Nearly a quarter of the NEC season has been completed, so I’d like to go through the exercise of deciphering which 1-3 teams are in trouble and which could climb out of their early hole. With four programs off to difficult starts, I’d like to begin by assessing Sacred Heart and Bryant.
Later this week, Nelson Castillo and I will attempt to break down Central Connecticut and LIU Brooklyn as well.
Sacred Heart (6-11, 1-3 NEC)
There’s nothing more frustrating to a coach than watching his team slog through offensive set after offensive set. When you struggle to consistently score, it wears on a program. That’s the state of Sacred Heart at the moment, where the team is scoring 1.01 points per possession through four NEC games. On the surface that statistic looks respectable, yet it ranks ninth in a league of ten. Overall, the team has the 17th worst offensive efficiency in the country, at 92.9 points per 100 possessions. Against mid-major competition this season (12 games), the Pioneers are at a mediocre 0.98 points per possession.
So what has been the problem? Actually, it’s been a number of things. First of all, there isn’t a reliable option that can be counted on to continually absorb lots of possessions. I wrote about it this past offseason, and it appears Sacred Heart is yet another case where the offense digresses when trying to replace a volume scorer. Quincy McKnight, for as many turnovers as he committed last season, still could create for himself and others in isolation, taking tremendous pressure off the rest of his teammates. Joe Lopez is trying to be that player in McKnight’s absence – he leads Sacred Heart in possession rate by a mile at 30.6 percent – yet he’s shot 21 percent on 2-point and 3-point jumpers, an very low percentage for 70 attempts.
Sean Hoehn has lost efficiency with an increased role, and it’s difficult to forecast a turnaround after witnessing this trend progress over a two and a half-year, 78-game sample size. Point guard Cha Cha Tucker has been disappointing in his attempt to masquerade as a Phil Gaetano clone. Even in the games where Tucker serves as a serviceable facilitator (for example, when he had nine assists and one turnover versus Bryant last Saturday), he provides no scoring threat whatsoever (2 points, 1 of 5 field goals, 0 of 2 free throws in the same game).
Overall, though, it’s the Pioneers’ outside shooting, or lack thereof, which has been the most glaring deficiency. You simply can’t win consistently in this day and age by not making perimeter shots. Sacred Heart is 350th, out of 351 programs, in 3-point shooting. If it wasn’t for Kinnon LaRose catching fire in a December 31 contest against FDU – at one point in the second half FDU was a 95 percent favorite to win the game, according to KenPom – the Pioneers would reside as the only winless team in league play. Three Pioneers whom Latina believed would be better than 35 percent 3-point shooters, LaRose, Hoehn and Zach Radz, have combined to convert just 29.4 percent of their long distance attempts. At the moment, only 23.8 percent of the team’s points come from 3-pointers made, an NEC worst. There’s simply too much pressure on the Pioneer’s bigs to produce.
What can Anthony Latina do at this point, other than hope his team shoots it better from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe moving forward? Sadly, I’m not sure there’s much he and the staff can do other than tinker with his rotations and hope the team progresses to the mean with their shooting.
Up to this point, the team’s most efficient, all-around offensive player undoubtedly has been Mario Matasovic. In NEC play, the 6-8 senior has made 23 of 39 shots and registered a 126.8 offensive rating. He also leads the club in 3-point percentage at 35.5 percent. His issue has been his inability to stay on the floor, as he’s committed 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes. Unfortunately for Latina, this isn’t a career outlier; the Croatian has always had trouble controlling his defensive aggression. The Pioneers need to reduce Lopez’s influence away from the basket and continually feed it to Matasovic, who’s averaged 15.3 ppg in his last five games, and hope he can provide 25+ minutes per night. With Barnett as a weapon off the bench, Latina doesn’t really need to worry about the frontcourt’s production – it’s more about optimizing their touches and putting them in positions to succeed.
It’s the guard play that’s far more problematic, in my opinion. Tucker projects to be average at best in running the point. Hoehn is better served as a complementary piece, not as a guy expected to command the ball as what Ken Pomeroy would call a “significant contributor.” Young perimeter pieces like Zach Radz and Alex Watson are still learning on the job; therefore expecting a consistent effort every night from either isn’t realistic.
All of this is why the Pioneers will likely fight for the right to qualify in the back-end of the NEC tournament. When a roster loses all-conference studs Cane Broome and McKnight, two players comfortable as leading volume scorers, it wears on a roster. We are now witnessing the effects of those star players up transferring over the past two years – these talents at the NEC level don’t grow on trees.
At the moment, Sacred Heart’s ceiling appears to be a spot in the bottom half of the league standings, as a sixth or seventh place club. It’s tough to overachieve when the offensive production fails to keep up with the defense (3rd in league defensive efficiency) and rebounding. With a brutal six game stretch coming up that includes road games at Mount St. Mary’s, St. Francis Brooklyn, Saint Francis U and Robert Morris, “getting right” offensively will be difficult. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, the Sacred Heart season may be on the line over the next three weeks. A 3-7 or 2-8 start in league play is a brutal hole to climb out of.
Bryant (2-15, 1-3 NEC)
Bryant may have saved their season, albeit in the interim, with their “upset” victory over the hosting Pioneers last Saturday. The victory broke an 11-game losing streak, one that extended all the way back to Black Friday. While the Bulldogs only have two victories at this point, there is a sliver of hope that improvement is on the horizon with Tim O’Shea’s squad. That hope entirely lies with sophomore Adam Grant.
Grant came into his second season with high expectations, but due to injuries and a difficult non-conference schedule, the Virginia native has underwhelmed after a standout freshman season. Most recently, however, Grant seems to be over his past injury issues, averaging 27.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 3.5 apg while shooting 54.2 percent from the field over his past two games. Coincidentally, Bryant has scored 1.14 points per possession (ppp) over the same span, after registering just 0.96 ppp in 10 prior games against mid-major competition.
It’s no secret that O’Shea’s teams need to thrive offensively to have a chance to succeed. Since the team’s official entry into Division I, the Bulldogs have finished third or better in NEC offensive efficiency four out of five times since the 2012-13 season. In those seasons the Bulldogs had a conference record of 44-31. In the one year where they failed to meet this scoring benchmark (2015-16) though, they suffered through a miserable 8-23 campaign while missing the NEC tournament entirely. O’Shea later would admit that a “lack of offensive firepower” was the culprit for the down campaign.
Bryant is currently trending toward another poor offensive season, unless the sophomore trio of Grant, Sebastian Townes and Ikenna Ndugba can do their best to imitate Dyami Starks, Alex Francis and Frankie Dobbs.
O’Shea really needs these three to perform at a high level, because outside of Bosko Kostur, who’s capable of carrying a game or two, the depth on this roster seems to be the poorest it’s been in quite a while. Ryan Layman and Brandon Carroll haven’t yet morphed into the instant contributions some predicted they would be. Hunter Ware remains as inefficient as he was last season with an 81.6 offensive rating. Gus Riley has been a non-factor while his frontcourt battery mate, Aram Martin, is currently on the mend.
Grant, Ndugba, and Townes will be counted on to play at least 80% of the team’s minutes, a tactic O’Shea usually employs with his stars. But can they all play like stars?
Under the right schemes, I believe so. It may seem too simplistic to say the program’s future success lies in the hands of Grant, but this is likely the truth. If he turns into a NEC player of the week threat much of the time, Bryant will be a feisty bottom tier team of the conference, sharing a similar upside to Sacred Heart. With razor-thin depth behind their scoring trio, however, Bryant has a very real chance to finish in the NEC’s basement. Grant must stay healthy, perform, and Bryant will need to defend their home court like they have in year’s past.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride