What a week for the Northeast Conference! The league went 10-7 as a whole, it's first week with a winning record, and easily exceeded expectations (Kenpom had a win expectancy of ~7 for NEC teams).
The schedule is about to get mighty quiet as we head into finals, then Christmas break. Just a handful of non-conference games remain, then the real fun begins.
Team of the Week: Bryant
The Bulldogs are the first team to win this award twice this season (should we send school a certificate?), and at this point have to be considered a title contender. Jared Grasso's group went 2-0 this week, with home wins over Navy and Columbia. It's not the wins themselves that were most impressive (neither opponent has particularly good, and they were home after all), but it's how they won. Against Navy, Bryant showed they could win a slow-paced game, crushing the Midshipmen at their own game in winning 60-45 in a 58-possession slog. Then on Friday night without potential NEC Rookie of the Year Charles Pride due to an ankle injury, as well as Bash Townes, the Bulldogs hung on for a 67-65 win.
Others Worth Mentioning: Saint Francis, Sacred Heart, Long Island, Fairleigh Dickinson
Player of the Week: Keith Braxton, Saint Francis
The 2020 NEC Player of the Year is officially Braxton's to lose (in case it wasn't already). In the Red Flash's two wins this week, Braxton was awesome while playing the majority of his minutes at point guard. The senior averaged 17.5 ppg, 8 rebounds and 7 assists while shooting 18 of 19 from the free throw line and committing just 4 turnovers in 70 minutes.
Others Worth Mentioning: Xzavier Malone-Key, FDU; Damion Chong Qui, MSMU; Jermaine Jackson Jr., LIU; E.J. Anosike, SHU
Freshman of the Week: Ziggy Reid, Merrimack
The 6'6" forward came off the bench to notch 13 points and 4 rebounds in the Warriors' loss to Brown, shooting 5-8 from the field (3-6 from three), and also chipping in 3 steals.
Don't look now, but here come the Blackbirds. LIU went on the road on Saturday and pulled out an 85-72 win out in West Point with just (what appeared to be) 7 scholarship players. Jermaine Jackson came off the bench to knock down a school-record 9 three-pointers (on 14 attempts) and Army made just 4 of their 23 three-point attempts.
Others Worth Mentioning: Bryant over Navy, Saint Francis over UMBC, Fairleigh Dickinson over Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart over Hartford
Lines of the Week:
1. Jermaine Jackson, Jr., LIU, 12/7 at Army; 29 points (9-14 from three), 3 rebounds
Last week, it was announced that Robert Morris' D.J. Russell was leaving the program. Russell, a highly recruited JUCO transfer, was expected to not only be a rotation player for Andy Toole, but one of the more impact newcomers in the league. However, Russell appeared in just seven games and averaged 13 minutes per contest. Where it leaves the Colonials vulnerable is up front; RMU has just two legitimate bigs in 6'8" Charles Bain and 6'8" Yannis Mendy. They've really struggled to protect the rim (they're allowing teams to shoot 56% inside the three-point line), and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself in league play.
Another transfer who was expected to make a major impact was Long Island's Jermaine Jackson, who came over from Detroit. However, through the team's first eight games, Jackson hadn't really put his stamp on this season; he'd scored double-figured just once (10 points at Texas Tech), and had made just eight three-pointers. However, on Saturday everything changed; Jackson knocked down nine treys while scoring a career-high 29 points. If he can pack a punch off the bench going forward, that would be huge for the short-handed Sharks.
Speaking of LIU, Derek Kellogg has this team knocking down shots; their eFG% is 53.9%, which ranks 44th nationally and is easily tops in the NEC (SHU is 2nd at 50%) and much improved from a year ago (50.7%). How are they getting it done? Well, for starters they are taking a ton of three-pointers (51% of their shots, 4th highest in the country), and they're making them at a 35.4% clip, which is well above the D1 average of 33%. But they're also efficient on their twos by avoiding the mid-range (just 19.4% of their shot attempts), and converting 68.2% of their "close twos", which ranks 21st in the country. Raiquan Clark (65.3%) and Jashaun Agosto (61%) rank #2 and #3 in the NEC in eFG%, while Jermaine Jackson Jr. (55.5%) is 9th.
Man, Greg Herenda must be thrilled to have Xzavier Malone-Key back. The 6'4" junior missed the post-season last year due to a knee injury then was unavailable for the team's first four games due to issues stemming from a concussion. However, since returning 11/24, he has not missed a beat. Malone-Key's 116.0 Offensive Rating is the highest of any player with a usage rate north of 15% (his is 27%), and he's become a complete player; he's averaging 3 apg (1.9 a season ago) to go with his 17.5 ppg and 3 rpg. It's only four games, but we could be looking at an All-NEC 1st teamer.
One of the ways the uber-hot Pioneers have been winning is on the offensive boards; Sacred Heart leads all NEC teams with a 34.4% offensive rebounding rate, which ranks 41st in the nation. However, this is nothing new; last season they were 68th nationally with a 31.8% rate, and the year before that number was 32.5% (58th). E.J. Anosike (11.9%) and Jare'l Spellman (9.3%) are a big part of that, but 6'3" Kinnon LaRose (7.3%) has also helped in that area. If you want to beat the Pios, you'd better box out.
St. Francis-Brooklyn has, perhaps quietly, one of the best big men in the Northeast Conference in Deniz Celen. The 6'8" senior from Turkey, who began his career at Fairfield, currently leads the NEC with a 65.9% eFG%, and is 6th in offensive rebounding (11.6%). What's more, Celen has made 7 of his 15 three-point attempts, after making just 13 (of 52) last season.
Games to Watch this week:
12/10- St. Francis-Brooklyn (68% Win Expectancy) vs. Presbyterian: The Blue Hose (yep) have just one D1 win on their record; an 80-77 OT win over VMI, and they got hammered by Sacred Heart 82-57 back in November in Lowell, MA. This will be a battle of tempo, as PC likes to slow it down while SFC likes to slow it down.
12/10- Bryant (26%) at Fordham: The Bulldogs have won 5 of their last 7 D1 games, and take on a Rams squad sitting at 5-3 and ranked #201 at Kenpom. Fordham relies on a strong defense (75th at Kenpom) and a putrid offense (310th). Bryant has gotten a lot of offense via offensive rebounds (30.3%), however Fordham is in the top 50 in defensive rebounding rate.
12/11- Merrimack (59% WE) vs. Army: The MC defense is forcing turnovers at a 24% clip (25th nationally), while Army coughs it up on just 18.7% of its possession, so something will have to give here. There's quite the size difference up front, as the Midshipmen go 6'8" and 6'9" across their frontline. Army is 1-1 against the NEC this season (win over FDU, lost to LIU), though they
12/14- Fairleigh Dickinson (52% WE) vs. Princeton: Now that Jahlil Jenkins and Xzavier Malone-Key are back for the Knights, FDU looks like the team we all expected coming into the season. This one is the second of two winnable games this week (the first is a road tilt at Saint Peter's). Both teams have been efficient offensively this season, but FDU has really struggled to protect the rim (allowing opponents to shoot 55.1% on twos). Meanwhile, Princeton is shooting 53% on twos (69th nationally) thanks to a front-line that features 6'9" senior Richmond Aririguzoh (57.7%).
12/14- Wagner (33%) at Hartford: Man, it certainly feels like UHart joined the Northeast Conference in the off-season, as this will be their 3rd game in a row against an NEC opponent (and 4th overall). Last week the Hawks fell to both St. Francis-Brooklyn and Sacred Heart, the latter with the services of prized-transfer Malik Ellison (via Pitt), who missed the team's first 10 games with an ankle injury. The Seahawks have been idle since November 30th, and it will be interesting to see if Bashir Mason has come up with ways to improve that defense, which is currently ranked 336th at Kenpom.