As difficult as it is to project the Northeast Conference (NEC) in the preseason, it’s nearly as difficult to break down a small sample of games within the first week of the season. How exactly do you decipher what is and isn’t meaningful?
Very early returns can be quite deceiving. Case in point: Sacred Heart last season registered impressive wins in November over Hofstra and Fordham, yet they sputtered in league play to an eighth place finish and NEC tournament quarterfinals defeat. Other than a surprise road victory over a rebuilding George Mason club, the Mount was virtually manhandled on a brutal November road trip that included a remarkable eight pay games to begin the season. They eventually won both the conference’s regular season and tournament titles. In Donyell Marshall’s first season, Central Connecticut looked respectable over its first three games, only to muster just four victories in league play.
There’s a ton of noise when trying to use early results to forecast future returns. So what exactly is the point of this post with the basketball season being five days old? It’s to examine any interesting playing patterns, which newcomers have gotten off to solid starts and if there are any trends that could stick for the whole year. It’s far from a perfect science – I readily admit that – but that’s not going to stop John Templon and me from mining for interesting nuggets.
1. A brutal stretch of non-conference games has made winning hard to come by. Ron Ratner’s Twitter handle has been quiet over the first week of the season, because, well, there’s very little winning to report on. Through five days, the NEC is 1-19 with Wagner serving as the lone victory. While a 5 percent winning percentage is putrid, it’s certainly not unexpected. Consider that 16 of those 20 likely were guarantee games where the NEC program was handed a paycheck for playing their role as a deep underdog on the road. These games are absolutely necessary for these programs in athletic funding and are the necessary evil for low mid-major teams in November.
Moreover, 19 of those 20 games have been on the road and only one (Sacred Heart hosting Holy Cross) projected the NEC team as the favorite, according to KenPom. Overall, the average KenPom rating of the 20 opponents is 127. To put that number in perspective, Saint Francis U currently has the best KenPom rating at 254.
It’ll get easier in the coming weeks as the NEC programs line up to play against the Ivy League, America East, MAAC and Patriot League. For now though, there will be a lot of lopsided scores to gaze at. Upsets will be very hard to come by with a group of inexperienced rosters trying to figure out rotations.
2. Some newcomers are making their mark. This isn’t a surprise when much of the league defected via the transfer route, but it has to be a pleasant surprise for some coaches now that their newcomers are performing outside of a practice court. We’ll get to some performances later on, but here are the standouts thus far:
- Tyler Kohl, Central Connecticut – With a poor St. John’s effort aside (and really, interim head coach Mike Witcoskie should burn that tape), Kohl to me looks like a better version of Matthew Hunter. He can not only stuff the stat sheet (that was a favorite line of Howie Dickenman), but also has the confidence to handle the ball in crunch time if the Blue Devils need a basket.
- Koby Thomas, Robert Morris – Through two games, the freshman has been the most consistent Colonial thus far, logging 37 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals while showing a propensity to score from deep.
- Zach Coleman, LIU Brooklyn – The big man has been an afterthought after an injury riddled career, but so far he has acclimated himself well to Derek Kellogg’s frontcourt. The big has been a steady presence on the boards (8 rpg) and gives LIU a power forward who isn’t afraid to step out from behind the arc (2-6, 3PT shooting).
- Ryan Layman, Bryant – The inside/out forward is averaging 13 ppg in the earlygoing, while making his presence felt on the glass with 13 boards through 2 games. These numbers shouldn’t be taken lightly – Bryant has played two Power 5 conference teams thus far.
3. Some preseason expectations are holding up. Again, it’s brutally early to develop a full understanding of what team’s will do throughout the season, but some expectations are sticking after one week.
- Despite two losses on the west coach, Saint Francis U. has done a respectable job of representing the league. They lost by 17 points to a top 25 program in St. Mary’s and were down by just one point late to a tough San Francisco squad before succumbing late.
- Derek Kellogg’s LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds are playing very fast, averaging nearly 77 possessions per game through two contests.
- Sacred Heart’s frontcourt, to no one’s surprise, looks very formidable with Joe Lopez serving as a double double threatt, Mario Matasovic morphing into the ultimate glue guy and E.J. Anosike giving Anthony Latina valuable minutes off the bench. And De’von Barnett is likely a game or two away from returning from a charlie horse.
NEC Power Rankings (From Preseason Blue Ribbon)
- Saint Francis U. (0-2) – Interestingly enough, freshman Mark Flagg and sophomore Deivydas Kuzavas have emerged as Rob Krimmel’s preferred options at the center position, with Luidgy Laporal nowhere to be found. Flagg, in particular, has been the pleasure surprise, making 6 of 7 from inside the arc and coming up with a combined five turnovers on the defensive end. -RP
- LIU Brooklyn (0-2) – LIU’s two losses came with completely different feelings. An opening night 6-point loss to Tulane was a moral victory of sorts around the NEC. But then the Blackbirds came back to NYC and lost 81-68 at Fordham on Monday night. Raiquan Clark, who was named NEC Player of the Week, scored a career-high 34 points at Tulane and has become LIU’s go-to guy along with Joel Hernandez. Clark finished with 21 points against Fordham, but got into some foul trouble, which Nelson Castillo highlighted in his game recap. LIU is playing a non-conference schedule that can best be described as “soft”, including no games against Power 5 opponents, so there are still a number of chances for wins. One immediate effect of Derek Kellogg taking over the team is that the Blackbirds are playing at a much higher tempo. They’re 14th nationally in adjusted tempo and are averaging 14.2 seconds per possession on offense (30th). They were 235th in adjusted tempo a season ago. -JT
- Mount St. Mary’s (0-2) – The Mount played Marquette and Notre Dame on opening weekend without Chris Wray, so it’s tough to have any grand takeaways. One thing is for certain though: Even when Wray returns the freshmen are certainly going to get opportunities. Bobby Planutis, Jonah Antonio, and Donald Carey are second through fourth in usage rate behind Justin Robinson. Robinson’s numbers the first two games haven’t been great (34.5 percent usage, 85.4 offensive rating), but he’s taken on a huge burden offensively. Also, those efficiency numbers are similar to what he put up against top tier competition last season. It’s unlikely that his three-point shot (currently 2-13) will continue to be shaky, considering he’s shot at least 33 percent from deep in every season of his college career. -JT
- Fairleigh Dickinson (0-2 NEC) –The Knights opened the season with a difficult double against NCAA Tournament quality teams (at Seton Hall and at Penn State) without Darian Anderson. Thus I’m not quite sure what we’ve learned. The good news? Mike Holloway hasn’t looked overmatched. He scored 19 points against the Nittany Lions after scoring 13 against SHU’s formidable front court. His emergence into a go-to player will make FDU extra dangerous come conference play. Anderson’s absence has given freshman Jahlil Jenkins a baptism by fire and he’s held up, with 12 assists and 10 turnovers in 68 minutes. -JT
- Sacred Heart (0-2) – As good as the frontcourt has been, the Pioneers aren’t going anywhere meaningful if their guards and wings can’t make shots. Through two games – both losses – Sacred Heart is shooting 15.7 percent from downtown and 54.3 percent from the charity stripe. It should get better, but with a November showdown looming with the defensively stout Saint Peter’s, it may be a struggle for the Pioneers to generate any kind of consistent offense. The longer the offensive slog continues, the more pressure mounts on Sean Hoehn, Kinnon LaRose and Zach Radz to make outside jumpers. -RP
- Wagner (1-1 NEC – The Seahawks gutted out a road victory at NJIT and then had everything go wrong in a 44-point loss at Missouri despite the Tigers playing without Michael Porter, Jr. Blake Francis is taking on a much larger share of the offense this season. He’s gone from 15.8 percent usage as a freshman to 20.3 percent usage this season. Even more remarkable is that fact that his efficiency (albeit in a small two-game sample) has improved. He’s shot the ball great from distance (8-16, 50 percent), which is bound to regress, but his two-point percentage (3-11, 27 percent) will most likely improve. He looks like one of the most dangerous scorers in the NEC. The issue is that no other Wagner player has shown the ability yet to score consistently. Wagner should be competitive in everyone one of its next seven non-conference games, so we’ll learn much more about the Seahawks. -JT
- Bryant (0-2) – Adam Grant could very easily lead the conference in scoring when it’s all said and done. The sophomore (24 ppg) has been impressively efficient in two guarantee games, shooting 50 percent from the floor despite a high possession rate. Not only that, Grant has an assist rate of 24.7 percent, so he hasn’t morphed into a ball hogging guard that his former teammate, Nisre Zouzoua, kind of became. The schedule will thin out for Bryant and with Bash Townes already back, the rotation should start to take shape shortly. -RP
- Central Connecticut (0-3) – It’s a small sample, but so far the prediction that CCSU would be a better outside shooting team has come to fruition. Thanks to Austin Nehls (8 of 14), Tyson Batiste (3 of 3) and Kohl (6 of 17), the Blue Devils have added another dimension to their offense, opening it up for their interior players. Mustafa Jones seems to be enjoying the extra space inside, converting an impressive 18 of 29 shots (62.1 percent). This looks to be an improved offensive unit. -RP
- Robert Morris (0-2) – Death. Taxes. Andy Toole coaching a team up to extract turnovers. Despite a new cast, the Colonials are once again one of the national leaders in turnover rate, this time with a 26.2 percent rate after two road games. -RP
- St. Francis Brooklyn (0-1) – Glenn Braica’s squad has a two-game week coming up, so St. Francis only played one game during the opening weekend, at Duquesne. The game was tied at halftime and competitive throughout. Rasheem Dunn had a strong start to the season with 21 points on 13 shots, including 6-8 on twos and 6-7 from the free throw line. The biggest surprise was the play of Jalen Jordan. The 6-foot-3 freshman guard started and scored 14 points in 24 minutes. -JT