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College Basketball Preview - Northeast Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: Keeping with the idea of infusing fresh blood, two teams in the Northeast Conference will feature new head coaches this season, a year after three teams broke in new mentors, basically giving the league a completely new identity.

The bigger story however, is can anyone clip the wings of the three-time defending NEC champion LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds? The Wagner Seahawks certainly hope so, as they return seven of their top 10 players from a season ago, as do the Colonials of Robert Morris, who claimed the 2012-13 NEC regular-season title. RMU will likely use its NIT upset of then defending national champion Kentucky as motivation moving forward, and additional competition will come from talented squads at Bryant, Mount St. Mary's and St. Francis Brooklyn.

Central Connecticut State, St. Francis-PA, Sacred Heart and Fairleigh Dickinson appear to lack the talent and depth needed to make a serious run at the league's upper crust, but each has the ability to pull off an upset or two along the way.

In the end, expect Wagner to be the team left standing, although this season promises to be a competitive one across the NEC landscape.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Wagner

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1 Wagner, 2. Robert Morris, 3. LIU-Brooklyn, 4. Bryant, 5. Mount St. Mary's, 6. St. Francis Brooklyn, 7. Central Connecticut State, 8. St. Francis-PA, 9. Sacred Heart, 10. Fairleigh Dickinson

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

WAGNER: The Seahawks finished second in the conference standings in each of the past two seasons, and the prevailing thought is the return of one of the league's top backcourts will finally get them over the hump. Kenneth Ortiz (11.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.3 rpg, 2.0 spg) and Latif Rivers (13.0 ppg, .394 3-point FG percentage) can do it all for second-year head coach Bashir Mason's club, with both averaging double figures in scoring last season. Ortiz is the two- time defending NEC Defensive Player of the Year, and he helped the Seahawks lead the league in field goal percentage defense last season. Others expected to lend a hand include Orlando Parker (5.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Naofall Folahan, the latter of whom is one of the top shot blockers in the NEC and currently sits second on the school's all time with 141 rejections. In all, Wagner returns three starters and gets roughly 70 percent of its scoring and rebounding back for another go, all of which should help the team finally shed the bridesmaid moniker.

ROBERT MORRIS: The Colonials return a pair of starters from last season's NEC regular-season championship team, and coach Andrew Toole is hoping that forwards Lucky Jones and Mike McFadden can lead by example and give the team a chance at finishing atop the league standings again. Jones averaged 11.6 points and a club-best 6.0 rebounds per game last season, while McFadden finished as one of the NEC's top shooters by draining 56.5 percent of his field goal attempts. Senior guard Karvel Anderson is also back after leading the team with 12.5 ppg, hitting 82 three-pointers along the way. The Colonials are tied with Davidson for the eighth-most wins (141) among mid-major schools over the past six seasons, and there is no reason to believe that this season won't be another banner one for Toole and his troops.

LIU-BROOKLYN: Apparently winning three straight conference crowns doesn't afford you the respect one might think, but that's fine with head coach Jack Perri and his charges as they set out to prove their detractors wrong. The Blackbirds are the only team in history to win three consecutive NEC Tournament titles, and the hope is that returning stars Jason Brickman and Julian Boyd will help them continue their impressive run. Brickman led the nation in assists last season (8.5 apg), and he is on pace to become only the fourth player in NCAA history to hand out 1,000 helpers in his career. As for Boyd, he is still rehabbing a knee injury that cost him most of last season, but he is gifted scorer who if healthy, would provide LIU with a bona fide offensive threat each time up the court. E.J. Reed (7.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is one guy who could really shine, particularly if Boyd takes longer to get back to action, and the Blackbirds have a skilled shooter in newcomer Gilbert Parga on which to lean should the situation arise.

BRYANT: The Bulldogs posted one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history last season, upping their 2011-12 win total by a whopping 17 games. As a result, Bryant earned its highest preseason ranking (tied for second) in its history as a Division I program at the NEC's recent media event. Hoping to help their team continue its rapid ascent are Alex Francis and Dyami Starks, both of whom have shown the ability to be stars not only in the NEC, but on the national stage as well. Francis averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last year, and he shot a rock-solid 56.9 percent from the field, while Starks led the league in 3-pointers (95, 3.06 per game), all while netting 17.7 ppg. Others expected to lend support are Corey Maynard (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Joe O'Shea (8.3 ppg), and there are some talented youngsters who could make a name for themselves as well, notably sophomore Shane McLaughlin (1.0 ppg, 1.3 apg) who will try to fill the void created by the loss of former standout point guard Frankie Dobbs.

MOUNT ST. MARY'S: With four starters back in the fold, the Mountaineers are hoping to up the ante this season after winning nine of their final 10 games, reaching the conference tourney title tilt, and going 18-14 in 2012-13. The frenetic pace that coach Jamion Christian has his team playing, allows for some wild moments, at both ends of the court, and the hope was that the maturation of a guy like Shivaughn Wiggins (9.6 ppg), last season's NEC Rookie of the Year, would keep the team headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, Wiggins decided to transfer to Coastal Carolina, leaving the club in the capable hands of returning standouts Rashad Whack (13.9 ppg), Sam Prescott (11.1 ppg) and Julian Norfleet (10.8 ppg, 3.2 apg), all of whom are senior guards. A frontcourt presence will be needed to keep opposing teams honest, but with the 3-pointer being their best friend, along with a pressing defensive style that limits open looks at the basket, the Mount should be in position to compete for the NEC crown.

ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN: With two of last year's top four scorers gone, the Terriers are likely to experience some moments of uncertainty as the 2013-14 season looms, but the one constant coach Glen Braica can count on is junior forward Jalen Cannon. A Second-Team All-NEC pick a season ago, Cannon gets it done at both ends of the floor by averaging 14.7 points and 8.8 caroms per contest, the latter figure serving as the high-water mark in the conference last season. Joining Cannon in giving St. Francis a potent one-two punch is 3- point specialist Ben Mockford (11.1 ppg), the team hoping those two can lead by example and give a guy like Kevin Douglas (7.4 ppg) time to get his feet under him after missing significant time last year with a hand injury.

CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE: With the NEC's top scorer back for another run, the Blue Devils could make significant strides this season. A year after going 13-17 overall, 9-9 in conference, Central Connecticut State should be in better shape as junior guard Kyle Vinales attempts to take his game to an even higher level after averaging 21.6 ppg in 2012-13. Vinales flirted with the idea of moving on, but thought better of it and will anchor a unit that also features standout Matt Hunter, who led the team in rebounding (7.7 rpg) and steals (78) last season. That latter figure ranked Hunter as one of the national leaders in that category, and his defensive prowess will come in handy as the Blue Devils try to establish themselves as a team to be taken seriously. A strong frontcourt presence will go a long way in assisting them in that endeavor, although it's unclear at present as to just where that's going to come from.

ST. FRANCIS-PA: The Red Flash won only five games a season ago, so there really isn't anywhere the team can go but up. Helping in that regard will be the return of the NEC's Most Improved Player from 2012-13, Earl Brown (10.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Joining Brown is his quest to make St. Francis relevant will be sophomore guard Ben Millaud-Meunier (9.3 ppg) and sophomore forward Stephon Mosley (8.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), but this will clearly be Brown's season to shine. Unless of course someone else steps to the forefront, and it wouldn't be all that surprising to see a guy like freshman guard Malik Harmon develop into a solid contributor rather quickly. In the end however, expecting the Red Flash to elevate themselves enough to challenge the top teams in the NEC is probably asking a bit too much.

SACRED HEART: After posting a 9-20 record and winning only seven of their 18 league bouts last season, the Pioneers are hoping for much better results this time around as the return of Louis Montes, Steve Glowiak and Phil Gaetano give them something to work with. Montes (14.4 ppg) led the team in scoring last season, Glowiak (10.4 ppg) was also in double figures, and Gaetano ranked second in the NEC with 7.9 apg. A pair of guys who missed all of last season due to injury could help spark a resurgence, as Chris Evans and Evan Kelley make their return, and new head coach Anthony Latina is certainly hoping his first season following the lengthy tenure of Dave Bike (35 years) is a memorable one, for all the right reasons.

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON: Another team with a new man in charge, the Knights are hoping for a better run to start the 2013-14 campaign after losing their final 15 games last season. Greg Herenda has been entrusted with ushering in a new era of FDU basketball, and he will do so with only five players back from last season's woeful 7-24 (2-16 NEC) squad. The Knights had difficulty in nearly all aspects of the game in 2012-13, and they will be very young this season as there are only two seniors on the roster. The duo, Mathias Seilund and Sidney Sanders, Jr., will be asked to help bring along as many as six freshmen, but neither of them has shown the kind of scoring ability to keep the team competitive until the youngsters develop. This will likely be another dismal season for the Knights, but if patience prevails then Herenda could build a consistent winner.