Three Thoughts: Central Connecticut 65, UMBC 53

It ain’t easy being winless, and it’s even less so when your leading scorer is already done for the season.

UMBC coach Aki Thomas spent most of Wednesday night’s 65-53 loss to Central Connecticut cringing at crucial mistakes and stomping his foot after missed opportunities. But even though his Retrievers are one of four winless teams in Division I (of 351), Thomas was much more positive in the postgame, acknowledging that the America East is a one-bid conference anyway, so they just need to be producing in a few weeks when conference play begins. And UMBC was in the game for about 35 of the 40 minutes on the road.

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NEC Roundup – January 23

So much to get to on the third Thursday of the NEC season! We had one monster upset, four tightly contested games, and sadly for the author, a blowout loss in Moon Township. Here’s the recap…

Robert Morris 91, Sacred Heart 65
Despite coming into Thursday night’s contest with just eight scholarship players in uniform, Robert Morris blasted the visiting Pioneers to remain undefeated in league play. All eight Colonial players scored in the lopsided victory, with six of them breaking double digits. Lucky Jones led Andy Toole’s club with a double double – 18 points, 11 rebounds – while Stephan Hawkins had a career high 12 points. Kavon Stewart came off the bench to post a fine stat line of his own – 11 points (3 of 4 shooting), five assists and two steals.

The Pioneers have allowed opponents to shoot 53.9% inside the arc this season (321st in the nation), with that percentage getting even worse this evening. Sacred Heart’s “pillow soft” defense permitted the Colonials to drain a staggering 60.5% of their twos, while also sending the aggressive Colonials to the line 36 times (they converted 27 of those freebies). Evan Kelley returned from an injured shoulder to play for the first time in nearly a month, yet he was ineffective with only two points. Louis Montes, for the second time in three games, guided the Pioneers with 23 points on 8 of 12 shooting. Phil Gaetano dished out 10 assists (versus only two turnovers), but his teammates committed 15 more turnovers in the loss. Sacred Heart is now 2-10 versus Robert Morris since the 2007-08 season.

Fairleigh Dickinson 86, St. Francis Brooklyn 85
Despite holding a six-point lead with one minute remaining, St. Francis Brooklyn – behind several bonehead plays down the stretch – allowed FDU to climb back with an improbable one-point victory. Two Malachi Nix free throws with 3.6 seconds capped off FDU’s third NEC win, after Terrier freshman Sheldon Hagigal had turned it over, missed two free-throws, and then inexplicably fouled Nix to send him to the line. This one will sting for Glenn Braica’s group.

Greg Herenda used 11 Knights and got contributions out of several of them. Scotter Gillette nearly approached a career high with 12 first half points before fouling out. Sidney Sanders struggled from the field, yet still scored 20 points and hit a critical layup late. Mostafaa Jones scored 13 points, including a huge three late to give FDU some life. In all, this was as close to a complete team effort on the offensive end for FDU. The Knights had 15 assists versus 7 turnovers, hit 56% of their threes, and converted 83% of their free-throw attempts. The defense – 1.25 ppp allowed – was another story, yet they escaped with their fourth win in the last six games.

Jalen Cannon posted his sixth double double of the season with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Terriers outrebounded FDU by 19 (no that’s not a misprint) and hit 50% of their field goal attempts, but it wasn’t enough given their defensive woes. After leading the conference in defensive efficiency heading into league play, the Terriers have allowed four different foes to score 1.09 ppp or more in the month of January. It’s something Braica will need to remedy if the Terriers want to contend.

Bryant 87, LIU Brooklyn 79
After trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half to a stoic LIU Brooklyn club, Bryant raced out on a 16-2 run early in the second half to grab the lead. Soon thereafter, the Bulldogs took control for good. Bryant improved to 7-2 at home for the season, after going 11-5 last season in their friendly confines, thanks in large part to Alex Francis and Dyami Starks. The all-conference duo combined for 47 of Bryant’s 87 points with both hitting 17 of 30 shots. They received plenty of help from teammates though, as five Bulldogs registered an efficiency rating of 13 or better tonight. Curtis Oakley came off the bench, in place of freshman Daniel Garvin who has been unfortunately stricken with mono, to set his D-I career high in points for the second consecutive game. Oakley finished with 14 points and three three-pointers.

To no one’s surprise, the shorthanded Blackbirds struggled to defend once again. Bryant posted a superb shooting line of 49% FG/78% FT/43% 3PT while dishing out 21 assists versus only eight turnovers. Behind Landon Atterberry’s 18 points and Jason Brickman’s 13 assists, LIU Brooklyn scored 1.13 ppp, but they couldn’t overcome their defensive issues. Jack Perri’s group was 346th in defensive efficiency coming into tonight’s second NEC TV game. By the way, Brickman now has posted double-digit assists in 10 games this season.

Mount St. Mary’s 83, St. Francis (PA) 77
Winning in Loretto, PA is never an easy thing, yet Mount St. Mary’s took care of business against the younger Red Flash. Saint Francis held Julian Norfleet to only four points – a season low – yet the senior was able to contribute in other ways with five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot. Sam Prescott led the Mount with 25 points as he drilled 3 of 4 from behind the arc. As a team, the Mount was more productive than the Red Flash at the three-point line (8-3) and the charity stripe (15-8). Gregory Graves and Taylor Danaher were impressive down low, unexpectedly combining for 28 points, helping offset a 5 of 16 shooting performance from Norfleet and Rashad Whack.

In the defeat, Earl Brown had yet another monster game with 30 points (13 of 17 shooting) and eight rebounds. He’s leading the NEC in rebounding with 9.7 caroms per game. His efforts in the low post and Ronnie Drinnon’s career high 12 rebounds, though, simply weren’t enough to earn Saint Francis their second conference victory of the season. They allowed the Mount to score 1.13 ppp, which given their offensive track record is nearly impossible for Rob Krimmel’s group to overcome. In fact, when the Red Flash have allowed opponents to score more than 0.93 ppp this season, they are winless in all 13 games.

Central Connecticut 87, Wagner 83
In what developed as the biggest stunner of the night, CCSU used a late 11-0 run to dominate Wagner in the final minutes to earn their first conference victory of the season. With the win, the Blue Devils will not make history; they previously had never started a NEC season with five consecutive losses. Freshman Matt Mobley had a career night, scoring a game high 22 points thanks to four three-pointers and six free throws. Faronte Drakeford was efficient with his back to the basket, as the junior tallied 16 points on 8 of 14 shooting. Malcolm McMillan, now averaging 13.8 points in five NEC games, chipped in with 19 points, five rebounds, and six assists. The Blue Devils scored 1.11 ppp to take down Wagner for the first time in their last five tries at the Spiro Center.

CCSU led for the majority of the game, but to Wagner’s credit, the Seahawks fought back and even held a 75-70 advantage after Dwaun Anderson skyed for a layup along the baseline. From that point on, however, Wagner’s offense stalled with the Seahawks coming up empty on their next four possessions (two of them were careless turnovers, including one where Kenneth Ortiz passed it to Mario Moody who wasn’t looking). Moody was once again excellent with 15 points and eight rebounds. In conference play, Moody is really coming into his own – he’s averaging 12.5 points and eight rebounds per game, even though he failed to score in his last game versus Saint Francis (PA).

NEC Player of the Night – Matt Mobley, CCSU
Improbably, tonight’s award goes to CCSU freshman Matt Mobley. The rookie set a career high in points, efficiency rating, and rebounds in a critical and much-needed victory over Wagner. Not having Vinales around doesn’t help, but at the very least, unproven players such as Mobley are gaining invaluable experience. It should strengthen their resolve for next season, when McMillan, Drakeford, and Vinales are all seniors.

NEC Standings Through Jan 23
1) Robert Morris, 5-0
2) Bryant, 4-1
3) Fairleigh Dickinson, 3-2
4) Mount St. Mary’s, 3-2
5) Wagner, 3-2
6) St. Francis Brooklyn, 3-2
7) Sacred Heart, 1-4
8) LIU Brooklyn, 1-4
9) Saint Francis (PA), 1-4
10) Central Connecticut, 1-4

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Recruiting Recap: Central Connecticut Improves Depth With Length, Athleticism

Can the newcomers lessen the scoring burden on Kyle Vinales next season? (Photo Credit: CCSU Blue Devils)

Depth was a major issue for Howie Dickenman’s Central Connecticut (CCSU) Blue Devils in his 17th year at the helm. Injuries, unexpected defections, and ineffectiveness severely depleted Dickenman’s in-season rotation to seven regulars, and that was on a good day. Kyle Vinales, Matthew Hunter, and Malcolm McMillan were forced to play more than 36 minutes per game. As a result, the long arduous season slowly took its toll, worsening CCSU’s defensive attack and rendering them stagnant on the glass.

Their up-tempo, no set-plays offense was aesthetically pleasing to the eye – CCSU led the NEC with 70.2 possessions per game – yet the defense was compromised (actually Dickenman used the word embarrassment). They finished in the bottom 15% of the nation in KenPom defensive efficiency. Couple that with mediocre rebound rates and an overtaxed lineup, and it’s no wonder why CCSU went quietly without a fight in the first round of the NEC postseason tournament.

With those glaring issues in mind, Dickenman and his staff aimed to fill their bench with athleticism and much-needed length, and in some cases, ready to play now type of talent. Consider it a mission accomplished. When asked about this year’s recruiting class, Dickenman openly gushes about his team’s potential.

“I would say this team has the most depth and is the most athletic (in my tenure as the CCSU head coach),” explained Dickenman. “It’s easy to say that, especially the last couple of years when we didn’t have those characteristics that help you win games.”

At times their fitness may have seemed superb, but even Vinales, Hunter, and McMillan could have benefitted from an occasional spell last season. With a fresh trio of athletic guards now at Dickenman’s disposal, Vinales – the NEC co-leader in scoring last season – probably won’t finish nationally ranked in minutes played moving forward. He, and others, will be allowed to rest 5-10 minutes per contest with a bench fortified by high ceiling combo guards.

It begins with redshirt freshman Khalen Cumberlander, who was talked about in last year’s recruiting recap. After playing just 14 minutes, the Coolidge high school graduate blew out his ACL last November and required season ending surgery. Now seven months removed from the surgeon’s knife, Dickenman says Cumberlander’s recovery is right on schedule. He’s projected to be ready by the first jump ball in November.

Two true freshmen, Matt Mobley and Ahmaad Wilson, will also join the roster. Mobley comes to New Britain as a dynamic 6’3” combo guard with above-the-rim type of athleticism. The versatile scorer averaged over 23 points per game his senior year of high school, yet was forced to enroll at Worester Acedemy for a prep season when he exited St. Peter Marian without a Division-I offer. The CCSU staff discovered Mobley shortly thereafter, and it didn’t take long to extend an offer once they discovered his athleticism, silky smooth shooting stroke, and his ability to impact the ball on the defensive end.

“He is a hell of an athlete,” said Dickenman when asked about Mobley. “I’m not sure, between him and Khalen Cumberlander, who the better athlete is. It’s really close.”

Wilson, a 6’0″ score first guard from Randallstown, MD, became yet another recruit procured from the MD/DC region. Like Mobley, he is a very good perimeter scorer. It remains to be seen whether he’ll see much of the floor if Cumberlander and Mobley contributes like the coaching staff believes they each can.

With another offseason of development from All-NEC rookie team selection Brandon Peel and the addition of JUCO transfers Faronte Drakeford and Juwan “Stretch” Newman, along with true freshman Kevin Mickle, CCSU now possesses the best frontcourt depth this program has seen in quite some time.

Drakeford is listed at 6’7” in many places, although Dickenman believes he’s closer to 6’5” and a half-inch. Nevertheless, his height shouldn’t serve as a detriment to his post play. Drakeford is skilled forward with exceptional footwork, along with an adept passing eye. If he continues to progress, he’ll give Dickenman the legitimate post weapon his squad has been sorely lacking.

“For the first time I can remember, you have a solid post player (in Drakeford) we can throw the ball in to,” said Dickenman. “Because of his passing skills, he can pass it out, pass to a cutter, or just make a play.”

Newman is the second JUCO transfer that’ll be expected to contribute right away. The slender, yet versatile 6’7″ power forward was recruited heavily by CCSU assistant Sean Ryan, and even though Newman has never set foot on the New Britain campus, he accepted CCSU’s offer to join the 2013-14 roster. After an interesting journey toward improving his grades, Newman finally has made a Division-I roster.

Finally of the three big men, Mickle translates as the biggest project, due to his rawness on the offensive end. What he lacks in polish, however, is quickly made up in physicality and athleticism. It’s a big reason why Mickle, who Dickenman thinks may be the fastest player on the team, will be enrolled at CCSU this fall.

“He takes charges, he blocks shots, he wants to play,” said Dickenman. “I saw him play (on a recruiting trip) and after seven minutes in Orlando, I said to my assistant, ‘I’m going to offer him a scholarship.’ And I’m not even sure if he made a bucket.”

Add up all of CCSU’s pieces and you have an intriguing sleeper in what should be a wide open NEC next season. CCSU has potential, especially with the team’s newfound depth and improved presence in the frontcourt. After the start of a rough offsesaon that saw Vinales and Adonis Burbuge transfer (Vinales of course came back), fans have reason to be optimistic that Dickenman can take his Blue Devils back to the NCAA tournament.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride