NEC conference play is so close you can taste it. We here at Big Apple Buckets absolutely can’t wait for Thursday and so we’re rolling out our NEC preview content during the next few days. Then we’ll have full coverage of the games on Thursday. First it’s an email exchange between Ryan P. and John as we look forward to league play.
John (Dec. 28): Well Ryan it’s hard to imagine, but NEC play is only 12 days away. In fewer than two weeks the conference will kick off league play with a loaded Thursday night slate that includes the not Battle of Brooklyn battle in Brooklyn, Robert Morris at Sacred Heart, Wagner at Central Connecticut, Mount St. Mary’s at FDU, and Saint Francis University at Bryant. What do we think we know about these teams after a tumultuous non-conference slate? Anything? I’m not really sure. Let’s start with this though: I think everyone slept on St. Francis Brooklyn in the preseason. The Terriers look like a tough, nasty, defensive team that can really get after teams. I worry a little about how they’ll handle the pressure that Wagner and the Mount can throw at them, but I also think Glenn Braica’s team has a legitimate chance at finishing Top 4 in the NEC and maybe even winning the regular season title. Why won’t it happen?
Ryan (Dec. 29): I agree, why not St. Francis Brooklyn? If there’s a season for an upstart to surprise and “steal” the NEC title, this is certainly the year. The Terriers athleticism and newfound interior defense will be difficult to handle. Think about all of the other perceived contenders – LIU Brooklyn has been ravaged by injuries, and while I’m encouraged by their guard production, they may not have enough depth down low to earn a home playoff game. After losing 4 critical pieces this offseason, Robert Morris can’t defend to save their lives so far. Could you ever believe that an Andy Toole coached team has given up 1.13 PPP through 2 months of play? Wagner looks awful some nights and seems to have a new person in Bashir Mason’s doghouse each week. And Mount St. Mary’s could be asking fans to suit up if they suffer another catastrophic injury or two.
Plus others that we thought could make noise have fallen flat on their face, like Sacred Heart (don’t get me started), Saint Francis PA (that dreadful offense) and CCSU (ha!). I really thought the added depth down low would make the latter a contender, but they’ve been woefully disappointing. I don’t fully understand why guys like Kyle Vinales, Matthew Hunter, and Malcolm McMillan have regressed, albeit slightly, on the offensive end.
I guess that leaves Bryant as the main challenger to St. Francis Brooklyn, at least heading into the new year. Tim O’Shea’s crew hasn’t missed Frankie Dobbs too much, and before laying an egg against Binghamton, the offense was scoring at a very respectable pace. Plus O’Shea has a couple more pieces to work with off the bench this season, especially with the emergence of freshman Daniel Garvin and decent play from Soukup and Charles Oakley. Are they the favorites right now? Or do you still believe in Wagner?
John (Dec. 30): I was all set to write off Wagner and then the Seahawks come back and do everything they’re supposed to against Monmouth in their opener after the holidays. This team is an absolute roller coaster. When it’s all said and done I still believe the Seahawks have the most TALENT of any team in the NEC. I wrote it in September and I stand by it now. Also, they’ve got a number of key players who are seniors. Don’t underestimate how much a player like Kenneth Ortiz wants to leave an enduring legacy on Grymes Hill (and I don’t mean getting eliminated at home in the semifinals). In my mind Wagner still has to be the favorite. I can see argument though for Bryant, Robert Morris and maybe even a healthy LIU Brooklyn along with the aforementioned Terriers. Are you really riding the Bulldogs’ bandwagon?
Ryan (Dec. 30): I like Bryant a lot, then again I’m a big fan of the job Tim O’Shea has been doing. I mean how could you not be? After undergoing an arduous transition period to Division I, the Bulldogs have won more non-conference games than they’ve lost for the second straight season.
This isn’t a fluke with the pieces to compete for the NEC title, and I’d be surprised if they aren’t in the top three at season’s end. We all know about Starks, Maynard, Francis and Joe O’Shea, but Garvin is ranked nationally in rebound and block rate, giving O’Shea more firepower and newfound depth. They’ll be more prepared to endure a full NEC schedule this time around. It certainly helps that they’ll only play Wagner once and avoid a long trip to Loretto, PA.
Now, we know defense is a critical aspect to winning a championship, but Robert Morris and LIU Brooklyn aren’t stopping anyone at the moment. They’re given up 1.13 and 1.16 ppp, respectively! How exactly can we jump on either bandwagon based on what we’ve seen thus far? Will Julian Boyd at 75% [Ed Note: Unfortunately this won’t be the case.] and Andy Toole’s genius really be enough to right the ship for both programs?
John (Jan. 1): I like Bryant too! But let’s not turn this into a love fest for the Bulldogs. Onto the defense. RMU and LIU have different issues on defense. It seems like the Colonials’ are solvable and my guess is that Toole is going to figure it out eventually. Robert Morris has played better defense against teams 175+ on KenPom (1.04 points per possession including two excellent games the last two times out). That’s about the level of the team you’re going to shut down during NEC play and I think once RMU is playing similar competition the defense is going to look a lot better. You know what would help though? If Mike McFadden (7.3 fouls/40 min) or Stephan Hawkins (9.3 fouls/40 min) could actually stay on the court. Most of the Colonials’ defensive problems are on the interior and that seems like something Toole can fix.
LIU on the other hand is a mess defensively. Jason Brickman can’t protect the point of attack because he has to stay on the court to stabilize the offense. There’s no depth inside (and Landon Atterberry and EJ Reed commit too many fouls) and the wings (outside of Gilbert Parga) are either too young or not athletic enough to make key defensive plays. There’s no savvy veteran like Booker Hucks coming off the bench this season. The Blackbirds are going to have to outscore opponents in order to win the league and it’s why I think they’ll ultimately fall short in the quest for a four-peat.
Obviously one of the biggest changes from non-conference to conference play is that the level of competition changes. That can make our opinion of teams shift wildly. What’s one team you think is going to surprise us during conference play?
Ryan (Jan. 4): Umm, well I can’t believe I’m writing this because I kinda, sorta left this team for dead one month ago, but I’ll say Mount St. Mary’s shouldn’t be counted out. With only 8 scholarship guys left, there’s no doubt Jamion Christian is going to have to change his team’s identity a little. They can no longer “reek havoc” for 40 straight minutes, but with this senior class led by my man Julian Norfleet (by the way, don’t I look amazing for having led the “Norfleet is underrated” campaign this preseason?), the Mount has a chance. They’ll need production from the Ashe/Nwandu/Miller freshman class, which is asking a lot, but if they get hot at the right time they’ll be dangerous. I still think Wagner, Bryant, and St. Francis are in the top tier by themselves though, with the Mount, Robert Morris, and maybe LIU right behind.
After the Mount, I have nothing. I won’t even ask you about Saint Francis (PA) or Fairleigh Dickinson’s chances. Realistically both programs are in too deep of a rebuild to win the NEC tournament. Should we also write off CCSU (sans Hunter) and my Fighting Latinas?
John (Jan. 5): Well, all but two of those teams are going to make the NEC tournament. Ken Pomeroy at this very moment thinks that CCSU and SHU are going to end up with the same record as LIU in the NEC. I don’t know if that’s actually realistic, for instance Matthew Hunter’s absence really isn’t accounted for in the numbers even after CCSU’s big drop off lately, but I think one of these teams will emerge as a surprise competitor and my bet would probably be on your Pioneers. Yes, Sacred Heart is 3-12, but they’ve also lost two games in overtime and have an outside chance at starting 2-0 in conference play by hosting Robert Morris and FDU on the opening weekend. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but Anthony Latina’s team could get off to a good start and then potentially make a little run for awhile. Ultimately though, like all of these teams at the bottom, the defense just isn’t going to be enough.
You know what’s also frustrating for me? I thought that Saint Francis (PA) had some pieces where the Red Flash could actually be competitive this season, but they’ve really struggled. Losing to NJIT by 8 at home isn’t a good way to get confidence going into conference play. They open with three road games in conference play and KenPom doesn’t have a W next to their name on a game until February 1 (and that game against FDU is the only one). Earl Brown has been solid, but he’s getting almost no help. The Red Flash just can’t shoot. Even when they’re at the free throw line they’re shooting 60.6% (341st nationally). If you can’t make it when no one is guarding you the other situations are going to be awfully difficult.
What team has been the most frustrating for you during non-conference?
Ryan (Jan. 5): I’m with you, Saint Francis (PA) has been a major disappointment. But Central Connecticut takes the cake, without a doubt. I don’t even know where to start with this team. The defense has gotten worse, which is surprisingly given CCSU’s better depth and front court presences. Vinales has regressed a little, at least offensively and now CCSU fans are saying the game has passed Howie Dickenman by. What does that even mean? I was bullish on the Blue Devils, but I’m backing off the stance now, especially with Hunter flunking a couple of final exams… which leads me to another question: Why would you have Hunter on the bench for the rest of the season? He let the entire team down!!
In general, I’ve been disappointed with the conference’s performance. I mean other than St. Francis Brooklyn, who has exceeded expectations? The answer is no one. You surely were expecting more out of the NEC, right?
John (Jan. 5): It seems like St. Francis Brooklyn is the only team that actually performed above expectations during non-conference play. Bryant has that questionable loss at Binghamton, but other than that the Bulldogs have performed about as expected. Bryant, FDU and SHU have performed about to my expectations coming into the season. Robert Morris isn’t that far off either. Mount St. Mary’s has looked better after struggling early (as you covered before). The big disappointments to me are: SFU, CCSU, LIU Brooklyn (Boyd’s injury and just a complete lack of defense), and Wagner (a team that appears to have a lack of chemistry and mis-matched pieces). Do I wish more teams had outperformed what I thought were completely reasonable expectations, sure. Do I think this is a disaster? No. The NEC is actually the 24th ranked conference according to KenPom right now, which is right where they were last season. It’s not a bold step forward (I definitely thought the league might be able to catch say the top heavy WAC or OVC), but it’s not bad either. The bottom of the league needs to improve. Ultimately, my takeaway from non-conference play is that five teams (and potentially a 6th in LIU) can win the league title. It’s going to be a fascinating race and I can’t wait for it to get started.
What’s your big takeaway from non-conference play? Any bold predictions you want to make before we wrap this up?
Ryan (Jan. 5): I know the league isn’t far off their KenPom projection, or finish from last season, but I’m a little disappointed, especially in the bottom tier teams. If you asked me to take the over/under on 8.5 combined non-conference wins for SHU, CCSU, FDU and SFPA, I would have confidently gone over. So much for that.
My bold predictions? OK, let me conjurer up a couple of semi-bold ones, I guess:
- LIU Brooklyn barely makes the playoffs, by finishing 8th. They won’t survive the first round.
- De’von Barnett, after missing the first 7-8 games of the season, will earn ROY honors after a terrifically efficient rookie season.
- The NEC title game will feature two programs that have never been to the NCAA tournament – Bryant and St. Francis Brooklyn.
OK, maybe those aren’t really bold. But I can’t stick my neck out any further, John! Can we play the games already?
John (Jan. 5): Let’s do this! Just a few more days to go.