With nearly a month of the 2016-17 season in the books, some interesting trends – both positive and negative – have developed for some NEC programs. I’m here to look at the positive developments and make an educated determination if they’ll continue for the duration of the season or if this is nothing more than small sample bias.
Central Connecticut More Respectable Offensively
Central Connecticut may be off to a 2-5 start in Donyell Marshall’s inaugural season after consecutive defeats to Brown and Rutgers (the CCSU forum hasn’t been terribly thrilled about the losses), yet the program appears to be in better shape compared to a season ago (as we discussed in this week’s podcast). While the defense continues to be a work in progress (336th in KenPom’s DRtg), the Blue Devils are exhibiting some positive offensive trends early on, even after the drubbing at Rutgers (0.51 points per poss) on Tuesday night.
- 2016-17 (6 non-conf games): 60.9 assists/100 FGM, 46.3% of shots near rim
- 2015-16 (11 non-conf games): 45.0 assists/100 FGM, 38.9% of shots near rim
The improved assist rate is impressive, given CCSU’s penchant for isolations and contested jump shots just a season ago. Look no further than Eric Bowles and Tyson Batiste as the reason for this, as both players possess assist rates north of 28, landing them in the top four among NEC individual players. With Bowles and Batiste as the floor generals, teammates are in a better position to score, especially the off-the-ball guards like Khalen Cumberlander and Austin Nehls.
Cumberlander, in particular, is no longer being asked to handle the ball as he did last season. Instead, the senior guard can focus on using his athleticism to get into the paint, as evident from an 14.9 percentage point increase in shots attempted near the rim. Not surprisingly, Cumberlander’s shooting efficiency (49.3% eFG) has improved with better shot selection, though he’s still a tick less efficient than he was as a freshman (50.9% eFG). Nevertheless, I’d expect it to get easier for Cumberlander during NEC play, when he can better take advantage of his 6-foot-3 frame on the perimeter.
Like Cumberlander, Nehls has also seen his offensive rating skyrocket (123.2 from 104.3) in part due to maturation and because he has teammates who can find him quality catch-and-shoot looks from behind the arc.
There are still plenty of things Marshall needs to improve upon, but the early signs offensively illustrate progress. It’s possible the youth of this team will break down as the season forges on, but I think the offense will continue to advance towards respectability, assuming everyone continues to share the ball and stays aggressive by getting into the lane.
Saint Francis University Getting in Transition
The Red Flash have exceeded expectations in the young season by winning three of seven and staying competitive in a majority of their defeats. Despite playing two freshmen, two sophomores, and an inexperience senior together nearly one third of the time, Rob Krimmel’s squad hasn’t appeared overwhelmed. In fact, they have developed the persona of a veteran team.
One thing that has really stood out has been the Red Flash’s willingness to create in transition, when compared to their NEC counterparts. No one in the league has a higher percentage of transition opportunities at the moment:
- Saint Francis U.: 28.9% of possessions in transition
- Sacred Heart: 27.9%
- Bryant: 27.0%
- St. Francis Brooklyn: 24.9%
Typically, teams are far more efficient when on the run and Saint Francis U. isn’t an exception. They have an effective field goal percentage of 64.9% in these situations, which is tops in the conference. Furthermore, the Red Flash’s tempo has sped up considerably to the point where they’re averaging 71.7 possessions per game, good for second overall in the conference (Sacred Heart is first at 72.6 possessions per game). The previous high tempo under Krimmel came last season when his team averaged 67.1 possessions per game.
So how exactly did the Red Flash turn into an up-tempo program after languishing in the bottom half of the NEC in tempo-like metrics for four years under Krimmel?
Two things stand out: the Red Flash are extracting more turnovers on defense—9.1% of opponents possessions end in a steal—and cleaning up the defensive glass (75.1% defensive rebound rate). Currently three players—Jamaal King, Keith Braxton and Randall Gaskins—all have steal rates greater than 2.0%, while Braxton and Josh Nebo are doing a tremendous job protecting the defensive glass. Their prowess on the backboards has allowed Krimmel to run out small-ball lineups without having to sacrifice second chance points from their opponents.
Whether this trend continues is an educated guess, but health willing, you have to assume the rebounding and steal numbers this team is generating are real. What would keep me up at night if I were Krimmel is the Red Flash’s depth, or more appropriately their lack thereof, in the frontcourt. Injuries or foul trouble to Braxton and Nebo in particular would be problematic and likely slow down the Red Flash from their current frenetic pace.
Blackbirds From Way Downtown – Bang?
Since CJ Garner and Jason Brickman have graduated, Jack Perri has struggled mightily to find perimeter scorers who can consistently stretch the defense. Until this season!
- 2013-14 season: 34.5% 3PT%
- 2014-15 season: 32.4% 3PT%
- 2015-16 season: 29.7% 3PT%
- 2016-17 season (9 games): 36.5% 3PT%
Even after a putrid 1-13 performance at NC Central, the Blackbirds still sit at 111th in Division I in three-point percentage. So what has led to LIU Brooklyn averaging 6.2 made triples per contest this season? To strike the nail on the very obvious head here, the Blackbirds finally have the personnel to stroke it from behind the arc, which is ironic since none of the sharpshooting freshmen were part of Perri’s roster as of last March. When several scholarships opened up from the departure of the Woods twins, Aakim Saintil and Martin Hermannsson, Perri had the roster space to bring on these three freshman guards:
- Jashaun Agosto: 11-25 from 3 (44.0%)
- Julian Batts: 8-17 from 3 (47.1%)
- Ashtyn Bradley: 8-18 from 3 (44.4%)
Will these three continue to lead LIU in three-point scoring and shoot at an impressive 45.0% clip? That’s unlikely, but there is no doubt Perri finally has recruited some guards who can pull defenders away from the interior. Throw in senior Iverson Fleming (36.4% 3PT) and there should be enough shooters to complement LIU’s bigs, even if Raul Frias doesn’t figure it out. Jerome Frink and Nura Zanna may have a little more room to operate if this trend continues.
NEC Power Rankings
- Wagner (2-5, Blue Ribbon preseason rank: 2) – JoJo Cooper appears to have turned the corner. His overall offensive efficiency has improved. He is turning the ball over less, getting to the line more, and converting more of his two-point attempts. Also impressive: the 6-foot-0 guard has grabbed 17.4% of the opponent’s misses when he’s on the floor!
- Robert Morris (3-7, BR rank: 7) – Low and behold, Andy Toole’s roster is back in my top 2 after excellent wins over Towson and Duquesne. The defense has been very good as they currently lead the NEC in defensive efficiency (100.7 points per 100 possessions) and turnover rate (23.5%). I know the offensive production isn’t inspiring, but I currently believe the Colonials are back in the mix for NEC contention.
- LIU Brooklyn (6-3, BR rank: 6)
- Mount St. Mary’s (1-9, BR rank: 3) – Let’s be fair, I said during the last power rankings that I didn’t care about the Mount’s results until it was mid-major time. Well it’s been so far, so bad with two losses to in-state rivals Loyola (MD) and UMBC. The most troubling aspect of those two games was the offense – the Mount mustered just 0.92 ppp and shot 41.7% from the field against middling defenses at best.
- Fairleigh Dickinson (2-6, BR rank: 1) – It may have taken eight games, yet Earl Potts, Tyrone O’Garro and Gus Nehme are back! Unfortunately for the Knights, there’s likely more pain coming before the NEC season commences on Dec 29. In the meantime, Herenda now has three games against brutal competition—Towson, Rutgers and Cincinatti—to exercise his full rotation before the games really matter.
- Bryant (3-7, BR rank: 4) – One quiet bit of news has been the absence of Dan Garvin, who’s missed the last four games due to an undisclosed injury. Without him, Tim O’Shea has thrown Bosko Kostur into the rotation, with mixed results. When the 6-foot-7 forward isn’t a fouling machine, he’s fairly effective. When he is, however, the downside was on display at Navy, 7 minutes, 5 points, 2 assists and 5 personal fouls.
- Sacred Heart (4-5, BR rank: 5) – Over his last three games, Joe Lopez has been dominant in the low block for the Pioneers. The 6-foot-7 junior is averaging 16 ppg and 8 rpg while shooting 90.5% (!!) on 21 attempts.
- Saint Francis University (3-4, BR rank: 9) – There isn’t a perfect correlation between a team’s free throw and three-point percentage, but the shooting numbers seem amiss for the Red Flash. They are 40th nationally behind the arc (38.8%) and 340th in free-throw percentage (59.5%). In other words, both numbers are likely to regress toward the mean.
- Central Connecticut (2-5, BR rank: 10)
- St. Francis Brooklyn (2-7, BR rank: 8) – If you missed it, head over to John Templon’s piece on the Terriers after their Monday’s loss to Lafayette. Will anyone step up to reliably play the 5 for Glenn Braica?
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride