NEC Team Primer: #4 Central Connecticut Blue Devils

Head Coach: Howie Dickenman, 18th year (262-241)
Last Season: 13-17, 9-9 (NEC), Lost First Round of the NEC tournament to Wagner, 72-50
RPI/KenPom: 194/179
NEC Preseason Poll: 6th out of 10 teams
State of Program: NEC Contender
Starters Returning: 3
Key Loss(es): Joe Efese (7.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 58.9% FG%), Adonis Burbage (10.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 36.4% 3PT%)
Incoming Players: Faronte Drakeford (F), Juwan Newmen (G), Kevin Mickle (F), Matt Mobley (G), Ahmaad Wilson (G)

Central-Connecticut-State-Blue-Devils-logoProjected Starting Lineup:
PG: Malcolm McMillan (8.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.5 A/TO)
G: Kyle Vinales (21.6 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 81.0% FT%)
F: Matthew Hunter (15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.6 spg)
F: Terrell Allen (6.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
PF: Brandon Peel (4.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg)

Key Reserves: Faronte Drakeford (F), Juwan Newmen (F), Khalen Cumberlander (G), Matt Mobley (G), De’Angelo Speech (G/F)

Major Storylines:

Keeping the Legs Fresh Come February – 38.2. 37.2. 36.4. Those are the average minutes per game numbers last season for Kyle Vinales, Matthew Hunter, and Malcolm McMillan, respectively. Given the new defense rules and the overall depth of the conference, Howie Dickenman will need to scale back the playing time of the big three if the Blue Devils want to stay fresh late in the year. It’s the head coach’s hope that Khalen Cumberlander, who returns from a torn ACL, and newcomers Matt Mobley, Faronte Drakeford, and Juwan “Stretch” Newmen will bolster the depth, and allow for a more practical nine to ten man rotation.
A New Emphasis on Defense/Rebounding – The Blue Devils played an exciting brand of basketball for the 2012-13 season; in fact, their tempo was the fastest it has ever been (70.2 possession per game) in the KenPom era. Despite the up-tempo track meets though, CCSU was equally as inept at defending, allowing an unfathomable 108.2 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, the defense will need to tighten up, and Dickenman is banking on an improved presence in the paint. The additions of Drakeford and Newmen and another year of development from Brandon Peel give the Blue Devils’ defensive and rebounding numbers a chance to improve back to the mean. It can’t get much worse rebounding wise – the Blue Devils were in the bottom 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate.
Becoming More Efficient Offensively – Last season, CCSU bettered the national average for scoring by more than five points per game, yet that statistic is rather misleading. If you factor their tempo into the equation, the Blue Devils fell shy of scoring 1.00 point per possession. That mark was only eighth best in the NEC. The depth, once again, should help this cause, as well as a renewed sense of sharing the basketball. Dickenman has made it clear to Vinales that he needs to improve his shot selection and make his teammates better in the process. The team’s second leading scorer from a season ago, Hunter, has also looked more efficient shooting the basketball this preseason.

The Skinny:
CCSU wasn’t exactly a model of consistency last season. After losing to St. Peter’s two games in, they shocked La Salle, an eventual Sweet 16 team. Soon thereafter, they were mired in an eye-opening five game losing streak with the nadir occurring in Loretto, PA against the winless Red Flash. After that embarrassing loss, they then beat Robert Morris on the road! It was a season truly lacking predictability; no one ever knew – including Dickenman himself – how this team would perform on any given night.

The eroding depth was partially to blame, as CCSU was forced to play a maximum of seven scholarship players throughout most of the season due to injuries (Cumberlander, De’Angelo Speech), dismissals (Shelton Mickell), and flat-out ineffectiveness (Erik Raleigh). Now, Dickenman and his staff have some talent on the second team that could desperately give the regulars some rest.

Still, this team remains built around three perimeter players – Malcolm McMillan, Matthew Hunter, and Kyle Vinales. All three are crafty with the ball, excel at playmaking, and can score with the best of them, especially the latter two. While McMillan serves more as a facilitator, he does it quite well, as evident from his league leading assist to turnover ratio of 2.5. Hunter is a “stat stuffer” and is active in all facets of the game. A bit of a freelancer on defense, Hunter’s 4.0% steal rate was 65th nationally among players.

Vinales, though, is the leader and will need a Player of the Year type of season if the Blue Devils wish to qualify for the Big Dance. He’s the reigning scoring champion of the conference – a remarkable feat as a sophomore – but Dickenman is insistent that Vinales refocus his efforts on the defensive end. Surely, a reduction in minutes could work wonders in that regard as the junior has the talent to lockdown opposing two-guards, if he so wishes.

Cumberlander and Mobley have the unenviable task of backing up the McMillan/Hunter/Vinales trio, although both are very athletic and have a chance to eventually be very good in this league. Any kind of production off the bench from these two freshmen would be welcome.

Down low, Dickenman will rely on a senior (Terrell Allen), two JUCO transfers (Drakeford and Newman), and a promising, yet oft-injured sophomore (Brandon Peel). While Peel is nursing an injury and hopes to be back for the CT6 this upcoming weekend, Allen appears ready to take on a bigger role as a stretch four. Drakeford and Newman are unique talents in comparison, with both providing a dynamic post presence that was sorely lacking on the team last season. Their additions allow CCSU to run a little offense through the post, in case opposing defenses decide to attack CCSU’s perimeter game. Finally, De’Angelo Speech has an opportunity to find minutes in a backup role at the “3” and/or “4”.

Add it all up, and you have a team hopeful that they’re two biggest holes of last season (depth and interior play) have been reasonably filled. Given the high percentage of returning production, Ken Pomeroy and Dan Hanner’s preseason projection models have CCSU situated near the top of the NEC standings. Whether these projections come to fruition remains to be seen.

Coach’s Quotes:

“We’re different this year from last year, because we have depth. Last year, we played with a maximum of seven players, and at times six players, this year we can go 10 deep.”
– Dickenman, on the team’s newfound depth

“We have a different Kyle Vinales. I talked with Kyle well before the season began and I told him he had to make the other players better on the team. He’s heeded that advise, and it’s a reason why I think we have a chance to be pretty good… I think his work ethic is the best work ethic I’ve ever seen been around for an athlete. That’s includes five years at Canisius, 14 years at UConn, and 18 years at Central Connecticut. And Ray Allen was a workaholic, but nobody works as hard as Kyle Vinales.”
– Dickenman, on the NEC all-conference first team selection and leading scorer of the conference, Kyle Vinales

Predictions:

Ryan – I haven’t been shy about promoting CCSU as my “sleeper” team of the NEC. Most of the starters return and the depth and interior length has drastically improved, therefore I’m unapologetically bullish on the Blue Devils. This is the best team top to bottom Dickenman has had in New Britain in a while, so I’m expecting a NEC tournament semifinal appearance at least. With the exception of Wagner, there isn’t another NEC team that has a better shot to land in the NCAA tournament, in my humble opinion. (17 wins, 10-6 NEC)

John – I’m not as convinced that CCSU has what it takes to be an upper echelon team in the NEC. The Blue Devils have a ton of talent, especially in the backcourt, but the depth is going to rely on a number of question marks. This team is particularly reliant on two players – Vinales and Hunter – and if you can take away one or the other you’ll have a chance. (16 wins, 9-7 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