The Mid-Range Jumper: Goodbye, 2020
I normally post this on Mondays, but guess what? We have a break from NEC basketball until January 7, so it made sense to hold this off for a few days. That Wednesday matinee between St. Francis-Brooklyn and Saint Peter's delayed this a bit, but that's ok.
2020 was quite a year, because...duh. Happy Holidays to anyone reading this. Hopefully you're 2021 is phenomenal, and you get to do all the things you didn't get to do in 2020...like watch the NCAA Tournament!
As I did last year, I'll be posting the Conference standings each Monday sorted but Efficiency Margin, which is a much better predictor of future performance than record is. Of course, at this stage the standings can be a bit screwy; Efficiency Margin can be heavily influenced by one game (like Wagner's 74-46 blowout of Sacred Heart), Merrimack has yet to play a game (and the Mount and SFU have played just 1 apiece), and strength of schedule, which will even out by year's end (hopefully) can be an issue this year. With all that said, here you are:
Team of the Week: Bryant
I promise that I am not some sort of secret alumnus of Bryant University. But yes, Bryant has been my "Team of the Week" each time I've done this, and quite frankly; how could they not be? Last week, all the Bulldogs did was sweep Wagner in Smithfield, then knock off UMass up in Amherst 93-88.
Bryant now sits at 3-1 in the NEC, and was #199 at Kenpom on Wednesday morning (as I write this they've dropped to #200); rarefied air for NEC programs, which reflects a 113-spot improvement from the pre-season. What's more; overall they're 7-2,, and those two losses were by a total of 3 points (85-84 at Syracuse, 93-91 at St. Francis-Brooklyn). Bart Torvik gives Bryant a 47.2% chance of being the NEC's representative in the NCAA Tournament (no one else is above 17.2%). Things are looking up for Jared Grasso and company.
Team Performance of the Week: Wagner 74, Sacred Heart 46
Sure, you can make a (really good) argument that Bryant beating UMass belongs here, but we've talked about the Bulldogs plenty. Wagner played just one non-conference game, a 78=45 beat-down at the hands of Seton Hall, then opened up league play with two losses in Smithfield.
Finally getting to play in the Spiro Center, Bashir Mason rolled out a starting lineup that included two freshmen in the backcourt (Elijah Allen and DeLonnie Hunt), and a sophomore (Ja'Mier Fletcher), yet they put up 1.16PPP while holding a young Sacred Heart team to just 0.72PPP (just 2 for 23 from deep).
The Seahawks knocked down 11 three-pointers (on 22 attempts), with Allen making 4 out of 7, and Hunt 3 of 4. However, it was senior do-it-all wing Alex Morales that led the charge; 18 points, 5 assists and 5 boards, plus 2 steals and just 2 turnovers in 30 minutes. As a team Wagner had 17 assists against 11 turnovers. Per Bart Torvik, Wagner's Game Score of '92' was the 2nd highest for an NEC team this season, and the best performance by a Wagner team since a '96' back in January of 2018 (a 91-61 win over SFU in which Romone Saunders went for 30).
Player of the Week: Peter Kiss, Bryant
After putting up a goose-egg in 17 minutes against Stony Brook back on 12/12, the Rutgers transfer was dominant over his last three games, averaging 21 points and 3.3 assists per game. In those three games (all wins), Kiss shot 5 of 11 from three and 15-21 from two (70.3% eFG%) to go along with 9 steals. Through 9 games, Kiss is 5th in the league in scoring at 17.4ppg to go along with 4.7 rpg and 2.6 apg.
Others Considered: Elijah Ford, Wagner; Michael Green III, Bryant; Tre Mitchell, CCSU
Freshman of the Week: Mike Sixsmith, Sacred Heart
A 6'0" sharpshooter, Sixsmith averaged a 8.3 ppg over the Pios' last four games, making 7 of his 14 three-pointers (73.5% eFG%). However, what's impressed me about the freshman from New Jersey is his ability to do more than just shoot the basketball; he put up 8 assists against just 1 turnover over the past 1.5 weeks, and got to the free throw line 8 times (making all 8).. Most good freshmen at this level have one legit skill (shooting, in Sixsmith's case), but the players who become All-NEC performers later in their careers develop the other aspects of their game. It looks like Anthony Latina found a guy who won't just be a one-dimensional player down the road.
Others Considered: Elijah Allen, Wagner; Matas Spokas, SHU; Mikey Square, FDU
If you're reading this I'm sure you aware, but just in case you aren't: in an attempt to keep players as safe as possible, the NEC is (largely) having league games played in two game sets at one location, rather than the typical "home-and-home" series. Some other conferences, including the America East and MAAC, are doing the same.
So far this NEC-season, there have been six "back-to-backs", and we've only had one sweep (Bryant over Wagner). The common narrative has been; it's really hard to sweep these back to backs! Anecdotally; yeah, only one in six seems low, right?
I went over to Kenpom to look at what was expected to happen, and well...*narrative explodes*.
Let's look at it from the perspective of the home team for those 12 games:
Kenpom projection: 6.98 wins, 5.02 losses
Average projected home-team point differential: +3.2
Actual: 7 wins, 5 losses
Average home-team point differential: +2.6
Looking at it series-by-series and, yeah of course there were a bunch of splits. The majority of the match-ups were "coin flips":
SFC was 52% to beat Bryant at home, they split
CCSU was 42% to beat SFC at home, they split
Wagner was 65% to beat SHU at home, they split
SHU was 39% to beat LIU at home, they split.
The other? FDU was 80% to beat CCSU, except Kenpom's algorithm wasn't aware of the fact that Xzavier Malone-Key (who has since committed to Oregon St.) and Devon Dunn opted out of the season. The lone sweep? Bryant was 71% to beat Wagner.
Expect more splits as, outside of Bryant, no team has really separated itself from the pack. Comparable teams splitting back-to-back games has nothing to do with the fact that these games are being played two days in a row, but rather parity in the conference.
Fun with Shot Quality
One of my favorite new analytics site is Shot Quality, as I've discussed on here previously. For the first time this season I figured I'd dig into the publicly-available data.
First let's look at which team's are taking the most high quality shots (1.00 is average, numbers adjusted for opponent quality):
I guess it's not surprise that Bryant is atop this list; Bryant is 30th nationally with a 56.1% eFG%, and are 9th with a 41.7% 3P%. The way their offense runs, they try to get the ball to the rim off the dribble and either get layups or open 3s.
What is a surprise, if you've followed me on Twitter over the past few years, is seeing CCSU #2 on this list. The Blue Devils rank 73rd in the nation with a 53.2% eFG% thanks to shooting 36.6% from three and 52.2% from two, both of which are well above average. Unlike Bryant, they don't take a ton of threes (34.5% of field goal attempts), but rely on getting the ball into the paint. What's interesting is their shooting on "farther twos", as categorized by Bart Torvik: this season, 27.4% of their shots have been "long twos", which is higher than you'd like (last season it was 31.9%, by far the highest in the NEC). However, this season they're making 45.1% of such shots, a stark improvement over last season's 32.6% mark. What gives? If you're just looking at the numbers you'd assume what they're doing shooting the basketball is unsustainable, however I'm not sure that's the case. Not all mid-range jumpers are the same, and the Shot Quality metric is capturing that; there's been a lot of high-quality, open 10-15 foot jumpers from guys like Tre Mitchell, Greg Outlaw, Nigel Scantlebury, and Ian Krishnan, plus Karrington Wallace has weaponized his lefty jump hook.
On the other end of the spectrum, Long Island being on the bottom of this list could be a small sample size issue, but also; Derek Kellogg played Eral Penn, Ty Flowers, and Jack Ballantyne together nearly 27% of the time in their two games against Sacred Heart. Those three are a combined 2 for 16 from three, and watching those games it felt like there was not nearly enough floor spacing for the Sharks. What's important to note: they've played just two games, and there's a ton of talent there. They'll figure it out.
The Mount has a 10.4% block rate (92nd nationally) thanks to all that size up front, and have also limited teams to just 30.2% from three. With Jalen Gibbs opting out of the rest of the season, Dan Engelstad will really have to be heavily reliant on that defense.
FYI Bryant is not just an offense juggernaut; their defense is holding teams to a 46.6% eFG% (87th nationally), including just 28.4% from three.
What's concerning about CCSU; they're taking good shots on the offensive end, but allowing really good looks defensively. They've allowed teams to shoot 39.1% from three and 54.5% from two, including 62.3% at the rim. There's not much rim protection there, so they've had to compensate by over-helping in the paint which has led to open shooters.
Which players are getting the best looks (>70th percentile)?
You'll notice that Hall Elisias, Chris Childs, Peter Kiss, and Charles Pride are all near the top of this list; Jared Grasso has figured out how to get good looks!
Another thing you'll notice; CCSU players! Ian Krishnan and Tre Mitchell have really gotten a number of good looks, while Greg Outlaw is using his athleticism to get to the rim.
What about the worst (<35th percentile)?
A lot of high usage players who, at times, may be trying to (or being asked to) do too much.
Fun with Game Scores
As I mentioned earlier, one of the pieces of empirical evidence I like to use to see how well a team played is Bart Torvik's "Game Score". Simply put; how well did a team play? A 1-point loss to, say, Syracuse is different than a 28-point loss to Wagner, for very obvious reasons. Torvik quantifies that, or at least attempts to. One thing to note: these Game Scores are moving targets; a '97' early in the season (like SFU's win over Pitt) could end up being a '77' by season's end if Pitt collapses and finishes 0-18 in the ACC.
Let's look at the top 10 games played by NEC teams so far this season:
97- St. Francis (PA) 80, Pittsburgh 70 (11/25)
92- Wagner 74, Sacred Heart 46 (12/21)
91- Syracuse 85, Bryant 84 (11/27)
86- Bryant 93, Massachusetts 88 (12/21)
84- Bryant 101, St. Francis-Brooklyn 82 (12/8)
81- Mount St. Mary's 75, St. Francis (PA) 57 (12/8)
63- Bryant 74, Wagner 62
61- Bryant 93, New Hampshire 85
59- Sacred Heart 87, Long Island 72
57- Providence 79, Fairleigh Dickinson 67
The 6 "worst" games:
0- Sacred Heart 46, Wagner 76
2- Central Connecticut 57, Army 79
3- St. Francis-Brooklyn 82, Bryant 101
4- Long Island 72, Sacred Heart 87
4- Fairleigh Dickinson 66, Quinnipiac 84
4- St. Francis (PA) 57, Mount St. Mary's 75
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
It's very early, but as of know Kenpom's All-Conference team would be Elijah Ford (Wagner), Ty Flowers (LIU), Michael Green III (Bryant), Alex Morales (Wagner), and Mark Flagg (SFU). Flowers and MG3 aren't much of a surprise, but the other three are...I tweeted this last week, but it's worth putting here; Charles Pride reminds me of former CCSU standout, and NEC POY, Javier Mojica. Mojica was a 6'3" wing who, as a senior, averaged 16.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, shooting 40.6% from three. Pride is at 14 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists, shooting 35.5% from three as a sophomore. Given the way he defends, he may be the Bulldogs' best player, though that's splitting hairs with Green III and Kiss...Wagner's Elijah Ford has been a stud through five games, averaging nearly 21 points and 6.5 boards per contest. He's really improved his ability to finish; he's making 74% of his shots at the rim, up from 55% as a junior. He's also getting it done defensively; his 3.1% steal rate is good for 5th in the league...I mentioned it earlier but it's worth digging in a bit more; Derek Kellogg went really big in LIU's first two games, going with three true frontcourt players ~64% of the time. What concerns me is the Sharks' ability to spread the floor; outside of Jermaine Jackson, Jr. ,who is 8 for 17 from three, LIU was just 3 for 26 in the split at Sacred Heart. Flowers was 2 for 7, Alex Rivera 1 for 7, and Jack Ballantyne 0-6. Flowers is a career 33.5% three-point shooter, and Rivera knocked down 33.3% of his tries as a freshman at UMass-Lowell, but LIU needs more. Hopefully Virshon Cotton, who was out with injury, will be back soon...Freshman Matas Spokas, a 6'7" stretchy-4 from Lithuania, played 43 minutes in the Pios' 2OT win over Wagner on Tuesday, scoring 18 points on 9 field goal attempts, to go along with 7 boards, 3 assists, and 0 turnovers. He's been solid all-around for Anthony Latina, and can really shoot it (7 for 21 from three on the season)...When I watch St. Francis-Brooklyn, it just feels like sophomore Rob Higgins is one of the most talented players on the floor. He's quick, he defends, and has a pretty stroke. However, it just hasn't clicked yet; he's made just 4 of 27 from three so far this season (24.6% for his career), and he's got a 38.9% eFG% through 5 games this season. It's early, and I'm hoping he can break out, but he could probably use a bit better shot selection...FDU played short-handed in two non-conference games last week, as sophomore and leading scorer Brandon Rush was suspended for the Drexel game (an 85-68 loss), and Callum Baker, PO Racine, and Joe Munden, Jr. were suspended for the Fairfield game (a 69-65 win). Greg Herenda doesn't put up with any crap, and it seems to work out ok for him and his two NCAA Tournament appearances...How does a guy like Chris Childs slip through to D-3 St. Joseph's College? Now a junior at Bryant, the JUCO transfer is shooting 30 for 63 from deep...Credit to Ryan Peters for this nugget; CCSU's Tre Mitchell has made 30 field goals and has just three turnovers. He takes care of the ball, doesn't take bad shots, and has a 64.3% eFG%, plus he's a really good perimeter defender...Sacred Heart's Cantavio Dutreil is currently 2nd in the league with 8.8 rebounds per game, and leads the league (by a mile) with a 17.6% Offensive Rebounding rate. He's really struggled offensively (30.8% from the field), but he can really rebound the basketball, and 5 blocks in 5 games is 7th in the NEC...Remind me to never get worked up about new bigs coming in the NEC, ok? Wagner's Justin Brown, a 6'10" transfer from Chattanooga, has been solid off the bench averaging 4.4 rebounds per game, but has scored just 13 points in five games, while people around the league were excited to see 7'0" Jeriah Coleman (just 10.5% of available minutes for SFU) and Bryant's Kai Kostmayer (3.8% of minutes). I don't mean to take away anything from those individual players, but the point is; it takes time for bigs to develop at this level, and given that most NEC teams play small-ball, it's difficult for guys 6'9" or taller to make a significant impact. In fact, there are just 5 players in the NEC playing more than 60% of a team's available minutes; Ty Flowers (LIU), Nana Opoku (Mount St. Mary's), Mark Flagg (SFU), Jack Ballantyne (LIU), and Malik Jefferson (Mount St. Mary's)...And finally, is there anyone more important to their team's success than Alex Morales? He leads the league with a 31.6% usage rate, and his counting numbers are really good; 14.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.6 steals per game. However, he's been incredibly inefficient; he's got a 39% eFG% (2 for 19 from three), and is averaging nearly 4 turnovers per game. His most efficient game? Wagner's blowout win over Sacred Heart where he made 2 of 3 from deep (6-11 overall) and had just 2 turnovers (versus 5 assists). Given how much Morales dominates the ball, it'll be very difficult for Wagner to be good offensively if he continues to struggle shooting the basketball the way he has in the Seahawks' 4 losses.