Thoughts on the Unpredictable NEC Tournament Quarterfinal

That was fun. The Northeast Conference quarterfinals were everything the league had hoped they would be: competitive, riveting, and in some cases, shocking. The Battle of Brooklyn didn’t live up to the hype, but the remaining slate of games had plenty of tense moments deep in their second halves. Even Central Connecticut was a Joe Hugley three-pointer away from cutting the Wagner advantage to four points with over a minute remaining.

So what did we learn from the chaos besides, well, my prognostication skills leave much to be desired…

Using the words of Bryant Gumbel, “let’s move on.” Allow me to actually provide some constructive thoughts on the action from Thursday night – what I’ve learned and what stood out.

(Also check out John Templon’s recap of LIU’s victory over St. Francis Brooklyn here)

Fairleigh Dickinson Set Up For the Future

Back when Greg Herenda took over a downtrodden Fairleigh Dickinson program that had missed three straight NEC tournaments, expectations initially were very low. Everyone figured it would take time to build up the once proud program, especially since Herenda got a late start at recruiting during his first spring. FDU athletic director David Langford took his time – 51 days by my recollection – before wisely hiring a head coach who had been successful at three separate spots outside of Division I.

Herenda had his moments at Teaneck in year one, but everyone knew the second offseason would be a critical time to turn things around. Herenda needed to lay the foundation for a program that knew nothing but losing for the better part of a decade. And that’s exactly what he did.

While I don’t have the time to go through the greatest recruiting classes in NEC history, Herenda’s second year haul of Darian Anderson, Earl Potts, Stephon Jiggetts and Marques Townes has to go down as a top 10 recruiting class. There was plenty of pain early on – a 15-game losing streak served as a brutal reminder that rebuilding is an arduous endeavor – but in Herenda’s third season, the Knights improbably made a late season run right into the NCAA tournament.

Why am I bringing up this history lesson in Fairleigh Dickinson basketball? I mentioned it because this past recruiting class of Jahlil Jenkins, Noah Morgan and Elyjah Williams appears to be the next best group of signees for Herenda and his staff.

Morgan and Jenkins, both rightfully elected to the NEC All-Rookie team on Tuesday, played efficiently and stoically under the bright lights in Loretto last night, combining for 29 points (on 21 shots), 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Morgan added 3 steals, while Williams came off the bench to give the Knights some much needed production — 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block. Perhaps more importantly, Morgan and Jenkins combined to score seven points after the game was deadlocked at 72-72 late.
These performances didn’t come out of the nowhere, especially for Morgan and Jenkins. Both freshmen have been very good down the stretch since Anderson unfortunately broke his foot earlier in the year. Here are their numbers over FDU’s past eight contests (six of those, not coincidentally, were wins):

  • Jenkins: 15.6 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.9 rpg, 48.9% FG
  • Morgan: 15.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.0 spg, 54.2% FG

If you throw in the big bodied, yet athletic Williams, you have a threesome that compliments each other really well. Jenkins is the quick, calm, slashing point guard who excels at creation with the ball. Morgan is a heady two-way wing who is a versatile scoring threat anywhere on the floor. Williams serves a prototypical NEC big who can carve out space down low, as evident after making 63 percent of his 2s this season.

This group is very much like the first major recruiting class under Herenda’s watch. Their youth may get the best of them at LIU on Saturday, especially against a great veteran player in Joel Hernandez. But even if they come up short, that should do little to temper the Fairleigh Dickinson fans expectations for future seasons. A starting lineup of Jenkins, Darnell Edge, Morgan, Kaleb Bishop and Mike Holloway with Williams off the bench is an excellent top six to do battle with for the 2018-19 season. The future remains bright for the FDU Knights.

Colonials Grit Getting the Job Done

For the second straight NEC tournament, the Robert Morris Colonials pulled off the once unthinkable — they knocked out a hosting number two seed in the quarterfinals. The blueprint of success was different this time around — the Colonials did it with a suffocating defense, fantastic effort, and a rejuvenated offensive attack. While the latter is kind of remarkable after finishing the regular season with the worst offensive efficiency in the NEC (97.9 points per 100 possessions), I’d like to talk about the defense.

The Mountaineers came in as the league’s best offense at 112 points scored per 100 possessions in league play. When Jamion Christian’s group went on a 16-0 run near the end of the first half, it appeared that the 10-point deficit going into halftime would be a mountain for the Colonials to climb.

Instead, Robert Morris held Mount St. Mary’s to 31.8 percent shooting and 0.81 points per possession in the second half, using their defense to begin the second stanza on a 14-2 run and grab a lead they would not relinquish. Over that early half surge, Robert Morris didn’t allow the Mount to score on eight of their first nine possessions.

The excellent defensive effort continued up until the end, with Toole’s squad coming up with four steals and four blocks in the final 20 minutes. Three of those rejections, in fact, were on Junior Robinson shots. The final block on the Mountaineers last possession illustrated why Dachon Burke is one of the league’s best, if not the best, defender.

The truth is Robert Morris did a masterful job on Robinson all evening, holding the NEC Player of the Year to 15 points on 18 shots. Robinson’s 85 offensive rating for the game was his third lowest mark this conference season. In addition to frustrating the POY all game long, the Colonials were able to limit senior Greg Alexander’s touches — he only had two shot attempts in the second half — as well as hound Jonah Antonio all game behind the arc. Only 36.5 percent of the Mountaineers shot attempts came from behind the arc, an impressive number when you consider the Mount’s 3PA/FGA season average of 47.5 percent. They did allow the Mount to make 8 of 19 (42.1 percent) from long distance, but the concerted effort to limit those attempts clearly paid dividends in an air-tight game that came down to one possession.

This tournament victory was much needed on a personal level for Toole. Going into Wednesday night, the coach had lost seven straight games against Christian. For a coach who has made a living from a tenacious defense that never allows opponents to get comfortable, the game tape from Wednesday night should be a pleasure to watch, even for a perfectionist like Toole.

The guard duo of Burke and McConnell will likely make things difficult for JoJo Cooper and Blake Francis in Saturday’s semifinal matchup. The biggest question from that showdown will likely lie in the Colonials’ ability to put points on the board. They’ll need to replicate another 20 minute stretch that they experienced against the Mount — 1.35 points per possession, 5 of 8 from 3-point range in the second half — in order to find themselves in the NEC tournament final. At least they have a chance.

Wagner’s Elusive Conference Title is Within Reach

While it appears that the stars have aligned for Wagner and Bashir Mason to get to the NCAA tournament, the road will still be plenty treacherous. The Seahawks have a combined record of 4-2 against the remaining three teams in the field and while they’ve swept the regular season series with Robert Morris, it’s pretty difficult to beat the same team three times in one season. We just witnessed that twice in the quarterfinals!

Wagner has experienced a tremendous amount of heartbreak at the Spiro Center come tournament time, so the question will be how much does the pressure get to a team widely expected to win it all now that the Mount and Saint Francis U. are eliminated. One projection system now considers Wagner a HEAVY favorite to hoist the NEC trophy next Tuesday night.

It’s far better than a coin flip now, which could be daunting considering Wagner’s past (and really cruel) NEC tournament results:

  • 2012: #3 Robert Morris defeats #2 Wagner, 71-64, in semifinals
  • 2013: #3 LIU Brooklyn defeats #2 Wagner, 94-82, in semifinals
  • 2014: #4 Mount St. Mary’s defeats #2 Wagner, 77-72, in semifinals
  • 2016: #2 Fairleigh Dickinson defeats #1 Wagner, 87-79, in finals
  • 2017: #4 Saint Francis U defeats #3 Wagner, 71-70, in semifinals

That’s a lot of history to be up against. If there’s ever a season for Wagner to break the spell, this is it. Especially since two of the programs still alive, Robert Morris and Fairleigh Dickinson, are near the bottom of the nation in experience, according to KenPom.

Enjoy the action on Saturday!

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