Wagner Looks Strong in First Mid-Major Test

After losing to St. John’s and Penn State, two teams residing in a “power” conference, and defeating Division II participant Chestnut Hill, Wagner traveled to Baltimore on Monday evening for their first mid-major test. Coppin State, a MEAC team coming off an impressive upset over Oregon State, would serve as a terrific early season litmus test for the Seahawks.

Wagner dominated the second half en route to an easy 102-87 victory. According to head coach Bashir Mason, Wagner passed the test with flying colors. “I thought we played really well tonight at both ends of the floor offensively and defensively. I’d like for us to clean some things up – turnovers, even the fouls though some of them weren’t really fouls, we have to clean that up. But I’m real pleased with the effort.”

It was a textbook performance by Mason’s Seahawks illustrating how dangerous the NEC preseason favorite could be when they’re clicking on all cylinders. Here are four keys toward Wagner’s potential run to the NEC championship.

1) A Bevy of Talented Guards

There isn’t a deeper, more talented collection of guards on any NEC roster, but you already knew that. Kenny Ortiz impacts the game in so many ways, and versus Coppin State he dished out ten assists versus four turnovers. After “playing in quicksand” due to a bulky knee last season, Latif Rivers is once again showing off his elite quickness. He’s been fantastic in four games thus far (118 offensive rating, 63% effective FG%). Despite some early struggles, Jay Harris has the ability to light it up from behind the arc any given night.

This trio would make any mid-major program proud, yet Wagner also has the luxury of trotting out junior Marcus Burton for 20 minutes a game as well. On Monday evening, Burton scored a game high 21 points on nine shot attempts. His ability to score from anywhere on the floor makes him a wonderful asset off the bench. Quite frankly, he’s one of the most underrated players in the NYC region.

Wagner’s success will ultimately be dictated by the Seahawk guards – if they play well and the offense clicks as it did yesterday (1.28 points per possession), then Wagner is primed for a deep postseason run. It’s no surprise that when Wagner scored more than 1.00 point per possession last season, they won 12 of 15 games.

2) The Big Men Are Filling Their Role

Much of Wagner’s offense runs through the perimeter, which given the backcourt talent is perfectly fine. But one reason for Wagner’s past success was derived from their bigs controlling the glass and reeking havoc around the rim. Last season, Wagner was in the upper third of the nation in rebound rate and block rate thanks in large part to power forwards Naofall Folahan and Mario Moody. In limited minutes, both were incredibly disruptive around the rim.

With a bigger role for the 2013-14 season, Folahan and Moody are making the most of their extended minutes. Moody has game changing athleticism which was on full display Monday evening. During the second half versus Coppin State, Moody threw down an alley-oop, stole the ball near half court and finished with a tomahawk jam, and added a couple more thunderous dunks for good measure. In addition to Moody, Mason also received contributions from newcomer Nolan Long (3 rebounds) and reserve Hugo Naurais (7 points, 7 rebounds). It’s a testament to the Seahawks’ deep front court and everyone accepting their role. With a dedicated focus on protecting the glass and defending the paint, the big men allow the Wagner guards more freedom to attack on both ends of the floor.

3) The Deepest Team in the NEC

Mason told me at NEC Media Day that he wanted to play 12 guys every night if he could. I originally scoffed at the notion (C’mon who plays 12 guys a night?), but on Monday, Mason trotted out all 11 scholarship players available to him (Orlando Parker was unavailable due to suspension). Freshman Greg Senat only played six minutes, but the other ten Seahawks received at least ten minutes of playing time in a somewhat competitive game. It exemplifies the trust Mason has in his reserves.

Case in point: With five minutes remaining and Coppin State attempting to make up a double-digit deficit, Mason confidently fielded a lineup of Burton, Dwaun Anderson, Naurais, Senat, and Langston Burnett… for the remainder of the game! Mason has the utmost confidence in his ninth, 10th and 11th guys in the rotation and it affords him the opportunity to rest others when needed.

4) Keeping Their Defensive Identity

If there’s any kryptonite to Wagner’s attack, it’s the new rule changes that limit defensive intensity. Much of the Seahawks’ in-your-face style has been thwarted in the early going due to the new defensive rules. It’s something Mason is certainly cognizant of: “I’m trying to remain calm and poised about it, because in a lot of instances I’m trying to figure out what the defender is supposed to do, because I feel like a lot of the time my guys were just standing there with their hands straight up. It’s just one of those things. It’s going to be game to game where we have to figure out how the officials are calling the games to make adjustments.”

Through four games, Wagner is averaging nearly 29 fouls per contest, so this will be something to keep an eye on. Having 11 to 12 guys in the rotation helps mitigate the risk of foul trouble, at least somewhat, but if the front court consistently finds themselves on the bench (especially Moody and Folahan), it could limit Wagner’s ability to defend.

For the remainder of Wagner’s non-conference season, the schedule is full of interesting mid-major opponents. This Thursday is another major test for the Seahawks as they host the America East preseason favorite Vermont. After that, games against Stetson, Rider, Penn and Lafayette should tell us where Wagner is before NEC play.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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