The Northeast Conference: same as it ever was. It seems that every season, no matter what happens during November and December, one thing is for certain; nothing goes according to plan in the NEC. Well, last week was just the latest example.
Case in point: Merrimack pulls off a huge upset at home against the #2 rated team in the NEC according to Kenpom (Sacred Heart), then lays an egg two days later against Robert Morris. Meanwhile, Mount St. Mary's gets drilled by 19 at home to Wagner, then knocks off the pre-season favorite (Long Island) at Knott Arena, Fairleigh Dickinson loses by 16 to St. Francis-Brooklyn then travels to Smithfield and beats Bryant after the Bulldogs won a close game against Saint Francis two nights earlier. If you're trying to use the transitive property to figure out who the best team in this league is, it's not going to work.
I'd argue that this is actually the worst case scenario for the Northeast Conference; coming into January there were three clear title contenders in Saint Francis, Bryant, and Sacred Heart, and in order for one of them to avoid the dreaded "Play In Game" or even get off the 16-seed line, the NEC Tournament Champion needs to have a dominant season (think 16-2 or 15-3). Ending Week 1 with just one 2-0 team (Robert Morris) is certainly not ideal, but there's certainly time for the best teams to get hot.
Each week I'll post updated standings sorted by Efficiency Margin, which in the long-run will be a better indicator of the best (and worst) teams in the league than W/L record will.
Of course, through two games it's a bit uneven as St. Francis-Brooklyn has only played one game (though they looked really good in their win over Fairleigh Dickinson) while Robert Morris and Saint Francis got to feast on Central Connecticut St.
Team of the Week: Robert Morris
They kind of have to be, right? Bobby Mo currently sits at the top of the standings with a 2-0 record, and both wins were road games to boot. On Thursday, Robert Morris did what they needed to do in an 89-78 win over CCSU, then they pulled off an upset over Merrimack on Saturday 69-58 thanks to forcing 19 Warriors' turnovers (28.4%) and making 8 of 16 from downtown.
Should Colonials fans start dreaming of an NEC title? I wouldn't; Merrimack has been one of the most (maybe the most) inconsistent teams in the league to date, while Central Connecticut State has been dreadful. But winning two road games, and getting significant production from Josh Williams (18.5 ppg, 9-13 from three) and A.J. Bramah (15 ppg, 11 rpg, 13-19 from the field) is great to see.
Robert Morris is favored in each of their next three games, all at home against St. Francis-Brooklyn, Wagner, and Merrimack. Andrew Toole has to be feeling good right now.
Team Performance of the Week: Wagner over Mount St. Mary's
The Seahawks got an efficient 25 points (on 15 FGA) from Curtis Cobb and rode a defense that limited the Mount to 3-20 from the three (and just 9-30 from two), which adds up to season bests in opponents eFG% (27%) and PPP (0.77). On the offensive end, Wagner was more than solid (1.08ppp) thanks to making 9 of their 25 three-pointers and coughing it up just 9 times (12.3%).
Bashir Mason, who has made a name by coaching strong defensive teams, hasn't been able to get this team to get consistent stops (their Adjusted Defensive efficiency ranks 316th in the nation, which is their worst ranking since 2010), and two days later Sacred Heart put up 81 points in 65 possessions (1.24ppp) on the Seahawks. But last Thursday, Wagner dominated.
Player of the Week: Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis
The Red Flash lost a heart-breaker in their NEC-opener at Bryant, but it certainly wasn't Blackmon's fault. With likely league POY Keith Braxton struggling (0-8 from three), Blackmon picked up the slack, scoring 24 points on 8-17 shooting, to go along with 7 rebounds in 32 minutes. Then at Central Connecticut, Blackmon stayed hot; 28 points (8-11 from three) and 8 rebounds.
Over one year removed from knee surgery, Blackmon is having a career year, improving his scoring from 12.2 ppg last year to 17.0 ppg this season, while his rebounds (4.8 to 5.7) and eFG% (49% to 50.6%) are also up. The 6'1" senior is making 44% of his three-point attempts.
Others Worth Mentioning: Adam Grant, Bryant; Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack; Josh Williams, Robert Morris; A.J. Bramah, Robert Morris; Kaleb Bishop, Fairleigh Dickinson
Freshman of the Week: Tyler Thomas, Sacred Heart
Thomas had a super efficient week for the Pioneers in their split; against Merrimack, he was 7-11 from the field for 18 points and 3 rebounds, then in the win at Wagner the 6'3" freshman scored 13 points on 3 for 3 from the field and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.
The sharp-shooter had yet to play more than 23 minutes in a game, yet averaged 27.5 mpg last week as Sacred Heart struggled to find perimeter scoring. Thomas has been somewhat up-and-down, but has had some big games this year; 17 points against both Quinnipiac and Holy Cross, and 10 at UConn.
Others Worth Mentioning: Greg Outlaw, Central Connecticut; Myles Baker, Central Connecticut; Benson Lin, Bryant; Charles Pride, Bryant.
Lines of the Week:
1. Isaiah Blackmon, SFU 1/4 at CCSU- 28 points (8-11 from three), 8 rebounds
2. Adam Grant, BU 1/4 vs. FDU- 28 points (7-14 from three), 4 rebounds, 2 assists
3. Curtis Cobb, WC 1/2 at Mount- 25 points (9-16 from the field), 6 rebounds
4. Kaleb Bishop, FDU 1/4 at BU- 25 points (8-13 from two), 15 rebounds
5. Juvaris Hayes, MC 1/2 vs. SHU- 17 points (8-14 from the field), 7 rebounds, 6 assists
Other Stuff You Should Know
Robert Morris' Backcourt: One of the biggest reasons that the Colonials are 2-0, and have won 4 out of their last 5, has been the improvement of sophomore point guard Dante Treacy. The 6'0" southpaw showed flashes as a freshman, but also turned it over on nearly 40% of his possessions and attempted just 24 three-pointers, making 8. This season, the development has been stark; he's got a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio, he's knocked down 15 from deep (39%), and his 24.9% assist rate is 6th in the league.
With Treacy at the point, Andrew Toole has been able to move Jon Williams off the ball, and the junior is having a career year; his eFG% has improved from 44.9% last season to 52.4% as a junior (he's shooting 43% from deep), and his turnover rate has fallen from 29% to 24.7%. Add likely All-NEC 1st Teamer Josh Williams and his 48 three-pointers (41%), and you have a somewhat surprisingly dynamic backcourt.
Cameron Parker's Struggles: Sacred Heart's Cameron Parker currently leads the nation in assists with 124, and he's third in the country in assists per game (8.3). However, last week wasn't quite so memorable for the Pios' point guard; in the loss to Merrimack, he had just 1 assist and 8 turnovers, and while he had an impressive 10 assists in the win at Wagner, it came with 7 turnovers. While he's improved his turnover rate from last year (39% to 32.4%), it sits at 51.3% through two league games. I said the same thing in our Season Preview, but if SHU is going to make a run toward an NEC title, Parker needs to do a better job taking care of the basketball.
Bryant Bombs Away: Jared Grasso has built a roster full of shooters, and man do they shoot; 47.2% of their field goal attempts occur from beyond the three-point arc, which is 17th highest in Division-1. However, I wonder if even Grasso was shaking his head on Saturday as the Bulldogs hoisted forty-five three-pointers in the loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, making 14 (31%). Hall Elisias went out with an injury just 4 minutes into the game, so Bryant was playing without a true low-post presence, but still. The 45 attempts was a season-high, topping the 37 attempts in their win at Niagara. Obviously the Bulldogs can win taking such a higher percentage of threes (this game went to overtime, after all), and it's what makes this group so fun to watch. But it's also what worries me in a single-elimination tournament.
Mount St. Mary's living and dying by the 3: File this in the "things that don't make sense" cabinet; despite returning every rotation player from a season ago, Mount St. Mary's has seen their 3P% drop from 31.2% (313rd nationally) to 28.7% (322nd), and they've been particularly bad in losses.
Since 12/7, the Mount made 43.4% of their 3s in wins over Coppin St. and Long Island, but shot just 19.2% from deep in their 4 losses (Loyola MD, American, Navy, and Wagner). What?!
Of course, people citing stats in wins versus losses is generally overblown (of course teams fared worse when they lost), but this spread is staggering. Vado Morse, in particular, has struggled as he's seen his 3P% drop from 35.3% as a freshman to 26.8% this season. We all know he's been hobbled (and maybe still is) with a knee issue, but he was able to knock down 5 of 8 from deep on 12/27 against Coppin St. Since then, however, he's made just 1 from 11 from three.
It seems Dan Engelstad's group is going to either live or die from three this season (their 40.6% 3P rate is well above the D1 average of 37.6%), and unfortunately it's been too much of the latter.
CCSU is now a pressing team: If you happened to be looking at Kenpom over the last couple of days, you may have noticed that Central Connecticut leads the league in tempo by a fairly significant margin (78.1 possessions per 40 minutes, with SFC 2nd at 73.0). Huh?
Well, Donyell Marshall has instituted a full-court press (at the request of his players), and it's resulted in an uptempo style which does force turnovers (25% in their first two NEC games) which has turned into points on the other end of the court (31 fast-break points in the loss to Saint Francis).
However, any benefit appears to be outweighed by leaving shooters wide open; Central allowed Robert Morris and SFU to shoot a combined 28-52 from three last week (53.8%) on its way to allowing a league-worst 116.5 defensive efficiency. If you watched these games (like I did), you'd know that this was not a coincidence; when D1 players are wide open at the three-point line, they're going to make them. When teams see the Blue Devils coming, they'd better have their track shoes ready, but it will be an opportunity for shooters to get hot.