Awards/Thoughts from a Whirlwind Day of NEC Hoops

It’s midnight, but I’m wide awake after attending three NEC games in nine hours time. I drank 6 bottles of water, ate a banana and clif bar, drove nearly 100 miles for approximately two hours, and finally gorged myself at the diner all while taking in some excellent basketball in between. Rather than offering up a recap for all three outcomes, I decided to hand out some awards. The six teams I saw today – Quinnipiac, FDU, St. Francis Brooklyn, Central Connecticut, Sacred Heart, and Monmouth – are all eligible for these distinguished honors, as are the players. Let’s begin…

Best Player Performance
Shane Gibson – (I can already feel you rolling your eyes.) In my defense, Gibson netted a game high 33 points on 17 shots to go along with 15 made free throws. As I’ll explain later, the referees called the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game way too tight, but Sacred Heart made their freebies while Monmouth didn’t. Gibson was a major part of that, plus his 24 second half points guided the Pioneers to their first place tying victory Saturday night. In fact, Gibson scored 19 straight points for his team in the second half. 19 straight! Can you say “NEC Player of the Year?” Time to start the campaign! (Ok, I’m kidding. Sort of.)

Best Player Performance in a Losing Effort
Jalen Cannon – The 6’6″ immovable object in the paint had himself a dominant first half against the Blue Devils, as he scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds. It was so dominant, however, that every time Cannon touched the ball in the second stanza down low, Howie Dickenman would scream out “Help, help, help!” (No really, he did that every single time.) But his pupils listened and made life quite uncomfortable for Cannon, even though he ended up with an excellent final line of 18 points, 14 rebounds, and two steals. Cannon’s Terriers may have lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, but it certainly wasn’t Cannon’s fault.

Best Player Performance in a Supporting Role
The Central Connecticut Supporting Cast – Allow me to partially cop out here, as I nominate the CCSU threesome of Malcolm McMillan, Adonis Burbage, and Terrell Allen. They combined for 39 of the Blue Devils’ 72 points while draining six of nine from long range. McMillan was impressive both from the perimeter (2-3 from 3PT range) and attacking off the dribble, Burbage was his usual sharpshooting self, and Allen scored a career high 15 points off the bench. Kyle Vinales and Matthew Hunter may be a terrific twosome, but Dickenman has to be pleased with the effort from the rest of his supporting cast.

Best Player Performance in a Defensive Role
Jamee Jackson – I’ll begin with this Tom Moore quote about Jackson after their win over FDU: “I’m going to push him for [NEC] Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll really push for him to get that, and I know people judge [the award] by steals, blocks, and that type of stuff. I just know he can guard in the post. He can guard on the perimeter. He can help defend and he just plays at an elite level defensively … He’s come up with huge blocks in big situations for us, because he plays with so much energy.”

In the victory, Jackson recorded two steals and two blocks, but it was his effort on Kinu Rochford that was the most impressive. After Rochford got going early in the second half, Jackson did an excellent job pushing him off the low block and making life extremely difficult at all times. His block on Sidney Sanders final shot attempt of the game sealed the Bobcat’s two point victory. Say what you want about Jackson’s free throw shooting, but the athletic power forward is a beast on the defensive end.

Best Team Performance
Central Connecticut – Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac may have won their respective games, but CCSU was easily the most impressive of the victorious teams Saturday. With the ankle injury of Brandon Peel, Dickenman practically had six players at his disposal with five of them logging a cramp inducing 38 minutes or more. Those five were responsible for all 72 points, while their up-tempo attack kept St. Francis on their heels for a majority of the contest. Really, it’s remarkable how fast this team continues to play – eighth fastest in the country at 72.8 possessions per game – even though they are two injuries away from asking fans to suit up.

Best Postgame Quotes
King Rice – Who else did you expect?! King Rice and Andy Toole have to be the best NEC quote machines after a losing effort because neither of them hold back. Here’s what Rice had to say when I asked him about the increased role of his freshmen, in particular Christian White and Tyrone O’Garro.

“Contrary to what everybody thought when we signed those guys, and everybody all across the country was like ‘oh man [Monmouth] can’t get the right dudes’ and all this stuff, but you know what? Those kids (White, O’Garro, Jalen Palm) probably could have started from day one. I’m the type of coach that gives older guys more of a chance and now it’s time for [my freshman] to get some playing time. They’ve earned it, they are the best guys at those positions – that’s why they’re playing – and now we’re going to have those guys for three to four years.”

Also I’d like to throw in a brief exchange I had with Dave Bike last night.
Me: Have you ever seen this much parity in the NEC before?
Bike: You guys are the experts, but right now you wouldn’t have picked in the beginning, after 8 games, Robert Morris, Bryant and us tied for first place.
Me: I wouldn’t have put Bryant and Sacred Heart in there, that’s for sure.
Bike: Well, thank you. (laughter)

Oh, things are so much more jovial postgame when the Pioneers are winning! Anyway, moving along…

Most Disappointing Performance
Fairleigh Dickinson – Yeah, I couldn’t keep this entire post positive, because I did after all see some negative things in my six hours of hoops. For example, FDU absolutely gave a game away yesterday to Quinnipiac by consistently shooting themselves in the foot late. There were bonehead turnovers, missed free throws on the front end of one and one opportunities, and bricked open looks. The Knights easily threw away about seven or eight possession in the final five minutes, and when you lose that game by two points (and shoot a paltry 8-18 from the free throw line), it will surely drive the head coach nutty. Without a doubt, Greg Vetrone has to be sick with this loss, especially when you throw in the late lead they blew to LIU Brooklyn over a week ago. Those two games are the difference between 4-4 and 2-6.

Best Crowd
Sacred Heart’s Pitt Center – The “upset” of the day belongs to the Sacred Heart fans – 1,614 of them to be exact – who came out and filled up the makeshift gym to give the Pioneers a nice home court advantage. Thanks to the students, the Pitt Center was loud and very much into the game. It was a pleasant surprise and frankly cool to see.

Most Shameful Performance
The Officials for the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game – Talk about a tightly officiated game; the evening showdown at the Pitt Center was ground to a halt in the second half thanks to a comically refereed contest. Both teams were in the bonus by the under 12 minute timeout and ended up accumulating a mind-blowing 32 personal fouls, in the second half alone! Everything was being called: hand checks, minimal arm taps, hell some were led to believe breathing on a player was an offense. It was truly shameful how the officials took the game over.

I’ve run out of awards, thus I’d like to conclude with some important random thoughts:

  • The aforementioned Monmouth freshman Christian White has a beautiful outside shot. It’s one of the prettiest rainbow arcs you’ll see in the NEC, and so far the freshman is making the most of his playing time. For the season, the diminutive White has drained exactly 50% (16 of 32) of his three-point attempts. Given Monmouth’s past outside shooting woes, White’s production is sorely needed.
  • Quinnipiac’s backcourt continues to serve as a revolving door of guards, whether it’s Shaq Shannon, Zaid Hearst, Evan Conti, Kendrick Ray, or James Ford. As Tom Moore explained in his press conference, not even he knows which player(s) will perform on a given night. Yesterday, Conti gave Moore a strong first half of eight points and four assists. On Thursday night, Shannon scored 18 points exclusively on three-pointers to give the Bobcats a much needed spark over CCSU. Zaid Hearst has been in-and-out with his production. Moore is still searching for the right guy(s) to mix and match, although he certainly would prefer leaning on one or two players for the NEC stretch. Will someone eventually elevate their play? No one really knows the answer.
  • The curious case of Travis Nichols continues. On Saturday, Nichols had another double digit point effort as he scored 10 points, which sounds awesome when you realize St. Francis was 5-1 in those games. But yesterday, St. Francis lost in part because Nichols found himself in foul trouble for much of the second half. The versatile forward missed critical stretches late and it inevitability cost his team as CCSU pulled away in Nichols’ absence. I’m certainly not placing all of the blame on Nichols, but it’s hard to dispute the effect he has on the team when he’s logging quality minutes on the floor for Glenn Braica’s group.
  • I know I brought this up in last week’s edition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but it bears repeating. Phil Gaetano, through eight NEC games, now has dished out 75 assists versus only 21 turnovers. He holds a league best A/TO ratio of 3.6. Not bad for a player who only attempts four shots per game.

It was a great day of college hoops, one I’m extremely thankful to be a part of. Perhaps there will be more Connecticut tripleheaders in my future. I just have to run it by the wife next time…

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

What’s Wrong with the Quinnipiac Bobcats?

Tom Moore’s Bobcats were projected to be a year away from becoming possible favorites for a NEC title (projections were made before Quinnipiac’s announced defection to the MAAC next fall). The frontcourt is led by vociferous rebounders Ike Azotam, Jamee Jackson, and Ousmane Drame, but the backcourt – other than senior point guard Dave Johnson – is in partial rebuild mode. Despite the inexperience on the perimeter, this was a team projected by yours truly and John to finish in the upper third (aka top four) of the conference. Through 16 games however, the Bobcats have given pundits no indication that they could live up to those semi-lofty expectations. Their latest NEC home loss to Sacred Heart last Saturday bumped the Bobcats down to 1-3 in the NEC, and a stunning 5-11 overall.

The poor play has been surprising, so I decided to examine what has gone wrong in Hamden. As you’ll soon find out, it’s a myriad of issues that has plagued this team.

1) The Offense Lacks Playmakers
Anyone who’s read a prognostication of Quinnipiac this offseason has had the James Johnson graduation story rammed down their throats. It was the number one question this fall: how exactly would Tom Moore replace Johnson’s superb production on the court and his leadership off it? While an answer to the latter is difficult to ascertain without being in the locker room, statistics prove the backcourt production has taken a step back. While Zaid Hearst has seen a slight uptick in his production from his rookie campaign, he hasn’t been the player we envisioned he’d grow into. Garvey Young, who’s currently out nursing an ankle injury, is a solid, yet unspectacular veteran, who provides more value on the defensive side of the ball anyway. And the freshmen, in particular Kendrick Ray and his explosive first step, need time to fully adapt to the speed of D-I basketball. The same goes for three-point extraordinaire James Ford and the recently used Tariq Carey.

Add it all up and you have a backcourt that can be, dare I say, stagnant at times. The offensive attack lacks any kind of consistent playmaking ability – the type of playmaking skills that Johnson provided for Moore late in the game. Ray possesses the most upside of the aforementioned candidates, but as he showed in the loss to Sacred Heart (3 points, 1-9 from the floor), he’s still not ready to be counted on as a productive double-digit scorer. Someday the athletic Ray will get there, I’m confident of that, but it will take some time.

2) Missing Their Freebies
For the last two and a half seasons, the Bobcats have continually shot themselves in the foot by missing their free throws. Their early NEC season has been somewhat painful to watch, because Quinnipiac has shot a putrid 52.0% from the charity stripe. Yes, that’s 52.0% on 98 attempts. They missed 15 free throw attempts in their NEC opener in a TWO point loss to St. Francis Brooklyn. Versus Bryant, they bricked seven freebies, although the Bulldogs probably would have won the game regardless. The following Saturday, Quinnipiac only converted 14 of 27 free throw attempts in a SIX point loss to Sacred Heart. This is nothing new, and really, there isn’t much Moore can do to alleviate the pain. As long as Ike Azotam, Jamee Jackson, and Ousmane Drame continue to rack up minutes (as well they should), any coach would be foolish not to employ the “hack a Bobcat big man” strategy for easy layups and in games that go down to the wire. As this point, all Bobcat nation can do is close their eyes, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Or at the very least, Moore could keep Jackson and his career 47.8% free throw percentage on the bench during late game situations.

3) What Happened to the Defense?
Moore’s teams have always prided themselves on playing good old hard-nosed half-court defense by contesting shots, clogging pass lanes, and dominating the defensive glass. While the rebounding has been exceptional as usual, Quinnipiac has had a hell of a time stopping the opposition from scoring. Through four conference games, Quinnipiac has allowed opponents to score 1.11 points per possession, which is the second worst (besides LIU Brooklyn of course) defense in the NEC. It’s been an early puzzling trend, especially when examining Quinnipiac’s previous body of work. In the four seasons prior, the Bobcats have held opponents to 0.94, 0.92, 0.95 and 0.95 points per possession, respectively. Also troubling is their lousy defense on the perimeter, which is allowing opponents to shoot 38.2% from behind the arc. This is essentially the same team from last season, sans Johnson who was a decent defender, so why they’ve allowed teams like Bryant and Sacred Heart to go on prolonged back-breaking second half runs is beyond me. I bet Moore is searching for an answer to that question as you read this.

Even though the last 750 words have been of the glass half-empty variety, there’s still hope for Quinnipiac. As I stated before, more conversions at the charity stripe could have changed the outcome for at least one, if not two, of the games. Also, it’s fair to expect Quinnipiac to progress back to the mean in regards to free throw shooting (they’re shooting 63.0% from the line for the season). A couple of more defensive stops on top of that and maybe, just maybe, this team can rattle off a few wins in a row.

It’s absolutely possible, but Quinnipiac needs to play better soon. In the wild wild NEC, where parity reins supreme, those “easy” victories are becoming few and far between. And if the Bobcats can’t execute better on both ends of the floor, it will be a final season to forget in the NEC for Tom Moore and company.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Week 2 NEC summary: The good, the bad, and the ugly

It’s a touch late, but there was a lot to add to my second serving of the NEC’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Before the weekend, I was ready to stick the entire conference into the Ugly section, since the NEC was devoid of a meaningful non-conference win. What big victory was there to hang the conference’s hat on? Does St. Francis College beating Lafayette on the road get you excited? How about Monmouth at home versus a shorthanded Hofstra squad? Or can I interest you in Robert Morris’ drubbing of Atlantic 10 doormat Fordham?

Nothing had trickled my fancy, but then the weekend came. A bunch of NEC programs and their performances stood out, so let’s dive right into the Thanksgiving edition of the Big Apple Buckets’ weekly NEC summary!

The Good

  • Paradise Never Felt So Good – Quinnipiac gave the NEC its first quality non-conference win when they slid past Iona in the first round of the Paradise Jam Tournament. Jamee Jackson had a sensational game (19 points, ten rebounds, one turnover, six of seven shooting) and showcased his scary potential when healthy. Jackson’s dominance and Ike Azotam’s further brilliance on the glass (9.3 rebounds per game) should have future NEC opponents terrified of matching up with Quinnipiac’s frontcourt, especially after they out-rebounded UConn 39-29 in the semifinals. Sure, the agonizing double overtime loss to the Huskies now stands as a dreaded moral victory (King Rice just shook his head), but it was impressive nonetheless. Also impressive: The play of senior point guard Dave Johnson, who possesses a splendid 1.7 assist to turnover ratio in the early going.
  • A New Identity – I’m a bit concerned with how fast Central Connecticut is playing with only six to seven guys currently in the rotation, yet you can’t argue with the early results of Howie Dickenman’s squad. On Sunday, the Blue Devils gave the NEC its best non-conference road win to date – an 81-74 road victory over possible Atlantic 10 contender La Salle. The victory gives Central Connecticut a two-game winning streak, thanks in large part to the play of sophomore point guard and BAB favorite Malcolm McMillan. In the past two contests, McMillan has compiled 13 assists, 13 rebounds, four steals, and one turnover. I’d say a 13.0 A/TO is what coach Dickenman is looking for!
  • Immediate Contributors of Mayhem – I’ve seen plenty of Mount St. Mary’s in the early going and I’ve already shared my observations of Jamion Christian’s Mayhem system. What I’m about to do here though, may make Mount fans cringe, so please prepare yourself. Are you ready? I’d like to extend my praise to former Mount coach Robert Burke for bringing in the talented transfers Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott. Yep, I just congratulated the guy Christian replaced. In the preseason, I heard whispers of Prescott’s elite athleticism and Whack’s ability to knock down the long-range jumper, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed with both players in the early going. Currently, Whack leads the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and is shooting 50.0% from behind the arc. These junior guards will be a significant part of Christian’s rotation moving forward and may eventually place Kelvin Parker’s picture on a milk carton.
  • Staten Island’s Finest – After one week, Wagner has as many non-conference losses (2) as they had last season, despite the inspired play of senior forward Jonathan Williams. A preseason all-conference third team selection here at BAB, Williams has been the most integral part of the Seahawks offense, averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. In the season opener versus Delaware State, Williams sank the game tying layup at the buzzer to extend the game into overtime. If Williams continues to provide this type of production, things will only get easier for the backcourt of Kenneth Ortiz, Latif Rivers, Marcus Burton, and Dwaun Anderson.

The Bad

  • Pioneer Problems? – I was about three minutes away from placing my alma mater right in the thick of the Ugly section, but then Shane Gibson happened. His 11 points in the final three minutes of the game spurred a ridiculous comeback – their second such come-from-behind victory in eight days – over the previously undefeated Stony Brook Seawolves. Despite the win and their 2-2 record, there’s a lot not to like with the Pioneers and it starts of course with Gibson. Before the comeback, the superstar guard underwent a brutal stretch of basketball in his last three games, shooting 8 of 35 from the floor. Hopefully for Dave Bike’s sake, Gibson latest theatrics pushes him back onto the right track. Justin Swidowski and Evan Kelley also need to find their rhythm coming off injuries. Perhaps the most telling stat in Sacred Heart’s first four games: They have only led for 13 out of a possible 165 minutes (8.5%). They’re very lucky not to be 0-4 heading into their Patriot League showdown with Lehigh.
  • Weak Flash – It’s been a rough start to the season for junior guard Umar Shannon, who to be fair is a year removed from ACL surgery. In the Red Flash’s first three games, Shannon hasn’t played well, for whatever the reason, scoring 20 points (on 30 shots) with an efficiency rating of just under 2 (his efficiency rating was 11 in his last full season). Obviously, it will take time for Shannon to trust he’s 100% healthy, so the challenge for first year head coach Rob Krimmel is to find production elsewhere on St. Francis’ young roster while Shannon transitions back (hopefully) into all-conference form. His production will be sorely needed in January.

The Ugly

  • Closer to Dayton Then a 15 Seed? – (Please allow me to prepare myself for the potential onslaught of Blackbird fans in the comments section … deep breath … OK here we go) With the Blackbirds’ tough loss on the road early last week to Lafayette, color me skeptical if you think LIU still has a good chance at securing a 14 or 15 seed should they make the NCAA tournament. After they lose their fourth straight game of the season to Kentucky this Friday, please show me where the quality conference wins will come from. Sure, they can go on a run – and I believe they will – for the remainder of their non-conference slate, but most of their opponents are currently sitting outside of the RPI top 100. Of course, it’s quite presumptuous of me to expect none of LIU’s future opponents (say Manhattan, Hofstra, Columbia) will move up in the standings, but I just have trouble seeing where the Blackbirds will accumulate enough quality wins to get on that 15 seed line. It makes their showdowns with Seton Hall and Columbia must wins in that regard. Really, one or two more non-conference losses after Kentucky could seal LIU’s fate as a future 16 seed for the third straight season.
  • FDU Troubles – I don’t mean to consistently beat a dead horse … but when you find yourself down 41-14 at the half to Northwestern, it’s never a good sign. Before I go any further however, I’ll simply end the post on that note…

I hope everyone has a Happy Thansgiving!

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride