Reassessing the NEC After the Non-Conference Slate

With the non-conference season now in the books, now is as good a time as ever to break down where each Northeast Conference team stands. If you go by Ken Pomeroy, the current projected standings versus the ones back in October have fluctuated quite a bit.

In the fall, there was a lot of pessimism centered around the NEC’s standing in college basketball after being decimated by high-profile transfers. But there’s a reason to be optimistic given that several teams have notably improved in the logarithms of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Here’s a look at the data:

On average, the ten teams have improved by 21 spots, with Robert Morris, Wagner, CCSU and SFU exhibiting the biggest gains. Because of those four teams swiftly moving up, they are all projected to finish in the top four of the league’s regular season. That may not have been far-fetched in October for SFU or Wagner, but for Robert Morris (7th in preseason poll) and CCSU (9th) this is a sizable swing in the projections.

The NEC still ranks 30th out of 32 Division I conferences in KenPom’s aggregate ratings, yet the league has improved its standing, albeit slightly, compared to last season. For the 2016-17 campaign, the programs had an average drop of three spots when non-conference play concluded.

Moreover, the league’s top rankee, Saint Francis, is 32 points higher than last season’s champion, Mount St. Mary’s, while only one team (Bryant) is currently stuck in dregs of the Division I bottom 12, compared to two last season (CCSU and St. Francis Brooklyn). Baby steps.

Again, these aren’t extraordinary improvements, but they are positive trends nonetheless and should give the league office hope that better days for the league are ahead in the coming years. The NEC will still find itself in the First Four at Dayton for the NCAA tournament in March, barring an unbelievable run of lower seeds winning their respective conference tournaments, but there’s reason for hope as we embark on another crazy conference season.

Here’s my quick synopsis of the significant changes:

Robert Morris (KenPom 240, +80) – The Colonials are at it again, employing a defense that is in the upper half of Division I basketball in defensive efficiency (101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). While their wins are solid, it’s the losses that are perhaps more impressive as they have hung in on the road against KenPom top 150 opponents. In fact, their KenPom ranking has actually improved after five of their seven losses. It’s part of the reason why they’ve gone from a bottom tier team to a program now projected to finish NEC play with a 11-7 mark.

The Red Flash are the clear-cut favorite heading into NEC play. (Photo Credit: SFU Athletics)

Saint Francis U (KenPom 177, +50) – I still find it remarkable that the Red Flash haven’t skipped a beat since losing Isaiah Blackmon to another ACL tear. The team has the best offense in the league by a WIDE margin (107.4 points per 100 possessions) led of course by Keith Braxton, Jamaal King and …. Andre Wolford?!? The former walk-on has registered an absurd 138 offensive rating through nine games after sinking 53.4 percent of his treys. Their defense is vulnerable, but conference opponents will need to drop at least 75 points to have a chance at victory.

Central Connecticut (KenPom 277, +65) – As you’ll see later on, I feel like the Blue Devils are going at a discount compared to Robert Morris and Wagner, despite being just as impressive in the non-conference. Yes, the floor was much lower to begin with, but the Blue Devils are currently 7-2 against teams in bottom half of KenPom’s rankings (176-351) and that’s where the entire NEC resides. In spite of the winning record, Donyell Marshall’s squad has lower expectations compared to Andy Toole, because … well the track record of the latter is already established. Everyone has the right to be skeptical of Marshall with a career 13-31 coaching record, but man Tyler Kohl and Austin Nehls are some nice weapons to have late in a close game. When Kohl posts an offensive rating north of 100, the Blue Devils are 5-2.

(A fun fact for CCSU fans: Their current spot is the highest KenPom ranking the program has had since November 22, 2014. It’s been a long road back to relevance.)

Wagner (KenPom 219, +78) – Other than a blowout loss to Missouri in game number two, the Seahawks have steadily moved up Pomeroy’s rankings. They’ve handily defeated NEC common opponents like NJIT (2-1 vs. the NEC), UMass Lowell (1-3) and Hartford (2-4) by double figures, while keeping difficult matchups to respectable margins. Losing to Rider on the road in OT and a nationally ranked Seton Hall team by 21 comes to mind. The surge has been fueled by Bashir Mason’s opportunist defense (surprise, surprise) through JoJo Cooper (3.6% steal rate) and a stout interior attack led by A.J. Sumbry (10.8% block rate, 22.9% defensive rebounding rate) and Nigel Jackson (4.7% block rate). While this is far from analytical, the Seahawks possess the toughness needed to finish in the NEC’s top three once again.

Fairleigh Dickinson (KenPom 291, -32) – I also needed to comment on the biggest loser in the KenPom standings thus far. Darian Anderson’s injury was a major factor in FDU’s drop, especially when relying on a rookie point guard (Jahlil Jenkins) and asking several role players (Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway, Kalib Bishop) to step into pivotal spots. Anderson just isn’t himself, posting a mediocre and out of character 91.7 offensive rating. He’s clearly still working himself back to full health, but will he get there? Add to Anderson fire a brutal non-conference schedule – the 16th toughest in the nation according to KenPom – and you have a team that has slipped under the radar after winning just one game against a Division I roster (Holy Cross at home) through six weeks. It’s also worth noting that the Knights are posting the second worst offensive efficiency this season in Greg Herenda’s five years at the school. And yet, I feel like the Knights could be undervalued coming into league play. Of course, it all depends on Anderson returning to an All-NEC first team level, which he has yet to demonstrate.

With the KenPom projections out of the way, I decided to poll bloggers and devoted fans alike on the current NEC top 10, as they each saw fit. I got 13 opinions in all, and the results aren’t all that surprising.

  1. Saint Francis U (9 first place votes)
  2. Wagner (3 first place votes)
  3. Mount St. Mary’s (1 first place vote)
  4. Robert Morris
  5. LIU Brooklyn
  6. Fairleigh Dickinson
  7. Central Connecticut
  8. Sacred Heart
  9. St. Francis Brooklyn (5 last place votes)
  10. Bryant (8 last place votes)

Sacred Heart, St. Francis Brooklyn and Bryant were deeply entrenched within the bottom three with only Sacred Heart getting voted seventh three times (I wasn’t one of them). The pundits very clearly have defined their lower tier. In all honesty, the Pioneers have yet to exhibit the consistency or offensive firepower (92.8 points per 100 possessions, 339th nationally) to be a league contender. This is somewhat surprising given the team is the third most experienced roster in the league with five seniors. You normally don’t expect a grizzled lineup to cough the ball up on 23 percent of their possessions.

St. Francis Brooklyn is interesting in that they’ve had a decent non-conference season, yet they haven’t moved up in the subjective and analytical takes. Like FDU, they too only have one Division I victory this season (Brown at home), but there were a few road losses (Manhattan, St. Peter’s, Navy) where they were competitive. The offense is still a mess (46.4% eFG) and the defense and rebounding has yet to return to the glory days of Jalen Cannon/Amdy Fall. They’ll be tested early on as the KenPom underdog in their first four NEC contests, three of which on the road.

Additionally, the top four was decidedly settled, as the voters clearly believe in Toole’s prior history of challenging for the NEC championship. I tend to agree, as I listed them fourth in my poll, yet I’m hedging a bit by keeping them outside of my top three which matches the conscious of SFU, Wagner and Mount.

The Mount has dipped a bit in KenPom’s eyes, yet the majority of pundits believed the true version of Mount Mayhem lies in their 4-2 record from this month. Then again, one victory was against a Division 3 roster and another (Loyola MD) was a narrow victory against a lineup missing its two top scorers at the time. It probably all equals out though; Chris Wray was on the mend and has only logged five games in all. Wray, by the way, has been spectacular in his return, making 67 percent of his 2s, while posing careers bests in rebounding rate, block rate, steal rate and turnover rate. At this pace, there’s something terribly wrong with the voting process if he doesn’t land on an all-conference team by season’s end.

LIU Brooklyn exhibited the wide range of expectations, as they were voted anywhere from second to seventh overall. They certainly are a difficult team to forecast – while they are up-tempo (75.2 possessions per game, 15th nationally), they’ve struggled shooting the basketball with a middling 49.7 percent effective field goal rate. It isn’t rocket science with the Blackbirds. If they shoot the basketball well enough, they will win most nights. So far they are 4-1 when making at least 35 percent of their 3-pointers.

By tomorrow night, however, these rankings and projections will mean squat, as we embark on what proves to be another fascinating season. Enjoy the ride, if you can.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride