1. #4 Seed- We all know how important it is to finish in the NEC's top four; you get a home game in the NEC Quarterfinals, which is huge. Home teams have won 58.2% of games during the league slate, a year after teams won 58.9% on their home courts. Yes, it's a big deal. Anyway, The Sharks are currently in 4th at 7-7, and they have 1-game leads over St. Francis-Brooklyn, Mount St. Mary's, and FDU, all of whom are 6-8. LIU and the Knights already played once, a 84-70 LIU triumph in Brooklyn back on January 11th, so an Long Island win and and Fairleigh Dickinson is all but eliminated from 4th place contention. An FDU win, and things get even more muddled.
2. Speaking of the first matchup, LIU made 11 of their 29 three-point attempts and grabbed 10 offensive rebounds (28%) on their way to scoring 1.18ppp, while FDU made just 7 of 26 from deep. However, those types of offensive outbursts have been few and far between for the Sharks; they've scored better than 1.05ppp just four times in NEC play, twice against CCSU, against SFU on January 23rd, and vs. FDU. As a team, their 102.0 points per 100 possessions is just 5th in the league, and they're making just 35% of their threes. Of course, that number is more than solid, but when you take 44.4% of your shots from three and you struggle to grab offensive rebounds, it sets up for inconsistent offensive performances. If LIU is making their threes, they can be very good. If not, it can be a struggle.
3. Jahlil Jenkins- The junior point guard has been ballin' out lately; he's shooting 51.5% from three over his past seven games (17 for 33) as he's looked to be more of a scorer. In his first 16 games, Jenkins had a 101.4 O-Rating on 21.9% usage. Since January 30th? A 111.3 O-Rating on 25.7% usage. It's no coincidence that FDU has won 4 of 6 since that adjustment, with their two losses by a combined five points. Greg Herenda needed his star to be a star, and Jenkins has responded.
4. FDU's Hot Shooting- Fairleigh Dickinson is very similar to Saint Francis offensively in that neither takes a lot of three-pointers (just 35.8% of their shots are from behind the three-point line), but they make the ones that they do take, as they're shooting 39.3% from deep (1st in the NEC). But it's not just from three; they're making 50.2% from two, and lead the league with a 74.9% FT%. In fact, four members of their rotation (Devon Dunn, Elyjah Williams, Xzavier Malone-Key, and Brandon Powell) have eFG% north of 52% (league average is 49.8%), while Jahlil Jenkins and Kaleb Bishop aren't far below that at 49.6% and 48.2%, respectively. There are a lot of guys who can make shots from all over the floor.
5. Size Difference- Long Island is one of the more undersized teams in the Northeast Conference (and the country). Sure, Ty Flowers is 6'9" and Raiquan Clark is a grown man at 6'6" 195 lbs., but the Sharks backcourt is filled with diminutive types; Jermaine Jackson Jr., Jashaun Agosto, and Julian Batts are all listed at 6'0" or shorter. Meanwhile, FDU has some size on the wings; Brandon Powell goes 6'2", Brandon Rush is 6'3", and Xzavier Malone-Key is 6'4". Size isn't everything (that's not what she said), and neither team is particularly strong in the rebounding department, but it could present a challenge for LIU on the defensive end.
Sunday's Game to Watch: MC at MSMU
Things To Watch:
1. Mount Fading- Through February 6th, the Mount was 6-4 in the league and had swept Long Island; not a bad position to be in for a team on the up-swing and hoping for a Top-4 finish. Since then, however, things haven't gone well. In four games, all losses, Dan Engelstad's bunch has had a -19.3 Efficiency Margin (97.6 points per 100 possessions on the offensive side, and they've allowed 116.9 points per 100 possessions). The offensive performance is likely just a blip, but that defense? Woof! In their last three games, opponents have shot 49% from three. However, it appears no one wants that final home playoff game, because both LIU and FDU lost very winnable games last week. It's not too late for a turnaround for Mount St. Mary's.
2. Merrimack's final push- It's hard to believe that Merrimack (Merrimack!) has a good shot to win the Northeast Conference regular-season title, but here we are. The Warriors are currently sitting at 12-3 in the league, one-game up on both Robert Morris and Saint Francis. Kenpom projects them to finish 14-4 (they have two home games against Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut, as well as this roadie in Emmitsburg), while both RMU and SFU are projected to finish 13-5. Going 2-1 over their final three games should be doable. Give Joe Gallo the Jim Phelan NEC Coach of the Year Award right now.
3. Merrimack's Defense- No, I'm not going to say what you think. Actually, quite the opposite. In two games last week, a home game against Wagner and at Bryant, Merrimack allowed 1.01ppp, which is very uncharacteristic of Joe Gallo's defense. In fact, in the 68-59 win over Wagner, MC allowed 1.05ppp, which was their worst defensive performance of their conference season, and the 0.97ppp at Bryant was their 3rd worst (Bryant scored 1.04ppp in North Andover on January 15th). Is the Merrimack defense slipping? Have NEC teams finally developed a blue-print on how to beat that zone? It's probably just a small-sample size blip, but it bears watching.
4. Will any points be scored?- Obviously that's hyperbole, right (right?!), but really, this may not be a fun game to watch. Merrimack is allowing a league-low 45.9% eFG%, while Mount St. Mary's has a league-worst 46.5% eFG%. On the flip side, Merrimack's offensive efficiency of 97.1 points per 100 possessions is just 8th in the league. Oh, and these two teams are the only NEC programs with a tempo slower than 66.7 possessions per 40 minutes (63.4 for Merrimack, 63.3 for the Mount). This could be a 55-possession, sub-1.00ppp game. First to 45 wins?
5. Malik Jefferson- In the first matchup between these two teams back on January 9th (a 64-61 Merrimack win), Malik Jefferson went off; 19 points on 9 of 16 shooting, plus 8 boards in 35 minutes. The 6'9" big has cut his foul rate by 60% from last season to this year (3.8 fouls per 40 minutes at a sophomore, 6.1 as a freshman), which has led to him playing more minutes and being more productive. Jefferson is coming off a monster 19/9 game at Wagner on Tuesday, and given the issues the Warriors have had with size, Jefferson would likely be a big reason if Mount St. Mary's were able to pull off an upset Sunday.