Wagner-Vermont Observations

Vermont’s non-conference slate has (so far) been exceedingly tumultuous. John Becker’s squad was picked by many to finish atop the America East Conference, but despite the squad’s overall seniority — per Ken Pomeroy, the team is the nation’s fifth most experienced — the Catamounts look confused.

Currently in the midst of a northeast road trip, the team is 1-4, and against Wagner last night, the squad took the entirety of the first half to shake off what appeared to be rust and finally execute their gameplan, taking the lead at one point before ultimately losing by seven.

What follows are five observations from the game.

What happens to Wagner’s offense when Kenneth Ortiz is sidelined? In spite of the senior’s defensive prowess — no other Seahawk has a higher steal rate than the guard — Ortiz also commits a very high numbers of fouls (nearly five per 40 minutes). Wagner’s offense is dynamic when Ortiz runs the point — his presence shifts Jay Harris off the ball and allows Marcus Burton to float around the perimeter, getting open when Ortiz’s drives draw defenders from the junior (who is converting 44% of his threes). When Ortiz goes to the bench, though, Wagner’s offense visibly becomes stilted: Harris hasn’t consistently shown he can create offense for himself, and often curls around down screens (or comes off cross screens) for a clear look (per Hoop-Math.com, 50% of his twos and 86% of his threes are assisted). Both Burton and Latif Rivers function more as jump shooters, and aren’t capable of breaking down a defender and then dumping off a pass. Ortiz is the ideal point guard for Bashir Mason — his assist rate hovers around 30% — and while his head is constantly swiveling for an open teammate, he also has the athleticism to make a play when the shot clock is under ten seconds. At one point versus Vermont, Ortiz split two defenders, spun to get the Catamount on his hip, and made a layup with his left hand.

Vermont’s best offense is their frontcourt. Sandro Carissimo and Candon Rusin use more than 23% of the squad’s attempts, but both are in an offensive quagmire, and the rest of the team simply cannot make a bucket from beyond the arc. The team’s three-point percentage was low last year (32%), but has sunk to 26% this season, and the team looks hesitant to unfurl from deep.

Luke Apfeld and Clancy Rugg are the only Catamounts with an offensive rating over 100, and keyed Vermont’s second half surge in Staten Island. Using either picks or dribble drives, Carissimo was able to find Apfeld for a short corner jumper (he hit at least two) and Rugg illuminated what could be a crucial hole in Wagner’s defense, grabbing six offensive rebounds and either connecting on putbacks or drawing fouls. More than one half of Vermont’s points came from within the paint.

Wagner’s defensive identity. Wagner’s uniqueness in 2013 was fueled by how often they forced teams into committing a turnover. During the first half, Wagner continued to harass and generally make Vermont look unsure on offense. However, Vermont’s offense soon began to flow: the squad made 61% of their twos in the second half, grabbed countless offensive boards (sometimes three in one possession), and appeared more comfortable running their sets. The Seahawks struggled to force Vermont’s primary ballhandlers to give up the ball, and as a result, couldn’t get out as often in transition (Wagner scored only four fast-break points, as compared to ten in the first 20 minutes) and allowed Vermont some breathing room. While Wagner again looks like the cream of the NEC, are they defensively vulnerable? Not only is the squad causing a turnover on just 14% of their defensive possessions, they aren’t attacking the glass, allowing teams to generate additional chances. Just as concerning is their foul rate, which woefully ranks last in DI. Wagner’s bigs are particularly hack-friendly, and the propensity to pick up pointless fouls could portend defensive disaster for a team whose defensive efficiency rate ranked second in the NEC last season.

Vermont needs to get healthy soon.
Becker traveled with ten Catamounts, but only nine saw minutes, yielding a very thin bench (which only scored 11 points) and the squad looked visibly gassed at times. Ethan O’Day, a 6’9″ forward who made 52% of his twos during his freshman season, is out up to six weeks with a hand injury, and both Ryan Pierson and Brendan Kilpatrick will be out for some time. While it would appear, barring any setbacks, that the Catamounts could have a full squad in time for conference play, the schedule will not yield any breaks before AE play. After the game, Becker told John Templon that he purposely scheduled a tough out of conference slate — “I scheduled tough with the thought that we’d have all of our guys and still it was going to be difficult” — and the upcoming games are daunting for both the team’s record and confidence: tilts against Duke, Quinnipiac, San Francisco, and Harvard.

Is Wagner pushing the pace? The Seahawks have joined the 70-plus possession ranks, using 71 or so possessions per game through the first five games. Mason’s squad was in transition on both makes and misses, forcing Vermont on their heels and utilizing the Seahawks’ athleticism to create easy scoring opportunities (14 points). However, the added trips could be attributed to the increase in possessions felt across the nation (the average, per Pomeroy, is 69.5, a jump from 65.9 in 2013). As teams continue to feel out the new foul rules, and gain ease with which they run their offensive sets, it will be interesting to see if Wagner’s pace slackens or whether Mason intends for it to be sustainable.

If it is the latter, Wagner’s speed could be useful to generate easy two-point field goals. The team doesn’t have a frontcourt player who can demand the ball and then score on the block — both Mario Moody and Naofall Folahan are best when set up along the backline or trailing the break. It is clear that the bulk of the team’s offense is tied to their perimeter shooting; when those attempts aren’t falling, Wagner’s offense stalls, so the new pace could be a reflection of Mason’s desire to manufacture easy twos.

NEC Team Primer: #1 Wagner Seahawks

Wagner Seahawks logo

Head Coach: Bashir Mason, 2nd Season (19-12, 12-6 NEC)
Last Season: 19-12, 12-6 (NEC), Lost to LIU Brooklyn in NEC tournament semifinals, 94-82
RPI/KenPom: 135/180
NEC Preseason Poll: 1st out of 10 teams
State of Programs: NEC Favorite
Starters Returning: 3

Key Loss(es): Jonathon Williams (15.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Eric Fanning (16.7 mpg, 6.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg), Josh Thompson (23 starts, 3.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Incoming Players: Nolan Long (F), Greg Senat (F)

Wagner Seahawks logoProjected Starting Lineup:
PG: Kenneth Ortiz (11.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.3 rpg, NEC Defensive POY)
G: Latif Rivers (13.0 ppg, 39.4% 3pt%)
G: Dwaun Anderson (4.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
F: Mario Moody (6.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
C: Naofall Folahan (3.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg)

Key Reserves: Jay Harris (G), Orlando Parker (F), Marcus Burton (G)

Major Storylines:

  • Managing the Backcourt Minutes – Wow, there is a ton of talent available in the Wagner backcourt. The addition of Jay Harris gives the Seahawks four legitimate potential starts at the point guard and shooting guard positions. The biggest addition might not even be Harris, but a healthy Latif Rivers. Rivers struggled coming back from a knee injury last season and was never quite the same. Now with a full offseason he’s going to be even more effective.
  • A Teacher and a Student – As successful as Wagner was last season the Seahawks were working with a first-year head coach in Bashir Mason. Mason – who is working on his graduate degree – is also learning on the job as a head coach. He’ll be more prepared during his second season and I expect he’ll have some ideas about how to fix some of the defensive deficiencies the Seahawks had last season.
  • Finishing What They Started – The Seahawks have been one of the best teams in the NEC the past two seasons, but both have ended in disappointing home losses in the NEC tournament. Wagner needs to find a way to get past the final four in the conference and advance to a championship game, because if the Seahawks can get to the NCAA tournament they have the talent to give a team a scare.

The Skinny:
The Seahawks are the most talented team in the NEC. Whether they can put it all together is the question. Injuries didn’t help last season, but it appears that Latif Rivers is completely healthy. A healthy Rivers gives Wagner an outside shooting option that it definitely needed last season after they shot 35.3% in NEC play last season. Another player that could help the three-point shooting is Jay Harris. The Valparaiso transfer is going to give the Seahawks another dynamic scorer in the backcourt. Considering this team also has Marcus Burton and the reigning NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz that means there is going to be a lot of opportunities for Bashir Mason to pick and choose the hot hand.

There are also options on the wing. Dwaun Anderson is the type of player that could have a breakout season in his sophomore year. A former top recruit, Anderson basically spent last season getting reacclimated to competitive basketball and adjusting to the speed of Division I. Still, all of those ESPN Sportscenter Top 10 plays were representative of elite athleticism that isn’t often seen in the NEC.

Mason also has options in the front court. Orlando Parker, Mario Moody and Naofall Folahan form a nice trio of talented forwards. They also offer different abilities. Moody is an elite defender on the level of his teammate Ortiz. Given more minutes he could lead the team in blocks. It also appears that Moody is going to be given a bigger role offensively and he has the skill to be a double-double type player if he can stay on the court. Folahan adds a lot of veteran leadership that should just help anchor the Seahawks’ defense and help Mason keep everything together. It’ll also be interesting to see how the two freshmen, Nolan Long and Greg Senat, are integrated into the lineup.

Mason wants to use this deep lineup as much as possible. Whether or not he’ll really play 12 guys come March is a whole different question, but for now the Seahawks are the deepest and most talented team in the NEC.

Key Quotes:

“That guy can really shoot… And he’s buying into defense and the way we push the pace. He’s a good guy. Hopefully he’ll have a really big year for us.” – Kenneth Ortiz on Valparaiso transfer Jay Harris

“Right now in my mind I plan to play 12 guys.” – Bashir Mason on how deep his rotation will go

“Mario Moody with an extended role I think he’ll fill in nicely for Jon Williams. He brings a different dynamic. He’s a different type of player. More athletic and has natural play-making ability. He’ll be another shot-blocker on the court. I’m looking forward to him stepping into that role and playing well.” – Mason on how Moody’s development can offset the loss of Williams


Ryan – Injuries can always derail a season, but out of all the NEC teams, Wagner is prepared the best for such misfortune. With a bevy of athletic guards, polished shooters, and defensive minded big men down low, Bashir Mason has a lot of weight on his shoulders. He must juggle the rotation and determine his optimal lineup come January. There’s no way he’ll play 12 guys in the second half of the season, but you can bet he’ll have the best group of 9-10 guys playing 10+ minutes per game. (18 wins, 11-5 NEC)

John – I don’t know if Wagner is really going to play 12 players, but I know that the rotation will be deep and talented. The roster oozes potential. It’s up to Mason to put it all together. I think that in his second season that’s exactly what will happen and the Seahawks will be the team to beat in the NEC. (18 wins, 12-4 NEC)

Other NEC Team Primers:
#10 Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
#9 St. Francis (PA) Red Flash
#8 Sacred Heart Pioneers

#7 St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers
#6 LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
#5 Bryant Bulldogs
#4 Central Connecticut Blue Devils
#3 Robert Morris
#2 Mount St. Mary’s

Big Apple Bucket’s NEC All-Conference Second and Third Teams

With nearly half of the 2013 NEC all-conference selections no longer residing inside the conference, there’s plenty of opportunity for players to emerge into the limelight. Estimating who lands in the top 15 won’t be easy, but Big Apple Buckets will begin the process today by naming our all-conference second and third teams as the first installment of our two-part series. Tomorrow, we’ll present our NEC first team along with our player, rookie, coach, and defensive player of the year selections. Continue reading “Big Apple Bucket’s NEC All-Conference Second and Third Teams”

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

Season At A Glance — Wagner

This is the fifth of what will eventually be capsules for each of the NYC teams when I’m sure their season has concluded.

Team: Wagner

Record: 25-6 (15-3 in the NEC)

Season High: Winning at then #15 Pittsburgh

Season Low: Losing final regular season game to Central Connecticut

Really Good At: Defense — Wagner had the best defense by far in NEC play this season. The Seahawks led the conference in effective field goal percentage defense, three-point percentage defense and block percentage.

Struggled With: Fouling too much — The aggressive, pressing style that Wagner plays leads a lot to the interpretation of the officials. It might’ve been Wagner’s downfall in the conference semifinals against Robert Morris. The Seahawks finished 11th in the NEC in defensive free throw rate.

Key Losses:

  • Tyler Murray (All-NEC Second Team guard, 12.0 PPG, efficient scorer)
  • Chris Martin (spark off the bench, 7.1 PPG, 82.3% FT%)

Key Returnees:

  • Latif Rivers, So., G (All-NEC Second Team, 14.6 PPG)
  • Jonathon Williams, Jr., F (13.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 53.4% FG%)
  • Kenneth Ortiz, So., G (NEC Defensive Player of the Year, 4.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.8 SPG)
  • Naofall Folahan, So., F/C (1.7 BPG, strong offensive rebounder)

Outlook: Great. The season came to an abrupt end for the Seahawks, but that doesn’t mean the future isn’t bright. Dan Hurley is going to keep bringing talent to Grymes Hill and it’ll just supplement the young core that’s already here. The addition of transfer Ortiz gives Wagner an amazing sophomore class that should just continue to develop. Also, another year of development and a healthy off season could mean Mario Moody is the NEC’s most improved player next season. After finishing second in the NEC to LIU this season, Wagner still has unfinished business left. It has the talent coming back to unseat the Blackbirds if everything goes right and return to the postseason, maybe even in the NCAA tournament.

Wagner’s season ends too quickly

In stunningly swift fashion a special Wagner season that had taken months to build came to a crashing end on Sunday afternoon against Robert Morris at the Spiro Sports Center in the NEC semifinals. Robert Morris’ Velton Jones controlled play and led the Colonials to a 71-64 win.

The game was a story of two halves. In the first the officials dominated play, calling 29 personal fouls. Both teams struggled offensively, but Wagner came out of the first 20 minutes with a 31-29 lead on its home court.

But at the opening of the second half it all disappeared. RMU scored 10 of the first 11 points of the second half to build an eight-point lead, 40-32, and never looked back, pushing the lead to as many as nine and withstanding a late Wagner charge for the victory.

“We’ve been a great start of second half team all year,” said Wagner head coach Dan Hurley. “We weren’t tonight. We had some opportunities for some finishes around the basket. We could’ve maintained control of the game. We didn’t make the plays. They made the plays.”

Jones was the best player on the court. Robert Morris’ junior point guard 25 points on 5-10 shooting and 14-16 from the free throw line. He picked up three fouls in the first half, but managed to avoid picking up his fourth until 1:24 remained in the game. It was a foul he drew against Kenneth Ortiz with 1:03 remaining, the shot clock expiring and the Colonials hanging onto a three-point lead that was the biggest play of the game. He calmly knocked down all three free throws and RMU finished out the game.

For Wagner it was the culmination of two seasons of hard work under Hurley coming to their first crest. The Seahawks finish with a record of 25-6 (15-3), a place no one could’ve imagined them being two seasons ago.

“Coach came in here with a style two years ago and we bought it right away,” said senior Tyler Murray. “To make a such transition, it’s incredible.”

Part of the resurgence has been the leadership and play of Murray. He scored 15 points on 6-11 shooting in 26 minutes on Saturday before fouling out. Sophomore Latif Rivers led the way with 18 points, most of them coming on 11-12 shooting from the line.

Unfortunately, Wagner didn’t have the post play to complement those two against Robert Morris’ talented trio of Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson and Russell Johnson. Thompson in particular helped RMU dominate on the boards with eight offensive rebounds. The Colonials grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and won the overall rebounding battle 45-30. If Thompson had been able to make more of his 10 point-blank shots RMU would’ve had an even bigger cushion to work with.

The Colonials also displayed the maturity that comes with being in this situation multiple times in the last four seasons. As RMU struggled with fouls in the first half they didn’t let the game get away. In the second Andrew Toole expertly shuffled his lineup. The Colonials committed 30 fouls in the game, but not one player fouled out. Six players ended up with four fouls.

“I think [the experience] helps us a lot,” Jones said. “We’ve played in big games like this throughout our years here. I think that helped us a lot to be able to finish out the game and be composed even though they made a run at the end.”

On the other side the youthful Seahawks often forced things that weren’t there in transition. Wagner had just four fast break points off 12 RMU turnovers and shot 27-40 from the line. It’s those types of things that Hurley will have to continue to work on.

“Sometimes you want it so badly, you get in your own way,” Hurley said. “It’s tough to take, but you’re just so proud of who these guys are.”

Hopefully Wagner will get a bid to the NIT. The Seahawks, with road wins over Pittsburgh, Princeton and Penn and just one bad loss (at Central Connecticut) certainly deserve to be considered. Hurley hopes his team will get that chance.

“We hope for the opportunity to play in [the NIT] because of everything that we’ve achieved throughout the year,” Hurley said. “I think we’ve earned it. Hopefully the committee feels the same way.”

It’ll be another opportunity build towards what looks like a bright future.

Final tempo-free NEC, plus awards

All the games have been played and the final weekend provided a big shake up! Not only did LIU Brooklyn fall at Monmouth, a bunch of other teams got knocked out too. Fascinatingly enough, Robert Morris almost caught LIU after the Blackbirds’ disaster, but since it only mattered in tempo-free world LIU will still hang onto home court throughout the conference tournament, which at least gives Jim Ferry’s team a fighting chance at repeating as champions. I’ve also included my All-NEC First and Second Teams and conference awards at the end of this post.

Continue reading “Final tempo-free NEC, plus awards”