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The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: The Final Countdown

We're in the home stretch as there are just two game-days remaining before the start of the NEC Tournament next Monday. In case you were curious, here is the NECT schedule:

Monday, 2/28- #9 at #8

Wednesday, 3/2- Quarterfinals

Saturday, 3/5- Semifinals (6pm and 8pm)

Tuesday, 3/8- Finals

Next week's Mid-Range Jumper will largely be all about my end of season awards, as well as a preview of Monday night's 8/9 game.

Standings: Order of standings per both Bart Torvik and Kenpom. Note; this is the first time all season that both projection systems are in agreement.

NEC Team of the Week: Merrimack

You go 3-0 in a week, you get this award. I talk more about Merrimack down below.

NEC Player of the Week: Rob Higgins, St. Francis-Brooklyn

Peter Kiss was great and probably just as deserving, but I'm going Higgins here because I don't get to write about him much. Higgins scored 47 points in two Terriers wins, and added 11 boards and 7 assists. He's shown a major improvement wit the 3-ball, especially in league play during which he's shooting 35.5%.

NEC Rookie of the Week: Andre Snoddy, Central Connecticut

The presumptive NEC Rookie of the Year keeps rolling out good performances; on the week Snoddy averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game.

Weekly Leaderboard: Shot Selection, per Shot Quality

NEC Tournament Seed-Races

We are in the final stretch, as the NEC Tournament begins next Monday night with the 8/9 game, referred to within as the 'PIG'.

The NEC has updated its tiebreaker procedure, and yes forfeits are included. Merrimack remains ineligible for the NEC Tournament, but games against the Warriors do count for tiebreaking purposes. It's also worth reminding you that the conference re-seeds its teams after each round.

#1 Seed: As has been the case for weeks now, it all comes down to Wagner and Bryant. If Wagner can beat Fairleigh Dickinson at the Spiro Center on Thursday night (Kenpom has them as 14-pt favorites), the Seahawks are probably the #1 seed no matter what happens on 2/26 (Wagner at Bryant). However, it's not quite a done deal. If you're Bryant, this is what you're rooting for:

  • Beat both SFU in Loretto, and Wagner in Smithfield (~25% chance to sweep the 2 games);

  • Merrimack beats LIU in North Andover on Thursday, then beats SFC on Saturday

  • LIU loses to FDU at home on Saturday after losing to Merrimack

In that scenario, Merrimack finishes ahead of Long Island, which means Bryant wins the tie-breaker over Wagner by virtue of sweeping 3rd place Merrimack, which owns a win over Wagner. That got your head spinning? Is all of that likely to happen? No, it's not. But anything is possible!

#2 and #3 seeds: Wagner and Bryant have already clinched a top-2 seed (and home-court through the semifinals), while Long Island is locked in the 3rd spot.

#4 seed: The Mount leads St. Francis-Brooklyn by 1-game with 2 to play. However, Mount St. Mary's owns the tie-breaker by virtue of a sweep of Merrimack (SFC is currently 0-1 against the Warriors). The Terriers would need to win its games against both Bryant and Merrimack, with the Mount losing at both Sacred Heart and CCSU. Both are very unlikely to happen.

CCSU is still mathematically alive and could tie St. Francis-Brooklyn if they were beat both the Mount and SFU this week with SFC going 0-2. If that happened, CCSU would win the tiebreaker thanks to victories over both LIU and Merrimack. However, both of those things are unlikely. Expect it to be the Terriers at Mount St. Mary's in the 4/5 quarterfinal matchup next Wednesday.

#6-8 seeds: There are 4 teams trying to avoid the Play-in-game; Central Connecticut, St. Francis (PA), Sacred Heart, and Fairleigh Dickinson. Here is how each of these teams close the season, with the Kenpom spreads in parenthesis.

Central Connecticut: vs. SFU (-1), vs. Mount (+3)

St. Francis (PA): at CCSU (+1), at SHU (+3)

Sacred Heart: vs. Mount (+2), vs. SFU (+3)

Fairleigh Dickinson: vs. Wagner (+14), at LIU (+15)

There are too many iterations to discuss, so let's hit the key points in bullet form (all odds and spreads based on Kenpom):

  • CCSU is the only one of these teams favored in a game (at home against SFU on Thursday);

  • FDU is 82% likely to lose both games. For all intents and purposes they're the #9 seed unless they pull off a major upset, which of course is possible. Win one of those and a huge wrench is thrown into all of this as a win over, say, Wagner would potentially give them a nice tie-breaker.

  • SFU closes its season with the Connecticut trip; Central Connecticut on Thursday, Sacred Heart on Saturday. The Red Flash are underdogs in both, with a split most likely (51%).

  • If SFU beats CCSU but loses to Sacred Heart (and SHU loses to the Mount), the Red Flash would win a tie-breaker in a three-way tie scenario by virtue of its sweep over the Blue Devils (SFU and SHU split), and would get the 6-seed.

  • If the opposite were to occur (the Red Flash lose to CCSU but beat the Pios), SFU would have swept Sacred Heart and therefore would win a tie-breaker with the Pios for the 7-seed.

  • Both CCSU and SHU have "aces" up their sleeves with wins over LIU, which could come in handy.

Some Guys Came Back

A number of teams had been missing key guys, but luckily we got some good news on multiple fronts.

  • After going out with a leg injury in the 2nd half of the Mount's 2/12 win over SFU, Jalen Benjamin missed Thursday's game against St. Francis-Brooklyn (a 64-55 Terriers win), and did not start at home against LIU on Saturday. However, he came off the bench to score 13 points in 29 minutes, and generally looked like healthy.

  • Ronell Giles, who missed 10 games with a knee injury, returned to play 18 minutes in SFU's 81-63 loss to Long Island on Thursday night. Yes, he was 0 for 7 from the field, but those are only details. The fact that the talented sophomore appears to have avoided serious injury is the key here. Rob Krimmel kept him out in Saturday's loss to St. Francis-Brooklyn, and that makes sense; two games in three days while working one's way back from a knee injury is probably a bit much.

  • After missing 6 games with a knee injury, Bryant's Hall Elisias returned to play 8 minutes off the bench in the Bulldogs' win over Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday. He looked like vintage Elisias too, throwing down an alley-oop dunk and picking up two blocks. Grasso had him on a minutes restriction, and the most important thing for Bryant is getting him healthy and ready to go for the NEC Tournament.

Merrimack is Not Dead, After All

After a 6-game losing streak from January 15th through February 3rd, Merrimack is rolling; they've won 4 straight, and 5 of 6, and have gone from 3-6 in the NEC to 8-7, and that includes giving Wagner its lone conference loss.

In looking at Merrimack's schedule, I can't help but notice that their 6-game losing streak included two games apiece against Bryant and Mount St. Mary's, and a game against Wagner (pre-Ford injury). That's a tough stretch for sure. Let's take a look at their adjusted figures to see if we can spot a major difference:

Clearly it's not just the schedule, as the Warriors have been better on both sides of the ball of late; they've shot the ball well from both inside and the perimeter (55.3% eFG% over the last 6 games, compared to 44.4% over the previous 6), and they've defended better by forcing more turnovers (22.6% compared to 19.3%) and limiting opponents to 27% from three and 45% from two. Of course, the schedule is part of it; a 101.6 Adjusted DE is only good for 4th in the league over that stretch, and their current streak includes an overtime win over SFU, a 3-point loss to CCSU, and a 1-point last second win over Sacred Heart. Still, there's clear improvement there.

Unfortunately I can't point to any one thing and give you a reason as to why the Warriors suddenly look primed to finish at least .500 in league play for the 3rd time in three D1 seasons. Malik Edmead has played less in favor of Mykel Derring, who has made 15 of 43 from deep over that stretch. Jordan Minor has played like a Player of the Year candidate (60% from the field). Ziggy Reid, who has been very up-and-down this season, is 9 for his last 19 from beyond the arc (58.2% eFG%). Mikey Watkins has had a similarly enigmatic season, and over the last 6 games is 6 for 17 from deep with a 39% assist rate. And Devin Jensen has returned to the rotation.

To me, it's all about Joe Gallo, who last week won his 100th game in less than 6 years at Merrimack. Gallo has this team motivated despite the fact that they aren't playing for anything other than pride! The Warriors, as they were the previous two seasons, are ineligible for the NEC Tournament (and thus any post-season tournaments), and yet rather than packing it in after they lost to Mount St. Mary's 69-53 on February 3rd, they're competing every night like a team battling for a home quarterfinal game (or better).

In a league full of very good coaches, I'm not sure there's anyone better than Gallo. He's clearly one of the better tacticians in the league, has had recruiting success despite the headwinds he's faced, and appears to be a top-rate motivator. Imagine what he will able to do when he's able to recruit to a school that's eligible for the post-season (beginning in 23-24).

Let's Talk Player of the Year

I think the common perception over the last month or two was that the Player of the Year Award was Alex Morales' to lose. Is that still true?

First let's hit the "per game" stats, as that's what generally wins these things. Note: I settled on these six players because they combine the best "per game" numbers with strong advanced stats, and all play for teams near the top of the standings (I excluded Aaron Clarke given the Pios record).

Obviously Peter Kiss leads the league, and the nation, in scoring and that is a major feather in his cap (whether it should be or not is a different conversation). Of course, if you like well-rounded players then Morales could be your guy, as could Charles Pride (he leads the league in rebounding) or Ty Flowers, who has strong block and steal figures in addition to his offensive output. If you fancy a dominant big-man, Jordan Minor would be deserving of your vote; remember, Minor's per game scoring number is held down a bit by Merrimack's ultra-slow pace.

Now let's take a look at the advanced metrics. PRPG, of course, is Bart Torvik's PORPAGATU! metric, while Win Shares and PER are according to Sports-Reference. BPM is "Box Plus/Minus", and is tracked by multiple sites.

Alex Morales is at the top of every metric except for PER, in which he's a close 2nd to Jordan Minor. However, he's not dominant in any metric; Kiss, Pride, and Flowers are all essentially tied with Morales over at Torvik (I'd argue 0.4 PRPG is a negligible difference) and Pride is nearly tied in Win Shares. Advantage Morales, but not overwhelmingly so. Over at Kenpom, Morales remains in the #1 spot, followed by Kiss, Flowers, Minor, and Penn.

Now, we all know awards are not won based on numbers alone, right? The narrative often has a big role to play, and when you're the best player on the best team, that carries significant weight. Right now that's Morales, but what if Bryant were to beat the Seahawks next Saturday and finished tied with Wagner atop the standings? Does that make Kiss, or pride, suddenly the favorite?

Like I said, narrative carries weight, and like it or not, I have a feeling Kiss' "antics" this season will have a negative effect on his chances of winning Player of the Year. He was suspended two games for what occurred against LIU a few weeks ago, was suspended by Bryant for the first two games of the season, has gotten multiple technical fouls, and seems to have a "dust up" with an opposing player and/or coach in every game he plays. Remember; the coaches vote for these awards, and that's likely to bother at least a few of them. Does that mean Morales wins the award no matter what? Not necessarily. In fact, you can make a valid argument that it's Pride, not Kiss, who deserves any POY votes that may go towards a Bryant player.

If I were predicting who wins the award, I'll go Morales, with a strong possibility he wins this thing unanimously. Unless he goes out and has two awful games this week with Wagner losing both and Bryant winning the regular season crown outright, it'd be a major upset if Wagner's star wing didn't win back-to-back NEC Player of the Year Awards.

If I were voting? It'd be Morales "hands-down", followed by Pride and Kiss, with Flowers and Minor joining them on the NEC's 1st team. if you're keeping track of such things; none of Kiss' "extra-curricular activities" would be the reason why I selected anyone over him. I'm leaning heavily on the advanced metrics here, and I believe that Morales (and Pride) is more valuable to his team.

What's up with Tyler Thomas?

While perusing Sacred Heart's page over at Kenpom, I Noticed that Tyler Thomas' O-Rating is all the way down to 94.0 in league play (on 24% usage), a stark contrast to last season's 103.1 on 28.2% usage. First, let's note that Thomas' decline in efficiency is not the explanation for the Pioneers' rough season; Sacred Heart is 3rd in points per 100 possessions in league play (104) behind only Bryant and Wagner. This is a good offensive team that's had myriad issues defensively. However, I wanted to dig in on Thomas a bit to see what the problem might be. The first thing I did, as always, was go take a peek at the shooting numbers (NEC games only unless otherwise noted since SHU did not play non-conference games last season):

  • Thomas is shooting 34% from three this season (overall and in league play) which is a slight improvement from last season (33%). So clearly that's not the issue.

  • His eFG% overall is nearly static from last season (48% in 20-21, 47.8% this season), though in league play it's down to 45.9%. Why? It's all about the mid-range, baby:

  • While Thomas' 2-point jumper percentage is pretty close to last season, he's taking nearly 33% of his shots from the mid-range, compared to just 21% a year ago. That's a pretty large difference, and means he's taking fewer shots at the rim (27.3% to 24.5%) and three-pointers (51.5% to 42.9%).

Then I went over to Shot Quality to see what kind of shots he's taking. While I can't get the data for league games only, the problem seems to be on both short and long mid-range shots. Take a look:

Not only is Thomas taking more shots from the mid-range (especially "short" mid-range), the looks he's getting are worse and the main culprit may be his work in the Pick & Roll; in 2020-21, 35% of his shot attempts out of the P&R were pull-ups from three (0.69 SQ PPP). This season, 34% are from the mid-range in which he has a 0.58 SQ PPP. Perhaps defenses have made a concerted effort to go over the top and take away the three-ball? It's notable that, in conference play, Anthony Latina has gone with Aaron Clarke with more frequency in the P&R:

  • 21-22 (league games only): Aaron Clarke 36% (1.07 SQ PPP), Tyler Thomas 26% (0.51 SQ PPP), Nico Galette 15% (0.86 SQ PPP)

  • 20-21: Tyler Thomas 37% (0.69 SQ PPP), Aaron Clarke 29% (0.77 SQ PPP), Alex Watson 10% (0.78 SQ PPP).

That would explain the decline in usage rate, and it makes sense; right now Aaron Clarke is the guy who I would want with the ball in his hands, if I were Anthony Latina. And that has more to do with how good Clarke has been than anything Thomas has done.

However, the other thing I see is the lack of free throw attempts; in 21-22 Thomas is attempting just 2.1 free throws per game (57 in 27 games), down significantly from last season (75 attempts in 17 games, or 4.4 per game).

As you can see below, Thomas' O-Rating has plummeted recently (the dotted line is the 5-game moving average); he's just 3 for his last 20 from three, and in the 80-79 loss to Merrimack he played a season-low 18 minutes (and there were not foul issues). Between the recent struggles and not attacking the rim like he did last season, I can't help but wonder if there's some sort of injury that he's been playing through.

Long-term I would not be concerned about Thomas, if I were a SHU fan. Generally speaking, he does not look much different than the guy who led the league in scoring last season. However, he needs to make the mid-range less of a priority, and get back to attacking the rim like he did as a sophomore.

Curiosities, Surprises, Observations, and Musings

- Over his last four games, Brandon Rush has played 19, 6, 15, and 19 minutes, and went scoreless two games in a row for the first time since February 2020. Back in November I ranked Rush as my #9 player in the conference, but clearly this has been a season to forget for the junior wing. According to Torvik's PORPAGATU!, Mikey Square is FDU's best player. #2? Oscar Berry, thanks to his 43.1% 3P%.

- St. Francis (PA)'s Ramiir Dixon-Conover has missed each of the Red Flash's last two games. RDC has a reputation as a lockdown perimeter defender, but according to Hoop Explorer SFU's Adjusted DE is 110.2 when he's on the floor and 106.5 when he's not. Dixon-Conover has taken a clear step back this NEC play his O-Rating was just 84.5 and his numbers are down nearly across the board compared to last season...and I wonder if he had been dealing with an injury before sitting out these last two games.

- Tyler has been struggling, but Tanner Thomas had a breakout last weekend. Tyler's kid brother was awesome on Saturday in scoring 26 points on 10 of 11 shooting and 6 of 7 from the free throw line, plus 5 boards on his way to sharing the league's Rookie of the Week Award. In a normal year in which players didn't get a 5th year of eligibility, Thomas would surely have been a scholarship player.

- As of its most recent update (2/21), Wagner continues to hold strong as the 2nd 14-seed over at Bracket Matrix. There's a chance that if there were a few major upsets in 1-bid leagues, with a few of South Dakota St. (Summit), Chattanooga (Southern), Iona (MAAC), or Vermont (America East) not winning their leagues, the Seahawks could end up as a 13. That'd be something.

- Despite being listed at 6'6" and 235 lbs., Ziggy Reid is shooting just 44% at the rim. Among players who have attempted at least 50 such field goal attempts, Reid is 3rd worse behind SFU's Ronell Giles (34.5%) and FDU's Sebastien Lamaute (40%). CCSU's Nigel Scantlebury (44.3%) and SFU's Marlon Hargis (45.3%) round out the bottom 5. Kyndall Davis leads the league at 70% (49 for 70).

- The league's cumulative offensive rebounding rate is 31.1%, which is 2nd highest of any conference in the country. I'm not sure if it means anything, but it's kind of interesting. My theory; Merrimack is so bad on the defensive boards (they're allowing a nation worst 37% overall and league-worst 36.5% in NEC play) that it's inflated this number.

- If you told me back in November that a Division 2 transfer would step in and shoot 37.7% from three and be 3rd in the league with a 21.8% defensive rebounding rate, I'm not sure I would have believed you. But Tedrick Wilcox has been the real deal for St. Francis-Brooklyn.

- Here's a number that goes a long way in explaining why CCSU's offense has sputtered this season; in league-play, 10.7% of their possessions have ended up as "non-steal turnovers", which is the most (aka worst) in the NEC. Essentially; plenty of unforced errors. Freshmen Joe Ostrowsky (28.1%, 3rd) and Andre Snoddy (27.1%, 5th) are among the "leaders" in turnovers. Again; they're freshmen. They'll figure it out.

- Wagner has averaged a 45.7 Game Score over their last 5 games, per Torvik. That's their lowest 5-game average of the year, and should give Seahawks fans cause for concern heading into the NECT. Of course, a big part of that is the loss to Merrimack, in which Wagner registered a Game Score of '6'. Their lowest before that? 19, back on 12/8 at Penn St.

- If you want to split the conference into tiers, take a look at the league's "Team Chart" courtesy of Torvik.

- Did ya'll see Jaylen Gibson do this?

I truly believe Gibson is a breakout candidate next season, and could be next year's version of Nico Galette as a guy who didn't play much as a freshman but made it so that the coaching staff had no choice but to get him more minutes despite not losing much of their rotation.

- Mount St. Mary's is 0-5 against the top three teams in the league, and 8-1 against everyone else. Does that mean anything as we heading into the post-season? I don't believe so.

- Mikey Watkins hit a huge game-winner on Saturday to beat Sacred Heart. The finish was great, but that ball-screen defense by SHU left something to be desired.

- Tre Wood was huge in LIU's win over St. Francis (PA) last Thursday; 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 0 turnovers. There's been improvement there for sure, especially in the turnover department; his season-long rate is 28%, but it's just 23.4% in league play. That's still too high, but the trend is your friend.

- St. Francis-Brooklyn is playing really well right now, and is a team no one wants to face in the quarterfinals. Remember; Glenn Braica brought in a bunch of transfers, and it appears they are gelling as we head into March. Look at that Game Score trend:

- I was listening to the Eye On College Basketball Podcast this morning and it was mentioned that Steve Pikiell was (paraphrase) "one of the top 10 nicest coaches in college basketball". It's funny, because I've heard Anthony Latina and Patrick Sellers both described in similar ways as well, and those three were all on Howie Dickenman's staff at CCSU at the same time (they won the '99 NEC Title together). I know Howie came off as pretty gruff, but I'd guess that players loved playing for that coaching staff.

- On Tuesday, North Carolina A&T announced it will be joining the Colonial Athletic Association as a full member. While not relevant to most who are reading this, apparently NC A&T's Athletic Director, within his presentation, stated that the Big South is "working to nail down" Bryant as a football member. Remember; when both Monmouth and Robert Morris left the NEC for leagues that do not sponsor football (the MAAC and Horizon League, respectively), their football programs ended up in the Big South. The rumor has been Bryant to the America East for a few weeks now, and this news only increases those suspicions. Of course, Bryant to the AE isn't the only whisper I've heard, as a number of NEC schools are rumored to be in talks with either the MAAC or America East. The next few months could be problematic for the league. Where there's smoke, there's usually fire.

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