A little more than two months ago, I witnessed a terrific performance on the basketball court inside the Knott Arena. One team was efficiently scoring the basketball, while also holding their opponents to a paltry 4 of 28 shooting from behind the three-point line. The victorious team arguably dominated in all facets of their NEC opener. They put on a basketball clinic, plain and simple, and as a fan of the game, it was a pleasure to watch such wonderful execution.
The winning team I’m referring to was the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, as they comfortably handled the struggling Mountaineers by the score of 72-65. Afterwards, a cordial Greg Vetrone was praising his senior leadership, Mount fans were shaking their heads, and bloggers like me began to assume the Mount’s roster just wasn’t the perfect fit for Jamion Christian’s Mayhem program.
My my, how times have changed. Since that low point in Emmitsburg, a lot has happened. Julian Norfleet asked to take over the team’s point guard duties. Shivaughn Wiggins soon emerged as one of the best rookies of the league, displacing the oft-injured and mostly ineffective Josh Castellanos. Kelvin Parker began to show glimpses of his talent that had wowed fans throughout his freshman campaign, and together with Sam Prescott and Rashad Whack, helped create a dynamic trio of wings built on athleticism, explosion, and effective long-range shooting. And perhaps most importantly, Christian stayed the course. The rookie head coach continued to preach patience, never got too high or low, and strived for excellence from his team on the practice court, knowing an improvement was certain to come if he was encouraged with what he saw.
After dropping an eight point decision to Robert Morris in late January, Mount St. Mary’s has since won 12 of their last 13 games. Early on, the Mount did most of their damage in their friendly confines, but have recently won five in a row on the road. At the risk of sounding too cliché, everything is clicking on all cylinders for the Mount; therefore I’m here to state my case for why Mount St. Mary’s will win the NEC Tournament Championship tonight. John, along with his New York City bias, provides his counter argument here for why LIU Brooklyn will win their record-breaking third straight NEC title.
Mount St. Mary’s comes into the finals as a moderate underdog to the Blackbirds; in fact, Ken Pomeroy gives the Mount only a 34% chance to succeed tonight. Regardless, I’m unveiling three reasons for why Mount St. Mary’s has an excellent chance to be cutting down the nets after Tuesday night’s final.
1) Shivaughn Wiggins is even more awesome than you think.
Despite the instant recognition that comes with being crowned the NEC Rookie of the Year, I feel like Wiggins’ value on both ends of the floor remains underrated in the eyes of many. Please allow me to explain with some statistics:
- For the season, Wiggins is shooting 46.7% (22 of 47) from behind the arc.
- When Wiggins plays more than 20 minutes, Mount St. Mary’s is 15-5 on the season.
- In his past 12 games, Wiggins has 36 assists versus only 17 turnovers (2.1 A/TO), while also averaging 13.8 ppg.
- Wiggins possesses a sparkling 114.8 KenPom offensive rating for the year. As a freshman.
Not bad for a lightly recruited 5’10 guard, right? Well, those offensive numbers aren’t even the best part of Wiggins. It’s his defense. In the Mount’s last 13 games, the opposition’s starting point guard is averaging only eight points on 34% shooting, to go along with a pedestrian 1.1 A/TO. To put the latter number into perspective, the 12 point guards referenced above average a much better A/TO ratio of 1.8 for the season. With Wiggins drawing the defensive assignment on these floor generals a majority of the time, his defensive impact cannot be overstated. (On second thought, this should have been a blog post all by itself. Sorry, I’ll wrap this point up soon.)
This is why the point guard battle tonight will be the most fascinating thing to watch. The nation’s assist leader, Jason Brickman, matches up against one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. Brickman does turn it over at times (averaging four turnovers per game), so this will be one stat to keep an eye on. If Brickman gives away more than four possessions tonight, and obviously I believe Wiggins could lock him up, the load on seniors C.J. Garner and Jamal Olasewere’s shoulders becomes enormous.
2) The Mount Can Score With LIU
Ever since Norfleet and Wiggins have been asked to run the offense, the Mount has morphed into a much better offensive team, scoring 1.11 points per possession during this run. Christian’s club has been better in the half-court set, while also continuing to grab easy buckets off turnovers in transition when they can. During this improbable run, the Mount has become masters at getting out to an early lead and then deliberating slowing down the tempo in the second half to their advantage. This is critical versus LIU. Control the tempo and you’ve won half the battle with the Blackbirds, and I feel the Mount has the players and the system to do just that. They won’t fall victim to the frenetic pace LIU dictates throughout the course of the game like Robert Morris did in last year’s championship game.
3) Mount Mayhem will Continue to Pose Major Problems
All season, the overall philosophy of Mount Mayhem hasn’t changed despite the ups and downs. The Mount has simply gotten better at creating havoc all over the floor. Limiting the opposition’s three-point attempts, while jacking up many more long-range attempts yourself, is one of the core values of Mayhem, and Christian’s team has been executing that facet perfectly. During the 12-1 streak, the Mount’s opponents are only hitting 31.4% of their three-point attempts (49 of 156). What’s even more impressive, however, is the Mountaineers have exactly twice as many three-point attempts (312) as their opponents (156), and have drained 63 more threes! (That’s a difference of nearly five extra made three-pointers than your opponent per game.)
Couple that discrepancy with forcing turnovers – Christian’s team is averaging 15 takeaways during the streak – and a deep roster, and you have a well oiled Mayhem machine! If the Mount can defend on the perimeter and make life difficult for guys like Brickman, C.J. Garner, Brandon Thompson, Booker Hucks, etc., then the Mount should have an impressive advantage in accumulating points from behind the arc. It also help immensely if Whack and Prescott are feeling it from downtown.
Obviously, it’s going to be a dog fight tonight, but I feel Mount St. Mary’s has just as good a chance as their counterparts to go down dancing by night’s end. It’s a remarkable thought after beginning the conference season with a 2-6 record, but Christian has his team believing they can win the NEC tournament.
Count me in as one of the believers.
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