Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NEC Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

BROOKLYN, NY --­ On the media day circuit. Back to Barclays, tunnel traffic, the Howard Stern Show, (another outrageously funny 'presentation') and anticipation. The Northeast Conference event was being held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on this October morning. For a mid-­major conference, a venue of this magnitude adds status and credibility to the conference. Another plus with the NEC is the inclusion of both men’s and women’s coaches.

In many conferences, the men’s and women’s events are held separately. In the NEC, both get to share the spotlight. The conference also provides one player from each school from both the men’s and women’s programs.

The NEC format allows and encourages casual discussion among media, administrators, coaches and players. Tuesday’s session included ‘war stories’ of former official and NEC Officiating Supervisor Jack Sweeney. Also included was FDU’s Greg Herenda critiquing a New Jersey diner’s raising prices while sacrificing quality. Aside from the oft-’scripted’ quotes and responses, these interactions give added insight, and allow the media to establish a closer relationship with the program’s respective representatives.

The NEC media day includes video interviews and meetings with the print/internet media for the players and coaches. On paper, it can be a hectic schedule coordinating the activity. No one seems to mind. The conference and the membership are receiving better exposure. In the end, it all takes place at a showcase facility that can create excitement among those who simply enter its doors.

Approaching Barclays Center the morning of NEC Media Day. The VIP entrance (yes, that is ours today) is on the right:
A tradition at this event: The men's basketball coaches gather for a group shot:
A busy day for players as well, with Erika Livermore of FDU being interviewed before heading to the "formal" interview area:
Glenn Braica, coach of NEC favorite St. Francis Brooklyn, meets the media. The storefront of the mall across the street from Barclays can be seen in the background:
More interviews, as Lucky Jones of Robert Morris fields questions:
Looking north outside Barclays Center. Brooklyn is the proverbial "hustle and bustle" on a weekday afternoon:

Big East Media Day: Quotes, Takeaways & Nuggets

Big East coaches pose with commissioner Val Ackerman, including a noticeably casual Steve Lavin. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)

Today's annual Big East media day is officially in the books, and there was a different feel to the proceedings upon its return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 2010 following two years at the New York Athletic Club and last season's renewal at Chelsea Piers. Check our Twitter feed for a complete list of quotes, as well as for our own Big East preview later this week, but here is a Cliff Note version of the festivities in Midtown:

- Villanova, to no one's surprise, was the unanimous choice at the top of the annual preseason coaches' poll, with Georgetown the consensus second choice and a somewhat surprising third-place prediction for St. John's, whose senior-laden roster will attempt to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

- Georgetown guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was the pick for Preseason Player of the Year honors, the first Hoya to receive such billing since Austin Freeman in 2010. Smith-Rivera, Kellen Dunham of Butler, Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston, Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook, and reigning Haggerty Award winner D'Angelo Harrison of St. John's rounded out the first team all-conference selections.

"For him not to be a first team all-conference player is an absolute joke. If there's five players in this conference better than him, WOW. I want that on record."
- Providence head coach Ed Cooley on forward LaDontae Henton

Henton was voted to the all-Big East second team, joining last season's top two rookies in Billy Garrett of DePaul and Rysheed Jordan of St. John's, as well as Villanova guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard. Highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead, who committed to Seton Hall out of Lincoln High School in Coney Island, was recognized as the conference's preseason Rookie of the Year, the first Pirate to be fitted with that honor since the late Eddie Griffin in 2000.

Big East Quotebook 
Ed Cooley on Kris Dunn: "I'm seeing the Kris that we recruited. We're going to live and die with him. You'll see that he'll be one of the best players in the conference this year. He's the Tasmanian Devil. He gets deflections, he just runs practice. I can't wait to turn him loose. As long as he's healthy, everyone in this room will know who he is. He has 'IT.'"

On expectations: "Our players are excited, our community's excited. We've got our work cut out for us. Winning the Big East was awesome, but this is a new year. It's a 'what have you done for me lately' attitude in this business."

"I think our ball handling has improved. We're one of the longer, more athletic teams in the Big East, but we're an old-school Big East team. I don't think we're the new Big East. We're the same old status quo."

On LaDontae Henton: "He's an 'it' guy. I don't know how many guys like that there are in this conference. You guys see LaDontae the basketball player. I see how much he's grown as a person, as a student. I've seen him come from nothing, his vocabulary, his presence. When he graduates, that may be one of the saddest days I've had as a coach in 21 years. Everything about him epitomizes what college athletics does for individuals when you give them an opportunity."

On being picked fifth and a possible championship hangover: "As I'm getting a little bit older in coaching, before, we used to react to that. Now, yeah. You know who's really good? Villanova's really good, Georgetown's really good. They deserve to be picked where they are. The rest of us will figure it out. Come March 11, there's a different story to be told."

"Championship hangover? NEVER. NO. ZERO. That's a totally different team, a totally different culture. We're missing 47 points from that team, there's no hangover at all. We've just got to get this team prepared to be the best team it can be."

On pressure to win: "Honestly, I'm never surprised at winning because we pride ourselves on preparation. If I listened to everyone, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you today. My job is to keep these guys focused, a game at a time, 40 minutes at a time, 20 minutes at a time, be the best they can be. I know it's a cliche, but that's just the way I coach. I really don't give a damn what somebody thinks."

Seton Hall forward Brandon Mobley on Isaiah Whitehead: "Offensively, he's about as good as any guard in the country. Skill-wise, he's ahead of just about every freshman, and even some of the sophomores in this conference."

"I think the hype is only going to fuel him even more. Once he gets started, he's going to be tough to stop."

Mobley on his expectations: "I just want to lead my team to the NCAA Tournament, that's all. It's something I haven't tasted yet."

Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard: "I think this year, we're not going to be as reliant on threes. We're going to try to get to the free throw line more, we have the ability to get to the free throw line more."

Willard on Isaiah Whitehead: "He understands the big stage, and he's a very humble kid. This stuff doesn't affect him. He's physically able to play at a very high level, and his game can back it up."

On Seton Hall in general: "We're a much quicker, more athletic team than I think any Seton Hall team has been in a while. We're playing above the rim, we can play so many different styles. If I want to play really small, I can play really small; if I want to play really big, I can play really big. I think that gives us a chance to be dynamic in that we can attack you the way we want to attack you. Last year, the guys we had were the guys we had."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Big East Roundtable

Jay Wright and Villanova are popular choice to repeat as regular season Big East champions. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Big East media day returns to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday following a four-year absence, and in addition to the familiar venue, there is an equally recognizable face atop the conference, that being Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats, the consensus choice as the pick to emerge victorious from league play in March.

Behind Villanova is where things will get interesting, however. Mounds of question marks surround everyone from Georgetown all the way down to Butler and DePaul, and the pressure on local outfits such as Seton Hall and St. John's may be higher than it has ever been.

Fear not, though, because for the second consecutive year, our panel of experts will attempt to give you a primer of what was once regarded as the best conference in college basketball, and still remains one to this day. Sadly, representatives from Butler, Georgetown, Marquette and Providence could not be reached in time, but Jaden Daly serves as moderator for a roundtable panel featuring six Big East media members who share insights on their own teams, and also the Big East as a whole:

Creighton: Patrick Marshall, White & Blue Review (Twitter: @wildjays)
DePaul: Dan Stack, (Twitter: @WeAreDePaul, @stacdemon)
St. John's: Norman Rose, Rumble In The Garden (Twitter: @ECoastBias, @rumbleSBN)
Seton Hall: Jason Guerette, South Orange Juice/New Jersey Newsroom (Twitter: @JPGuerette)
Villanova: Chris Lane, (Twitter: @VUhoops, @chrisjjlane)
Xavier: Brad Dobney, Banners on the Parkway (Twitter: @BannersParkway)

1) Who is the likely Big East champion, and why?

Brad Dobney: It has to be Villanova, right? They lost James Bell, but JayVaughn Pinkston returns and it's not as if they didn't recruit anyone. Until someone consistently beats them, they stay at the top.

Jason Guerette: Going with Villanova here because it's hard to argue against who they have returning. However, all preseason polls/predictions are based on two things- who you return and what they did last year, and who you don't return and what they did last year. Nova happens to have a lot of key pieces back, so they certainly belong up here.

Although...... STERLING GIBBS, Y'ALL!!!

Chris Lane: Villanova - I think the issue here is that the 'Cats are the most sure thing in the conference because of how much talent they are bringing back. While Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown, Providence and St. John's lost a lot of star power, Villanova is bringing back 2-3 of the best players in the conference. While they may not run through the conference sans-Creighton again, they have to be considered the overwhelming favorite.

Patrick Marshall: Villanova--Many said the success that Villanova had last season was a year early and winning the Big East regular season. If you ask Creighton fans, they weren't impressed. For whatever reason, and maybe Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge were two of those reasons, the Bluejays had the Wildcats number giving them two of their most lopsided losses of the season. Although there are are several teams that may try to make a run, and a couple more losses from Creighton, it will be hard to stop 'Nova and they are the clear favorites. The team is a year older and a year better already tasting some great success. The other options will likely stumble too many times and Wildcats will likely be at the top.

Norman Rose: Villanova - brings back pretty much the whole squad, has sophomores ready to emerge, and the Wildcats were very good. Lots of continuity here.

Dan Stack: Villanova- Why not? They possess the most talent with the return of JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II and Josh Hart. Combine the experience they have with one of the best coaches in the Big East in Jay Wright and they have what it takes to go the distance. After the key personnel losses Creighton, Providence and Xavier endured, Villanova has to be considered the heavy favorites this year.

2) In your opinion, who are the league's most overrated and underrated teams?

BD: Most overrated team- St. John's. Until they learn to shoot the ball, they'll keeping having the 2013-14 season over and over.

Most underrated team- Is Seton Hall still considered underrated? If so, I'll go with them.

JG: Overrated: St. John's. This is my pick almost every year. Every year people have hyped up the Red Storm as favorites in the conference, and every year they fail to live up to that hype. The question has never been talent- Steve Lavin has always had oodles of talent. The question has always been translating that talent into consistently high levels of play. Until they show that they can put it all together (which falls on Lavin, who I'm STILL not sold on as an in-game coach and haven't been since he was hired), they're going to be my pick for this slot.

Underrated: Couldn't come up with one. After the generally-approved-upon top few teams (Hoyas, VU, Xavier), the league is once again wide-open.

CL: It pains me to say this because they've flopped more often than not, but I think St. John's is flying under the radar. There's a lot backcourt talent returning in Harrison, Jordan, and Greene and Chris Obekpa's change of heart is massive for them. Seton Hall jumps out as overrated. The recruiting class is massive, but it's not on the level of Kentucky in terms of talent and we've seen how destructive it can be when a bunch of massive ego's show up on campus. They'll be good enough to score some big wins, but I don't think they are built for long-term success just yet.

PM: Overrated--Georgetown--Honestly for the Big East to be prominent this year and years from now, the Hoyas have to be at the top of the league.  Last season with the Bluejays first season in the Big East, I had really high expectations for Georgetown and expected them to win the league. The first round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida Gulf Coast was a fluke and thought they would have the horses to make the new Big East look like it was supposed to. Well, I was sorely disappointed last season and really felt like they underachieved. They had too many distractions, suspensions, and other things that it ultimately brought them down. While they are looking to be towards the top of the Big East this season, I'm not going to take that carrot this time. They need to prove they belong at the top, so for now they are overrated.  

Underrated--Seton Hall--Looking up and down the league, you could sort of make a case for every other team besides Georgetown and Villanova to be considered underrated. Yes, Creighton is underrated, but I'll get to that later. This is almost a random pick, but I'm going with Seton Hall. They are in the middle of the pack with most predictions and they have some good things going on there. With 10 losses last season by seven or fewer points, they were on the cusp of doing something great. With one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the Pirates could surprise some people by the time conference play arrives.

NR: Overrated: Providence loses Bryce Cotton and some think the team will finish third. Consider that despite an NCAA berth, the Friars were on the outside looking in before a dream run to the Big East Tournament finals, where their one impressive win was over Creighton. Seton Hall took out Villanova for them. Other than that, the Friars' best win was... over Creighton. This is to say that the Friars, maybe, had good matchups against the shooting Bluejays with all of their length and lucked into an NCAA Tournament bid. So, thinking of their NCAA berth as kind of a fluke, consider that the Friars lose the guy who did all the efficient scoring, their toughest rebounder in Kadeem Batts, and Josh Fortune, a shooter who emerged. I love their toughness. But the Friars need to return to a level of play that wasn't Tournament-level, against a league that's improved, and with freshmen and the hopefully-awesome return of Kris Dunn. 

Underrated: Xavier. Is Chris Mack as excellent a coach as his predecessors? Hard to know, yet. Can the defense get better? Hard to know, yet. But I do think that the team he has returning has a great mix of talent. The Musketeers lose Semaj Christon, but return guards who might complement each other better - Dee Davis at the point, Remy Abell's all-around game, Myles Davis' shooting, and freshman wings who can get buckets in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. I think the Musketeers lacked outside shooting (309th in the NCAA in three-pointers taken as a percentage of all field goals) and the newcomers can really help with that.

DS: Most Overrated: St. John's - While Steve Lavin consistently brings in top-notch talent, he has yet to fully harness it. I think SJU will sneak into the tournament this year, but they have the talent, depth and experience to be a lot better. 

Must Underrated: Butler - While they had an uneasy transition to the Big East last year, they now return Roosevelt Jones and with him alongside Kellen Dunham, they will now have a well-balanced offense. With Brandon Miller now having a year of experience under his belt in this league, he'll be better prepared for the rigors of this league. (Update, while Miller may be out for a while, my pick still stands).

3) Which game do you feel is an early contender for the "game of the year" in the Big East?

BD: Villanova at Georgetown on the 19th of January.

JG: January 19th - Villanova @ Georgetown. The Wildcats and Hoyas appear to be the two favorites this year in the conference, and this is one of the two games they will play against each other. The return trip to the Pavilion is in the afternoon, however. This one is a 9 p.m.tip. With the natural rivalry, the primetime tipoff, and the fact that they have January 19th all to themselves in conference play, this should be an excellent mid-schedule test.

CL: The Villanova-Xavier game on February 28 could have Big East title implications.

PM: I'm sure everyone has Georgetown at Villanova on February 7th circled on their calendars. It is expected that the Hoyas and the Wildcats will be at the top of the league and showcased on the biggest stage (FOX over the air TV). They have had many great battles in the past and there is no reason it will not happen again if everything goes as expected.

NR: Georgetown at Xavier. (December 31)

DS: Villanova at St. John's on January 6.

4) How many NCAA Tournament bids do you see the Big East receiving?

BD: Four: Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall. I think St. John's could sneak as well.

CL: Four feels right, though I think five can be had. Villanova, Georgetown and Xavier seem like they'll be good enough to secure at-large bids and then I'd expect one or two of St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler and Providence to be sniffing around.

PM: I'm going to go with four. The 2015-16 is probably the season that the Big East will be very powerful and get in more than half of the league, but this season, I'm going conservative with four. There are a lot of high profile games in the non-conference for the Big East and enough big wins could set the stage for solid RPI numbers once conference play arrives. Villanova should be a lock, but then I would be pretty confident at this point with Georgetown, Xavier and then either St. John's, Seton Hall, and Creighton being on the bubble to be that fourth team. 

NR: Four - and I can't believe I'm saying it. I'm betting on a team with a solid non-conference win sneaks in to the First Four games on Tuesday/ Wednesday of the Tourney.

DS: I've got the Big East getting four invitations again with Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's and Providence making it in this year.

5) Award predictions for Big East Player, Rookie, and Coach of the Year:

BD: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston- Villanova. This will be much closer than last year. 
Rookie of the Year: Trevon Bluiett- Xavier
Coach of the Year: Buzz Williams. He's a genius, right? Oh, wait... Steve Lavin if the Red Storm go dancing, Chris Mack if Xavier is higher than a six seed, Jay Wright in all other contingencies.

JG: Player of the Year: Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova (as an aside, the coach of the team that finishes first tends to win CotY in sports. I don't necessarily think that should be the case. I think a coach that leads his team to heights the furthest above where they were predicted should win this award. But I'm probably in the minority. I just feel that if you're the favorite, and you finish first, then why win Coach of the Year over a guy who was predicted low, but finished high? But I digress...)
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
The Big East has a lot of talented rookies coming in this year to try and replace a lot of valuable senior leadership across the league. From what I've heard about Whitehead, he may be a freshman but he sure doesn't carry himself like one. Early reports are that the first McDonald's All-American to come to South Orange since the late Eddie Griffin is mature beyond his years. The Hall has perhaps the best backcourt in the conference, and Whitehead will certainly get his chance to shine.

CL: Player of the Year: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova 
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall 
Coach of the Year: John Thompson III, Georgetown

PM: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova-- It is tough without Doug McDermott as a slam dunk. Villanova was very balanced last season, but I am looking for Pinkston to step up even more this season and lead the way.  He could average a double-double every night.  
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall---I have heard enough about him all summer that he will be the next sliced bread mention.  
Coach of the Year:  Chris Mack, Xavier--The Musketeers are quietly in the top three this season, but they could be the actual surprise team that gives Villanova a run. If that happens, the Mack deserves it.

NR: D`Angelo Harrison, St. John's - POY
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier - ROY
Chris Mack, Xavier - COY

DS: POY: D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's- Most established scorer in the league on his last go round to make tournament. Slight edge over Kellen Dunham.
ROY: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall- Slam dunk here, as Whitehead is the Big East's lone McDonald's All American. Will make the Hall a much-improved team.
COY: John Thompson III, Georgetown- After not making it to the tournament last year, JTIII will rally his squad while his Hoyas contend for the Big East title. 

6) Word association (One word, if possible, to describe every team)

BD: Villanova- Class
Creighton- Struggling
Providence- Young
Xavier- Rising
St. John's- Overhyped
Marquette- Tarnished
Georgetown- Solid
Seton Hall- Dangerous
Butler- Barn
Depaul- AAC

JG: Butler: scrappy
Creighton: Doug-less
DePaul: Miserable
Georgetown: methodical
Marquette: Buzz-less (note the capital B- MU hoops is always popular in Milwaukee)
Providence: driven
Seton Hall: Youthful
St. John's: Mercurial
Villanova: favorites
Xavier: dark horse (ok, two words, so sue me)

CL: Villanova - Champs
Georgetown - 1985
Xavier - Stain-Train
Butler - Bounceback
Creighton - Dougie
Providence - Overtime
St. John's - MSG
Seton Hall - Freshmen
DePaul - Why
Marquette - Buzz

PM: Butler--Worried
Seton Hall--Hyped
St. John's--Ignored

DS: (since Twitter is so popular, I chose to combine words and give them neat hash tags
Creighton: #McDermottHangover
DePaul: #NotAsBadAsYouThink
Georgetown: #BackToTheNCAA's
Marquette: #WaitOnWojo
Seton Hall: #ThisYear'sProvidence?
St. John's: #TalentedButStagnant
Villanova: #TeamToBeat
Xavier: #TakingAStepBackAfterChriston

7) Shameless plug for the team each panelist represents:

BD: Xavier has recently been defined by backcourt talent (Semaj Christon, Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway). This year, the backcourt is loaded with skill again, but the big men are going to take center stage. Matt Stainbrook was excellent last year and should be again and James Farr almost broke out as a stretch four. The real story is going to be Jalen Reynolds, though, he's a 6'10" truck of human being who can run and jump like a guard. By February, he'll be in the player of the year conversation.

JG: Seton Hall played in more 1-point games (NINE of them, going 4-5) than any other team in the last 30 years in 2013-14 (thanks to Gary Cohen for that nugget, by the way- he mentioned it on the radio broadcast right before SHU beat Nova at MSG), plus six more games decided by five points or less, and if some of them would have broken their way, they would have been postseason-bound. Killer losses (@ Mercer in 2OT, vs Oklahoma in Brooklyn, @ Marquette, @ Creighton, @ DePaul- *GAG*- and BOTH matchups vs St. John's) and two god-awful losses that I don't ever wish to speak of again (at home to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter's- *GAG*) spoiled their season. Every team has close games, but when nearly half your season (15 out of 34 games) is close, and you go 5-10 in those games, you get a season defined by those results. This year, the Pirates have a tremendous recruiting class that brings Whitehead as well as rebounding machine Angel Delgado and underrated scorer Khadeen Carrington as well as forwards Desi Rodriguez and Michael Nzei and athletic wing Ismael Sanogo. Obviously, losing Fuquan Edwin (one of the best defenders in the conference all four of his years) and a horse down low in Gene Teague will hurt, as does the departure of Patrik Auda. The Hall is thin in the frontcourt, and they MUST get a healthy season from Delgado and Brandon Mobley to have success. They do get a 7'1" body eligible for conference play in Northwestern transfer Chier Ajou, and that will help, but if foul trouble or injury forces Kevin Willard to play Rodriguez, Nzei and/or Steph Manga too many minutes, things likely won't go smoothly for the Hall. That being said, Whitehead and Carrington along with Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina give the Hall one of the best backcourts in the conference, and it could be the best by the time all is said and done. High hoops IQ is very prevalent among the guards, as is scoring ability. If everything breaks right, with the wide-open middle of the pack once again in the Big East, I can see the Pirates finishing in the top half of the conference for the first time in what feels like forever. They are young, but boy are they talented.

CL: I know it feels like Ryan Arcidiacono should have graduated already, but you get to see him lead one of the better offenses in the country yet again. It's pick your poison stopping either Darrun Hilliard or JayVaughn Pinkston on offense, and both should be on the All-Big East team at the end of the year. If Jay Wright can get more balance (i.e. don't rely on jumpers) out of this year's team, expect another high seed come March and hopefully an appearance during the second weekend and beyond. 

Creighton, although losing Doug McDermott and three other impact seniors, will be better than most think. The season will be on the shoulders of point guard Austin Chatman, who is the only returning starter. His offseason has been active. He had surgery late in the summer on a thumb ligament and then found  out this past week that he will be out for about 10 days after getting his knee cleaned up as about result of a minor injury in the early season workouts.  Chatman will be expected to score more this season, distribute the ball, and be that team leader for everyone to look for. With four starters gone, there is still plenty of experience in the fold. Seniors Avery Dingman and Will Artino have been in the mix heavily the past few seasons, while Devin Brooks made his own impact backing up Chatman. He may be expected to play a little more shooting guard. Then the Bluejays add a veteran in fifth year transfer Ricky Kreklow from Cal. Zach Hanson has the potential to be a great player as he gets more minutes and becomes a presence down low. Isaiah Zierden is coming off of a knee injury that shortened last season but it did not require surgery. He is ready to go this season and has a high basketball IQ like Grant Gibbs had. JUCO transfer James Milliken ended up redshirting last year and could have an impact right away, and would have played last season if Gibbs had not received that 6th season. Geoffrey Groselle, the 7-footer, is finally healthy and looked very good in Summer League. Toby Hegner will never be Doug McDermott, but there are flashes Doug in him if he works for it. It is hard to tell exactly where freshmen Leon Gilmore III and Ronnie Harrell will fit in but could make an impact right away. I think that mentions almost everyone on the roster, meaning they could be deeper than most think. Overall, Creighton heads into the season with a deep team and could finish in the top half of the league surpassing the national media expectations this season where they expect them to be towards the bottom of the other half. If everything works out like it should, they could finish fourth or higher. Like I said above, the Bluejays could be really sneaky this season. 

NR: St. John's is and was an enigma. But I think that the roster has fewer players who think they should be creating their own jump-shot offense and a few more players who will fit roles. Can the front court be better than competent? Can they handle the dirty-work job of rebounding in a way last year's front court could not? If they can, and there's reason to believe, there's no reason this team shouldn't go to the NCAA Tournament.

DS: As I said in the word association game, DePaul is not as bad as you think. With the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year in Billy Garrett Jr. and another all-Big East freshman team member Tommy Hamilton to work with, DePaul has a nice youthful core to lean on. This year they add a few key transfers with Myke Henry joining them from Illinois, while also adding three high-profile JUCO transfers in Rashaun Stimage, Aaron Simpson and ex-St. John's commit Darrick Wood. With an infusion of some experienced new talent along with Garrett and Hamilton, the hope here is Oliver Purnell has the horses necessary to get out of the basement and make a move up the standings. After all, they showed some moxie knocking off Georgetown in the Big East Tournament last year. I have them escaping the basement at minimum.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Northeast Conference Roundtable

Lucky Jones seeks to follow in footsteps of former teammate Karvel Anderson as Robert Morris swingman enters senior season in search of Northeast Conference Player of the Year honors. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The Northeast Conference opens its doors to another basketball season with their annual media day tomorrow morning inside Brooklyn's Barclays Center, an affair that is a unique event in college hoops, a "social media day" in fact, wherein a fan-friendly interaction is given equal billing alongside the coaches and student-athletes of both men's and women's programs in the NEC, a credit to an outstanding league office staff, particularly the likes of social media coordinator Ralph Ventre, whose yeoman's efforts deserve greater recognition.

This year's NEC landscape will feature usual suspects such as Robert Morris near the top as Mount St. Mary's seeks to overcome the loss of a three-pronged senior class in its attempt to repeat as league champions, while teams like St. Francis Brooklyn and Bryant hope to build on their success of last season by returning strong core players. For further insight, we now turn to the "Mount Rushmore" of NEC wise men, with our Jaden Daly serving as moderator of a roundtable panel featuring the four foremost authorities on Northeast Conference basketball:

Nelson Castillo, Blackbirds Hoops Journal (Twitter: @NelCastBHJ)
Craig D'Amico, NEC Front Row play-by-play announcer and studio host (Twitter: @CraigCD13)
Ryan Peters and John Templon, Big Apple Buckets (Ryan's Twitter: @pioneer_pride, John's Twitter: @nybuckets)

1) Who is the likely NEC champion, and why?

Nelson Castillo: Although I have been debating this in my head with two teams (St. Francis Brooklyn and Robert Morris), I believe Robert Morris should win the NEC this season and finally put the disappointments of the last several seasons behind them. I think their defense will be good as always and they have more offensive firepower I believe than St. Francis Brooklyn has coming into the season. These two teams are best two teams in the NEC this season in my mind.

Craig D'Amico: It’s so hard to narrow it down to just one, so I’ll give you four. First, Robert Morris has to be in the discussion because under Andy Toole all they do is win. They’ve won the last two regular season titles and return Lucky Jones, who most likely will finish his career top ten in points and at the top spot in rebounds in Colonial history. Second, is the Red Flash of Saint Francis. They were four points away from advancing to the NEC Championship Game last year and return nearly the entire team. I’m a big believer that come playoff time, it’s not the superstar player but the veteran teams who win. The overseas summer trip the Red Flash took together can only help with the cohesiveness of the unit. The St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers, behind Jalen Cannon, also have to be in the title discussion. Finally, I can’t count out the reigning champs. Mount St. Mary’s has defied the ‘expert’ preseason predictions two years in a row to make the finals, and to win it all last year. Despite losing Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, I don’t want to make the same mistake three years in a row and totally count out coach Jamion Christian and his crew again. The Mount play five of their last six at home and could easily get on a hot streak going into the playoffs and make a run yet again.

Ryan Peters: It's so hard to predict the next NEC champion given the parity, but if I had to guess I'd go with Robert Morris at this point. I know Andy Toole has suffered a fair amount of heartbreak in the NEC tournament, but he always gets them in a position to win and one of these years his team will eventually break through. I originally liked St. Francis Brooklyn as the champion, but I'm concerned about their perimeter play (how do you make up the loss of Ben Mockford?) and their front court depth. Losing Wayne Martin definitely hurts, and puts more pressure on Amdy Fall to emerge as an all-conference type of player. Do they have enough behind Brent Jones and Jalen Cannon?

John Templon: This is going to be a really interesting season in the NEC considering how open it is, but I'm going with St. Francis Brooklyn to win their first title. The Terriers have a solid inside-outside combination in Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones and return a bunch of other pieces. My biggest concern with them? The giant hole at shooting guard. Of course you have to watch out for Robert Morris.

2) In your opinion, which teams are the most overrated and underrated?

NC: Most overrated team right I believe is Central Connecticut State. A lot of people I see are buying into CCSU, I'm not one of them. I think Kyle Vinales will have a great senior year and they have other good players like Malcolm McMillan, Brandon Peel and Faronte Drakeford, but I don't see how they are going to be dramatically better than they were last season where they are now considered a NEC contender. I think they will be good just not that good. I wouldn't put them any higher than a 4-seed. Most underrated team I believe (surprise) will be LIU Brooklyn. Yes, they have a lot of youth on this team but a lot of that youth can play and if they can stay healthy which was a big problem they had last year and play some defense, they are going to sneak up on some teams.

CD: Overrated: CCSU – Since the Blue Devils won the 2007 NEC Championship and played Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve only won ONE playoff game. That’s a 1-7 record, with their one victory coming in a two point game in the 2011 quarters. Yes, it’s a testament to all involved to get an invite to the playoff party year in and year out, but you eventually have to win. I don’t know with this year’s group that the Blue Devils are any different than the team that finished around .500 in conference the last few years.  

Underrated: SFU and Mount St. Mary's – As mentioned above, you can’t discount a team’s returning chemistry and you can’t discount the heart of a champion. With SFU failing to reach 10 wins for the last four seasons and having gone since 1995 without a playoff win until last year, it would be easy to overlook the Red Flash. And with key players having graduated Mount, it also would be easy to overlook them too. But due to the chemistry of Saint Francis and the Mount’s knowledge of what it takes to win. Besides Gerrell Martin at LIU, Mount features the only active players in the NEC who own championship rings.

RP: I'm not terribly high on the other St. Francis team, just because I think some are making too big a deal of the Red Flash's two games in the past NEC tournament. If St. Francis went quietly in the NEC quarterfinals (and honestly they would have had Bryant not given the game away in the 2nd half) then no one is talking about Rob Krimmel's team as a top 3 or 4 squad. I have my concerns with their lack of front court depth behind Ronnie Drinnon and Earl Brown and their ability to create off the dribble with the exception of Malik Harmon. I'd be surprised if they earn a home playoff game.

As far as the underrated team is concerned, I think the Mount will be picked by the coaches to finish 6th, but I'm willing to bet they'll exceed that expectation. Sure, they lose three 1,000 point scorers (Norfleet, Whack, Prescott), but two transfers should help mitigate those losses in Chris Martin, and starting in January, Andy Smeathers. I think we'll see Christian resort back to the 40 minutes of Mayhem approach, where he has 9-11 guys in his rotation. Last year, he couldn't do that due to injuries, but this year there should be 4-6 guys averaging 9-13 PPG. 

JT: Most overrated? Central Connecticut. Having Kyle Vinales for a full season will help, but they were only basically a .500 NEC team with him in the lineup last season. Not sure they have enough yet. Most underrated? Wagner. The Seahawks have a different type of team and a lot of players to replace, but I think they'll have the right pieces. I also think that Bashir Mason has shown he knows how to coach defense. His team will grind out wins.

3) What is the early contender for "game of the year" in the NEC?

NC: I think the early game of the year will come on January 17 when St. Francis Brooklyn travels to Robert Morris. I believe these are the two best teams in the NEC this season. Both teams can play defense and rebound. Both teams have player of the year candidates on their squads. This going to be a fierce battle for forty minutes and I got to imagine the NEC is going to showcase this game on its TV package for the country to see. 

CD: Mount at Robert Morris, Saturday, January 3rd at 4pm - We kick off conference play in 2015 right where we left off in 2014. Mount and Robert Morris renew their rivalry in this championship game rematch. 

St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris, Friday, January 16th at 9pm - Possible preview of the 2015 NEC final? The Terriers and Colonials meet twice over the span of nine days in January.

JT: Game I'm most looking forward to right now is St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris on January 16. The game will be broadcast on EPSNU. If the Terriers can go to Moon Township and get the victory they'll be in the driver's seat for a title challenge.

4) Award predictions

NC: Player of the Year: Jalen Cannon – Sr., Forward, St. Francis Brooklyn
I think this will end up being a two player race between Cannon and RMU’s Lucky Jones and I believe Cannon’s numbers will be good enough to just edge out Cannon for the award. I think Cannon will lead the NEC in rebounding and score over 16 points per game. I predict he will be the first Terrier since 1999 to win the award.
Coach of the Year: Glenn Braica – St. Francis Brooklyn
Braica won this award three seasons ago when he guided the Terriers to a fourth-place finish when they were picked 11th in the preseason coaches poll. Braica has a much better team then he had then but if he gets them to a top two finish, I believe he will once again win this award.
Rookie of the Year: Nura Zanna – R-Fr., Forward – LIU Brooklyn
Zanna was a popular pick for this award last season before a wrist injury knocked him out for the entire season. He is got to sit and watch a year and now that he is healthy, I believe he will be the best freshman in what will be a pretty good NEC rookie class.
Defensive Player of the Year: Amdy Fall – Jr., Forward – St. Francis Brooklyn
Fall finished third in the NEC in blocks last season with 1.7 blocks per game. He only play 16.8 minutes per game. He had a 10 block game against Robert Morris last season in one of two games he started. His minutes will likely increase with the departure of Wayne Martin which means more blocks and rebounds for Terrier forward. If he gets starter minutes, he will get this award.
Most Improved Player: Dwaun Anderson – Jr., Guard – Wagner
I made this exact same pick last season and Anderson had another underwhelming season. Anderson has the talent and the ability but has yet to become the player everyone thought would take the NEC by storm when he showed up two seasons ago. If it doesn’t breakout this season then it is likely will never be that top line player most people thought he will be. It can’t be all about highlight dunks, his team needs him to produce and I believe he finally will this season.
CD: Player of the Year: Lucky Jones 
Coach of the Year: Andy Toole

RP: I like Lucky Jones as my Player of the Year, just because of the tremendous value he brings on both sides of the ball. Look for him to improve his scoring average from last year now that Karvel Anderson has graduated. I'll stick with Nura Zanna as my Rookie of the Year since he has the pedigree (brother Talib was an excellent player at Pitt) and the impressive blend of size, athleticism and physicality. Amdy Fall is my defensive player of the year. Only 30 players in the country had a better block rate than Fall (10.5%) last season. Look for that to continue. Finally, I'll go out on a limb and choose Sacred Heart's Evan Kelley as my Most Improved. He was a shell of himself in the 2nd half of last season after suffering a tough shoulder injury in December. Now healthy off an offseason surgery, look for him to lead the Pioneers in scoring and do it efficiently. He's one of the few guards in this league that can attack the rim at will, in my opinion.

JT: POY: Jalen Cannon, St. Francis Brooklyn
COY: I hate picking a Coach of the Year in preseason, to me it's how you perform versus expectations that makes a winner here. So I'm withholding judgment.
ROY: Nura Zanna, LIU Brooklyn. He's had a year to sit out after a wrist injury and should get a ton of opportunities.
DPOY: This might be the toughest call, but I'm going with Lucky Jones of Robert Morris. He has the ability to cover almost every position on the court in the NEC and he just makes plays defensively.
MIP: Marcus Burton, Wagner. Burton is going to go from sixth man to starter and his numbers should rise with that extra playing time. I expect a big-time scoring season from him this season.

5) Word association (as few words as possible to describe each team)

NC: BRY - "Pretenders"
CCSU - "Overrated"
FDU - "Overachievers"
LIU - "Youth"
MSM - "Dangerous"
RMU - "Tough"
SHU - "Rebuilding"
SFC - "Determined"
SFU - "Challengers"
WAG - "Time Has Passed"

RP: Robert Morris - Toughness (can they be as tough in recent years despite the recent graduations?)
St. Francis Brooklyn - Paint Dominance (they'll make their living out-rebounding and defending opponents)
Central Connecticut - Chemistry (can they finally end this period of underachievement despite their talent?)
Bryant - Athleticism (They are more athletic than ever before, which should help their porous perimeter defense)
Mount St. Mary's - Mayhem (explained above)
St. Francis PA - Consistency (can they play well against the NEC elite, last year they were 1-10 vs NEC top 5)
Wagner - Defense (they'll struggle to score, but I think Bashir Mason will have them defending at a high level)
Sacred Heart - Guard Play (they need Gaetano, Glowiak, Kelley all to have big years to sneak into NEC top 5)
LIU Brooklyn - Rebuilding (9 underclassmen on this roster, only Gerrell Martin has been on team for more than 1 yr)
FDU - Complete Rebuild (even more so than LIU)

JT: Bryant: Darkhorse
Central Connecticut: Vinales
Fairleigh Dickinson: Questionmarks
LIU Brooklyn: Rebuilding
Mount St. Mary's: MAYHEM
Sacred Heart: Fast-paced
Saint Francis University: Sleeper
St. Francis Brooklyn: Contender
Wagner: Defense

6) Shameless plug (what fans can expect from each team)

NC: BRY - Dyami Starks will have a monster season. Will not be surprised if he is the NEC's top scorer. Otherwise, the team will just be average. 
CCSU - Good starting lineup. Will win games but I don't see them as a true threat for a championship. 
FDU - Greg Herenda will have them playing hard every game. Will win a couple of games they shouldn't and could see them sneak into the NEC tournament. 
LIU - Will be fun to watch. They have a lot of youth but I think Gerrell Martin will have a tremendous season and help carry them. They got to stay healthy and need to improve their defense if they want to win games this season. 
MSM - Will play to the same formula of the first two season under Jamion Christian. Will likely start off slow, gain traction and then by February will once again be a team no one wants to play in March. 
RMU - They have both experience and good looking youth. They have a great head coach in Andy Toole. They have a great player in Lucky Jones who will be a candidate for NEC POY. They rebound, they defend, they score points. They will be a title contender once again. What's new?
SHU - Year two of the Anthony Latina era should be better than year one but I don't know if it will be significantly better. They should be better equipped with players to run the type of system Latina wants to run. 
SFC - Jalen Cannon is a beast. If Brent Jones duplicates his junior year performance then SFC has a real shot at winning their first NEC title. If Jones struggles, this team will struggle but otherwise this team will be a force. 
SFU - Return a lot of experience. Will only get better this season. Earl Brown is under rated. Ronnie Drinnon will be a terror this season and I loved watching Malik Harmon play last season. He will only get better this season. 
WAG - Unfortunately for them, their contending days are over. I like Marcus Burton, he is wonderful player. Dwaun Anderson should shine now in year three as a go-to player. Bashir Mason is a good coach and they will play hard but this could be the start of a rebuild. 

CD: Bryant: Great homecourt advantage, key to season is production from frontcourt 
Central: If healthy, Vinales finishes top two on CCSU all-time scoring list
FDU: Coach Herenda knows how to get the most out of his players. This team will compete hard night in and night out.
LIU Brooklyn: A lot of changeover, only one player remains from title team of two years ago.
Mount: Play five of final six games at home. Will count on transfers Chris Martin and Andrew Smeathers to contribute, making up for the loss of three senior starters.
Robert Morris: Only 25 conference losses over the last seven years. An incredible stretch of success that is likely to continue.
Sacred Heart: Will win more than last year’s five games, but still miss the NEC Tournament 
St. Francis Brooklyn: Improved from last year, will contend for title on the back of Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones. 
Saint Francis: Returning 94% of minutes from last year, will be sleeper for NEC title due to team cohesiveness and experience in last year’s tournament 
Wagner: Had a great run the last few years, but couldn’t get over the hump to the finals. They will still contend for a playoff spot, but might have the biggest regression in NEC wins of any team from last year.

JT: I don't know if I can do every team in the league justice, but I do want to say this, even though I'm preaching to the choir. You should watch NEC basketball. Outside of Wagner and Saint Francis U. all of these teams play athletic, relatively fast-paced, high-scoring basketball. The games are always close and there are new heroes week-to-week. The NEC is one of the best mid-major leagues to watch on a nightly basis. (And you can watch for free on NEC Front Row.) Everyone thinks they know who will make up the league's First Team will be at the end of the season (Jalen Cannon, Lucky Jones, Kyle Vinales, Dyami Starks and Earl Brown), but I'm sure something crazy is going to happen and you want to see it.