NEC Preview 2014-15: #4 Central Connecticut

This is the seventh of 10 NEC previews before the season starts. You can find links to the first six at the bottom of this post.

Head Coach: Howie Dickenman, 19th season (273-260)
Last Season: 11-19, 7-9 (NEC), Lost in NEC tournament first round to Wagner, 83-59
RPI/KenPom: 292/176
NEC Preseason Poll: 2nd out of 10 teams
State of Program: Contender
Starters Returning: 4
Key Loss(es): Matthew Hunter (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 spg), Terrell Allen (4.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg), DeAngelo Speech (3.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 43.2% 3PT)
Incoming Players: Mustafa Jones (F), Corey Barrett (PF), Shakaris Laney (G), Kevin Seymour (PG)

Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Malcolm McMillan (10.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg)
G: Kyle Vinales (17.3 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 39.7% 3PT)
G: Khalen Cumberlander (6.6 ppg, 51.4% 2PT)
PF: Faronte Drakeford (13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
PF: Brandon Peel (7.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 54.5% 2PT)

Key Reserves: Matt Mobley (G), Juwan Newman (F), Corey Barrett (PF), Mustafa Jones (G)

Storyline:

Since punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament in 2007 on the back of Javier Mojica, Central Connecticut frankly has been a mediocre basketball team. The Blue Devils have compiled an overall record of 95-115 while going 65-67 versus conference opponents during the past seven seasons. And this is despite boasting a NEC Player of the Year (Ken Horton), two NEC Rookies of the Year (Kyle Vinales, Shemik Thompson) and several players selected to the league’s all-conference and all-rookie teams. So what exactly has been the problem?

“What we need to do is bring a toughness on defense, pride on defense,” Howie Dickenman said at NEC Social Media Day. “I guess you’d say we need to develop an attitude. We’ve spent about 80% of our time in practices (on) defense, whether it be drills, whenever it be half court situations, whether it be transition defense…”

The longest tenured NEC head coach certainly has a point. After landing in the NEC’s top three in defensive efficiency for the 2011-12 season, the Blue Devils have allowed opponents to score 1.07 points per possession (ppp). Last season, the Blue Devils struggled to keep their opponents off the offensive glass (34.6% of available misses were rebounded by the offense) and weren’t great at generating turnovers for easy buckets in transition. There’s room for improvement in that regard, yet that doesn’t explain why CCSU was so poor on the other end of the floor.

Even though three players averaged at least 10.8 ppg (Kyle Vinales, Faronte Drakeford and Malcolm McMillan) for the 2013-14 season, the team ranked ninth in offensive efficiency at 1.01 ppp. Quite simply, they were a jump-shooting team – only four other Division I programs in the country had a worse free throw rate than CCSU. It also didn’t help that the Blue Devils made just 47.2% of their twos.

Dickenman, however, remained staunch in his belief that the offense will be productive given the myriad of talent in New Britain. “I’m confident we can score. We build our offense around Kyle.”

Of course, the team will now likely begin the season without Vinales, who was arrested on assault charges merely two days after NEC Media Day. Vinales is awaiting a court hearing on Dec. 5. It’s anyone’s guess when, and if, Vinales is reinstated, but CCSU likely won’t render a decision until the criminal justice system sorts it out.

If Vinales misses significant time, how much worse are the Blue Devils without him? Well, that’s a trickier question to answer than most would think. Vinales has a career scoring average of 19.2 ppg, but has never possessed an offensive rating above 100.2, which is considered average in KenPom land. He translates as a volume scorer who gobbles up possessions (he took 30.3% of Blue Devils’ shots when on the floor last season, ranked 79th nationally among D-I individuals), and his fearlessness at the end of games — think Shane Gibson and Karvel Anderson — is surely invaluable. When motivated, good luck staying in front of Vinales, yet his effort level on the defensive end has been sometimes inconsistent.

How’s that for a clear answer?

Vinales’ potential replacements are young, athletic and possess upside. Khalen Cumberlander has shown an unusual, yet impressive tenacity to attack the rim as a 6’3″ guard. Mobley’s athleticism was enough to earn him a spot on the NEC all-rookie team last season.

Other than Vinales, the Blue Devils will be anchored by three upperclassmen in Drakeford, McMillan, and perhaps one of the more underrated players in the NEC, Brandon Peel. Drakeford has the talent to average 15 ppg and 8 rpg as a senior, but he needs to be a little more efficient in his shot selection. McMillan will need to continue to protect the ball and shoot the three-pointer with consistency. And Peel must stay healthy.

Brandon Peel (center) is second among returning NEC players in rebounding. (Photo credit: CCSU)
Brandon Peel (center) is second among returning NEC players in rebounding. (Photo credit: CCSU)

The last point is especially important. Of the biggest question marks haunting Dickenman this offseason (beside Vinales’ suspension of course) is the Blue Devils frontcourt depth, or lack thereof. With unproven commodities in Juwan Newman and junior transfer Corey Barrett, the play down low could get dicey if Drakeford is in foul trouble and Peel can’t avoid the trainer’s room. Of all the returning NEC players, Peel ranked second in rebounds and first in blocks during conference play as a sophomore.

Add it all up, and there’s surely talent (once again) at CCSU. But until the Vinales situation is resolved and the Blue Devils show a newfound desire to play defense, this team may continue to underachieve. With four seniors on the roster in an unpredictable NEC, the time is now for Dickenman to earn his fourth trip to the NCAA tournament.

Predictions

Ryan – Obviously, this is a tricky prediction to make without knowing the future of Vinales. In all honesty, I don’t believe CCSU is substantially worse without Vinales — I’m a big fan of Cumberlander and Mobley — although their overall depth would take a serious hit. Assuming Vinales is back by early to mid December, I feel the Blue Devils will remain relevant in the chase for the NEC championship. I’ve been burned before, though, so I’m tempering my expectations. (14 wins, 10-8 NEC)

John – I’m not CCSU’s biggest fan this preseason. I have a bunch of questions. For instance, when is Kyle Vinales coming back? High-volume scorers are actually quite valuable, because if they’re consistently using that many possessions then they must be a special offensive player. If Vinales misses significant time this team will take a step backward. You can talk about defense all you want, but I want to see the Blue Devils play some — and commit to lineups that will make them better on that side of the ball — before making any rosy predictions. (13 wins, 8-10 NEC)

#10 Fairleigh Dickinson
#9 LIU Brooklyn
#8 Sacred Heart
#7 Wagner
#6 Mount St. Mary’s
#5 Saint Francis University

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