Holiday honors: New Jersey’s midseason MVP, most improved player and more
To ease into the holiday season, let's take stock of where we stand in the form of a hypothetical awards ballot, including the best player in the state thus far.
We’re nearing the end of the seventh week of this college basketball season, which, by my count, is 21 weeks long from tip to tail.
So to dub this edition of the newsletter “midseason awards” would be downright disingenuous. Time is already flying fast enough without me deceiving you into thinking the college season is already half-over or thereabouts.
Still, I thought it would be a smart way to ease into the holiday season by taking stock of where we stand in the form of a hypothetical awards ballot. It’s about to get slow in terms of actual games to watch or cover because of the Christmas break, after all, so let’s go with “holiday honors.” (It took me longer than it should have to plant that Santa hat on that logo, but now we’re looking festive, so it was worth it.)
I’ll tell you which is the most improved team in the state, which is most likely to make the NCAA Tournament and who’s the most improved player, but let’s tackle a big one off the top and name New Jersey’s MVP.
(A major credit to KenPom.com, one of the few indispensable sources in this sport, for several of the statistics cited below.)
Midseason MVP: Dwight Murray Jr., Rider
The 4-5 Broncs could easily be 6-3 had a few breaks gone their way in one-point losses to Providence and Delaware. Unrealized potential aside, Rider would be far worse off without DJ Murray running the point. Going by the definition of MVP as “most important or critical to one’s team,” Murray is the pick.
There’s a ton more to this than just scoring, but it’s certainly worth noting that Murray’s 19.6 points per game ranks No. 1 in the MAAC and No. 1 among all eight D1 programs in New Jersey – and he hasn’t scored fewer than 17 in any game this season.
He also shoots it efficiently – ranking third in the conference at 43.5% on 3-pointers and making 48.4% overall, about 10 percentage points better than last season – with even stronger underlying metrics. Murray’s effective field goal percentage, which weighs 3-pointers proportionally to the points they accrue, is 54.3%, and his true shooting percentage, which factors in all field goals and free throws, is 58.7%, good for seventh in the MAAC.
Murray doesn’t come off the floor. He’s played 90.3% of Rider’s total minutes thus far, and as of this writing, that’s tied for 20th nationally. Yet he’s not costing the Broncs with mistakes and bad basketball: Murray leads the MAAC in fewest fouls committed per 40 minutes (1.25) while drawing 4.6 fouls per 40.
Despite how much he handles the ball, his turnovers are down from last year’s 2.4 per game to 1.8. Oh, and he ranks second on the team in rebounding (5.1) as a point guard and leads the Broncs with 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
I believe MAAC foes will be ready for Murray after he averaged a league-best 5.2 assists and 11.8 points per conference game last year. And Rider won’t win the conference without consistent scoring and defense from Mervin James, Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson and extra hands off the bench. Still, Murray’s all-around game can keep the Broncs in contention in pretty much every game from here on out.
Runner-up: Clifford Omoruyi, Rutgers
Transfer of the year: Cam Spencer, Rutgers
I talked with Spencer at Rutgers’ media day in mid-October and asked him when Rutgers basketball got on his radar while he was playing at Loyola Maryland. He reminded me that his older brother, Pat Spencer, played against Rutgers while with Northwestern in 2019-20.
“So I knew about their senior class and that kind of group and they had a good core, strong core, a great coaching staff,” Cam Spencer said. “All great things from what I’d heard. I had watched them play multiple times over the years. Just fell in love with the coaching staff and their style of play, too.”
I’m sure Steve Pikiell fell in love with Spencer’s style as well. I’ve praised Spencer in this space before, but it’s hard not to reiterate what an ideal fit he is at Rutgers – versatile on offense, disruptive on defense.
He led the Patriot League in both scoring and steals last season while notching the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio. Now Spencer is Rutgers’ No. 2 scorer, second in assists and tied for sixth nationally in steals per game (2.73). The Scarlet Knights wouldn’t have many (any?) outside shooting options without him.
His game has translated despite the major step up in competition. With the way he fits with Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi, a good freshman class and another key player we’ll get to in a moment, he’s made it easier for Rutgers to move on in the post-Ron Harper and post-Geo Baker days.
Runner-up: Al-Amir Dawes, Seton Hall
Freshman of the year: Caden Pierce, Princeton
Several mid-majors around the state have a freshman (or two) in the starting lineup this season. None of them have acclimated to college basketball and become a solid contributor quite as nicely as Pierce.
The wing has averaged 6.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, the latter ranking second on the Tigers and eighth in the Ivy League. He’s filled a need on the outside next to Ryan Langborg and Matt Allocco, replacing Ethan Wright’s rebounding and Wright’s and Drew Friberg’s shooting.
As with Murray, it’s more telling to dive into the advanced metrics. Pierce’s 57.7% effective field goal percentage ranks fifth in the league, his 59.1% true shooting percentage sixth. Twenty-five of his rebounds have come on the offensive glass, for a 9.5% offensive rebound rate. And he’s lost less than one turnover per game to lead the Tigers in turnover rate.
It’ll be exciting to see how Pierce and some of his freshman teammates like Xaivian Lee and Deven Austin fare during Ivy play. While Lee is the one Tiger who’s notched an Ivy League Rookie of the Week award so far, I’m giving Pierce the nod for how he’s filled in a starting role ahead of schedule.
Runners-up: Derek Simpson, Rutgers; Jack Collins, Monmouth
Most improved player: Aundre Hyatt, Rutgers
After Aundre Hyatt posted 13 points and six rebounds in just 20 minutes during a beatdown of Nebraska back in January, I asked him how he was liking his first season in the Big Ten.
“It’s definitely a lot more bigs,” he said. “It’s a lot more big-oriented. I feel like it’s a good fit for me and being a part of this team. I’m excited about Big Ten play. We’ve got a lot to show.”
But that turned out to be his most productive performance of the season. Hyatt didn’t earn consistent minutes down the stretch with Rutgers’ season hanging on every Big Ten result, and he was ice-cold offensively by the end of the season, going a combined 0-for-8 for zero points in the Big Ten tourney loss to Iowa and the First Four defeat to Notre Dame.
Now it’s a brand-new season, and the former LSU forward has become a critical part of Rutgers’ success. After averaging less than 3.5 points per game over his first three college seasons, the senior is Rutgers’ third-leading scorer this season at 11.1 ppg.
Hyatt has started nine of the first 11 games, partly because of injuries elsewhere on the floor but also because he’s diversified his game. He’s making more shots, he’s getting to the foul line more and, best of all, he’s added a 3-pointer. The 30% success rate doesn’t jump off the page, but it’s a career high and he’s already made more threes this season (16) than in any of his previous three campaigns, thanks to six games with multiples made threes.
Hyatt’s also been more active on the glass and is suddenly averaging 1.3 steals per game when that wasn’t previously a forte of his. (I guess when you play for Pikiell and can count Spencer and McConnell among your teammates, there’s chance that rubs off on you.) Whether he continues to be the first guy off the bench for a healthy Rutgers lineup or gets rewarded with more starts, Hyatt is fourth on the team in minutes per game not because there’s no better option, but because he’s earned the increased role.
At first blush, I thought I was going to pick Princeton forward Keeshawn Kellman here. But truth be told, though his counting stats are certainly better, Kellman was already trending in a positive direction early last year when an injury cut short his season before Ivy play even began. Between him and Hyatt, I have to say Hyatt is the more improved of the two.
Runners-up: Keeshawn Kellman, Princeton; Tray Jackson, Seton Hall
Most improved team: Fairleigh Dickinson
I think I will have more to say about Fairleigh Dickinson in the coming weeks, but I’ll gladly continue to point out that it’s already surpassed its win total from a season ago. There’s no better definition of “most improved” than that.
Taking Loyola Chicago to overtime and beating Saint Joseph’s by 17 on the road feel like legitimate building blocks for a program like FDU. In the NCAA’s NET rankings, the Knights rate second in the Northeast Conference, a lower-tier league that’s shaping up to be eminently winnable.
We’ll see how FDU’s formula – score a ton of points to overcome all the points you’re giving up – translates to conference play when it hosts Merrimack next Thursday for its NEC opener.
Most likely to go dancing: Rutgers
After a big season for Jersey hoops in 2021-22, it’s entirely possible it will be a one-bid state this March. Seton Hall has to right the ship quick, before it sinks to the bottom of the Big East. Princeton or Rider could win their respective one-bid leagues, but they’ll have strong competition at the top.
Meanwhile, Rutgers gets the benefit of playing in the Big Ten, which has averaged 8 2/3 bids over the past three tournaments. As of Tuesday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected nine teams from the Big Ten to make the field of 68 – and interestingly enough, 7-4 Rutgers was on the wrong side of the bubble, despite its strong underlying metrics and potential for several Quad 1 wins.
Maybe that’s the most important takeaway with the return of conference games just around the corner. Yes, Rutgers has looked terrific in most of its games, but the Big Ten also could be stronger from top to bottom. Maryland is ahead of schedule; Penn State has gotten better; Northwestern might even be better. And the Scarlet Knights don’t get to play every game at home, where they’re near-unbeatable.
Rutgers has two more tune-ups against Bucknell and Coppin State before returning to Big Ten play by visiting none other than No. 1 Purdue. After last year’s upset, the Boilers should be counting their lucky stars that that game’s at West Lafayette. Either way, Rutgers has plenty of games still to win for this holiday forecast to come true.
Thank you for reading, as always. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and joyous Kwanzaa. Guarden State will be off Dec. 26 as part of an abridged holiday break from work, but I’ll be back on the road Wednesday night to cover Monmouth’s debut Colonial Athletic Association game against UNC Wilmington. Some longer feature stories are in the works for January, too, so thanks again for bearing with me as I try not to get too fluffy with my content in the meantime. Wishing you and your families a peaceful holiday break.