Around the NEC: Mount St. Mary’s looks like a contender and other notes

By @C_Cappella

Every week I’m going to try and do a deep dive on an NEC team with some notes to follow around the league. Usually I’ll do this on Sunday, but it’s my blog, so this week it goes down on a Tuesday.

I got the chance to catch up on a few Mount St. Mary’s games the past week. There are a lot of intriguing storylines in the NEC this year. The Mountaineers are near the top.

Going into the year, the feeling was there was Wagner, Fairleigh Dickinson and everyone else. But things rarely go that easy. Someone is going to get nailed with injuries and someone will surprise the conference.

Given their track record, I don’t think Mount St. Mary’s would necessarily “surprise” the league if they won the whole thing. But this is a team that went 14-19 last season and unexpectedly lost B.K. Ashe this offseason to transfer. Ashe was one of the best all-around shooting guards in the league.

You can throw win/loss record out the window for just about everyone in the NEC. Teams are either playing extremely up or extremely down. LIU Brooklyn is 4-1 with wins over John Jay, Maine and Loyola (Md.). The Mount is 1-4. They started the season with three “buy” games at West Virginia, Iowa State and Minnesota.

Hell, even their one win is impressive. They beat George Mason in overtime. That was a game not many people expected them to win. Although Mount St. Mary’s has played five straight on the road, they still have FOUR more games until their home opener against UMBC. They aren’t walks in the park either. They play at UT Arlington, Michigan, Arkansas and Loyola (Md.).

We’re not going to learn a lot about Mount St. Mary’s until conference play. The numbers are going to be wonky until they start playing similar competition. But there are some interesting trends developing.

It starts with the versatility of their backcourt. Yesterday, I posted some numbers comparing RMU’s Isaiah Still to FDU’s Darian Anderson. Anderson made “the” jump from his freshman to sophomore year. Still is on track to do the same thing — that is, follow up on a promising freshman season with a breakout sophomore year.

Mount’s Elijah Long is doing the same thing, but in more surprising fashion. He averaged 5.6 points on 34/33/62 splits as a freshman but averaged 8.5 points in his final six games when he saw extended minutes.

Long is leading the Mount in scoring through five games with 13.8 points per contest. He’s added 6 boards and 3 assists per game. He’s taken control of the shooting guard position with Ashe gone. He plays within himself; Long is a decent three-point shooter but is at his best when attacking the basket. He’s attempted just nine three-point attempts all season.

He’s a perfect balance to Junior Robinson, Mount’s starting point guard. Am I obligated to mention that Robinson’s 5-foot-5? After a slow start to the season, Robinson got going in Monday’s game at Southern Illinois with 18 points on 7-12 shooting. He had 11 of the team’s first 16 points. That’s just the type of guy Robinson is — a little streaky, but when he gets going, he can carry a team.

I’m just warning you now, Mount’s three-point shooting is going to annoy you come NEC play if you’re rooting against them. Will Miller, who has been in college for seemingly 11 years, is off to a slow start but got going with a 5-10 performance from downtown against Southern Illinois. Small forward Greg Alexander is 13-33 from deep in the early going. That alone will be tough to stop come conference time.

But what stood out to me more than anything was just how well coached the team seems to be, especially on the defensive end. Their full court defense forced 17 turnovers in Monday’s loss at Southern Illinois. They slowed a high-powered offense to 1.11 points-per-possession, which isn’t bad when you look at Southern Illinois’ offensive output over the course of the season.

I’m telling you now, the Mountaineers are on pace to be a well-oiled machine come conference play. You can tell the defense is still a bit of a work in progress. I don’t think Jamion Christian was 100 percent pleased with how his guys tried to trap after made buckets in Monday’s loss. But it’s coming along.

Other notes around the conference:

Wagner: The Seahawks pulled off the upset of the early season by shocking UCONN in the opening week. The problem? It turns out UCONN might not be that great. Don’t get me wrong, any upset against a big name is great, it’s just that the Huskies (1-3) don’t look like they’ll live up to their top-25 expectations.

Health has been the biggest problem. Wagner lost Romone Saunders to a broken foot. That, and perhaps a hangover effect after a shocking win over UCONN, clearly played a role in a loss to UMASS Lowell. Guard Corey Henson was a DNP in an overtime loss versus Fairfield.

LIU Brooklyn: The Blackbirds have a nice win over Northeastern but their other victories have been against less-than-intimidating opponents. Still, power forward Jerome Frink is shooting 50 percent from the field. Center Nura Zanna is finding his niche. He’s not shooting much. He’s having more fun knocking away shots.

St. Francis Brooklyn: Talk about a discouraging start. The Terriers have played NC State, Virginia and Providence in their first three games. They were held to less than 50 points in the latter two.

One thing St. Francis is doing extremely well is running teams off the three point line. Opponents are shooting 16 percent from three. That’s number one in the country! It’s a credit to the team’s overall length at wing positions. It also speaks volumes about the lack of a rim protector. Head coach Glenn Bracia is running a lot of funky, small lineups on the floor. Over the course of time, I think he’ll settle with Josh Nurse seeing the majority of minutes at center.

St. Francis PA: With so many new faces, it’s going to take awhile for this team to gel. Isaiah Blackmon is back after a torn ACL. Jamaal King has been rushed into big minutes at point guard after a preseason injury to Malik Harmon. Freshman Keith Braxton and Randall Gaskins are seeing significant minutes. Worth noting: center Josh Nebo looks like the real deal. The dude is an animal on the low block. He’s averaging 14 points and 12.5 boards a game.

Sacred Heart: The Pioneers don’t defend worth a lick but they make up for it by running teams out of the gym. These guys play FAST. Sophomore guard Quincy McKnight is reaping the benefits, averaging an efficient 25 ppg. There are a lot of really good sophomore guards in this league. McKnight is one of them.

Forward DeVon Barnett, who missed all of last season with an injury, hasn’t attempted a free throw this year. For a big, physical power forward, that seems almost impossible.

Fairleigh Dickinson: FDU looks a lot like the team they were last year. That’s not a surprise, considering they returned almost everyone. It’s also not a bad thing considering they won the NEC last year. Slow starts have plagued the Knights in losses to Fordham and Saint Peter’s.

Definitely worth noting: The team’s best player, Earl Potts, hasn’t played yet because of an injury. That’s about as specific as they’ve been on details. We’ll get a better evaluation of the team when he’s around.

Central Connecticut State: The Blue Devils are better than their 343 ranking given by KenPom. They beat Hartford by 15 on opening night and lost to Binghamton by two. I’m very intrigued by their Tuesday night matchup vs. Penn. Guards Khalen Cumberlander and Austin Nehls play well off of each other. I watched a large majority of their game at Seton Hall. This team is tough and annoying to play. They won’t be a walk in the park.

Bryant: With games at Notre Dame and Gonzaga, Bryant got off to the type of start we all expected. The team just has no size. Elite teams are going to be able to dominate them inside. The good news? They’re another NEC school running teams off the three point line. Opponents are shooting just 31.5 percent from three. That could translate well come conference time.

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