For the fifth straight year, I traveled to the Barclay’s Center to cover NEC Social Media Day, an event I always enjoy covering. Besides getting to catch up with a majority of the league’s coaches and SIDs, this day also signals that college basketball is right around the corner!
I won’t rehash the results from the NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll or the NEC Preseason First Team (go here and here for that info), but I would like to share the interesting tidbits and stories that emerged from some of my interactions with the NEC coaches. Let’s begin…
Figuring Out Central Connecticut’s Rotation
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Donyell Marshall’s team, and rightfully so. Nearly half of the CCSU roster is comprised of newcomers, players that were signed just a few months ago. Even some of the returning players, such as Eric Bowles, Tidell Pierre and Shakaris Laney, haven’t played enough Division I basketball to properly evaluate them moving forward.
This uncertainty makes it difficult to determine who will emerge as the key players in Marshall’s first season (other than say, Khalen Cumberlander and Austin Nehls), yet the head coach did provide some insight on Wednesday. 6’6 freshman wing Chris Williams, 6’2 guard Tyson Batiste and 6’0 sophomore point guard Eric Bowles have stood out in the coach’s eyes thus far. The versatile Batiste and quick and defensive minded Bowles give CCSU more depth at the guard position, whereas Williams is a long wing who could provide matchup problems at the 2 or 3.
The fact that Williams was brought to the event could also be telling – Marshall earlier this summer raved about Williams’ mid-range game and his “Chicago toughness” as he called it. If I had to predict the CCSU depth chart (keep in mind this is pure guess), I’d go with this at the moment:
PG: Bowles, Seymour
G: Cumberlander, Batiste
G: Nehls, Williams
PF: Jones, Pierre
PF: Whittingham, Kay
Reserve Role: Hicks, Laney
As far as the team’s best scorer is concerned, Marshall admitted that he doesn’t know who’ll lead the team in scoring. He’d prefer the approach employed at his last coaching destination, Buffalo, where seven players averaged between 7.0 to 13.7 ppg last season. Unless Cumberlander has a great senior season, I bet balanced scoring will be a hallmark of this roster.
Bryant’s Young Backcourt May Impress
While I’ve been visibly high on Bryant point guard Ikenna Ndugba and his immediate impact, another freshman Tim O’Shea seemed genuinely excited about is 6’1 combo guard Adam Grant. Here’s what O’Shea said about Grant at NEC Media Day: “Adam Grant could easily be a starter [right now], but he gives us some firepower off the bench. He’s really good.”
If Ndugba and Grant emerge as part of O’Shea’s short rotation, the Bulldogs will have four guards (Nisre Zouzoua and Hunter Ware as the other two) at their disposal for three spots. The group’s athleticism and length – all four guards have much bigger wingspans relative to their height – also could help Bryant on the defensive end. While the Bulldogs held NEC opponents to just 30.1% shooting behind the arc last season, their defensive efficiency (107.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and defensive turnover rate (16.2%) were unimpressive. “I just think we’re going to get more steals, more deflections, more transition [opportunities], because our athleticism at the guard spot is pretty good,” O’Shea said of this season’s roster.
Bryant has always been built around scoring the basketball. If a more aggressive perimeter defense can generate easy buckets, the Bulldogs should have little trouble finding themselves back in the NEC’s top tier.
Joel Hernandez Playing the Point?
The talk out of the LIU Brooklyn camp has been centered around Joel Hernandez. The fourth year senior has been very productive this offseason, according to Jack Perri, and may take on a new role once the season begins: manning the point. While Hernandez possesses a career assist rate of just 7.8%—he’s never been asked to facilitate while playing on the wing—Perri has been encouraged by the senior’s improving handle and ability to create opportunities off the bounce. “I think his versatility makes him great,” Perri said. “He does have the ability to use a ball screen; he does have the ability to make plays for not only himself, but also others.”
While Hernandez won’t be LIU Brooklyn’s full time point guard, inserting him at the 1 in spots will ease the burden on the talented incoming freshmen, Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto, and allow Perri to run out bigger lineups (Hernandez/Fleming/van Sauers/Frink/Zanna as an example) when needed. This will be an interesting development to watch, especially if Perri decides midseason to rely solely on Hernandez at the point. Similar unconventional assignments were given to Corey Maynard, Julian Norfleet and Drew Shubik once upon a time, though all three were established passers before becoming their team’s primary ball handler. For now, Hernandez running the offense is nothing more than a part-time role.
In Elijah Long He Trusts
For Jamion Christian and his Mayhem system, Elijah Long is the prototypical point guard—a floor general who can score and create for others, while using his quickness, court vision, and instincts to his advantage. Dubbed as the “one of the hardest workers on the team,” Long as a mere sophomore has the trust of his head coach, so much so that Christian is comfortable moving Junior Robinson off the ball a majority of the time to take advantage of the junior’s catch-and-shoot skills.
“The combination of playing those two guys together is really important.” Christian said of Long and Robinson. “I believe [our] backcourt is as good as any in the league.”
Long’s freshman campaign was possibly heading toward an All-NEC rookie team selection, until a gruesome lacerated lip off an Aakim Saintil elbow sidelined the guard for three games. Before the injury, Long shot a respectable 41.0% from the field with a 1.6 A/TO in league play. After the injury, Long was less efficient, making just 34.6% of his field goals with a 0.8 A/TO.
NEC Injury Updates
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game and while some coaches wish to keep their team’s health status a secret, there were a few reported injuries that were noteworthy:
- Malik Harmon (SFU), senior PG – Torn ACL, out for the year and will red-shirt to use final year of eligibility for the 2017-18 season
- Cori Johnson (SFBK), sophomore PF – Knee injury, out for the year
- Mario Matasovic (SHU), junior PF – Jones Fracture of foot, currently on track to be ready for the team’s opener at Fairfield on November 11
- Dan Garvin (Bryant), senior PF – Hamstring/ankle injuries, should be ready for Bryant’s season opener at Notre Dame on November 12
I’ll have more in a later post on how the aforementioned injuries affect both SFBK and SFU. There does not appear to be any concern from the Sacred Heart and Bryant coaching staffs regarding their power forwards, though they’ll certainly be cautious not to rush them back. Getting both Matasovic and Garvin fully healthy for the conference season has to be the main priority.
A special thanks to the NEC for another successful event – they really do a terrific job! Hopefully they’ll continue this tradition moving forward.
Stay tuned for more previews from John Templon and I leading up to the regular season!