It happens practically every season now. As we head into February, I’ll pick up my Blue Ribbon magazine and go over my preseason picks. And then I’ll wince as one or two Northeast Conference teams end up under or overachieving my predictions by a significant margin.
Who was this year’s team? The Wagner Seahawks.
I selected the Seahawks sixth in my Blue Ribbon poll, which was bearish when compared with the consensus. The coaches believed Wagner was the third best team in the preseason. I was clearly down on them. How would they respond after losing two top 10 players in Michael Carey and Corey Henson? All offseason I heard from other people in the league explaining that they’d rather have Henson than former NEC all-conference first teamers Nisre Zouzoua and Quincy McKnight.
How about immovable center Mike Aaman, how do you go about replacing his nationally ranked rebounding rates? Could we really count on Romone Saunders as a centerpiece of the offense, despite his constant struggle to stay healthy?
These were all reasonable questions to ask and I didn’t quite have the answers. Because of this and since I believed in LIU Brooklyn’s talent, Jamion Christian’s plan, Fairleigh Dickinson’s Darian Anderson and Mike Holloway and (gulp…) Sacred Heart’s stellar frontcourt despite the loss of McKnight, I selected those programs second through fifth, all ahead of Wagner. And I was wrong.
So why has Wagner beaten my expectations as they improbably stand on top of the Northeast Conference by two games? There are several reasons I’d like to discuss.
The Unexplained Stardom of JoJo Cooper
Raise your hand if you thought Cooper would end up on the NEC’s all-conference first team. Anyone? Well, me neither, but after 23 games the senior is a virtual lock to be there. I’d argue that Cooper has surpassed Keith Braxton, Dechon Burke and Joel Hernandez as the second best player in the league behind the Mount’s Junior Robinson. How exactly did this happen?
The NY Post’s Howie Kussoy attempted to solve this riddle, yet he discovered that even Mason has been surprised by Cooper’s improvement. The raw numbers are laid out in detail in Kussoy’s piece, but here’s how the analytics measure up, according to Ken Pomeroy.
- 2016-17: 91.9 offensive rating, 46% true shooting, 22% assist rate, 26% turnover rate
- 2017-18: 104.9 offensive rating, 51% true shooting, 39% assist rate, 23% turnover rate
That’s a wonderful improvement that isn’t explained after three years of average at best offensive numbers. Cooper’s usage has even climbed up considerably as a senior, which a lot of the time is a determent to efficiency. The senior started the 2017-18 campaign with two mediocre performances (17 points on 22 shots, 8 assists, 5 turnovers), but since then he’s been fantastic. KenPom has elected Cooper the game MVP seven times this season, which is remarkable since he only collected three such distinctions in his first three seasons in the Wagner green.
Whatever the reason for his success, Mason clearly trusts Cooper. The sixth year coach has always coveted balance and depth when deploying his playing rotations, yet Cooper has played more than 91 percent of the team’s available minutes this season. No other Seahawk in any given season under Mason has played more minutes than Cooper has as a senior.
As I’ll get to later, Blake Francis and Saunders are legitimate scoring options on the perimeter, players that typically command the team’s best perimeter defender, likely freeing up Cooper. The senior also has full autonomy of the offense, something he never had when Henson was in uniform. Perhaps these reasons, along with the maturity that comes with being a fourth year senior, has spurred an improbable run for Cooper. Whatever the reason, he’s arguably become as dominant as Kenny Ortiz (if not more) was back when he was the Seahawk’s point guard and unquestioned leader.
A Transcendent Scorer
If you laid witness to Wagner’s pristine second half at Robert Morris back on January 28, you surely were in awe of Francis, who quite literally turned an eight-point deficit into a three-point advantage over the course of five minutes. During the 14-3 Seahawks run, Francis made four 3s (out of four tries) and fed Shack Scott for an uncontested layup. Overall, he registered 17 second half points, while grabbing 3 rebounds. Andy Toole’s head must’ve been spinning midway through that second half.
Overall, Francis now has posted a KenPom offensive rating (ORtg) north of 100 in nine of his 11 league games. For the season, the silky smooth lefty has a 119.6 offensive rating. He has a chance to become just the third NEC player over the past decade to register an ORtg better than 120 with a possession rate north of 20 percent. You may have heard of the other two players.
- Karvel Anderson, Robert Morris – 129.0 ORtg during 2013-14 season
- Ken Horton, Central Connecticut – 123.2 ORtg during the 2010-11 season
Both Anderson and Horton won the NEC player of the year award in those respective seasons. I’m not saying Francis is deserving of this honor, but this surely provides perspective as to how efficient and lethal Francis has been in a Wagner uniform.
Most likely equate Francis as mainly a 3-point threat, but the truth is he has also been efficient inside the arc – making 46.2 percent of his 2s. For a 6-foot-0 sophomore to demonstrate a reasonable amount of efficiency on 104 attempts – not a small sample – makes Francis’ sophomore season even more impressive. He has stepped up in the absence of Corey Henson, and then some.
BLAKE FRANCIS IS ON 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Four threes in five minutes to start the second half!!!! pic.twitter.com/WMGsiqaWxL
— Wagner Men’s Basketball (@Wagner_MBB) January 28, 2018
The Suffocating Defense is Back
Wagner leads the conference in defensive efficiency by a mile, allowing just 91.9 points per 100 possessions. Only once have they allowed a league opponent to score more than 1.00 points per possession in a game. They also lead the league in 2-point field goal defense (40.9 percent) and block rate (12.2 percent).
One player who’s helped tremendously with the Seahawks defense is power forward A.J. Sumbry. The 6-foot-8 junior has had an effect on the game like former St. Francis Brooklyn forward Amdy Fall once did, by terrifying opponents around the rim. Sumbry has blocked 12.3 percent of the opponent’s shots while he’s on the floor, good for thirteenth nationally. The former Quinnipiac recruit has also cleaned up the defensive glass tremendously well, grabbing more than 22 percent of the opponent’s misses.
Sumbry’s impact has certainly extended to the team. When the red-shirt junior is on the floor this season, Wagner gives up 14 less points per 100 possessions, compared to when Sumbry is on the bench. That isn’t quite the impact Josh Nebo had on Saint Francis U last season, but it’s still a great defensive impact nonetheless.
Add it all up, and you have a championship contender. Is this the year Wagner finally breaks through to the NCAA tournament? It may take some luck, something that has evaded Mason in past NEC tournament games. With eight of their ten NEC victories coming by nine or more points though, the games may be too lopsided for it to come down to the wire. Hopefully for Mason sake, the fate of the NEC tournament doesn’t come down to a Keith Braxton 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride