2015-16 Northeast Conference Men’s Basketball Preview

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Photo: Bob Dea – BHJ

The goal of all ten Northeast Conference teams is to be hoisting the NEC Men’s Basketball Championship Trophy high above their heads the second Tuesday in March. To get there, it takes two months of practices, a month and half of non-conference games before the two-month journey through the conference season to be in the top eight of the NEC standings and qualify for the NEC Tournament.

St. Francis Brooklyn was picked by many last season to be that team to hoist the NEC championship trophy and they came one win away but a determined Robert Morris team came into Brooklyn Heights and left with trophy and a bid to the NCAA Tournament in hand.

Now, Robert Morris will look to defend their NEC title against a few formidable teams who will look to get their hands on that title and get their opportunity to represent the NEC in the NCAAs.

For me, I believe that the NEC this season is more define in terms of tiers going into the season then it probably has been over the last few years. There is easily a bottom tier, a good but not great tier, a sleeper tier and then the top tier and I don’t think it is over difficult to figure out which teams belongs in which heading into this season.

Now it’s time to reveal the fourth annual Blackbirds Hoops Journal NEC preseason preview:

10. Central Connecticut State Blue Devils – (Last season: 5-26; 3-15 NEC, 10th) There hasn’t been much to cheer about for fans of CCSU over the last two seasons. Two seasons ago, they needed a win at LIU in the last week of the season just to get into the NEC tournament and then last season it was just a complete nightmare starting with Kyle Vinales arrest last October to Malcolm McMillian’s injury the first week of the season and it all resulted in a five-win season for longtime head coach Howie Dickenman. After the season, their leading scorer Matt Mobley transferred and things went from bad to worse. It looks like another long, cold winter is in store for CCSU fans up in New Britain. The one bright spot the Blue Devils have is in senior forward Brandon Peel (9.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) who could land himself on an All-NEC team at season’s end. The problem is there is not much help behind Peel returning back. Sophomore Kevin Seymour (3.9 ppg, 3.4 apg) and junior Khalen Cumberlander (9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg) will likely be the starting backcourt. Cumberlander should be in for good season and could likely take over as CCSU’s top scorer. The front court after Peel is basically a group of unknowns who are mostly young and inexperienced. CCSU finished last in the NEC in scoring offense and also last in the NEC in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and offensive and defensive turnover percentages. Unfortunately, it looks like is going to be more of the same once again this season. I think Peel and Cumberlander will need to carry them just to be competitive in some of these games.

NEC Prediction Record: 3-15

9. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights – (Last season: 8-21; 3-15 NEC, 9th) Two years ago, in Greg Herenda’s first season at FDU, they finished unexpectedly in eighth place and it was looking like things in that program were finally starting to head in the right direction after three straight terrible seasons under Greg Vetrone. But last season, FDU regressed, winning just three games in conference, mainly because they were young and inexperience. Two players who took advantage of the playing time they got in their freshman year were guards Darian Anderson (11.4 ppg, 3.0 apg) and Marques Townes (9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg). Anderson and Townes finished third and fifth respectively among NEC freshmen in scoring last season. Earl Potts Jr. (6.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg) also had a nice year as a freshman. But they lost leading scorer Mustafa Jones to graduation and Matt McDonald who started in 23 of 29 games played transferred. This year FDU’s team might be the youngest team in the NEC with no seniors and two redshirt juniors on their roster. Monmouth transfer Tyrone O’Garro could likely be FDU’s best front court player and his career averages are just 3.2 ppg and 5.0 rpg. FDU’s front court outside of O’Garro has virtually no experience. This team is going to have to rely on Anderson and Townes to put up some numbers offensively to win some games and even that might not be enough most nights. This team is going to have to grow through the growing pains this season as most young team have to go through. I believe this team falls short of a NEC tournament bid.

NEC Prediction Record: 4-14

8. Wagner Seahawks – (Last season: 10-20; 8-10 NEC 7th) If there is one team that is going to be hard to gauge, it is Wagner. I may be underrating them right now but there are several question marks which has me taking a cautious approach on them. Wagner was another one of the many young NEC teams last season after an amazing three-year run in which they won a total of 63 games. Gone now is leading scorer Marcus Burton. Yet, there is some very good talent returning back for the Seahawks. There are two X-factor guys on this team which will likely dictate how their season will go. One is senior forward Mike Aaman (10.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and the other is Dwaun Anderson (1 game played). Aaman played in just 17 games last season after another concussion incident. If he is able to stay on the court, undoubtedly he makes Wagner a whole lot better but his health is a major concern. He has played in only 22 games the last two seasons due to his concussion battles. When healthy, he is one of the tougher inside player in all of the NEC and a top rebounder. Anderson played in just one game last season due to injury. He was suppose to become Wagner one-two punch with Burton last season but it never happened. Now, it is hard to what Anderson’s role on this team is going to be? Will he be a starter or will head coach Bashir Mason use him off the bench and continuing using his younger guys as starters? No doubt Anderson great talents has been well chronicled but has never really lived up to the hype he came to Wagner with after transferring from Michigan State. Wagner has a good nucleus of young guards to continue growing with in Corey Henson (9.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg), Romone Saunders (7.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and JoJo Cooper (6.9 ppg, 4.0 apg). The front court outside of Aaman is more of question mark although they have Penn transfer Henry Brooks and Greg Senat (3.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg) to rely on.

NEC Prediction Record: 7-11

7. St. Francis U. Red Flash – (Last season: 16-16; 9-9 NEC 5th) How successful was a .500 season for SFU a season ago? It was their first .500 season in ten years. Credit SFU head coach Rob Krimmel and his staff. Also credit All-NEC first teamer Earl Brown. Brown though has graduated and now it is up to the remaining upperclassmen to make it back-to-back .500 seasons for the first time in 24 years. It is not going to be easy but the Red Flash do have several key pieces that at least makes it a possibility. Seniors starters Ronnie Drinnon (8.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Greg Brown (8.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg) along with junior starting point guard Malik Harmon (9.7 ppg, 2.7 apg) and senior Ben Millaud-Meunier (5.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg) will need to provide the veteran presence and leadership to guide which now includes nine sophomores and freshmen. Drinnon and Harmon are the two key players to watch out for. Drinnon is a rebounding machine and could stack up the double-doubles this season. Harmon is in the conversation for the best point guard in the NEC although some will knock him as a shoot-first point guard. The fact is, SFU needs his offense as well as need him to get his teammates involved. The loss of Earl Brown is huge for this team. There is just no way for SFU to replace the production he had especially last season for them. The depth of this team is a question mark. After the first six or so players, Krimmel will have to figure out who he can depend on and give playing time to. With that, I believe this will hold SFU back this season and prevent them from getting back to .500 and keep them at the bottom half of the NEC tournament seeding.

NEC Prediction Record: 7-11

6. Sacred Heart Pioneers – (Last season: 15-17; 9-9 NEC 6th) In year two of the Anthony Latina era, the Pioneers got back into the NEC tournament for just the second time in the past six seasons. Things are slowly looking up on the Sacred Heart campus and this season could be a swing season for them. The Good – Sacred Heart has one of the best shooters in the NEC and he is just a sophomore in Cane Broome (14.5 ppg, 2.4 apg) and his shooting numbers should only get better this season. Forward Tevin Falzon (8.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg) returns for his senior year after a very productive junior year. The Bad – Evan Kelley, Phil Gaetano and Steve Glowiak have graduated and junior forward De’von Barnett (10.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is out for the season after having labrum surgery over the summer. The loss of Barnett will put some added pressure on both Broome and Falzon but it doesn’t all have to fall on their shoulders. Grad student forward Jordan Allen (8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) now moves into the forefront in the front court in the absence of Barnett and should do a solid job. Also, the Pioneers will also have junior center Cole Walton returning after playing in just six games due to injury last season. Sacred Heart also added some good freshmen talent which includes point guard Quincy McKnight who could eventually land himself into the starting lineup. The key player will obviously be Cane Broome. As he goes, so will the Pioneers. I believe Broome is going to have an excellent season and the Pioneers could surprise if some guys play up to potential. Yet, I think they are one more season away from truly contending and being a major factor for an NEC title. 

NEC Prediction Record: 9-9

5. St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers – (Last season: 23-12; 15-3 NEC 1st) The Terriers were one win away from reaching heights never before reached in their history. Yet, they fell short, losing to Robert Morris in the NEC championship game last March. Now, eight months later and although St. Francis Brooklyn returns several key players that contributed to their 23 wins last season, their top two stars are now gone in NEC Player of the Year Jalen Cannon and All-NEC first teamer Brent Jones. Cannon averaged a double-double (16.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg) last season and there is just no way any one Terrier player this season will be able to replace that kind of production. Jones (14.1 ppg, 5.3 apg) was a tremendous floor general for Glenn Braica’s Terriers and his loss will also be felt. Yet, it is a new season and the Terriers now have to turn to senior guard Tyreek Jewell (9.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), senior forward Amdy Fall (6.5 ppg, 2.8 bpg) and sophomore Glenn Sanabria (6.0 ppg, 2.1 apg) to try to get St. Francis Brooklyn back at a chance to once again make history for their program. Jewell struggled with his shot for much of the season but got it going late in the season and will need to play with consistency if the Terriers are to go far this season. Defending NEC Defensive Player of the Year Amdy Fall will now have to not just get it done on the defensive end but help do more on the offensive end as well. Sanabria was one of the surprises of last season backing up Jones at the point. He’ll now likely move into the starting lineup and whether or not he can continue his solid play of last season will be the question. One X-factor player could be senior Chris Hooper (5.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg). He started in 27 of his 35 games played last season and played in over 14 minutes per game. He could be a someone they could get solid offense from the inside. He could be their best interior threat. Rebounding and defense will be their calling card once again and they should be ok in these department. Offensive is where I feel they might struggle at time unless they get big seasons out of their upperclassmen. Although, there is still some solid pieces returning for the Terriers, I have to think they will take a step back after losing big players to their team in Cannon and Jones.

NEC Prediction Record: 9-9

4. Bryant Bulldogs – (Last season: 16-15; 12-6 NEC 3rd) The Bulldogs have been a top four NEC team the last three seasons and have flourished since their five-year transition into full Division I membership finally ended. Yet, their overall wins total has slowly dwindled from 19 to 18 to 16 season although they did win 12 conference games last season. But gone are names like Dobbs, Francis and Maynard who helped build the Bryant program. Now add one more name to that list in Dyami Starks and his 18.8 ppg. Yet with that, there is still plenty of optimism around the Bulldogs. They still have guys like junior forward Dan Garvin (10.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg), senior guard Shane McLaughlin (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), and senior forward Curtis Oakley (3.1 ppg, 1.4 rpg) in the fold along with sophomores Hunter Ware (5.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg) and Bosko Kostur (7.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg). Garvin posted six double-doubles last season but fouled out of eleven games and led all of the NEC with 118 fouls. The new defensive rules could be a further hinderance to Garvin and prevent him from maximum production in games this season. McLaughlin is a steady point guard who isn’t flashy but finds open guys and can hit an open shot. Ware showed flashed of greatness as a freshman and should see more shots now with Dyami Starks gone. His playing time should see a drastic increase. One player who could be for a great season in Kostur. Towards the last month, he started seeing increased playing time and put up some good scoring games in the process including 23 points in a home win against St. Francis Brooklyn. All in all, this team should more balanced scoring the ball than in recent years and could be a bit deeper than some of the teams of recent season in which depth was an issue. Bryant should be solid if their key guys stay healthy. It should be four years in a row in the top four for the Bulldogs.

NEC Prediction Record: 11-5

3. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds – (Last season: 12-18; 8-10 NEC 8th) Once you get over rolling your eyes at seeing LIU picked third, I will explain why I picked them so high. Yes, they were extremely streaky last season and were consistent inconsistent. They were the eleventh least experience team in the nation according to Kenpom, they averaged 0.91 years of experience and totaled eight Division I seasons combined among the active players and their play at times showed. Now coming into this season, that total experience jumps up to fourteen combined seasons. The experience has grown and it should be for the better for Jack Perri and his Blackbirds. Although, LIU loses their top three-point threat in Gerrell Martin, good frontline guy in Landon Atterberry and their starting point guard in Elvar Fridriksson, they might have actually upgraded in two of the three positions. Sophomore Martin Hermannsson (10.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is the top returning scorer and admittedly didn’t have the season he felt he was capable of as a freshman. He will need to help LIU in the perimeter as well getting to the paint and going to the free throw line where he was a 86% shooter. Nura Zanna (8.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) had a solid first season with the Blackbirds but was also limited due to foul trouble (111 fouls – 2nd in NEC). If he can figure out his foul woes, he could have a monster season. Junior guard Joel Hernandez (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg) started in 14 games last season and won the trust of Jack Perri. He likely move up to a full-time starter this season. The two big X-factors are both transfers in juniors Jerome Frink and Aakim Saintil. Frink should be a very solid addition on the interior and Saintil provides speed and ball handling at the point guard position that could be better than what they had last season. Also a solid freshmen corps gives LIU a great deal of depth they haven’t had the last few seasons. This team maybe a year away from legit championship contention but they are a definite sleeper this season could pull off some unlikely surprises.

NEC Prediction Record: 12-6

2. Robert Morris Colonials – (Last season: 20-15; 12-6 NEC 2nd) The defending NEC tournament champions are many folks favorite to return to the NCAA tournament in March. They return several big players who contributed majorly to their success last season but had a couple of big losses as well. The biggest of which was NEC Rookie of the Year Marcquise Reed and his 15.1 ppg who is now at Clemson. They also lost four-year star Lucky Jones and his 1632 career points. Yet, there are three main reasons why Robert Morris should once again finish near the top of the NEC standings once again. There are senior guard Rodney Pryor (15.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) who is pretty much the unanimous preseason favorite to win NEC Player of the Year, junior point guard Kavon Stewart (6.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) and head coach Andy Toole. Under Andy Toole, RMU has averaged 22 wins per season, easily the best in the NEC. He has done it in the past with a team of eight players, he has done it while constantly amid player drama whether its player suspensions, mid-season transfers, injuries, whatever the case has been. He still gets his team to play hard and win which is a great testament to him and his coaching and why he has been sought after the last couple of offseasons. Pryor in first season in the NEC lit it up and made a great one-two punch at the guard positions with Reed. Now without Reed and defenses able to focus on him more, it will interesting to see if he put up the same shooting numbers he did a season ago which were tremendous. Stewart has now ascended to one of top point guards in the NEC. He is a pass-first point who usually takes care of the basketball and gets his guys shots where they like. He should be the top NEC assist man this season. RMU has already lost senior Lionel Gomis and could also be without seniors Stephan Bennett and Aaron Tate coming into the season which greatly hurts their depth which means this could big season for sophomore Elijah Minnie (6.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg). At this point, you can’t bet against them even if you want to. They might struggle at times early in the season but usually they’ll figure out by the start of NEC play and that is what I think will happen for them again this season.

NEC Prediction Record: 13-5

1. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers – (Last season: 15-15; 11-7 NEC 4th) The Mount in a year after losing their top three players went ahead and finish with .500 record and 11 NEC wins last season. They return nearly every impact player on their team with exceptions of Kristijan Krajina who exhausted his eligibility and Andrew Smeathers whose injuries caused him to step away from basketball and transfer. But they have a solid nucleus of returnees back which makes me believe they are the best team in the NEC coming into the season. Junior guard BK Ashe (11.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg) could possibly push RMU’s Rodney Pryor for NEC Player of the Year. He (and really everyone else) will have a full green-light to shoot especially from deep. Senior Gregory Graves (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) should be a double-double threat every night and might see himself on the NEC first team at the end of the season. 5’7″ sophomore point guard Junior Robinson (8.2 ppg, 3.3 apg) is a pest on both ends of the court and his speed and decision making with the ball will cause chaos for opposing teams. Along with this trio, they also have three-point sniper Will Miller (5.6 ppg), seven-foot senior center Taylor Danaher (4.5 ppg), junior Khalid Nwandu (4.7 ppg) and sophomore Charles Glover (2.0 ppg) plus some solid freshmen and redshirt freshmen which only adds to the depth of this season which uses it more than any other team in the NEC due to Jamion Christian Mayhem style of play on both ends, and this for me makes them the NEC favorite. Add coaching to the equation with Christian who has quickly transformed this program to perennial winner year in and year out and this team has the makings of going all the way this season.

NEC Prediction Record: 15-3

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