New Year’s checkup: Where each team stands with COVID disruptions
Plus a well-deserved shoutout to Fairleigh Dickinson, owners of the weirdest record in sports.
Let’s not waste any time recognizing New Jersey’s true winners this holiday weekend. I’m talking about none other than Fairleigh Dickinson, which finally won a game.
While most of the state’s mid-majors had their schedules disrupted by COVID-19, Fairleigh Dickinson got to play Friday night, and play they did. Brandon Rush scored 22 points, Sebastien Lamaute had 14 points and 15 rebounds from the point guard position and the Knights beat St. Francis (PA) on the road, 70-62.
Because Mount St. Mary’s forfeited to FDU in its Northeast Conference opener two days earlier, the Knights are proud owners the weirdest record you’ll ever see: 1-10, 2-0 NEC.
“I am so proud of these guys for everything they have done off the floor during these very difficult times and today it paid off on the floor,” coach Greg Herenda said, per the school. “I am very proud to come into a tough building and get their first legitimate road victory. ... I’ve said it from day one, this is a great group and the best is yet to come.”
Much respect to FDU, but with that said, I have to admit two hard truths about this point of the season. 1) We’re pretty sure we can separate the contenders from the pretenders. Seton Hall is most likely a tournament team and Rutgers, Princeton and Monmouth have realistic ways to get there. 2) Our ongoing pandemic completely upended the sport in December and made remote coverage of several teams a difficult chore (to say nothing of what it’s done to the players, coaches and other fine people that make it all tick).
Service journalism is often the most important form of journalism; people always need practical information. When I was at the Washington Times during the Capitals’ and Nationals’ championship runs, I never loved banging out stories about when public transit was closing down on a game night or what blocks of the city would be closed off. But I knew that it was important, basic info that we needed to pass along to the locals. The same is true in a different way for the pandemic: Sports consumers (myself included) have a tough time keeping track of all the “COVID transactions” and logistics in flux.
So I’m going to do my best to lay it out there in one giant roundup/checkup this morning. For N.J.’s top contenders – Hall, Rutgers, Princeton and Monmouth – I’ll include extra sections on the highest point of the past month and the area of greatest concern entering the long haul of league play.
Record: 9-3 (0-2 Big East)
KenPom ranking: 30
Latest COVID news: The Pirates came back from a 2 ½-week layoff due to COVID protocols and lost twice last week, at No. 21 Providence and home to No. 22 Villanova. The margins of defeat were five and six points, respectively, and the Pirates only had eight players available, so it’s unclear how AP voters will react in today’s poll. Tyrese Samuel and Ike Obiagu won’t clear protocol till the end of this week, Kevin Willard said, so Tuesday at Butler might look like more of the same.
“We’re not practicing right now,” Willard said Saturday. “I have eight guys. We dummy offense, we lift, we watch film and we just walk through it the best we can. You can’t play the guys this many minutes and expect them to practice. It’s not what we’re doing.”
High point of December: The four-day span in which Seton Hall defeated then-No. 7 Texas and bitter rival Rutgers at the Prudential Center had the Pirates on top of the world (or the Big East, anyway). Hall rose to as high as No. 15 in the country, and at this point it’s unclear if they’ll ever reach that high for the rest of the year. Recent bracketology projections posted by ESPN and The Athletic peg Hall as a No. 6 tournament seed.
Area of concern: Until Samuel and Obiagu return, the area of concern has to be down low. I’ve sung Tray Jackson’s praises throughout the season – a guy few expected to contribute who has had some strong showings off the bench. But as a fill-in starter next to Alexis Yetna in the past two games, he’s been far less effective. Villanova outrebounded Seton Hall 42-28 and blocked seven shots Saturday. Jackson scored just two points and he, Yetna and Myles Cale all fouled out. It wasn’t a pretty finish.
Record: 7-5 (1-1 Big Ten)
KenPom ranking: 102
Latest COVID news: Rutgers returned from its own COVID pause with a full complement of players, sans only Ralph Gonzales-Agee, and now the Scarlet Knights are playing their most complete ball of the season. Their wins last week over Maine (16 points) and Central Connecticut State (31) were their largest margins of victory of the season. If the coronavirus is truly behind this team – knock on wood – it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Rutgers returns to the Big Ten schedule fully on the upswing, ready to host a Michigan side Tuesday that remarkably matches Rutgers’ 7-5 (1-1) record despite lofty preseason expectations.
High point of December: It’s hard not to pick Ron Harper Jr.’s 40-foot game-winner to shock Purdue, Rutgers’ first win over a national No. 1 team in program history. But again, the Knights’ post-COVID play is perhaps more promising. They didn’t struggle against bad teams like they did in November, and they racked up 21 and 25 assists in last week’s two games.
Area of concern: I’m still holding out to see how Cliff Omoruyi performs against Big Ten bigs. He had 14 points/eight rebounds against Maine and 19/12 against Central Connecticut. Great, but that’s what a former four-star recruit is supposed to do against undersized low-majors. Hunter Dickinson is coming to town Tuesday. Keep an eye on that.
Record: 10-3 (0-0 Ivy)
KenPom ranking: 135
Latest COVID news: Princeton’s Ivy League opener Sunday at Harvard was rescheduled for Feb. 27 due to Harvard’s COVID protocols, marking the first game on Princeton’s schedule all season to be affected. The Tigers last played a Division I opponent on Dec. 13; they’ll dust off their five-game winning streak this Friday and Saturday when they host Columbia and Cornell to kick off Ivy League action.
High point of December: Dec. 4, Jadwin Gym, against Drexel. The Tigers struggled to keep up early on and were on track to lose for a third time in four games, deflating their hot start. Instead, Tosan Evbuomwan and Ryan Langborg took matters into their own hands, Princeton forced overtime and Evbuomwan’s late basket won it. Since then the Tigers have won every game comfortably, and if they go on a run against their Ivy rivals this month, I’ll keep pointing to Dec. 4 as a turning point in their season.
Area of concern: There isn’t much to nitpick right now, but just like in November, I’ll say defense. The players and coach Mitch Henderson have made it clear: They know how good their offense can be when they’re clicking, but their defensive effort will make or break their season. KenPom ranks them No. 274 in adjusted defensive efficiency, down a hair from late November, and they’re still allowing 44.8 percent shooting by their opponents.
Record: 10-3 (2-0 MAAC)
KenPom ranking: 114
Latest COVID news: King Rice asked his team “keep COVID off you” and said he knew all 20 MAAC games would not go off as planned. Prescient. On Dec. 30, the program announced it “has been temporarily put on pause.” That pause was extended Monday morning, so three home games – Marist, Siena and Iona – will be postponed. This is a good place to mention that the MAAC, like most conferences, has updated its COVID forfeiture policy to allow for makeup games and “no contests” in the event that time runs out to reschedule.
High point of December: Until a loss to Hofstra before Christmas, most of the month was a “high point.” The Hawks hit the road and won their first two conference games. They took St. John’s down to the wire in Queens and toppled a vulnerable power-conference team in Pittsburgh. By the time Monmouth beat Colgate, Rice was dancing for the cameras. This team remains No. 11 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major Top 25 and looks like a threat to Iona’s throne in the MAAC.
Area of concern: Does this COVID pause kill all the momentum Monmouth had before the Hofstra game? The Hawks had hit their stride, with great team defense and an offensive arsenal that didn’t rely too much on George Papas, thanks to Shavar Reynolds and Walker Miller coming along.
Record: 4-8 (0-2 MAAC)
KenPom ranking: 289
Latest COVID news: Rider postponed its Jan. 2 MAAC game at Quinnipiac due to the virus. Since Rider also lost the nonconference game at Rutgers off the schedule, the Broncs have played only one game since Dec. 5 – against Division III Gwynedd-Mercy.
Record: 3-6 (1-1 MAAC)
KenPom ranking: 220
Latest COVID news: Make it three-for-three, in terms of New Jersey MAAC schools catching COVID. The Peacocks had two games postponed “due to COVID-19 protocols involving Tier 1 personnel from multiple schools.” They were supposed to play Canisius and Marist on Friday and Sunday. Here’s hoping the entire MAAC can get going again after a week to heal up.
Record: 6-5 (1-0 America East)
KenPom ranking: 293
Latest COVID news: In a rare move, NJIT actually played this weekend, outlasting Maine 69-66 to nab a win in its AEC opener. About 10 days prior, the Highlanders’ nonconference game at UMass was canceled because they had enough positive COVID tests, but since they were able to come back Sunday with at least nine players available, I think that’s a positive development.
Record: 1-10 (2-0 Northeast)
KenPom ranking: 336
Latest COVID news: Saving the best for last! Things were looking awful for the Knights when they started the season 0-10 and canceled a nonconference game with Saint Peter’s because of COVID positives. But they were healthy enough to play Dec. 29, when Mount St. Mary’s had to forfeit their conference opener. As of Dec. 23, the Northeast Conference announced it would not change its forfeit policy, so expect that win to stick in FDU’s record.
Thanks for reading. As I mentioned last time, I’m taking the rest of this week off as I move to a new place. If all goes according to plan (which rarely happens in this day and age), I’ll cover a doubleheader at Rutgers and Princeton on Saturday and resume twice-a-week newsletters next Monday. Till then, take care.