Yesterday, we handicapped Sacred Heart and Bryant’s chances of climbing out of the early holes they dug themselves. Today, Nelson Castillo and Ryan Peters investigate the other two 1-3 teams, LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut.
Both clubs came into the 2017-18 season as a mystery for far different reasons. The Blackbirds brought back a lot of familiar veterans, but had a new head coach. Further north in Connecticut, Donnell Marshall used his most important recruiting class—the second one—to sign three junior college transfers and two freshmen and rebuild the program on the fly.
Allow us to break down the reason why each team finds itself tied for last place in the NEC regular season standings.
LIU Brooklyn (6-11, 1-3 NEC)
After going 5-8 in its non-conference, LIU Brooklyn has started off NEC play, not surprisingly, slowly with a 1-3 record after the first two weeks.
After splitting a pair of home games in the first week against Fairleigh Dickinson and Mount St. Mary’s, the Blackbirds went on their annual trip to Western Pennsylvania this past weekend and (as if that trip wasn’t tough enough) both Saint Francis U. and Robert Morris have shown early on that they are forces to be reckoned with as far as competing for the NEC title.
Bad defensive second halves have led to LIU’s demise in each of its three conference losses. In those games, two of which LIU either led or was tied at halftime, the Blackbirds have allowed over an average of 48 points to their opponents in the second twenty minutes and teams have shot over 51 percent from the floor. The Blackbirds are currently eighth in the NEC in scoring defense, allowing 78 points per game. If LIU’s defense doesn’t begin to improve and quickly, they are going to have quite a challenge getting themselves out of their 1-3 hole that they have created.
Currently, LIU Brooklyn has two of the top five scorers in the NEC in Joel Hernandez (second in the NEC at 18.8 ppg) and Raiquan Clark (fifth in the NEC at 18.1 ppg). Offensively, LIU is putting up points. They are scoring 76 ppg this season, second in the NEC. The problem has been in NEC play, their scoring offense has dipped to 72 ppg, seventh in the NEC. LIU has had its struggles on both ends of the floor early on in conference play.
As for Hernandez and Clark, Hernandez struggled in his two games in Western Pennsylvania after seven straight games of scoring 20 or more. At SFU and RMU, Hernandez was held in check, averaging 11.5 ppg and shooting 7-27 from the floor, seven points below his season average. Clark had a quiet game at SFU, scoring just four points but he rebounded with a 23-point performance at RMU.
Clark’s numbers are pretty wild considering he leads all players in the NEC in turnovers committed (68) and has a 26.5 percent turnover rate. He is also third in the NEC in fouls committed (58). If these two cut down on the fouls and turnovers, you might actually see them each average over 20 ppg by the end of the season.
Another problem that has been evident, one that has been an issue all season long, is LIU’s lack of quality depth. First-year head coach Derek Kellogg has been consistent pretty much all season in playing an eight- to nine-man rotation. The problem has been Kellogg hasn’t gotten much at all from the guys coming off his bench.
Julius van Sauers and Raul Frias—two guys who were expected to take a jump in production—have had rather disappointing seasons up to this point. Even with his insertion into the starting lineup after starter Zach Coleman went down for a few games with a foot injury, van Sauers has done little with his opportunities, averaging just over three points per game in just over 16 minutes of play and committing nearly 3.5 fouls per game. Frias has struggled with his shot for most of the season, shooting just 32.6 percent from the floor. Against RMU, he got his first DNP since his freshman year. Both role players really need to step things up for LIU to get back in the mix.
These factors have contributed to LIU’s rough start. Luckily for them, and all the other NEC teams that have gotten off to slow starts, there are still 14 games left to play and time to dig out of this early hole. The Blackbirds have Coleman back after missing three games due to injury, and he should return to the starting lineup shortly. Also, LIU’s 1-3 record has come against teams who are all at least .500 and above currently so there is definitely a chance things can turn around as the season moves along. -Nelson Castillo
Central Connecticut (8-9, 1-3 NEC)
Merely two weeks ago, I openly wondered if Central Connecticut was undervalued when a group of knowledgeable NEC fans picked them seventh overall in a late December poll. The Blue Devils did after all post their first winning non-conference record since the 2010-11 season and had an impressive 7-2 record against teams in the bottom half of the KenPom ratings. Perhaps they should’ve been considered as the fifth or sixth best team at the time?
Everything seemed to match my (kind of) bullish prediction after the first weekend of NEC play, when Marshall’s squad split the home series against the PA schools. Going 1-1 there was somewhat impressive, especially now that Robert Morris stands alone as the league’s only undefeated team and Saint Francis U. is off to a strong start as the perceived frontrunner.
Things seemed fine, that is until Central Connecticut blew a double-digit second half lead at FDU, falling late in a fast paced affair, 81-77. Winning on the road is difficult, especially against a former championship program and without your best player in Tyler Kohl. But that didn’t stop Marshall from posting this on Twitter afterwards:
Nothing like a 30 min 3.33 mile run at 1am. Nice way to do some soul searching. pic.twitter.com/hNX1xKlVJ8
— Donyell Marshall (@Dmarsh42) January 5, 2018
The coach was likely blowing off some steam after the tight defeat, but days later the team responded by getting blown out in the second half at Mount St. Mary’s. Now, some CCSU fans are abandoning the season and already doubting the second year coach in his attempt to rebuild on the fly. Is all of this criticism actually warranted after a three game slide?
In my humble opinion, no. First of all, the combined NEC record of CCSU’s opponents thus far is 11-5. The defeats at the hands of the 2-2 programs, FDU and Mount St. Mary’s, came on the road with the latter going 25-8 at Knott Arena since the 2013-14 season. Plenty of good programs have been soundly defeated by Jamion Christian’s teams on the road. There’s no shame in being victimized by Mount Mayhem.
There still are concerns that Marshall needs to address and they begin with Kohl and the offensive attack. On Kohl specifically: why exactly has he posted just a 75.8 offensive rating in three NEC games, after dominating (sans the St. John’s game) in non-conference play? He reportedly missed the FDU game due to a minor injury and was ineffective in his return at the Mount.
As I expressed on the aforementioned post, Kohl does it all for the Blue Devils and is critical to his team’s success on the offensive end. Without a true point guard on the roster—you could make the argument that Eric Bowles is, but I’d consider him more of a game manager/defensive specialist than anything—Kohl serves as the steady, ball handling scorer/facilitator that holds extra importance especially in late game situations. Yes, he does turn the ball over too much (26.5 percent turnover rate), but this is a necessary evil when so much of the offense runs through the junior. The Blue Devils are going to live and die by Kohl, even if the turnovers make you cringe. It’s difficult to find a wing that has guard skills with a high assist rate (25.1 percent) and defensive rebounding rate (22.2 percent). Hopefully for the Blue Devils fans’ sanity, Kohl will return to full health in the near future.
Also glaring in the 1-3 start is the Blue Devils inefficiency on the offensive end (94.6 points per 100 possessions), though that can be attributed to the two losses against Robert Morris (0.85 points per possession) and Mount St. Mary’s (0.82 points per possession). The Blue Devils shot 21.2 percent from downtown in the defeats. I’d confidently characterize this as a poor effort against two of the best defenses in the NEC. There’s no doubt CCSU is a much better perimeter threat compared to a year ago—Joe Hugley, Kashaun Hicks and Austin Nehls are all making at least 36 percent of their 3-point attempts.
I personally think CCSU will be alright and still projects as a middle of the pack, 9-9 team in the conference, Ken Pomeroy may be a little more skeptical at 8-10, but the difference of one win or loss usually lies in a possession or two. With three of the next four at home, and home and homes with LIU and Bryant coming up, the Blue Devils have enough time to get back to 0.500.
Of course, all bets are off if Kohl isn’t 100% and failing to perform at an all-conference level. -Ryan Peters