The first week of NEC play was kind of crazy, but things would normalize a bit in Week 2, right? Uh...nope.
Half of the league currently sits at 2-2, two teams (Robert Morris and Sacred Heart) were picked to finish in the bottom half of the league, and the #2 team in pre-season rankings (FDU) is currently 1-3. Want to make money in Vegas? Place a future on whichever team is picked 7th in the Northeast Conference.
The NEC schedule is now 22.2% complete, and probably nine teams remain in play for the regular season title. If you like parity, this league is for you.
TBDD Rankings, Week 2:
1. Wagner (3-1)
Look, I was wrong ok? I had them 7th in my pre-season rankings and I've never had them higher then 4th in any rankings since then. All this despite both Kenpom and Bart Torvik consistently having Seahawks has one of the top three teams in this league (currently first). This is supposed to be an analytics-heavy blog, right?
The fact is, college basketball is a coaches sport. Sure, great players can lead teams to championships, but it's the coaches who build the programs and instill a culture. Wagner's Bashir Mason has finished below .500 in NEC play just once in six full seasons, and have had one of the top league's top two seasons in four of those six seasons.
Do I think they are head and shoulders better than the rest of the league? No. Three of their four games have been at home, and the road game was at Tyler Kohl-less Central Connecticut. They've had a nice schedule so far, including Sacred Heart and Fairleigh Dickinson at home last week. We'll start to know more about this team beginning next Monday when they have their return trip to face the Pioneers in Fairfield. But combine Mason with Romone Saunders, who is probably the frontrunner for league Player of the Year right now, and they have as good a shot as anyone to be hosting the NEC Title Game come March.
2. St. Francis U. (2-2)
I'm a sucker for a pretty face.
Truth serum here; I thought the Red Flash would have a historically great season, something like 16-2 or 15-3. They have as much talent (or more) than any team in the league, and they were really good last season with essentially the same roster.
The blowout loss to FDU at home was a shocker, and losing on the road at St. Francis Brooklyn was unexpected as well. But what's even more surprising is the fact that this team just isn't scoring. Last year, Rob Krimmel's had the third best offensive efficiency mark in the NEC. This year? They're scoring below 1.00 PPP. Assisting on just 41% of their made field goals (8th in the league) is probably part of the problem.
3. Fairleigh Dickinson (1-3)
No, starting 1-3 is not a good look. But the Knights have played the most difficult conference schedule to date (per Kenpom), losing their one home game in double overtime after overcoming a 20-point deficit. Their other losses are at Robert Morris and at Wagner. Most teams would be 1-3 against that schedule.
In order to make a run, Greg Herenda will have to figure out how to get stops; they're allowing a 56.8% eFG%, the worst in the league, including 58.7% on two-pointers.
4. Sacred Heart (3-1)
While FDU has played the most difficult schedule, Sacred Heart has played the easiest; they've won all three of their home games, and lost their lone road game (at Wagner).
However, Wagner beat SHU by just three points, and the Pios dominated both Bryant and Central Connecticut. Plus, SHU has the league's best offense, which means they will never be out of a game.
5. LIU Brooklyn (2-2)
The Blackbirds’ two losses came at Sacred Heart and home against St. Francis U. That’s not terrible; especially considering they gave Robert Morris its first loss 80-73 on Saturday.
The backcourt of Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts just haven’t gotten going this season; Agosto is shooting 26% from three after shooting 32% last year, while Batts’ 3P% has declined from 41% to 29%. Meanwhile, defensively they’ve struggled in conference to shut down teams’ perimeter games, allowing 41% from three. That feels somewhat fluky to me, they allowed teams to make just 30.5% of their three-pointers in the non-conference. Expect this team to make a run.
6. Central Connecticut (2-2)
The Blue Devils bounced back in a big way last week, knocking off FDU (in 2OT) and coming back to beat Mount St. Mary’s, both games on the road. In fact, through four games CCSU has played the 2nd most difficult schedule, with just one home game against (current) top team Wagner without its best player. Sitting at 2-2 feels like quite the accomplishment, especially considering they will be favored to win in each of their next six games.
What sparked the turnaround? Well, I’d say the fact that they are sharing the basketball. Here is their assist percentage in each of the last four games: 47.4%; 26.1%; 55.9%; 60.9%. It’s obvious which games they scored greater than 1.06 PPP, right? Tyler Kohl led the way, accumulating a ridiculous stat line in two games; 44 points, 19 rebounds, 19 assists, and made 17 of his 20 free throw attempts. The POY race may between him and Romone Saunders.
7. Robert Morris (3-1)
I was skeptical after Week 1, given that Bobby Mo won two home games, but going on the road and beating the Terriers of St. Francis Brooklyn really showed me something. Sure, they finally lost at LIU-Brooklyn on Saturday, but how many teams will win at the Steinberg Wellness Center?
Andy Toole currently has the top ranked defense in the league, and similarly to Wagner, has consistently been above .500 in NEC play. So why do I still have them so low? Well, right now Wagner has the 3rd rated defense and the 2nd rated offense. Robert Morris? They have the 9th rated offense in the league, and have yet to score above 1.03 PPP all season. I have serious concerns about a team that struggles to get buckets. But they will not get run out of the gym this season.
8. St. Francis-Brooklyn (2-2)
The Terriers have been one of the more befuddling teams through four games, alternating questionable losses with impressive wins; lost at Bryant, won at Wagner, lost at home to Robert Morris, beat SFU.
They’ve struggled to score it, but half of their games were against Wagner and Robert Morris, so that would be expected. But even excluding those games, they haven’t had an eFG% above 50% since their December 11th win over UMass-Lowell, and on the year their 46.4% eFG% ranks them 307th out of 353 teams. Glenn Braica’s defense will likely keep them in every ballgame (they allowed just 1.00 PPP to SFU), and that three-headed guard tandem of Sanabria, Jordan and Hawkins can get hot at a moment’s notice.
9. Bryant (2-2)
The computers suggest Bryant should be in Tier 3…they’re rated #332 in Kenpom…but I’ve seen enough to think that this team might be able to get itself close to .500 in the league. Last week Jared Grasso picked up his first road victory as a D1 head coach- a 66-59 victory at Mount St. Mary’s- though they followed that up with an absolute drubbing at Sacred Heart.
BU’s offense has been solid all season, and their 1.01 PPP so far in league play is 4th in the NEC. But they just cannot get stops; against non-Mount St. Mary’s opponents, they’ve allowed 1.04 PPP, 1.06 PPP, and 1.28 PPP (Sacred Heart). There will be games when the offense is rolling, but when they struggle (like shooting 1 of 13 from three at SHU), they have no shot.
10. Mount St. Mary’s (0-4)
No, Mount St. Mary’s isn’t likely to make the NEC Tournament this season. They’re just too young and lack the shooting necessary to compete on a nightly basis. But after watching them for the first time on Saturday in their loss to Central Connecticut, I came away super impressed.
Literally every player who has played an NEC game for Dan Engelstad is either a freshman or a sophomore, and they have both size and quickness. Damian Chong Qui, all 5’8” of him, was really impressive with his ability to get into the lane, and Jalen Gibbs and Vado Morse are capable scorers on the wings. Two years from now, this team will be competing for an NEC title. But right now? They’re last in eFG% and last in offensive rebounding, while currently 8th in defensive efficiency. They got hot from the outside in the first half against CCSU, and ultimately it did not matter.