As we move deep into the summer, I have begun my annual exercise of interviewing NEC coaches for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Now that I have a stronger understanding of who’ll be rostered come November, I decided to offer my opinion on who the winners and losers of this offseason were.
There’s been a lot of focus on the transfer epidemic that’s infected the league, but there have been plenty of positive storylines percolating as well. Let’s explore both in greater detail.
Winner: Central Connecticut
It was obvious during Donyell Marshall’s first season as the CCSU head coach that his program is in the midst of a deep rebuild. When a once storied program wins just 15 games over three seasons, getting back into contention won’t happen overnight. But given the rampant turnover throughout the league — 8 of the league’s top 10 scorers and 10 of 15 all-conference players — the Blue Devils actually have a chance to accelerate this rebuild, perhaps by a full season.
I still believe the 2018-2019 season will be Marshall’s best chance to return to the upper half of the league. The championship odds will be long in 2017-18, yet a return to the middle of the pack is no longer a wild guess. With a plethora of long, athletic, and sharpshooting recruits heading to the New Britain campus, there’s a good chance CCSU outperforms a likely ninth place vote in the NEC coach’s preseason pool. That would result in a return to the NEC tournament for the first time in four seasons. With good fortune and health, it isn’t crazy to envision the Blue Devils in sixth place, or even better, at season’s end.
In this day and age, a worst to first jump isn’t as wacky as once thought. Just remember: the last two ninth place teams in the preseason poll, Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Francis U., found themselves in the NEC tournament title game near the end of those respective seasons, with the Knights making it all the way to the NCAA Tournament. If you’re rooting for the blue and white, ya gotta believe!
Winner: Derek Kellogg
Back when Jack Perri was unceremoniously dumped in March, Nura Zanna quickly asked for a release from his LIU Brooklyn scholarship to pursue the graduate transfer route. Others were rumored to leave Brooklyn shortly thereafter, including soon-to-be sophomore talents Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts and fifth-year senior Joel Hernandez. Had at least two of those three players left, year one would’ve been a difficult endeavor for the newly hired Kellogg.
To his credit, Kellogg was able to convince Batts to stay — he originally asked LIU for his release — and Agosto returned to the team after briefly (and oddly) declaring for the NBA draft. Now, with all three back along with veterans Raul Frias, Raiquan Clark and Julius van Sauers and two serviceable graduate transfer big men, the Blackbirds are back in the competitive muddle of the conference.
Replacing Jerome Frink, Iverson Fleming and Zanna’s minutes won’t be easy, but given the turnover around the league, it isn’t impossible. Also there’s something else to consider: Kellogg’s previous stint at UMass illustrated the coach’s penchant for pushing the tempo. The Minutemen have finished 55th or better nationally in KenPom’s adjusted tempo over the last six seasons. The Blackbirds appear to possess the talent needed to execute such a scheme, starting with lightning quick Agosto running the offense.
Loser: Mount St. Mary’s
Jamion Christian arguably has had one of the best five year stretches — two championships, three finals appearances and five winning NEC seasons — of any NEC coach ever. In an era where turning over 30-50% of your roster each offseason is the norm, this is an incredible achievement of consistency. So why do I have the Mount as “losers” this offseason?
I’m simply disappointed in what could have been. It was likely Elijah Long would’ve up-transferred after his sensational sophomore season, but I figured Miles Wilson and Mawdo Sallah would’ve at least stuck around to help evolve this program into a mid-major power. For a team coming off a RPI of 138, 17 NEC wins and a First Four victory in the NCAA Tournament, the ceiling was higher for a Mount team that wasn’t graduating any of its top six scorers.
Now, Christian must rebuild on the fly with eight freshman, including six true freshmen, on the 2017-18 roster. There’s plenty of talent coming into Emmitsburg, Md. such as Bobby Planutis, Donald Carey, and red-shirt freshman Johan Antonio, but without Wilson and Sallah the Mount will likely take a small step back as Christian tries to develop his freshmen from within. It’s really too bad — a lineup of Robinson, Alexander, Wilson, Wray and Sallah with Gomes, Antonio and Planutis off the bench could’ve made some noise in the non-conference season and, with good health, another run at the NEC title.
This current version has the upside to do that, but it’s less likely the Mount’s RPI gets to a level where the NEC finally moves off that 16 seed line and out of the First Four game.
Winners: Adam Grant and Bash Townes
Now that Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettway are leaving Smithfield, Rhode Island for Reno, Nevada, a tremendous opportunity has opened up for former high school and now Bryant teammates, Grant and Townes. Grant certainly wasn’t squeezed for minutes as a freshman, even with Zouzoua leading the league in scoring, but now the keys to the offense are in his hands. While Zouzoua’s freshman profile demonstrated a little more efficiency, it’s Grant who possesses the better all-around game with his ability to defend (he was called the team’s best defender last season), pass (14.3% assist rate versus Zouzoua’s 9.6% assist rate) and make the best decisions on the floor. While I don’t think Grant will land in the NEC preseason top 5 come October, it surely isn’t a stretch to put him there. (And maybe I’ll do such a thing in the Blue Ribbon preview.)
On the other hand, Townes is more of an unknown, since he lost out in a numbers game as a freshman despite being moderately efficient in limited time. The undersized power forward made 52.1% of his twos and got to the line at a very respectable clip in his first season, drawing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes. Townes also has the ability to make perimeter shots, a skill that Pettway never possessed in his two years at Bryant. With Pettway no longer absorbing minutes, the sophomore will undoubtedly get a chance to shine. Townes, Bosko Kostur, Gus Riley and the intriguing freshmen duo of Brandon Carroll (considered a freak athlete, albeit somewhat raw) and Ryan Layman (younger brother of former Maryland star Jake Layman) gives Tim O’Shea a frontcourt with a high ceiling. I believe it’ll be Townes’s emergence that’ll turn a lot of heads.
Losers: Saint Francis University
It’s really, really hard to criticize a kid who 1) up-transfers to the Big 12, 2) gets to play in his home state and 3) gets an extra year of paid college education. So good for Josh Nebo, but bad for Saint Francis University, who had an opportunity to open the 2017-18 season as the undisputed preseason number one. The talent level is still loaded in Loretto (I for one love Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon) but without the best shot blocker in the league by a country mile, the Red Flash will struggle to defend. Moreover, playing Braxton at the four defensively could expose size mismatches. Mismatches that were covered up when a 6’8 beast of an athlete was protecting the rim with a 9.2% block rate. Nebo’s impact cannot be overstated — the Red Flash were 22 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the floor in league play. That’s insane!
I still think the team will score at a high level after leading the league in scoring for the first time since the 1991-1992 season. And maybe Krimmel will get sophomore Deivydas Kuzavas (DK for short) and/or incoming bigs Mark Flagg and Luidgy Laporal to admirably fill those minutes at the five. In all honestly, though, that’s a tall order considering the high level of play Nebo demonstrated last season. Krimmel may have lost just one transfer, which compared to other teams is a victory in and of itself, but in a majority of the coaches eyes, that departure may have the biggest impact. I’ll still put the Red Flash in my preseason top 2 by default, but I have concerns about that defense.
Losers: The Sit One, Play One Transfer
I’m not going to sit here and criticize the players who make these decisions to transfer to another Division I school with just one year of eligibility left before earning their undergraduate degree. Each player is part of unique situation and honestly only they truly know what’s best for them.
Ok, that’s out of the way. From my perspective, it’s difficult to make sense of the ‘sit one, play one’ transfer’s mindset, given the limited options they have in the open market. So far, these have been the outcomes of the NEC ‘sit one, play one’ transfers who’ve stayed in Division I:
- Mario Moody – transferred from Wagner to Bethune Cookman
- BK Ashe – transferred from Mount St. Mary’s to Longwood
- Aakim Saintil – transferred from LIU Brooklyn to Iona (paid his own way in his ‘sit one’ year)
Basically there have been moves to the Big South, MEAC and MAAC, with the latter coming at the expense of paying for a year of tuition. Finding a better program willing to give these kids a two year scholarship is practically impossible, hence Corey Henson’s current dilemma. The soon-to-be-senior and back-to-back All-NEC second team recipient seems to be stuck between a rock and hard place; stagnating out on the open market while being rumored to return to Wagner. If Henson finds his way back to the Spiro Center, this isn’t a good look for anyone involved, including Bashir Mason. Sure, Wagner is a much better team with the versatile combo guard on the floor, but accepting him back on a team that has presumably filled their 13 scholarships can’t be construed as a chemistry builder.
Just ask Howie Dickenman how he feels in retrospect when he accepted Kyle Vinales back after he was so close to transferring to Toledo. Or Andy Toole when he did the same for Elijah Minnie!
(Meanwhile, there’s been no word on Earl Potts next destination, although it’s been rumored that he will not play Division I basketball next season.)
Update on July 11 at 9:21 PM: Henson is reportedly heading back to Wagner for his senior season, per Zach Braziller.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride