Player of the Year: Keith Braxton, G/F, Jr., St. Francis (PA)
Coach of the Year: Rob Krimmel, St. Francis (PA)
Newcomer of the Year: Byron Hawkins, R Sr., Bryant
Freshman of the Year: Joe Kasperzyk, Bryant
1. St. Francis (PA)
Key Returners: Keith Braxton, Jamaal King, Andre Wolford, Isaiah Blackmon (injury), Randall Gaskins, Mark Flagg, Deivydas Kuzavas
Key Losses: Malik Harmon
Key Newcomers: Myles Thompson, Ramiir Dixon-Conover (JUCO), Luidgy Laporal (ineligible last year)
Outlook: A year after being the favorite in the league (near-unanimous pick in the preseason poll a year ago, St. Francis once again finds itself in that high status, returning nearly everyone of import from a team that ended up tying for second in the league. Rob Krimmel has done a fantastic job bringing in offensive talent, but he hasn’t shown the ability to construct a competent defense, and that has held the Red Flash back. In his seventh season in Loretto, Krimmel has the roster to make his first NCAA Tournament.
Completely ripping the defense isn’t totally fair, as it improved drastically during league play and actually ranked third. Krimmel coaches his teams to maniacally avoid fouling, ranking third in the country in opposing foul rate (free throws attempted / field goals attempted). This refusal to concede free points at the stripe led to weakness on the interior, though, as the defense was torched at the rim and on the glass. Krimmel will hope that more minutes for the rangy Mark Flagg will help in that department, but he’s incredibly thin at just 195 pounds and will continue to be overwhelmed physically without adding much strength to his frame. Deivydas Kuzavas isn’t much thicker himself at 6’10, 210 pounds, and Luidgy Laporal is more of a skilled finisher than a defensive stalwart. The Red Flash just hasn’t recovered from the transfer of NEC DPOY Josh Nebo after the 2016-17 campaign.
But the offense…oh, the offense. You could make a fairly strong argument that the Red Flash have three of the conference’s best five or six offensive players, with Keith Braxton as a do-everything 6’5 wing and the presumptive conference player of the year, Jamaal King as the high-usage lead guard, and Andre Wolford as one of the nation’s very best high-volume shooters. Braxton emerged into a bona fide star after winning Freshman of the Year in his first campaign, a capable shooter and creator who sparks the Red Flash’s potent transition attack as the conference’s best defensive rebounder. When he’s able to grab and go, St. Francis’s offense becomes a juggernaut.
Wolford, meanwhile, exemplifies the importance of knockdown shooting as a component of an efficient offense, even on a team with two other stars. He connected on an incredible 49% of his triples on a high volume, and the attention he drew lifted the offense to new heights:
He ranked 5th in the entire country in offensive rating and 7th in true shooting percentage; Jeff Goodman ranked him the 9th-best shooter in all of collegiate hoop.
Those three are a gigantic portion of the offense, and the team can struggle if one or more of them are having off nights. Randall Gaskins is barely noticeable on the attacking end, much more of a role player and defender, but the return of Isaiah Blackmon, who missed most of the season with a torn ACL, should offer added punch. Blackmon averaged 14.3ppg before his injury, a lights-out shooter himself who could make the offense nigh-unstoppable when camped on a wing opposite Wolford.
Bottom Line: The freedom Krimmel affords his players in the open floor spurs the attack, a prolific offense that should be even better with Blackmon’s return. If Flagg or one of the other bigs can nail down the center spot and simply be a rim-runner, rebounder, and physical presence in the paint defensively, the Red Flash have the highest ceiling in the NEC.
2. Robert Morris
Key Returners: Koby Thomas, Matty McConnell, Jon Williams, Malik Petteway, Charles Bain
Key Losses: Dachon Burke (transfer), Ronnie Gombe, Leondre Washington (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Josh Williams (Akron), Yannis Mendy (JUCO), Sayveon McEwen (JUCO), Cameron Wilbon
Outlook: After a remarkable start to his tenure at Robert Morris that had many labeling him a rising star in the college coaching ranks, Andy Toole and his program have stagnated slightly over the last three years. The Colonials have gone 8-10, 9-9, and 9-9 in the NEC over that span, as a flurry of up-transfers (Marcquise Reed, Rodney Pryor, Elijah Minnie, Isaiah Still) have sapped the offense’s creation and shot-making. This offseason, the transfer bug bit once again, as all-conference guard Dachon Burke took his talents to the cornfields of Lincoln, Nebraska, forcing the ninth-year coach to re-tool(e) his approach.
The Colonials thrive defensively, a pressuring unit with a plethora of length and quick guards that generates a ton of turnover (8th in the country last year in TO rate, per KenPom). Matty McConnell leads that unit, a terror on the ball who ranked 43rd in the entire country in steal rate. With McConnell and Burke as harassing on-ball defenders, Toole has mostly abandoned the zone traps that were his calling card a few years back:
Now that Burke is gone, it may make more sense to go back to those zones – let McConnell roam a bit more and create havoc with his elite anticipation.
The other end of court was a massive issue, though. Robert Morris ranked 331st in the country and dead last in the NEC in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Freshman point guard Jon Williams was far too turnover-prone, a common bugaboo for young guards. Toole will hope that another year of experience and the addition of big brother Josh Williams will stabilize things – think of it like having Amir AND Achmed Khan in Backyard Baseball (possibly the GOAT computer game). Josh is much more of a standstill wing gunner: during his sophomore season at Akron, he took 184 threes compared to just 37 twos. That shooting alone should ease the burden on his younger brother, offering more space for him to operate. Sayveon McEwen gives them an attack-minded driver, and freshman Cameron Wilbon offers more size than the rest of the RMU guards.
Toole’s offenses are some of the most pick-and-roll-reliant in the country, further emphasizing the importance of Jon Williams and McConnell as primary ball-handlers. The below chart shows the Colonials’ frequency of play types, with the rank showing the frequency relative to the other 350 Division I teams (so for instance - this means they almost never post up):
Of course, that much emphasis on PnR also requires the “R” portion, and bouncy forward Koby Thomas should be a weapon there with added strength. He got pushed around some, but his athleticism and tenacity on the boards earned him the NEC Rookie of the Year last year. Fellow sophomore Charles Bain is a capable threat as well, and he’ll compete with senior Malik Petteway and JUCO transfer Yannis Mendy for the starting center role. I’m giving the edge to Petteway (if healthy enough to play) due to his experience and shot-blocking capabilities, but this situation could be extremely fluid throughout the year.
Bottom Line: Robert Morris was one of the youngest teams in the country last year (349th in experience), so adding a year of experience for most of the roster (plus adding the JUCO guys and the older Williams) should be huge. Despite the past three seasons of mediocrity, I’m still a believer in Andy Toole, and despite Burke’s transfer, I think they’ll be the “best of the rest” behind the Red Flash’s top-shelf offense.
3. Fairleigh Dickinson
Key Returners: Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway, Jahlil Jenkins, Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams
Key Losses: Darian Anderson, Noah Morgan (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Xzavier Malone-Key (Rider), BJ Saliba, Brandon Powell
Outlook: Like Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson has been perfectly mediocre in the conference for two consecutive years, compiling a 9-9 record in both seasons. Unlike RMU, though, coach Greg Herenda and his teams have more issues stopping people. As with basically every NEC team, the Knights lost a player to transfer (although Noah Morgan is initially going to a junior college, I’d wager that he ends up as a quasi-up-transfer following this year), but they have enough pieces to make a run towards the top of the league. FDU actually won five of its final seven league games and beat this year’s presumed favorite, St. Francis (PA), on the road in the league tournament, indicating an ascendant trajectory this year.
The Knights’ offense is predicated on attacking the rim, especially via offensive rebounding or getting downhill in transition. Per hoop-math, FDU took the 13th-highest percentage of shots at the rim in the entire country, demonstrating just how important the paint is to them. They’re armed with weapons to attack in both aspects, and despite the loss of Noah Morgan and his perimeter shooting, I expect FDU’s offense to rise above fifth in the NEC, which is where it finished a season ago. Mike Holloway is a load inside, as his built 6’8, 245-pound allows him to overpower many of the NEC’s thinner, younger big men. He and sophomore forward Kaleb Bishop both ranked in the league’s top 8 in offensive rebound rate, and reserves Nadi Beciri and Elyjah Williams get on the glass hard during their spurts on the floor.
Alternatively, when the team hits the gas pedal, rising sophomore point guard Jahlil Jenkins and wing Darnell Edge are a formidable pair. Jenkins showed the potential of a future star in the league (hopefully not an up-transfer), a solid distributor who excelled at beating his man off the dribble. Edge, meanwhile, was the best free throw shooter in the entire country (95%) and is a weapon when defenses are scrambling to matchup. Xavier Malone-Key and BJ Saliba offer major potential as newcomers, with Saliba looking like a future all-NEC candidate.
The issues arise on the defensive end, where Herenda’s teams are routinely clobbered on the defensive glass and foul far too much to offset the turnovers they force as a result of that aggression. Herenda mixes in quite a bit of zone (ranged between 20-35% of the time over the last five years), which obviously contributes to their utter inability to end possessions with a rebound. Holloway is merely average for someone of his physical stature, and the guards need to avoid leaking out too early. Teams that move the ball well and crash the glass will have success against FDU.
Bottom Line: Fairleigh Dickinson has notable weaknesses on both ends (shooting without Morgan, the defensive glass), but they should still have a “Fairleigh” successful year (if you didn’t see that coming, you just haven’t read enough of my stuff yet – apologies). They’ll struggle in the non-conference against bigger teams with size to defend the rim, but in the smaller NEC, that won’t be as much of an issue. I’m a hair lower on them than teams 2 through 4, but finishing second is entirely possible.
Key Returners: Romone Saunders, Elijah Davis, AJ Sumbry, Devin Liggeons, Nigel Jackson
Key Losses: JoJo Cooper, Blake Francis (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Lonnie Rivera (American), Jonathan Norfleet, Chance Anderson (JUCO), Tyrone Nesby IV, Jeff Coulanges (JUCO)
Outlook: Wagner is in the midst of a semi-dominant fun in the NEC, having won three regular season titles in seven years, as Bashir Mason (and Dan Hurley before him) have brought talent and a competitive culture to Staten Island. Unfortunately, the Seahawks have struggled to extend that their run into the postseason. They’ve lost on their home floor in the NEC Tournament in five of the last seven years (and two of the last three were the title game with an NCAA bid on the line), and Wagner is still in search of its first invite to the Big Dance since 2003.
This year’s squad loses the starring backcourt of Blake Francis and JoJo Cooper (who I met on the San Antonio Riverwalk – lovely gentleman), but they return the entire frontcourt for one of the country’s most dominant offensive rebounding teams. This gives them a distinct identity to rely on as the green backcourt gains experience, so although Wagner may struggle during the nonconference portion of the season, I believe Mason will have them competitive once again in the NEC. AJ Sumbry led the conference (and ranked ninth nationally) in offensive rebound rate, and basically every other rotation player outside of Francis and Cooper got his hands dirty as well. The additions of Lonnie Rivera and Chance Anderson should allow Mason to return to more of a two-big lineup after downsizing quite a bit last year, and stretch-four Nigel Jackson should still allow for space in the paint with his burgeoning three-point stroke.
Romone Saunders and Elijah Davis are switchable wings who play bigger than their size (6’3 and 6’4) indicates, and given Wagner’s roster composition, they may end up playing more as guards than forwards (last year brought more of the latter). Devin Liggeons is also a terrific rebounder as a 6’3 guard, and he could start if Mason opts for a smaller lineup. With Cooper and Francis running the show, Mason allowed more freedom for the Seahawks to push in transition, but I’d expect him to pump the breaks on offense and be more reminiscent of the 2016-17 team that played through the star frontcourt of Mike Aaman and Michael Carey. That also (hopefully) means less responsibility for the inexperienced guards, including sophomore Chase Freeman (who started 11 games last year) and freshman Jonathan Norfleet.
Sumbry is also a devastating shot-blocker, leading the conference in block rate (20th nationally), and only bouts of foul trouble prevented him from being a DPOY-caliber player. With more inexperience in the backcourt, expect Mason to play more zone than he did last year (only 7%, after 20% in 16-17), but Sumbry’s presence is a major stabilizer if the perimeter players struggle to stay in front of opponents at first. Wagner plays an extremely physical brand of defense (unsurprising given their personnel), and they rely on making foes uncomfortable to make up for an unfortunate penchant for fouling at a high rate.
Bottom Line: Back-to-back offseasons with a promising sophomore guard leaving town (Blake Francis and Corey Henson) have left Wagner thin in the backcourt, but shifting Saunders and Davis into more backcourt-oriented roles can help solve that somewhat. As long as the Freeman/Norfleet combo can be “game managers” at PG and allow the team’s superior interior physicality to shine on both ends, the Seahawks should remain competitive in the upper portion of the NEC.
5. LIU Brooklyn
Key Returners: Raiquan Clark, Jashaun Agosto, Julian Batts
Key Losses: Joel Hernandez, Zach Coleman, Jamall Robinson
Key Newcomers: Tyrn Flowers (UMass), Ousmane Ndim
Outlook: It didn’t take long for the savvy hire of Derek Kellogg to pay off in Brooklyn. The Blackbirds swooped in to nab Kellogg after UMass relieved him of his duties, and he quickly installed his uptempo, transition offense. The roster he took over had enough high-level guards to make it work, and LIU rode a late season hot streak to change a 4-5 league record into a 10-8 finish and an NCAA Tournament berth. Although that ended on play-in Tuesday with a loss to Radford, Kellogg’s first campaign was unquestionably a success.
The Blackbirds lose three rotation players from one of the thinnest teams in the country (325th in bench minutes), but the returning triumvirate of Raiquan Clark, Jashaun Agosto, and Julian Batts fits together perfectly, offering a variety of skills and ways to beat opponents. LIU ranked 19th in the country in percentage of shots taken in transition, per hoop-math, demonstrating just how reliant they were on those guards to get out and push the ball. Agosto is the engine, and despite being a smallish 5’11, 150 pounds, he’s adept at getting into the lane and creating for others. Kellogg has long had success with diminutive guards (Chaz Williams was an absolute killer at UMass), and Agosto and Batts both fit that bill. Batts is more of a shooter (nearly 2/3 of his field goal attempts were threes), and his 41.2% conversion rate makes him a major weapon. Finally, Clark is a matchup nightmare in the NEC due to his size (6’6) and ability to attack from perimeter and his activity off the ball; he led the conference in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free throw rate (FT attempted / FG attempted).
The concern is who else produces for such a perimeter-heavy team. Hernandez was a dominant 20ppg scorer who led the NEC in percentage of shots taken when on the floor, and while the above trio will soak up many of those open shots, Kellogg needs at least one or two other guards to emerge for his system to function optimally. Raul Frias is the most likely of a few candidates, and I think Shyheim Hicks can take a step forward as a sophomore, but the team’s backcourt depth will be dicey at best.
Instead, Kellogg may slide Clark up to the SF spot and play two bigs. That’s more of an option due to the versatility of his choices, particularly Tyrn Flowers, a perimeter-oriented 6’9 forward who followed Kellogg from UMass. He can run the floor and knock down triples, which will help open the court for the rest of the team’s scorers. Julius van Sauers and Eral Penn are the two primary big man options, with van Sauers being a true gritty garbage man and Penn showing more upside as a glass-eater and rim protector during his freshman year – provided he can stay on the floor given his troubling foul issues. If Kellogg wants to go jumbo (and reinforce the Blackbirds’ iffy 2-point defense), 7’0 freshman Ousmane Ndim looks surprisingly game-ready for a low-major recruit of his physical gifts.
Bottom Line: LIU has the top-level talent to stay competitive in the league, even without Hernandez. Kellogg is a strong coaching mind with experience in the A-10 and on John Calipari’s staff, a massive asset at this level of basketball; if he can coax some development and production out of the roster’s lesser-heralded players, the Blackbirds will compete for a second-straight NCAA appearance.
Key Returners: Ikenna Nguba, Adam Grant, SaBastian Townes, Brandon Carroll
Key Losses: Bosko Kostur, Hunter Ware
Key Newcomers: Byron Hawkins (Murray St.), Juan Cardenas (JUCO), Joe Kasperzyk, Nino Hernandez
Outlook: After ten seasons at the helm, Tim O’Shea retired at the end of the 2017-18 campaign, opening the Bryant head coaching position for the first time at the Division I level. O’Shea successfully guided the Bulldogs through the transition period, including a year as an independent, and although his NEC tenure was bookended by two ugly campaigns (a combined 4-57, WOOF), he did an admirable job at an infantile program. Now that he’s gone, though, the Bryant administration may soon realize that the grass-o was greener on the other side all along…
That’s right folks, crappy coach pun coming through! Bryant hired Iona assistant Jared Grasso, and he appears primed to bring many of Tim Cluess’s principles with him to Smithfield – including, but not limited to, finding gems on the transfer market and employing a fast-paced, spread offense that allows his guards tons of freedom and affords his big men plenty of room to operate inside.
Those Cluess offenses always seemed to have prolific scoring guards and/or efficient floor generals at the helm (Rickey McGill, AJ English, MoMo Jones, Scott Machado), and Grasso has perfect candidates for those roles. Junior Ikenna Nguba will be the creator, using his quickness and vision to wreak havoc in transition, while Murray State grad transfer Byron Hawkins should average 15+ppg during his lone season in Smithfield. Of course, the Bulldogs already have another 15ppg scorer on the perimeter in Adam Grant, and his efficiency should spike as he gets significantly more open looks on the wing. The Nguba-Grant combo was key to any “success” the Bulldogs managed last year; per Hoop Lens, the team was 18 points per 100 possessions better when they played together (-13 per 100 with them together, -31 (!!!) per 100 in any other configuration – again, WOOF). They complement each other well, and adding in a prolific scorer like Hawkins should only emphasize those harmonoius skills. Joe Kasperzyk should give Grasso a bench option as a freshman, and he’ll be a long-term building block as Grasso attempts to resurrect the Bryant program. He may even start, as he notably dropped 25 points in the team’s “secret” scrimmage against Army.
Another key will be identifying which big(s) can make best use of the space that the offense should provide. Bosko Kotsur graduates, but two redshirt sophomores in Brandon Carroll and Lithuanian Monty Urmilevicius will vie for the starting gig, but they both may be beat out by Colombian Juan Cardenas, a double-double threat. The internationals look like much bigger offensive threats than Carroll, who for some reason took 31 three-pointers last year (made seven – 22.6%), while Patrick Harding’s skill level makes him a tantalizing option even as a true freshman. There’s also SaBastian “Bash” Townes, a unique player (listed at 6’5, 260 pounds) who can punish opponents on the post with his strength. I’d expect Grasso to mix and match quite a bit between those four, trying to find the combination that works best (I’ll be monitoring the on/off lineup data as the season progresses…).
Bottom Line: Grasso is a major shot in the arm for a program that desperately needed it after last year’s debacle. His area connections after serving on Cluess’s staff and appealing style of play should allow him to collect some solid talent from around the New England area, and if the current roster takes to the Iona-esque principles, Bryant could add 10+ wins to their ledger. That would be a promising start indeed, especially compared to Grasso’s nightmare stint as Fordham’s interim coach in 2009-10, where he went 1-22 (0-16).
7. Central Connecticut State
Key Returners: Tyler Kohl, Deion Bute, Joe Hugley, Kashaun Hicks
Key Losses: Mustafa Jones, Austin Nehls (transfer), Eric Bowles (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Ian Krishnan, Mike Underwood, Jamir Coleman (JUCO), Thai Segwai, Will Ellis
Outlook: Year two of the Donyell Marshall Experience was, by most objective measures, a success: the “other” Blue Devils won 8 more games, including 3 more in conference, and moved up 30 spots in KenPom relative to the 2016-17 version. The offense went from heinous to garden variety bad, and with most of a solid frontcourt returning to New Britain, Marshall’s interior-driven style should continue to grow and improve.
Unfortunately, I’m a firm believer that guards win games in the lower ranks of Division I, and Central Connecticut’s struggles seem to support that. Offensively, they play through 6’5 forward Tyler Kohl, mostly due to the fact that last year’s guard rotation – Tyson Batiste, Shakaris Laney, Eric Bowles, and Austin Nehls (the last three of whom all grad transferred out of the program) – showed little-to-no creation ability or offensive dynamism. As the only member of that group that returns, Batiste is a likely starter, but he makes very little impact when on the court, almost seeming afraid to shoot. That elevates multiple players in the freshman class into a crucial role, as Ian Krishnan, Thai Segwai, Will Ellis and Mike Underwood will take center stage from Day 1. It’s conceivable (albeit unlikely) that three of them could start, as Batiste and Kashaun Hicks weren’t exactly world-beaters last season.
Note: The above paragraph initially listed Shakaris Laney as a returner - it has been fixed. Hat tip to @BlueDevlsDen.
The Blue Devils ranked an abysmal 337th in the country in turnover rate, evidence of just how little they got out of their guards (Nehls is blameless, as mostly a standstill shooter). Playing a ton of freshmen in the backcourt isn’t exactly the way to solve TO issues, so expect that to continue. CCSU runs an extremely patient, deliberate offense, which often leaves them pressing to make plays up against a ticking shot clock. Even though Kohl acquits himself well as a creator, they simply didn’t have the perimeter threats to sustain an efficient offense.
Another reason the turnovers are killer is that they remove the Blue Devils’ best source of offense, crashing the glass. Deion Bute is a load on that end, and Kohl and Joe Hugley round up their fair share of misses as well. Bute was also the team’s best post threat, a play type they employed often, but none of those three primary bigs scored effectively enough to scare defenses.
The strength of the defense was also on the interior, as Bute and Hugley provide some deterrence at the rim for would-be drivers, and CCSU rebounded at the league’s second-best rate. Kohl’s ability to grab-and-go adds a unique transition element to a mostly halfcourt-based offense, as well. South Plains JUCO transfer Jamir Coleman didn’t play a ton at the 2-year powerhouse, but his athleticism stands out, and he’ll fit right into the glass-crashing strategy that Marshall employs.
Bottom Line: With the steady forces in the interior, Central Connecticut likely has a fairly stable floor, but the lack of experience on the perimeter could prove to be a fatal flaw. The freshmen do have some talent – Marshall’s NBA career and regional status have to be helping on the recruiting trail – so if Marshall is patient and lets them get their feet wet, they could prove to be a solid foundation for future years of contending.
8. St. Francis - Brooklyn
Key Returners: Glenn Sanabria, Jalen Jordan, Milija Cosic, Chauncey Hawkins
Key Losses: Rasheem Dunn (transfer), DJ Porter, Josh Nicholas (transfer), Jagos Lasic
Key Newcomers: Christian Rohlehr (JUCO), Larry Moreno, Steven Krtinic, Rosel Hurley (JUCO)
Outlook: It’s impossible to discuss St. Francis without mentioning the ignominious distinction of being one of only four original D-I programs to never make the tournament (along with Army, William & Mary, and The Citadel). Okay, it’s totally possible to discuss them without mentioning that, but it’s a fun fact and I like discussing it! Those poor four schools are like the last survivors on a desert island where most of the others were rescued a long time ago (congrats to Northwestern for building a raft in 2016-17!). And unless the Terriers’ diminutive backcourt breaks out in a major way (or the newcomers blow away all expectations), that streak seems a sure bet to continue.
SFC is powered by The Two Glenns – that being ninth-year head coach Glenn Braica and redshirt senior point guard Glenn Sanabria. Braica’s best teams in Brooklyn have been fueled by their aggressive man-to-man defense, extending on the perimeter to take away the three-point line, disrupt offensive action, and force turnovers. The offseason hit that scheme hard – DJ Porter, Rasheem Dunn, and Jagos Lasic were the Terriers’ most disruptive defenders – so Sanabria & co. will need to pick up the slack. From 2014-2016, Braica was also able to count on the NEC’s #5 shot-blocker of all-time (fun fact: this guy is number one), Amdy Fall, which short-circuited the attack of the many rim-reliant NEC offenses. Joshua Nurse flashed some potential as a shot-blocker last year, and Canadian JUCO transfer Christian Rohlehr averaged 5.4bpg at his last stop, albeit against massively underwhelming competition. Nurse may miss the season after suffering a broken leg during the offseason, though, so expect Rohlehr to earn big minutes as soon as he can handle them.
Similar to the defense, the offense is extremely perimeter-driven. Sanabria is the table-setter as a quick, sure-handed lead guard, and he and rising sophomore Jalen Jordan combine to form one of the most prolific shooting tandems in the conference (they combined to shoot 41% from deep on 300+ attempts). Only Mount St. Mary’s scored more of its points from beyond the arc last year, and with a new coach taking over there, SFC may be the most three-centric team in the league:
For a team that consistently takes more than 40% of its shots from downtown, the removal of Dunn’s 28% gunning may actually help somewhat. Of course, the loss of the other aspects of his offensive game – transition force, strong penetrator – will offset the shooting bump. The emergence of other shooters around the primary duo – like forward Milija Cosic, 5’8 sophomore Chauncey Hawkins, and local freshman Larry Moreno – will be paramount.
Older Braica teams also hammered the offensive glass far more than recent versions (mainly due to personnel). Despite the addition of Rohlehr, the rest of the rotation will be littered with guards and smaller forwards, so I’d expect the more conservative style of the past two years to remain.
Bottom Line: The Glenn Connection gives the Terriers two solid pillars around which to base their team, but the surrounding roster is full of question marks. Rohlehr needs to be a rotation contributor immediately or SFC will be frighteningly small in the paint, and the offensive production beyond Sanabria and Jordan is a toss-up. The Terriers could end up as high as sixth, but I’d be surprised if they cracked the league’s top five, who I perceive to be a notch or two above the bottom half.
9. Mount St. Mary’s
Key Returners: No one, really. Omar Habwe, if you’re feeling charitable
Key Losses: Junior Robinson, Chris Wray, Donald Carey (transfer), Jonah Antonio (transfer), Greg Alexander, Bobby Planutis (transfer), Ryan Gomes (transfer)…do you get the picture?
Key Newcomers: KJ Scott (Texas Southern), Vado Morse, Dee Barnes, Colin Nnamene, Martin Poulsen, Matt Becht, Malik Jefferson
Outlook: A solemn moment of silence for Mayhem at the Mount, Jamion Christian’s electric, fast-paced style that was a low-major answer to Havoc and Press Virginia. Mount St. Mary’s felt the nauseating effects of the coaching carousel, as its promising young head man climbed the program prestige ladder to Siena (relatively late) in the offseason. A mass player exodus followed him, and what’s left is as close to a college basketball expansion team as you can get.
The Mount returns the lowest percentage of minutes played in the country, per barttorvik.com, and hired coaching youngster Dan Engelstad to take over the program. Engelstad’s resume is limited – three years as an assistant at Mount St. Mary’s, three at Holy Cross, five years as head coach of D-III Southern Vermont in the ELITE New England Collegiate Conference – and he’ll have one of the least experienced teams in the country, but most seem encouraged by the hire.
Thankfully, Synergy actually has some limited Division III data. Southern Vermont finished 23.3% of its possessions in transition (six games of data), which, while not super fast for that level, would have ranked ninth in Division I. Given the personnel – a lot of guards, very little continuity – it seems highly likely that Engelstad will continue to play in the open floor. The most likely starting backcourt consists of two freshmen, Vado Morse and Dee Barnes, both of whom excel in space, where they can use their shiftiness and athleticism to get to the rim. A third freshman, Matt Becht, will stretch the floor, although he may end up as a microwave bench option behind Texas Southern grad transfer KJ Scott, a versatile wing who has actually played in some meaningful D-I games – including the NCAA Tournament loss to UNC in 2017.
With the expectation of playing a high tempo (and likely some fullcourt pressure), Engelstad will need some mobility in the frontcourt. That makes returning forward Omar Habwe a useful piece, even though he rarely played last year (and shot the ball even more rarely). More freshmen – including cerebral Danish ‘tweener Martin Poulsen and extremely bouncy Nigerian forward Colin Nnamene – will see plenty of time as well, and Malik Jefferson will be a physical presence for when the game does grind down into more of a halfcourt battle.
Bottom Line: If the Mountaineers stay out of the NEC cellar, it will be a monumental achievement for Engelstad as he kicks off his tenure. The roster is not without talent, but the complete and total lack of experience and continuity makes the year a tremendous challenge. The optimism around the hire from those adjacent to the Mount program (including Christian and Engelstad’s former boss, Milan Brown) reflect positively on future results, but the present may not be anything more than laying the foundation for the future.
10. Sacred Heart
Key Returners: Sean Hoehn, Kinnon LaRose, Zach Radz
Key Losses: Joseph Lopez, Mario Matasovic, De’Von Barnett, Charles Tucker
Key Newcomers: Koreem Ozier, Jare’l Spellman (D-II), Cameron Parker, Aaron Clarke, Myles Cephas, Zach Pfaffenberger
Outlook: In a league that’s been decimated by up-transfers throughout the past few years, Sacred Heart might have had it the worst. Cane Broome went to Cincinnati, followed a year later by Quincy McKnight heading to Seton Hall, robbing the Pioneers of two elite scorers (Broome racked up 23.1ppg in 2015-16, McKnight 18.9ppg in 16-17). Without both guys, last year was a struggle, as Anthony Latina’s squad lacked a dynamic dribble drive threat to break down defenses. That same flaw may spell doom this year, as well.
Latina’s teams are some of the most rim-reliant in the entire country, focusing nearly all of their offensive efforts on scoring in the paint. Last year, the Pioneers took 47.2% of their shots at the rim, per hoop-math, the #2 rate in the entire country. Whether it was via drive or offensive rebound, the attack was constantly geared towards pressuring the opposition inside. Sean Hoehn is the primary source of creation, but he’s a different player than Broome and McKnight – he’s a skilled passer, but he’ll need help from freshmen Koreem Ozier and Cameron Parker to maintain the team’s potency attacking the basket.
The interior barrage will be led by EJ Anosike, Division II transfer Jare’l Spellman, and freshmen Myles Cephas and Zach Pfaffenberger. The Pioneers ranked 58th nationally in offensive rebound rate (2nd in the NEC), and Anosike’s excellent per-minute production on the glass portends big things from the rising sophomore. Spellman is almost frighteningly thin, but he’s bouncy and showed plenty of potential in his two years at Florida Southern. The two rookies may not be entirely ready for the rigors of Division I, but given the lack of depth and Latina’s style, they’ll probably have to play immediately.
Spellman will also be a massive contributor on the defensive end as a rim protector. He’s Florida Southern’s all-time leading shot-blocker, and between him and additional minutes for Anosike, the Pioneers’ interior defense should actually be fairly stout. Sacred Heart plays a relatively basic halfcourt man-to-man scheme, a conservative approach that concedes a high volume of threes and sends almost no pressure on the perimeter.
Kinnon LaRose turned out to be an important addition last year as essentially the team’s only wing shooter (although Hoehn may boost that spot if Ozier or Parker take over at point). Although the team doesn’t shoot many threes, LaRose’s influence was clear: SHU scored a mediocre 1.00 points per possession with him on the court, but without him, that number dropped to a hideous 0.93ppp. Zach Radz is a similar player, but his bricky shooting retracted from his effectiveness.
Bottom Line: I’ll give Coach Latina this: he’s cultivated a distinct style in Fairfield, and at a low-major, that’s usually a good step to consistent competitiveness. Unfortuantely, he’s been undercut by his best players moving up in the basketball world, and he’s struggled to replenish the cupboard with more players who fit the style. This year’s freshman guards offer some upside (Aaron Clarke is another option), but the more likely scenario is that they’re simply too young to be overly competitive this year.