1. The Title Run- According to Bart Torvik's Title Odds, the Warriors have a 36.9% chance to win the league outright and a 64.6% chance to finish at least tied atop the standings. Who would have thunk it? Merrimack doesn't exactly face a gauntlet down the stretch; their road trips remaining are at Bryant and at Mount St. Mary's, with home games against Wagner, Sacred Heart and CCSU. 4-2 is certainly a realistic expectation over those final six games (including this one), and while they split with Robert Morris, the Colonials are only projected to finish 13-5 by Kenpom, while it has Merrimack at 14-4.
2. Turnovers- In league play, Merrimack is forcing opponents to turn it over at a 27.9% clip, which doesn't just lead the league, it's the highest defensive turnover rate by an NEC team in the history of Kenpom, dating back to 2001-02 (and their 25.9% full-season turnover rate is 4th nationally). The Terriers have done a really nice job in protecting the ball, leading the NEC by coughing it up in just 17.6% of their possessions. However, on January 30th in North Andover, SFC turned it over 22 times (32% of possessions) resulting in 20 points off turnovers for Merrimack. Chauncey Hawkins had five, while Unique McLean and Stevan Krtinic each had four turnovers. They'll need to do a better job on Thursday.
3. Unique McLean- The 6'2" grad-transfer from UMass has been all sorts of fun this season. The senior wing is tied for second in the league in dunks with 24 (no other player shorter than 6'7" has more than 8 dunks), ranks in the top 16 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate (9th overall with 7.4 rpg) and is scoring 11.1 ppg. If the Terriers get out on a break, watch out.
4. Points in the Paint- One of Joe Gallo's defensive staples is to take away open looks from the perimeter; the Warriors are allowing a league low 30.3% three-point attempt rate. However, they also do a nice job of limiting points inside the three-point arc, holding teams to just 44.7% on twos. In the first match-up between these two schools, the Warriors struggled to get looks at the rim (just 7 for 15), and instead settled for mid-range jumpers, making just 2 of 17. They have to figure out how to get easy buckets in the paint.
5. Merrimack's Freshmen- Obviously Merrimack has a really strong veteran nucleus of Juvaris Hayes, Jaleel Lord, Idris Joyner, and Devin Jensen. But perhaps what's been nearly as impressive is Joe Gallo's first recruiting class as a D-1 head coach. He's got a great shooting guard in Mykel Derring (35.4% from deep in league play), a stretchy-four in 6'6" Ziggy Reid (32% from three, 1.8% block rate), and a good big in 6'8" Jordan Minor, who has the best offensive rebounding rate in the nation (20.2%) and a 6.3% block rate, plus he's gotten to the free throw line 85 times in 24 games. With Jensen and sophomore guard Mikey Watkins in line to return next season, Merrimack doesn't appear to be a one-hit wonder.
Saturday's Game to Watch: SHU at LIU
1. Home Playoff Game- It's obviously beneficial to finish as one of the top 4 teams in the league to earn that all-important home game in the Quarterfinals (home teams have won nearly 60% of NEC games so far this season), and the Pios are in a great position to do just that; Kenpom projects them to finish 11-7, which would place them 3rd among the teams eligible for the NEC Tournament, and they already own the tie-breaker with Mount St. Mary's by virtue of their 58-53 win over the Mount on January 30th (the only match-up between those two schools). Long Island, on the other hand, has some work to do thanks to being swept by the Mount. Sweeping Sacred Heart (these two close out the season in Fairfield in 2/29) would help.
2. Turnovers- The Pios rank in at least the top 6 in the NEC in all of the "4 Factors" on both sides of the ball with the exception of turnovers; they're 10th in turnover rate (21.1%), and 10th in forcing turnovers (16.6%). Defensively there really hasn't been a need to take chances on the perimeter given their ability to protect the rim (thanks to Jare'l Spellman) and limit open shots (they're allowing a 46.9% eFG% in league play, 2nd in the NEC). However, offensively the turnovers have hurt; in two one-possession losses last week to teams currently sitting above them in the standings (Saint Francis and Robert Morris), Sacred Heart turned it over on 23.7% of their possessions. In the SFU game, Koreem Ozier coughed it up 5 times, while Aaron Clarke and EJ Anosike had three apiece. On Saturday against RMU, Ozier had four turnovers while Clarke had 3 (with just 1 assist). Long Island, meanwhile, has forced turnovers in nearly 20% of their defensive possessions thanks to the quickness they have on the perimeter.
3. No 2-Foul Autobench Here- The Northeast Conference has some young, progressive coaches (Andy Toole, Jared Grasso, and Joe Gallo immediately come to mind), but both Anthony Latina and Derek Kellogg show a lot of "new-school traits", especially when it comes to not automatically benching players who pick up their 2nd fouls in the first half. Latina has allowed players with two fouls in the first half to play 34.4% of the time, which is 55th nationally, while Kellogg is slightly below that at 32.2% (70th). Personally, I love it; how many times do you see a guy sit with two fouls in the first half, and they end up finishing with just three fouls? I'm very pro-not needlessly keeping your best players out of the game. Anyway; you likely won't have to worry about seeing a good game marred by having their team's best players on the bench due to foul trouble for long stretches on Saturday.
4. Koreem Ozier- After he returned from his suspension for his altercation with some SFU players, Ozier came off the bench for the next three games and was dynamite; the sophomore wing averaged 18.3 ppg thanks to a 61.8% eFG% and more assists (8) than turnovers (7). However, last week (upon being reinserted into the starting lineup) he struggled, averaging 13 ppg while still shooting the ball efficiently (63.3% eFG%) but turning it over 9 times to go along with 7 assists. Sacred Heart really needs Ozier to be an efficient high-usage scorer for their offense to click. I don't happen to buy into the old "he's better off the bench" trope, but I wonder if we see Latina go back to having Ozier as a reserve.
5. Ty Flowers- I think this prior to most games the Sharks play but; how in the world will Sacred Heart match-up with a 6'9" guy who can kill it on the boards (he had 27 rebounds on Saturday, ICYMI), is shooting 30% from three and can put it on the deck and finish inside the arc (54% on twos)? Last season it would have been easy to put Spellman on Raiquan Clark and dare him to beat you from outside, but the senior has improved his 3P% from 26% as a junior to 39% this season. That chess match will be fun to watch, and LIU will do all it can to get Spellman away from the rim.