Best Wins: A-#176 Princeton; A-#261 St. Francis U.; H-#273 Army
Worst Losses: H-#314 Lafayette; A-#283 Robert Morris; H-#167 NJIT
The Knights ascended to the top spot in the TBDD NEC Power Rankings this past week despite an opening-night loss at Robert Morris. Why did they move up, you may ask? Because FDU rebounded on Saturday, throttling pre-season title favorites St. Francis U. 79-61 in Loretto. And the score only tells part of the story; Fairleigh Dickinson was up 64-36 midway through the second half and held the league’s best offense to just 0.89 PPP. A garbage time run by the Red Flash made the score look respectable, but make no mistake; FDU dominated that one. Splitting the western PA trip? Not many teams will do better than that.
Perhaps no NEC team has played better over the past three weeks than Greg Herenda’s crew; since losing to NJIT on 12/5, they are 2-3 with a 1-point loss at UMass, a 6-point defeat at South Florida, and a 7-point loss at Robert Morris. Sure, wins are better than losses, but there were some impressive performance at difficult places to play.
FDU’s done it with an ability to score the ball; according to Kenpom it’s Fairleigh Dickinson, not the Red Flash, that has the best offense in the league. And it starts with senior 2-guard Darnell Edge, who leads the team in scoring at 16 ppg, shoots 39% from three, and led the nation in free throw shooting last season at 94% (he’s at 83% this year). Edge worked to improve his game in a variety of ways, namely his ability to become more of a play-maker; his assist rate is up, he’s getting to the charity stripe with more frequency, and he’s being utilized much more offensively (22% this season compared to 18.6% a year ago). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s been very good in the team’s wins (against D1 competition), averaging 22.5 ppg compared to 12.3 ppg in FDU’s losses.
Herenda doesn’t go deep into his bench, typically rolling with a six-man rotation. One of those guys is sophomore point guard Jahlil Jenkins, who may be one of the quickest players in the league. He’s still finding his footing offensively; his eFG% is just 44.2%, however he has an uncanny ability to get into the lane, and averaged 4.4 apg as a freshman. Plus, he’s a strong perimeter defender.
FDU’s frontcourt may be the best in the NEC, with Mike Holloway Jr., Elyjah Williams and Kaleb Bishop providing size and versatility, and well as complementary styles of play. Holloway is a true back-to-the-basket big who averaged 15.5 ppg in two conference games, Williams is an athletic rim-runner who leads the NEC with a 76% FG% “at the rim”, and Bishop is a stretchy-4 (40% from 3 against D1 teams) who is also the team’s best rebounder despite coming off the bench.
While they’ve been really good offensively, FDU has struggled at times on the defensive end. They will try to turn you over, which they’ve done well (22.1%), however that defensive style can sometimes lead to open shots, and they’ve allowed teams to shoot 56% from two. Teams that have taken care of the basketball have been able to convert at a high clip around the rim.
Things to Watch:
Sharing is Caring
After the Sacred Heart loss, CCSU head coach Donyell Marshall lamented on the team’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to share the basketball. The data certainly backs that up; on Saturday, the Blue Devils assisted on just 26% of their made baskets (a season low), which may have contributed to the disastrous 4 for 26 from 3-point land. On the season, Central Connecticut’s 44.4% assist rate is the 35th lowest rate in the country.
However, early in the season there were some good performances in that department; they assisted on 62% of made field goals against Austin Peay and Maine, and 59% against Florida A&M. Finding open shooters and cutters needs to be the focus of the offense, and the shots will start falling.
During the NEC’s opening week, FDU forced Robert Morris into 24 turnovers (33%), and SFU into 18 turnovers (26%). That’s after making South Florida cough it up on 25% of their possessions, and Saint Peter’s to turn it over 30% of the time. Greg Herenda has certainly turned up the pressure.
What was an Achilles’ heel during non-conference play was surprisingly not an issue in CCSU’s first two games; the Blue Devils turned it over just 16 times in the two games combined. Sure, part of that may have been Wagner “calling off the dogs” late in the second half, as well as going up against a Sacred Heart defense that hasn’t forced turnovers at all this season. But still, baby steps.
Tyson Batiste, in particular, has really taken care of the ball since assuming extended minutes in mid-December; he hasn’t had a multi-turnover game since 12/1 at Virginia Tech, and has 17 assists against just 5 turnovers in the last 5 games. He’ll need to continue to be steady on Thursday night.
Getting the Ball Inside
In CCSU’s 66-65 win over Fairleigh Dickinson at Detrick last season, Deion Bute had perhaps his best game of his career; 9 for 10 from the field, 22 points in 24 minutes, including the game winning dunk with 3 seconds left. Plus, he got Holloway in foul trouble (he ultimately fouled out).
Bute has seen his minutes and usage decline from his junior to senior year, though his efficiency has improved:
Why has Bute been less involved this season? I’d venture it has more to do with the fact that in 2019, back-to-the-basket centers are becoming less important, and Bute doesn’t have the quickness to guard bigs who have an ability to stretch the defense. I’m also not convinced his knee, which he has off-season surgery on, is 100% healthy.
But Thursday may be an opportunity for Bute to see some extended run. Holloway, who was a pre-season first-teamer, is just 2 for 11 from three, and I’m sure the CCSU staff would happily live with the 6’8” big man hanging out on the perimeter. Plus, given FDU’s lack of depth, perhaps Bute can help get Holloway into foul trouble.
Closing-out on Shooters
After Thursday’s home loss to Wagner, Donyell Marshall was livid at CCSU’s inability to close-out on three-point shooters, which factored into the Seahawks shooting 15 of 35 from long range. On Saturday, things were much different; Sacred Heart made just 6 of their 23 three-point attempts, and it appeared (at least from my vantage point) that there was more of an effort to get out on shooters, and on defensive as a whole. The Blue Devils held the high scoring Pioneers to 1.00 PPP, which was their worst performance against a mid-major in over a month.
Fairleigh Dickinson comes into Thursday’s match-up shooting 36.5% from three on the season and 33.3% in NEC-play, with four of their six rotation players shooting above 30% from three. Limiting dribble penetration and covering shooters will be key.
Real talk; unless things change dramatically (injuries, etc.) no NEC team will be favored when playing in Teaneck this season. Which means, even if CCSU were 2-0 instead of 0-2, winning this ball-game would be a tough task.
But can they pull this off? Absolutely! FDU comes in hot, however they also have a home-loss to Lafayette (#318 in Kenpom) on their ledger, and didn’t exactly look like world-beaters at Robert Morris last Thursday. But any talk about a “must win” game will be overblown; it’s more important that Donyell Marshall get these offensive woes figured out than it is that CCSU win this game.
I have a feeling that Thursday night is when Ian Krishnan gets going again, and the Blue Devils look closer to what they were in November. Is that enough to beat FDU on the road? We'll see.