get hot and win a game or two they shouldn't, and will also struggle from the field and lose a couple in which they were favored. If things break right, I wouldn't be surprised to see them end up with a home QF game.
7. Mount St. Mary's
The Mount had, perhaps, the most disappointing non-conference schedule among all the NEC programs; they were 3-8 against D1 teams, and fell 39 spots at Kenpom to #318, despite bringing back nearly every player from last season's NEC Championship team. Mount St. Mary's was able to win its two home games (against #310 Howard and #318 Morgan St.), and picked up a road win at Robert Morris. But they also lost at home to #323 American (in OT), a winnable road game at #271 Loyola (MD), and took expected L's at Villanova, Saint Joe's, Kentucky, Ohio, Navy, and Santa Clara.
Of course, Dan Engelstad didn't return his entire rotation. Damian Chong-Qui is now playing for Purdue-Fort Wayne, while Engelstad brought in Jalen Benjamin from UAB to be the Mount's high-usage lead guard. So, let's compare the two:
It's certainly been a transition of sorts for Benjamin, who was largely used off the ball at UAB, and there's clearly been a drop-off since Chong Qui left. DCQ was a bit better from the perimeter, and had a slightly higher assist rate, but there are two areas in which Chong Qui really stood out: he took care of the basketball incredibly well for someone with a 26% usage rate; and he seemed to make big shot after big shot. Now, I could just stop there and proclaim that Mount St. Mary's will never fill that void, but I won't. For one; Benjamin has improved as the season has gone along.
Sure, he's struggled to shoot it recently, but that's the last thing I've worried about when it comes to the junior guard. Despite seeing a drop in eFG%, his efficiency is up thanks to a significant cut in turnover rate, and he's not forcing it as much. And he's being asked to do less thanks to a jump from sophomore wing Dakota Leffew, who has a 29.3% assist rate during the same period, and has made 4 of 11 from three. Both guys can handle the ball and make plays, and both can beat you from deep. Add in Deandre Thomas and Josh Reaves, both of whom are a year older, and Engelstad doesn't need as much from his lead guard as he did a season ago.
The Mount played its best basketball in its final non-conference game, which was a 74-60 win over Morgan St. in which MSMU scored 1.08ppp. The defensive metrics have taken a step back a bit, but they're allowing opponents to shoot 37.4%, and that just feels like a number that's due to regress considering they're limiting 3P opportunities (teams are taking just 29% of their FGA from deep, which is 12th lowest nationally), and opponents made just 30.6% from beyond the arc a season ago. So the question is; can they run it back? I really wanted to see Mezie Offurum take a step forward and he really hasn't (44.2% eFG%), but he and his mates on the front line (Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson) will create match-up problems for NEC foes. If Jalen Benjamin continues to improve as a high usage lead guard, and they can get enough done on the offensive end, challenging for a top 4 spot is possible.
8. St. Francis-Brooklyn
SFC was one of three programs that did not return the vast majority of its rotation; a number of players graduated, and star lead-guard Chauncey Hawkins left school in September, having since verbally committed to join the Bryant program next season. So, it wasn't surprising when SFC started 0-8, including home L's to Hartford and St. Thomas (#280 at Kenpom), as well as dropping games to #320 McNeese St. and #260 North Carolina A&T on neutral courts. However, the Terriers finished off their non-conference on a high-note, winning back-to-back road games at Saint Peter's and Delaware St., both by double-figures.
Rather than rebuild with first-year players like the teams at the bottom of this list, Braica attempted to reload with transfers, and it's largely been a mixed bag. Michael Cubbage, a 6'4" point-forward who came in from Marist, has been SFC's high usage guy and SFC's leading scorer at 11.5 ppg, though efficiency has evaded him so far; he's got a 38.3% eFG% (4 for 26 from three). Patrick Emilien, a 6'7" inside-outside forward via Western Michigan, is averaging 10.5 ppg, with a 48% eFG%, and Bahaide Haidara, a 6'6" non-shooting wing from George Mason, has converted 56% of his twos and is 10th in the league with a 8.7% offensive rebounding rate. Despite the influx of experience, plus the return of Rob Higgins (22.3% assist rate, 12.9% turnover rate) and Larry Moreno (37% from three), the Terriers' eFG% is just 44.4% (321st nationally), and their 91.0 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (excluding pre-season bias) is 322nd in the country.
However, a funny thing happened as the calendar flipped to December; they started defending.
Braica has struggled to find a rotation he likes, but it looks like he may have found one:
Michael Cubbage and Patrick Emilien, the two high profile D1 transfers Braica brought in, are really the only two players who have been consistently leaned upon. Larry Moreno, who is shooting 37% from three, has seen more run, as has forward Bahaide Haidara, who provides versatility on both sides of the floor. Freshman guard Nick Folk, who didn't appear in the team's first 5 games, has scored 25 points in three games in December while making all 10 of his free throw attempts.
On the flip side; Tedrick Wilcox, Jr. went from scoring in double-figures in three games in a row in November to playing just 9 minutes in the team's last three games. Trey Quartlebaum, who averaged 12 ppg over the season's first two games, has played just 11 minutes over the last two. And Braica has been using his bigs, Stevanic and Hemphill, less and less in favor of a more athletic lineup, with Emilien and Haidara manning the 4/5.
Do I think that Braica has the 3rd best defensive team in the NEC? I do not, but I do think there's a clear improvement there, and their defense should keep them in plenty of games. Plus; while the offense has been inconsistent, they do have guys like Emilien, Cubbage, Higgins, and Moreno who are capable of getting hot and carrying the team for a stretch. Prior to the defensive improvement, I would have had St. Francis at the #8 spot, but in the tier below. However, it doesn't take an active imagination to see this team getting to .500 in the league if things break right.
9. Central Connecticut
Back in April, the CCSU administration moved on from Donyell Marshall and brought in alum Patrick Sellers to try and right this ship. And so far, so good, at least as far as yours truly (a CCSU alum) is concerned. The Blue Devils are 3-9 in the non-conference (they're sceduled to finish the non-league schedule on 1/1 at Rutgers), with a win at Maine, and two home victories over Holy Cross and UHart. There was also a double OT loss at home to Fordham, mixed in with a 8 double-digit losses, all away from home to teams ranked better than 243 at Kenpom. Overall, it's been a nice start for a team that's relied upon 6 first-year players so far this season. Per Kenpom, Sellers has the 321st most experienced team in the country.
It's been an experienced player that has lead this team in the early going; Nigel Scantlebury. The 4th year point guard had a solid 1st year at CCSU in 20-21, but he's exploded this season.
Scantlebury leads the Blue Devils in points (12.7 ppg), assists (3.3 apg) and steals (1.1 spg), and has been exactly the player Sellers needed to implement his P&R heavy offense; this season, 25% of their offensive sets have utilized ball screens, 26th most nationally and up from 16% last season under Donyell Marshall. Of course, we should talk freshmen as well. CCSU has had three of their guys win the NEC Player of the Week; Jayden Brown, Andre Snoddy, and Joe Ostrowsky. Brown, the likely NEC Rookie of the Year, leads all freshmen in scoring (7.6 ppg) and is 2nd in rebounding (4.6 rpg), while Snoddy is scoring 6.2 ppg and leads all rookies in rebounding at 6.3 rpg.
The expectations were modest coming into the season, and that really hasn't changed. The major question is; can Patrick Sellers get this program pointed in the right direction? Well, it appears they're improving.
Look, it's a modest improvement, but when you have a young team it's all about the little victories. Sellers has been outspoken about trying to get this team to defend, first and foremost, and while it's taking time to learn his defensive style, they're getting there. But also; after 5 games is when Sellers started paring down his rotation a bit, with guys like Scantlebury, Ian Krishnan, Brown, and Snoddy seeing more minutes.
So what's the ceiling for this group? They just don't have the scorers around Scantlebury to keep up with some of the top teams in the league, and without more rim protection than they have, it'll be difficult to defend some of the better bigs in this league. If they can get more consistency out of Ian Krishnan and Tre Mitchell, who has really come on of late, they could surprise. But I think one thing is for sure; teams will no longer enjoy coming to Detrick Gym.
10. Fairleigh Dickinson
Any discussion regarding FDU's non-conference slate has to begin with this fact; the Knights played the 34th most difficult non-conference schedule to date (per Kenpom). That's a tough ask for any NEC team, but especially one that lost it's two star players to the Transfer Portal, and is one of the youngest in all of D1. So, then, seeing that they started 0-10 isn't exactly a surprise; 9 of those games were on the road, and they played just three teams ranked outside the top 177 at Kenpom. FDU did battle: they were down 2 to St. John's at one point in the 2nd half; and they lost by single-digits to both NJIT and Manhattan.
With both Jahlil Jenkins (Stony Brook) and Elyjah Williams (Northwestern) gone, it's turned into the Brandon Rush show for Greg Herenda. The junior forward, who was often the 3rd offensive option a season ago, has carried a 30.6% usage rate through the early-going. And has you might expect, his efficiency has taken a hit.
A season ago, Rush was getting good looks by coming off screens, as defenses keyed in on Jenkins and Williams. This season, Herenda has utilized Rush more more frequently in the P&R, and while he's been effective in getting good looks, he's struggled to both make off-the-dribble 3-pointers, as well as finish at the rim (49% so far this year, compared to 58% last year). Now, part of that is the schedule they've played, but also; Rush needs some help! Devon Dunn, who has missed some time early in the year, is shooting 38.3% from deep but isn't really a true scorer. Mikey Square has improved tremendously since last season, but as a 6'6" non-shooter, it can be difficult to be a consistent scorer (and his 17% usage reflects that).
It's difficult to gauge this squad. Between the difficult non-league schedule, and the way the FDU staff has mixed-and-matched its rotations, it's hard to figure out what this team is; 13 players have played at least 14.5% of available minutes. The freshmen are intriguing; Oscar Berry has seemingly come out of nowhere to make 6 out of 10 from deep, Ibrahim Wattara has an interesting combination of length and bounciness, and Sebastien Lamaute is shooting 43.5% from deep and also been an adequate secondary ball-handler. They will be able to put up points at times, but unless Herenda is able to get this team to defend better (110.6 Adj DE, 8th in the league), they're going to struggle to get wins. But similar to CCSU; teams won't enjoy going down to Teaneck.