Can Sacred Heart Overcome Low RPMs?

The turnover in Division I basketball is rampant and that extends, unfortunately, to the Northeast Conference. Due to transfers, dismissals and (lesser so these days) graduations, roster continuity among NEC programs is no longer the norm and more of an exception.

It’s fairly obvious why roster stability can play a role in where a program stands at the end of the season. It’s likely a big reason why Fairleigh Dickinson, the third youngest roster in the nation heading into last season, and Wagner found themselves in the NEC tournament title game. A few years back, John Templon examined the relationship between returning possession minutes (take a player’s available minutes played and multiply it by his possession rate) and the change in KenPom Pythagrean rating and, surprise, he found a correlation. It’s hardly 100% fool-proof, but it does provide us a glimpse into how the immediate future could shake out.

With this in mind, I went ahead and broke down six years of RPM data in the conference (58 teams, excluding Bryant’s two transition seasons and Quinnipiac and Monmouth). When compared with a program’s overall performance – in this case end of year KenPom rating and total NEC wins – RPMs once again gave us a predictive measure.

The relationship would be stronger under John’s aforementioned method, but there’s clearly a correlation nonetheless. And when you break the data down into tiers, it’s clear that teams returning less than 40% of their RPMs face an uphill battle.

RPMs Avg KenPom EOY Rank Avg NEC Wins
<40% 288 6.2
40-49% 276 9.0
50-59% 256 9.4
60-69% 248 9.0
70-79% 219 11.7
80-100% 195 11.4
Overall 244 9.7

 

To be more specific, there have been just six teams over the past six seasons that fell underneath the 40% RPM threshold. Those teams haven’t fared well, going a combined 58-119 without a single victory recorded in the NEC tournament. Only the 2014-15 Mountaineers (39% RPMs) won as many games as they lost, yet they were upset on their home floor in the NEC quarterfinals.

What does this mean for this upcoming season? The three teams that fall under 40% RPMs are St. Francis Brooklyn, Saint Francis U (after factoring in the season ending injury of Malik Harmon) and Sacred Heart. All three make up the bottom tier in RPMs for the league:

  • Fairleigh Dickinson, 85%
  • Bryant, 74%
  • Wagner, 65%
  • Robert Morris, 57%
  • Central Connecticut, 57%
  • Mount St. Mary’s, 56%
  • LIU Brooklyn, 55%
  • St. Francis Brooklyn, 37%
  • Saint Francis U, 36%
  • Sacred Heart, 36%

I’ve already talked extensively about the Red Flash and we will expound later on the Terriers. For now, allow me to delve into my alma mater, the Pioneers of Sacred Heart.

Anthony Latina’s group not only loses Cane Broome, who scored an insane 1,157 points in two seasons, but also two very good veteran bigs in Tevin Falzon and Jordan Allen. Quincy McKnight, Sean Hoehm and Matej Buovac are the only returning players who played at least half of the team’s available minutes last season. Of the projected starting lineup, four of the five players in fact didn’t log a single minute at the Division I level last season.

PG: Charles Tucker, Jr.
SG: Quincy McKnight
F: De’von Barnett
PF: Joe Lopez
PF: Mario Matasovic

McKnight and Barnett appear to be the only proven veterans, with the latter returning after missing a season from a torn labrum. In his two previous seasons as a Pioneer, Barnett stood out as one of the more efficient players in the league, shooting 55.0% on 442 shot attempts. With good health, the athletic wing could emerge as a top 15 player by season’s end.

Charles Tucker (center) will serve as the primary ball handler in Latina's offense (Photo Credit: USA Today)
Charles Tucker (center) will serve as the primary ball handler in Latina’s offense (Photo Credit: USA Today)

Look a little closer though, and you’ll discover that Tucker and Lopez were productive players at the Division I level as freshmen. Tucker led Tennessee State in assist rate (25.6%) and 2-point field goal percentage (47.4%), while Lopez was productive in limited time at Winthrop, posting offensive and defensive rebounding percentages of 10.1% and 16.6%, respectively.

According to Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina, it all starts with Tucker leading the point. “We have a pass first point guard,” Latina said at NEC Social Media Day. “I think that changes the dynamic, kind of back in the Phil [Gaetano] mode. When your point guard is passing a lot, I think it becomes contagious.”

Sharing the basketball wasn’t a strength for Sacred Heart last season, because they didn’t need to be that type of team. When you have the NEC Player of the Year who had a possession rate of 30.0% (33rd nationally) and averaged 23.1 ppg, balance and sharing the basketball aren’t the main focus. Even though the Pioneers finished third in scoring (73.9 ppg), they were just sixth in total assists (12.1 apg) and last in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.82) among their conference foes.

Latina is hopeful Tucker, who averaged 8.5 apg at Panola College as a sophomore, will make Sacred Heart into a team that leads the conference in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and points scored. His leadership has also been praised by the staff: “Charles sets the tone,” Latina added. “Your point guard really sets your tone offensively and defensively in how you’re going to play and I think Charles will do a great job of that. He’s a leader.”

Lopez, meanwhile, has the talent and ability to post a double double any given night after averaging 14.0 ppg and 12.6 rpg as a sophomore at Broward College. “We hope that [Joe] is a mix between Mike Aaman and Michael Carey,” Latina said. “He’s a bull like Mike Aaman; there isn’t a lot of finesse to his game but he’ll be very effective… The reason I say mix is I hope he can score like Aaman and rebound like Carey, because he goes after the ball.”

Lopez isn’t the only newcomer that should log big minutes in the frontcourt. Junior transfer Mario Matasovic projects as someone who’ll average 20-25 mpg, after of course he heals from a Jones fracture of his foot suffered a couple of months back. “He brings great energy, great toughness,” Latina said of Matasovic, who played in 51 games at Western Michigan. “He’s a winner; a team guy who’ll do anything that we ask him to do. He does not care about statistics one ounce. He’s the guy who gets the big rebound, has the big box-out, makes a good screen late in the game to free up a shooter.”

Add in another year of experience for Buovac, who posted a 109.4 offensive rating as a role player last year, and Hoehn who made 47.2% of his field goals attempts as a freshman, and there’s reason for optimism at Sacred Heart. Even if the Pioneers struggle out of the gate – they open against Fairfield, Hofstra, Arizona and Santa Clara – the team is comprised more to the coach’s liking as an unselfish group that shares the ball on offense.

There’s the RPM hurdle to jump over, of course, but given the Pioneers level of experience, there’s a chance Sacred Heart can buck the trend. The NEC coach’s clearly don’t agree after selecting the Pioneers to finish eighth overall, but then again there isn’t a lot of knowledge regarding Tucker, Lopez and Matasovic.

For now, I’d consider them a borderline top five team with potential at NEC contention if everything breaks right. That isn’t a bad position to be in after losing one of the most prolific scores ever to play in the NEC.

Ryan Peters wrote the NEC team previews for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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