It’s tournament time!
Before we proceed, it’s only fair that I examine my prognostication skills from this season, since I was quick to pat myself on the back for getting pretty close to the actual standings of the 2014-15 season. Here’s a look at the final NEC standings compared with my Blue Ribbon predictions back in early September:
- Wagner, 13-5 (preseason #7)
- Fairleigh Dickinson, 11-7 (preseason #9)
- Sacred Heart, 11-7 (preseason #6)
- St. Francis Brooklyn, 11-7 (preseason #5)
- Mount St. Mary’s, 10-8 (preseason #2)
- LIU Brooklyn, 9-9 (preseason #4)
- Saint Francis U, 9-9 (preseason #8)
- Robert Morris, 8-10 (preseason #1)
- Bryant, 5-13 (preseason #3)
- Central Connecticut, 3-15 (preseason #10)
Well, that didn’t go very well. I was within 1 spot of just three teams , CCSU, SFC and SFU, and the latter only happened because Isaiah Blackmon has been absent for the past few weeks. The league was just as we all expected, wild and unpredictable. Time to talk about some teams…
Favorite – Wagner: The NEC has tremendous parity when compared to most of the other conferences in Division I basketball, but it doesn’t start with Wagner. Winners of five straight by an average margin of 18.4 points, the Seahawks have distinctly pulled away from the pack. They are the only NEC squad in the top 3 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Piggybacking off of these efficiencies, KenPom has assessed Wagner’s chances of getting the NCAA tournament automatic bid at an overwhelming 63%. No other program is above 15%. Wagner will stay at the Spiro Center for all of its tournament games, where it is 11-3 on the season. The team is balanced, athletic and deep, and as one coach put it to me two weeks ago, he’s not quite sure how Wagner lost during the conference season.
If there’s one thing going against Bashir Mason’s group, it’s his team’s perceived lack of experience. Other than Dwaun Anderson, who served as nothing more than a role player for two Wagner teams that lost in the NEC tournament semifinals once upon a time, no one else has a postseason victory under his belt. That’s something to keep an eye on if the pressure mounts late in these games. Also interesting is the Seahawks have blown substantial leads at home this season to Sacred Heart (led by as many as 13), LIU Brooklyn (17) and FDU (8), all of which resulted in losses. In other words, they’re the favorite, but certainly not invincible.
Also Merits Consideration – Fairleigh Dickinson: I’ll be completely honest – I was almost ready to write off the Knights after their loss to Sacred Heart, based purely on their inability to defend and rebound the basketball. I even went back and calculated the average defensive efficiency and rebounding rate for all the teams that made the NEC finals since 2002. Those numbers aren’t terribly favorable for FDU and its prospects to play in the league’s championship game:
- Average between 28 finalists: 99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, 68.0% defensive rebound rate
- FDU this season: 107.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, 63.7% defensive rebound rate
The good news for Greg Herenda is the Knights were better over the past week in both facets and they still have the most productive offense in the league. But will the Knights youthful trio of Earl Potts, Marques Townes and Darian Anderson come through?
Sacred Heart: When you have the best player in the league, anything is possible, especially in a game that goes down to the wire. Perhaps more importantly, the Pioneers have been defending better as of late, holding their last eight opponents to 0.98 points per possession. Chalk it up to continuity and everyone being healthy at the right time. One thing that merits watching: can Jordan Allen (5.9 fouls committed per 40 minutes) and Quincy McKnight (3.9 fouls per 40 minutes) stay on the floor for 25-30 minutes each and not take a seat due to foul trouble? If Anthony Latina has to dip into his bench, the defense will worsen and that’s not ideal when you’re hosting Jerome Frink and Martin Hermannsson in the quarterfinals. The difference between wins and losses on the defensive end for Sacred Heart is pretty stark:
- In 11 NEC wins: 0.98 points allowed per possession, opponents shooting 32.2% from 3
- In 7 NEC losses: 1.11 points allowed per possession, opponents shooting 36.4% from 3
St. Francis Brooklyn: The Terriers have quietly put together a solid stretch, having won four straight and six of their last eight. Defensively, the team has returned to its tough, hard-nosed interior attack that served them well last season, which comes as no surprise given Amdy Fall and Chris Hooper’s fantastic block rates of 9.2% and 5.6%, respectively. League opponents are shooting a league worst 42.0% from 2, and yet, they aren’t getting very many three-point attempts against the Terriers as well (25.0 3PTA/FGA, worst in the NEC). With all the experience acquired from last season’s run, this team is dangerous.
Darkhorse – LIU Brooklyn: I don’t know what to make of LIU Brooklyn, but their offense could conceivably carry them for a deep tournament run. If they can make some 3s to supplement Jerome Frink down low, watch out!
Numbers To Care About
A Recent History: A quick glance at each playoff team’s last eight games provides a snapshot as to who’s playing well coming in. The modified standings go like this:
- Wagner, 6-2 (+98 point differential)
- Sacred Heart, 6-2 (+64)
- St. Francis Brooklyn, 6-2 (+37)
- LIU Brooklyn, 5-3 (+22)
- Robert Morris, 4-4 (+3)
- Fairleigh Dickinson, 4-4 (-5)
- Mount St. Mary’s, 3-5 (-19)
- Saint Francis U, 3-5 (-21)
Wagner is seriously on a roll, as evident from their league leading offensive (1.12 ppp) and defensive efficiencies (0.94 ppp) over these final eight games. Ditto for the other top four as mentioned earlier. Mount St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is trending in the wrong direction. Amazing, they’ve failed to crack the 1.00 ppp threshold in the past nine games! I’d be surprised if they can reach that limit against a stout Terriers defense tonight.
45 wins – 45 losses: This is the home team’s record this season in league games. Not much of an advantage, would you say? Three teams inside the top 4 — Sacred Heart, Wagner and St. Francis — have combined to go 19-8 in conference play, so I’d hardly call that a wash if you’re at the Pope Center, Spiro Center or Pitt Center. Oddly enough, FDU has thrived on the road, winning 7 of 9 games, yet their only chance to compete away from Teaneck is if they face Wagner in the finals.
Players to Watch:
Corey Henson, Wagner – No player is more important to the Seahawks offense than Henson due to Wagner’s middle of the pack shooting percentages. The Seahawks rely on attacking the offensive glass and generating second chance opportunities, but when Henson is playing well, it makes Wagner that much tougher to beat. Here’s a quick look at the guard’s performance based on wins and losses – it’s noteworthy:
- In 13 NEC wins – Henson converted 54.7% of his 2s and 47.2% of his 3s
- In 5 NEC losses – Henson converted 32.3% of his 2s and 25.0% of his 3s
Contain Henson and you have a chance it seems. Ironically, Robert Morris has done a solid job limiting the sophomore guard (19 points, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, 6-16 from the field in 2 games), yet herein lies the problem with Robert Morris – their inability to generate offense outside of Rodney Pryor is problematic.
Tevin Falzon, Sacred Heart – It’s no coincidence that Sacred Heart was playing its worst basketball when Falzon was either out or struggling on the court due to a nagging ankle injury suffered in early November. The senior’s performance was so hampered in December that the coaching staff had to be secretly contemplating whether they should shut the senior down and red-shirt him, thereby preserving his eligibility for the 2016-17 season. Luckily for both parties, it never escalated to that level and Falzon is clearly back to his old self.
As Ray Curren previously alluded to, when Falzon scores in double figures, Sacred Heart is 9-2 in NEC play. When he doesn’t, they are 1-6. Broome is fantastic and all, but without their second best player performing at a high level, Sacred Heart will have great difficultly moving forward in a one-and-done tournament.
Tyreek Jewell, St. Francis Brooklyn – To understand the value Jewell creates for the Terriers, you have to embrace his contributions that don’t typically get noticed. For example, when he’s on the floor, St. Francis is a mind-numbing 18.9 points allowed per 100 possessions better defensively (no, that’s not a typo). Obviously, there are other factors that go into the Terriers top 3 defensive unit — they have the back-to-back NEC Defensive Player of the Year after all — yet there’s no denying how special of a perimeter defender Jewell can be. Whether Jewell help stifle the Mount offensive attack for a third straight time is the million dollar question. Will he primarily guard BK Ashe or Junior Robinson tonight?
Martin Hermannsson, LIU Brooklyn – Hermannsson was marvelous in the month of February. The sophomore has posted 10 straight games of at least a 114 ORtg and 17 points. In addition, he’s also averaging 5.3 apg and 1.8 spg over the same time span! Beside Broome and Pryor, there isn’t a player that’s more feared in the league right now than Hermannsson, which makes LIU Brooklyn a difficult out, especially on the road where the Blackbirds are 5-4 in league play.
The Fearless Predictions
And the drum roll please…
#1 Wagner over #8 Robert Morris
#2 FDU over #7 Saint Francis U
#3 Sacred Heart over #6 LIU Brooklyn
#4 St. Francis Brooklyn over #5 Mount St. Mary’s
Wait, what?! I’m taking all home teams despite the evident parity?! Well, I just like the matchups for each home school tonight. Plus according to Ron Ratner’s collection of awesome NEC tidbits, teams seeded 6 through 8 are 1-29 in their last 30 games. Those are some tough odds to overcome.
#3 Sacred Heart over #2 FDU
#1 Wagner over #4 St. Francis Brooklyn
What can I say, this Pioneer alum is fairly confident. And finally…
#1 Wagner over #3 Sacred Heart
Bashir Mason’s team is on a roll, so it’s difficult to bet against the Seahawks at the moment. I’ll stick with KenPom’s projections and go with the boring pick.
Enjoy the quarterfinals tonight!