We are 65% through the league slate, and the NEC Standings are clearly coming into focus. There are just three teams realistically vying for the regular season title in Robert Morris, Merrimack, and Saint Francis, though it's an uphill battle for the Red Flash; while SFU does get two cracks at Robert Morris, they lost their lone matchup with Merrimack (72-55 in Loretto on January 20th). FWIW, Bart Torvik has Merrimack at 36.6% to win the regular season title outright, Robert Morris at 30.3%, SFU at 3.5%, and Sacred Heart hanging by a thread at 0.1%.
As for the NEC Playoff seeds, you have Robert Morris as the clear front-runner for the #1 seed (unless they get swept by Saint Francis), with SFU nearly guaranteed the #2 seed thanks to their sweep of Sacred Heart.
While the Pios are tied with Long Island and Mount St. Mary's in the loss column, SHU owns the tie-breaker over the Mount by way of its 58-53 win on January 30th, though they have two games remaining with the Sharks. Based on performance, however, the Pios are clearly ahead of both teams, and with Mount St. Mary's having swept Long Island, getting a home game in the quarterfinals for the Sharks will be awfully tough without getting two wins against SHU.
At the bottom of the standings, it's hard to see Wagner making a run at either Bryant, St. Francis-Brooklyn, or Fairleigh Dickinson as they're two games behind the 8th spot and have shown no ability to play well consistently. And CCSU is all but mathematically eliminated, sitting three out with six to play.
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin.
Team of the Week: Saint Francis
Both teams located out in Western PA went 2-0 on the week, winning road games at Wagner and Sacred Heart. However, while both the Red Flash and the Colonials won one-possession games in Fairfield, Saint Francis put things away early in Staten Island getting a 11-0 run early in the first half followed by a 21-2 run midway through the first period.
SFU needed to sweep the week if they wanted to get back into the title race, and boy did they. Keith Braxton dominated down the stretch at Sacred Heart, hitting a game-winning layup as the buzzer sounded, and SFU is now favored in four of their final five games, and they have two games against Robert Morris to look forward to.
Team Performance of the Week: SFU 85, WC 68
Sorry, but this will be a Red Flash-heavy Jumper. When you win a road game by 17 points, it's "Performance of the Week" territory, and the SFU scored nearly 1.15ppp thanks to a 61.1% eFG% (24-42 on twos) and holding the Seahawks to 4-29 from three.
Player of the Week: Keith Braxton, Saint Francis
Last week I had some interaction on Twitter with Ryan Peters about who was in the Player of the Year conversation, and we both thought that Isaiah Blackmon and E.J. Anosike were the leaders as of that point. Well, maybe we shouldn't count out the reigning Player of the Year in the NEC.
Braxton took over in the second half in the Red Flash's win over the Pioneers, scoring 25 points on 17 field goal attempts including the game-winner at the buzzer. Then for good measure, Braxton scored 22 points on just 8 field goal attempts (8-8 from the free throw line) in the win over Wagner.
The senior is now 3rd in the league in scoring at 17.2 ppg and is chipping in 6.8 rpg.
Others Worth Mentioning: Damian Chong Qui, Ty Flowers, Raiquan Clark
Freshman of the Week: Jamir Reed, Central Connecticut St.
In the calendar year 2020, no Blue Devils' freshman has looked more comfortable than the 6'4" wing who has played anywhere from the '1' to the '4'. In CCSU's loss to Bryant on Saturday, the freshman from Philly scored 10 points on 5-8 shooting and also added 6 rebounds and a couple of steals in 30 minutes.
In league-play, Reed is 2nd on the team in scoring at 8.8 ppg, and 3rd in rebounding (4.8 rpg) and he's shooting 37.5% from three and 85% from the free throw line.
Lines of the Week:
1. Ty Flowers, LIU 2/8 vs. MC- 25 pts (3-5 from three), 27 rebs, 3 blks
2. Damian Chong Qui, MSMU 2/8 vs. SFC- 20 pts (4-7 from three), 7 asts, 4 rebs
3. Patrick Harding, BU 2/6 vs. SFC- 14 pts (7-7 from the field), 15 rebs, 3 asts
4. Raiquan Clark, LIU 2/8 vs. MC- 20 pts (7-16 from the field), 8 rebs, 5 asts, 2 blks
5. Keith Braxton, SFU 2/6 vs. SHU- 23 pts (10-17 from the field), 6 rebs, 3 asts, 2 stls
Individual Leaderboard of the Week: Dunks Made
1. A.J. Bramah, RMU- 27
t2. Kaleb Bishop, FDU- 24
t2. Unique McLean, SFC- 24
4. Hall Elisias, BU- 21
5. Nana Opoku, MSMU- 19
6. Jare'l Spellman, SHU- 14
7. Jordan Minor, MC- 10
t8. Ty Flowers, LIU- 9
t8. Malik Jefferson, MC- 9
10. Isaiah Blackmon, SFU- 8
Team Leaderboard of the Week: Experience (per Kenpom)
1. Saint Francis- 2.27 yrs (20th nationally)
2. Long Island- 2.17 yrs (38th)
3. Robert Morris- 2.09 yrs (57th)
4. St. Francis-Brooklyn- 2.06 yrs (65th)
5. *Wagner- 1.74 yrs (165th)
6. Merrimack- 1.70 yrs (177th)
7. Sacred Heart- 1.68 yrs (184th)
8. Fairleigh Dickinson- 1.59 yrs (210th)
9. Bryant- 1.43 yrs (262nd)
10. Mount St. Mary's- 1.25 yrs (304th)
11. *Central Connecticut- 0.70 yrs (349th)
*It's worth noting that Kenpom believes both Elijah Ford (Wagner) and Zach Newkirk (Central Connecticut) are freshmen rather than sophomores, which artificially drives down both teams experience factor.
Other Stuff You Need to Know:
RMU Efficiency Margin- The Colonials currently have an Efficiency Margin of +12.1, which would rank as the 16th best in Kenpom era (dating back to 2001-02), and the best since Wagner in 2018 (12.4). The top of that list? Central Connecticut in 2001-02 which finished 19-1 and had an EM of +19.3 (Wagner in 2012 was 2nd best at 16.1). That Blue Devils team, which featured Corsley Edwards, was by far the best NEC team during this millennium.
Anyway, there's a dozen reasons why the Colonials are so good, but I think a lot has to do with experience. Andy Toole plays nary a freshman and just two sophomores (Dante Treacy), with the rest of the roster consisting of juniors and seniors. These guys know what Toole expects.
Merrimack Defense- Speaking of all-time great performances, this season Merrimack has a defensive efficiency rating of 89.2 points per 100 possession in NEC play. If they keep that up, they will rank as the 2nd best NEC defensive team in the Kenpom era. The 2010 version of Mount Mayhem, which finished with a defensive efficiency rating of 88.6, is within reach.
Larry Moreno- I know Ty Flowers is going to get all the headlines with his 27-rebound performance (and rightfully so), but I don't generally write about that stuff. Why? Because I don't really care much about single-game records, and because the headline generally speaks for itself (lots of rebounds). But another headline grabber that I just had to mention was Larry Moreno's 19 points in 20 minutes on Saturday. Moreno, a sophomore guard, had appeared in only two games up to that point in two seasons (6 minutes total) as he's dealt with injuries during his first two years in Brooklyn. However, on Saturday he knocked down 5-6 from three for an eFG% of 106% in the Terriers' 3-point win over Mount St. Mary's. Here's to hoping he gets another shot.
Juan Cardenas- After largely falling out of Jared Grasso's rotation in November and December, the 6'7" senior has come up some big games when his team needed him most; he scored 26 at Merrimack in January and had 20 in a 3-point loss to Mount St. Mary's on January 25th. Last week the Colombian poured in 27 points on 8-12 from the field, and also averaged 8.5 rebounds per game.
Dorian Jordan-Thomas- Perhaps a darkhorse All-NEC Rookie Team candidate is the 6'7" Wagner forward. Jordan-Thomas' minutes have been pretty inconsistent, but over the past three contests he's averaged 9.3 ppg and 6 rpg in ~22 minutes per. The Brockton, MA native has been incredibly efficient offensively (61.2% eFG%) and has a 13.7% offensive rebounding rate in NEC play, good for 6th in the league. His minutes will be limited until he learns how to stay out of foul trouble (he's averaging 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes), but he projects to be a strong player in the future for Bashir Mason.
Conference Efficiency Map- We'll talk more about this as the NEC Tournament approaches, but the top 4 teams in the league present a nice visual on "there's more than one way to skin a cat". Merrimack (black dot in the upper left) does it via the defense, while Saint Francis (red dot in the lower right) has been good thanks to having a strong offense. Meanwhile, Robert Morris and Sacred Heart are both good to average in both areas. If you can't be good at both offense and defense, it pays to be elite at one thing. And yes, that blue dot on the bottom left is CCSU. Map courtesy of Bart Torvik.