In just several hours, the NEC conference gets underway and we all begin to see who in actuality are the real NEC title contenders or just disappointing pretenders. Since the non-conference season is finally over and pretty much every NEC team got about a dozen or so games under their belt, it is time now to hand out mid-season grades to all 12 NEC teams.
I got to give head coach Tim O’Shea tons of credit in quickly rebuilding this Bryant program from a 2-win team last season to already a 7-win team this season and that is even before conference play. Yes, their schedule was light as they did play the 10th worst strength of schedule according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers but you couldn’t have expected them to play a tough schedule after last season. They managed their schedule smartly this season and have gotten great results from it. They in fact may have the two best non-conference wins overall for the NEC, in beating Boston College and Lehigh. Never mind that both of those wins were on the road. That’s impressive stuff. Now, they are being looked as a top 4 team who can possibly get a home playoff game in March. Time will tell about that although I wouldn’t bet against them right now. Dyami Starks has come out of seemingly nowhere and has the seventh-best points per game average amongst all NEC players at 16.9 ppg. Add in the double-digit scoring the Bulldogs are getting out of Alex Francis and Frankie Dobbs and no wonder the Bulldogs are finally finding success in the NEC. Let’s see if their play translates into the conference season.
My update projected NEC finish: 6th
Central Connecticut State: C
Let me raise my hand. I was one of those who counted out Howie Dickenman and his Blue Devils out. I picked them to finish 9th and they are probably going to make me and a lot of other people look bad for doing so. Their offense is a lot better than what people expected coming into the season. I thought it would be all Kyle Vinales and little help from the rest of the team but I was surprising wrong. Although Vinales has been the Ironman of the NEC with a 39.9 minutes per game average and the top scorer in the NEC (20.7 ppg), CCSU has some talent behind him in the forms of Matt Hunter (18.9 ppg) and Adonis Burbage (10.7 ppg) who is having a very nice sophomore year. CCSU is the middle of the NEC in both offensive and defensive points per possession. They are though the worst rebounding team in the NEC with a 42.3% rebound rate. Yet, they are playing very hard and will once again look like they will make the NEC playoffs. Their C grade is attributed to them only having four wins, as they should have had probably a couple of more especially the St. Peter’s game at home on Saturday.
My updated projected NEC finish: 7th
Fairleigh Dickinson: B
FDU, along with Bryant, is one of the surprise teams of the halfway mark. Everyone left this team for dead in the bottom two of the NEC. They won five non-conference games so far. They won only three total games all of last season. Plenty of credit goes to head coach Greg Vetrone who has done a heck of a job. They have gotten outstanding performances from senior Kinu Rochford (18.0 ppg) who is currently on a tear with two-straight 30+ point/11+ rebound performances. Melquan Bolding (15.2 ppg) and Lonnie Robinson (13.0 ppg) are having nice senior seasons for the Knights. Their offense is sixth-best in the NEC in points per possession but their defense is bad as they have the worst defensive points per possession allowed in the NEC. Now, that it comes time to for conference basketball, I think FDU comes back to Earth a little and will still fall short of making the NEC tournament although not by much.
My updated projected NEC finish: 10th
LIU Brooklyn: D
I was given some flack for being soft on LIU Brooklyn in the November grades but I can’t do it here in the mid-season grades. LIU has been too up and down for my liking and right now they are on a major downward trend. I gave them the benefit of the doubt due to the tough first four games, all away from the friendly confines of the Wellness Center. Home helped heal a lot of early wounds but then the floor dropped from underneath them in losing the Julian Boyd, the reigning NEC Player of the Year for the season and losing his 18.5 ppg to a knee injury. After an emotional home win vs Manhattan, the Blackbirds have looked nothing but shaky since. They looked bad in losing to St. Peter’s, got whipped by Seton Hall at Barclays and then lost to a one-win team in Lamar on the road. LIU is reeling and now they start conference-play without their two best remaining players in Jamal Olasewere (18.7 ppg) and C.J. Garner (11.3 ppg) as they serve two-game suspensions. Their defense has struggled mightily for most of the season and lately the offense without their go-to guy in Boyd on the floor has looked quite frankly poor. With no Boyd, it would hard to see LIU winning the regular-season this time around. The question is now, can they get it together to still finish in the top four and make this a season or is this magical run of the last two years finally over? I think they still have the talent and ability to make a run, question is do THEY believe they have it? We shall see.
My updated projected NEC finish: 3rd
After a nice November, December was unkind to King Rice and his Hawks. They beat lowly Binghamton and then proceeded to lose their last five games. They took on a rather tough schedule in December which explains all the losses but Monmouth hasn’t looked like the team I was expected them to be coming into the year. Jesse Steele, who I had high hopes for, just hasn’t been the player he was last season. Steele is shooting 26% this season and is scoring 8.1 points per game. The team as a whole has struggled offensively this whole non-conference season. Ed Waite (7.7 ppg) is the only player shooting over 50% on the team. Their team effective field goal percentage is 42.6%, 326 in the nation. Defensively, they are playing pretty well so that is probably where they might need to hang their hat on to win NEC games this season.
My updated projected NEC finish: 9th
Mount St. Mary’s: B
The first non-conference season for Jamion Christian must be considered a success. The Mount are already more than halfway to last season’s win total of eight. The Mount is one of three teams who went undefeated at home in the non-conference. Mount Mayhem is still a work in progress. Their offensive and defensive numbers are far from spectacular. Their effective field goal percentage of 48% is 6th in the NEC. Their leading scorer, Rashad Whack (12.4 ppg) is only 19th in NEC in scoring. The offense right now is behind their defense as they are only scoring just over 60 points per game (1oth in NEC) while giving up over 71 points per game (5th in NEC). I think this team is going to get better as the NEC season goes along. Teams seeing this system for the first time especially at the Mount might get rattled and have a hard time dealing with the pressure the Mount is going to try to put on teams. Having two homes games to start the NEC season will help in gaining some confidence.
My updated projected NEC finish: 8th
I had to say that Quinnipiac are in the disappointing list along with LIU and Sacred Heart. The 4-7 Bobcats has been quite frankly terrible at home at 1-4, losing to teams like American and Maine. Quinnipiac are 2-6 since starting the year 2-1. This is all from a team many had locked finishing in the top four. Their offense has been absolutely dreadful. They are near the bottom in offensive points per possession and effective field goal percentage. As expected, they have been the best rebounding team in the NEC with a rebound rate of 57.1% and their defense has been pretty solid for the most part. If Quinnipiac get their act together on the offensive end, they have the talent on their roster to be top 2 or 3 team in the NEC. Guys like Ike Azotam who is averaging near a double-double at 14.2 ppg & 9.3 rebounds per game, Garvey Young (10.3 ppg), Zaid Hearst (8.5 ppg) and Dave Johnson (7.5 ppg) will need to do more or else the seat could start getting very warm underneath head coach Tom Moore before they even make to the MAAC.
My updated projected NEC finish: 5th
Sacred Heart: F
The most disappointing team in the non-conference by far has been Sacred Heart. The season seems to only gotten worse for the Pioneers as it has gone along. In fairness, they did lose a couple of key guys in Evan Kelley and Chris Evans but they had All-NEC first teamer Shane Gibson (16.3 ppg) who just not been the same player he was last season. His effective field goal percentage is 10% lower than it was at the end of the last season at 49.1%. His numbers across the board are down. Justin Swidowski, who I was high on before the season and was slowed down by injury, has also been underwhelming this season at 7.2 ppg which is down from last year. Louis Montes is the only SHU player who seem to be having a good season. His near 13 ppg is 2nd-best on the roster and his 6.7 rpg is a team-high. A telling game of how the rest of the rest of their season will go is the game versus a depleted-LIU Brooklyn on Thursday. If they lose at home to LIU, they can pretty much start kissing their season good-bye.
My updated projected NEC finish: 11th
St. Francis Brooklyn: C
The Terriers have been somewhat erratic this non-conference season. They have looked great at times and then they have looked like a team that can’t get by anyone. To their credit, they took on some good teams on the road and didn’t come out with the results they were looking for. Home loses to Army and Stony Brook didn’t help matters. They did win their final two games and they do have probably one of the best player in the NEC people are going to start talking more and more about in double-double machine Jalen Cannon (17.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg). They have some good players in Ben Mockford (10.6 ppg), Akeem Johnson (10.4 ppg) and rising-star Kevin Douglas (9.9 ppg). The question with SFC is their point guard play. The duo of Brent Jones and Dre Calloway have been far from impressive as neither is making more than a third of their shots and neither are a top 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Jalen Cannon may need to carry them through some game and he can get it done. His offensive game has made great strides. He will likely end up as a NEC Player of the Year finalist.
My updated projected NEC finish: 4th
St. Francis (PA): F
0-11. That is all you have to say about this team. They went winless in the non-conference. NEC teams can’t wait to see them on their schedule as they probably won’t win more than 3 or 4 games this season if they are lucky. The Red Flash is nearly at the bottom in offense (11th in points scored: 59.5) and pretty much near the bottom in defense (11th in defensive points per possession). Umar Shannon at 14.1 ppg is the team’s leading scorer but he has taken 140 shots which is 8th in the NEC so his efficiency is just 41.8%. This is going to be a long season for first-year head coach Rob Krimmel and his team. You will continue seeing a lot of young players gaining experience as they look towards 2013-14.
My updated projected NEC finish: 12th
Robert Morris: A-
After a disastrous 0-2 start, Robert Morris quickly return to form and became the team everyone expected them to be. They finished the last 11 games going 8-3 and are right now considered the front-runner to win the NEC regular season and have home-court through the NEC Tournament. RMU have a couple of nice home wins against Cleveland State and Ohio. RMU destroyed local rival Duquesne and hung tough vs Xavier and Arkansas on the road. Karvel Anderson and Coron Williams have played extremely well as expected as both have shot over 45% from the floor. Velton Jones’ numbers are down but he likes to shine during the NEC season. RMU as a team though is shooting under 40% but as is always the case with RMU, it is their defense that is helping them win games. RMU has allowed the 2nd-fewest points on defense in of all NEC teams and are just allowing .96 points per possession on defense also 2nd-best in the NEC. If RMU avoids the propensity for the upset loss as they have the last couple of seasons then they should be in good shape come March.
My updated projected NEC finish: 1st
Wagner has been an interesting case in the non-conference. They won a couple of games in rather ugly fashion including one that could have been confused with being played back in the 1940s or 50s (a 38-36 win at NC Central). They also won games scoring 48 and 52. They nearly at the bottom in the nation in effective field goal shooting at 41.4% yet there are over a .500 team. That is because they have been playing nearly lights out defense. With the exceptions of Syracuse and Albany, no team has shot over 50% in a game against them. With the exceptions of Syracuse, Temple and Santa Clara, no one is getting above 1.0 points per possession on offense against them. They are doing this with their best player, Latif Rivers only playing in 3 of the team’s 11 games. Jonathon Williams (15.7 ppg) has been the only offensive force for the Seahawks since Rivers has been out. Kenneth Ortiz (10.5 ppg) has once again been stepping up his play on the defensive end. Rivers is now back although he is going to miss the NEC opener vs Monmouth due to a NEC one-game suspension. The way Wagner is playing defense of late, even with their offensive deficiencies, they will be hanging around in enough games where they can steal a few where they probably should have no business winning.
My updated projected NEC finish: 2nd