Third NEC Thursday Ends in Exciting Fashion

Going into the third Thursday of Northeast Conference play, the major storyline was unfortunately injuries. Several players unexpectedly missed action tonight, but that didn’t stop the conference from having several fantastic finishes late. Three games improbably went into overtime, while every game was decided by no more than nine points. Let’s recap all of the action, before my head explodes. (By the way, trying to focus on four games at once is not for the faint of heart)

Robert Morris 66, Sacred Heart 62
Sadly, if you made a team out of the players missing action tonight, you would have a dominant top seven of Velton Jones, Karvel Anderson, Evan Kelley, Chris Evans, Justin Swidowski, Lijah Thompson, and Vaughn Morgan. The game, however, still was played in Moon Township, with the Colonials simply outlasting the Pioneers by slowing down the tempo in the second half. The Colonials never relinquished the lead once they went on a 13-0 run midway through the second half, although Shane Gibson did his absolute best to bring SHU back. It was vintage Gibson tonight, as the senior had 27 points (on 13 shots) to go along with six rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Quite simply, his effort couldn’t overcome the Colonials’ advantage in free throws (20-13) and turnovers forced (21-11). Not one Colonial particularly shined in the win, but it was a collective team effort with four Colonials scoring in double figures while holding the Pioneers to 0.94 points per possession. A win is a win, and Andy Toole will take it without his senior leader on the floor.

Quinnipiac 75, St. Francis (PA) 66
Quinnipiac, who was without staring point guard Dave Johnson with a concussion, earned a much needed victory over the feisty Red Flash, who charged back early in the second half to tie the game after trailing by as many as 13 points. It was an ugly shooting display across the board, although Quinnipiac did make 20 of 24 (finally!) from the charity stripe for one of their best free throw performances of the season. After blowing a six point lead late in regulation, the Bobcats offense dominated in the extra frame, scoring 16 points on their nine overtime possessions. Ike Azotam led Quinnipiac (what else is new) with 22 points and ten rebounds. Earl Brown was back to his dominant ways on the glass, grabbing 18 rebounds to go along with 14 points. Which leads us to a statistic oddity: In the last six games, Earl Brown has corralled nearly half (93 of 203) of the Red Flash’s rebounds. You don’t see individual dominance like that all too often.

Monmouth 71, St. Francis Brooklyn 67
In a game featuring two teams going in opposite directions, it was the Hawks who surprisingly came away with an impressive road win over St. Francis Brooklyn. Jesse Steele had a game high 20 points for the Hawks, who without Andrew “Red” Nicholas still had their second best shooting performance of the season. In the past three games, the diminutive Steele is averaging 18.0 points per game on a respectable 18 of 39 from the floor. John shares his five thoughts of the game here.

LIU Brooklyn 79, Fairleigh Dickinson 75
In front of 319 fans (really Knight fans, that’s all you got?), LIU Brooklyn stole a game across the Hudson River when they shocked the Knights in a fiercely contested battle. Jamal Olasewere was sensational with 30 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks, and C.J. Garner had perhaps his best game of the year. The senior combo guard scored 23 points along with four rebounds and five steals. FDU blew sizable advantages throughout the contest, but it was their late game failures that will be most remembered tonight. The Knights were leading by five points with 21 seconds remaining before three pointers by Garner and Brandon Thompson (his only points on the night) sent the game into overtime. Once in overtime, FDU’s offense went ice cold as they missed their final five shots, including two ill-advised bombs from Melquan Bolding and Mostafa Jones late. Greg Vetrone has to be sick to his stomach after this one, while Perri’s Blackbirds move to 2-3 in the conference despite committing 18 turnovers against only 13 assists. FDU’s senior trio of Bolding, Lonnie Robinson, and Kinu Rochford scored 54 of the Knights’ 75 points in the loss.

Bryant 79, Mount St. Mary’s 78
It appeared we were heading toward an expected ho-hum victory for Bryant when the Bulldogs went up by 11 late in the second half after a Frankie Dobbs bucket and the foul. But the Mount – taking on the never quit mentality of head coach Jamion Christian – eventually stormed back to tie the game after Shivaughn Wiggins drained a three to send it into the overtime. The freshman had the game of his young career, scoring 20 points on 8 of 10 shooting. (Maybe he heard me complain about the lack of freshmen contributing league wide on the podcast? Ok, maybe not.) In overtime, the game was a fantastic seesaw battle which ended stunningly when Bryant freshman Shane McLaughlin, of all people, drove and scored the game winning lay-up with six seconds left. It was McLaughlin’s ONLY shot attempt of the game. Four Bulldogs played 38 minutes or more, and perhaps their weariness showed with Bryant committing a season high 19 turnovers against the Mayhem attack. Despite the choas, Alex Francis was once again terrific for the now 5-0 Bulldogs. The athletic junior had 25 points (on 12 shots) and seven rebounds. If you didn’t really know about Francis before this season, you surely do now.

Central Connecticut 73, Wagner 66
It’s time for me to officially apologize to Kyle Vinales for having the audicity to suggest that the sophomore was tiring after going through a tough four game slump earlier in the non-conference season. Since the Syracuse blowout and after dropping 30 points against a very good defensive team in Wagner, Vinales is averaging a sparkling 24.8 points, 4.2 assists, 1.8 steals, and only 3.0 turnovers per game. Not too shabby. CCSU led for most of the game and was able to dominate despite the return of Seahawks wing Jonathan Williams from a hip injury. The senior struggled, as did many of the Seahawks, sans Ortiz who scored a team high 18 points. For Wagner, it was their third straight game – two of them losses – where they’ve allowed more than one point per possession. That’s an unusual trend for a team that prides itself on shutting down their opponents on the offensive end.

NEC Standings Through Five Games
1) Bryant, 5-0
2) Wagner, 3-2
3) St. Francis Brooklyn, 3-2
4) Central Connecticut, 3-2
5) Robert Morris, 3-2
6) Sacred Heart, 3-2
7) LIU Brooklyn, 2-3
8) Fairleigh Dickinson, 2-3
9) Quinnipiac, 2-3
10) Monmouth, 2-3
11) Mount St. Mary’s, 1-4
12) St. Francis (PA), 1-4

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

Convincing Defeats Dominate NEC Thursday

There was plenty of action across the upper east coast tonight for the NEC, so let’s jump right into it!

Robert Morris 88, Fairleigh Dickinson 54
If there was any doubt that the Colonials would respond after their two lackluster losses at home, you quickly got your answer in the early going. After one half, Robert Morris jumped out to a 19 point lead, forcing ten Knight turnovers and holding them to 42.7% shooting. I guess all teams should run the balance a chair between the legs drill! The Colonials sizzled from beyond the arc, hitting 13 of 24 threes. Coron Williams had a game high 27 points, but really everyone played well in this one. Anytime you can force 17 turnovers, dish out 22 assists versus nine turnovers (2.4 A/TO) and make more than half your shots, the head coach will probably smile during the post game. Not bad for a bunch of prima donna players led by a prima donna coach! (sorry I couldn’t help myself)

Guest contributor Ray Floriani had these observations on Thursday:

Robert Morris rang up 88 points en route to a rout of FDU. Forget the offense for a minute. The 88-54 wipe out was courtesy of defense. Close outs, ball pressure, communication etc. The Colonials came in and dominated on the defensive end.

The Colonials finished 8-5 in pre-NEC contests. They squandered a great opportunity for a solid start by losing home contests to Bryant and Central Connecticut.

“I think our guys got a wake up call.” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said following the win at FDU’s Rothman Center.  “We were reminded that in this league there are good teams and you have to be ready and play every night.”

Against FDU they did just that. In non-conference games, Robert Morris showed a 98 defensive efficiency. It fell considerably with a 114 in the recent ‘lost weekend’. Against FDU, the Colonials were outstanding. They limited FDU to an 86 efficiency in a 63 possession contest. On the offensive end, Robert Morris posted an outstanding 140 efficiency. A 21-7 turnover scoring advantage largely contributed as the Colonials forced FDU into a 27% turnover rate. A classic example of defense creating and energizing the offense. And on the offensive end, the Colonials scorched the nets with a 67 effective field goal percentage mark made possible in part by a gaudy 14% turnover rate.

Individually, the Colonials had five players in double figures. Coron Williams led the way with 27 points, shooting a torrid 8-10 from beyond the arc.

Melquan Bolding led the way with 17 points for FDU, now 1-2 in conference play. Despite the one sided affair, Toole sees improvement in FDU. “We watched a few of their games on tape,” he said. “They have a few good seniors like Bolding and (Lonnie) Robinson plus they really play well together from what we have seen.”

Next up for Robert Morris on the ‘Garden State’ swing is a visit to Monmouth on Saturday. “It will be tough,” Toole admitted. “They play very hard.”

Central Connecticut 84, Sacred Heart 78
Sacred Heart jumped out to a double digit lead in the first half, but it was mainly because of the Blue Devils’ incompetence on offense, as CCSU missed nine of ten three pointers (several were open looks) in the first half. After Kyle Vinales went scoreless in the first 20 minutes, the sophomore exploded for 15 points, 7 assists, and two rebounds pushing CCSU to their second straight NEC victory. The Pioneers lost the lead midway through the second half, after Shane Gibson exited with four fouls. Brandon Peel had the game of his life (although there will be many more for this freshman) registering a career high 17 points and 17 rebounds. No one down low for Sacred Heart could keep Peel off the boards and it cost them dearly. What also cost the Pioneers dearly was their transition defense, as CCSU outscored SHU 14-4 in fast break points. Shane Gibson and Steve Glowiak – playing in his hometown of New Britain – each had a team high 22 points, although both players needed a combined 40 shots just to get there.

Bryant 103, Quinnipiac 95
This is not a typo, I repeat this is not a typo. Bryant dropped 103 points on Quinnipiac, as the Bulldogs continue their torrid display of offensive basketball. I didn’t see much of the game, but here are the wonderful statistics: Bryant shot 60.7% from the floor, made 12 of 19 three-pointers, had 24 assists against ten turnovers, and scored 1.38 points per possession! Wow. Every Bulldog starter scored at least 14 points with Frankie Dobbs leading the way. The fifth year senior netted 20 points (his 10th game of the season in double figures), 6 assists, and 2 rebounds. Despite their defensive ineptness, Quinnipiac actually hung around in this one, but a Bulldog 14-4 run midway through the 2nd half essentially sealed the deal. Now winners of five straight, Bryant is 3-0 in the conference for the first time ever, while Quinnipiac drops to 1-2.

Monmouth 65, St. Francis (PA) 60
It was another mediocre offensive performance by the Hawks, but these days King Rice will take any victory he can get. The Hawks only shot 40.7% from the field, but forced 18 Red Flash turnovers to earn their first NEC win. Monmouth did convert nine of their 20 three-point attempts on the night, including perhaps a slump busting performance by Jesse Steele. The senior did take 15 shots to register 17 points, yet he drained five of eight from downtown. The youthful Red Flash were only trailing by three points with less than five minutes remaining (I’m sure the MAC crowd was loving that), but missed seven of their final eight shots in the closing minutes. Earl Brown continued his mastery on the boards, registering his four straight double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Not bad for a kid who only had eight points and ten rebounds in the first five games of the season!

St. Francis 70, Mount St. Mary’s 55
Ben Mockford had a season high 19 points, including five threes, as St. Francis (NY) earned their second NEC victory of the season over Jamion Christian’s squad. Once again, the Mountaineers awful perimeter defense came back to haunt them, with the Terriers sinking more than half (51.0%) of their field goals attempts, while draining seven of 15 from behind the arc. The Mountaineers jumped out to a 25-17 lead, but were outscored 53-30 the rest of the way. Jalen Cannon had perhaps his worst game of the season, only scoring seven points to go along with three rebounds. St. Francis did cough the ball up 16 times, but still had two less turnovers than the Mountaineers, who have now lost five of their last seven games.

Wagner 86, LIU Brooklyn 75
In a surprising development, it was the Seahawks offense (1.18 points per possession) that snapped the Blackbirds 27 game winning streak at the WRAC tonight. Mario Moody, Kenneth Ortiz, and Latif Rivers combined for 59 points and led an surprisingly efficient Seahawk attack even without their star wing Jonathan Williams (hip). LIU sinks to 0-3 in the NEC and has a really important game versus the Mount coming up. John has a complete game recap here.

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

Monmouth Continues to Struggle on Offense, Loses to Mount St. Mary’s

In just two and a half minutes, seven turnovers were already committed. Given Mount St. Mary’s and Monmouth’s ability to force turnovers (each team is in the top ten nationally in that category), this early development wasn’t surprisingly in the least bit.

Unfortunately for Monmouth, another thing that wasn’t surprising was the Hawks’ inability to put the ball in the basket. It wasn’t from a lack of effort, or even execution on the offensive end. The open looks just wouldn’t fall for the struggling Hawks, and it cost them once again as the Mount pulled away in the second half for a 71-59 victory. After the loss, King Rice was surprisingly upbeat, despite his team now in the midst of a seven game losing streak.

“I told my kids after we’re still a work in progress,” said Rice. “I feel so bad for them, because Jesse [Steele] got good looks, Dion [Nesmith] got good looks … and the ball hasn’t fallen for them yet. So I told our guys, we played hard enough today to be able to win. Now we have to execute and make shots and those types of things, but that’s the type of effort I’m looking for.”

To the Mount’s credit, they hit some shots right out of the gate. After settling down from the initial frenetic pace, the Mount sank 13 of their 27 shots in the first half to take a 31-25 lead into halftime. Big man Kristijan Krajina led the attack with nine first half points on five shots, while Sam Prescott looked comfortable hitting three of four three-pointers.

Said Jamion Christian after the game on his suddenly emerging low post scorer, “[Kristijan] has really given us a consistent low-post scorer. Our guys have done a great job getting him the ball in key situations and I expect him to keep playing the way he’s been playing.”

The tenacious Hawks – clearly taking on the identity of their head coach – predictably came out swinging in the second half. Monmouth used a 8-0 run to pull within one point with 10:34 remaining, but that was the closest the Hawks would get. A 20-6 Mount St. Mary’s run to conclude the game ultimately broke the back of Monmouth.

In those final ten minutes, Monmouth missed nine of their final 11 shots and ended the night with a now league worst 0.81 points per possession and 41.3% field goal percentage. Jesse Steele, in particular, still hasn’t found his stroke (shooting 26.8% from the floor for the season), yet Rice isn’t ready to take the ball out of his hands.

“Last year Jesse wasn’t in shape, last year Jesse didn’t try hard all the time, and Jesse had a great year for us last year,” said Rice. “Now Jesse has gotten in great shape, he’s put in more time on his game then he ever has since high school, he’s doing all the right things, he’s trying his best to be our leader, and the ball hasn’t fallen. But I told Jesse over and over and over, keep shooting the ball, son. When you score the way you score, it’s going to start happening at some point.”

Andrew Nicholas led the Hawks with 19 points, although he needed 19 shots to score those points. Despite the losing streak, Rice is still confident enough to believe his team will get through this rough patch and become a factor once again in the NEC.

“I like our team,” said Rice. “I probably messed in scheduling in having the three high major games in a row. We were playing at a high level before the Navy game and we lost our mojo a little bit.”

“They are great kids. If they weren’t buying in then it would be a different story, but our kids are bought in and we need some things to break for us, and I believe they will.”

After what appears to be a brief reprieve with St. Francis (PA) coming to the MAC, Monmouth will then embark on a difficult three game set with Robert Morris, St. Francis Brooklyn, and LIU Brooklyn. Those open looks need to fall soon, or Monmouth will find themselves in a deep, deep hole by late January.

Some observations of Monmouth’s strengths and weaknesses

Last night, I attended my first NEC game as a fan when I purchased tickets with a co-worker to see the Monmouth Hawks lose by more than 30 points to ACC foe Maryland. It really wasn’t a fair fight, after all Maryland has the fifth tallest roster in the country versus Monmouth who has the seventh shortest team. Obviously, the blowout loss in College Park isn’t a proper barometer to measure the Hawks, but the Terrapins were able to exacerbate some of Monmouth’s issues. Here are my thoughts on the Hawks as they will soon move forward into NEC play:

1) Swarming the Basketball – Monmouth may have one of the shortest teams in the country, but they sure are quick. On defense, they fly around the court creating havoc a majority of the time. Their defensive rotations, for the most part, are crisp and clog up passing lanes in a hurry. Even a team that has superior size and athleticism in Maryland, struggled mightily in their half-court set. In all, the Terps coughed the ball up 24 times, which is right on par with the number of turnovers this Hawks’ defense extracts every game. With their excellent turnover rates (top 10 nationally), any NEC team opposing Monmouth should be content if they give the ball away less than 20 times. If they break 15 turnovers, then they should be thrilled. And if they break 12 turnovers, well then it was a marvelous performance. This team can flat out defend when they’re clicking on all cylinders. No one, and I repeat no one, will look forward to play these Hawks in conference.

2) Offensive Struggles – Monmouth was in quite a quandary on Wednesday night. King Rice tried to instill an aggressive mindset on the offensive end, as his Hawks clearly weren’t shy about driving the lane. Maryland’s size, however, made life extremely difficult for Monmouth’s bigs and slashers. Alex Len, all 7’1 of him, registered five blocks and altered a countless number of other shot attempts. In all, Monmouth only connected on 21% of their shots last night. Of course, Monmouth won’t see this type of size in the NEC, but the Hawks currently cannot buy an outside jumper. For the season, the Hawks are scoring 0.85 points per possession. I don’t care how good your defense is, an offense playing at that level simply won’t cut it if you truly want to break into the NEC top four or five.

3) Who is the Go-To-Guy? – If you have a KenPom subscription, head to Monmouth’s scouting page. On it, you’ll unfortunately see a lot of red boxes (red means BAD) when it comes to offensive statistics and metrics. It’s been a real struggle shooting the basketball for a majority of the Hawks. Senior Jesse Steele is shooting 27% from the floor. Andrew Nicholas, after his 0-9 performance against Maryland, has only drained 36% of his shot attempts. Not one player, with the exception of freshman Christian White who doesn’t have many attempts, has a three-point percentage greater than 32%. Quite simply, this is one of the worst shooting teams in the country, which truly places a premium on transition points off turnovers. If the Hawks have an off day turning their opponent over, they’ll have real trouble winning the game.

Despite all of the offensive issues, this team is significantly better than a season ago. King Rice has his players bought in on the defensive end, but he’ll need to figure out how to create better looks offensively. His go-to-guys, Steele and Nicholas, have disappointed in the early going, so one of the biggest issues moving forward is if those guards can improve their numbers. Without a sizable tick up in performance, the Hawks won’t have enough offensive firepower to compete with teams like LIU, Robert Morris, and even Central Connecticut.

NEC Team Capsule: Monmouth Hawks

Head Coach: King Rice, 2nd year (12-20)
Last Season: 12-20 (10-8 in NEC), lost first round of NEC tournament to Robert Morris, 87-68
NEC Preseason Coach’s Poll: 7th out of 12 teams
State of the Program: Getting ready to compete
Key Player Lost: Mike Myers Keitt (8.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.3 APG), Phil Wait (4.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.5 BPG), Will Campbell (6.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.8 APG), Austin Tillotson (6.1 ppg, 2.0 apg, 1.1 spg)
Incoming Players: Jalen Palm (G), Christian White (G), Tyrone O’Garro (F), Colin Stewart (G)
Previous Posts: King Rice Believes Team Approach Is Best For Monmouth, Why Monmouth Might Not Improve In King Rice’s Second Season, King Rice Continues to Rebuild Monmouth With 2012 Class

Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Jesse Steele (12.6 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.7 A/TO)
G: Andrew Nicholas (8.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.2 spg)
G: Dion Nesmith (8.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.1 spg, 38.4% 3PT)
F: Ed Waite (7.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.3 spg)
F: Marcus Ware (6.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.0 spg)

Key Reserves: Khalil Brown (F), Gary Cox (F), Stephen Spinella (G), Tyrone O’Garro (F)

Major Storylines:

  1. How far does a balance attack take a team? — As discussed at length in two previous pieces this offseason, Monmouth plays a very egalitarian style of basketball. The Hawks will rely on having a different guy that can beat you every night. In a way this almost seems harder to pull off. You need not one, but three or four guys that can fill up the basket. In Jesse Steele, Dion Nesmith, Andrew Nicholas and a healthy Marcus Ware, that’s exactly what Monmouth thinks they have. The fact is though the offense probably won’t be very good, it’s the defense where Monmouth will have to win games.
  2. Does size matter in this system? — When King Rice showed up, seven-footer Phil Wait’s role decreased significantly. Players that can get up and down the court and guard multiple positions are really important. The third tallest player on Monmouth’s roster this season, 6’7″ freshman Colin Stewart, is listed as a guard. How the Hawks scheme to take away big men like Julian Boyd and Ike Azotam will be important during league play.
  3. Is this team ready to move up into the NEC’s upper echelon? — The big question is if the Hawks are ready to move into the conference’s elite in King Rice’s second season. Most people are skeptical. Monmouth has a long way to go to compete with the best in the conference. How the Hawks do starting January 3 at Wagner is one of the biggest things to watch in the NEC this season.

Lineup Analysis: As much as Rice talks about balance, this team will certainly rely on two key players in seniors Jesse Steele and Marcus Ware. Steele was the only double-digit scorer on the roster in 2011-12. He could probably score more if he needed to. What Monmouth really needs though is for him to get everyone else involved and improve on his 4.8 assists per game from a season ago. Up front it’s going to have to be the Ware show. At 6’8″ he’s the big, experienced body that Rice can throw up against teams. It’s possible that Khalil Brown, a 6’9″ forward will also be a big help in the paint. He had to sit out last season, but Rice has raved about his potential. Gary Cox, a 6’5″ forward also sat last season with an injury. It’s also worth noting that this is an experienced team. Steele, Ware, Nesmith, Waite, Spinella and Cox give this team a bunch of veterans to rely on.

Coach’s Quote:

“We’re a lot more aggressive. Last year I didn’t know the kids when we started out so we put in an up-tempo style of play. Now we know how to do it. We know our kids, so we’re just way more aggressive than Monmouth has been in a long time. And after going through the league a year and seeing we’ve got a lot of great guards and a lot of great coaches that control the games we’re going to try and mix it up even more than we did last year just so we don’t have a team that has a dominant player dominate the game against us. We’re going to try to take the ball out of the best guy’s hands.”
– Rice on how year two is different

Ryan — King Rice’s bunch is perhaps the most volitile team in the conference and could realistically finish anywhere from 4th to 9th. I’m projecting somewhere in the middle, as this team will probably take a small step back before becoming a serious NEC contender down the road. One thing is for certain though, Monmouth will be a factor almost every game they play.

John — I’ve made some bold predictions when it comes to Monmouth this season, but I think eventually they’re going to settle into the fifth or sixth seed in the NEC tournament. King Rice certainly has this program on the right track and they’ll be a tough out for any team they play. The tricky thing is going to be bridging the gap in 2013-14 as Rice’s recruits will still be growing up and the seniors will have departed.

Previous NEC Team Capsules:
October 24: St. Francis (PA) Red Flash
October 25: Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
October 26: Bryant Bulldogs
October 29: Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers
October 30: Central Connecticut Blue Devils