This is the fifth of 10 NEC previews before the season starts. You can find links to the first four at the bottom of this post.
Head Coach: Jamion Christian, 3rd Season (34-31)
Last Season: 16-17, 9-7 (NEC), Lost in NCAA tournament first round to Albany, 71-64
NEC Preseason Poll: 5th out of 10 teams
State of Program: Reloading, Can Contend
Starters Returning: 2
Key Loss(es): Julian Norfleet (17.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 1.9 A/TO), Rashad Whack (17.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.6% 3PT), Sam Prescott (11.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.1 spg)
Incoming Players: Lamont “Junior” Robinson (G), Chris Wray (F), Chris Manning (F), Troy Henderson (F), Mawdo Sallah (PF)
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Byron Ashe (7.0 ppg, 36.1% 3PT, 109.2 ORtg)
G: Chris Martin (DNP – sat out due to NCAA transfer rules)
F: Will Miller (5.6 ppg, 39.9% 3PT)
PF: Gregory Graves (6.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
C: Taylor Danaher (7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 118.1 ORtg)
Key Reserves: Kristijan Krajina (C), Will Miller (F), Junior Robinson (G), Charles Glover (PG), Khalid Nwandu (G), Andrew Smeathers (F)*
*not eligible until the December 20th game vs. American
Winning a NEC championship right away wasn’t part of the plan, but given the talent left behind for Jamion Christian a couple of offseasons ago, he certainly walked into a very good situation. A major problem loomed however. How would he motivate the inherited players to buy into a taxing system that pushes players to the absolute limit both physically and mentally?
When Christian first arrived on campus, Rashad Whack was 20 pounds overweight. Julian Norfleet was a shoot-first guard who didn’t necessarily make his teammates better. Sam Prescott left Marist with a reputation as an inefficient volume scorer, possessing a mediocre offensive rating in the mid 80s.
To the coaching staff’s credit, they did a tremendous job coaching up the talent. And it impressively led to two straight NEC finals, one NCAA tournament appearance and a sizzling 18-7 mark in February and March the past two seasons. So much for the growing pains of rebuilding.
With Norfleet, Whack, Prescott and 60.5% of the team’s scoring now graduated, Chrisitan’s encore must take place with a majority of his recruits. Players such as Byron Ashe, Charles Glover, who is fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered last November, Chris Martin and Andrew Smeathers will make up a significant part of the Mount’s rotation.
But it’s the players that Christian didn’t recruit that will still have a major impact in year three. According to the head coach, this was all part of the big picture back in 2012.
“This league is going to lose big men over the next two years; lets plan on having a dominant big man like Taylor (Danaher),” Christian explained. “Let’s have dominant “4s” and “5s” in this league and then we can bring in guards. Look at the history of the NEC and it shows you can bring in guards as freshmen that can impact your program.”
The Mount coaching staff meticulously researched winning programs and came to the following conclusions for successful mid-majors: most teams had three to four competent big men, possessed length and athleticism at the wing position to help bolster the team’s rebounding attack, and received very good guard play that can drain three-pointers with regularity.
As a result, the Mount groomed Danaher and Gregory Graves as part of the rebuilding plan, perhaps playing them more than they should have in early going. Nevertheless, the invaluable experience gained as underclassmen sets up the two juniors to be valuable front court pieces moving forward.
Because of a season ending knee injury to Kristijan Krajina, Danaher logged more minutes than expected last year, and yet the 7’0″ center was quite productive posting a 118 offensive rating by making 61.5% of his two-point attempts. Graves was terrific on the glass – his nationally ranked offensive and defensive rebounding percentages are proof of that. Along with Krajina, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, the Mount have their trio of above average big men.
Next, Christian loves the bevy of length he has at the wing spot, featuring the return of the sharp-shooting Will Miller. The one-dimensional Miller took full advantage of his elite skills as a rookie, draining 39.9% of his shots from behind the arc. Heading into this season, though, he’ll need to improve other aspects of his game, in particular his defense, so he isn’t a liability when he isn’t making threes.
Then there are newcomers Chris Wray (6’7″), Troy Henderson (6’9″) and a player Christian is most excited about, Butler transfer Andrew Smeathers (6’8″). Together these four give the staff a lot of options at the “3” and sometimes the “4” to make up for the departure of Prescott, including the ability to pressure the ball.
“We will probably press even more,” Chrisitan said, adding that the length should bother the small lineups of the NEC. “The biggest thing it gives you is more steals because you’re shrinking the floor.”
Finally, Mount Mayhem is contingent on guard play. It’s what makes 40 minutes of havoc tick, having athletic, quick, versatile guards on the floor at all times. The Mount may have lost two of the league’s top six players from a season ago in Norfleet and Whack, yet Christian remains excited at the upside of his backcourt guys.
Ashe returns with a ton of experience under his belt. He should improve in year two and could emerge as one of the better long-range shooters in the league. Martin earned a Big Apple Buckets preseason all-conference team selection, therefore we’re bullish on the Marshall transfer’s prospects. Amid reports, Junior Robinson is as explosive and quick as anyone in the conference and he should have an opportunity to show off his elite scoring skill.
If Christian appears overly optimistic, that’s because he is. The coach has never wavered in the face of a challenge and that certainly won’t change now. After being reduced to eight scholarship players for the 2013-14 season, Christian can now revert back to his preferred style of play: 40 minutes of mayhem, lighting it up offensively (he set a team goal of 82 points per game) and turning opponents over on the defensive end (a target of 16 turnovers per game). Mount St. Mary’s closed scrimmage this past Saturday was representative of that – Christian used 33 different lineups in 40 minutes of play.
“I love our roster. It’s what we contracted from day one when we took over and I really believe us getting back to playing 10 or 11 guys, playing with a ton of freedom is really going to help us this season.”
Ryan – How can you bet against Christian when the calender hits February? His team will be a pest once again, yet it will be awfully tough to replace Norfleet and Whack. Not having either’s late game production will be a major challenge in year three, and because of that I’m not picking them to repeat. But a NEC tournament first round home game is realistic. (14 wins, 10-8 NEC)
John – I really like some of the pieces that Christian has brought to the Mount. I’m expecting a breakout season from Byron Ashe, and Chris Martin should continue a tradition of talented guards at MSM. Also, Christian has shown a great ability to adapt in season and get the most out of his team come tournament time. They might struggle during a difficult non-conference schedule, but the Mount will be right in the middle of the NEC race. (12 wins, 9-9 NEC)