Thoughts on CCSU: They Won!
For the first time since February 9th, 2019, Central Connecticut beat a Division-1 team, ending a 26-game losing streak.
It's been awhile since I wrote a CCSU post, but halfway through the league slate feels like the write time to put something together.
1. There's a lot to unpack, but I wanted to first focus on Saturday's 86-76 win over Wagner. First off; congrats to the CCSU players and staff. There's no way this season could be easy on anyone affiliated with this program, but it's worth pointing out that the players have largely continued to play hard in games, and don't appear to have "packed it in". There was a ton of excitement on the floor after the game, and it's deserved. No matter what your baseline is, when you experience success you should enjoy it.
2. So what was different? It was all about the offense; CCSU scored a season-high 1.21ppp (their next highest was 1.12ppp on 1/9 at Long Island), and it was just the 3rd time all season they've scored more than the D1 average of 1.026 ppp. OK, so how'd they do that? Well, there's a few things they did well, but before I start spouting off data let me hit you with something I noticed while watching the game; there was more ball movement. Too many times this CCSU team has pounded the ball into the deck and not forced the defense to move. No, on Saturday night they were moving the ball. And that, I believe, is what led to 20 assists against just 7 turnovers.
The 67% assist rate is well above their season average of 44.4% (which rates 318th nationally), and the 10% turnover rate was lower than their previous season-best of 11.8% (when they lost 82-52 to Columbia), and significantly better than their season average of 21.1% (19.4% in league-play).
Then there's this:
The Blue Devils made 11 of their 24 three-point attempts, which tops their previous season-high in threes made which was 9 (out of 23 attempts) at New Hampshire back on 11/19, and that was the only other game in which they made more than seven three-pointers. Ian Krishnan led the way shooting 5 for 8 from distance, followed by Jamir Reed (2 for 2) and Tyler Rowe (2 for 2). Myles Baker and Trey Tennyson each made one apiece.
But don't overlook the work they did in getting to the rim; Central made 15 of their 23 attempts at the rim, both utilizing dribble penetration and their bigs to finish. Xavier Wilson was 3-5 at the rim (including two dunks), Jamir Reed was 3-3, Greg Outlaw 3-4, and Karrington Wallace 3-6.
When the ball is moving, guys get open for good shots. It's no coincidence that their eFG% was 52.2%, which was topped only twice previously this season. No, that's not great (D1 average is 49.4%), but it's something to build upon.
3. "Wait, they made 11 three-pointers, converted 65% of their shots at the rim, yet they didn't have a great shooting night? You're an idiot." - Hypothetical but realistic Twitter follower in my DMs.
The problem is, Central Connecticut St. is still overly-reliant on mid-range jump shots. I talked a bunch about it during my last CCSU post, so I don't want to belabor the point, but it's worth noting that CCSU was just 4 of 21 from the mid-range on Saturday. That's...yeah, that's not good.
In going through some data for my latest NEC Mid-Range Jumper, I stumbled across Bart Torvik's 2020 Player Play-by-Play splits. Sorting by percentage of shots taken from the mid-range, CCSU has five players among the "top" 11 in mid-range shot attempts; Tyler Rowe (62.2%, 1st), Jamir Coleman (47.1%, 4th), Karrington Wallace (45.1%, 5th), Xavier Wilson (38.7%, 10th), and Zach Newkirk (38%, 11th). Of that group, only Jamir Coleman is shooting better than 37% on such shots. As I've said before, I can live with a high-volume scorer like Jamir Coleman (or Ian Krishnan) taking questionable shots from time-to-time. But those other guys? I cringe every time.
Can a team be efficient offensively while taking ~30% of their shots from the mid-range? Obviously not all mid-range shots are created the same, and an open elbow jumper is different than a 19-footer off the dribble. But CCSU is one of just eight teams in the country taking >30% of their shots from the mid-range and making less than 31% on such shots:
Central Connecticut: 30.8% FG%/ 30.5% of shots
UNC Wilmington: 30.7%/34.1%
Arkansas Pine Bluff: 30.4%/40.6%
Old Dominion: 30.2%/31%
Texas Southern: 30%/32.7%
North Carolina A&T: 29.2%/30.8%
How are those teams doing:
UNC Wilmington is 7-15, 2-7 in the CAA, ranked #315 at Kenpom and just fired their coach;
Arkansas Pine Bluff is 3-15, 2-4 in the SWAC and ranked #345 at Kenpom;
Marist is 4-14, 3-6 in the MAAC and ranked #338 at Kenpom;
Old Dominion is 8-13, 4-4 in the CAA and ranked #175 at Kenpom. However, they have a defense ranked #84 at Kenpom (their eFG% is ranked 338th nationally).
Texas Southern is 8-11 but 5-1 in the SWAC (253 at Kenpom). Their eFG% is ranked 344th nationally, but they are in the top 100 in getting offensive rebounds and in the top 50 in getting to the free throw line, and their defense is ranked 3rd in their league.
NC A&T is 9-12 but 5-1 in the MEAC. Similar to Texas Southern, they have the 322nd ranked eFG% but get to the free throw line a ton (21st ranked free throw rate) and have the 3rd best defense in their league.
Temple is 10-9 overall, 2-5 in the AAC (have lost 6 of 7), and have the 308th ranked eFG%. They also have the 26th best defense in the country, according to Kenpom.
So that's three historically bad teams (Wilmington, Pine Bluff, and Marist), a bottom of the barrel AAC team (despite one of the top defenses in the league), and three teams (ODU, Texas Southern, and NC A&T) that are doing well in their league because of a strong defense and/or elite offensive rebounding and free throw attempt rates.
CCSU is in the bottom three in the NEC in all of the "4 Factors" except free throw rate (6th), and have the league's worst defense. An improvement in shot selection could go a long way.
I will continue to bang the drum on this; there are too many bad shot attempts for this team to put together consistently good shooting performances, this season or in the future.
4. Senior walk-on Tyler Rowe, who transferred in from Western Connecticut St., has immediately taken minutes from Zach Newkirk (as well as Thai Segwai and Myles Baker), and was on the floor during crunch time in the loss to Long Island (they were down 1 with the 4-minute mark) and the Wagner win. So let's check in on how the three "true" point guards stack up (Baker has played the point out of necessity, but his natural position is on the wing).
The minutes disparity looks wider than it actually is because Rowe missed the Sacred Heart game, and didn't play much in three others (he saw just 8 minutes vs. Merrimack, 2 minutes at the Mount and 7 minutes at FDU), which may have been due to injury (he had his left hand heavily wrapped for a few games).
Anyway; Newkirk has played better in league play than he did during the non-conference portion of the schedule (his eFG% is up slightly, his assists are up, and his turnover rate is down), and the 6'1" sophomore has been better statistically than Rowe has. However, my eyes tell me that Rowe has been better as a play-maker and facilitator, and that's backed up by their assist rates; Rowe is averaging 3.8 assists per 40 minutes played, while Newkirk is at just 3.1. Is that a huge difference? Not really, but it just feels that the offense just flows a bit more with Rowe in there.
On the flip side though, Rowe takes some really bad shots. As I said above, no NEC player takes a higher percentage of mid-range jumpers than Rowe does, and it's not like he's knocking them down at a high rate as he's just 8 for 23 (34.8%) on "other 2's" according to Bart Torvik. Plus he's just 2 for 10 from three, and I'm not sure he's the defender Newkirk is given his smaller stature (listed at 5'9").
In the win over Wagner, Rowe played 22 minutes and Newkirk played 18, and in Thursday's loss to Sacred Heart Newkirk saw 18 minutes of action compared to Rowe's 14 (Segwai was on the floor for just 3 minutes total). So they're essentially in a job-share at the moment, and I think that makes sense. If Central Connecticut were title contenders, it'd probably be worth playing the walk-on senior a bit more than Newkirk (and it appears Marshall agrees given how Rowe was in during crunch time in the loss at LIU and the win over Wagner), but given the current record and place in the standings, playing the sophomore over the senior at times is probably the right thing to do.
I will say, however, that if Donyell Marshall expects to compete with this group of players next season, one of two things needs to happen: A) someone on this roster (Newkirk? Baker? Segwai?) needs to develop into at least an average NEC point guard or B) Marshall needs to go out on the JUCO or grad transfer market and bring in a strong, starting point-man. A 41.5% eFG%, 14.5% assist rate (33rd in the NEC) and 1:1 Assist/Turnover ratio from your point guard (Newkirk) is not going to get them near the top of the standings.
5. Man, it's nice to have a shooter like Ian Krishnan back, huh? The 6'2" sophomore guard earned his way onto the All-NEC Rookie Team a year ago but missed the first semester due to being ruled academically ineligible.
Krishnan has been on fire of late, knocking down 12 of 19 from three over his last three games, and is now shooting 48.7% from deep on the season. Let's check in on his numbers from last year to this year, in league games only (for an apples to apples comparison):
Krishnan's O-Rating is way up despite seeing increased usage, and that's largely due to how hot he's been from outside. Is regression coming? Well, Krishnan is currently 12th in the nation in 3P% among player who have attempted at least 39 three-pointers. Is he one of the dozen or so best shooters in the country? I'd guess some regression is coming (though I hope not).
However, I'm more interested in how other parts of his game may or may not have developed.
Attacking the rim: As a freshman, Krishnan took nearly 60% of his shots from behind the three-point line, which was easily the highest on the team (Joe Hugley was 2nd at 46.5%) and is the definition of a long-range sniper. That number is down to 49.4% this year, and the good thing is that he's attacking the rim a bit more (17.7% of his shot attempts, compared to 13.4% last season), and he's converting more often (43% vs. 36.4% as a freshman). Additionally, he's getting to the free throw line significantly more as he's taken 27 trips to the charity stripe in 10 games after attempting just 17 free throws in 29 games last season. And he's making them at a 89% clip (86% career).
The bad news? He's taking more two-point jumpers (33% of his shots, which I can live with), but he's making them far less than he did a season ago (31% on 2PJ's, 40.4% last season). Part of that is natural given the longer three-point distance, and part of that is probably due to being forced to carry a heavier burden offensively. But you'd obviously like to see him force fewer mid-range jumpers.
Playmaking: I think many CCSU fans saw Krishnan early on last season (6'2" 180 lbs.) and thought he should be the team's point guard (it's also worth noting that VerbalCommits listed him as a PG). However, that wasn't going to happen; he doesn't come across as a strong ball-handler, and as a freshman he averaged just 0.9 apg. Has improved upon that this season? Well; he's averaging just 0.4 apg in nearly 28 mpg, and his assist rate is down from 5.8% in league play as a freshman to 3.9% this season. What's more? His turnover rate has doubled from 8.4% in league play to nearly 17% (0.8 turnovers per game to 1.7). Again, I think it's a product of "trying to do too much".
All-in-all I think Krishnan has developed quite a bit offensively since last season; his shot appears to have a bit more arc than it did as a freshman, so I'm willing to buy the improvement on the three-pointers, and I think he's done a better job of attacking close-outs by using his quickness to get to the rim and getting to the free throw line. I also think being the go-to-guy, as opposed to the 3rd (or 4th) option like he was last season will take some getting used to. But I'd like to see him become more of a willing passer/play-maker.
6. My hypothetical most-improved player "in season" award will likely go to Xavier Wilson. Check out this O-Rating Chart, courtesy of Bart Torvik:
The X-Man (are we calling him that?) is averaging 11ppg over his past three contests in 24mpg, and has gotten more comfortable in the offense as the season has gone on. No one was more guilty of taking ugly mid-range jumpers than Wilson was back in November/December (on the season he's taking 38.7% of his shots from the mid-range, and he's making just 26.1% of them), but he seems to have calmed that down a bit while becoming one of the best shot blockers in the league (4.9% block rate, 3rd).
While he's certainly struggled at times as a freshman (37.1% eFG%, 44% from the foul line,10.2% DR%), do you know how many freshmen 6'5" or taller are currently rotation player in the Northeast Conference? Two; Wilson and Merrimack's Ziggy Reid. Most freshman bigs are sitting on the bench during their first season, yet Wilson has played more than half of the available minutes. This is a legitimate D-1 big who has quite a bit of development ahead of him, but certainly has the potential to become one of the better big men in this league.
7. So who has been the best freshman? Look I dig Greg Outlaw, and I think Myles Baker has shown some flashes, but for my money Jamir Reed has been the most consistent of the bunch. His 31 made three-pointers leads the team, and he's third in the rotation in 3P% at 34.4% (Krishnan is 1st at 48.7% and Stephane Ayangma is 2nd at 36.4%).
In league-play he's third on the team with a 102.9 O-Rating (16.3% usage), he's got a 50% eFG% (2nd on the team), a 16.3% assist rate (2nd), and his 12.2% defensive rebounding rate is 4th. Plus, you know what else I love? Just 21% of his shot attempts in conference-play have come from the mid-range, and he's started to show more of an ability to get the ball to the rim (7-14 ATR during the conference slate).
Given the "small-ball" world we live in, Reed strikes me as someone who's capable of playing the "4" in this league; he's listed at 6'4" 200 lbs. and has long arms, and Marshall has played him along with three guards and a big at multiple times over the past month. Plus he's fully capable of filling in at point guard given his ball-handling ability.
Where does he need to improve? He's got to get better as a perimeter defender, and I'd like to see him use his strong body to finish at the rim (just 45.2% on the season) and get to the free throw line more (he's attempted just 39 free throws in 21 games, but he's made 74.4% of his attempts). But this is a guy who should have a huge breakout season as a sophomore.
8. I'd love to know what's up with Jamir Coleman and Stephane Ayangma? Coleman was on the bench but did not play in last Thursday's loss to Sacred Heart, then neither he nor Ayangma were even on the bench on Saturday in the win over Wagner. Even Bruce Biel and Marc Robbins were caught off-guard during the broadcast, openly wondering about both guys' status.
Coleman has been a conundrum this season for the Blue Devils; his shooting numbers have fallen across the board, while he's averaging 6 fouls per 40 minutes (just 2.7 last season), and his turnover rate has jumped from 13.9% to 24.6%. Sometimes he gets into a groove and he looks like an All-League player, like when he went for 17 and 12 at Long Island on 11 field goal attempts. But over his last three games, he averaged under 5 ppg, and he's fouled out of five games this season.
Hopefully both guys just had the flu or something, but I do wonder if it's more than that, specifically in regards to Coleman.
9. OK, so the elephant in the room; a lot of people are openly questioning whether CCSU should fire Donyell Marshall, or if he will resign at the end of the season (lol, people don't just choose to leave money on the table). Look, I'm never going to campaign for someone to lose their job; these coaches are human beings with families, and they're trying to make a living like the rest of us. Plus, when you fire a head coach, you're (probably) firing his assistants as well. That means five guys and their families are affected. It's a tough deal! What do I want? For this team to turn around and go on a winning streak, sneak into the NEC Playoffs, upset a higher seeded squad on the road in the Quarterfinals, then come back next year fully intact and compete for a league title. Is that too much to ask for? Maybe, but that's what I hoping for.
Has Marshall's four years as the CCSU Head Coach brought many wins? Obviously not, and I think Marshall would be the first to tell you that it's not gone the way he hoped. But I'm not going to pile on at this point; he's trying, he cares about the kids, and he's got a long career ahead of him in basketball.
What I will say is this; Marshall has one year remaining on his contract after this season is over, and while I understand the fiscal constraints the University is experiencing, CCSU needs to do something. If the school wants to compete in men's basketball next season, Marshall needs to be able to go out and bring in reinforcements, and it's going to be difficult to do that (outside of grad transfers, and they haven't brought a grad transfer in since Tafari Whittingham three years ago) while being a potential "lame-duck" coach.
Once the season is over, the school needs to make a decision. If the administration expects to keep him past April 2021, they should extend him for another season. And if they don't, they should figure out a way to part ways. Doing neither not only makes it difficult to bring in talent, but it won't be easy to retain some of the young players on the current roster. Why would Ian Krishnan remain at CCSU if he has concerns that his coach might be let go at the end of his junior season? He'd either be a "sit one, play one" guy or spend his senior year playing for a new coach who did not recruit him.
Again, I'm not saying the administration should extend him or should fire him, I just think sitting on their hands and doing nothing will only hurt the program.
Odds and Ends: Man, Myles Baker is having a tough go of it lately; he's shooting just 20% from three in league play, has really struggled all season finishing at the rim (just 41.5%), and he makes a lot of lazy passes. He's a talented kid, but he's got a lot of work to do to fulfill that potential...Similarly, if Greg Outlaw just picked his spots offensively (post-ups against smaller players, using the dribble to attack the rim in the half-court and getting out in transition), given his defensive prowess, he'd be a shoe-in for the NEC All-Rookie Team. But he takes too many bad shots (he's making just 25.5% of his mid-range shots) and he has a tendency to pick up bad fouls, specifically in the backcourt. Don't try to do too much, Greg!...I was really glad to see Trey Tennyson get some good run on Saturday in the win over Wagner (17 minutes). It's been a struggle for him, but I like his game as a long (6'4") shooter (38% from three) who can defend multiple positions. He has to learn to let the game come to him, and I could see him being a really good player at this level in two years...Javen Udofia hasn't appeared in a game since playing 5 minutes against Connecticut College on 12/29, and he wasn't on the bench for either game last week. I think it's safe to wonder if he's no longer with the team at this point...Marshall offered two JUCO guards last week in Lamar "Tre" Mitchell, a 6'3" combo-guard who is playing at Phoenix College, and Nigel Scantlebury, a 6'0" combo guard playing at Niagara County Community College. It's worth remembering that Marshall has *officially* just one scholarship to work with given that Jamir Coleman is the only senior, but it's likely at least one more opens up...For those keeping track of such things, CCSU is no longer the 4th youngest team in the country. They are now the 6th youngest team, at least according to Kenpom. Only UNC Wilmington, Virginia Tech, Utah, Incarnate Word, and Memphis have less experience...If you're not following Jordan Sperber and listening to his podcasts, reading his newsletter and watching the videos he's posting, you're doing it wrong...There was a nice story in the Delco Times regarding Donyell Marshall speaking about the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. I can't stop thinking about the fact that Kobe's daughter was also on that helicopter with him, and what must have been going through his mind during those final moments. Getting home safely every night is an underappreciated thing.
One More: I haven't blogged about CCSU since Tom Pincince was named Interim Athletic Director, and man I hope he gets the gig officially. Pincince didn't graduate from Central (he's a 1997 graduate of Stonehill College), but he's been a Blue Devil since 2002, and is as much of a CCSU-man as you will find. He was the SID way back when, and I've only heard good stories about him. I won't pretend to know if he has the skill set to be a quality Athletic Director, or if he's the right man for the job, but my gut tells me that CCSU should turn over the keys to the Athletic Department to Pincence. Here's to hoping that the interim tag is removed soon, and that he's able to spearhead more success for CCSU athletics.