When looking back at the 2015-16 Northeast Conference season, it had its usually fare of the predictable and unpredictable. Nothing displayed that more than the NEC championship final which pitted the one of the preseason favorites in Wagner against the team no one predicted would have even be in the NEC tournament much less in a NEC final in Fairleigh Dickinson. FDU went on to win the NEC title and showed why year after year, this conference can be so tough to get a true gauge on.
The 2016-17 NEC season will likely be more of the same. Several big names (Rodney Pryor, Cane Broome, BK Ashe, Martin Hermannsson) either transferred out of the NEC or decided to go pro leaving behind some big holes to fill for their teams and muddling up some expectations.
Yet, every season bring about new opportunities and new names and faces who will be thrusted into the spotlight and become major players and key figures to teams as the season goes along.
As with every new season, there are many, many questions that would looked to be answered. Can FDU be the first team since the LIU to repeat? Will Wagner finally get over their long NEC tourney hump? Can LIU finally return to NEC prominence? Will Bryant be the next FDU? Can Sacred Heart and Robert Morris survive without their best player from last season? Can CCSU surprise and reach the NEC tourney in year one of Marshall era? These are just a few of hundreds of questions that will sort themselves out as the journey to March begins.
With that, here is the Blackbirds Hoops Journal 2016-17 Northeast Conference men’s basketball preview.
10. Central Connecticut State – (Last season: 4-25; 3-15 NEC, 10th)
After another poor season in New Britain, it was apparent, things needed to change. The longest tenured coach in the NEC, Howie Dickerman, retired at season’s end and former UConn great and long-time NBA player Donyell Marshall was hired to try and return the CCSU program to its former glory. After just nine wins in the last two seasons and several defections from the roster, Marshall will likely have his hands full turning around a once great program. All-NEC third teamer Brandon Peel and his 11.7 ppg and 9.1 rpg has graduated which only makes the holes to fill even bigger for Marshall. CCSU does return several good players back. Khalen Cumberlander returns for his redshirt-senior season as well as All-NEC Rookie team selection Austin Nehls. Those two will be the key guys if CCSU is to have any success this season. Junior forward Mustafa Jones could take a big step up this season but after that there just too many question marks with guys with little to no Division I experience. It is going to take some time for CCSU to become the program Marshall envisions but expect the Blue Devils to play hard and compete even if there is not many wins to show for it.
9. St. Francis Brooklyn – (Last season: 15-17; 11-7 NEC, 3rd)
Probably no team has lost more quality players, especially in the front-court, due to graduation over the last two seasons than the Terriers. Players like Jalen Cannon, Brent Jones, Kevin Douglas, Amdy Fall, Chris Hooper, and Tyreek Jewell have departed and now it looks like it is time to rebuild once again in Brooklyn Heights. Probably no coach in the NEC gets the most out his players than SFBK head coach Glenn Braica but he is going to have to rely on a mostly young and inexperience roster, in particularly, up front. The Terriers return one of the biggest surprises of last season in senior point guard Yunus Hopkinson who came through for Braica after the season-ending injury to starting point guard Glenn Sanabria. Now, SFBK will likely turn to a two-point guard starting lineup along with returning shooting guard Gunnar Olafsson that will have to be the strength of this season’s team. After you get past the Terriers’ starting backcourt, it is relatively littered with mostly unknowns from the starting front court to the bench. Hopkinson and Sanabria are going to need to do most of the heavy-lifting if the Terriers are to get a NEC tournament spot in March which they are capable but I believe they are going to struggle on the offensive end and will have to steal some wins defensively and keep scores low. Overall, I think the Terriers will take a couple of steps back as they begin their re-building efforts.
8. Saint Francis U. – (Last season: 13-17; 9-9 NEC, 7th)
Another program which lost a great deal of their talent in the last two seasons are the Red Flash. After last season, they lost three key seniors which were a big part of team that finished .500 for the first time in a decade in 2014-15 and first .500 season in NEC play in five seasons. Fortunately for the Red Flash, they have a few up and coming young stars in Isaiah Blackmon, Basil Thompson and Josh Nebo who are part of their next wave of talent. One important key to SFU’s success has to be senior point guard Malik Harmon. His scoring and shooting percentage took an unexpected dip last season and for the Red Flash to have any sort of success this season, they are going to need Harmon to get back closer to his sophomore year numbers where he averaged near ten points per game. Blackmon will likely emerge as the team’s new go-to scorer and Nebo is above-average shot blocker, getting near two blocks per game last season. He has NEC Defensive Player of the Year potential. Overall, this team should have a pretty good starting five. Their depth past the starting five will probably be their biggest issue. This team should be good enough to be in the NEC top eight and it wouldn’t actually surprise me if they don’t have any major injuries to their starting unit if they if finished a couple positions higher.
(Update 10/24 5:30pm: According to Maurice Brownrigg (@FieldDeGol), who follows the SFU men’s basketball program, he tweeted that SFU senior point guard Malik Harmon has possibly sustained an ACL injury and according to Ryan Peters of NYC Buckets, Harmon had gotten an MRI to see the extent of his injury and his status for this season is currently unknown.)
7. Robert Morris – (Last season: 10-22; 8-10 NEC, 8th)
After what was an un-Robert Morris-like season for the Colonials, where they finished under .500 in conference play and were the final qualifying team for the NEC tournament, RMU is looking to get back to prominence. But they suffered a huge loss with the transfer of leading scorer Rodney Pryor who took his 18 & 8 to Georgetown for his final college season. Pryor nearly single-handedly got RMU to the NEC tournament last season so now RMU will need to look for a new go-to guy to count on for scoring, something RMU struggled with a season ago. RMU head coach Andy Toole will likely turn to sophomore guard Isaiah Still, senior point guard Kavon Stewart and senior forward Billy Giles to be more productive offensive. Sophomore guard Matty McConnell who played most of last season with a shoulder injury, has been seen in the preseason on crutches. RMU should get back redshirt senior forward Aaron Tate who should help on the rebounding and defensive ends. Of the newcomers, Roberto Montovani seems to be the one getting the most attention. The 6’8″, 235 lbs. juco transfer has the size to compete with most of top big men in the NEC. Defensively, RMU also struggled last season which is not the norm for them. I would look for that to improve this season. There is no doubt Toole will get this team to play hard and be aggressive defensively but this team will probably once again have times when scoring becomes difficult. You never like to underestimate an Andy Toole team but I think this season is going to be a continuation of what we saw from them last season.
6. Sacred Heart – (Last season: 12-18; 11-7 NEC, 3rd)
The post-Cane Broome era begins at Sacred Heart as this offseason, the NEC’s leading scorer last season transferred to Cincinnati, leaving a huge void not only to the Pioneers but to the entire NEC. Now SHU head coach Anthony Latina will turn to sophomore point guard Quincy McKnight to help fill the void Broome left behind which is not going to be easy to do. McKnight had a outstanding freshman campaign and will have to take things a step further this season. SHU also lost a pair of bigs in Tevin Falzon and Jordan Allen to graduation but they will get back redshirt-junior forward De’Von Barnett who missed all of last season after a torn labrum. Latina has a pair of Croatian bigs that he will likely utilize a lot this season in 6’7″ Matej Buovac and 6’8″ Mario Matasovic. Sophomore Sean Hoehn will likely have more opportunities to shoot the ball this season with Broome’s departure. Expect freshman Shawn Montague to see plenty of floor time. Some predict Sacred Heart to take a nose dive after the loss of Broome but I feel like Latina is going to get this team to fight and actually overachieve led by McKnight and Barnett. This team should be a little more than deeper than they were last season which should allow Latina to continue to play at a more up-tempo pace.
5. Bryant – (Last season: 8-23; 5-13 NEC, 9th)
The Bulldogs and head coach Tim O’Shea were young last season and gain a lot of valuable game experience which should pay big dividends this season. Bryant’s top three scorers last season were two freshman and sophomore. As disappointing as the step back was for Bryant last season, this season they could be the team that makes the biggest jump. Sophomore guard Nisre Zouzoua led Bryant in scoring last season and could be one of the next big stars in the NEC. Junior guard Hunter Ware took a big leap from his freshman year to his sophomore year last season and could be in line for a huge year this season. Sophomore big man Marcel Pettway is a bonafide beast in the paint who was last season’s NEC Rookie of the Year with an 11 & 7 season. Senior Dan Garvin along with Pettway should give teams a lot of difficulties this season. Although Shane McLaughlin has graduated, Bryant has brought in a point guard they have high regards for in 5’11” Ikenna Ndugba out of Boston. This top-notch starting five could see a whole lot of playing time as O’Shea likes to keep a short rotation of 8 to 9 players at most. In the past, the short rotations have been part of Bryant’s demise late in the season and could come into play once again this season. It would not be a surprise if Bryant starts off in January hot as Bryant will once again face a tremendous challenging non-conference schedule that they hope will get them ready for NEC play. This season’s Bulldogs team won’t be a guarantee win for teams this time around.
4. Mount St. Mary’s – (Last season: 14-19; 10-8 NEC, 5th)
The Mount were predicted to be the team at the top last season by many including the NEC coaches. For the first time under head coach Jamion Christian, the Mount couldn’t pull off their typical late-season charge and ended with a 5-seed in the NEC tournament and eventually an NEC semifinal loss. After the season, Christian lost leading scorer BK Ashe and his nearly 14 points per game via transfer. Mount also lost a big pieces of their front court with the graduation of Gregory Graves and Tyler Danaher. This season, the weight will fall upon the shortest player in the NEC in dynamic point guard Junior Robinson. Robinson should have some help with junior guard Charles Glover and junior forward Chris Wray back as well as sophomore guard Elijah Long. This team will be pretty young with just two seniors on the roster in three-point sniper Will Miller and Khalid Nwandu. If we’ve learned anything from Christian in the past, he always has a trick or two up his sleeve and always make sure he has plenty of man power to run his Mayhem style of play on both ends. Two fresh faces to keep an eye on are 6’5″ guard Miles Wilson and 6’3″ guard Ryan Miller Jr. who should have the typical athleticism Christian requires the guys he puts on the floor to have. Last season was Christian’s first in four seasons in which his team finished under .500 overall. Mount didn’t do themselves any favors again this season, loading up with a hellacious non-conference schedule where their first nine games will all be on the road against some top-level teams like West Virginia, Iowa State and Michigan. The Mount should be a top four team this season if all goes as expected and will be the typical hard-out once we get to March.
3. LIU Brooklyn – (Last season: 16-15; 9-9 NEC, 6th)
The Blackbirds by their own admission underachieved last season and that was with All-NEC first team selection Martin Hermannsson on the roster. After Hermannsson announced he was leaving LIU to go pro in Europe, several experts believe that was enough to prevent LIU from being a serious contender for an NEC championship this season. Although, the loss of Hermannsson will be a big loss for LIU, the Blackbirds do have a good deal of talent returning for what could be their best run since their championship run ended. Senior Jerome Frink could have himself a potential NEC Player of the Year-type of season after a stellar debut with LIU last season which landed him on the All-NEC first team. Frink is just one-third of what could be one the best front lines in the NEC this season. Redshirt-junior Nura Zanna will look to improve upon a sophomore season that saw his production fall off from his freshman year. Senior Joel Hernandez could be the most unsung player in the NEC and he is going to be ask to do a little of everything this season. The backcourt is what could either make or break the Blackbirds season. Senior Iverson Fleming will play off the ball and be asked to score more this season while LIU head coach Jack Perri will likely go between two neophytes at the point in freshman Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto. LIU bench should be better and deeper this season. Sophomore Julius van Sauers who missed all but five games last season should be a major contributor to the offensive attack this season. Three-point shooting absolutely hurt LIU last season so Perri is hoping they can turn that around this season. The Blackbirds still have a solid team with senior leadership that was lacking last season and there is a hunger and focus to this team this season after their NEC semifinal loss at Wagner in March. LIU should be no worse than a top four team this season in my mind and has chance to go on a deep run next March.
2. Wagner – (Last season: 23-11; 13-5 NEC, 5th)
Wagner had another fantastic season last season, winning 23 games and finishing first in the NEC regular season. But once again, the NEC tourney bug-a-boo hit the Seahawks and they suffered yet another home loss, this time in a NEC final and had to settle for an NIT appearance which to their credit they were able to win a game in and make it to the second round. This season, Wagner should be a top-caliber team in the conference once again. They have a potential NEC Player of the Year star in senior forward Michael Carey and an outstanding junior point guard in Corey Henson who led them in scoring and assists last season. Fifth-year senior Mike Aaman returns for one more go-around and will look to be more like the Mike Aaman that Wagner saw two seasons ago who averaged 10 & 9. The quality depth of this team just goes on and on with players like Romone Saunders, JoJo Cooper and Greg Senat. Wagner head coach continued adding even more pieces as he will have the services of Quinnipiac transfer AJ Sumbry and juco transfer Shack Scott for the front-court and freshman guards Connor Ferrell and Blake Francis for the backcourt. Wagner should continue as one of the best defensive teams in the NEC but could also have an offense that is equally as good. Wagner has the team and the motivation to finish at the top of the conference once again, there is no doubt about it. Can they get over the NEC tournament hump still remains to be seen.
1. Fairleigh Dickinson – (Last season: 18-15; 11-7 NEC, 5th)
Last season was a cinderella season for the Knights. Many predicted they would finished ninth, they ended up in second place. The Knights got hot at the right time with two wins during the final week of the NEC regular season and then taking that momentum to win three straight games in the NEC tournament to win their first NEC championship since 2005. This from a team that didn’t have a single senior on it and just two juniors. This season, they have just one senior on it in Tyrone O’Garro who played a relatively minimal role in their championship. Four-fifths of the FDU starting lineup returns with the exception of Marques Townes who transferred out after the season. Two of those starters are All-NEC second teamers in Darian Anderson and Earl Potts Jr. Anderson averaged 15 ppg last season to led FDU in scoring while Potts was named NEC Most Improved Player with his 14.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg. In addition to Anderson and Potts, FDU had an All-NEC Rookie team member 6’7″ big man Mike Holloway. Add junior point guard Stephan Jiggetts and his 11 ppg and likely starter in sophomore Ghassan Nehme and FDU quite have the best starting five in the NEC. FDU finished as the top scoring team in the NEC at 77.5 points per game but finished last in conference in points allowed nearly 79 per game. If there is anything that could trip up a possible championship repeat for the Knights, it was be at the defensive end. If they sort out some of their defensive flaws, the Knights will be the team to beat in the NEC.
BHJ’s Predicted Order of Finish and Predicted Record:
1. Fairleigh Dickinson 15-3
2. Wagner 13-5
3. LIU Brooklyn 12-6
4. Mount St. Mary’s 11-7
5. Bryant 10-8
6. Sacred Heart 8-10
7. Robert Morris 7-11
8. Saint Francis U. 6-12
9. St. Francis Brooklyn 5-13
10. Central Connecticut 3-15
BHJ Preseason Award Predictions:
NEC Most Improved Player: Iverson Fleming – Guard – LIU Brooklyn
NEC Defensive Player of the Year: Josh Nebo – Forward – Saint Francis U.
NEC Rookie of the Year: Ikenna Ndugba – Guard – Bryant
NEC Coach of the Year: Tim O’Shea – Bryant
NEC Player of the Year: Jerome Frink – Forward – LIU Brooklyn
All-NEC Third Team:
Quincy McKnight – G – Sacred Heart
Joel Hernandez – G – LIU Brooklyn
Yunus Hopkinson – G – St. Francis Brooklyn
Malik Harmon – G – Saint Francis U.
Mike Aamen – F – Wagner
All-NEC Second Team:
Junior Robinson – G – Mount St. Mary’s
Nisre Zouzoua – G – Bryant
Hunter Ware – G – Bryant
Mike Holloway – F – Fairleigh Dickinson
Marcel Pettway – F – Bryant
All-NEC First Team:
Jerome Frink – F – LIU Brooklyn
Earl Potts Jr.- G/F – Fairleigh Dickinson
Michael Carey – F – Wagner
Corey Henson – G – Wagner
Darian Anderson – G – Fairleigh Dickinson