One week from Wednesday, the Northeast Conference Quarterfinals kick off. We do know where three of those games will be played (Loretto, Moon Township, and Fairfield), but that's about all we know at this point. The #1 seed is up for grabs, as is the 4th and final home QF game, and the 8th and final NEC Tournament spot. It should be a fun weekend ahead!
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin.
Team of the Week: Saint Francis
According to Haslametrics, the Red Flash had their 2nd best performance of the 2019-20 season last Tuesday when they thumped Robert Morris in Loretto 86-71, then on Sunday they held on for a 3-point win at home against Long Island.
Saint Francis are the winners of seven straight, and for the first time all season they've ascended to #1 in the league in Efficiency Margin at +9.8. Over their last 4 games, their average Game Score (courtesy of Bart Torvik) was 61.8, easily the highest of any other NEC team (Sacred Heart is 2nd at 48.8). This team is clicking at the right time.
What's more; they've put themselves in a position to earn the #1 seed and a regular-season title. No matter what happens against Mount St. Mary's on Thursday (Kenpom has them as a ten-point favorite), SFU and Robert Morris are set to play for the #1 seed in the NEC Tournament on Saturday. Fun!
Team Performance of the Week: SFU 86, RMU 71
We mentioned this game above, but it's worth hammering home how dominant the Red Flash was in this game; they scored 1.21ppp by making 9 of 20 from three and grabbing a whopping 18 offensive rebounds (46.2%).
Player of the Week: Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis
Should we just give Blackmon the NEC Player of the Year Award right now? The 6'1" senior was dominant last week in two SFU wins, scoring 51 points (9-17 from deep), to go along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 steals. Blackmon is second in the league in scoring at 19 ppg, 1st in 3P% (43.8%), 5th in steals per game (1.6), and is also in the top 20 in rebounding (5.4 rpg).
Bryant needed a big week to stave off charging Wagner for the 8th and final NEC Playoff spot, and Green was a big reason why the Bulldogs went 2-1 and nearly knocked off Sacred Heart on Sunday. The diminutive point guard averaged 16.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in three games, and turned it over just 3 times per game. He's currently 8th in the league in assists (3.3 apg), and has ascended as the primary lead guard for Jared Grasso.
Others Worth Mentioning: Ziggy Reid, Rob Higgins, Tyler Thomas, Xavier Wilson, Benson Lin
Lines of the Week:
1. Isaiah Blackmon, SFU- 2/18 vs. RMU- 30 pts (12-18 from the field), 7 rbs, 3 asts, 4 stls.
2. Nana Opoku, MSMU- 2/23 vs. MC- 25 pts (11-19 from the field), 14 rbs, 3 asts, 3 blks
3. Juvaris Hayes, MC- 2/21 vs. SHU- 22 pts (8-19 from the field), 8 asts, 6 rbs, 6 stls.
4. Ty Flowers, LIU- 2/21 vs. FDU- 20 pts, 14 rbs, 3 asts, 2 stls
5. Jermaine Jackson, Jr., LIU- 2/18 vs. SFC- 30 pts (10-19 from the field), 4 rbs, 3 asts, 2 stls
Individual Leaderboard of the Week: A/TO ratio (conference games only)
1. Chase Freeman, Wagner- 3.5
2. Jon Williams, Robert Morris- 2.6
3. Dante Treacy, Robert Morris- 2.4
4. Jashaun Agosto, Long Island- 2.3
5. Tyler Rowe, Central Connecticut- 2.3
6. Damian Chong Qui, Mount St. Mary's- 2.1
7. Devon Dunn, Fairleigh Dickinson- 2.0
8. Rob Higgins, St. Francis-Brooklyn- 2.0
9. Aaron Clarke, Sacred Heart- 1.9
10. Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack- 1.9
Team Leaderboard of the Week: Average Game Score, last 4 games (per Bart Torvik)
1. Saint Francis- 61.8
2. Sacred Heart- 48.8
3. Merrimack- 33.8
4. Mount St. Mary's- 30.3
5. Bryant- 29.3
6. Wagner- 28.5
7. Fairleigh Dickinson- 26.8
8. Central Connecticut- 24.8
9. Long Island- 22.0
10. St. Francis-Brooklyn- 19
11. Robert Morris- 18.3
A Quick Note on Robert Morris
As noted above, over their last 4-games Robert Morris has been objectively the worst team in the NEC. Is it time to panic? Of course not! It's just 4 games, one of which they won, and it included two games against a surging Fairleigh Dickinson, plus a trip to Loretto. Going 1-3 in that 4-game stretch wasn't expected, but based on projections the only game they should have won and didn't was the home game against the Knights, which they lost 72-71.
But I wanted to see what's going on with RMU and it appears it's the defense. Check out these numbers:
First 13 NEC Games:
Defensive Efficiency: 0.93ppp
Average Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 98.9 points per 100 possessions
Last 4 NEC Games:
Defensive Efficiency: 1.11pp
Average Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 112.5 points per 100 possessions
Part of that is due to three-point defense, as they've allowed their last 4 opponents to shoot 41% from beyond the arc (33.2% overall in league play), plus in each of the Colonials' last three losses, there was a different area in which they uncharacteristically struggled:
2/15 vs. FDU- Forced just 5 turnovers (12.3% of possessions). On the season they force their opponents to cough it up on 21.9% of their defensive possessions.
2/18 vs. SFU- Allowed 18 offensive rebounds (46.2%) compared to RMU's NEC-season average of 26.9%.
2/23 vs. FDU- FDU shot 19-30 from two compared to RMU's NEC-season average of 49.1%.
While the Colonials have had issues defending the interior (they do allow teams to shoot 49.1% on twos, which is 3rd worst in the league), they still have the 2nd best overall defense in the league thanks to forcing a ton of turnovers (2nd), limiting offensive rebounds (3rd), and now allowing teams to get to the free throw line (3rd). Are they suddenly no longer a good defensive team? I'd bet against it.
All this to say- don't worry about Andy Toole's club. Unless there is an injury we aren't aware of, this is likely just a blip.
Which Players Have Improved from Non-Conference to Conference Play
We often hear about newcomers having an adjustment period when it comes to joining a new school; freshman have freedom (and 8am classes) for the first time, while transfers (specifically junior college guys) have to acclimate to a 4-year school, while also blending into a team that may have returned a number of rotation players. Plus, it takes time for coaches to figure out how to utilize new guys' strengths.
My working theory is that junior college transfers are the guys who improve most in-season, so I wanted to test that. Below are the players who saw the largest improvement according to Bart Torvik's PORPAGATU! metric. Why that? Because it's the best publicly-available catch-all metric.
Without further ado:
1. Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis (2.7 in non-conference, 5.7 in conference play)- Blackmon was one of the best players in the NEC back in November/December, but he's easily been the best player since the turn of the calendar. While his usage dipped a bit from 26.4% to 23.3% (perhaps he's not trying to do too much?), his eFG% has exploded from 46.7% to 62.1% thanks to making 47.3% of his three-point attempts. I can't help but wonder if part of the improvement is being even further out from knee surgery and getting the strength/comfort with it that he had prior.
2. A.J. Bramah, Robert Morris (0.8 to 3.6),- This is no surprise to me; Bramah has a good shot to end up on the All-NEC 1st team, and no one would have thought that back on January 1st. Bramah's eFG% shot up from 45.6% to 60.1%, he cut his turnovers nearly in half (from 21.8% to 11.2%), and he's become one of the best rebounders in the league. Junior college transfer taking a couple of months to settle in? That could explain it.
3. Brandon Powell, Fairleigh Dickinson (-0.7 to 1.8)- I think many people expected Powell to step into the starting lineup this season as the 2-guard, and that didn't quite happen; after the first two months of the season, the sophomore sharp-shooter was playing less than half the available minutes and while he was shooting 34.6% from three, he made just 4 of 23 from two (including just 3-18 at the rim), plus he had a 20.6% turnover rate. In league play he's up to 57% at the rim, 46.4% from three, and he's only take 9 two-point jumpers. A good shooter with strong shot selection? That'll play.
4. Ramiir Dixon-Conover (-1.8 to 0.4), Saint Francis- In the non-conference, at least according to PORPAGATU!, RDC was the 2nd least valuable player in the Northeast Conference; he had a 39.1% eFG% and whopping 49.2% turnover rate. Since then though, he's settled in as a solid back-up PG; he's cut his turnover rate to a still-high 30.8%, but he's finished at the rim (75% FG%), and he went 4-4 from three in a win over Central Connecticut back on January 30th. Plus, he's one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, so if he can be serviceable offensively, that's a huge lift for the Red Flash.
5. Zach Newkirk, Central Connecticut (-2.2 to -0.2)- A very similar stat line to Ramiir Dixon-Conover, the sophomore JUCO transfer really struggled in his first taste of D-1 hoops; he had an eFG% of 40.7%, turned of over on 34.9% of his possessions, and he had a low 14.2% assist rate. Once teammate Tyler Rowe became eligible, it allowed Newkirk to come off the bench in a reserve role and he's gotten more comfortable as the season has gone on; he's made 5 of 11 from three, his turnover rate is down to 21.3%, and he's still playing strong perimeter defense.
6. Xavier Wilson, Central Connecticut (-1.6 to 0.2)- A 6'7" big, the February version of Wilson looks nothing like the November version. The freshman had a 33.3% eFG% thanks to really struggling with his jump shot; just 4 for 19 from three and 6 of 22 from the mid-range, and he looked like a first-year player who was used to being the #1 scoring option on his team (like many freshman). He's been able to incrementally improve his eFG% to 41.9% by getting the majority of his offense in the paint (51% of his shot attempts, compared to 32% in the non-league). Wilson has the league's 5th best block rate (6.5%), so any value he can give them on the offensive end is a pure bonus.
7. Vado Morse, Mount St. Mary's (0.0 to 1.5)- I truly thought Morse could be a darkhorse POY candidate this season, and instead a knee bruise really hampered him throughout the early part of the season. While his usage has dipped a bit due to the emergence of Damian Chong Qui, his 3P% has improved from 30% to 34% and he's getting to the rim again (40% of his field goal attempts, compared to just 12.2% in November and December). I think this is a case of "star player gets healthy".
8. Tyrone Nesby, Wagner (-0.4 to 1.1)- This is the classic case of why shooters should keep shooting. Nesby, a sophomore, made just 26% of his three-pointers in the non-conference. However, Bashir Wagner continued to trust the 6'5" wing, and he's responding by shooting 30% from three in league play, but he's also made his twos (62.5%) which correlates with a strong 50.1% eFG%. Combine his penchant for not turning the ball over (7.6% turnover rate), and you have a solid sharp-shooter with size.
9. Aaron Clarke, Sacred Heart (1 to 2.4)- We've chronicled Clarke quite a bit in these parts, but it's worth rehashing; the sophomore combo-guard became the starting point guard when Cameron Parker went down with a broken foot, and all Clarke has done is post a 1.9:1 Assist/Turnover ratio and carry a 51.8% eFG% in league play while seeing his minutes increase. Given the steady hand he's provided the Pios, one would hope he finds himself on the All-NEC 3rd team. Where would SHU be without him?
10. Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary's (0.3 to 1.7)- Opoku has a strange profile for an NEC player; at 6'9" he's a freak athlete who has the ability to step out and knock shots down from range. Maybe Dan Engelstad had to figure out how to appropriately utilize him? Or maybe Opoku is just starting to figure it out? Or both? No matter what, Opoku saw his O-Rating improve from 93.6 in the non-conference to 106.7 in league play as his assist rate more than doubled, his turnover rate dropped from 22.9% to 15.9%, and he's become one of the best offensive rebounders in the league (11.4%, 4th). That sophomore frontcourt of Opoku and Malik Jefferson should be scary next season.