Nearly a month has been logged into the 2017-18 season and we’re starting to accumulate enough data to get a general feel as to where most NEC teams currently stand. With a lot of programs moving up in KenPom’s rankings (especially the perceived bottom tier), it most definitely will be a crap shoot come January. Let’s dive into some trends that are noteworthy within the league.
Sacred Heart’s Turnover Struggle
At a glance, the Pioneers are 4-5 and a Sean Hoehn made 3-pointer away (against Holy Cross) from being 5-4 on the season (4-4 versus Division I opponents). Basically, they are right in line with their preseason projection, and yet the team is currently third to last nationally in turnover rate. The Pioneers have turned the ball over on a staggering 26.5 percent of their possessions! Point guard Cha Cha Tucker has been the main culprit – before his respectable showing in a win over Dartmouth (9 points, 6 assists, 1 turnover), the senior had posted a 57.0 offensive rating with 16 assists versus 25 turnovers against Division I competition. Last night’s effort was a step in the right direction, but he’ll need to demonstrate more stability with the basketball if he wants to be a valuable rotation piece.
Freshman Jaecee Martin doesn’t appear to be ready and Hoehn, doing his best Drew Shubik impersonation, isn’t a natural point guard. This is really important if Tucker falters, as the pressure defenses of the NEC such as Fairleigh Dickinson, Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary’s would extract copious amounts of turnovers that would be difficult to overcome.
In a way, Sacred Heart feels like one of those St. Francis Brooklyn teams that are dominant around the rim, but struggle to shoot and take care of the ball. Nevertheless, the Terriers never coughed up the ball at this near historic rate. Over the past decade, only have the 2012 Saint Francis Red Flash posted a turnover rate north of 25 percent and that was because their starting point guard, Chris Johnson, was kicked off the team by coach Don Friday eight games into the season. There’s no doubt the turnover issue is keeping Latina up at night. It’ll be interesting to see how Sacred Heart responds in winnable games against Lafayette, Hartford and Binghamton in the coming weeks. – RP
Colonials Continue to Impose Their Will Defensively
Andy Toole can coach defense. The proof is once again in the pudding, as the Colonials are posting the 129th best defensive efficiency in the country, That may not sound like much, but consider this: it’s rare for a NEC program to break into the top 50 percent nationally in defensive efficiency. And Toole is doing it with 10 newcomers on his roster.
Robert Morris almost always finds themselves in the top 50 in turnover rate and this season is no exception. The squad has extracted a turnover on 26.4 percent of their opponents possessions, only seven Division I teams have posted a better rate. Moreover, the Colonials are limiting the damage opponents can do to them behind the arc.
Deshon Burke is a star in the making on both ends of the floor. His defensive prowess was evident in his rookie campaign, as his raw tools and impressive athleticism made for a future star defender. So far, so good in his second season with a 4.7 percent steal rate, good for 29th best nationally. At 6-4, the explosive Burke is simply too quick for a majority of opposing wings. He’s a wonderful weapon for Toole to utilize as Robert Morris wears down opponents defensively. – RP
Saint Francis Doing Fine Without Isaiah Blackmon
My first thought when Isaiah Blackmon went down with another torn ACL was that the Red Flash would descend back to the pack. That may still occur, but thus far junior Andre Wolford has lessened the loss considerably. While his overall defensive impact has yet to be determined, offensively Wolford has been sensational for Rob Krimmel. During one recent stretch, Wolford made 16 of his last 24 3-pointers and averaged 14 points and 3.7 3s per game over his last six. So much for missing the wonderfully efficient Blackmon!
Despite this, Blackmon’s absence will likely wear away at the Red Flash’s depth should another injury infect the roster. There’s only so much roster turnover a program can take before their performance begins to suffer. That much is evident when you break down the offensive impact Blackmon had for this Red Flash roster last season in NEC play:
- Saint Francis scored 111.6 points per 100 possessions with Blackmon ON the floor
- Saint Francis scored 96.9 points per 100 possessions with Blackmon OFF the floor
For now, Krimmel will rely on Keith Braxton, a NEC POY frontrunner, and Jamaal King to dictate the offense with useful role players such as Wolford, Randall Gaskins and Mark Flagg contributing when needed. Currently all is well – the Red Flash have posted the best offensive efficiency (by far!) among their conference counterparts, despite a schedule that’s already featured Duke, Louisville and St. Mary’s on the road. – RP
Junior Robinson Finally the Focus of the Mount’s Offense
Five-foot-five Junior Robinson has a usage rate of 35.6 percent when he’s on the court thus far for the Mount. It’s a marked increase over last season’s 23.3 percent usage, but Robinson has still been incredibly efficient. He isn’t shooting as well from 3 early in the season, but he’s been better in the paint and from the free throw line. After deferring to Elijah Long last season, Robinson is once again the Mount’s primary ball handler. He has taken advantage of that fact to nearly double his assist rate.
Among the top 50 players in usage thus far this season only three are listed at shorter than 6-foot tall—Robinson, Campbell junior Chris Clemons, and Marquette’s Andrew Rowsey. It’s possible that Robinson’s usage will decrease slightly now that Chris Wray has returned, but recently it has only increased. Robinson played 40 minutes against Loyola (MD) and used almost HALF (46 percent) of the Mount’s possessions while on the court. He finished with 39 points on 23 shots and 16 free throws along with four assists and four turnovers in the 5-point overtime victory.
Before the season I wondered how a player of Robinson’s stature could improve upon his 2017-18 numbers. Thus far he’s shown the exact blueprint. – JT
NEC Power Rankings
- Saint Francis U. (3-5, previously 1) – The Red Flash continue to get out into transition, as an estimated 28 percent of their possessions have been in up tempo. With 71.6 possessions per game, Krimmel has pushed the pace even more so than last season. I’d expect this trend to continue given the Red Flash’s personnel.
- Wagner (6-1, previously 6) – Blake Francis is a beast, playing at a level rarely seen during non-conference play. The sophomore has expanded his game – taking more 2s, turning it over less and upping his usage to the point where he seems to be a lock for All-NEC first team consideration in March. He’s the biggest reason why Wagner has climbed 57 places in KenPom’s rankings since the start of the season.
- Mount St. Mary’s (3-6, previously 4) – One statistic oddity that has risen from the data – the 6-foot-10 sophomore Ryan Gomes is rebounding like a guard. While he’s demonstrated efficiency in his shooting percentages (at a low usage rate), it’s a little puzzling why such a big body doesn’t gobble up rebounds. Gomes’ teammate Bobby Planutis, with much less meat on his bones, has competed well on the glass, posting a 20.4 percent defensive rebounding rate.
- Fairleigh Dickinson (3-6, previously 3) – Darian Anderson seems to be a step slow, perhaps the residual effect of coming back from a lower leg injury. The usage rate for Anderson remains high, yet the senior guard hasn’t been efficient, registering the lowest effective field goal percentage (42.1 percent) of his career in the early going.
- LIU Brooklyn (4-6, previously 2) – Derek Kellogg loved Raiquan Clark’s potential coming into the season, yet did he envision this? The forward has logged double-digit points in nine of LIU’s 10 games and he’s getting to the free throw line at an impressive clip. Even better, the former walk-on has converted those charity stripe attempts (83.6 percent) as well.
- Robert Morris (4-4, previously 9) – It appears that Toole has depth to work with, as the Colonials are playing nine guys regularly. Each of those nine has played at least 30 percent of their team’s available minutes. The last time a Robert Morris squad did that was back in the 2013-14 season, where the Colonials finished 14-2 in league play.
- Central Connecticut (5-3, previously 8) – With more offensive options in tow for the Blue Devils, Austin Nehls has predictably seen better looks at the basket. He’s made 44 percent of his 3-point takes with 90.9 percent of those makes being assisted. Not only is Nehls finding space out on the perimeter, but his teammates (Tyler Kohl, 29.2 percent assist rate; Eric Bowles, 24.9 percent assist rate) are putting him in positions to thrive.
- Sacred Heart (4-5, previously 5) – After a mediocre start to the season, Zach Radz has emerged as a key regular in Latina’s backcourt. The sophomore guard, who barely played as a freshman, has averaged 10.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 3-pointers over the past six contests. In games where Radz posted an offensive rating north of 100, the Pioneers are 4-0.
- St. Francis Brooklyn (2-6, previously 10) – The team still can’t rebound, yet the guards have done a respectable job defending the perimeter thus far. Opponents have made just 29.1 percent of their 3-point attempts and only 26.6 percent of their attempts have come from behind the arc. That is good enough for sixth in the country.
- Bryant (1-7, previously 7) – The Bulldogs have only dropped 12 places in KenPom’s rankings since the start of the season, but already this season has a similar feel to Bryant’s 2015-16 campaign. In that season, the Bulldogs were battered by a brutal non-conference schedule, got off to a hot start and then sputtered to a ninth place finish. There’s plenty of offensive talent on Tim O’Shea’s squad, yet the Bulldogs seems to lack the continuity needed to succeed on that end.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote the NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s previews for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.