This is probably said every year about the Northeast Conference, “This is going to be a unpredictable and crazy season.” This year will be no different. In fact, this year have a chance to be the most unpredictable and wildest conference the NEC has every had.
With a now ten-team conference, playing in a now sixteen-game regular season and with no team really coming into conference play as this year’s “team to beat”, parity could be the word we hear a lot this season. There could realistic be at least six teams that could win the NEC regular season and have home-court advantage throughout the NEC Tournament come this March.
With that in mind as we are getting set to embark on what will likely be a wild NEC season and figuring their non-conference results in it, here are the teams I think will be real contenders, wild cards, and pretenders.
Over before it starts:
St. Francis University – SFU is going through another rough season. This season was suppose to be about signs of progress as they continue rebuilding in year two of the Rob Krimmel era but at 2-11, this season has slowly disintegrated into another bad season. In an NEC season in which no team can take a game for granted and has to needs every win possible, things don’t bold well for SFU. I give them maybe two more wins the rest of the season but don’t be terribly shocked if they go 0-16.
Battle for the 8-seed:
Fairleigh Dickinson – FDU is a weird team to figure out. They have wins over Seton Hall and Rutgers and just beat Hofstra by 19. They also have losses to Division II Metro State, St. Peter’s and to…Hofstra by 22. You have to say FDU has overachieved thus far even with just the four wins they have. Remember, they were the unanimous pick to finish last in the NEC. Sidney Sanders Jr. has come of nowhere this season to be second in the NEC in scoring at 19.6 ppg. FDU under first-year head coach Greg Herenda should be good enough to compete for the eighth-seed and get into the NEC Tournament. FDU will see LIU Brooklyn and Robert Morris just once so that helps them.
Sacred Heart – The Pioneers have had a less than stellar non-conference season at 3-12. Their best win so far came at Fordham but other than that, it has been a tough go for Anthony Latina’s squad. Defense has been the main culprit to their troubles. Also having to play 12 of their 15 games away from home hasn’t help the Pioneers. I believe they will hovering around the eighth-seed slot all season. One bad break is they will only play SFU once so they are going to need find a unlikely win or two somewhere this season. If they don’t, I’ll be hard to imagine them getting into the NEC postseason.
Central Connecticut State – This is one I should have stuck to my guns about in the preseason. I wasn’t crazy about CCSU coming in but after hearing from nearly everybody, coaches and other bloggers and people on Twitter, etc., that CCSU should be this season’s sleeper in the NEC, I bought in. I mean how it wasn’t hard not to see it with a team with Kyle Vinales, Matt Hunter and Malcolm McMIlian returning and with added depth this season which they didn’t have last year, all the pieces looked in place for the Blue Devils to make some noise. But the only noise they have made is a loud thud as this season has been a disappointment thus far. CCSU has had no good wins to really speak of. They bearly beat a Division III team at home. Senior Matt Hunter is now lost for the season after becoming academically ineligible. The season is going from bad to worse. I believe they should have enough talent to get ahead of Sacred Heart and FDU but it is certainly no guarantee of it happening. I think they get enough wins to get a seven-seed but I can’t see much more than that this season from this team.
Mount St. Mary’s – Yes, the Mount has just eight scholarship left on their roster after injuries. Yes, the Mount lost 9 of their 13 non-conference games. Yes, the Mayhem hasn’t caused a whole lot of havoc this season. Yet, I can’t rule out Jamion Christian’s team in making a run. They still have three seniors who can win them games in Julian Norfleet, Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott. If these three guys get hot at once, they are still very dangerous. They played a very challenging non-conference schedule which will only help them as they head into NEC play. They put up a 2nd-best 1.03 point per possession and 73 points per game. They will have to adjust their style defensively with a short roster but they need to do a better job at that end in order to become a true threat at a title.
LIU Brooklyn – For the first time in a long time, the Blackbirds have been hit with a wave of injuries. Jack Perri has been forced to use players out of positions (Landon Atterberry, Gilbert Parga), forced to use players more than he intended this season (Glenn Feidanga), have had guys he counted on out for the season (Nura Zanna, Julian Boyd) and guys miss games to injuries (Parga, Chris Carter, Joel Hernandez) and have to play a number of games with just eight scholarship players. Yet, the Blackbirds did win 5 non-conference games and are 3-2 in their last five games after starting 2-6. Landon Atterberry was been a revelation for the Blackbirds. Who knows where LIU would be without him? Jason Brickman obviously has been the glue to this team all season long and he is going to need to keep producing at his current level all season to keep LIU in the hunt and the way he has been playing, he just might. Defensively, LIU has been a disaster this season. Giving up 82.3 ppg isn’t going to win them many games in the NEC. If they can find a consisent defensive effort and they continue to get good play out of Brickman, Atterberry and Parga and if E.J. Reed can stop fouling and keep himself in games, LIU could still surprise and do some things. Playing at St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner to start is going to be very tough and playing FDU and Sacred Heart just once doesn’t help. I think LIU has enough around Brickman to be in the hunt for a top four seed this season.
Robert Morris – It is weird for me to think LIU and Robert Morris is just in the wild card section and not among the contenders. Robert Morris has looked good on offense most of the season with an NEC-best 1.04 points per possession but to see RMU near the bottom of NEC in defensive efficiency with 113 points allowed per 100 possessions is had to fathom from an Andy Toole squad. Now, RMU did challenge themselves in non-conference play and took on some major opponents such as Kentucky and Oklahoma State but they also gave up over 80 points to teams like Lafayette (80), Texas-Arlington (81), and Oakland (100). Karvel Anderson (17.3 ppg) and Lucky Jones (14.3) are having good seasons as expected and that will likely continue through conference play. If they can get more from freshman Jeremiah Worthem, a candidate for NEC Rookie of the Year and senior Mike McFadden, RMU definitely has a shot at making a run this season. I think they are going to play better defensive which will mean trouble for the rest of the NEC. They will be in the mix at the end.
Wagner – I still feel Wagner has the best chance at winning the one-seed this season even though at times they have been somewhat less than impressive during non-conference play. They looked good to start the season going 4-2 but since has gone just 2-5. They had some nice non-conference wins against Vermont and better than thought Monmouth team but they also have some poor losses to Lafayette at home and a beat down by Illinois-Chicago who is currently 5-10. Injuries and suspensions has hampered the cohesion of the Seahawks. Orlando Parker was suspended three games, Jay Harris was suspended for one. Latif Rivers was also benched for a game and missed another with an injury. Even with all that, Wagner still has probably the most talent and athleticism of any roster this season in the NEC which is the main reason why they were the preseason pick to win the league. Wagner also lucked out scheduling-wise as they will face the two NEC teams that had the best non-conference records coming into this conference season, St. Francis Brooklyn and Bryant, just once. That is a nice advantage to have. This team can still play defense and they have plenty of offensive weapons. When they get it all rolling, they are difficult to beat which is why I still given them the edge.
Bryant – The Bulldogs for most of the non-conference season has looked good. They finished with above .500 record (8-7), they have two players scoring above 17 ppg in Alex Francis (17.2 ppg) and Dyami Starks (21.2 ppg – 1st in the NEC), they score 1.0 ppp and give up just 1.05 ppp which currently 3rd-best in the NEC. The Bulldogs are very dangerous. They played some heavyweights in their non-conference schedule and hung tough at Notre Dame. Last season, the Bulldogs ran out of gas towards the end of the year thanks to a lack of depth. That is not going to be a problem this season. They have depth. The Bulldogs finished fourth last season, I believe they finished in the top two this season and likely the favorite going into NEC play to win the regular season and get the number-one seed.
St. Francis Brooklyn – The Terriers are back! After a couple of season of disappointment last season finished in the eighth-seed, the Terriers look like they have the players and a style of play that came make a run for an NEC regular season championship and give them a shot at their first-ever NEC Championship and NCAA tournament appearance. St. Francis Brooklyn calling card has been their defense. They are the only NEC team not giving up at least 1.0 ppp (0.94). Teams are scoring less than 65 ppg against them. They have a nice front court lead by likely first-team All-NEC performer Jalen Cannon. With guys like Kevin Douglas, Lowell Ulmer and freshmans Amdy Fall and NEC Rookie of the Year candidate Wayne Martin, they have players upfront. The questions for me with them is can they score enough on the offensive end to win games and can they get quality play from their backcourt? I’ve never been a fan of either Ben Mockford or Brent Jones games. Neither are starting now with Anthony White and freshman Sheldon Hagigal starting in their place. Hagigal had an impressive run of games but has cooled down of late. If they had an impact point guard, I think they would be unstoppable but I think this could hold them back. It will be interesting to see. I believe if their front court can continue to carry through NEC play, they will be a good shot at things come March.
With all that said, here is my updated order-of-finish prediction for NEC play this season after non-conference play:
3. Robert Morris
4. St. Francis Brooklyn
5. LIU Brooklyn
6. Mount St. Mary’s
7. Central Connecticut State
8. Fairleigh Dickinson
9. Sacred Heart
10. St. Francis University
Enjoy the wild ride that should conference play in the Northeast Conference this season. I know I sure will.