This week is the first of two 3-gameday weeks, as there are NEC games on Wednesday, Saturday, and Monday. So adjust your schedule accordingly, we have a lot of hoops to watch.
Wednesday's Games (All point spreads are courtesy of Kenpom):
Bryant at Merrimack (-1)
Long Island (-1) at St. Francis-Brooklyn
Saint Francis (-4) at Fairleigh Dickinson
Central Connecticut at Sacred Heart (-21)
Sacred Heart at Saint Francis (-4)
St. Francis-Brooklyn at Wagner (-4)
Merrimack at Robert Morris (-6)
Long Island at Bryant (-6)
Central Connecticut at Mount St. Mary's (-14)
Long Island (-1) at Wagner
Sacred Heart at Robert Morris (-1)
St. Francis-Brooklyn at Mount St. Mary's (-5)
Merrimack at Saint Francis (-8)
Central Connecticut at Fairleigh Dickinson (-13)
Wednesday's Game to Watch: BU at MC
Things to Watch:
1. D-Fence- Including non-conference games, Bryant and Merrimack have the two best Adjusted Defensive Efficiencies in the Northeast Conference (BU is #198 nationally, while MC is #200). However, they do it in completely different ways.
Jared Grasso's Bulldogs don't allow opponents to get good looks anywhere on the court; teams are shooting just 29.4% from three (42nd nationally) and 46% inside the arc (89th). That's what happens when you have quick guards on the perimeter (like Ikenna Ndugba, Michael Green, and Charles Pride) and a rim-protector like Hall Elisias, who leads the nation in block percentage at 17.7%.
Meanwhile, Merrimack uses an aggressive 2-3 zone to consistently force turnovers; they lead the nation by getting a steal in 15.1% of their defensive possessions (their 25% turnover rate is 11th). Juvaris Hayes leads the country with a 6.4% steal rate, while Mikey Watkins (4.4%) is 24th. In the Warriors' win over CCSU on Saturday, they forced 24 turnovers (40%) thanks to 18 steals, 9 of which were by Hayes.
2- Bryant's bigs- While the Warriors have plenty of thieves on the perimeter, they are often under-sized and have struggled in defending bigs, as evidenced by this chart courtesy of Bart Torvik:
Opponents are shooting nearly 60% at the rim against Merrimack and 52% on twos. The Bulldogs like to pair a big (either Hall Elisias or 6'9" 245 lb. Patrick Harding) with either 6'9" Mikail Simmons or 6'7" Juan Cardenas, both of whom can stretch the defense and score inside. It's worth noting that Simmons missed Bryant's loss to Merrimack, so his status for Wednesday night may be up in the air.
3- Juvaris Hayes- If you haven't gotten a chance to watch Hayes play yet, well shame on you. He's a stat-stuffing monster who is averaging 9.8 ppg, 5.6 apg, 4.8 rpg, and 3.8 spg while shooting nearly 48% from the field and 75% from the free throw line. He's as tough as they come, and it's a huge bummer that we only get one season of Hayes in the Northeast Conference.
4- Bryant from 3- Only 19 teams in the country shoot three-pointers with a higher frequency than the Bulldogs, with nearly 47% of their shots coming from behind the three-point line. Merrimack, on the other hand, really likes to get out on shooters and limit looks from deep (opponents are attempting just 31% of their shots from three, 24th lowest). Something will have to give here, as Bryant has been increasingly reliant upon threes since getting into NEC play (52.8% of their shots). If they can't get good looks from the outside, it'll be interesting to see where their offense comes from.
Saturday's Game to Watch: SHU at SFU
Things to Watch:
1. The Western PA swing- Saturday's game at SFU begins the Saint Francis/Robert Morris roadtrip for Sacred Heart that every NEC program dreads, and this year it's not any easier as both teams are legitimate NEC title contenders. The Pioneers, who were picked #2 in the pre-season NEC poll, are slight underdogs in both games (+4 at SFU and +1 at RMU, per Kenpom), and if they can earn a split they'd sit at 4-2 (assuming they take care of business against CCSU on Wednesday) and would likely favored in every remaining game save for a road tilt with Bryant on February 23rd.
2. Who likes points?- Saint Francis (103.1 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency/121st nationally) and Sacred Heart (102.5/136th) have the two best offenses in the league, and both have averaged at least 1.09 ppp in league play so far. Plus they are similar in that they get after it on the offensive boards and get to the free throw line a ton (and make 'em). The difference? SFU has been killer from three (36.7%) thanks to Isaiah Blackmon's 33 made three-pointers (41%) and a bevy of guys who have shown an ability to knock down perimeter shots (Myles Thompson, Tyler Stewart, Scott Meredith, Bryce Laskey, and Keith Braxton). Sacred Heart, on the other hand, has been less than good from three (31.8%) but has dominated the paint with E.J. Anosike (52% on twos), Jare'l Spellman (58%), Kinnon LaRose (65%) and Cam Parker (51%) leading the way. It's notable that the Red Flash's Scott Meredith, who is shooting nearly 42% from deep, has missed the team's last four games.
3. Free Throw Shooting- I mentioned earlier that both teams get to the free throw line quite a bit, but how's this for fun; both the Red Flash and the Pios are in the top 25 nationally in free throw shooting. Sacred Heart is 18th, making 77.1% of their chances at the charity stripe, while Saint Francis is 25th at 76.6%. If this is close and late, it may be tough to get back into this thing by fouling, as both teams can put out 5 players who consistently make better than 75% from the free throw line.
4. Sharing the Ball- One of the few things SFU doesn't do well offensively is share the basketball, which shows up in their assist rate (40.9% of made baskets, 341st in the country). In fact, that number has fallen in each of the past eight seasons since Rob Krimmel took over as the head man; they were 69th in A-Rate in 2013, then 130th, 200th, 238th, 247th, 281st, 307th, and now 341st this season. Interestingly, however, they've continued to get better as an offensive team overall. Is there correlation there? Or has Krimmel zeroed in on players who can create their own shots? Either way, there are times when SFU tends to get stagnant offensively (Braxton is the lone rotation player with an assist rate north of 14.6%), and that can't happen if they want to keep up with Sacred Heart's potent offense. More often than not, Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon are able to make plays for themselves, but if one or both of them are "off" (like Braxton was at Bryant), it could doom them.
Monday's Game to Watch: LIU at WC
Things to Watch:
1. Tough Road-Long Island is one of only three teams playing three games this week, and all of them are on the road with trips to St. Francis-Brooklyn, Bryant, and Wagner. Brutal! The pre-season pick to win the Northeast Conference has been solid if not spectacular through their first three games of the league slate; they currently sit 2-1 with a double-overtime loss at Mount St. Mary's, plus double-digit home wins over Central Connecticut and Fairleigh Dickinson.Going 2-1 this week certainly isn't imperative, but it would help LIU stay near the top of the standings when both Saint Francis and Robert Morris come to town on January 23rd and 25th.
2. The 3-ball- On the season, the Seahawks are allowing opponents to shoot 38% from three, which ranks 331st nationally, and in four NEC games teams are making 37.4% of their three-point attempts (9th). So it could be bombs away on Monday for the Sharks, who are 10th in the nation in 3P rate (48.3%). While they can be hot-and-cold (they're shooting a slightly better than average 33.9% from three on the season), they did make 15 of 33 at Central Connecticut last Thursday. The guy who Derek Kellogg really needs to get going is 6'9" junior Ty Flowers. The former UMass player shot 39.3% from three in his first season at Long Island, yet this season has made just 29 of his 109 three-point attempts (26.6%), and it hasn't gotten better in league play (26.1%). He looked good at CCSU (4 of 9), but then shot just 2 of 11 from deep against FDU. He could be the key to LIU making a run at a title.
3. Curtis Cobb- Coming into the season, it was expected that the former Fairfield and UMass wing would settle in as a high-volume scorer for Bashir Mason, and he really has; the senior is averaging 17.2 ppg on 25.5% usage, which is exactly what this roster needed after the graduation of Romone Saunders. While he's not been super efficient (48.5% eFG% and 16.1% TO rate), he's been huge in Wagner's wins; 25 and 6 boards in the win over Mount St. Mary's, 18/8 in their 12/21 win over Army, and 25/4 in the road win over St. Peter's on 11/20. LIU has defensive issues of their own (106.2 Defensive Efficiency Rating, 295th nationally), and if Cobb can get going, look out.
4. LIU's Short Bench- When junior big man Eral Penn went out with an injury prior to the start of the season, there was a lot of concern around these parts that Derek Kellogg would face another season of limited depth. However, I'm not sure even Kellogg realized how limited it would be. In conference play Kellogg has essentially rolled with a 6-man rotation, with Jack Ballantyne filling in as the 7th guy when one of Raiquan Clark or Flowers needs a blow (or are in foul trouble). Given the short turnaround between games this week, look for signs that these Sharks get tired.