NEC and MAAC Preseason Mailbag

In both the MAAC and NEC, there are plenty of question marks going into the season given the amount of turnover each league has experienced this past offseason. With plenty of questions looming, Vincent Simone and I decided to tackle a few Twitter questions.

It’s my hope to make this mailbag a monthly occurrence, assuming we have plenty of questions to ponder. Let’s begin with a NEC question.

Whoa, slow down Mike! Lots of good questions, some of which I’ll address next week when I offer up my top NEC rookies, transfers and breakout players. For now, I’ll tackle the Bryant 5th starter conundrum.

You’re probably assuming Ikenna Ndugba, Adam Grant, Bosko Kostur and Bash Townes are four of Bryant’s five starters when fully healthy. I could see senior Gus Riley at center starting games in November, but only because Townes is working his way back from hamstring discomfort. Come NEC play, there’s little doubt Tim O’Shea wants those first four playing big (25+) minutes.

Can Hunter Ware emerge as a regular rotation piece for Bryant? (Photo Credit: GoLocalProv)

As for the fifth starter, O’Shea will probably take a wait and see approach. It sounds like Hunter Ware will get starter minutes right away, since the Bulldogs will play at Georgia. Ware is from there and O’Shea will do anything he can to get his senior going after a poor junior season. He’s been a model citizen on campus and is well liked by his teammates and coaching staff. It hasn’t worked out given the Ware’s initial expectations and pedigree, but there’s still plenty of talent to harvest.

Experience aside, I would guess that freshman Ryan Layman ends up cracking the starting rotation when the games begin to matter in January. A lineup that trots out Ndugba, Grant and Ware is quite small, even for NEC standards. Yes, Ndugba and Grant are above average rebounders as guards, yet it may not be enough against the likes of Mount St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart and Wagner. The versatile and athletic Layman, who stands at 6-foot-7, makes more sense assuming he picks up Bryant’s schemes well enough. A lineup of Ndugba, Grant, Layman, Kostur and Townes gives O’Shea plenty of versatility down low and should hold their own rebounding wise. Also, with those three bigs together, all of whom can make outside shots, one opposing power forward that’s not accustomed to guarding out on the perimeter could be exposed.

Of course, there are plenty of NEC teams like Saint Francis and LIU Brooklyn that’ll play small and run like the wind. Playing a 3-guard set against those lineups does make more sense if you’re concerned about keeping up with fast wings like Joel Hernandez, Isaiah Blackmon and Dachon Burke.

Overall though, Layman will be my bet to see the majority of the wing minutes, with others like Ware, Riley and Brandon Carroll getting decent time off the bench. Remember, with O’Shea it’s only seven or eight players in his rotation! – Ryan Peters

I’m sure current NEC coaches will cringe at my best guesses here, but there’s no doubt in my mind every staff in the league is preparing for these scenarios, just in case. It’s an unfortunate thing to prepare for, but the coaches would be behind the eight-ball if they simply assumed their star underclassman is sticking around for four years. With that said, here’s my best guess at four possible transfers.

(Please, please, please note: This is speculation on my part, purely based on a player’s performance curve. I don’t have any insider information regarding this whatsoever.)

Keith Braxton, SFU – The reigning NEC rookie of the year is the most obvious choice, although his size may prevent him from a move up to a Power 5 conference. Braxton is tremendous, don’t get me wrong, but at 6-3/6-4 he’s quite undersized as a four in a bigger mid-major/high-major league. He does have the guard skills to pass off as a true wing, and this likely would be his position should he decide to take his talents elsewhere. A monster, all-conference first team type of season will surely elevate his profile.

Adam Grant, Bryant – While Zouzoua’s recruitment stalled out before he was rescued by Eric Musselman, I don’t see this happening to Grant an offseason from now. If he decided to test the waters after a brilliant sophomore season, the guard will have a more well-rounded game to offer than his former teammate. Grant does possess ball-handling skills, can make his teammates better and has already demonstrated discipline with his shot selection. He’s not a true point guard, but as a combo guard like Cane Broome, there would be programs in the Big East and AAC that likely wouldn’t pass on Grant’s talent.

Rasheem Dunn, St. Francis Brooklyn – Are you noticing a theme here with the NEC’s super sophomores? Dunn is part of this electric group and it’s plausible to envision an improved Dunn branching out to a bigger school. While the sophomore had an excellent rookie campaign under Glenn Braica, he still needs to improve his shot selection and efficiency knocking down the 3. If he can do that and facilitate better, he’d have a reasonable share of suitors, possibly in leagues as high as the Atlantic 10. With better shooting, Dunn actually compares favorably to former Blue Devil Matt Mobley.

Ryan Gomes, Mount St. Mary’s – This selection may surprise people some, but how many of you thought Josh Nebo and Mawdo Sallah would transfer? Gomes is big, strong and talented – the Maryland native made 62.3% of his 2-point attempts in limited time last season. At 6-10, a very good season in Emmitsburg could attract the high major programs to Gomes, especially now that Jamion Christian’s recruiting profile is well known. He’ll certainly get every opportunity to showcase his skills now that Sallah is on Kansas State’s campus. – Ryan Peters

Marc was alluding to Niagara’s surprising defeat at the hands of Robert Morris earlier this preseason.

Anything that happens in an exhibition, you take with a grain of salt. That said, the Purple Eagles are 1-1 in the “preseason” with a narrow 73-70 loss to Robert Morris in a hurricane relief exhibition and a 120-94 “secret scrimmage” win over Youngstown State.

It’s difficult to gauge a team this early in the year, but Niagara’s regulars did play in each of these games so at the very least they were able to develop a rhythm ahead of the season-opener. It’s interesting to note the difference in final scores between the two games, as the win over Youngstown State was much more open and what we’re used to from the Purple Eagles.

Head coach Chris Casey has made defense a point of emphasis this offseason, so the low score in the Robert Morris contest may indicate that message has been taken seriously. We know Niagara is going to be able to score, but if the defensive end of the court (led by Dominic Robb and Chris Barton) becomes a calling card as well, the Purple Eagles should rack up wins throughout league play.

Also unknown is the quality of competition. Robert Morris is largely an unknown, and could very well end up winning the NEC. Andy Toole has gotten that program to the NCAA Tournament in the past, and it would surprise no one to see them return. Meanwhile, Youngstown State projects as a middle of the pack Horizon League squad, but they possess one of the nation’s top scorers in Cameron Morse (ninth in the nation with 22.9 ppg last season).

If top five (and with it a first-round bye in the MAAC tournament) remains the benchmark for Niagara, they should certainly achieve that. That’s been the expectation for this squad this offseason and returning all five starters in a league which lost a bevy of top talent at the end of last year, it would be a disappointment if Niagara didn’t earn a bye this year. – Vinny Simone

Despite the loss of what can easily be described as the greatest class in school history, expectations remain high for Monmouth. They were clearly in position to win the league’s NCAA bid each of the last two season, but the talent is there to reach that plateau in spite of their losses.

Let’s be frank though – in order for Monmouth to win the league, Micah Seaborn needs to be a star. He’s obviously capable of great offensive potential, having averaged 13.2 ppg each of his first two seasons, but will be expected to take a leap forward after the graduation of Justin Robinson, Je’lon Hornbeak, and others.

Seaborn will also become the focal point of the opposition’s defensive blueprints, and how he responds to that challenge in the first two months should give us a good indication of how he will respond in league play.

The other question King Rice must answer before MAAC play begins is the one at the head of the offense. Will Austin Tilghman’s versatility and experience require he hold down the point guard position year-round, or will redshirt freshman Ray Salnave or another player emerge at that position?

Given all that the Hawks lost this offseason, I don’t think it’s fair to expect their backcourt to be as explosive, but there should remain enough options to keep Monmouth in the better half of the league. However, it is the Hawks’ frontcourt which could ultimately separate them within the MAAC.

Many of the league’s better post players – from Jordan Washington to Quadir Welton to Siena’s trio of Javion Ogunyemi, Lavon Long, and Brett Bisping – will no longer be patrolling the paint in 2018. That leaves the opportunity for Monmouth’s slew of forwards to assert themselves as a dominant force in the MAAC.

Zac Tillman will return from a year off, while Pierre Sarr, Diago Quinn, Mustapha Traore, and Sam Ibiezugbe all gained valuable experience off the bench last season. Freshman Melik Martin will join that squad this season, and if just two of that talented group develop into reliable two-way options, Monmouth will have a major leg up on the competition. – Vinny Simone

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if a hot start to the conference season is a great indicator for future success, especially if you look at recent history. Take Fairleigh Dicksinon for example. After a brutal non-conference campaign thanks to untimely injuries, the Knights took off in league play to the tune of a 8-1 record last season. Then, the team inexplicably collapsed late, dropping eight of their last nine.

The same story was kind of written for your Saint Francis Red Flash in 2016, when a veteran roster led by Ronnie Drinnon, Greg Brown and Ben Millaud-Meunier sputtered to the finish after Isaiah Blackmon got hurt. I don’t put much stock into hot starts, usually it’s the team that finishes hot and stays healthy that is the biggest threat to play in the NCAA tournament. You saw that materialize last year with Rob Krimmel’s group.

As far as the non-conference schedule indicators go, there may be something to your “big wins” theory, but unfortunately I haven’t had the time to pour over the historical data. Last season, here were the NEC’s five biggest non-conference victories based on KenPom:

  • LIU Brooklyn, won vs. St. John’s (KenPom 99)
  • Mount St. Mary’s, won at George Mason (KP 123)
  • Wagner, won at Connecticut (KP 96)
  • Bryant, won vs. Yale (KP 151)
  • Robert Morris, won at Towson (KP 116)

Three of those teams finished in the top three of the regular season, while one finished fifth (Bryant) and one finished strong with a trip to the NEC semifinals (Robert Morris). I suppose there’s some correlation there, but the Mount didn’t fare well with the rest of their out-of-conference schedule, losing 11 of 13 Division I games.

One thing that some coaches swear by, in particular Christian and Greg Herenda, is the strength of a non-conference schedule. Christian purposely scheduled very hard (6th toughest according to KenPom) last year to not only get the money from the guarantee games, but to also challenge his young, yet talented roster. He believes the brutal November and December led to a Mount team that was very good in close, tight NEC contests.

There may be something to that, as Herenda employed a similar strategy in their championship season a year early. That year the Knights got beat up in the non-conference, but a gritty home victory over Towson in December gave us a glimpse of the upside a lineup like Jiggetts, Anderson, Townes, Potts and Holloway brings. What happened? That roster got hot at the right time, winning close game after close game to capture the NEC tournament.

Of course, it all depends on talent in the end, but if you have the personnel to realistically make a run at the title, then scheduling difficult to challenge your club may be a good idea. This is still a fluid ideal. – Ryan Peters

One thought on “NEC and MAAC Preseason Mailbag

  1. Mike R

    Haha sorry for the rapid fire questions! I think you hit the nail on the head with Bryant. I think Riley and Ware begin the season as starters. We’ve seen O’Shea bring most of his freshman along slowly (outside of Ndugba). All of Pettway, Zouzoua, and Garvin did not begin their respective freshman seasons in the starting lineup. I think Layman will follow suit. The dark horse is Brandon Carroll. I’m all in on the Carroll hype train (did you SEE his dunk over 7’1 Dren Dedushaj at their midnight madness?!?!). If Carroll takes advantage of Bash being out early in the season, we could see him become a huge part of their rotation.

    Bryant currently has the flexibility to run a small lineup or force their opponents hands with a larger lineup with Layman or Kostur at the 3. Their current roster has some talented guards, but not too many actual guards on their roster. An injury to a heavy minute guard could force some very large lineups.

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