Thoughts From the Crazy NEC Tourney Quarterfinals

In our NEC tournament preview, I noted that the conference had the second highest rate of close games in the regular season – 30% of them ended within 4 points or were decided in overtime. We enjoyed more of the same in the NEC quarterfinals, as the league office couldn’t have asked for better drama, both on television and on NEC Front Row when Sacred Heart made a run at history.

Now several hours removed from all of the madness, please allow John and I to offer our thoughts and observations from a crazy night of NEC hoops.

The Red Flash Offense: Absolutely El Fuego!

A show of hands: Back in October, how many of you thought Saint Francis University had the best offense in the league? When the big three of Ronnie Drinnon, Ben Millaud-Meunier and Greg Brown graduated and Malik Harmon’s knee gave out a few weeks before the season, there likely wasn’t a coach, pundit, fan, even Rob Krimmel himself who believed the Red Flash’s young group would develop into a top flight offense. Perhaps the most optimistic Red Flash supporter called them a middle-of-the-pack offensive unit, at best?

In the month of December, Krimmel’s group failed to even crack the 1.00 ppp barrier in any game. While the non-conference competition wasn’t easy – Marquette, Lehigh, Texas A&M just to name a few – there wasn’t much evidence that a starting lineup consisting of two freshmen, two sophomores, and a seldom used senior would morph into a feared offensive squad.

Fast forward to Wednesday night – the program’s first NEC tournament home game since 1991 – where the Red Flash blew the doors off the visiting Bulldogs. They became the first team since 2007 to score 100 points in a NEC tournament game. The team was fantastic – they converted 60.7% on their shot attempts, had 22 assists on 37 made buckets and outscored Bryant 50-30 in the paint. They drained their 3s (10 of 20), got to the free throw line plenty (16 of 21) and had six players score between 8 and 24 points. It was an absolute masterpiece of a box score that Krimmel should frame on his office wall.

The Red Flash continue to possess the league’s best offensive efficiency (106.6 points per 100 possessions) by a respectable margin, while landing in the NEC top two in effective field goal percentage (52.7%) and free throw percentage (74.5%). So how exactly did we get here? First of all, the team has benefited with the use of a small lineup that typically puts Isaiah Blackmon at the 3, Keith Braxton at the 4 and Josh Nebo at the 5. While the effective height at those positions isn’t great, with that grouping Krimmel has tremendous speed and athleticism at his disposal. They’ve ramped up their tempo as a result, and consequently their transition opportunities, while utilizing balance in the half court set.

With a diverse set of athletes to choose from, Krimmel has his pick between terrific shooters, opportunist penetrators and a center in Josh Nebo that thrives at attacking the offensive glass. Jamaal King, while still learning as a sophomore, has been solid and sometimes spectacular in the clutch moments.

This development has to be the biggest surprise in the league hands down. I’m fascinated to see how this offense stacks up against a Wagner defense that’s known dictate the pace (slow), limit second chance opportunities and make opponents earn their buckets. So far the Red Flash offense has gotten the better of the Seahawks, scoring 1.10 ppp in two games this season. What will round 3 have in store? -RP

A.J. Sumbry To the Rescue

Wagner was red-hot coming into the NEC tournament, winning six of their last eight games. Even those two losses were narrow contests that could’ve gone either way – one was a two point defeat on the road and the other was in overtime to the No. 2 seeded Blackbirds. The Seahawks are back to the Bashir Mason brand of defense, a disciplined, relentless intensity that’s focused on altering opponent’s shots.

A.J. Sumbry (left) played a pivotal role in Wagner’s win over FDU on Wednesday (Photo credit: USA Sports)

So why do I have Wagner losing in the finals to Mount St. Mary’s? The absence of Mike Aaman was a bitter pill to swallow, given the senior’s value as an immovable object at the 5. Once he went down, Mason needed to dig through his bench to find someone to pair alongside All-NEC first teamer Michael Carey in the frontcourt.

On Wednesday night, Mason found that replacement in A.J. Sumbry, who impressively registered 11 points (on seven shots), 9 rebounds and 4 blocks in a career high 30 minutes. Protecting the rim has always been a strength of Sumbry’s – his 9.5% block rate in limited time this season is evidence of that – yet the red-shirt sophomore gave Mason far more than that. Wagner scored 8 second chance points off of Sumbry’s four offensive rebounds. In a game that came down to the final possession, efforts like this make all the difference.

Even Sumbry’s backup, Greg Senat, filled in with a solid 10 minutes. It was Senat’s offensive rebound that led to what ended up being the game winning jumper by JoJo Cooper with 1:41 remaining. On FDU’s next possession, Senat then came up with a steal, which helped thwart the Knights’ comeback attempt.

All in all, it was a great effort by the Sumbry/Senat combination to fill in for Aaman, but this kind of production must continue for Wagner to advance to the NEC finals. If you haven’t noticed, Josh Nebo has been a beast around the rim as he poured in 8 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks in SFU’s lopsided victory over Bryant. It remains to be seen if the Sumbry/Senat duo can slow down one of the best rebounders in the conference.

So far so good for Mason in his quest to capture his first NEC tournament championship, but there’s a ton of work left to do. Who wins that battle at the 5 on Saturday afternoon will help determine the future finalist. -RP

Guard Play, Defensive Tenacity the Difference for the Mount

In a single elimination tournament, a win is a win, no matter how ugly or awful the process was to achieve this goal. No one remembers how Fairleigh Dickinson, then a No. 2 seed, narrowly defeated the No. 7 seeded Saint Francis Red Flash last year in a home quarterfinal match-up. All they remember is that the Knights moved on, and eventually hoisted the coveted trophy.

On the surface, the Mount’s stomach churning victory over the No. 8 seeded Sacred Heart Pioneers could come across as a disappointment, yet I saw it as a pivotal effort that may springboard this team for the rest of the tournament. Sure, the Pioneers led by as much as five late in the contest, but the resolve illustrated by the Mount guard duo of Elijah Long and Junior Robinson was encouraging. Robinson’s stat line (22 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists) was very good, yet it was his 3-pointer with 2:10 left that ultimately swung the game in the Mount’s favor. Shortly thereafter on the next possession, the 5-foot-5 guard set up Chris Wray for a lay-up to push the Mount’s advantage back to three points.

Robinson and Long combined to score 37 points, commit 8 turnovers and shoot 43.3% from the floor. That doesn’t sound like an all-tournament team type of performance, but given the amount of defensive attention the Pioneers devoted toward both players, it was a gritty performance to say the least. There were plenty of double teams, and the Pioneer bigs were adept at helping in those moments when Long or Robinson threatened to get near the rim. Nonetheless, the Mount duo did enough to advance their team.

In addition, Jamion Christian’s defense clamped down on the Pioneers when it mattered most. Not counting the Pioneers’ last possession that was a desperation heave by De’von Barnett, the Mountaineers held the Pioneers to 7 points on 10 possessions in the final five minutes of the game.

It was the last possession, in particular, that was the most impressive and it started with (guess who) the diminutive Robinson. His man-to-man pressure on Sean Hoehn immediately took Sacred Heart out of rhythm. Once Hoehn got it across half-court and into Barnett’s hands, other Mountaineers were putting on a clinic in ball denial.  Chris Wray and Elijah Long denied Joe Lopez and Quincy McKnight, Sacred Heart’s two biggest weapons on the floor, the ball, leaving Hoehn stuck at the top of key. Robinson held his ground on Hoehn, and with no one to pass it to, the sophomore guard shot an airball. Game over.

Looking ahead, Long/Robinson versus the defensively stout Kavon Stewart/Matty McConnell will be an intriguing showdown. Will Andy Toole have the game plan to contain Long and Robinson and force others to beat the Colonials? -RP

Robert Morris Scores an Upset in Brooklyn

It seemed a bit too predictable. After all, Robert Morris had come into Brooklyn just a month before and pulled out a victory over LIU. But it happened. Again. And even though it was the first time in 13 years that a No. 7 seed had knocked off a No. 2 seed, it didn’t seem that strange.

Three things helped the Colonials survive: a torrid shooting night from Matty McConnell, solid team defense, and one clutch shot from Kavon Stewart.

No, there weren’t flames coming out of the ball every time McConnell shot it on Wednesday night, but you could be forgiven if your eyes tricked you into seeing them. The sophomore shooting guard went 6-9 from 3 in the game. His 174 offensive rating was the best of his young career. The six threes tied for the sixth most all-time in an NEC tournament game and were the most since former Colonial Coron Williams set the record with eight in 2012. But it wasn’t just McConnell’s offense. He also happened to be in the right place at the right time, and with less than a minute to go he stole the ball and fed Dachon Burke for an easy lead to give the Colonials a 1-point lead.

That steal was indicative of how Robert Morris played defense all night against the Blackbirds. Swarming team defense tried to contain ball movement and then get to Jerome Frink and Iverson Fleming as quickly as possible. The plan gave LIU freshman point Jashaun Agosto a lot of freedom—he finished with 16 points and 10 assists—but it also served its purpose in containing Frink and Fleming. LIU’s two all-conference players and senior leaders shot just 9-26 (35%) from the field for the game. Sure, that sometimes meant that secondary players like Raiquan Clark or Nura Zanna grabbed an easy offensive rebound (they combined for 7 offensive boards), but even when the defense bent it didn’t break.

And LIU’s defense was quite good as well. The Blackbirds frustrated every Colonial not named McConnell at some point during the game. After two free throws by Clark, the Blackbirds led 68-67 and just needed one more stop. The defense was good too. Kavon Stewart drove down to the baseline where he was met by Frink. But the senior point guard found just the right touch to float the ball over his defender and into the rim for the victory. Even though it went in, make no mistake, that was a tough shot. Stewart has shot just 28% on two-point jumpers this season. But this one went down and with it went a strong season for LIU Brooklyn.

As the lone 20-game winner in the NEC the Blackbirds may get invited to postseason play. Hopefully they decide to play some more games, because it would be really tough to see the careers of Frink and Fleming end this way. -JT