When I preview games, I like to avoid writing about the same team twice, while also not previewing the same game twice in a row. My favorite game on Saturday, Merrimack at Long Island, is a rematch of last weekends match-up in North Andover, and I wrote about that one last week. So this week, I will preview two games on Thursday nights. My blog, my rules.
Thursday's Game to Watch: SFU at SHU
1. The Race for Home Court- The Red Flash and Pioneers are within a 1/2 game of each other (SHU is 7-3, SFU 7-4), and it appears to be a three-team race for the #1 seed in the NEC Tournament between those two and Robert Morris. SFU already owns a win over the Pios back in January 18th (72-65) in Loretto, so a sweep would give the Red Flash that all important tie-breaker (the Pios already lost to RMU once, with the rematch on Saturday, so it's a big weekend for Anthony Latina in more ways than one).
2. Bad Blood- We all remember how some extra-curricular activities marred the ending of the first matchup between these two teams, which resulted in Koreem Ozier (2 games), Isaiah Blackmon (1 game), and Ty Stewart (1) game all getting suspended. Hopefully this is all in the past, as neither team can afford to lose players due to poor decisions.
3. Keep SFU off the boards- Sacred Heart is a strong rebounding team, currently sitting 5th in the league on the defensive side of the ball and 4th in offensive rating. However, in SFU's win over the Pios a few weeks ago the Red Flash grabbed 14 offensive rebounds (36%), which led to SFU converting 13 of 23 shot attempts at the rim.
4. The SHU Backcourt- It was in Loretto on 1/28 when Cam Parker went down with a broken foot early in the first half, so it was the Pioneers' first look at life without their stud sophomore point guard. However, all has not been lost; sophomore lefty Aaron Clarke has averaged nearly 13 points and 3.5 assists per game since taking over as the '1' full time, and has helped spur a four-game SHU winning streak. Meanwhile Koreem Ozier, who played only 17 minutes in Loretto due to foul trouble, has averaged 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists since returning from his two-game suspension.
5. Keith Braxton- Braxton has perhaps been overshadowed by his running mate Isaiah Blackmon over the past month, but in the first matchup between these two teams he had perhaps his best game of 2020; 24 points (9-16 shooting), 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 turnover in 38 minutes. It'll be interesting to see how Anthony Latina looks to defend him, as he doesn't have anyone with that kind of size and athleticism (perhaps Kinnon LaRose). Look for Latina to deploy that 2-3 zone.
Thursday's Other Game to Watch: MC at FDU
1.Hitting the Road- We all know about Merrimack by now; transitioning to D-1 and ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, yet currently in 1st place at 9-1, with head coach Joe Gallo getting some support for National Coach of the Year. What's amazing to me is that they've been so successful on the road this year; in non-conference play they beat Northwestern, UMass-Lowell, and Hartford away from home, and in January they are 4-0, which include wins over the next three teams in the standings (Sacred Heart, Robert Morris, and Saint Francis). Thursday night begins a three-game roadie through New York/New Jersey, and none of them will be easy. But they've shown they can do it.
2. Experience- Thanks to a question on Twitter (h/t Dave), I was looking at Kenpom's Experience rankings yesterday, and Merrimack is in the middle of the pack when it comes to experience (7th in the league, 185th nationally). However, I think that undersells the veteran leadership Joe Gallo has because he has a sophomore starting and three freshman coming off the bench. When you can start three seniors (Juvaris Hayes, Jaleel Lord, and Idris Joyner) and a junior (Devin Jensen), it makes it easy on a coach. Sure there's some youth in this rotation, but it's led by upperclassmen.
3. Getting Hot? Perhaps Fairleigh Dickinson is starting to click at the right time; they went 2-0 last week, beating Wagner on Staten Island, then knocking off Mount St. Mary's at home on Saturday in what was their most complete game of the season. They've really struggled defensively this year, but made shot 20-43 from three last week, and are starting to get a contribution off the bench from freshman Devon Dunn, who has made 42% of his three-point attempts this season. Plus don't forget; this is the same FDU team that took Merrimack to double overtime in North Andover just two weeks ago.
4. Not Forcing Turnovers- What's the big difference between this Fairleigh Dickinson squad and previous teams coached by Greg Herenda? His teams generally struggle to rebound, but usually they are among the national leaders is forcing turnovers; they've been in the top 120 in the country in defensive turnover rate in each of the past five seasons. This year they rank 234th, and are just 7th in league play at 17.4%. However, at Wagner they were able to take advantage of 13 Seahawks turnovers (20.1%). Getting easy buckets could go a long way, and Merrimack has turned it over on 19.9% of their possessions during conference play.
5. Kaleb Bishop- The 6'8" senior could be the x-factor in this one; in the first matchup between these schools, the stretch-4 scored 20 points and added 13 rebounds, and Merrimack has been known to struggle with size.