The Mid-Range Jumper: 2/9/21
Standings: As always, sorted by Efficiency Margin
Team of the Week: Fairleigh Dickinson
Don't look now, but the Fighting Greg Herendas are now 6-4 after sweeping Long Island on the road last week. FDU is now winners of 5 of their last 6 (the lone loss a 90-82 defeat in Loretto), and this team is clearly playing its best basketball of the season; since their loss at SFU on 1/27 they've improved 33 spots at Kenpom (from 307 to 274). It's not surprising that Jahlil Jenkins has played like an NEC Player of the Year candidate over the stretch (57% from 3!), and Elyjah Williams has looked like an All-Conference player since returning from an injury that kept him out of the Merrimack series. Add in the emergence of PO Racine, the scoring of Brandon Rush, and a solid supporting cast, and you've got to like this team's chances. Especially knowing Herenda is on the sideline.
Team Performance of the Week: FDU 77, LIU 62
According to Torvik's Game Score, this was the Knights' best performance of the season (70), though it's worth noting that in each of FDU's last three games, they set season highs in the Game Score metric (65 in last week's win over Bryant and 66 at LIU on Thursday). But we're talking about the game 2 blowout of Long Island, where FDU not only scored 1.12ppp against one of the league's best defenses, but they held the Sharks to just 0.9ppp. Jenkins led the way with 13 points and 7 assists (just 2 TOs), while Elyjah Williams had 17/6, Brandon Powell scored 11, and Mikey Square chipped in 10/5.
Player of the Week: Jahlil Jenkins, FDU
Yes, we're heavy on the Knights this week, and trust me I tried to find a different POW, but I couldn't ignore the FDU point guard. Jenkins averaged 20 points and 5.5 assists in FDU's two upset wins, shot 6-10 from three, and 8-10 from the charity stripe, all while sitting for just 3 minutes across the two games. Would it surprise anyone if the senior lead guard continued to play this well and won the league's POY award? At this point, I expect it.
Freshman of the Week: DeLonnie Hunt, Wagner
Wagner also swept the week, dispatching a fading St. Francis-Brooklyn in Brooklyn, and a lot of that had to do with Hunt. The freshman guard averaged 17 points and 5 boards across 32 mpg, though what I found interesting was that he put up points in different ways each night. On Thursday, he consistently got to the rim, finishing 6 for 8 on such shots. On Friday, it was bombs away; 4 for 7 from three. Hunt is scoring 10.3 ppg on the season, but 16.3 over his last three games.
Another guy who just missed in my PG rankings a couple weeks ago was Alex Morales, and given his dominance last week he's worth talking about. Perhaps the most unique player in the NEC right now, Morales is a point-wing who provides length (6'6"), play-making ability (4.9 apg), and an ability to score it (19.0 ppg). When he's on the floor, he takes 28.4% of the team's shots, which is 2nd in the NEC (Sacred Heart's Tyler Thomas is 1st). Essentially; as Morales goes, the Seahawks go. When he's on like he was last week (16-30 from the field, 20-28 from the free throw line), Wagner can score efficiently. When he's not (he's got a 42.7% eFG% on the season), they can struggle. Perhaps no one is more important to their team right now than Morales.
I'll be honest; coming into the season, I didn't believe much in the Warriors. They lost their three best players off last season's team, didn't bring in any transfers, and I figured the second time around NEC coaches would figure out a way to combat Gallo's vaunted zone defense. Then Merrimack essentially was on pause for all of December, returned in January and went 1-3 against Sacred Heart and the Mount, with their only win coming in overtime. I sold all my Warriors' stock, and now I regret it.
Since then, MC is 5-1 with sweeps over Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Francis (PA), and now sit tied atop the standings. Jordan Minor has gone from "role player" to "go-to-guy" offensively, Mykel Derring has become a big-time 3P shooter, and Mikey Watkins has filled Juvaris Hayes' shoes admirably. But really, it's all about the defense; sine that loss to Mount St. Mary's on 1/15, the Warriors are allowing just 0.92ppp. As long as Joe Gallo is roaming the sidelines in North Andover, I'll continue to believe in Merrimack. I promise.
NEC Tournament Race
What looked pretty clear two weeks ago has become a mess. Bryant and Long Island have come back to the pack, Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner have gotten hot, and Bryant and Sacred Heart won't be taking the court for at least another week as they're on pause due to a positive COVID-19 test.
At the time of this writing we still don't know what the NEC do with regard to tie-breakers, should teams not get to 18 games (though I believe something is in the works). My bigger concern, at least as far as qualifying for the NEC Tournament is concerned, are the uneven schedules. What if a team like Sacred Heart or Mount St. Mary's finishes with one of the best four records (or wins a tie-breaker) but never has to play Bryant? That's problematic, to say the least. But as I've said all season long; it's a pandemic, and the #1 priority is keeping the players and coaching staffs healthy, not making sure that we have a fair, even schedule.
Anyway, this exercise has gotten complicated; I'd been using 10 wins as my "magic number", but it now appears very few (if any) teams will get to 18 games. So instead, let's look at the competitors and only focus on the remaining games that are scheduled (i.e. Bryant's series' with Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary's have yet to be rescheduled). We will go in current order of the standings (based on winning %), using EM as a tie-breaker for now. (Reminder: Merrimack is ineligible for the NEC Tournament):
Bryant (6-4)- As I mentioned above, Bryant is currently 'on pause' and isn't scheduled to play again until 2/17. They have just four games left; a home-and-home with Merrimack, and two home games against Long Island. Torvik still has them at 36.6% to win the league outright, though that's down significantly from 81% before they were swept by FDU. Kenpom projects Bryant to go 3-1 over their final 4, which would put them at 9-5 and likely give them home-court advantage. Keep in mind; they currently own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Wagner, but need to hope they finish with a better record than Fairleigh Dickinson. Games to be potentially rescheduled: at Sacred Heart (2), vs. Mount St. Mary's (2)
Fairleigh Dickinson (6-4)- While Bryant and FDU have both played 10 games, the Knights have 8 scheduled games remaining, compared to just 4 for the Bulldogs. Does that present an opportunity for FDU, or is it a competitive disadvantage? Five of those games are at home, and Kenpom projects them to win ~4.5 of those games. 6-2 (likely) gets them home-court advantage, while 5-3 means they'd need help. Split those 8 games and they are likely in the NEC Tournament, especially with those series sweeps over Bryant and LIU looming large. Games to be potentially rescheduled: None
Long Island (7-5)- The Sharks are the lone true NECT contender that has played 12 games, which means only six remain; that would be considered a good thing except that four of those are road trips to Emmitsburg and Smithfield. Kenpom has them going 3-3 over those six, which likely gets them into the NEC Tournament, but won't get them home-court advantage. If LIU fans want to host the NECT, they need to root for a split with both the Mount and Bryant while sweeping CCSU next weekend, though they'd still need some help. Games to be potentially rescheduled: None
Mount St. Mary's (5-4)- The Mount's next six games are a guantlet; home games with LIU and Wagner, and a road trip to Teaneck, before finishing up with a trip to Loretto to face the last place Red Flash. Kenpom has them going 4-3, and at 9-7 they'd be feeling pretty good. However, it's the games that aren't scheduled that are interesting; the back-to-back at Bryant that was canceled last week. I'm sure Dan Engelstad is lobbying against having that series be played, while the rest of the contenders are watching this closely. Games to be potentially rescheduled: at Bryant (2)
Sacred Heart (6-5)- Sacred Heart is in a unique position; they're currently on pause and won't return until 2/20, which meant that their home series against Bryant and their away game at Central Connecticut were canceled. Does the layoff affect them when they head to Brooklyn on 2/20 and 2/21? Will the Bryant series get re-scheduled? Kenpom is bearish on the Pios, seeing them as underdogs in all 4 remaining games (at SFC, home vs. FDU). 2-2 and there's a good chance they come just short of making the NECT. Having the Bryant series rescheduled could be troublesome. The Pios have work to do, or need help. Games to be potentially rescheduled: vs. Bryant (2), at Central Connecticut (1)
Wagner (4-4)- Winners of 3-straight, the Seahawks are playing good ball, yet they're the only team to have played fewer than 9 conference games. Because of that, they're scheduled to play 10 games over a 20-day stretch beginning with a home game against FDU on Thursday. Kenpom has them splitting those games, but I'm not sure the algorithm includes the "exhaustion factor". Splitting the home-and-home with FDU this week and at Mount next week would be huge, as they could potentially clean up against St. Francis (PA) and Central Connecticut, both of which are out of the playoff picture and would be playing for nothing but bragging rights. Then they wrap up with a home series against Merrimack on 3/1 and 3/2. Win more than you lose, Seahawks. Games to be potentially rescheduled: None
St. Francis-Brooklyn (4-6)- The Terriers are fading as they've been without Chauncey Hawkins for the last three games (all losses), and currently sit 2 games out of the loss column with 8 remaining. They likely need to go 5-3 over that stretch to have any hope of getting into the NEC Tournament, yet have to travel to Teaneck and North Andover, and also host Sacred Heart for two. They do own a sweep over the Mount for tie-breaker purposes, but also lose tie-breakers to both LIU and Wagner. Games to be potentially rescheduled: None
Central Connecticut (4-7)- 3 games out in the loss column with five scheduled games remaining, CCSU has a faint heartbeat at this point. They'd likely need to go 5-1 against a schedule that consists of home series against Merrimack and Wagner, and a road trip to Long Island. Kenpom has them as underdogs in each game, with an expected record of 2-4. Games to be potentially rescheduled: vs. Sacred Heart (1)
St. Francis (PA) (4-9)- If the Red Flash win out and finish 9-9, they could feasibly finish tied for that 4th and final playoff spot. However, that's incredibly unlikely. Games to be potentially rescheduled: None
Shooting Guards, wings, combo-guards; whatever you want to call them, this week we're talking players who get their points predominantly via the 3-ball. Shooting is the most important skill in basketball, and that fact is only increasing with every season. Let's talk shooters.
Tyler Thomas, Sacred Heart- The NEC's leading scorer at 19.2 ppg, Thomas is more scorer/playmaker than shooter. The sophomore has ascended from role player to All-NEC level in just one season, as Anthony Latina has relied upon Thomas offensive more than any other coach/player combo in the NEC; when Thomas is on the floor, he takes early 34% of the team's shots, which is 18th nationally. He's got a pretty stroke that has been unreliable at times (he's shooting just 31% from deep), but he's countered that with a nice mid-range game and is also chipping in nearly 3 apg.
Chris Childs, Bryant- A junior college transfer, Childs is averaging over 15 minutes a night despite not starting a single game this season; that just shows what kind of talent there is at the top of that Bryant roster. The 6'2" junior is arguably the league's best shooter; he's shooting 42.5% from three, including an NEC-high 48 made threes, and his 58.4% eFG% rates 8th.
Brandon Rush, Fairleigh Dickinson- A candidate for the league's Most Improved Player award, the 6'3" sophomore has shot a potent 40% from three, though he's no one trick pony; the lefty is one of the best athletes in the Northeast Conference, and uses his speed and hops to get to the rim where's he's converting close to 60%.
Just Missed: Tre Mitchell, Central Connecticut; Mike Sixsmith, Sacred Heart
Not to raise any alarms here, but I just wanted to touch on a concern I have; what's to stop teams from canceling the rest of their season once they are mathematically eliminated from NEC Tournament contention? St. Francis (PA) and Central Connecticut could be the first teams to no longer have a chance to qualify for the NECT. Do their administrations stop them from finishing out their seasons?
To be clear, I have no inside information regarding SFU or CCSU (or any other school) doing this, it just seems like something that could happen, and if it did it would have ramifications across the entire league. I hope it doesn't, but I wouldn't blame any school for making that decision during a pandemic.
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
Is Eral Penn the frontrunner for league POY? After yet another huge week, dude's checking in at 18p and 10r per night. Damian Chong Qui, Jahlil Jenkins, Peter Kiss, and others are right there, but Penn might be the most deserving right now...My hope is that for the next 4 years we get to watch FDU's P.O. Racine and SFU's Josh Cohen battle in the blocks at least twice per year. They are two of the most skilled freshman bigs we've seen in the Northeast Conference in recent memory...I was poking around Bryant's page over at Bart Torvik and I noticed that their offense has not been nearly as good over their past five games; their averaged Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (adjusted for quality of opponent) over their first 9 games was 107.6, yet just 97.9 over the last five. The problem seems to stem from their ability to finish inside the 3p line; just 46.5% over that stretch, compared to 55% prior...The team that I highlighted on last week's NEC On the Run podcast, St. Francis-Brooklyn, went 0-3 this week as they played without injured point guard Chauncey Hawkins. I feel for Glenn Braica, as I thought the Terriers really had a shot to get in the NEC Tournament, but SFC just isn't the same without their senior leader...LIU is shooting 30.4% from three as a team, which on the surface looks "fine", if not slightly below the league average of 33.5%. However, they've had two amazing shooting nights, both of which came in their wins over St. Francis-Brooklyn; they went a combined 27-51 in those. In all others? 66 for 246, or 27%. Alex Rivera has been really good (39%), if not inconsistent, and the same can be said for Jermaine Jackson, Jr. (34.5%) and Ty Flowers (32%). But outside of those three and Eral Penn (10 for 21), the three-point shooting has been disastrous; Virshon Cotton is making just 28% of his 3P attempts, while the combination of Kyndall Davis, Tre Wood, and Jack Ballantyne are 2 for 34...SFC's Larry Moreno scored a career-high 21 points in the Terriers' loss to Wagner last Friday. His previous career high was 19 in a win over Mount St. Mary's last February. His third highest scoring output? 8. Feast or famine...Wagner's Bashir Mason has a reputation as a defensive-minded coach; since 2013 (his first season at the helm) the Seahawks finished in the top 2 in the defensive efficiency 4 times in 8 season, and in the top 4 six times, averaging a stout 98.6 points per/100 possessions in NEC play from 2013-2019. However, Wagner finished 10th in DE (110.7 pts/100 poss), and while they've been better on the defensive end in 2020-21 (102.7 pts/100 poss), they're 4-4 in the league because of an offense that's 3rd in Offensive Efficiency (104.4 pts/100 poss). Last season that number was 98.9 (8th)...Bryant's Darius Guinn entered the Transfer Portal last week. A 6'7" junior who averaged 17/6 at Central Wyoming College last season, Guinn never appeared in a game for the Bulldogs due to injury. Assuming everyone returns next season, a path to playing time wasn't really there, especially with the expected return of Melo Eggleston...Merrimack wing Jaylen Davis also entered the Transfer Portal. Davis red-shirted last season, then appeared in just two games for Merrimack (5 minutes)...Curious; what's to stop a team from going "on pause" if they are safely in the NEC Tournament? A hypothetical; FDU sweeps Wagner this week and SFC next week, and at 10-4 they could take a two-week pause that would guarantee they finish 1st and earn home-court advantage, while getting back in time for the NECT. Again, I'm not suggesting it would happen, but it's within the realm of possibilities...Two really good matchups this week; FDU at Wagner and LIU at Mount St. Mary's...After having the NCAA Tournament canceled last year, we all deserve a Gonzaga-Baylor national title game, right?