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January 22, 2013

NEC Race: Can anyone catch Bryant?

As we approach the halfway mark of conference play in the NEC, some trends are beginning to develop. It is becoming more apparent who will be in the hunt for the all important No. 1 seed, and who are the likely contenders to reach the NCAA tournament come March. As we dive into the stats, we must note that these statistics are based off NEC games only, unless noted.

First off, it's time to accept that the Bryant Bulldogs are for real. Enough about their past struggles and failures in years past; this team has what it takes to win the NEC and should be considered a major threat going forward. They are 6-0 in conference play, and have beat Robert Morris on the road, Wagner by 23, and have a two game lead in the standings. On top of that, they only play LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis Brooklyn once, both at home. They also get RMU on their home floor near the end of the season.

The biggest reason that Bryant has positioned itself at the top of the standings is their ability to be so efficient on the offensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs lead the conference in field goal percentage at 51.9%, are first in three point FG percentage at 45%, and second in the league at two point percentage at 55.7%. They are scoring 82.5 points per game, five points higher than Quinnipiac and LIU, who are second. The Bulldogs also have the best assist to turnover ratio, lead the league in assists per game, lead the league in points per possession, and lead the league in efficiency FG percentage. Bryant also has three players in the top eight in points per game (Frankie Dobbs/Dyami Starks/Alex Francis).

Their defense is right around the middle of the pack, but they are second in three point percentage against at 30%, and second in points per possession. Teams simply cannot keep up with the Bulldogs right now.

Who can catch Bryant? There appears to be only two teams who have a realistic shot at catching the Bulldogs, and truthfully it may only be one. The leader has to be RMU, who after a tough 0-2 start with home losses to Bryant and CCSU, has bounced back nicely despite some tough injuries. The Colonials are tied for second at 4-2.

The Colonials' offense hasn't been great, as they are ninth in FG%, but they have shot it well from three (36.8%, good for third in the NEC) and took care of the ball (second in assist to turnover rate). The defense has been sensational the past four games, and the team is doing a great job at getting after teams. They are forcing 16 turnovers a game, best in the conference. The defense needs to continue to wreak havoc, and the offense should improve as the team gets healthy.

The other team with a shot at catching Bryant could be St. Francis-Brooklyn (4-2). The Terriers defense has been exceptional in conference play, as they are first in points per possession, fourth in turnover forced, and have held teams to 22% (!!!) from three point range, best in the NEC. They are right around the middle of the pack offensively, shooting 42% from the field, 33% from behind the arc. They are fourth in efficiency per possession and do a solid job at taking care of the ball (they rank third in assist to turnover ratio).

The rest of the NEC will have a tough time catching Bryant. Sacred Heart is the other 4-2 team, but has benefited from an easy schedule. The Pioneers are in the middle of the pack in points per possession (fifth) and points allowed per possession (seventh). Two time defending champ LIU is currently riding a three game win streak, and is a team to keep an eye on. They don't play a whole lot of defense (11th in points per possession) but have the fire power offensively to outrun teams. They are third in points per possession, but played two games without two of their best players. Look for their offensive numbers to rise. LIU is three games back of Bryant, and still plays both the Bulldogs and Wagner on the road. They also play St. Francis-Brooklyn twice, and RMU once at home.

Wagner was the other preseason contender, but it has been a major struggle for Bashir Mason and his team as of late. They are on a three game slide, including that shellacking to the hands of Bryant. They are really struggling offensively in NEC play (ninth in points per possession), as they have all year long. They are shooting 39% from the field (11th), and are dead last in three point percentage (29%). Their defense has been their calling card, but has disappeared over this losing streak. They gave up over 70 points in all three games, and 82 in that ugly loss to Bryant.

At the moment, the NEC is Bryant's to lose, but as we have seen in the first three weeks of conference play, this league is nearly unpredictable. I have little doubt that there will be a few surprising results over the next few weeks, and one of the above mentioned teams will likely fade, and someone who was not mentioned may throw their name in the hat.

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