The NEC Mid-Range Jumper: 2/23/21
Standings: Normally I sort by Efficiency Margin, but at this point all we care about is who is going to qualify for the NEC Tournament, right? So this week I'm sorting the standings by Kenpom's projected records.
NEC Teams of the Week: Bryant and Wagner
Hey, remember Bryant? I fully expected the Bulldogs to struggle a bit coming off a 3-week pause due to a positive covid test within the program. lol, sure buddy. Bryant dominated their home-and-home with Merrimack for ~78 minutes (those last two minutes in Game 1 were a struggle), and are right back in the thick of it for home-court advantage. What was most impressive to me? The pace was slower than they hoped (66 possessions per game), and they won in different ways; Game 1 saw them hold the Warriors to 0.86ppp, which helped make up for shooting 6 for 17 from three and getting to the foul line just 9 times. The second game? They only put up 12 three-pointers (making 6), and instead dominated the paint, making 21 of 42 inside the arc. Winning in different ways is the mark of a team ready to make a run in March.
How about WWWWWWWWWagner? 9-straight wins, including 4-0 last week, have them in the driver's spot for the #1 seed in the NEC Tournament. If I'm a Seahawks fan, I'm loving the fact that they won twice via blowouts (61-39 over Mount, 67-52 against SFU), and two close games (57-55 at MSMU, 70-68 over the Red Flash). The offense is now tops in the league (107.2 pts/100 possessions), and the defense has ranged from dominant (the Mount scored just 0.66PPP last Tuesday), to just good enough.
NEC Team Performance of the Week: Wagner 61, Mount St. Mary's 39
This was the game where Wagner went from a curiosity to a clear-cut title contender (favorite?). The Mount were coming off a sweep against LIU, and were sitting in 1st place at 7-4, yet the Seahawks traveled to Emmitsburg and gave them a complete beat-down. Mount St. Mary's made just 3 of 19 from three as Bashir Mason completely took Damian Chong Qui out of the equation (just 1-6 from the field) while scoring 61 points in 59 possessions thanks to turning it over just 8 times. Alex Morales stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, 10 boards, and 6 assists.
NEC Player of the Week: Ty Flowers, Long Island
This was a tough call, as there were a bunch of players who were just as deserving; Tyler Thomas, Unique McLean, and Elijah Ford, among them. But ultimately, I went with Flowers because: a) he stuffed the stat sheet like none other, and b) he did while struggling from three (2 for 15).
Flowers averaged 23 points, 10.5 boards, 6.5 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block in a two-game sweep of Central Connecticut, which may have saved the Sharks' season. With his perimeter shots not falling, he went to work inside, making 18 of 27 from 2-point range. When he's converting at the rim, he's nearly impossible to stop.
NEC Freshman of the Week: DeLonnie Hunt, Wagner
Wagner's freshman combo-guard has to be the leader in the clubhouse for the league's ROY Award, no? Last week he continued a solid freshman campaign, averaging 10.5 ppg, thanks to making 5-11 from three and turning it over just 4 times in 4 games.
NEC Tournament Breakdown
Just 1.5 weeks left in the regular season and almost nothing is settled. As things stand today, we have 7 teams battling for the 4 NEC Tournament spots (Merrimack is ineligible for the NECT, while Central Connecticut and St. Francis (PA) are both mathematically eliminated).
The Battle for the Top Seed
Barring a complete meltdown over the next 10 days, both Bryant and Wagner will be in the NEC Tournament. However, the big question is; where will this thing be played?
The Seahawks currently hold the league's top spot thanks to their current 9-game winning streak, and have 4-games remaining; two at last place Central Connecticut, and two at home against Merrimack. Would Wagner fans sign for 3-1?
Given how Bryant looked this past weekend, I'm not sure 3-1 would be good enough for Wagner. The Bulldogs sit at 8-4, and their final 4 games are at home; Long Island (2) and Mount St. Mary's (2). At this point, any slip-up and the dream of a #1 seed may die for Bryant. Of course it's worth noting; the Bulldogs series at Sacred Heart, originally scheduled for February 11/12, hasn't been rescheduled and it doesn't look like the calendar will allow that to happen. So; if both Wagner and Bryant finish their seasons 3-1 (as projected by Kenpom), the Seahawks will be hosting this thing on Staten Island.
Five Teams for the Final 2 Spots
Anthony Latina and his Pios keep splitting series, which is exactly what Sacred Heart needed to do; SHU sits at 8-6 and is likely one win at home against Fairleigh Dickinson away from clinching an NEC Tournament spot. Kenpom has them favored by three in each game. Of course, as I've noted multiple times, SHU could get into the NECT at 9-7 without having to play Bryant, while a 9-9 NEC Team is sitting home. That could be a tough pill to swallow for someone. If the Pios can sweep FDU, it would render that discussion moot.
Long Island did what they had to do this weekend by sweeping Central Connecticut, though both games were probably closer than they should have been. Now the big test; a trip to Smithfield to take on Bryant. Split and they're likely in the NEC's "Final 4", though Kenpom has them as 9-point underdogs, with a 60% likelihood of being swept. If that happens, and they finish 9-9, we're talking taking a trip to tie-breaker city, and luckily that's Ron Ratner's problem and not mine. The Sharks own a tie-breaker over St. Francis-Brooklyn should it come down to that, and also have a win over Wagner which could come into play.
Mount St. Mary's got a huge win on Sunday after a 3-game losing streak, and sits at 8-7 and technically 0.5 games out of an NEC Tournament playoff spot. The bad news? Their three remaining games are all on the road, one at SFU and two at Bryant. Beat the Red Flash and split at Bryant, and things likely fall into place by virtue of their sweep at over LIU two weeks ago. Go 1-2 and things get sticky.
St. Francis-Brooklyn is 8-8, but now head to North Andover to face a pissed off Merrimack team. A split and they need help, a sweep and they still might need help. For tie-breaker purposes, Mount St. Mary's and Fairleigh Dickinson are the Terriers' friends (SFC swept both teams).
Still mathematically alive, Fairleigh Dickinson needs to sweep a series at Sacred Heart, and also have LIU, Mount, and SFC do worse than projected. That's a lot to ask, but there is a path for the Knights to get into the NECT, albeit a slim one.
The Northeast Conference hasn't updated its tie-breaker procedures as of now, but I'm assuming it's going to go as normal; H2H, followed by performance against the #1 seed, #2 seed, and so on (including Merrimack).
Here's the fun part; Kenpom projects Long Island, Mount St. Mary's, and St. Francis-Brooklyn to all finish 9-9. The extra fun part? They all went 2-2 against one another. If that happened, assuming Wagner wins the league, LIU would (I believe) win the tie-breaker thanks to their split against the Seahawks (SFC and Mount were both swept). Note: If Bryant were to win the league, it's likely to be because they swept both LIU and Mount, which means MSMU would no longer be in the hunt. LIU swept SFC, so this conversation would be moot.
But wait, there's more! If FDU can sweep Sacred Heart, we could have a 5-way tied for two spots at 9-9. In that scenario, St. Francis-Brooklyn and Fairleigh Dickinson would get the final two spots as both have a cumulative record of 5-3 against those teams (SFC would be the #3 seed).
I'm about 35% sure I have all of that correct. If I don't, please let me know.
My final point- I love March (and late February).
The NEC's Top '4''s
Stretch-4's, Small-ball 4's, big wings- whatever you want to call them, this is a role that didn't exist 20 years ago. These players provide some combination of scoring, shooting, rebounding, and rim protection.
Ty Flowers, Long Island: The Long Island big is perhaps the perfect NEC stretch-4. He's long and crafty, and while he won't wow you with his athleticism, he finds a way to finish at the rim with regularity (66.3%), he's 4th in the NEC in rebounding (8.1 rpg), and he protects the rim as a weak side shot blocker (1.2 bpg). My one gripe? He falls in love with the perimeter shot at times. Given that he's so good around the rim and has struggled shooting the three over the past two seasons (29%), I'd love to see him focus more on getting into the lane in the half-court. But it's hard to quibble much with his nearly 18 points per night.
Elijah Ford, Wagner: Ford is a throw-back, reminding me of former CCSU star Obie Nwadike; he's just 6'5", but his motor and hops have allowed him to become one of the league's better rebounders (7.5 rpg), and he's converting 60.5% of his 2-pointers in part because of his ability to get out in transition.. His O-Rating of 113.9 is tops among NEC players with a usage rate north of 22%, which is why he leads the league in scoring at 19.7 ppg.
Elyjah Williams, Fairleigh Dickinson: Williams does it all from the forward position; he scores it (16.3 ppg), rebounds (8.6), makes plays for others (3.5 apg), protects the rim (2.0 bpg), and has made the 3-pointer a larger part of his game this season (20-45, 44.4%).
What the Wagner?!
The Seahawks have won 9 in a row, and I'll admit; early on in the winning streak, I wasn't exactly buying it. In fact, the first 4 of those wins were by 7-points or less (including an OT win over a Chauncey Hawkins-less St. Francis-Brooklyn team). However, what they did last week (sweeping a road-trip to Emmitsburg and dispatching St. Francis (PA) in two games at home) had me looking a bit closer and; I'm in.
After starting the season 1-5 (1-4 in the NEC), how has Bashir Mason been able to turn things around? It starts on the offensive end. Check this out, courtesy of Bart Torvik:
As you can clearly see, Wagner's eFG% has trended up; essentially, they're shooting the ball more efficiently. But...how? Well, the answer is in their three-point shooting (or lack thereof?).
In Wagner's first six games, they took an average of 21.7 three-pointers per game, making just 6 of them (27.7%). Since then? They're making about 6.5 per game, not a huge change, but are attempting just 17 shots from beyond the arc per game (39% 3P%). That's a huge difference! Last season 36% of their shots were from deep, and they made just 30%. This year? 31.4% of shots are from range, and they're making 35%. Quality over quantity.
If you watch Wagner, one thing is clear; they like to play 4-out (or 5), use the dribble to get into the paint, look for kick-out opportunities, and exploit mismatches, much the way Bryant plays. And in looking at the personnel, this makes sense; Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez, these guys are prototypical "slashers". Bashir Mason is a smart guy, and clearly recognized that their bread-and-butter isn't shooting jump shots, but getting into the lane, and it's worked; as a team, their 51% eFG% is 3rd in the league. Over at ShotQuality, their metrics confirm; last season Mason's group was 9th out the current 10 NEC teams in Adjusted Shot Quality, while this season they're 4th.
But it can't just be that they focused on aggressively taking the ball to the basket, can it? Nope. Here's a few other differences I noticed:
Over the first six games, Mason was still trying to figure out his rotation; 11 players played more than 10% of the available minutes. Since then? Mason has whittled his rotation down to 7 players, with Nigel Jackson and Ja'Mier Fletcher settling in as a "big by committee", each offering a different skill set.
Alex Morales stopped settling for jump shots as often; over his first six games, the 6'6"senior was 4 for 23 from three (6.3% of his shots from from deep). Since then? He's 11 for 22 (just 4.4% of his shots), and his eFG% went from 41.7% to 52.6%.
DeLonnie Hunt became a ROY front-runner; over his first three games, Hunt shot just 5 for 32 from the field (2 for 10 from three). Since 12/21, the freshman combo-guard has a 50.8% eFG% (43% from three), and is playing the 2nd most minutes on the team (83.4%).
Will Martinez has been available and healthy. The 6'5" wing missed the team's first three games, then averaged just 5.5 points on 19.5 mpg over their next two. Since 1/14, he's been the team's 3rd scoring option with a 53.7% eFG% and 21.1% assist rate.
Getting players back from injury, freshman learning on the job, figuring out a rotation; in a normal season these are things that would have occurred during non-conference play. Instead, Mason had to figure it out during league play given that the Seahawks played just one game out of conference (a 78-45 loss at Seton Hall).
Are they a perfect team? No; since 6'10" transfer Justin Brown has been unavailable, Wagner doesn't have much rim protection, and the fact that they give up the most three-pointers in the league could potentially make them vulnerable to an upset in the NECT. But make no mistake; for awhile Bryant was in a tier of their own in the Northeast Conference, but the Seahawks are right there with them, and are the front-runners to host the NEC Tournament. Bash Mason, 2021 Coach of the Year?
Curiosities, Surprises, and Musings
Despite Wagner sitting in 1st place, Bart Torvik has Bryant at 55% to win the league's auto-bid...Speaking of the Bulldogs, Hall Elisias was a stud last week, averaging 17/7.5 and making 14-19 from the field. That'll do...Merrimack probably saw their hopes of winning a 2nd consecutive regular season title dashed last week thanks to getting swept by Bryant. The problem has really been he offense; they're taking the most 3Ps in the league (52.1% of their shots), but are making under 31% of them. Mykel Derring (33.7%) is the only Warrior shooting above 33% from deep...Maybe Aaron Clarke should earn the nickname Mr. February? The junior combo-guard is clearly healthy now, and last week averaged 19 points and 4 assists, knocking down 20-25 at the charity stripe. With him and Tyler Thomas leading the way, Anthony Latina can rely less on freshmen down the stretch...Staying on the Pios, Cantavio Dutreil is, bar none, the best rebounder in the league; he's #1 in both offensive rebounding rate and defensive rebounding rate. Unfortunately he's #2 in fouling rate (6.3 fouls/40 minutes). In Saturday's loss to St. Francis-Brooklyn, Dutreil fouled out in just 14 minutes. The Pios need him on the floor...Long Island's Jermaine Jackson, Jr. averaged 22.5 ppg this past weekend against Central Connecticut. JJJ was one of my sleeper's coming into the season and he hasn't quite made the jump that I expected; his 46.8% eFG% is good but not great, as is his 20% assist rate. Part of the issue? He's attempted just 32 shots at the rim, making 34.4% of them. I'd like to see him make that a larger part of his game next season, especially considering he's a career 85% free throw shooter...On Sunday, Mezie Offurum looked like a guy who could be primed to be a pre-season all-NEC pick next season. He took zero three-pointers (he's shooting just 24.1% from deep), and instead went to work in the paint converting all 6 of his opportunities at the rim, and getting to the free throw line 9 times (making 8). Offurum could be a dominant force in this league as a physical and skilled '4', but he floats around the perimeter too much, in my opinion. He most certainly did not do that on Sunday, when he scored 22 points and added 13 boards...FDU's freshman wing Joe Munden Jr. went for 16/7 in Wednesday's loss to SFC, and followed that up with 14/9 in the Knights' win over Mount. He's been up-and-down this season, as many freshman are, but his ability to knock down perimeter shots (40.5%) and rebound the ball from the wing position should really help this FDU program in the years to come. His next step? Get stronger so he can finish at the rim a bit better...Staying in Teaneck, FDU honored senior Jahlil Jenkins, Elyjah Williams, and Oscar Okeke prior to their loss to Mount St. Mary's on Sunday. Does this mean those guys aren't returning for a 5th year of eligibility? I'd love to see those guys run it back...Central Connecticut dressed just 7 players on Saturday (and 8 on Sunday), yet kept both games close. Junior point guard Nigel Scantlebury had 12 assists against 3 turnovers in those two games, while the other junior PG, Zach Newkirk, averaged 17ppg on the weekend...And finally, last season home teams won 59.6% of the games in NEC play. This year? 58.7%.