For the first time since January 12, 2019, Central Connecticut State has won two games in a row. Huzzah! On Tuesday, the Blue Devils made an 18-point 1st half lead hold up by making some big plays down the stretch as they knocked off a hot Fairleigh Dickinson 76-75, two days after beating Bryant at home 75-70. Kudos to Donyell Marshall and his staff for continuing to work hard on developing this young group of players, and great job by the guys of continuing to fight.
Does CCSU have an outside chance of making the NEC Tournament? Sure, but it's very unlikely. Central (and Wagner) are currently chasing Bryant for the 8th and final playoff spot, but the Bulldogs were able to beat Merrimack on Tuesday night, which obviously didn't help matters.
Bryant is currently 5-9, which means they are three games up in the loss column with just four games remaining. Because Bryant has wins over both Merrimack and Saint Francis, CCSU effectively needs to finish ahead of Bryant in the standings since the Bulldogs will own any tie-breakers (Merrimack is included for the tie-breaker scenarios).
According to Bart Torvik, the odds of Bryant losing all of their remaining games is just 5.2%. The odds of CCSU winning their final three games? Just 0.6%. The odds of both things happening? .03%. Yeah, it's not looking good.
But you didn't come here to be told CCSU would be eliminated with either a Bryant win or a Blue Devils loss, you want to know why this team has suddenly improved, right? Let's dig in!
1. Yes, that's right. This team is getting better! Sure, it's (probably) too little to late to salvage this season, but one can dream about 2020-21, yeah? Anyway, when CCSU lost to Sacred Heart 82-54 on January 23rd, I thought it was the worst Central had looked all season (and I tweeted that sentiment). Since then? They've been a completely different team. Let's look at the offensive and defensive efficiency (and thus, Efficiency Margin) in NEC play before/after that date, shall we?:
Prior to that 28-point loss to the Pios at Detrick Gym, the Blue Devils were tracking to be the worst team in Northeast Conference history (at least during the Kenpom era). Since then? They're playing like slightly below .500 team (8-10ish or 7-11ish), which is not great, but quite an improvement, especially for a team this young.
2. Of course, I'm not going to stop there. They're playing better both offensively and defensively but, like, why?
Anecdotally, there seems to be more ball movement and more sharing of the basketball on the offensive end. Does that show up in the numbers?
In the team's first 8 league games, CCSU averaged a 37.3% assist rate and a 21.1% turnover rate. Over the last 7 games? 47.6% assist rate and 14.8% turnover rate. More assists and fewer turnovers? Sign me up!
What's more; the team's overall eFG% has improved from 43.4% to 51.1% over those last 7 games on the strength of 43% shooting from three (30.3% in the first 8 games of the NEC slate). And you know what's almost as good as making more threes? Taking more! Yes, they are averaging 20.7 three-point attempts per contest, up from 16.5.
Yeah, they're still taking too many long-twos (33% of their field goal attempts, which is essentially in line with their season average), and they're not making a higher percentage. But they've been better at the rim (56% compared to 48%), and I think a large part of that is the penetration and passing.
3. Defensively, again it just feels like they are "getting after it" more, doesn't it? While I don't have time to dig into the defensive numbers as deeply as I have on the offensive side, there seems to be much more of an improvement in limiting three-point attempts.
First 8 NEC games: Opponents shot 43.5% on 25 3P attempts per game.
Last 7 NEC games: Opponents shot 34.5% on 20.3 3P attempts per game.
Again, that's not great, but it's better. Guys are working harder to get out on shooters, and there's plenty of quickness to prevent the dribble drive.
4. Voice in my head: But Matt, why?
Me: Why, what?
Voice: Like, why have they gotten better on both sides of the ball? What happened?
Me: So I can't just quit there? Can I just say 'this team is young and maturing, the freshmen are now sophomores, they're working hard and getting better'?
Well, ok. For starters: I do think that naturally maturing has been at least a part of the improvement. When you add ten new players to a Division 1 roster, there's bound to be a learning curve. Plus, I think the coaching staff has continued to work hard at developing the group of young players, and it's shown up in the numbers for more than one player (more on that below). But neither of those fully explain why, on January 25th, we started seeing a completely different team than we did the 20 games prior.
Of course, there's also this, which is awkward to discuss, but I think it deserves to be; CCSU senior forward Jamir Coleman did not play on January 23rd against Sacred Heart, though he was dressed and on the bench. Then, on January 25th when CCSU beat Wagner 86-76 for their first Division 1 win, neither Coleman nor Stephane Ayangma were anywhere to be found, and that would be the case until February 8th, when both players returned, albeit in much more limited roles.
From what I understand, both Coleman and Ayangma were both dealing with the flu, but it's clear that since they've returned neither player has the role they had prior to getting sick.
Prior to the "layoff", Jamir Coleman was averaging 21.2 mpg and had started all but one contest. Since then? Just 15.7 mpg, zero starts, and in Tuesday's win over Fairleigh Dickinson he did not play (though from what I understand he's still not 100%). Ayangma, meanwhile, averaged 21.7 mpg prior to the layoff, and has played just 7.3 minutes per contest since.
Is there a correlation between Coleman and Ayangma's layoff and the improved performance? It's impossible to know, but I would guess it's at least played a minor role. Coleman has really struggled on both ends of the floor this year (his eFG% has dropped from 48% as a junior to 44.7% as a senior), and despite that he's carried a 26.1% usage rate (only Myles Baker, at 26.3%, is higher), plus he's been dreadful defensively. Ayangma, meanwhile, has been largely fine; there's little difference overall between he, Karrington Wallace, and Xavier Wilson, though the latter two have really played well since Ayangma's apparent demotion.
We've all heard the term "addition through subtraction", and it's at least reasonable to theorize that that term may apply here.
5. OK, so now for the fun. I broke the season up into three segments of nine games, we'll call them "early, middle, and late", in an attempt to see which players have experienced the largest performance improvement. There's a handful of guys who have gotten quite a bit better since November.
Jamir Reed- Anecdotally I didn't think anyone improved more than Reed this season, and the numbers bear that out. The 6'4" versatile wing improved his O-Rating from 82.6 early in the season to 109.4 over the past nine games (17.3% usage) on the strength of 60.4% eFG% (it was just 43.2% early in the season), and his defensive rebounding rate has soared from 12.5% to 19.6% as he's seen more time as a "small-ball 4".
While he's become a much more reliable shooter (his 3P% has improved from 31% early, to 37% in the middle of the season, to 42% late), he's also shown a much more concerted effort to use his size to get the ball to the rim (30% of his shots over the past nine games have come at the rim, compared to ~20% prior to that). Unlike many of his teammates, Reed hasn't had shot selection issues (just 19% of his shots have come from the mid-range on the year), but getting to the rim is huge for him. Add in getting his Assist/Turnover ratio above 1.0 (it's been 1.2 over the past nine games), Reed has emerged as the most well-rounded player on this roster, and should find himself on the NEC's All-Rookie Team.
Xavier Wilson- Wilson, a 6'7" big, wowed me upon first sight; he's physically imposing, and much more athletic than you'd expect. However, as is the case for most big-men at this level, the learning curve was steep. Over his first nine games, Wilson had a 35% eFG%, a 14.4% turnover rate (that's high for a big), and struggled to get rebounds over stronger and more experienced bigs. However, he's starting to figure it out, and there's one major data-point showing how:
% of shots at the rim/FG% at the rim
Early in the season- 34%/41.2%
Middle of the season- 44.2%/57.9%
Late in the season- 54.4%/54.8%
I don't want to hurt Wilson's feelings but, his jump-shot needs a lot of work. It doesn't look right, and the numbers aren't kind; he's shooting 25% from the mid-range, 20% from three (6 for 30), and just 45% from the free throw line. But when you're listed at 6'7" 210 lbs., you can get things done down low, and that's what Wilson has started doing. Add in a 7% block rate (4th in the league) and a 6.3% offensive rebounding rate (22nd), and you've got yourself a good young big. Plus, do you know how many freshmen 6'7" or taller have played more than 40% of their team's minutes this season? Just Xavier Wilson, who is playing nearly 50% of available minutes. He's getting better, and he'll have significant experience as a sophomore.
Trey Tennyson- I have a soft spot for the 6'4" wing from Texas, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because he was the first of his class to commit to CCSU, maybe it's because he's a shooter (I do love shooters), and maybe it's because I like his name. Who knows?!
Anyway, Tennyson began the season as the backup point guard and, well, it didn't go great. He had a 64.0 O-Rating in his first nine games thanks to a 34% eFG% and nearly 30% turnover rate. His biggest issue was decision making; he consistently took ill-advised shots (just 2-16 from two) and made a lot of poor passes. And of course, he saw less playing time because of it.
Over the last few weeks, however, Tennyson has been pressed into service given that the depth has been tested, and he's responded. He's made 10 of his 18 three-point attempts over the past nine games (47% on the season), which has resulted in an O-Rating of 110.5 on 22.6% usage. Tennyson is more of a 3&D guy than he is a true "scorer" at this stage of his development, and it appears he's finally embraced that role, while also improving his decision making.
Myles Baker- With Coleman gone from the rotation, it's the wing from Chicago who has become the go-to scorer; Baker has seen is usage increase from 25.3% early in the year to a Tyler Kohl-level 29.2%, and yet his O-Rating has increased accordingly (from 76.7 to 91.8).
The 6'2" combo-guard's largest improvement has come in finishing at the rim; over the team's first 18 games, he was just 15 of 41 (37%) on such shots, however over his past nine games he's made 12 of his 23 shots at the rim (52%), and has also knocked down 32.5% of his three-pointers. Plus, Baker has taken better care of the ball (just a 15% turnover rate, down from 22% early in the year and 26.5% in the middle of the season when he was playing a lot of point guard), and has done a better job in getting to the free throw line where he's converting at a 76% clip. A 33% three-point shooter who can put it on the deck and finish at the rim and/or get to the free throw line? Sure, that'll do.
Zach Newkirk- I've been hard on Newkirk, but over the past nine games he's been solid. His O-Ratings and usage:
Early- 65.1, 13%
Middle- 78.3, 13.2%
Late- 102.3, 10.9%
His eFG% has stayed in the low 40's (43.2% over the past nine games), but it's his assist and turnover rates that have driven the overall improvement:
Early- 14.3% Arate, 38.1% TOrate
Middle- 11.4% Arate, 28.5% TOrate
Late- 20.1% Arate, 14.4% TOrate
Of course, his playing time has been reduced accordingly, from 65.3% early in the year to 40.3% late in the season (thanks to Tyler Rowe), so that's one reason for the improvement. But the other explanation just might be that, as a sophomore coming from a junior college, the speed of Division 1 basketball just took some getting used to.
I still think Newkirk needs to become a more reliable shooter (he's attempted just two three-pointers over the last nine games, and is shooting 40% from the mid-range) to become a worthy starting point guard in the Northeast Conference, but given his strong perimeter defense and ability to take care of the basketball, he's shown that he's more than deserving to be part of the rotation going forward, something I wasn't so sure about three months ago.
6. Ian Krishnan has become a straight up killer as a sophomore. The 6'2" 2-guard, who missed the first semester due to being ruled academically ineligible, is shooting 46% from three in conference play (4th in the league), and has improved his eFG% from 44.7% a season ago to 54.5% this year.
Not only is he shooting it better from deep, but he's become less one-dimensional; his share of field goal attempts at the rim have increased from 13.5% to 20.7%, and he's making them at a much higher clip (47% compared to 36% as a freshman). Krishnan is averaging 12.8 ppg, is 3rd in the league in free throw shooting (85%), and he's more than doubled the amount of times he's gotten to the free throw line in three fewer games this season (40 times as a sophomore, 17 FTA as a freshman in league play).
7.NEC Rookie of the Year- Are any of CCSU's freshmen in the discussion for the NEC ROY? Let's take a gander:
Let's face reality; the guys who tend to win these awards are the players who show up on leader-boards and have strong "per game" numbers. Therefore, I'm going to guess that Rob Higgins from St. Francis-Brooklyn will win the NEC ROY Award with Green, Pride, Outlaw and Reed joining him on the All-Rookie Team (deciding between Lin and Outlaw was tough), though I reserve to change my picks as we get closer to the end of the season.
If it were up to me (I'll talk to Ron Ratner about becoming the sole voter for the NEC's awards), I'd give the award to Charles Pride of Bryant. He's been the most efficient offensive player (outside of Dunn and Jordan-Thomas, who haven't played a ton of minutes), and he's also one of the best defenders in the league.
I do think Reed has a good shot at making the All-Rookie team, while Outlaw has a 50/50 chance and Baker has an outside shot.
8. I hate addressing this stuff, I really do, but it's a popular topic among CCSU fans so I feel like I need to say something: a few weeks ago in my last "Thoughts" column, I suggested that the CCSU administration needed to do something with regard to Donyell Marshall's future as Central's head coach; either extend him one year through 2021-22, or figure out a way to part ways. And that's where I continue to stand; no, the last four years have not been good (just one playoff appearance and a 19-50 record in NEC Play), but at the same time there is a nucleus of young and talented players who are obviously improving, and I'd hate to see that get blown up.
Personally, I'd take comfort in either way the administration decided to go; either you believe in Marshall and his staff, or you don't. After four years, President Toro and Tom Pincince should have a strong feeling whether Marshall is the right guy to lead this program or not. The only way I'd be disappointed is if the University did *nothing*, which unfortunately is what I expect to happen given the fiscal issues the school (and state) are facing.
And for those that think Marshall should just resign; stop it. Why in the world would he walk away from his contract when he could return his entire rotation from a team that seems to have turned the corner? If I were him, not only would I never consider resigning, but I wouldn't even agree to a settlement if the University wanted to get rid of me. Let me coach my players or pay me my money.
9. Rapid-Fire Thoughts: Tyler Rowe knocked down a big three-pointer late in the win over Fairleigh Dickinson, and what was notable about it was that it was a "catch-and-shoot". Rowe has a very bad habit of taking shots off the dribble, and he takes more mid-range jumpers than any other player in the Northeast Conference (58.3% of his shots), making just 28.6% of them...Greg Outlaw is another guy who, if he would limit his jumpers to "catch-and-shoots", would have made the NEC's All-Rookie Team. He still might, but he's shooting just 25.4% from the mid-range, yet he kills it at the rim (57.4%). He's going to either have to develop his jump shot, or realize that forcing his own offense is going to hurt his (and his team's) overall performance...I'm a big fan of playing your best five players as much as possible, and over the past nine games those players have been; Ian Krishnan, Jamir Reed, Trey Tennyson, Karrington Wallace, and Myles Baker. Marshall has shown a willingness to play small with Reed at the '4', so why not go without a "true" point guard as well? Baker, Tennyson, and Reed are all strong enough ball-handlers to probably make it work, and the amount of shooting you'd have on the floor would really open up the offense...Bruce Biel mentioned it during the Wagner broadcast, but Marshall really needs to bring in a starting caliber point guard and a big who can provide rebounding and rim protection. This off-season would be the perfect time to bring in a grad transfer or two...I'll go on record as guessing (estimating?) that Marshall will end up with four scholarships to work with for the class of 2020; Coleman (graduating), Udofia (he's still listed on the team's roster but hasn't been on the bench in over a month and is no longer listed in the Game Notes), one rotation player transfer, and one non-rotation player transfer...I didn't mention him above because he missed so much time due to an ankle injury earlier in the season, but Karrington Wallace has a 54.3% eFG% and a 6.2% block rate over his last eight games, plus he's made 8 of his last 9 free throw attempts. If he would just stop taking 15-foot jumpers early in the shot clock...I'm thankful Marshall stopped utilizing the full-court press on a regular basis...Xavier Wilson has 18 blocked shots in 15 NEC games (1.2 per game), which is 11th in the league. Karrington Wallace is 14th at 0.9 bpg...In Tuesday's win over FDU, the Blue Devils held a 33-15 1st half lead, which at the time gave them a win probability of 77.9% (according to Kenpom), yet held on for the win by the skin of their teeth. Back on January 30th, Central had a 21-point lead with 16 minutes left (67.3% win probability), yet ended up losing to SFU 84-77. Marshall is going to have to figure out how to hold on to big leads...I can't friggin wait for March to begin. Yeah, Central won't be playing (yet again), but it's still the best month of the year.