It’s midnight, but I’m wide awake after attending three NEC games in nine hours time. I drank 6 bottles of water, ate a banana and clif bar, drove nearly 100 miles for approximately two hours, and finally gorged myself at the diner all while taking in some excellent basketball in between. Rather than offering up a recap for all three outcomes, I decided to hand out some awards. The six teams I saw today – Quinnipiac, FDU, St. Francis Brooklyn, Central Connecticut, Sacred Heart, and Monmouth – are all eligible for these distinguished honors, as are the players. Let’s begin…
Best Player Performance
Shane Gibson - (I can already feel you rolling your eyes.) In my defense, Gibson netted a game high 33 points on 17 shots to go along with 15 made free throws. As I’ll explain later, the referees called the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game way too tight, but Sacred Heart made their freebies while Monmouth didn’t. Gibson was a major part of that, plus his 24 second half points guided the Pioneers to their first place tying victory Saturday night. In fact, Gibson scored 19 straight points for his team in the second half. 19 straight! Can you say “NEC Player of the Year?” Time to start the campaign! (Ok, I’m kidding. Sort of.)
Best Player Performance in a Losing Effort
Jalen Cannon - The 6’6″ immovable object in the paint had himself a dominant first half against the Blue Devils, as he scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds. It was so dominant, however, that every time Cannon touched the ball in the second stanza down low, Howie Dickenman would scream out “Help, help, help!” (No really, he did that every single time.) But his pupils listened and made life quite uncomfortable for Cannon, even though he ended up with an excellent final line of 18 points, 14 rebounds, and two steals. Cannon’s Terriers may have lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, but it certainly wasn’t Cannon’s fault.
Best Player Performance in a Supporting Role
The Central Connecticut Supporting Cast - Allow me to partially cop out here, as I nominate the CCSU threesome of Malcolm McMillan, Adonis Burbage, and Terrell Allen. They combined for 39 of the Blue Devils’ 72 points while draining six of nine from long range. McMillan was impressive both from the perimeter (2-3 from 3PT range) and attacking off the dribble, Burbage was his usual sharpshooting self, and Allen scored a career high 15 points off the bench. Kyle Vinales and Matthew Hunter may be a terrific twosome, but Dickenman has to be pleased with the effort from the rest of his supporting cast.
Best Player Performance in a Defensive Role
Jamee Jackson – I’ll begin with this Tom Moore quote about Jackson after their win over FDU: “I’m going to push him for [NEC] Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll really push for him to get that, and I know people judge [the award] by steals, blocks, and that type of stuff. I just know he can guard in the post. He can guard on the perimeter. He can help defend and he just plays at an elite level defensively … He’s come up with huge blocks in big situations for us, because he plays with so much energy.”
In the victory, Jackson recorded two steals and two blocks, but it was his effort on Kinu Rochford that was the most impressive. After Rochford got going early in the second half, Jackson did an excellent job pushing him off the low block and making life extremely difficult at all times. His block on Sidney Sanders final shot attempt of the game sealed the Bobcat’s two point victory. Say what you want about Jackson’s free throw shooting, but the athletic power forward is a beast on the defensive end.
Best Team Performance
Central Connecticut - Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac may have won their respective games, but CCSU was easily the most impressive of the victorious teams Saturday. With the ankle injury of Brandon Peel, Dickenman practically had six players at his disposal with five of them logging a cramp inducing 38 minutes or more. Those five were responsible for all 72 points, while their up-tempo attack kept St. Francis on their heels for a majority of the contest. Really, it’s remarkable how fast this team continues to play – eighth fastest in the country at 72.8 possessions per game – even though they are two injuries away from asking fans to suit up.
Best Postgame Quotes
King Rice – Who else did you expect?! King Rice and Andy Toole have to be the best NEC quote machines after a losing effort because neither of them hold back. Here’s what Rice had to say when I asked him about the increased role of his freshmen, in particular Christian White and Tyrone O’Garro.
“Contrary to what everybody thought when we signed those guys, and everybody all across the country was like ‘oh man [Monmouth] can’t get the right dudes’ and all this stuff, but you know what? Those kids (White, O’Garro, Jalen Palm) probably could have started from day one. I’m the type of coach that gives older guys more of a chance and now it’s time for [my freshman] to get some playing time. They’ve earned it, they are the best guys at those positions – that’s why they’re playing – and now we’re going to have those guys for three to four years.”
Also I’d like to throw in a brief exchange I had with Dave Bike last night.
Me: Have you ever seen this much parity in the NEC before?
Bike: You guys are the experts, but right now you wouldn’t have picked in the beginning, after 8 games, Robert Morris, Bryant and us tied for first place.
Me: I wouldn’t have put Bryant and Sacred Heart in there, that’s for sure.
Bike: Well, thank you. (laughter)
Oh, things are so much more jovial postgame when the Pioneers are winning! Anyway, moving along…
Most Disappointing Performance
Fairleigh Dickinson - Yeah, I couldn’t keep this entire post positive, because I did after all see some negative things in my six hours of hoops. For example, FDU absolutely gave a game away yesterday to Quinnipiac by consistently shooting themselves in the foot late. There were bonehead turnovers, missed free throws on the front end of one and one opportunities, and bricked open looks. The Knights easily threw away about seven or eight possession in the final five minutes, and when you lose that game by two points (and shoot a paltry 8-18 from the free throw line), it will surely drive the head coach nutty. Without a doubt, Greg Vetrone has to be sick with this loss, especially when you throw in the late lead they blew to LIU Brooklyn over a week ago. Those two games are the difference between 4-4 and 2-6.
Sacred Heart’s Pitt Center – The “upset” of the day belongs to the Sacred Heart fans – 1,614 of them to be exact – who came out and filled up the makeshift gym to give the Pioneers a nice home court advantage. Thanks to the students, the Pitt Center was loud and very much into the game. It was a pleasant surprise and frankly cool to see.
Most Shameful Performance
The Officials for the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game – Talk about a tightly officiated game; the evening showdown at the Pitt Center was ground to a halt in the second half thanks to a comically refereed contest. Both teams were in the bonus by the under 12 minute timeout and ended up accumulating a mind-blowing 32 personal fouls, in the second half alone! Everything was being called: hand checks, minimal arm taps, hell some were led to believe breathing on a player was an offense. It was truly shameful how the officials took the game over.
I’ve run out of awards, thus I’d like to conclude with some important random thoughts:
- The aforementioned Monmouth freshman Christian White has a beautiful outside shot. It’s one of the prettiest rainbow arcs you’ll see in the NEC, and so far the freshman is making the most of his playing time. For the season, the diminutive White has drained exactly 50% (16 of 32) of his three-point attempts. Given Monmouth’s past outside shooting woes, White’s production is sorely needed.
- Quinnipiac’s backcourt continues to serve as a revolving door of guards, whether it’s Shaq Shannon, Zaid Hearst, Evan Conti, Kendrick Ray, or James Ford. As Tom Moore explained in his press conference, not even he knows which player(s) will perform on a given night. Yesterday, Conti gave Moore a strong first half of eight points and four assists. On Thursday night, Shannon scored 18 points exclusively on three-pointers to give the Bobcats a much needed spark over CCSU. Zaid Hearst has been in-and-out with his production. Moore is still searching for the right guy(s) to mix and match, although he certainly would prefer leaning on one or two players for the NEC stretch. Will someone eventually elevate their play? No one really knows the answer.
- The curious case of Travis Nichols continues. On Saturday, Nichols had another double digit point effort as he scored 10 points, which sounds awesome when you realize St. Francis was 5-1 in those games. But yesterday, St. Francis lost in part because Nichols found himself in foul trouble for much of the second half. The versatile forward missed critical stretches late and it inevitability cost his team as CCSU pulled away in Nichols’ absence. I’m certainly not placing all of the blame on Nichols, but it’s hard to dispute the effect he has on the team when he’s logging quality minutes on the floor for Glenn Braica’s group.
- I know I brought this up in last week’s edition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but it bears repeating. Phil Gaetano, through eight NEC games, now has dished out 75 assists versus only 21 turnovers. He holds a league best A/TO ratio of 3.6. Not bad for a player who only attempts four shots per game.
It was a great day of college hoops, one I’m extremely thankful to be a part of. Perhaps there will be more Connecticut tripleheaders in my future. I just have to run it by the wife next time…
Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride