A lot has changed around our parts since March, when Robert Morris knocked off the Red Flash 77-67 to advance to the NCAA Tournament that, unfortunately, never happened; there was (and still is) a pandemic, a member institution left the Northeast Conference, we had a presidential election, and a bunch of players transferred. No, we’re not going to discuss the Coronavirus (much), nor are we going to touch upon the election (at all), but let’s get to those other things.
In case your mind was focused on other things over the summer (we'll let it slide), Robert Morris is no longer a member of the Northeast Conference. On July 1, the Colonials became the 12th member of the Horizon League, taking with them a men’s basketball program that won 4 NEC titles since 2009, and was annually one of the best teams in the conference. Since Mike Rice took over in 2008 (he stayed three years, with Andrew Toole becoming the head coach in 2011), RMU went a combined 161-71 in league play. The school leaving wasn’t a surprise; once they built the fabulous UPMC Events Center on campus, it was all but locked up that Bobby Mo would be gone.
Of course, Andy Toole and the school that took down Kentucky wasn’t the only thing to leave us over these past few months; gone is one of the most decorated senior classes in recent league history, as well as some high quality underclassmen who chose to take their talents somewhere else. Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon of SFU, Raiquan Clark (LIU) and Juvaris Hayes (Merrimack), all members of the NEC’s 1st team in 2019-20, graduated, as did Adam Grant (Bryant), Kaleb Bishop (FDU), Deniz Celen (SFC), and Josh Williams (RMU, though he’d be gone anyway obviously). The 5th member of the 1st team, E.J. Anosike, is now plying his trade at Tennessee, while Koreem Ozier (Lousiana-Monroe) and Cam Parker (Montana) also left Sacred Heart, Vado Morse went from Mount St. Mary’s to James Madison, and Ikenna Ndugba (Bryant) is now playing point for Elon.
In fact, of the 15 players who appeared on the NEC All-Conference team’s this past season, just four return; Ty Flowers (LIU), Jahlil Jenkins (FDU), Damion Chong Qui (Mount St. Mary’s), and Chauncey Hawkins (St. Francis-Brooklyn). That follows two seasons in which the NEC returned 8 of its top 15 players from the season before. So it should be no surprise that the league’s Kenpom rating was at 27 (out of 32 leagues) last season, which was the highest it had been since 2015. Between Robert Morris leaving, and the loss of the majority of the league’s top players, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the league take a step back as far as its ratings go (FWIW, Kenpom has the NEC rated as its 29th best conference in its projections).
One area where the NEC has seen quite a bit of steadiness is in the coaching ranks; for the second season in a row every NEC coach returns (except for Andy Toole, of course). St. Francis-Brooklyn’s Glenn Braica is the veteran of the crop, entering his 11th season, while Jared Grasso (Bryant) and Dan Engelstad (Mount St. Mary’s) each have two seasons of experience under their belts (Joe Gallo is in his 2nd season in the NEC, but coached Merrimack for two seasons at the D2 level before they made the jump).
Before we get to the team previews, let's acknowledge one thing; this season is going to be weird. As of this writing, the NEC hasn't even announced its schedule yet, and the season is supposed to start in 10 days (that's not a dig at the league, it's just the nature of trying to schedule games amid a pandemic)! Games will get scheduled, then canceled, with others games in its place. Teams are going to get shut-down because of positive COVID tests, the NEC is (probably) going to have an incredibly unbalanced schedule, and we already know of one school (LIU) that will not be playing non-conference games. The point is; we all missed the NCAA Tournament, and instead of complaining about the 2020-21 season, let's just enjoy the hoops.
As for the rankings; in my opinion there are four clear tiers of teams, with little separating the teams within each tier. Essentially you could order each team within a tier however you'd like and you wouldn't get much argument from me. Today I'm starting with Tier 4, the two teams at the bottom of my NEC rankings. Enjoy!
#10 Sacred Heart
Last Season: 20-13 (12-6 in the NEC), #200 at Kenpom; lost to SFU 84-72 in the NEC Semifinals
Coach: Anthony Latina- 8th season, 58-66 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament appearances
Offense: 104.5 (4th)
Defense: 97.8 (3rd)
Efficiency Margin: +6.7 (4th)
What they did well: Offensive Rebounding (36.6%, 1st), Defensive Rebounding (73.8%, 1st), Defensive eFG% (46.8%, 2nd).
Where they can improve: Turnover rate (20.8%, 10th), Defensive Turnover rate (16.1%, 10th)
The Guy: It’s not often a player goes from 4th option offensively to “clear-cut #1 guy”, but that’s what happens when you lose your three best players to transfer (plus another two starters to graduation). When Cam Parker went down with a knee injury in January last season, it was Aaron Clarke to the rescue; from that point on the sophomore lefty had a 22.1% assist rate (9th in the conference) to go along with a 108.9 O-Rating (21.9% usage) which included 35% from three. Now a junior, the New Jersey native is the only player on the Pios’ roster who has played more than 50% of available minutes at the D1 level. It’s likely that Latina will ask Clark to play both guard positions while being the team’s go-to scorer and play-maker. Don't be surprised to see him push that 11.3ppg he had last season north of 15 per game.
Player to Watch: The only other player on the roster who was in the rotation a year ago is Tyler Thomas. The sophomore wing has a pretty looking jumper that didn’t lead to results as a freshman; the New Haven native made just 27.6% of his 116 three-point attempts (27.9% in league play), which led to a low 42.8% eFG%. Not that there weren’t moments; he went 5 for 7 from deep in a win at Holy Cross in December and knocked down 4 of 8 in a huge win at Bryant in February. In Year 2, Thomas is suddenly a veteran on a young squad and will have to become a consistent 35%+ shooter from downtown for the Pioneers to have any chance to surprise. Can he do it? Sure; in fact, Thomas' freshman shooting numbers look eerily similar to former CCSU (and St. Bonaventure) great Matt Mobley as a freshman. Check it:
Mobley (2013-14): 93.2 O-Rating (16.5% usage), 45.1% eFG%, 30-103 (29.1%) from three
Thomas: 97.0 O-Rating (16.1% usage), 42.8% eFG%, 32-116 (27.6%) from three
Mobley made a huge jump in Year 2, shooting 35.7% from three (48.6% eFG%) and shoe-horned that into an opportunity to play in the Atlantic-10, during which he averaged better than 18 points per game in two seasons for the Bonnies. Could Thomas become that type of player? I don't know, but he'll likely get the opportunity.
They can compete for a title if…
Clarke plays like an All-NEC 1st teamer, and Thomas becomes one of the best shooters in the Northeast Conference. There’s not a lot of offensive firepower on this team, and Latina will need those guys to be studs.
The freshmen play like upper-classmen. Generally bigs take longer to acclimate themselves to D1 hoops than guards do, but Nico Galette and Bryce Johnson should get plenty of opportunities. Mike Sixsmith has a reputation as a knock-down shooter, while Quest Harris is probably (definitely?) the point guard of the future. Then there are the Lithuanians, Kasparas Jonauskas and Matas Spokas, who could provide shooting and depth. Can Latina get these guys up to speed quickly, and is there enough talent there to make SHU fans forget about Anosike, Ozier, and Parker? It's rare that an entire freshman class is able to contribute significantly in Year 1, but Latina has relied on freshmen before; Ozier, Parker, and Clarke all played significant minutes back in 2018-19, with the former two earning All-Rookie honors. That team, which finished 11-7 in the league, had a stud upper-classman (Sean Hoehn), a talented yet unproven sophomore (E.J. Anosike), and a JUCO big (Spellman). Sound familiar?
Radz comes back healthy and is able to fill Kinnon LaRose’s shoes as a guy who does a little bit of everything. He missed last season thanks to an injury, but has shown an ability to knock down perimeter shots (31% career 3P%), rebound well for his size (14.4% DR%), and play solid defense. Can he become a 3rd scoring option and increase that ~17% usage he had as a junior? His experience could be huge for the Pioneers.
Yeah, but…Latina has just five players with any sort of Division 1 experience now that 6’8” junior Zach Pfaffenberger, who was expected to start at the ‘4’, went down with a knee injury , and freshmen rarely make a significant, immediate impact at this level. Is there enough shooting between Clarke, Thomas, Radz and Sixsmith? What about rim protection? Cantavio Dutreil, who had a strong block rate in one season at North Alabama back in 2018-19 before heading to JUCO last season, and Spokas, who is more of a wing, are the only players on this roster who are taller than 6’6”.
How I see it: No one has gotten more of a raw deal than Anthony Latina. He’s lost guys like Cane Broome (Cincinnati) and Quincy McKnight (Seton Hall) as underclassmen, and his team would easily be the pre-season #1 in this conference had Anosike (Tennessee), Ozier (Louisiana-Monroe), and Parker (Montana) returned. Latina is one of the better coaches in the Northeast Conference at developing talent, and because of that they will win some games they weren't expected to win, the young players will develop, Aaron Cookie will become a star, and their stay near the bottom of the standings will be short. However, this season there’s just not much experience on this roster, plus, while the top of the league may not be as strong as in recent years due to the number of transfers the league had (plus the fact that Robert Morris is no longer terrorizing opponents with their defense), the teams expected to finish in the lower half of the league have plenty of talent. Could I see them finishing closer to the middle of the pack? Absolutely. They won't be bad, and I expect them to finish better than their projected Kenpom ranking (#324).
#9 Central Connecticut St.
Last Season: 4-27 (3-15 in the NEC), #347 at Kenpom; did not qualify for the NEC Tournament
Coach: Donyell Marshall- 5th season, 19-53 in the NEC, 0 NCAA Tournament Appearances
Offense: 95.2 (11th in the NEC)
Defense: 110.8 (11th)
Efficiency Margin: -15.6 (11th)
What they did well: 36.3% 3P% (5th), 73.5% FT% (2nd)
Where they can improve: 46.7% eFG% (10th), 65% DR% (11th)
The Guy: Only three returning NEC players shot better than 44% from three last season, and Ian Krishnan is one of them. After missing the first semester due to academic issues, Krishnan returned to be the Blue Devils’ best offensive player thanks to knocking down 37 of 86 from downtown (44.6%). The junior from Maryland may be the best shooter in the league, and is a solid perimeter defender thanks to his quickness. As an upper-classman, Donyell Marshall will need him to become more well-rounded; sure, he got to the charity stripe much more in Year 2 where he shot 79%, but he’s yet to show much play-making ability (6.4% career assist rate), and fewer than 20% of his shot attempts came at the rim. If he can make incremental improvements in other areas of his offensive game while remaining an efficient shooter from deep (~45% may not be sustainable, but 40% probably is with that stroke), Krishnan could be one of the best wings in the NEC.
Player to Watch: Who doesn’t love versatility? As a freshman last season, Jamir Reed was the ultimate utility-man for Marshall, filling in at the point at times, while also seeing minutes at the ‘4’. The 6’4” Philly native was, at times, Central’s best all-around offensive player while knocking down threes at a 35% clip (42-420), grabbing 4.6 rebounds per game (15.4% DR%) and chipping in nearly two assists a night (13.9% assist rate). A sturdy 200 lbs., Reed should see time at both the wing and as a “small-ball-4” for the Blue Devils, and given his ability to score at all three levels, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become CCSU’s leading scorer this season. If he can cut down on his 22.3% turnover rate, and become more aggressive in attacking the rim, he could be Central Connecticut’s next star player.
They can compete for a title if…
Marshall gets at least average point guard play. The CCSU staff brought in two potential lead guard in Nigel Scantlebury and Tre Mitchell, both JUCO transfers, and return junior Zach Newkirk, who had a rough go of it as a sophomore. Scantlebury, a true PG, averaged 14 points, 5 assists, and 4 boards for Niagara County CC last season. Mitchell, a combo-guard at 6’3”, averaged 20 points for Phoenix College last season, shooting 33.3% from three, and has the athleticism to be a plus defender. Historically JUCO point guards take time to get acclimated to D1 hoops, but both guys are high usage players who potentially fill the play-maker role that was sorely missed for the Blue Devils last season.
The sophomores accelerate their development. Jamir Reed wasn’t the only freshman to receive significant playing time last season; wings Myles Baker (All-Rookie Team) and Greg Outlaw, and big Xavier Wilson were all significant members of the rotation, and showed flashes of potential. Baker is a 6’3” scoring guard who made 33% from three but struggled with shot selection. Outlaw is a freak athlete at 6’4” who needs to figure out his jumper. And Wilson is a physical specimen at 6’7” 210 lbs. who came on as a rebounder and rim-protector as the season went on. It wouldn’t be surprising if all four of those players improved, but it would probably take dramatic improvement in multiple areas for this team to get to the top of the standings.
Donyell Marshall and his staff figure out how to get this team to improve its shot selection. According to dribblehandoff, CCSU had the 2nd worst “shot quality” out of all 353 D1 teams last season, and that’s borne out in their shooting splits. As a team, over 31% of their shot attempts were of the "two-point jumper" variety, of which they made just 32.6% of those shots. What's more; the Blue Devils were in 5th in the league in 3P% (36.3%), yet only 30.7% of their shot attempts were from behind the three-point line, which was 2nd lowest in the NEC. If they can’t curb their habit of settling for long two-point jumpers, their offense will never become anywhere close to efficient.
Yeah, but…it wasn’t just the offense that let CCSU fans down last season. Central Connecticut had the league’s least efficient defense as well in 2019-20, and they were below average in just about every facet; they allowed teams to shoot 38.8% from three (10th), allowed opponents to grab 35% of their misses (11th), allowed a 35.5% free throw rate (9th), and only forced turnovers on 17.8% of their defensive possessions (7th). In fact, CCSU's defense has finished as one of the two least efficient teams in the NEC in three of Mashall's four seasons (they finished 6th in 2017-18 when Deion Bute and Mustafa Jones were blocking everything in sight). Could they become an average defensive unit in 2020-21? Sure; there’s adequate rim protection between Karrington Wallace and Xavier Wilson, plus Outlaw and Krishnan are strong perimeter defenders. But as I mentioned above, shot quality is everything; not only did the Blue Devils struggle to find good shots last season, they ranked 335th nationally in defensive “shot quality” as well. Opponents took just 17.5% of their shots from “mid-range" territory last season, and instead feasted at the rim (43% of shots, 61% FG%) and three-pointers (37% of shots, 37% FG%). That has to change.
How I see it: The Blue Devils were dealt a blow in September when 6’8” big Wassef Methnani, who was expected to play major minutes in the frontcourt after coming in as a grad transfer from Fairfield, signed a professional contract in his native Turkey. Now Central has just 11 scholarship players (initially it was to be 12 given the budget issues at the university), which means this team can’t afford any injuries. Ignoring that for a moment, and there’s still a lot of question marks. Can any of the point guards be more than “serviceable”? Both guys put up big numbers at lower lever junior colleges, though neither had a ton of D1 offers. Can Marshall figure out how to get this team to play efficiently offensively? In his four years at the helm, they’ve finished 9th, 9th, 10th, and 11th in Offensive Efficiency (those first three years there were just 10 teams in the league). Do they have enough size in the frontcourt? The Blue Devils were the worst rebounding team in the league last season. There's a ton of young talent on this roster, specifically on the wings, and it wouldn't take much imagination to envision this team improving significantly in numerous areas, especially given that they return nearly 80% of their minutes from a season ago. They'll be better than they were last season, and could make a push toward the middle of the standings if the point guard play is where Marshall hopes.