It’s hard to believe that the 34-year old Mason is in his 7th year as a Division 1 head coach, but that’s where we are, and Wagner fans have to be thrilled with how things have turned out. In his first six seasons, Mason compiled a conference record of 60-36, and has solidified himself as one of the best young coaches in America. Sure, he’s yet to make an NCAA Tournament, but it’s difficult to judge a coach off of two 40-minute basketball. The fact that his squads were upset at home in the NEC title games in both 2016 and 2018 do little to disparage what he’s done on Staten Island; which is win.
How’s he done it? With defense. Year in and year out, the Seahawks have one of (if not the best) defenses in the league, and 2018-19 appears to be no exception. According to Kenpom, Wagner has the 170th ranked adjusted defensive efficiency in D1, and ranks 2nd in the NEC just behind Robert Morris (159th). However, that only tells part of the story; Wagner has turned up the defensive pressure over the past month, holding St. John’s to its 4th lowest output (1.04 PPP) of the season, then forcing both UHart and St. Joe’s to score less than 1.00 PPP. Yeah, they went 1-2 in those games, but the Johnnies just dispatched Marquette by 20 (Wagner lost by 15), and the Seahawks had a shot to beat the A-10’s St. Joseph’s Hawks at the end of the game, ultimately losing by just two.
Wagner is led by senior wing Romone Saunders, who has been anointed as “the man” after being more of a role player beside JoJo Cooper and Blake Francis last season. He’s remained efficient offensively despite using up more possessions this season (26.6% compared to 23.3% last year), and has also been a beast on the boards despite being listed at just 6’3”. While he’s struggled from the outside so far this year (27%), he’s a career 35% 3-point shooter.
While Saunders is the team’s best player, Wagner’s December turnaround has coincided with the return of point guard Chase Freeman, who missed five of the first six games due to injury. Since he’s been back, Wagner is 3-2 with a road win over American and a home win over the same Hartford team that just beat Boston College. Freeman is a really good defender, and has also given Mason another perimeter threat (he’s 5 for 13 on the year).
One thing fans will notice as conference season gets under way is the litany of bigs the NEC has, and one of them is the Seahawks’ AJ Sumbry. While he’s never been efficiency offensively (he’s shooting 45% from the field and 54% from the charity stripe), he’s averaged 1.8 blocks per game last season (1.2 this year), and is one of the league’s best rebounders (maybe the best).
As we mentioned earlier, Wagner’s defense is elite. However, they’ve struggled offensively, specifically in shooting the basketball. While they take a ton of 3’s (46% of their field goal attempts are three-pointers, which is 26th highest in D1), they don’t make many; just 30.3% on the season. Inside the arc, they aren’t much better; 44.7%. In fact, their 45.1% eFG% is 317th out of 353 teams.
Things to Watch:
CCSU’s shooters- Once upon a time…say, around Thanksgiving…CCSU was one of the hottest shooting teams in America. Heading into their 11/29 game at North Carolina A&T, their eFG% was 59% (14th nationally), while they were shooting 45.6% from three (7th in the country). Since then, they’ve failed to reach either mark in a single game, and now have an eFG% of 50.2% (200th) and a 3P% of 36.8% (72nd). Sure, there are a lot of reasons for the December struggles; P6 opponents (Providence, Virginia Tech, Oregon St.) and a team ravaged by the stomach bug at North Carolina A&T. But at some point, the shooters need to start making down shots like they did in November.
Defense vs. Offense- CCSU’s strength is in its ability to score (2nd best adjusted offensive efficiency in the NEC), while Wagner has one of the stingiest defenses in the league. Intrigue! It’s truly a battle of philosophy, as Donyell Marshall wants to get the ball up and down and put up points, while Mason wants to grind this thing to a halt. As is often the case, whichever team wins the tempo battle will have the upper hand.
Rebounding- Wagner has made up for its difficulty to make shots by pounding the offensive glass, and have had quite a bit of success in doing it. The Seahawks’ are corralling 33.6% of their misses (46th nationally), with AJ Sumbry, Elijah Davis, and Romone Saunders doing the majority of the damage. Meanwhile, we all know the Blue Devils’ issues with boxing out, as CCSU has the 13th lowest defensive rebounding rate in the entire country. Marshall will have to figure out a way to keep the Seahawks off the boards.
Foul Line- One of the staples of Bashir Mason’s teams is the pressure, “in your face” defense. However, one of the drawbacks of said defense can be a propensity to foul. In fact, Wagner is allowing teams to get to the line with regularity this season, with the 13th highest opponent free throw rate. To do that against a team like CCSU, which is shooting 77% from the free throw line, could be a major issue for Wagner. CCSU fans better hope the referees call a tight game on Thursday night.
What a doozy to get conference play started, huh? I was down on the Seahawks coming into the season, and through the first month they did little to change my opinion. However, they’ve been really good in December. In fact, according to Bart Torvik’s “Game Score”, Wagner’s 77-68 win over Hartford was the most impressive 40-minute performance by an NEC team this season. And the “algorithm” love doesn’t end there, as Kenpom currently has Wagner as the highest rated team in the Northeast Conference.
Thursday’s game at Detrick is an interesting contrast. Wagner is a defensive-minded team that the computers love, while CCSU is a team that will look to outscore its opponents, and have really passed the “eye test”.
It’s much too early to put a ton of importance on one game. However after this one, the Blue Devils head out on the road for three straight and will be underdogs in each of the next two (at SHU and at FDU). Meanwhile, Wagner has a 4-game home-stand and will be favored in all of them. If CCSU wants to compete for an NEC title, this one is big.