Where has the time gone? We are already one third of the way through the conference season and tiers are slowly beginning to take shape in the NEC standings. However, there continues to be plenty of variance around the league, thus there’s plenty of time for team’s fortunes to change. For now, let’s recap all things positive and negative in the NEC.
- Reaching New Heights With Every Game – When we began this weekly recap, never did I ever imagine we’d be talking about Bryant every waking moment, but that’s exactly what we’ve done here at Big Apple Buckets. Don’t get me wrong, mentioning the Bulldogs has been well deserved and this week is no different. Last week, Bryant won their 12th and 13th games, respectively, surpassing their D-I win total in the previous three seasons COMBINED. In their latest victory, Tim O’Shea’s crew impressively blew out Wagner, affording the fifth year head coach an opportunity to rest his overused starters for much of the second half. The big four of Dobbs, Francis, Starks, and Maynard were once again sensational, but all four are averaging more than 31.5 minutes per game at the moment.
- Piecing It Together Successfully - Robert Morris is another team that’s dominated the headlines, partially because it’s been all or nothing with the Colonials. Recently, Robert Morris has won four straight games, but has gotten contributions from different players each time. For their New Jersey road trip, it was seniors Coron Williams and Russell Johnson with big time performances, but then versus Sacred Heart, a hobbled Mike McFadden and the defense stepped up. Finally in their convincing victory over Quinnipiac, Velton Jones returned – after only playing three minutes in two games – and joined forces with Lucky Jones and Russell Johnson to help carry Robert Morris to one of their best offensive performances of the season. The Colonials may not be the defensive stalwart fans have been used to in year’s past, but Andy Toole has to be pleased with his team’s overall effort.
- The Blackbirds Are Back – Honestly, we weren’t too worried about LIU when they fell into a 0-3 conference hole, yet some fans I’m sure were bracing for the worst. Truth be told, the soft schedule has allowed Jack Perri’s club to climb back to 0.500, and it never would have happened without Jamal Olasewere, and perhaps more notably, C.J. Garner. The two Silver Spring natives (Montgomery Country represent!) have averaged a combined 39 points per contest and have been a major reason why LIU’s offense is currently clicking on all cylinders. The Blackbirds have scored 1.14 points per possession in their last three games.
- He’s Baaaaack – As an unapologetic supporter of the greatest Pioneer player in history, I had a difficult time backing up the play of Shane Gibson during Sacred Heart’s hideous non-conference slate. Whether it was more defensive attention, critical injuries to the backcourt, or dealing with a difficult course load at school, Gibson was undeniably pressing to reproduce that magical season from a year ago. Once the new year began however, Gibson has gone right back to terrorizing NEC opponents on a nightly basis, as the senior is averaging 24.0 ppg in six conference games while shooting a terrific 46.2% (on 39 attempts) from behind the arc and 90.9% (on 33 attempts) at the charity stripe. He’s done his damage with an inconsistent effort from his teammates, so it’s safe to say Sacred Heart would be at least two games worse if Gibson never put the uniform on. Right now, he’s back on my All-NEC first team (well that took all of two games), but there’s still plenty of season left. Call me biased, but if the Pioneers find a way to get into the top four of the NEC (and trust me, that’s a BIG if), Gibson will make for a terrific NEC Player of the Year candidate once again.
- Among the Nation’s Best – With more than half of the season played, the small sample size argument doesn’t have as much merit; therefore the point guard play of LIU’s Jason Brickman and Sacred Heart’s Phil Gaetano warrants a mention here. In terms of facilitating on offense and getting teammates involved, both Brickman and Gaetano have been exceptional in that regard. The diminutive floor generals are in the top six nationally in assists per game at 7.9 (Brickman) and 7.4 (Gaetano), respectively. There are surely other facets of each player’s game that still needs improvement (ahem … defense), but the shortest players on the floor are listed among the nation’s great point guards which includes Michael Carter-Williams, DeAndre Kane, Larry Drew II, and D.J. Cooper.
- Where’s the Defense? - If I was a betting man (I’m not) and if degenerate gamblers cared to wager on NEC games, they probably would have made a fair amount of money betting the over on total points. With the exception of the St. Francis Terriers, defense has been somewhat absent throughout the league. Only St. Francis has allowed fewer than 0.97 points per possession, while last season there were five teams that fell underneath that mark. Perhaps it has to do with the faster tempo (the NEC is first nationally in league tempo rate, more on that later in the week), better talent offensively, lighter benches thanks to more injuries, or a little bit of everything. Regardless, it’s made for some exciting basketball, but teams that rely on defense more than others (think Wagner, Quinnipiac, Robert Morris) may need to find a way to ratchet up the defensive intensity if they want to experience long-term success inside the conference. If not, then bombs away!
- Who Are These Seahawks? – After a season and a half of splendid defensive basketball, the past two weeks for the Wagner Seahawks have been quite perplexing. They’ve given up more than 70 points and 1.00 point per possession in their last four contests, three of them setbacks. The 70 point barrier hadn’t been broken by anyone except the exceptionally athletic Syracuse Orange. In the four games, they haven’t been defending the perimeter (40.7% three-point defense) or forcing turnovers, which has placed an undue amount of stress on their already mediocre offense. Saturday’s blowout versus Bryant certainly highlighted those issues, but Wagner now has an easier stretch to figure things out before they face off with Robert Morris in Moon Township on February 9th.
- In Familiar Territory – After making a statement on the opening night of NEC play versus Mount St. Mary’s, Greg Vetrone’s team has struggled, losing four of five conference games to fall back to 2-4 in the league. The well-noted senior trio of Melquan Bolding, Lonnie Robinson, and Kinu Rochford are doing their job (they’ve scored 64.4% of the team’s points), yet the supporting cast around the former JUCO transfers have failed to put up a consistent effort. Freshman Sekou Harris and Xavier Harris (no relation) have shown flashes of potential, but as is the case for most rookies, they’ve been up-and-down so far. Guard Mostafaa Jones – after a scorching start shooting the basketball – has been a relative nonfactor in league play, averaging 5.5 points and one three-pointer per game. Ditto for Sidney Sanders, Jr. Now in the bottom half of the NEC standings, the Knights have a difficult schedule immediately ahead, which includes tilts with Quinnipiac, Bryant, Central Connecticut and Sacred Heart. It could get ugly in a hurry if other players don’t quickly step up and the bench continues to be a liability. Without Lonnie Hayes (permanent suspension) and Yves Jules (injury), it has been a real grind for FDU.