The Mid-Range Jumper: 2/3/21
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin
Team of the Week: Fairleigh Dickinson
Greg Herenda, man. It feels like every season the Knights are playing their best basketball in February and March; FDU has made it to the NCAA Tournament twice under Herenda, and from 2018 through 2020, they are 18-8 in February, compared to 12-16 in NEC play prior to February. So was it any surprise that Fairleigh Dickinson went out and swept Bryant at home last weekend, after splitting with SFU in Loretto? Of course it was; per Kenpom, the Knights had an 8% chance of doing so. However, as long as Herenda's the coach there, you should never count this program out.
After scoring 1.13ppp against Bryant, which came into the week with the league's 3rd most efficient defense, FDU now has the NEC's top offense (107.3 points/100 possessions). In terms of individual performers, you of course have to start with Jahlil Jenkins; the point guard scored his 1,500th career point, knocked down the game-winner on Saturday, hit TWO halftime buzzer beaters, and averaged a cool 22 points and 4.5 assists while shooting 6-14 from deep. Elyjah Williams, a 6'7" forward, averaged close to 18 and 8 in the four games last week, and Pier-Olivier Racine, a 6'8" freshman, scored 23 points and had 4 boards in Sunday's win.
Team Performance of the Week: Central Connecticut St. 85, St. Francis (PA) 77
I haven't had a lot of opportunity to talk about my Blue Devils, so when they have their best offensive performance in over 8 years, we talk about them. CCSU's 1.27ppp was their best since they put up 1.29ppp against Brown back on 11/15/12. The leading scorer in that one? Kyle Vinales, with 28.
On Sunday, it was sophomore wing Myles Baker, who scored 24 points on 8-11 shooting, and Tre Mitchell, who knocked down 4 of 6 from beyond the arc on his way to 19 points. Stephane Ayangma chipped in 8 points and 7 boards in just 23 minutes, and Jamir Reed filled the stat sheet with 8 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds. As a team, they had a season high rate of shots from three and at the rim (86%, well above their season average of 73.7%), and attempted just 8 shots from the mid-range.
Player of the Week: Eral Penn, Long Island
The LIU big man was dominant in all three games for the Sharks last week, averaging nearly 21 points and over 11 boards per game. Penn completely owned the paint, shooting 21 of 30 at the rim (including six dunks), and for good measure made 4 of 4 from downtown in the Battle of Brooklyn on Sunday. After missing all of last season due to injury, the RS junior has gotten better and better each game out, and has become the best big man in the conference.
Freshman of the Week: Bryce Johnson, Sacred Heart
Johnson becomes the third SHU player to win this award for me. With starting '5' Cantavio Dutreil out this past weekend, the 6'6" forward set career highs in minutes on both Saturday (33), and Sunday (37), averaging 12.5 points and 7 boards while shooting 11-13 from the field. Johnson is strong and athletic, and really runs the floor with a purpose. He's put up a 63.2% eFG% so far this season, is 2nd in the NEC in defensive rebounding rate (24.2%), and is 6th in OR% (10.1%). He reminds me a lot of the freshman version of Jalen Cannon as an undersized (6'6") big who rebounds and gets a lot done at the rim. Of course, we all know how Cannon turned out (2015 NEC POY as a senior).
NEC Tournament Breakdown
By my count we have four weeks remaining in the regular season, which means we are getting down to the wire. Given that we have just four teams qualifying for the year's NEC Tournament, I'll continue to update the odds of qualifying for the NEC's "Final 4". The data below is according to Bart Torvik, and assumes every team plays 18 games (which looks unlikely given that Wagner has played just 6 games to date, and St. Francis-Brooklyn has played 7)..
Top seed: The semifinals and finals of the NEC Tournament will be played at the home court of the #1 seed. Home teams are 30-15 in NEC play. It's important. Based on the data, we'll go with 13-5 as the "magic number" to win the league title outright (Torvik projects ~0.6 teams to finish with more than 13 wins).
Bryant- Currently 0.5 games out of 1st behind LIU, Torvik gives the Bulldogs a ~35% chance to win at least 13 games. 5 of their final 8 games are in Smithfield, including finishing the season at the Chase against Long Island.
Long Island- The current leader in the NEC, the Sharks have a ~13% chance of winning at least 13 games. Despite having the league's best record, they still have back-to-back series' in Emmitsburg and Smithfield, all 4 of which Kenpom projects them to lose.
Seeds #3 and #4: Bryant and Long Island are the clear front-runners, right now, to finish in the top two spots in the NECT. By my count there are five teams battling for the final two spots, with the "magic number" likely being 10 wins (Torvik projects ~4 teams to finish 10-8 or better). St. Francis (PA) and Central Connecticut are both mathematically alive, with both sitting at 4-7 and 1.5 games out of 4th place with 7 to play. However, going 6-1 over those final 7 is likely too much to ask for either program. As a reminder, Merrimack is ineligible for the NECT as the continue their transition to Division-1.
Mount St. Mary's- Dan Engelstad's group is currently in a really good spot at 5-4, with a 57% chance to finish 10-8 or better. Last week's loss to Sacred Heart certainly hurt their bid to get that #1 seed, though their next 4 games (at Bryant, home vs. LIU) present plenty of opportunity. Of course, it could also be problematic given the quality of their opponents. I'm sure Mount fans would sign for 2-2 split.
St. Francis-Brooklyn- Sunday's loss to LIU not withstanding, I continue to love the Terriers; they're currently one of just five teams with a winning record, have the athleticism and versatility to give teams fits, and have a stud veteran point guard in Chauncey Hawkins. Torvik gives SFC just a 24.5% chance of winning at least 10 games, though I think part of that is because of how poorly they played on Sunday. I'm willing to give teams coming off a long pause a mulligan (they hadn't played in 3 weeks), though they'd have to play 11 games in 4 weeks in order to get to 18 games.
Fairleigh Dickinson- The Knights odds of winning 10+ games improved from 9% to 32% after their 3-1 week, which included that split of Bryant. As I talked about above, in Herenda I trust when it comes to getting it done over the final month+ of the season.
Sacred Heart- All the Pios do is split back-to-backs; they've played 4 of 'em, and have gone 1-1 in each of 'em. Torvik has SHU at ~35% to finish 10-8 or better, though thier final 6 games are no walk in the park; home vs. Bryant, at St. Francis-Brooklyn, home vs. Fairleigh Dickinson.
Wagner- Wagner is an interesting case; Torvik gives the Seahawks a nearly 50% chance to win 10+ games, and the computers really like Bashir Mason's group; Kenpom has them ranked 278th (4th best in the NEC), while Torvik has them at #272 (also 4th). I think there are two primary reasons for that; 1) Given that they've only played 7 games this season, their pre-season expectations may still be baked in, and the computers love the way Wagner has historically defended, and 2) that 74-46 win over Sacred Heart stands out as one of the best performances by an NEC team this season. What do I think? I like the Seahawks' roster, and while they are only 2-4 in the league, all six games came against teams with winning records (Bryant, Long Island, Sacred Heart). However, if they are to get to 18 games, they will have to play 12 games in a little over 4 weeks (3 per week). That's a lot to ask.
The Top '5's
Last week I looked at the top point guards in the conference, so naturally this week I want to go to the frontcourt. Below are my list of "true 5's", guys who protect the rim and get things done primarily in the paint. Jahlil Jenkins made me look like an idiot for not including him in my list last week, which player(s) will do that this time around? (Note; before anyone complains, I consider Elyjah Williams more of a play-making, stretchy-4 than I do a true 'center')
Eral Penn, Long Island- There's really not an argument to be made for anyone else to stand atop this list; the RS junior leads all NEC 5's in every objective measurement of value (PRPG!, BPG, PER, Win Shares), and has been dominant in both the interior and defensively. Oh, and he's starting to display a perimeter jump shot. Currently #2 in Kenpom's NEC Player of the Year race, his 66.7% eFG% rates 5th in the conference, and his 124.3 O-Rating leads all NEC '5's.
Mark Flagg, St. Francis (PA)- I've had a thing for Flagg since the first game of his sophomore year, and this season he's really putting it altogether. The senior is the 3rd leading scorer among NEC 5's (9.3 ppg), and the advanced metrics really like him (2nd to Penn in both PRPG! and BPM). This season he's really become a play-maker out of the post, and his 21.1% assist rate is 12th in the NEC. He's really been a steadying influence for a young Red Flash squad.
Hall Elisias, Bryant- Jared Grasso doesn't ask the 6'8" senior to do much offensively as evidenced by his 16.1% usage rate, and he's only averaging 8.9 ppg (5th on the team). But it's what he does on the defensive end that lands him here; he's got a league leading 9.4% block rate, and his defensive rebounding rate of 24.2% is 2nd. Simply put; he changes the game defensively. Plus, he's the perfect big in Jared Grasso's system; he runs the floor, creates space in the paint, and is making 70% of his shots at the rim.
Players who just missed: Malik Jefferson, Mount St. Mary's; Jordan Minor, Merrimack
While I was poking around Hoop-Math last week, I noticed that Bryant leads the country in the percentage of their initial field goal attempts coming in transition (defined as occurring in the first 10 seconds of a possession). Not only that, but they're eFG% on transition shots is 59.3%, which ranks 52nd. In other words, they play fast, but are also efficient in transition.
So, how do other NEC teams stack up? Scatter Plot time!
There's Bryant, way up in the top right, but it's not just the Bulldogs; Long Island, Central Connecticut, and Fairleigh Dickinson are also efficient while playing fast. Those four teams are also the only teams in the NEC with an overall eFG% better than 50% in league play.
One team that pops out is Merrimack; the Warriors' average possession length is 17.2 seconds, which is much quicker than their first season in D1 (18.5 seconds). What I've noticed in watching Merrimack play; they like to pick their spots and attack in transition, and it's easy to see why; their 59.6% eFG% in transition is tops in the NEC, and their 46.8% eFG% on all other possessions rates only 8th.
Another curiosity? St. Francis-Brooklyn. Given the athletes they have on the wing, it's surprising that they have a league worst 43.1% transition eFG%, while their non-transition eFG% is 50.5%. Curiously, they're taking an inordinate amount of pull-up jumpers in transition (23.5% of attempts, converting just 20%). If you compare that to Bryant (just 11.7%), it may make sense for them to focus on getting better shots in transition, or pulling it out and running their halfcourt offense.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
Sacred Heart's Alex Watson is currently averaging 7.5 ppg and 2.3 apg, which doesn't really stand out much. However, dig a little deeper and wow! As a freshman, the 6'3" combo guard started 6 games and averaged close to 15 mpg, not bad for a first year player. However, over the next two seasons he largely disappeared, playing just 256 minutes total (appearing in just 23 games). The fact that he: a) stuck around when most players would likely have transferred; and b) worked his tail off and has become an integral part of the Pios rotation as a senior, is incredibly impressive...Josh Reaves perhaps deserved my NEC Rookie of the Week award, as he was really good on Sunday; 22 points, including 5 of 7 from deep, and 4 steals. Reaves didn't play a ton prior to Christmas, playing more than 18 minutes just once, but since the holiday has played at least 24 minutes in each game, and has really taken off...St. Francis-Brooklyn backup guard Trey Quartlebaum played a career-high 22 minutes in the Terriers' loss to LIU on Sunday, scoring 13 points and showing an ability to get to the rim. The sophomore is the son of former Fordham star, and current Kansas assistant coach, Fred Quartlebaum...Central Connecticut's Myles Baker is a super talented scoring wing, but he's also been quite enigmatic; he's scored in double figures 4 times so far this season, including a season-high 24 on Sunday in the Blue Devils' win over SFU, and he's scored fewer than 6 points 5 times (including three scoreless games). Of course, his minutes have been all over the place as well; 33 minutes on Sunday after playing just 14 on Saturday, and averaging 14 mpg the week prior in two games against Mount St. Mary's...Speaking of the Blue Devils, it's interesting to see how junior shooting guard Ian Krishnan has had his minutes drop each season, from 34,mpg as a freshman, to 28 last season, to just 24.2 in 2020-21. He's not shooting it as well as he did last season (32% from three, down from 45%), but he's as talented a shooter as anyone in the league...Anthony Latina always seems to develop big-time scorers. Tyler Thomas has increased his scoring average from 5.6 ppg as a freshman to 19.2 ppg this season, and that follows guys like Sean Hoehn (4.8 ppg as a freshman, 17.9 as a senior), Quincy McKnight (11.4 ppg as a freshman to 18.9 as a soph), and Cane Broome (14.5 to 23.1 ppg as a 2nd year player). The way Mike Sixsmith can shoot it, plus his athleticism and high basketball IQ, I fully expect the 6'0" wing to be the next Pio who's averaging close to 20 ppg. He reminds me a lot of Blake Francis as a freshman (big time shooter with a low usage rate). who increased his scoring average from 7.2 ppg to 17.3 ppg as a sophomore at Wagner, and is now a key cog for Richmond (16.6 points, 2.6 assists per game)...By the way, Sacred Heart received a commitment from 6'6" wing Tanner Thomas last week, the younger brother of Tyler...Is there anyone who has a prettier jump shot than Bryce Laskey? I think I'd pay to watch him shoot around (virtually, obviously)...Michael Green III had a rough weekend; 3-15 from three, 6 assists and 10 turnovers. Now he's got to go up against Damian Chong Qui and that Mount defense...Obviously the Mount/Bryant series is the big one this week, but an under-the-radar series is Wagner-St. Francis-Brooklyn. Both squads have a ton to play for, and there will be tons of athletes all over the floor.