It’s nearly a month into the 2015-16 season, and it’s been a rough go for the NEC. The top three teams of the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll—Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris and Bryant–have combined to post a ghastly record of 4-21 against Division I competition, with none of those victories coming against a team inside KenPom’s top 250.
Across the entire league, it gets even more dire—there have been just four true road wins between the ten programs (thanks to St. Francis Brooklyn for getting half of those).
It’s easy to freak out based on the early carnage, yet I’m usually careful not to overreact during the non-conference portion of the NEC’s schedule for any given season. With so many guarantee and road games to play, it’s hard to put much credence into the results. Plus there’s recent evidence that teams can bounce back after going through rough stretches in November and December. You don’t need to look further than the NEC’s two most recent champions, Mount St. Mary’s ’14 and Robert Morris ’15, to back this thought up.
Nevertheless, the early results simply can’t be ignored. Allow me to delve into these teams’ current situations and rate my level of concern on a scale of 1 (no worries) to 10 (oh my god this team’s season is on the brink!). Let’s begin with the preseason favorite.
Mount St. Mary’s (2-6)
Offensive Efficiency: 98.4 points per 100 possessions (250th)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.1 points per 100 possessions (148th)
Scoring Margin Differential: -96 points
Strength of Schedule: 45
If there’s an ideal way to construct a non-conference schedule loaded with guarantee games, I believe Mount St. Mary’s has the right blueprint laid out for this season. Right away, the four toughest games were crossed off, allowing Jamion Christian to focus on optimizing his team’s potential against similar mid-major opponents moving forward.
After a rough six game stretch which included four power conference programs, the Mountaineers impressively dispatched American and Loyola (MD), two teams expected to land in the middle of the Patriot League standings. Most promising, though, has been the return to the Mount Mayhem roots. As NEC associate commissioner Ron Ratner pointed out on Twitter, the frantic pace of Mayhem led to a somewhat stress free victory last Saturday afternoon:
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) December 5, 2015
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsSo far, nine players have logged at least 15.5 mpg, illustrating Christian’s comfort with his current roster. In the two home victories, six players are scoring between 7.5 and 17.5 ppg. That, my friends, is the balance Christian has always coveted. With several savy veterans on this roster and the exciting 6’8 sophomore Chris Wray, whose length and athleticism will lead to problems for other NEC opponents, Mount fans should feel confident.
This roster is loaded and ready to go; therefore I’m quick to dismiss the Mount’s brutal start to the season. We’ve been down this road before, and yet, the Mount still found a way to finish in the NEC top 4 after plenty of non-conference dysfunction the past two seasons. In my opinion, all is well in Emmitsburg.
My Level of Concern: 1
Robert Morris (1-8)
Offensive Efficiency: 96.2 points per 100 possessions (296th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.4 points per 100 possessions (235th)
Scoring Margin Differential: -125 points
Strength of Schedule: 160
Andy Toole always finds a way to get his teams to defend by January. In the last four seasons, the Colonials have been in the top three in defensive efficiency among his NEC counterparts. If Aaron Tate could ever come back semi healthy, a 2-3 zone featuring himself and the athleticism of Isaiah Still, Rodney Pryor, Kavon Stewart and Elijah Minnie could be really effective against the smaller lineups of the NEC.
But defense isn’t the reason we’re here. It’s been the other side of the floor that’s been troublesome for the Colonials. Without shot creators like Marcquise Reed and Lucky Jones, Robert Morris must rely on Pryor and Minnie to be at their best each and every night. Stewart has underwhelmed, while Matty McConnell, Billy Giles and Still are still searching for consistency. With Toole desperately trying to integrate the pieces, the Colonials have scored at least 1.00 point per possession just twice in nine games.
Pryor hasn’t been the problem; in fact, he’s played about as well as anyone can expect through a month. His scoring (15.6 ppg to 21.2 ppg) and rebounding (4.7 rpg to 7.0 rpg) averages are up and it hasn’t really come at the expense of efficiency. His effective field goal percentage of 54.6% currently ranks 379th nationally.
It is Pryor’s teammates that need to find consistency and help the Colonials become more balanced. Stewart needs to get better around the rim, Still must attack the basket and McConnell must emerge as the NEC Rookie of the Year candidate many of us envisioned.
Will they figure it out? Given the current state of the conference, it’d be foolish to move Robert Morris off the top tier, but their situation certainly is a little tenuous. If I’m a Colonials fan, I’ll continue to mutter “I trust Andy Toole, I trust Andy Toole” and assume he’ll find a way to squeeze 10-12 NEC wins out of this roster.
My Level of Concern: 4
Offensive Efficiency: 95.3 points per 100 possessions (312th)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.4 points per 100 possessions (302nd)
Scoring Margin Differential: -144 points
Strength of Schedule: 74
For the first time since Bryant was in its infancy as a fully eligible Division I program, the Bulldogs have fallen outside KenPom’s top 300. Even more startling, Bryant is eighth in offensive efficiency among the NEC programs, thanks in large part to their inability to make perimeter shots (26.1% 3PT) and free throws (56.5%). This doesn’t look like an offense first, Tim O’Shea led team at all!
To be fair Bryant has been subjected to a brutal schedule, yet it’s not the losses that are concerning, it has been the margin of defeat. Not once during the current six game losing streak have they put themselves in a legitimate position to win, and that includes the “winnable” games at home against Siena and Brown. What exactly has been responsible for the slide?
For starters, replacing Dyami Starks and Joe O’Shea on the offensive end is a monumental task. In conference play last season, no one was more efficient than the versatile O’Shea (127.9 ORtg). Starks may have been a glorified and slightly overrated volume scorer, but he still possessed a very respectable 102.9 ORtg after handling a lion-share of Bryant’s possessions. Underclassmen Hunter Ware and Nisre Zouzoua have the unenviable task of “replacing” those two, and while they’ve shown flashes, neither has been dominant thus far. As expected there have been some growing pains—both have combined to shoot 40.8% from the field.
Taking those possessions vacated by Starks and O’Shea has also trickled down to other players now that they’re being asked to step up.
Dan Garvin has been one such player asked to become a major contributor. As a notoriously slow starter early in the season, he’s once again struggling against non-conference competition. In 14 career games against Tier A + B contests as categorized by KenPom, Garvin is averaging just 7.4 ppg on 36.9% shooting. With a history of poor performance against bigger, more athletic opponents, I’d expect Garvin to eventually morph back into the potential NEC POY candidate we envisioned back in October. There’s little chance he’ll continue to make just 48.1% of his takes near the rim after making 58.4% of those similar takes as an underclassman, right?
He’ll likely improve, as will others around Garvin who have been either banged up (Andrew Scocca, Bosco Kostur), simply ineffective (Curtis Oakley), or trying to do too much (Shane McLaughlin). But can they reinvent their old offensive glory of yesteryear?
I’m becoming more skeptical with each disappointing performance, yet I’m not as bearish as KenPom is at the moment. Currently, Bryant is projected as the ninth place finisher in league play with a 7-11 record. I don’t think there’s a chance that’ll happen, but I’d be lying if I didn’t drop Bryant down a few spots from my top 3 projection just a month ago.
My Level of Concern: 7