We have come to our final Northeast Conference preview as we look at all ten NEC men’s basketball teams and place them in our predicted order of finish from ten to one.
Last season, an eight-man Robert Morris team did pretty much the unthinkable and finished the conference season 14-2 and got all the way to the NEC Championship Game before getting upended by a surging Mount St. Mary’s team who for the second season in a row caught fire at the right but this time completing the job with a championship.
This season is all about new top tier talent emerging as the conference returns only five of fifteen All-NEC players from last season. Some teams will rise with new blood and new opportunities while others will find it difficult to replace some of the great players that propelled up the league standings in recent years. Every season is a new chance to find out which teams will has the skills and the talents to be a contender to lift the NEC championship trophy come March and which ones will be looking at long season ahead of them.
So here we go, here is the third annual Blackbirds Hoops Journal NEC preseason preview:
10. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (Last season: 10-21; 6-10 NEC, 8th) – Last season, FDU was unanimously picked to finish last in the NEC and surprised pretty much everyone when they won six NEC games and finished eighth and earned the final NEC tournament spot. A lot of that was due to out-of-nowhere play of Sidney Sanders Jr. and his over 19 ppg as well as top three-point shooter and rebounder Mathias Seilund. Both have graduated and now FDU have to go into this season with just one experienced senior in second-leading scorer Mustafaa Jones (9.7 ppg) and a roster mostly made of sophomores and freshmen. Shooter Matt McDonald (8.6 ppg) should improve on his freshman numbers. Junior Xavier Harris and sophomore Malachi Mix should see an increase in minutes this season. Head coach Greg Herenda also brings in a five-player freshmen class in which freshmen Marques Townes and Earl Potts Jr. may get significant playing time. Overall, this team lost three of their top five scorers from last season so it could take a while for this team to get going and get some cohesion. I look for this team to be the team they were suppose to be last season, a team on the rebuild track.
NEC Prediction Record: 3-15
9. Sacred Heart Pioneers (Last season: 5-26; 2-16 NEC, 10th) – It was a struggle last season for first-year head coach Anthony Latina winning just two NEC games in a five-win season. Their defense struggled all season long, allowing 76.7 ppg and giving up 111.4 points per 100 possessions. Their new up-tempo offense didn’t yield more offense, in fact their offensive points per 100 possessions went from 99.4 two seasons ago to 98.9 last season. They had a tough time replacing sharpshooter Shane Gibson and missed his offense. This season, the Pioneers returning leading scorer senior Evan Kelley (12.9 ppg) and senior three-point threat Steve Glowiak (11.1 ppg/38.4 3FG%) who will have to lead the offense. They do have an emerging star in All-NEC rookie teamer sophomore De’von Barnett (11.0 ppg) who will need to step up to fill some of the loss from departed Louis Montes. One of the best distributors in the nation returns in senior Phil Gaetano (6.5 ppg/6.3 apg) who will likely league the NEC in assists with the departure of LIU’s Jason Brickman. After that though, there is plenty of question marks on this team. They are going to need these top four guys to have big seasons if are to get back to the NEC tournament this season after missing out last season. I believe this team will be better than a two-win team but I don’t know if they will be that much better. Kelley will need to stay healthy all season if they are to have any shot at the NEC’s. If injuries hampers this team then look for similar results once again.
NEC Prediction Record: 5-13
8. Wagner Seahawks (Last season: 19-12; 12-4 NEC, 2nd) – There is no denying the success Wagner has had the last three seasons. 63 wins in that span. Three straight #2 seeds in the NEC tournament. Yet, all three seasons ended in upset losses at home in the semifinals. Now gone are three-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz, 13.8 ppg career scorer Latif Rivers, and the best shot blocker in the NEC last season in Naofall Folahan. Add the surprise transfer of Mario Moody, the non-surprise transfer of Jay Harris after one year, and the Seahawks return back just two impact players from a season ago. One of them is senior point guard Marcus Burton (11.0 ppg) who didn’t start a single game last season but was third on the team in scoring. Burton will certainly start this season and will likely have to carry this team offensively. The other is junior guard Dwaun Anderson (5.5 ppg) who career-averages are 4.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 36.3 FG% and 20.7 3FG% for the former Michigan Mr. Basketball. He is now at the crossroads of his college career and he won’t have a better opportunity than this coming season to finally put up the numbers that was expected of him from when he first arrived after transferring from Michigan State. After Burton and Anderson, there is not another established player on this team. The only exception could be Rhode Island transfer Mike Aaman who could give them a huge lift in the front court but he is still waiting to see if the NCAA will give him a waiver to play this season. If Aaman plays, I believe he could be a factor and Wagner will get their share of wins because they’ll play hard and play good defense. But if Aaman doesn’t play, I can’t see Wagner seriously being better than an eight-seed team. Either way, their championship window has closed and it is time for them to start over.
NEC Prediction Record: 6-12
7. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds (Last season: 9-20; 4-12 NEC, 9th) – As noted on this site many times, last season couldn’t have been more disappointment and more frustrating for head coach Jack Perri and his players. A rash of player injuries took away any realistic shot of LIU Brooklyn defending their three straight NEC championships. They watched two of their all-time greats in Julian Boyd and Jason Brickman say good-bye after last season and the feeling among many is LIU is now destined for the bottom of the NEC. The thing is LIU got proactive after the season ended to make sure that last season was just a result of horrible luck and not a spin back to the lean years of losing basketball. EJ Reed who was a disappointment in his sophomore year even though his 12.3 ppg led the team in scoring is now gone. Four players in total transferred or decided not to return meaning only five players return who played in at least 17 games last season. In arrives seven new players to this team plus two returnees who played in a total of seven games last season in Chris Carter and Nura Zanna and Zanna didn’t play in any. Yet, even with all the turnover, there is promise to this team. They should be fun and exciting to watch and could surprise some folks in the NEC. Senior Gerrell Martin (12.2 ppg, 44 3FG%) returns as well as senior Landon Atterberry (10.8 ppg/4.1 rpg). Zanna will be one of the promising young players in the NEC this season if he comes back at 100 percent from his wrist injury from a year ago. The questions will be who will start at point guard as LIU has two talented freshmen points in Elvar Friðriksson and Jamil Hood. Also, can they stay healthy this season? If the answer is yes, with the depth they have added across the board, they could end up being a team some of the top teams don’t want to see make the NEC tournament.
NEC Prediction Record: 9-9
6. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers (Last season: 16-17; 9-7 NEC, Tied 4th) – Only two current NEC head coaches has taking their teams to the NEC championship games in their first two seasons. One of the them is Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian. Yet he is only three games above .500 in his first two seasons at the Mount. That is because for two seasons running the Mount have peaked at the right time of the season and carry that momentum to two consecutive NEC championship game appearances. This season though, that could be a tougher task for the Mount to accomplish as they lose their three top scorers from last season in Rashad Whack, Julian Norfleet and Sam Prescott which amounted to 60% of their total scoring. Their top returning scorer is 7’0” center Taylor Danaher and his 7.1 ppg average. There is a lot that needs to be replaced at the Mount if they are to repeat as conference champs. The Mount do return a nice core group who can win games with players like Danaher, Byron Ashe (7 ppg), Gregory Graves (6.5 ppg), Will Miller (5.6 ppg) and Khalid Nwandu (2.5 ppg) along with sixth-year senior Kristijan Krajina. Add on another good recruiting class with players like big man Mawdo Sallah and small man Lamont Robinson, the formula looks set for the Mount to learn how to play and win in November and December and get things rolling again in January and February and be the team nobody wants to play in March. It looks like another year of Mount Mayhem is in store for the NEC once again.
NEC Prediction Record: 9-9
5. Bryant Bulldogs (Last season: 18-14; 10-6 NEC, 3rd) – Bryant this season is a difficult team to figure out what they are going to become. They lose an all-time great in Alex Francis and his career 17 ppg. Not only do they lose his scoring but his rebounding and his toughness as well. They also lose point guard Corey Maynard. So now it will be up to high-scorer Dyami Starks (18.8 ppg) to carry this Bulldogs offense. He will have a full green light to shoot at any point and I will be surprised if he doesn’t score over 20 ppg this season. Senior Joe O’Shea (9.1 ppg) should also have a good season for his uncle Tim O’Shea, Bryant’s head coach. Junior Shane McLaughlin (4 ppg) returns after starting in the team’s final 14 games and will be the main man at the point. With Francis gone, it will be sophomore Dan Garvin’s (6 ppg/4.8 rpg) time to shine as he likely moves up into a starting role. Junior Curtis Oakley (3.8 ppg) should also see an increase in minutes. There is talent on this team but the wins and losses will likely be based on how well Starks plays. Teams will game plan to slow down Starks and make someone else beat them and on some nights, Starks shot is not going to fall and it is going to be tough for them to pull those games out. I see Bryant taking a small step back this season after two straight terrific breakout seasons.
NEC Prediction Record: 10-8
4. Central Connecticut Blue Devils (Last season: 11-19; 7-9 NEC, Tied 6th) – Last season, CCSU were able to get themselves into the NEC tournament by winning five of their last seven games. Once again they can thank the heroics of All-NEC superstar Kyle Vinales for making it happen. Vinales is back for one more go-around in his senior season. He played in only 20 games last season due to injury and started in only half those games. Yet he finished with a 17.3 ppg average. CCSU will go as far as Vinales can take them which can be pretty far if he has the season he is most certainly capable of having. Behind Vinales is all-NEC third teamer Faronte Drakeford (13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) who was a big lift for the Blue Devils in the front court. Point guard Malcolm McMillian (10.8 ppg) is also back for his senior year and will once again pair up with Vinales in the backcourt. CCSU returns back all six of their top scorers which is a big reason why a lot of experts are picking CCSU to do a lot of damage in the NEC and have a legit chance at a championship this season. The thing that worries me about this team is that they had plenty of difficulties on the defensive end last season and with basically the same cast of characters again this season, I can’t see how they guys will play better defense this season. Their offense will have to be ahead of their defense if they are to have a realistic shot at a NEC title. As long as they have Vinales, they have a chance. They is not a more clutch player right now in the NEC than Vinales but I don’t think this team will take off like many expect.
NEC Prediction Record: 10-8
3. Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash (Last season: 10-21; 7-9 NEC, Tied 6th) – Saint Francis (PA) took advantage of having no expectation and no pressure put upon them and got better as a team as the season went along. It proved valuable come March when they upset Bryant on the road in the NEC tourney quarterfinals. This season, the expectations have risen and they will be among the hunted instead of being the hunters. This team is still relatively young but they also feature several seniors that should have a big impact if they are to get to the top tier of the NEC. Nearly everyone returns from last season’s team so they should have great team chemistry from the outset. It all starts with all-NEC senior forward Earl Brown (14.4 ppg, 8 rpg). His veteran leadership should be on prime display this season and will be one of their go-to guy inside for Rob Krimmel’s team. Brown has been largely overlooked through most of his career (due to playing on some bad teams) but that won’t be the case for him this season as he is listed on almost everyone’s preseason All-NEC first team list. Brown has a good supporting cast around him starting with sophomore point guard Malik Harmon (8.7 ppg, 2.9 apg) who was NEC Rookie of the Year last season. Junior Ronnie Drinnon (7.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) could have a breakout season as he finished out last season strong. Also, the Red Flash are very deep in the back court with Ben Millaud-Meunier (8.3 ppg), Dominique Major (6.9 ppg), Stephon Whyatt (5.4 ppg) and Ollie Jackson (5.1 ppg). The Red Flash seems to be primed to make a move up the standings in the NEC and become a legit contender for a conference championship. They are also playing a tough non-conference schedule to prepare them for the conference grind. They are going to be fun to watch this season if they all stay healthy. I like the trio of Harmon, Brown and Drinnon. I think if they don’t get double-digits wins in the NEC, it would be a disappointment.
NEC Prediction Record: 11-7
2. St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers (Last season: 18-14; 9-7 NEC, Tied 4th) – If there is a team that should come into this season with a chip on their shoulder, it is St. Francis Brooklyn. They blew a 19-point lead second half lead at Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC quarterfinals. They also had to deal with controversy when five players were suspended right when things were starting to peak. Of those players only senior point guard Brent Jones returns. St. Francis Brooklyn is looking to put last season well behind them and they will do it on the shoulders of NEC Player of the Year candidate Jalen Cannon. The 6’6” senior forward has had a tremendous career in Brooklyn Heights. He led the Terriers in scoring (14.9 ppg), rebounding (8.2 rpg) and minutes played (30 mpg) and had eight double-doubles. Amazingly, he fouled out of only one game last season. Cannon will likely take his game to another level in his senior year. If wasn’t for Sidney Sanders Jr. at FDU, Brent Jones (7.5 ppg, 6.0 apg) might have won the NEC Most Improved Player award. He improved his numbers greatly from his sophomore season and the Terriers will need an even better season out of him this season. Senior Kevin Douglas (4.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg) had a bit of a down season last year and will need to return to the form he showed his sophomore season where he looked like he was about to become a breakout star. Look for junior forward Amdy Fall (5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.7 bpg) to have much bigger role this season and be a defensive stalwart. The Terriers also two big time transfers in 6’2” juco guard Tyreek Jewell and 6’7” juco forward Antonio Jenifer. This team relied on their strong defensive play last season and they will likely have to do the same this season although they’ve added more weapons offensively. I believe they will finally make their first NEC finals appearance since 2003 and have a good chance of getting their first-ever NEC title.
NEC Prediction Record: 13-5
1. Robert Morris Colonials (Last season: 22-14; 14-2 NEC, 1st) – I struggled for weeks and months with an internal debate of whether I would pick Robert Morris or St. Francis Brooklyn as my pick to win the NEC. For almost the entire summer, I was on board with St. Francis Brooklyn. Then in the last month, I started to waver. I was slowly convincing myself that it was hard not to pick RMU to win and eventually I gave in. It is hard to argue with the success that RMU has had in the last seven seasons. They have won at least 18 games every season since 2007-08. They’ve averaged 23 wins in that span. They’ve been to the NEC finals five times and won two NEC titles as well as having two straight seasons with at least one NIT postseason win. Yet, there is also a feeling about them that makes you feel they have underachieved especially during NEC tournament time since head coach Andy Toole took over in 2010. They have not won an NEC title in his tenure although he has guided them to back-to-back NEC regular season championships. What they did last season was miraculous. They finished the season with just eight players after suspensions and defections from their roster and still won. This season, six of those guys are back plus another good recruiting class. Senior forward Lucky Jones (13.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is the star of this team and probably in the minds of most, the preseason favorite for NEC Player of the Year. Jones played second-fiddle to Karvel Anderson last season but will be the man on this season’s RMU team. Even though Jones is the only returnee who averaged double-figure last season, the Colonials bring back plenty of experienced guys who will make major contributions this season. Those include seniors Charles Oliver (6.3 ppg) and David Appolon (4.2 ppg), juniors Aaron Tate (3.1 ppg) and Stephan Bennett (formerly Hawkins) (4.6 ppg) and sophomore Kavon Stewart (4.9 ppg). Toole has once again replenished the depth with newcomers Lionel Gomis, Marcquise Reed and Elijah Minnie. The Colonials hang their hats on defense and that won’t likely change this season. If they can get consistent point guard play from their young crop, they will find themselves back at the top of the NEC once again. What they do in the postseason once they get there will be what to look for.
NEC Prediction Record: 14-4