Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The 2013-14 campaign saw only one Northeast Conference team win more than 20 games, as Robert Morris turned the trick by going 22-14, which included a 14-2 league ledger.
The Colonials will almost surely be a contender again, but the class of the NEC this time around appears to be the Terriers of St. Francis Brooklyn. Picked by the league's coaches to win the conference crown at the preseason media event held last month, the Terriers return six of their top nine scorers as they set sail for what they hope is their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Competition will surely come from a number of squads, notably Central Connecticut State, Robert Morris, Saint Francis University (PA) and Mount Saint Mary's, as each of those has a number of productive players on which to lean, and some good coaches to lead them as well.
Rounding out the bottom half of the conference standings will likely be Bryant, Wagner, LIU Brooklyn, Fairleigh Dickinson and Sacred Heart. But even then, this should be an interesting season in the NEC with any a number of teams ready to assume their spot atop the conference standings.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: St. Francis Brooklyn
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1 St. Francis Brooklyn, 2. Central Connecticut, 3. Robert Morris, 4. Saint Francis University (PA), 5. Mount Saint Mary's, 6. Bryant, 7. Wagner, 8. LIU Brooklyn, 9. Fairleigh Dickinson, 10. Sacred Heart
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN: While there are several key performers ready to lead the Terriers to the top of the NEC mountain, the team's chances of success will likely hinge on the play of senior forward Jalen Cannon. Coming off a season in which he shot nearly 50 percent from the field and averaged 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, Cannon has all the tools to be a true superstar. Getting the ball to Cannon and others will be the job of senior point guard Brent Jones, who earned All-NEC First Team accolades last season in handing out 6.0 apg. Jones, who is only 5-foot-10, is also the club's top returning 3- point shooter (.339). On the inside, expect continued growth from guys like Wayne Martin and Amdy Fall after the duo combined to block 98 shots, score 12.2 points and pull down 8.8 caroms per contest in 2013-14. St. Francis Brooklyn head coach Glenn Braica has done a nice job adding pieces to the puzzle, and he was fortunate to land an outstanding scorer in former juco All- American Tyreek Jewell, who averaged better than 25 ppg in his final season at Jamestown Community College (NY).
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE: The Blue Devils went just 11-19 last season, and they finished two games under .500 in conference play at 7-9. So, why is it that long-time coach Howie Dickenman's squad is picked to actually challenge for the NEC's top spot this time around? Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that high-scoring guard Kyle Vinales is back for his final year. The 6- foot-1 senior is a two-time All-NEC performer who put up 17.2 ppg despite shooting only 38.3 percent from the floor last season. He missed considerable time with a broken finger, so having him back healthy will be paramount to any success CCSU achieves. Others to keep an eye on include double-digit scorers Drakeford Faronte (13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Malcolm McMillan (10.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), both of whom are also seniors. Dickenman replaced his entire staff in the offseason, so not sure exactly how that will affect the team, but with Vinales on pace to become the school's all-time leading scorer, things certainly look bright in New Britain.
ROBERT MORRIS: The loss of 2013-14 NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson hurts, but coach Andy Toole's squad has enough returning talent to hopefully make another run at the top of the conference standings. Senior Lucky Jones (13.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is the one sure thing Robert Morris has going for it at the outset, but three starters in all are back giving the Colonials hope for another stellar campaign. Expectations for guys like Charles Oliver (6.3 ppg) and David Appolon (4.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg) are high, as they are for newcomers Marcquise Reed, Jafar Kinsey and Elijah Minnie. RMU has been one of the top teams in the NEC over the last several years, and with Toole calling the shots there is no reason to expect a dramatic fall from grace. Even if it may take some time for the talented crop of youngsters to get acclimated.
SAINT FRANCIS UNIVERSITY: The Red Flash lost more than twice as many games as they won in 2013-14, going 10-21, but they doubled their win total from the previous season and logged seven victories against NEC rivals. The return of nearly every key contributor, along with the infusion of some talented newcomers should benefit coach Rob Krimmel's club immensely. It all starts with senior forward Earl Brown (14.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg), the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season, and its only double-digit point producer. Brown obviously can't do it alone so it's imperative that guys like Malik Harmon (8.7 ppg, 2.9 apg) and Ronnie Drinnon (7.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) up the ante. Saint Francis won a game in the 2014 NEC Tournament, marking its first postseason victory in 18 years. While challenging for the overall league title in 2014-15 might be a stretch, an increase in their overall win total could put the Flash in position for one of the lower-tier tourneys.
MOUNT SAINT MARY'S: Despite finishing the season below the .500 mark both overall (16-17) and in conference (7-9), the Mountaineers got hot at the right time and won the 2014 NEC Tournament, earning their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Duplicating that effort will be tough, as coach Jamion Christian must find suitable replacements for his top three scorers. The loss of Rashad Whack (17.6 ppg), Julian Norfleet (17.2 ppg) and Sam Prescott (11.1 ppg) definitely hurts, but expect Christian to go with a big lineup as his team boasts a slew of guys standing 6-foot-6 or taller. The best of the bunch could be 7-footer Taylor Danaher (7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg), although both Gregory Graves (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Kristijan Krajina (5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) could shine, the latter of whom needs to show he is back to full strength following a torn ACL. In the backcourt, expectations are high for a couple of transfers in Chris Martin (Marshall) and Andrew Smeathers (Butler).
BRYANT: It's going to be nearly impossible to replace the kind of production former standout Alex Francis (18.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) provided for the Bulldogs during his illustrious career, but that is the task set before coach Tim O'Shea. Fortunately, guard Dyami Starks (18.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.0 apg) returns for his senior season, and should really make the team his own with Francis now gone. Finding a suitable replacement for point guard Corey Maynard (13.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) won't be easy either, and the hope is a guy like Boston University transfer Zach Chionuma will make his presence known sooner rather than later. Also worthy of mention is the coach's nephew, senior guard Joe O'Shea, who averaged 9.0 points and 4.3 caroms per contest last season. Bryant will know just how far it has to go in terms of gaining NEC respectability as it opens the season at defending national champion Connecticut on Nov. 14.
WAGNER: The Seahawks enjoyed another solid season in 2013-14, going 19-12 overall and 12-4 in conference. The loss of several standout performers (Kenneth Ortiz, Latif Rivers) means third-year head coach Bashir Mason has his work cut out for him as he tries to keep his team at or near the top of the NEC standings. Senior Marcus Burton (11.0 ppg) is the only double-digit scorer back for another go, and he is coming off a campaign in which he drained a club-best 47 3-pointers. Balance on offense (four double-digit scorers) and solid defensive play (.391 FG percentage against) were the hallmarks of the Seahawks' run last season, and they have won three times as many league games as they've lost over the past three years (39-13). However, there are seven new faces on the roster this season, and with such a young and inexperienced squad, this has all the makings of a rebuilding year in Staten Island.
LIU BROOKYLN: The Blackbirds had their wings clipped last season (9-20, 4-12), and they are hoping for a return to the form that saw them win three straight NEC titles from 2010-13. In order for them to show any marked improvement, seniors Gerrell Martin (12.2 ppg, .440 3-point FG percentage) and Landon Atterberry (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) will need to raise their level of play and lead by example. Additionally, finding a replacement for star point guard Jason Brickman (11.3 ppg, school and conference-record 10.0 apg) is also paramount to any success the team achieves in this, coach Jack Perri's third year at the helm. Also adding to the intrigue are the debuts of several highly-regarded players in Albany product Jamil Hood, Iceland natives Elvar Fridriksson and Martin Hermannsson, and Houston twins Trevin and Trevon Woods. Also hoping to make a splash after missing last season with an injury is 6-foot-7, 240-pound Nigerian native Nura Zanna, brother of former Pittsburgh power forward Talib Zanna.
FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON: Just how well the Knights cope following the loss of former standout Sidney Sanders, Jr. (19.1 ppg, 5.8 apg) is the big question heading into this season, but coach Greg Herenda has a couple of guys on which to rely. The most notable being Mustafa Jones (9.7 ppg, team-high 74 3- pointers), but he is the only senior on the roster so growing pains are to be expected from this incredibly young squad. In all, there are nine freshmen and sophomores on the roster, thus putting even greater emphasis on the ability of Jones to lead both on and off the court. One guy who could really shine is second-year player Matt MacDonald, a 6-foot-5 guard who generated 8.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game as a rookie, but he will need to shoot better than the 36.1 percent he dropped his field goals in last season. Tightening up on defense will also be important for FDU, which allowed an average of 76.1 ppg in 2013-14.
SACRED HEART: The Pioneers won only five games all of last season, including a mere two in NEC play, but the return of three double-digit scorers should help them perform a little better this time around. Still, a glaring lack of star power will likely hamper coach Anthony Latina's squad as it tries to climb out of the league's cellar. Sacred Heart will be led in the frontcourt by De'Von Barnett (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and in the backcourt by Evan Kelly (12.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Steve Glowiak (11.1 ppg) and Phil Gaetano (6.5 ppg, 6.3 apg). The team as a whole will need to play better defense, as foes scored 76.7 ppg last season, hitting their field goals at a 46 percent clip.