Three to five college basketball games is hardly a relevant sample size, but there have been some interesting trends, story lines and awesome individual performances from the first week and a half of the 2016-17 season.
Allow me to work through these thoughts as we soon head into the Thanksgiving holiday. And then after that, I’ll give it the old college try with the NEC Power Rankings!
1) Wagner Still on Top
It may not sound like much, but Wagner’s 4-10 record against KenPom top 100 programs over the past four plus seasons is an impressive feat. There isn’t an NEC program that has won more games against top 100 competition since Bashir Mason took over the program in 2012. Of the league’s 13 such victories, Wagner nearly makes up one third of them:
- Wagner, 4 wins (at UConn, at St. Bonaventure, vs. Vermont, vs. Princeton)
- Robert Morris, 3 wins (at St. John’s, vs. Kentucky, vs. Ohio)
- Bryant, 2 wins (vs. Vermont, at Lehigh)
- St. Francis Brooklyn, 1 win (at Miami FL)
- FDU, 1 win (at Seton Hall)
- Sacred Heart, 1 win (at Stony Brook)
- Central Connecticut, 1 win (at La Salle)
While the enthusiasm around Wagner’s upset victory over Connecticut has quickly waned due to the Huskies overall performance and the Seahawks recent setbacks, there should be little doubt that Mason’s group still is the team to beat. The program almost defeated MAAC dark house Fairfield without their two leading scorers, Corey Hensen and Romone Saunders, and lost to a better than expected UMass Lowell team on the road. As long as the roster stays healthy, this team remains in line for 11-13 regular season conference victories.
2) The Early Returns on FDU are Inconclusive
Fairleigh Dickinson will be fine, if and when they get back to full health. Earl Potts and Tyrone O’Garro haven’t been dressing in uniform lately, and it’s a wild guess as to when they’ll return. (For what it’s worth: Potts was reportedly in good spirits this past weekend; therefore there’s a chance he’ll return in the near future.)
Potts may be a top five player league wide, but O’Garro could be just as important given his contribution on the defensive end. As John Templon illustrated last month, when the athletic 6-foot-6 forward is on the court, FDU’s defense improves leaps and bounds. Despite his scoring limitations, O’Garro provides excellent value on the offensive glass as well with a career offensive rebounding rate north of 9.0%.
Assuming a core of Jiggets/Anderson/Potts/O’Garro/Holloway emerges in January, putting players like Darnell Edge, Malik Miller and Nadi Beciri through the ringer now will only strengthen Greg Herenda’s depth when the games matter most. Until the injuries subside though, this team should remain a notch below Wagner.
3) Robert Morris Trending in the Right Direction, It Seems
Effort and executing on a consistent basis was a major issue for Robert Morris last season, but the former doesn’t appear to be a major problem four games in. The end-of-game results haven’t been there, but the defense is showing signs of being productive, and that’s with a roster comprised of six newcomers. A defensive metric comparison between the past two non-conference seasons displays a promising trend thus far:
- 2015 (13 games): 1.08 points allowed per possession, 62.4% EFG% defense, 19.7% turnover rate
- 2016 (4 games): 1.04 points allowed per possession, 50.7% EFG% defense, 21.1% turnover rate
Scoring the basketball is another story, but at least Isaiah Still has continued his momentum from a strong finish last season. Over his last 12 games, Still is averaging 19.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 4.8 made free throws per game. If newcowers such as Braden Burke, Dachon Burke (no relation) and Clive Allen can provide some depth for Toole, there may be enough offense to support what I believe will be a top 4 defense in conference. Only once (2010-11) in his career has Toole failed to crack this threshold and that year he finished fifth.
(For an even more detailed look at the Colonials first four games, I recommend checking out the latest from the Chronicling the Colonials blog here.)
4) The Young Players are Lighting It Up Early
In a promising trend that bodes well for the league, there have been plenty of terrific performances by underclassmen throughout. If you read Ron Ratner’s first two NEC weekly updates (and if you haven’t, you really should go here), then you’d know that of the 16 spots given to Player of the Week, Rookie of the Week and Prime Performers, 10 of those players were freshmen or sophomores.
As Ratner also astutely pointed out in this week’s update, 13 of the top 20 NEC scorers are underclassmen, led by Sacred Heart’s Quincy McKnight (23.8 ppg, 116.6 offensive rating).
NEC Power Rankings
- Wagner (1-2, Blue Ribbon preseason rank: 2) – Lefty freshman Blake Francis wasn’t on my radar at all, but after a late August commitment, he’s been the best newcomer thus far for Mason’s group with 26 points and 6 threes in the first two games of his career.
- Mount St. Mary’s (1-4, BR rank: 3) – Please ignore the record until they begin playing mid-majors in December. There’s a very good chance the Mountaineers fall to 1-7 before hosting Loyola at home. I’m not concerned, nor should you be.
- Fairleigh Dickinson (2-3, BR rank: 1) – Again, it’s all about the injuries. If you cut out their non-DI victory, the Knights offense hasn’t been the high powered machine we expect them to be at 0.99 points per possession. That Stephen Jiggetts triple double was pretty awesome, though!
- LIU Brooklyn (4-1, BR rank: 6) – Kudos to Jack Perri’s group, who’s exceeding expectations in the early going, despite my pessimism. I’ll need to see more, but it appears freshmen guards Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts are the real deal. What a recruiting coop for Perri this past offseason!
- Bryant (1-3, BR rank: 4) – There’s really not much to go by with 2 “pay” games and one non DI matchup. Despite the two matchups against KenPom top 40 teams, Adam Grant, Marcel Pettway and Nisre Zouzoua all have offensive ratings north of 110. I have a feeling this team will be fun to watch come NEC time.
- Sacred Heart (1-3, BR rank: 5) – Other than the last 4 minutes against Hofstra, the Pioneers defense has been a mess. That’s expected with a whole slew of newcomers, but allowing opponents to post an effective field goal percentage of 58.8% and giving up 1.16 points per possession is never a good look. Luckily for Anthony Latina, the schedule soon gets a little easier to navigate.
- Robert Morris (0-4, BR rank: 7) – I know last season was ugly, but as I explained above, I’m not deterred with Andy Toole steering the Colonial ship. I will continue to give him the benefit of the doubt until further notice.
- Central Connecticut (1-2, BR rank: 10) – If it wasn’t for the epic performance (34 points, 7 rebounds, 12-16 shooting) by Binghamton’s JC Show, then the Blue Devils would be 2-1. I said it on Twitter and I’ll say it again: I believe CCSU will make the NEC tournament at the very least. This team is feisty and they share the ball, with 64.6% of the Blue Devils field goals including an assist.
- Saint Francis University (1-2, BR rank: 9) – Rob Krimmel has been relying on his underclassmen and so far the results have been encouraging. Josh Nebo (112.8 offensive rating, 9.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes), Keith Braxton (3.8% steal rate) and Randall Gaskins, Jr. (52.9% EFG%) are all showing promise in the early going.
- St. Francis Brooklyn (0-3, BR rank: 8) – This is such a brutal November schedule (NC State, Virginia, Providence) for a young frontcourt. I’m still in the wait-and-see mode; we’ll know a lot more about these Terriers in their next four games when they play Savannah State, Brown, Army and Lafayette. Anything less than a split could be mildly worrisome.
Have a safe and great Thanksgiving, everyone!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride