While you may chuckle at the very thought of Mount St. Mary’s as a defensive stalwart in the NEC, I was asking myself this very question last Thursday, as the Mount led the visiting Pioneers in the second half, 39-30.
The veteran Sacred Heart squad hadn’t registered in a field goal in five minutes and saw their win probability, according to Ken Pomeroy, plummet to 6.8% with fewer than 15 minutes remaining. Jamion Christian, the Shaka Smart mentored mastermind behind Mount Mayhem, was once again smothering another conference foe with half-court defense.
In a sudden and unexpected twist of events involving the sharp-shooting senior Steve Glowiak, the Pioneers would score 18 of the game’s next 22 points to take back a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, ruining my planned piece on the awesomeness of Mount St. Mary’s defense. (But at least this Pioneer grad was quietly giddy with delight on the inside. You can’t show emotion on press row, remember?)
Since then, the Mount’s defensive efficiency (DRtg, points allowed per 100 possessions) has regressed back toward the league average, but the offense, which has seen its fair share of struggles minus Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, did step up to score 1.22 ppp and quell the Bryant Bulldogs’ respectable offensive showing this past Saturday. Despite the recent defensive hiccups, however, the Mount still find themselves in elite defensive company when compared to the the best NEC defenses of this century:
|Team DRtg||NEC Avg DRtg||% Difference|
In the KenPom era dating back to the 2001-02 season, only four NEC clubs were at least 10% better than the league’s average DRtg. This includes Christian’s present group of “no-names”, none of whom are likely to find themselves on an all-conference team at season’s end. (I’m still holding out hope the coaches will realize how valuable Byron Ashe and Gregory Graves have been, though.)
For a team that finished fourth in conference DRtg last season, an improvement to the top spot may not be all that surprising. The true surprise is how they’re doing it, which when examined closely, deviates somewhat from the original Mount Mayhem philosophy.
Despite boasting a deep rotation that features eight players averaging between 5.0 and 11.5 ppg, Mayhem has been revised a bit in Christian’s third season as head coach. And it was likely necessary given the youth and inexperience the Mountaineers have in the backcourt. Mayhem, after all, is ultimately fueled by guard play.
“I think it’s all a product of experience, quite honestly,” Christian explained last week. “(Our young guards) learning when to push and when not to push. The more games they play, I expect the third phase of the season to be a lot better with understanding when to push and when to play.”
More often than not, Christian has elected to fall back and attack teams in the half-court set, rather than press much in the full court. This change has lowered the Mount’s tempo considerably. Coming off a 2013-14 season where they employed the NEC’s fastest tempo at 70.6 possessions per contest, they’ve now dipped to the slowest pace in the league at a rather stunning 63.0 possessions per game. That’s slower than Saint Francis University, who for many years has resided in the bottom half of the league in tempo. That doesn’t sound very Mount Mayhem like. What happened to havoc?!
The turnovers are still getting forced at a similar rate though (22.6%), and that’s likely due to one aspect. The Mount stands at 25th nationally in effective height, which as Ken Pomeroy thoroughly explained some time ago, plays a major role in overall DRtg. In fact, the Mount leads the conference in effective height by a country mile:
- Mount St. Mary’s: +3.2 Eff Height (25th nationally)
- Robert Morris: -0.9 Eff Height (236)
- Wagner: -1.0 Eff Height (240)
- Central Connecticut: -1.2 Eff Height (257)
- Sacred Heart: -2.7 Eff Height (322)
- St. Francis Brooklyn: -3.1 Eff Height (331)
- Bryant: -3.2 Eff Height (336)
- Saint Francis U: -3.5 Eff Height (338)
- Fairleigh Dickinson: -3.8 Eff Height (345)
- LIU Brooklyn: -4.0 Eff Height (346)
As Pomeroy pointed out, effective height correlates better on the defensive side of the ball, improving the following: two-point field goal defense, effective field goal defense, block rate and adjusted DRtg.
Other than Taylor Danaher, who is averaging 1.2 blocks per game this season, the Mount doesn’t boast a single player averaging more than half a block per contest. And yet, the Mount is third in the NEC with a block rate of 9.7%, second with a defensive two-point field goal percentage of 44.2% and first with an effective field goal percent defense of 44.9%.
Armed with a bevy of bigs like Graves (6’7″), Kristijan Krijina (6’10”), Danaher (7’0″) and oversized wings like Will Miller (6’6″) and Andrew Smeathers (6’8″), the Mount are forcing other NEC clubs to shoot over their size. That much is evident around the rim, where NEC opponents have converted just 51.1% of their takes near the basket. To put that number in perspective, the NCAA median for field goal percentage defense around the rim currently sits at 57.5%.
Transition opportunities have also been reduced, albeit slightly, with the Mount taking fewer chances when applying full court pressure. According to the head coach, this overal shift in defensive philosophy has been part of the plan.
“When we took over the job here three years ago, you look at what’s your best opportunity to win,” Christian said. “We had a ton of guards that could really play and so we decided with the guards, ‘Hey we’re going to play up and down and make the game really fast.’”
“We’re finding a different way to play with this group of guys. Eighteen turnovers (vs. Sacred Heart) in such a small possession game is pretty good, so I think we can (turn opponents over) more without giving up the lay-up. Because if we want the tempo back to where it was a year ago, we have to give up lay-ups. I don’t want to do that. I think we can be a better defensive team than that, but it does mean you’re going to get teams to the end of the shot clock more often… Good defensive teams make you play slowly.”
It also helps when Khalid Nwandua and Byron Ashe possess oversized wingspans that can clog up passing lanes and open looks at the basket.
With a regular season concluding four game stretch of mediocre to avearge offensive squads, the Mount has an opportunity to end on a high note. We aren’t witnessing the Mount Mayhem style of old, but this new, bigger version has given Christian’s program a chance to finish as one of the best defensive units in recent NEC memory.
And it’s not because of a frentic tempo that grinds teams into submission late. It’s due to a hard-nosed effort in the defensive half-court set.