It's finally here, folks. The Northeast Conference's regular season kicks off on Thursday night, so make sure you have the NEC On The Run app loaded and ready to rock and roll.
My plan is to give a quick preview of all the week's games, while highlighting one game each day. Did I get something wrong? I always appreciate it when someone drops me a line on Twitter.
Let's get into it! (All point spreads are courtesy of Kenpom)
Saint Francis (-2) at Bryant
Fairleigh Dickinson at St. Francis-Brooklyn (-2)
Wagner at Mount St. Mary's (-7)
Robert Morris (-7) at Central Connecticut
Merrimack at Sacred Heart (-10)
Long Island at Mount St. Mary's (-3)
Robert Morris at Merrimack (-3)
Sacred Heart (-6) at Wagner
Fairleigh Dickinson at Bryant (-9)
Saint Francis (-14) at Central Connecticut
Thursday's Game to Watch: SFU at Bryant
I'm not sure why this game was scheduled for 4pm, but man does that suck; most people (like me) return to work on Thursday and, well, that means I might get home to only watch the tail end of, what could be, the game of the season. I'm not one for hyperbole, but when you have the highest rated NEC team at Kenpom going on the road to face the highest rated NEC team at Torvik, yeah it's pretty damn notable.
Things to Watch:
1. Bryant's Interior Defense: The Bulldogs hold teams to 44.8% from inside the arc, good for 67th best in the nation, thanks to having the league's premier shot blocker in Hall Elisias. The 6'7" junior currently has 38 blocks, and has done in it just 230 minutes (for comparison's sake, Sacred Heart's Jare'l Spellman has 34 blocks in 331 minutes played). The Red Flash shoot it well from deep (35.8%, 77th nationally), but they like to get to the rim via the dribble, especially with Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon, as well as a formidable frontcourt of Ty Stewart, Mark Flagg, and Myles Thompson.
2. Bulldogs' struggles from the free throw line: In the first two months of the season, Bryant has made just 65.3% from the free throw line, good for 303rd nationally. What's more; they don't even get there much, with a free throw rate of just 25.8% (300th). In a close game, this could end up being the Bulldogs' achilles heel. Oh, and by the way; SFU is in the top 15 in the nation in free throw shooting (78%). Should Bryant be up late it's worth noting that Bryant's primary ball-handlers have not struggled from the charity stripe; Adam Grant (73%), Michael Green (80%), Benson Lin (71%), and Charles Pride (77%) have all been solid.
3. Is Bryant at full strength?: NEC Rookie of the Year front-runner Charles Pride hasn't played significant minutes since December 2nd due to an injury (he did play 2 minutes at Maryland last week, which is a good sign), while Bash Townes (hasn't played since November 26th) and Juan Cardenas (has started the last five games but hasn't played more than 11 minutes in any of them) have battled injuries. Jared Grasso has plenty of depth, but he'll need every last player to get by the Red Flash.
4. The Point Guard Battle: Keith Braxton can do just about everything on a basketball court, but he's not a natural point guard and it's shown up in SFU's assist rate; they're assisting on just 38.2% of their made field goals, which is 4th lowest in the nation. That means a lot of one-on-one basketball, which plays into the hands of Bryant's quickness on the perimeter (11.1% steal rate, 70th in the nation). Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have two 1's capable of making plays for others in Ikenna Ndugba and Michael Green III.
Saturday's Game to Watch: LIU at Mount
The Sharks, who were my pre-season pick to win the league, don't open their conference schedule until Saturday, and have to go on the road to face a dangerous Mount team that appears to be finally getting healthy. This one gets the National TV treatment (2pm, CBS Sports Network).
Things to Watch:
1. Contrast in Style: Long Island has an Adjusted Tempo of 75.4 possessions per 100 minutes, which is 15th fastest in the nation, while Dan Engelstad likes to slow it down to a snail's pace; the Mount has a 65.7 Adjusted Tempo, 328th fastest. If Mount St. Mary's tries to run with the Sharks, it won't go well if they continue to struggle from three (28.8% on the season).
2. The Battle of the Boards: Mount St. Mary's is one of the best rebounding teams in the NEC; on the defensive side, they grab 73.8% of their opponents misses (top 100 nationally), and their offensive rebounding rate is 27.7%. The Sharks? Their offensive rebounding has been nearly non-existent (just 18.8%), while defensively it's been a struggle (32.2%, 302nd). The fact that Derek Kellogg has been forced to play small due to the season-ending injury to Eral Penn should help a Mount team that has plenty of size (6'9" Nana Opoku, 6'9" Malik Jefferson, and 6'9" Collin Nnamene all see plenty of action).
3. Is Vado Morse back? Last season's NEC Rookie of the Year has really struggled in 2019-20; his eFG% is just 39.1% (it was 49.4% as a freshman), his assist rate is down from 21.7% to 17.4%, and he's gotten to the free throw line just 25 times (and made just 56% of those attempts) compared to shooting 94-123 (75%) a year ago. Morse missed two games in November with a bone bruise in his knee, and was clearly hobbled throughout most of December. However, on December 27th Morse made 5 of his 8 three-point attempts (and 3-4 from the charity stripe) for a game-high 22 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in a win over Coppin St. If Morse can play like that and take the pressure off backcourt mates Jalen Gibbs and Damion Chong Qui, the Mount could make a push into the top 4.
4. LIU from Three: The Sharks take 48.5% of their field goal attempts from beyond the three-point line, and make them at a 34.2% clip (D1 average is 33.2%). They're clearly reliant on the 3-ball, and if you can limit good looks, they can be knocked off. In their wins, they shot 37.9% from three, while in their losses they made just 31.7% from long-range. The Mount has been solid preventing threes; opponents are attempting just 35.7% of their field goals from deep, and have made 34.2% of those opportunities.