Some predictions regarding the Northeast Conference this season have occurred as expected: Saint Francis looks like a favorite, Junior Robinson and Keith Braxton are currently NEC POY frontrunners and LIU Brooklyn is playing fast. For the past seven weeks, however, a majority of events have not been as predictable.
That includes the NEC preseason first team composition, as several players have exceeded or underperformed expectations for various reasons. Allow me to offer my top NEC players of the 2017-18 non-conference season and why they look like all-conference players. First, let’s start with the obvious.
Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s – After a stellar career of being a sidekick or co-pilot, Junior Robinson finally has full autonomy of Jamion Christian’s offense. It wasn’t like he was a small part of the Mount’s attack when BK Ashe and Elijah Long were dominating the ball, but now as a senior, Robinson is undoubtedly the star of Mount Mayhem. To give you an idea as to how involved he is offensively, his possession rate of 35 percent would be the second highest recorded usage of any NEC player in the modern KenPom era, which dates all the way back to the 2003-2004 season. And he’s been efficient with the keys of the offense in his hand. His assist rate is easily a career high at 38 percent – that’s Jason Brickman territory – and yet he’s scoring (22.3 ppg) at a prolific rate. He is the lifeblood of Christian’s team. The Mount will only go as far as the 5’5 senior takes them.
Keith Braxton, Saint Francis U – There isn’t much to explain here as Braxton is the complete package … and we kind of already knew that. He’s actually a better rebounder now, grabbing nearly 25 percent of the opponent’s misses off the glass and he’s taken care of the ball better, despite a notable increase in usage. The player of the year award is mostly crafted on what happens during the conference season, but with Saint Francis finishing strong in the non-conference, Braxton could be considered a frontrunner along with Robinson. That’s especially true if the Red Flash finds themselves in the running for the NEC regular season title, which is very plausible.
Blake Francis, Wagner – The departure of Corey Henson and the injury of Romone Saunders has perhaps opened the door for Francis, and he’s taken full advantage. The sweet shooting sophomore has been uber efficient as a in year number two. To drive that point home, allow me to compare Francis’ current numbers to a couple of former NEC greats:
- Francis, 2017-18: 120.8 offensive rating, 63.4% true shooting %, 15.4% turnover rate
- Karvel Anderson (Jr), 2012-13: 119.3 offensive, 63.3% true shooting %, 13.6% turnover rate
- Shane Gibson (Jr), 2011-12: 112.7 offensive, 63.2% true shooting %, 18.7% turnover rate
Karvel Anderson was awesome in his first season at Robert Morris, and he followed it up by winning the player of the year in one of the most efficient seasons in NEC history. Everyone remembers how much of a long-range threat Shane Gibson was for Sacred Heart; as a junior, Gibson was essentially the runner-up for the NEC POY award behind Julian Boyd. It’s very impressive (and probably terrifying for opposing coaches) that Francis is putting up similar numbers as an underclassman. Is the best yet to come for the Wagner Seahawk who has scored 17 or more points in 10 of 11 games?
Tyler Kohl, Central Connecticut – NEC guru Ron Ratner had a great tidbit in this week’s NEC release – highlighting the rarity of leading your team in scoring, rebounding, and assist making. After 13 productive games, Tyler Kohl has an opportunity to do just that, which was last achieved by Jeremy Chappell during the 2008-09 campaign.
It’s not just the raw numbers (14.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.3 spg) that have been impressive. Kohl has also proven to be the main reason why the Blue Devils finished their non-conference slate with a winning record. His ability to break opponents down off the dribble, set up outside shooters and sink free throws at an 82 percent clip gives Donyell Marshall an invaluable weapon to deploy. He may have an “old man at the YMCA” type of game, but his calmness in those tense moments could give CCSU the edge needed to push a couple of conference games into the win column.
Joel Hernandez, LIU Brooklyn – You could make the argument that Hernandez’s teammate, Raiquan Clark, is more deserving, and I wouldn’t protest too much. But Hernandez imprint on this LIU squad is undeniable, especially over the past six games where he’s averaging 21.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 3 apg. He’s the epitome of versatility, a jack-of-all-trades, which makes him one of the most perfect wings in the NEC. What more do you need when your swingman gets to the free throw line, hits 3s, sets up teammates and protects the defensive glass? Hernandez is playing like a wily five-year veteran of this league should – at an All-NEC first team level.
The Others Just Outside the Top 5:
Raiquan Clark, LIU Brooklyn – 76 percent of Clark’s shots come near the rim, and yet the opposition can’t do anything about it. When the junior isn’t making buckets at nearly a 60 percent clip, he’s heading to the charity stripe where he’s a 78.7 percent shooter. He’s one of most difficult players to contain, drawing 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes, good for 53rd in the country.
Dachon Burke, Robert Morris – The sophomore is such a critical part of Robert Morris’ success, especially on the offensive end. When Burke posts a KenPom offensive rating better than 100, Robert Morris is 4-1 and scoring 1.07 points per possession. When the opposite is true, the Colonials are 2-6 and scoring just 0.89 points per possession.
While Darian Anderson and Joe Lopez, two players voted onto the NEC preseason first team, have some work to do to get back into the top five, it certainly is possible. Anderson needs to return to his pre-injury form, whereas Lopez must utilize his strengths near the rim and not try to play like a guard out on the perimeter.
Bryant also has a duo in Adam Grant and Bosko Kostur that many considered to be in the mix for all-conference first team consideration back in October, although the Bulldogs difficult non-conference start placed them off the radar. A resurgence is possible, although Grant’s injury status is unknown and Kostur needs to shore up things with turnovers and defense to become someone who’s playing 75 percent of the team’s minutes.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride