I’m not breaking any news here when I say it’s been a miserable non-conference season for the Northeast Conference. There has been a plethora of road and guarantee games to account for – money must flow to help fund these athletic departments after all – yet the results still were underwhelming. The conference finished with a 28-86 record against Division I competition and won just eight home games out of 31 tries for a 25.8% success rate. Wagner and LIU Brooklyn combined to win that many non-conference home games just last season!
Nevertheless, the real season begins this week with plenty of anticipation and excitement. The conference may be the 30th best (out of 32) league overall as KenPom had originally predicted, but we’re certainly in line for a terrific race to the NCAA tournament. Prognostication is a fool’s game in this climate, yet Ray and I will try our best to present the newest NEC Power Rankings based on the numbers and what we’ve seen thus far.
NEC POWER RANKINGS
1. WAGNER (4-6)
KenPom Prediction: 12-6 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 1st
Outlook: It’s been an uneven non-conference season for Wagner, which obviously started off with tremendous potential. Since that upset at UConn however, the Seahawks have struggled to assert their will defensively, giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions, a poor mark for Bashir Mason’s standards. Romone Saunders has been injured since the UConn game and there’s no word on his status for the rest of the season (despite reports on Twitter that he’s out for the year). Mason has been tinkering with his lineups quite a bit, in the hopes that someone from the Blake Francis (43.3% 3PT), Elijah Davis (9.3 ppg in last 4 games) and Devin Liggetts (3.3% steal rate, 4.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) group emerges to fill in for Saunders’ absence.
KenPom Stat to Watch: 63.7 possessions per game. Under Mason’s tutelage, Wagner has become progressively slower with its tempo, to the point where the Seahawks are 345th nationally in this category. Where are the above the rim athletes creating opportunities in transition? Well, the team’s steal rate is down from last season (10.2% to 9.0%) and the bigs aren’t protecting the defensive glass very well (68.7% defensive rebounding rate) which is likely contributing to the slower pace.
Key Player: Michael Carey – One of the biggest surprises this season has been the mediocre play of Carey, who many thought was the favorite to become the next NEC Player of the Year. Even though his usage rate hasn’t changed much from last season (21.4% to 22.2%), the senior forward has been woefully inefficient, making 41.4% of his 2s, turning it over with more frequency (21.6% turnover rate) and attempting MUCH fewer free throws. Is he injured? Whatever the reason, Wagner needs the Michael Carey that had an offensive rating of 121.4 as a junior in league play. -Ryan Peters
2. ROBERT MORRIS (4-9)
KenPom Prediction: 10-6 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 2nd
Outlook: As I insinuated in yesterday’s piece on the resurgent Robert Morris defense, the Colonials appear poised to prove that last season was a true anomaly. Before the 2015-16 muddle that resulted in 8 conference wins and an early exit from the NEC tournament, Andy Toole posted a staggering 72-30 against league opponents over five seasons. What’s missing from this team that was part of the dominant Colonial programs from 2011-2014 is the ability to generate offense when needed. Isaiah Still is a nice player who’s continuing to move toward stardom, yet every other player on the roster needs to work through their flaws if Robert Morris can ever rely on their offense to win games. Can a roster that has averaged just 90.8 points per 100 possessions over their last 45 games suddenly progress into a league average offense? Velton Jones, Karvel Anderson and Marcquise Reed aren’t walking through that door.
KenPom Number to Watch: 41.8% EFG – While the Colonials are doing a fantastic job in both limiting and contesting their opponent’s three-point attempts (29.9% 3PTA/FGA and 30.4% 3PT, respectively), the other side of the ball has been somewhat puzzling. Matty McConnell is struggling mightily to make shots, as are several of his teammates, both inside and outside the arc. Other than Bill Giles, who’s made 61.1% of his 2s, the rest of the team is shooting a paltry 37.1% from two. That may be a residual effect of a difficult non-conference schedule, but we can’t just assume the Colonials will suddenly have their way against the smaller front courts of the NEC.
Key Player: Billy Giles – Truth be told, Toole is relying on his depth more so than one player, but Giles most certainly needs to be that ultra-efficient big off the bench that revives this offense. 12 ppg, 6 rpg and 60+% shooting in 20-25 minutes should be the goal, but for Giles to achieve this, he must improve on the defensive end. After 13 non-conference games, Robert Morris has given up 12.9 more points per 100 possessions when the senior power forward is on the floor. That’s the reason Toole has played Giles just 46.6% of the team’s available minutes so far. -Ryan Peters
3. MOUNT ST. MARY’S (2-10)
KenPom Prediction: 11-7 NEC
Last NEC Power Rankings: 4th
Outlook: The offense will remain a conundrum until it starts consistently churning out 1.00+ ppp performances, which in the non-conference season have been few and far between (3 times out of 12 games). I’ve already rehashed much of their offensive woes here, so I won’t belabor this point, but the rout versus Coppin State, as bad as they may be, is a nice start.
KenPom Stat to Watch: 20.4% turnover rate. This is a respectable turnover rate, but for Mount Mayhem to be clicking on all cylinders, this needs to improve. There’s simply too much pressure on the half-court offense, thus some easy buckets in transition would work wonders in getting the Mount back to solid offensive production.
Key Player: Junior Robinson. Balance is always the goal for Jamion Christian, yet it isn’t a secret that Robinson needs to lead this offense now that BK Ashe isn’t jacking up 27% of the team’s shots when he’s on the floor. Robinson is shooting the three-ball well (40.6% 3PT), but he needs to generate more opportunities off the bounce and create more for his teammates. Whether Robinson handles the ball more remains to be seen, but my guess is Christian will look to lower Elijah Long’s usage rate and give more responsibility to his dynamic 5-foot-5 guard. -Ryan Peters
4. FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (2-9)
KenPom Prediction: 9-9 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 5th
Outlook: The Knights have, by a pretty wide margin, the most efficient offense in the NEC, but only five teams in the nation are worse defensively at the moment. FDU’s non-conference was completed by giving up 119 points to Cincinnati (?!?) at 1.45 points per possession, and the only two times all seasons they’ve held teams below 1 ppp have been their two victories. That’s not all that unusual for Greg Herenda and FDU, though, the Knights somehow won the NEC finishing 336th on defense last season and did not hold any of its NEC Tournament opponents under 1 ppp.
Earl Potts Jr. and Tyone O’Garro are slowly coming back from injury, while Ghassan Nehme came back for only one game (Iona) before going out again. But can FDU stop enough people to win? Do they need to stop anyone?
KenPom Number to Watch: 16.1% defensive turnover rate (321st) – This is the one thing the Knights have been able to do well defensively under Herenda (26th last season, 15th in 2014-15), but have struggled this season. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why looking at the roster, Potts had a few steals but wasn’t huge in that area. Anderson’s numbers are a bit down, but not enough to cause so dramatic a shift.
Key Player: Potts – In the end, it was Potts who was the biggest key in FDU’s NEC Tournament run, and the Knights are going to need him to be in that kind of form to repeat. He’s now had some time off, and it will be interesting to see how healthy he is as conference play begins and he faces plenty of attention from opponents. –Ray Curren
5. SACRED HEART (5-8)
KenPom Prediction: 9-9 NEC
Last NEC Ranking: 7th
Outlook: Since slumping out of the gate to a 1-4 start, the Pioneers have righted the ship with an upset win at Fordham and convincing victories over UMass Lowell and Lafayette. Even their one “bad” loss during the stretch – a home setback to Hartford after blowing a 15-point lead midway through the second half – doesn’t look so bad given the Hawks three game winning streak. So what has been the difference for Anthony Latina’s group?
Two things are obvious – the defense has been more respectable lately and power forward Joe Lopez is balling like an All-NEC first teamer. In regards to the former: After giving up 1.16 points per possession (ppp) in their first five games, Sacred Heart has allowed just 0.98 ppp in their next eight contests. Over the same span, they’ve extracted a turnover on 21.1% of their opponent’s possessions, which would be SHU’s best turnover rate since the 2010-11 season. They haven’t faced any offensive juggernauts in that stretch – only Yale is in KenPom’s top 50% for offensive efficiency – yet none of the NEC teams are lighting it up either.
KenPom Stat to Watch: 55.7% Assists/Field Goals Made – Anthony Latina wanted an offense that shares the rock, and so far so good as they transition away from relying heavily on Cane Broome. Latina most surely would like to see more balance; in fact, their drubbing of Lafayette provided a template for what Sacred Heart should strive to be. In that victory, the Pioneers had six players in double figures and dished out 15 assists to just 11 turnovers. If they can be balanced and keep their turnovers down, this should be a very good offense.
Player to Watch: Joe Lopez. As discussed earlier, Lopez has been dominant in the paint. The junior leads the NEC in offensive rating (111.4) for anyone with a possession rate greater than 20.0%. He’s attacked the offensive glass (13.1% offensive rebounding rate) in a way that would make Jalen Cannon proud and he’s getting to the free throw line frequently. There’s no question Latina has one of the best post players in the conference. Sacred Heart needs to utilize him and not fall into a trap where Quincy McKnight is attempting 20+ field goals a game. –Ryan Peters
6. LIU BROOKLYN (7-6)
KenPom Prediction: 9-9 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 3rd
Outlook: The Blackbirds are the only NEC team with a winning record, and have a win over St. John’s on its resume, but it should be pointed out that LIU Brooklyn’s non-conference schedule was the weakest in the NEC. Even with Joel Hernandez (injured) and Martin Hermannsson (back in Iceland), the Blackbirds have some serious offensive talent, led by Jerome Frink. Ironically, LIU Brooklyn has lost five of six heading into conference play, with the only win being over St. John’s and with losses to the likes of Incarnate Word, Dartmouth, and Niagara sprinkled in.
Like many other NEC teams, defense has been a struggle at times, but Nura Zanna has put up good numbers (except for turnover rate) and should benefit from being in conference. Consistency was a problem last season, and it might be again this season.
KenPom Number to Watch: 34.6% offensive rebounding rate (58th) – This could be a big problem for NEC opponents, many of whom struggle to keep their defensive boards clean anyway. But the likes of Zanna could have a field day in the coming weeks.
Key Player: Frink – He has only made seven three-pointers and is shooting just 21.2% from outside the arc after hitting on nearly 40% in conference play last season. If he can find some consistency from out there again, the Blackbirds might have the second best offensive team in the league behind FDU. -Ray Curren
7. BRYANT (3-9)
KenPom Prediction: 9-9 NEC
Last NEC Ranking: 6th
Outlook: Tim O’Shea is very positive about his team’s future, partly because he’ll get senior Dan Garvin back to solve some of his problems in the paint, but mostly because he might have the most exciting group of guards in the league, led by sophomore Nisre Zouzoua and flanked by freshmen Adam Grant and Ikenna Ndugba. All are capable of scoring points in a hurry, and have shown so in spurts, most notably in the second half of their upset of Yale.
Can they defend enough to win when they are missing shots? Well, that remains to be seen.
KenPom Number to Watch: 15.0% defensive turnover rate (337th) – Bryant is turning it over at a 17.2% rate (97th best), which is very good, but they must improve defensively, and if they’re going to play a small lineup, they need to turn people over and haven’t been able to do it much this season. O’Shea is not normally really aggressive on defense, but this might be the time.
Key Player: Zouzoua – He is third in the NEC in shots taken (31.1%), behind Quincy McKnight and Darian Anderson, and that’s fine with what Bryant wants to do, but Zouzoua – like many players in the NEC – was not the focal point for Bryant last season, and will need to be able to deal with the attention he will get from opponents in the league. -Ray Curren
8. ST. FRANCIS UNIVERSITY (3-8)
KenPom Prediction: 8-10 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 8th
Outlook: John and I expressed our excitement about Rob Krimmel’s group after a 3-4 start and since then the Red Flash have dropped six in a row, including four to mid-major opponents. Were we too optimistic? I think so and it’s still eminently possible SFU misses the NEC playoffs if St. Francis Brooklyn or Central Connecticut decides to exceed our expectations.
KenPom Number to Watch: 44.3% 3PT defense – Part of this statistic may be fluky, but there’s no question the perimeter defense has struggled all season, giving up an average of 11 made threes per contest. Truth be told, the Red Flash don’t possess the firepower to keep up with that kind of production, thus Krimmel needs to figure out how to replace the defensive production of Malik Harmon and Greg Brown. The team is generating turnovers (20.0% turnover rate) and keeping opponents off the line (28.0 FTA/FGA), but that’s not enough if Krimmel wants to install small ball lineups. They need to defend the perimeter better.
Key Player: Isaiah Blackmon. The Red Flash had some success early on with Blackmon slowly working his way back from ACL surgery, but for SFU to be a factor moving forward, the 6-foot-1 guard needs to play a pivotal role on this roster. His versatility, athleticism and ability to score off the bounce are special skill sets that need to be exploited to Krimmel’s favor. There was a six game stretch last season where Blackmon averaged 14.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg and shot 58.9% from the field. Coincidentally, SFU went 5-1. -Ryan Peters
9. ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN (2-11)
KenPom Prediction: 6-12 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 10th
Outlook: While there’s been plenty of turnover throughout the NEC, Brooklyn Heights features a whole new St. Francis Brooklyn team this season and the growing pains are there for everyone to see. Quite simply, the Terriers can’t score and mostly they can’t score because they can’t shoot, checking in at 342nd in offensive efficiency and 338th in effective FG% (42.2%). They have shown signs in the last 10 days that they will make things difficult for opponents on the defensive end, and you expect improvement out of freshmen Robert Montgomery and Rasheem Dunn, it’s hard to see how the offensive problem is going to rectify itself quickly.
KenPom Number to Watch: 44.7% assists/field goals made (324th) – Glenn Braica has constantly harped on moving the ball this season, and the Terriers need this number to rise. Otherwise, it’s just Yunus Hopkinson and Glenn Sanabria taking tough shots deep in the shot clock, and although both are capable players, that’s not going to win St. Francis Brooklyn many games.
Key Player: Gunnar Olaffson – Olaffson hasn’t played a big role in his first two seasons, but he can make open shots, finish every once in a while at the rim, and in second on the team (behind Keon Williams) in defensive rebounding rate. We shall see. -Ray Curren
10. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT (2-9)
KenPom Prediction: 6-12 NEC
Last NEC Power Ranking: 9th
Outlook: Donyell Marshall won his opening game (against Hartford) and won handily at Maine a couple of weeks later, a welcome change for a team that was 9-53 in the previous two seasons. But – as Matt Mobley pours in points for St. Bonaventure – the Blue Devils have lost six straight, all of them blowouts except for a game at Duquesne. Marshall wants to “change the culture” as the coaches’ buzzwords go, and he recently suspended Mustafa Jones and Eric Bowles for two games. Austin Nehls is shooting 46.2% from behind the arc, which is good, but can he continue that in conference play? It’s likely things will be better, but enough to get back into the NEC Tournament? We shall see.
KenPom Number to Watch: 21.7% defensive turnover rate (51st) – One immediate change from Marshall is a more aggressive defense, led by Bowles, Khalen Cumberlander, and Tyson Batiste, all of whom have steal rates above 2.0%. That hasn’t resulted in much defensive improvement yet (mostly thanks to conceding 58.3 eFG%), it’s a sign that things are changing a little.
Key Player: Khalen Cumberlander – Cumberlander has been a solid player throughout his CCSU career, but can he score enough and lead enough to get the Blue Devils into the NEC Tournament? He is shooting 5-19 from behind the three-point arc and has turned the ball over 20 times in CCSU’s current six-game losing streak. Those will be key numbers to watch. -Ray Curren