1. Sacred Heart's PG Situation- As we all know by now, Cameron Parker is out for the season, which has meant a healthy dose of Aaron Clarke at the '1' for the Pios. The 6'1" sophomore has been up to the task in the first three games post-Parker; 10 assists against just three turnovers, 7-18 from three, and 13 ppg. Is that kind of performance sustainable? We're able to find out, as the Mount has one of the better defenses in the NEC (3rd in league-play).
2. Winning on the Road- The Mount is currently 3rd in the league at 5-2, but they've been a bit lucky as they've played only two games away from Knott Arena. Thursday's trip to Fairfield marks the first of four consecutive road games, three of which are against teams with .500 or better records in league play. We're about to find out right-quick if Dan Engelstad's group is for real, or if their hot start was just "smoke and mirrors".
3. Will there be charity?- I thought this was kind of interesting; Sacred Heart has the highest free throw rate of any team in the NEC (43.8 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts), while the Mount is 2nd (39.9). However, the Mount defense fouls fewer than any other team (24.4 free throw rate), and Sacred Heart has been stingy as well (27.9 free throw rate). Maybe it won't matter? Sacred Heart is 10th in the league with a 66.1% FT%, while the Mount is last at 65.6%.
4. Lots of Bigs- Both teams have generally had more size than their NEC opponents, but something will have to give on Thursday. The Mount has a pair of 6'9" sophomores in Malik Jefferson and Nana Opoku who provide quite a bit of offensive rebounding and rim protection, as does the SHU frontcourt of 6'10" Jare'l Spellman and 6'6" E.J. Anosike.
5. Sophomore Wings- Continuing the similarities between these two teams, both Anthony Latina and Dan Engelstad are each lucky enough to have a high-volume sophomore scorers on the wing. Vado Morse struggled in the non-conference due to a knee injury, but has rounded into form as the calendar flipped; he's shooting 33% from three and is averaging 12.6 ppg. Koreem Ozier is scoring a little over 14 points per game though he's struggled a bit from the perimeter (27.3% in league games), but has made up for it by getting to the free throw line 34 times in just 6 games, making 67.6%. Hopefully these two are going at it for two more seasons after this one.
Saturday's Game to Watch: LIU at MC
1. The Champs?- Can we just sit here for a moment and enjoy the fact that Merrimack College, which was a member of the NE-10 a season ago, is currently in first place in the Northeast Conference? I said it in my NEC Mid-Range Jumper, and I'll say it again; I think this team is good, and I also think they've been a bit lucky as evidenced by being 4-0 in games decided by four points or less, including one in double overtime. Does that mean they can't win this league? Nope, every champion needs a bit of luck, and this team is dominated by veterans who know how to win. But I can tell you one thing; no other NEC coach wants the Warriors to finish atop the standings. Maybe Merrimack was being overlooked early in the season, but they won't be anymore.
2. Different Styles- I always say it, but I love games that feature differing styles of play. Joe Gallo is going to try and slow this thing down to a crawl (MC is averaging 63 possessions per 40 minutes), while Derek Kellogg wants to get his team out and running (nearly 71 possessions per 40 minutes). Then, you have a physical 2-3 zone that looks to take away the three-ball (only 28% of their shots allowed from from deep) against a team in LIU that jacks up threes whenever they can (47.7%, 13th highest in the nation). This will be fun, folks.
3. No Boards, No Problem- One of the things that have hurt LIU defensively has been their inability to get defensive rebounds, as they are allowing opponents to grab 32% of their misses in league play, 3rd worst in the league. But here's the thing, Merrimack does not crash the offensive glass as evidenced by their 24.5% OR% (last in the league). However, it works on the other side as well; Merrimack struggles on the defensive boards given their lack of size and the type of defense they play, but Long Island has no players in the top 17 in offensive rebounding rate. Someone will have to get a rebound, right?
4. Depth- LIU's Jashaun Agosto has missed the last two games due to injury, and his status is up in the air for this weekend. I covered Agosto in my NEC Mid-Range Jumper as one of the most improved players in the league, and given the lack of depth on Derek Kellogg's roster, he's been sorely missed. Long Island has essentially played with a 6-7 man rotation, with Ashtyn Bradley spelling guards on occasion while Jack Ballantyne has been seldom used as a frontcourt replacement. Joe Gallo, on the other hand, has consistently gone 8-deep, with only Juvaris Hayes and Jaleel Lord averaging more than 28.3 mpg.
5. Merrimack from Three- The Warriors are making just 30.1% from three on the season, which is 309th nationally, but they've been much better in league-play knocking them down at a 33.5% clip (6th in the NEC). Freshman Mikel Derring has been very good (14 for 34, 41%), as has Jaleel Lord (36%), Devin Jensen (34%) and Ziggy Reid (35%). Even 6'5" 4-man Idris Joyner (4-12) has gotten in on the action. If they are making their threes, they'll be awfully tough to beat. However, Long Island has limited conference opponents to just 30.3% from behind the arc.