This was supposed to be an exciting final week in the Northeast Conference. Playoff berths would be up for grabs, the regular season title would dramatically come down to the final two games, and small packed gyms all over the upper east coast would capture the excitement of teams attempting to improve their seeding before they begin their quest to qualify for the Big Dance.
Instead, LIU has practically locked up number #1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The top 4 seeds have all clinched that coveted first round home playoff game. And seven teams have clinched a playoff spot, with the 8th (Sacred Heart) in very good shape to play on. So, what exactly is there to talk about in the week before the NEC playoffs?
Perhaps I can complain about Sacred Heart’s poor execution in late game situations?
(Ehh, I've been there, done that. You can go to this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, or this post to hear me whine about the Pioneers)
Or maybe I can drum up excitement on whether Mount St. Mary’s interim coach Matt Henry can motivate the Mountaineers to finish their season strong?
No! Rather, let’s have a debate over who should be the 2011-2012 Northeast Conference Player of the Year, shall we?
This season, 4 or 5 players have emerged as worthy candidates of the award. In fact, when I spoke with a few NEC fans this past weekend, it was clear there wasn’t a unanimous choice among the group. Just as amazing, 4 of my 5 finalists will be back for their senior season! So for this post, I’ll present the case for each player and rank them as if I had a ballot. Let’s begin!
5) Velton Jones, G, Robert Morris University
The Case: The heart and soul of the Colonials, Jones leads the NEC in FTs made (166) and steals per game (1.9). As the go-to-guy of the offense, Jones’ physical slash-to-the-hole style has been instrumental in helping out Robert Morris pull out several close victories.
The Argument: Jones has struggled the past three weeks, averaging a pedestrian 11.1 points per game on 26.7% shooting. For the year, Jones hasn't shot the ball particularly well, relying mainly on free throws and a high volume of shots for his points.
The Verdict: Even though Jones has had a fine season, his low shooting percentages prevent him from serious consideration for POY. In fact, an argument can be made for Jason Brickman (7.0 apg, 44.1% 3PT%) or Ike Izotam (although there’s already 3 forwards) over Jones as a member of the NEC First Team.
4) Ken Horton, F, Central Connecticut State
The Case: The reigning NEC Player of the Year is having another fantastic season in New Britain, as he finds himself in the top 5 in points/game (17.8), rebounds/game (8.8), steals/game (1.9), and blocks/game (1.3). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the attention Horton receives from opposing front-courts, every single game. And to add the cherry on top, he’s an excellent defender who doesn't take a play off when guarding the other team.
The Argument: Most of his numbers are mildly down across the board from last season, and with the exception of a home win against Robert Morris earlier in the year, Horton doesn’t have a signature performance against an elite NEC team. Lately, Horton's play has tailed off with a stat line of 7/6/1 in his past 4 contests.
The Verdict: The stats suggest Horton may deserve his second straight POY crown, however his inconsistency and so-so performance versus the NEC elite likely cripple his chances to defend. Given the performance of my top 3 players, it was a rather easy decision to exclude Horton from POY consideration.
(And now onto the real candidates...)
3) Jamal Olasewere, F, Long Island University
The Case: Olasewere raised eyebrows recently with his dominant performance in the Battle of Brooklyn and against Sacred Heart, as he scored 80 points on 30 of 41 shooting with 29 rebounds in 3 games. For the year, Olasewere sits in the top 5 in points per game (17.2), rebounds per game (7.6), field goal percentage (57.2%), steals per game (1.4), and blocks per game (1.1). This despite playing a mere 26 minutes per contest!
The Argument: He provides value defensively without a doubt, but he’s found himself in foul trouble a little too much. His normalized statistics per 40 minutes are fantastic, but just imagine the damage he could do if he hacked opponents just a little less. Because of being in foul trouble, there have been some games where Olasewere’s production was decent at best.
The Verdict: Boyd and Olasewere may be the best front-court duo on any mid-major roster this season, although their co-existence may in fact hinder Olasewere’s chance to win the POY award. Well that and Olasewere’s inability to consistently stay on the floor for his team.
2) Julian Boyd, F, Long Island University
The Case: More often than not, Boyd is simply unguardable in the NEC. Like his teammate, Boyd can score in a variety of ways and hasn’t shied away from a big moment (see, St. Francis, NY at LIU). As the focal point of LIU’s high octane offense, Boyd has averaged 17.2 points per game to go along with more than 9 boards per game. He’s improved his scoring efficiency from last season, shooting an impressive 54% from the floor and 35% from beyond the arc. He has range and an inside-the-paint presence, which makes him all the more valuable.
The Argument: Although a beast on the low block, Boyd does have a couple of sub-par performances sprinkled into what was otherwise a spectacular season. Boyd doesn’t do much on the defensive end of the floor and has been plagued occasionally with foul trouble, which certainly restricts his defensive value. Most voters prefer to see their Player of the Year candidates excel on both ends of the floor, yet Boyd’s defensive impact probably doesn’t match the other candidates on this exclusive list.
The Verdict: I feel Boyd falls just short, in large part due to his marginal contribution on defense. Nonetheless, if someone debates hard for Boyd (or Olasewere for that matter) over my soon-to-be mentioned Player of the Year, I really can’t disagree. Both forwards have had a fantastic year for an exciting Long Island University team.
1) Shane Gibson, G, Sacred Heart University
The Case: The most prolific scorer in Pioneer history has been remarkable in his junior season. He’s scored a NEC-leading 22.4 ppg and has produced double digit points every game this season, but those stats aren’t even the most impressive. It’s his efficiency of scoring. His effective field goal percentage (FG%), which combines all field goals from the floor with more weight applied to 3-point shots, is in the top 5 of the league. Given the volume of shots Gibson attempts per night (with most of them from the perimeter), his effective FG% of 59.6% is unheard of for most players in the back-court. In addition, Gibson is an above average defender with 1.6 steals per game, good enough for 4th best in the conference, and he rebounds the ball very well for a 6-foot-2 shooting guard.
The Argument: As Sacred Heart's only reliable scoring option, Gibson has in some instances come up big (see games vs. LIU, CCSU, RMU) and sometimes failed to hit the game tying or winning shot (see games vs. Mount St. Mary’s, Yale). In addition, some voters would prefer their Player of the Year coming from a more successful team that Sacred Heart. Barring an incredible tournament run, the Pioneers aren’t expected to compete for the NEC title, whereas Boyd and Olasewere have a real opportunity to compete in the NCAAs in back-to-back years, no small feat for a small D1 school.
The Verdict: Without Gibson, the Pioneers wouldn’t be in the playoffs, nor would they have more than 4 conference wins. His efficiency has been remarkable given the defensive attention he faces every game, yet his offensive effort hasn’t prevented him from contributing big time on the defensive end as well. He’s been consistent and has produced against most teams in the NEC, elite or not. And with that, I would give the 2011-2012 Northeast Conference Player of the Year Award to Shane Gibson.
Do you agree or disagree? In reality, it should come down to Gibson, Boyd, or Olasewere, in my opinion. It will be fascinating when the award is announced next Tuesday on Twitter (by @NECSports). Who will be the next Northeast Conference Player of the Year?
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride