NEC Tournament First Round: Recaps and Highlights

Given all of the so-called parity in the NEC this season, several teams expected to finish in the upper third of the league did just that. No one was all that surprised to find Robert Morris, Wagner and LIU Brooklyn hosting home playoff games, with Bryant serving as the Cinderella story of the group. All four clubs won at least 12 NEC games; therefore KenPom pegged each as moderate to heavy favorites for tonight’s matchups. Frankly, it isn’t all that shocking given the numbers listed below, courtesy of NEC Associate Commissioner Ron Ratner:

  • Home teams have posted a 18-2 record in the quarterfinals over the last five years.
  • All four home teams hosting tonight were a combined 43-11 in their friendly confines before tonight’s action.
  • In the last seven seasons, the #1, #2, and #3 seeded teams of the tournament were 21-0 versus their quarterfinals competition.

In other words, history was not on the underdog’s side. But this is why we play the games, so allow us to recap and highlight the first round of the fabulous NEC tournament.

#1 Robert Morris 75, #8 St. Francis Brooklyn 57
History was certainly against the Terriers heading into this one, with Robert Morris compiling an exceptional NEC tournament record of 10-2 in the previous four seasons. St. Francis did nothing to thwart that trend, as the Terriers went quietly into the night never once threatening to become the first #8 seed to win since 1984. Robert Morris was dominant on the defensive end, forcing 16 turnovers and holding Glenn Braica’s club to 0.88 points per possession (PPP). The Colonials are now 12-1 on the season when they hold their conference opponents to under 1.00 PPP. Karvel Anderson, bum wrist and all, scored a game high 20 points with four rainmakers. Senior Russell Johnson registered 19 points and seven rebounds, while Lucky Jones also grabbed seven caroms to go along with 16 points. Jalen Cannon and Dre Calloway scored an efficient 29 points on 14 shots, but the rest of the Terrier roster only managed to make nine of 33 shot attempts. St. Francis concludes their season with a final record of 12-18.

#5 Mount St. Mary’s 75, #4 Bryant 69
Mount St. Mary’s continued their hot streak by winning their eighth straight game to stun the Bryant Bulldogs, 75-69, in front of a packed house in Smithfield, RI. It was the first playoff win for the Mount since the days of Milan Brown, thanks to a second half surge that saw the Mount outscore their opponent, 47-34. The Bulldogs, led by Alex Francis and Vlad Kondratyev’s combined 20 first half points, led at the break by seven. But Jamion Christian’s defense attacked in the second half, mounting a comeback fueled by nine Bulldog turnovers, some clutch shooting, and severe foul trouble by Bryant. Overall, it wasn’t a great shooting night for the Mount, but the team made a season high 26 of 27 free throws to provide separation at the end. Four Mountaineers scored in double figures, led by Rashad Whack’s 19 points paired with eight rebounds. It was Christian’s first playoff win of his career, and now he’ll get a chance for a second victory at the Chuck on Saturday afternoon. Only five players scored for Bryant, who found themselves in severe foul trouble throughout. Alex Francis logged a game high 25 points.

#3 LIU Brooklyn 91, #6 Quinnipiac 83
For the second straight season, Tom Moore’s Bobcats fell to LIU in the NEC playoffs. Quinnipiac had second half leads in both games, but failed to hold on. After leading by as many as nine points in this one, LIU embarked on a 14-5 run to tie the game at 75 all. From there, a back and forth battle ensued leading to six players eventually fouling out. But in the end, LIU Brooklyn’s experience pulled through thanks to C.J. Garner’s 30 points. Despite playing only 25 minutes due to foul trouble, NEC POY Jamal Olasewere scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds, and handed out four assists. Quinnipiac’s season likely comes to an end (barring an unlikely invitation from the CIT or CBI), but Moore can rest assured that Ousmane Drame should be a dominant force down low next season. Drame scored 23 points in the defeat and ends his season averaging 14.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest over the final 12 games. Senior Jamee Jackson finishes his career with 10 points and nine rebounds. For Ray Curren’s guest post about the game go here.

#2 Wagner 72, #7 Central Connecticut 50
Wagner turned back the clock and played some Dan Hurley inspired defense to smother CCSU from the opening tip in a dominating first round victory. Led by Jonathan Williams’ 20 points and six rebounds, the Seahawks built a commanding 14 point lead at the half after holding CCSU to only 22% shooting. Things didn’t get any better for Howie Dickenman’s kids, as they shot 25% and committed 11 turnovers versus only four assists for the game. Kyle Vinales and Matthew Hunter combined to miss 25 of their 35 shots, with the more athletic and deeper Seahawks pestering the Blue Devils all night. Offensively, it wasn’t a great effort for Bashir Mason’s Seahawks, but they did just enough to comfortably win their 11th home game of the season. Like Christian, Bashir Mason is now in the win column for the NEC playoffs. Not bad at all for a 28-year-old.

Top Performances of the Night
C.J. Garner, LIU Brooklyn – The senior was the man with Jamal Olasewere helplessly watching from the bench, scoring 17 of his game high 30 points in the second half.
Russell Johnson, Robert Morris – The most consistent frontcourt presence for Andy Toole all season shined once again, filling up the stat sheet with 19 points, eight rebounds, and five steals. As far as game efficiency ratings are concerned, tonight was the best game of Johnson’s career.

Biggest Surprise of the Night
Mount Mayhem – After trailing by seven points at the half, Mount St. Mary’s defense dug in and shutdown the best offense of the NEC for the second half. The Mount held Bryant to only 1.00 PPP and 40.7% from the floor for the final 20 minutes, which may not seem like much, until you realize Bryant was scoring at a 1.14 PPP rate and shooting 47.9% for the NEC season.

NEC Semifinals Schedule
Saturday, March 9th, Noon: #3 LIU Brooklyn at #2 Wagner
Saturday, March 9th, 2:30 PM: #5 Mount St. Mary’s at #1 Robert Morris

Our All-NEC Conference Teams: A Difficult Exercise Indeed

It was the year of parity and unpredictably in the NEC, and that notion certainly extends out to our all-conference awards. There are several worthy candidates, so it was a challenging exercise for John and I to sort out our All-NEC first, second, and third teams. For our individual awards, including Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, etc., go here. So without further ado, let’s begin! Continue reading “Our All-NEC Conference Teams: A Difficult Exercise Indeed”

Wagner Grinds Out Victory Over Mount St. Mary’s

It may not have been soothing to watch or aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but Wagner ground out a much-needed victory in Emmitsberg, Maryland over Mount St. Mary’s on a brutally cold Thursday night. Wagner never held the lead in the first 37 minutes of the contest, but their stifling defensive attack and “never say quit” attitude made their head coach Bashir Mason quite proud.

“Unbelievable effort from these guys,” said Mason. “There were several times when we were down six, eight points on the road, and most teams would just pack it in. These guys dug in and they continued to fight for 40 minutes.”

It was the defense that kept Wagner in the game when the outside shots weren’t falling. The Seahawks held the Mount to 0.86 points per possession in the contest, after unexpectedly giving up 1.08 points per possession in their past four games – three of them defeats. Tonight, it was the reigning NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz who once again had the game’s biggest play.

With the teams tied at 50 with less than one minute remaining in the second half, Ortiz intercepted a perimeter pass by Rashad Whack and took it uncontested down the floor for a layup. It was the intuition of Ortiz and his head coach that essentially made the play happen.

“That steal was there for him three or four times throughout the game,” said Mason. “When Orlando Parker was shooting free throws, I came to [Ortiz] and said ‘you have to shoot that gap.’ At the end right there, he made that play, and that’s typical Kenny Ortiz stuff.”

The Mount had a decent look at the buzzer to tie it, but a double teamed Kristijan Krajina misfired on a difficult six footer.

Jonathan Williams only registered eight points in the victory, but it was the senior’s two buckets in the paint late that inevitably put Wagner in a position to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, Wagner was dominant inside the paint scoring 38 points near the rim while grabbing 13 offensive rebounds. They also outrebounded the Mount 37 to 24.

For Mount St. Mary’s, this marks their fifth loss in seven NEC games. The home game was there for the taking, as the Mount had several opportunities to extend their lead to double digits. But the Wagner defense stiffened and the Mount went ice-cold. Jamion Christian’s group went nearly eight minutes in the second half without making a field goal, which obviously helped spark Wagner’s comeback late.

“We just didn’t make plays down the stretch,” said a disappointed Christian. “I’m really saddened for my team. We were pretty good in those situations all year and we just didn’t execute well.”

Bashir Mason implemented a zone defense which gave the Mount trouble throughout the evening. The Mount only shot 30.4% (7-23) from behind the arc and 39.6% from the floor, consistently settling for tough contested outside jumpers.

“We just didn’t rotate the ball side to side,” said Christian when asked about Wagner’s defensive effort. “Their zone did a very good job on us. We were prepared for it but we didn’t execute our plan offensively. It’s a pretty good zone, it’s not even a great zone, but we just didn’t execute.”

Nine players scored for the Mount, but only junior Sam Prescott reached double figures with ten points. Eric Fanning and Orlando Parker each had a game high 12 points for Wagner. It was the freshman Fanning’s third straight game with at least 20 minutes played and 12 points scored.

“Eric Fanning is just a guy who can make a shot from the perimeter,” said Mason. “He’s not afraid to make big plays. He brings a lot of energy to our team. I think he’s really just starting to get comfortable with the pace of college, the size, the speed, and all of that stuff.”

The win snaps Wagner’s first three game losing streak in nearly two seasons and pushes them back above 0.500 in the conference at 4-3 with a road showdown versus St. Francis (PA) coming up. The Mount falls to 10th place in the league at 2-5 and must travel to Moon Township on Saturday to take on the 5-2 Robert Morris Colonials.

Robert Morris, Wagner’s Jonathan Williams shine on NEC Saturday

Thanks to finals week, it has been a fairly light week of Northeast Conference basketball. With four games on the docket today, it was the first time in seven days that more than two NEC teams played on the same day. Therefore, I felt it was appropriate to briefly breakdown each game on the second to last Saturday before Christmas.

Wagner 77, Coppin State 65
It took a career game from senior Jonathan Williams (33 points, 17 rebounds, 3 steals) just to push this non-conference battle into overtime. Coppin State, who according to KenPom came into the matchup as a 90% underdog, used Wagner’s aggressive defense to their advantage by getting to the charity stripe an astonishing 22 more times than Wagner in regulation. Once Williams was able to will his team into overtime, however, Wagner’s defense and Marcus Burton took over. Burton quickly hit two three-pointers in the extra frame, and left little drama late (other than the lights going out) at the Spiro Center. All together, Williams and Burton (17 points) combined to score nearly 65% of the Seahawks’ total points. A big-time upset was averted, and as I always like to say, a win is a win. Hopefully for Wagner’s sake, Latif Rivers will soon return from a knee injury to add a much-needed dimension to the offense. Defensively, though, the team is clicking quite nicely. Mario Moody was once again impressive off the ball, registering seven rebounds, three steals, and three blocks in only 22 minutes.

St. John’s 77, St. Francis 60
The problems continued for Glenn Braica’s group, as the Terriers have fallen to 2-7 on the young season. Tabbed fifth in the NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll, St. Francis Brooklyn has really struggled in the backcourt and today was no exception, especially when faced with the superior athleticism of St. John’s. John shared his thoughts on the game here.

Loyola (MD) 79, Mount St. Mary’s 57
The Catholic in-state battle was over right after it started, as Jamion Christian witnessed the ugliest loss of his young career tonight in Baltimore. Loyola jumped out to a 33-11 lead, and never looked back, winning comfortably at home. The first half stats painted a brutally dim picture for the Mountaineers: seven field goals, eight turnovers, 15 personal fouls, and an awful shooting percentage of 24%. Even worse, the MAYHEM was anything but that, as the Mount secured their first steal of the game 35 minutes in. Kristijan Krajina was the lone bright spot for the Mount, scoring 14 points while corralling seven boards in only 15 minutes. Everyone else struggled mightily, including a player I recently praised, Rashad Whack. Even though a beat down like this never happens at a good time, I’m willing to bet Christian secretly preferred it happened now rather than during the conference season. Loyola continued its excellent non-conference run, pushing their record to 9-3. Erik Etherly, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury for five games, came back to contribute 16 points. Senior Robert Olsen tormented the Mount’s defense inside and out, with a game high 22 points.

Robert Morris 91, Duquesne 69
I saved the best for last. The Andy Toole and Jim Ferry reunion ended badly for the first year head coach of the Dukes, as Robert Morris cruised in the second half to win their fourth straight against Duquesne going away. After a close battle through one half, the Colonials were able to control the pace (something Toole couldn’t do against Ferry in last year’s NEC title game) and go on a decisive run. Velton Jones had one of his best games of the season with 22 points and six assists. Robert Morris’ defense forced 25 turnovers and made 51% of their shots, including 13 of 28 from behind the arc. The victory is the Colonials fourth straight and seventh overall and has them rolling into late December. Starting with their upset victory over Ohio, Toole’s squad has easily looked like the best team in the NEC. For what it’s worth, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi agrees, having pegged Robert Morris as a future 14 seed. That may be a tad bullish, but a road win over Arkansas later this month would certainly cement that future seeding.

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

Winning ugly the only way Wagner is winning these days

It sure wasn’t pretty. When you score 0.71 points per possession, shoot 36% from the floor, and have an assist to turnover ratio of 0.3, you won’t win a majority of your games. But Wagner, despite trailing for most of their home opener versus the Princeton Tigers, used their pressure defense and timely offense to stage a much-needed comeback victory. The Seahawks edged the Tigers for a gritty 48-42 overtime win to earn its second victory of the season. Here are my observations from the sloppy contest:

  1. Defending with Tenacity – First let’s talk about the good. Wagner’s defense forced 17 Tiger turnovers and held Ian Hummer – Princeton’s most efficient big man – to 11 points on 20 shots. As a whole, Wagner did an excellent job containing Princeton’s skilled frontcourt, as the Tigers shot 25% (11 of 44) from inside the arc. Mario Moody gave Bashir Mason instant defense off the bench, swatting away three shots in 13 minutes. So far, the Seahawks defense is performing at a higher rate compared to last season, with an adjusted defense rating in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50.
  2. Offensive Woes – The offense, however, continues to lack any kind of cohesive flow. The team clearly misses Latif Rivers, who has now missed the past three games with a knee injury. Without Rivers and his ability to create off the dribble, spot up from long-range, or facilitate for other teammates, Wagner doesn’t have enough playmakers that can create their own shot. Jonathan Williams is certainly doing his part by averaging nearly 18 points and eight rebounds, but contributions are desperately needed elsewhere. I’m looking at you, Kenneth Ortiz and Marcus Burton.
  3. Long Range Shooter Please Apply – Part of the Wagner’s problem offensively stems from their inability to stretch the defense with their long-range shooting. Currently, Wagner is hitting less than 28% of their three-point attempts, which simply won’t cut it. The problem is exacerbated without Rivers, as only Eric Fanning and Burton have shown the capability to make shots from behind the arc. Right now Wagner really misses Tyler Murray and Chris Martin.
  4. Whose the Impact Freshman? – Speaking of Fanning, it was he and not the highly touted Dwaun Anderson, who received the crunch time minutes late in tonight’s game. Mason’s trust in Fanning paid off with the freshman sinking a critical three-ball late in regulation. Anderson has struggled mightily out of the gate, scoring 17 points on 30 shots to go along with 14 turnovers. We were wrong in assuming any freshman, even one as gifted as Anderson, could come in and contribute right away at a high level. Clearly, Anderson’s adjustment to collegiate basketball will take a little time, so Mason’s challenge is to find production elsewhere while his prized rookie figures it out.

Tonight was a fantastic win for Wagner, because let’s face it, when you fail to score 50 points in a game that went to overtime, nine times out of ten you will lose. Especially to an Ivy League contender in Princeton. The Seahawks’ defense isn’t the problem, but Mason has a difficult challenge ahead of figuring out his team’s offensive issues. It’ll be interesting to see how the youngest head coach in college basketball adjusts.

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