After six previews of some conferences that I legitimately learned more about while profiling, next up in our "30 In 30" series is a league I am intimately familiar with, given my work for an institution within it. The Northeast Conference has made strides in attempting to ditch the low-major tag in favor of a mid-major with the quality of its games and parity of its twelve members. This season, there are six (maybe seven) teams that could finish with winning records in the NEC, despite the fact that there are two teams clearly above the rest of the pack. I explain further here, starting with the team likely to represent the NEC in the NCAA Tournament.
1) Long Island University - A year ago, Jim Ferry's Blackbirds set the NEC on fire with their 27-win season that was capped off by appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. The Blackbirds played North Carolina much harder than most in the country expected, and even tied the game in the first half before the Tar Heels prevailed by the final of 102-87. After an offseason in which LIU lost guards Kyle Johnson and David Hicks to graduation, the Brooklyn school was fortunate to keep Ferry, who received a seven-year offer from Manhattan College that he turned down the following day. The Jaspers eventually settled on former Louisville assistant Steve Masiello; and it looks like a blessing in disguise for Ferry, who will return most of last year's squad for an encore this time around. Forwards Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere return for their junior campaigns following dominant second years, and Olasewere could have the inside track to an NEC Player of the Year award after his coming-out party down the stretch. Mike Culpo will probably be the third starter in the backcourt for the Blackbirds this season, joining fellow senior C.J. Garner, whose buzzer-beater against St. Francis won the Battle of Brooklyn for LIU last season. Replacing Johnson at the point will be sophomore Jason Brickman, one of the most exciting players in the conference last year even though he came off the bench as Ferry's first option. The San Antonio native was a third team all-NEC selection last year despite not starting a game, in large part due to his shooting 39 percent from three-point range and leading the conference in assists, dishing out over five per game. Boyd and Olasewere will get all the attention, but Brickman should be the Blackbirds' most valuable player this season.
2) Wagner - When the Seahawks lured Danny Hurley from St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, the high school program he turned into one of the metropolitan area's perennial elite, anyone that knew of the hire right away knew that Hurley would eventually usher in a new and prosperous era in Staten Island basketball. Wagner finished 13-17 with a young roster last year, but nearly beat St. John's on the road; and also fought NEC runner-up Robert Morris tooth and nail in their first-round conference tournament game. This year, all five starters come back for Hurley, led by senior guard Tyler Murray, a first team all-NEC selection that will team with fellow senior Chris Martin and sophomore Latif Rivers in the backcourt for the Verrazano Warriors. Up front, Orlando Parker will be the Seahawks' power forward as he enters his sophomore season. Naofall Folahan is also just a sophomore, but the 6-11 center is Wagner's X-factor this season. Folahan has shown an ability to be a nightmare for opposing teams on both sides of the ball after just one year at the Division I level; and if he fills out just a little more, the Benin native could easily be the best big man in NEC history. Josh Thompson will be Hurley's top bench player this season, and could work his way into the lineup when opposing teams play smaller or if Folahan and/or Parker succumb to foul trouble.
3) Robert Morris - Mike Rice left for Rutgers with two consecutive NEC championships. Andy Toole replaced Rice last season and took the Colonials to within just three points of a third consecutive crown, falling in overtime to eventual champion LIU. At just 31, Toole is among the youngest coaches in the nation; and has a roster that is just as youthful as the man leading it. Despite losing Karon Abraham to a season-long suspension due to off-court issues, the Colonials will rely upon forward Russell Johnson and guard Velton Jones to get them to a fourth straight championship game. Philadelphia native Lijah Thompson could also find his way to a breakout season as he patrols the paint for RMU.
4) Central Connecticut State - The Blue Devils have a tall order to start this season having lost point guard Shemik Thompson to graduation. However, Howie Dickenman brings back reigning NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton for his senior season, and sharpshooter Robby Ptacek comes back for one more year in New Britain as well. Ptacek will likely anchor the backcourt as DeAngelo Speech will get the first shot to replace Thompson. In limited playing time last year, Speech made an impact; and his reserve contributions in CCSU's first-round NEC tournament victory over St. Francis College were one of the biggest factors behind the Terriers not being able to pull off the upset. Joe Efese will also be key for the Blue Devils this season, as he will, along with Horton, try to combat the size difference most opposing teams will present in matchups.
5) St. Francis College - If you look at what Glenn Braica will need to do to return to the 15-15 record he enjoyed in his maiden season on the corner of Remsen and Court, it will make Central Connecticut State's replacement of Shemik Thompson look like a routine substitution. Both halves of the Terriers' backcourt will need to be replaced, and they are only reigning NEC Defensive Player of the Year Akeem Bennett and all-time leading scorer Ricky Cadell. Fortunately, Braica returns almost everyone else to Brooklyn this season. Dre Calloway goes into his senior year possessing a balance between scorer and playmaker that will give the Terriers an edge at the point which will be augmented by defensive savant Justin Newton when he comes into the game. Stefan Perunicic will also get to move back to his natural position of shooting guard; and when he is hot, so too is the team. Matt Milk, a 6-8 sophomore, will be a full-time starter this year; and Travis Nichols will look for his high-energy rebounding game to translate to the starting five after being a key contributor off the bench. The key for the Terriers, though, will be Akeem Johnson. Johnson had a Jekyll and Hyde complex in his game last year in that he was much better and more productive off the bench than he was in the starting lineup. However, Johnson should be the focal point inside; and he and Calloway could evolve into the stars of a team that will go much further than most will expect.
6) Quinnipiac - Tom Moore loses just as much as CCSU and St. Francis do this season, as he will have to replace sensational rebounding forward Justin Rutty as well as guard Deontay Twyman. Luckily for him, James Johnson returns to anchor the backcourt for his senior season. The Bobcats will need to get breakout seasons from some of their role players if they want to return to the No. 2 seed they enjoyed in last year's NEC tournament, and forward Ike Azotam is prime for one of those campaigns after a solid campaign a year ago.
7) Bryant - One look at Bryant University last year and you wouldn't suspect that the Bulldogs were in just their fourth year as a Division I program. Tim O'Shea has quietly built a solid program in Rhode Island, and this season will be bittersweet for the Ocean Staters. Although Bryant is on the verge of breaking into the top half of the NEC, the Bulldogs are still precluded from participating in the NEC tournament for another year since they are still reclassifying from Division II; and one does not become a full member of Division I until after their fifth year. (For the record, the reclassifying process from Division III to Division II takes seven years; and special thanks goes to Jim Hoffman, the director of athletic compliance at St. Francis College, for revealing those nuggets) Reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Alex Francis, who scored 43 points off the bench against LIU late last season, will team with guard Frankie Dobbs to create a formidable one-two punch that most teams will have difficulty attempting to contain.
8) St. Francis University - Don Friday backed into the NEC tournament with the Red Flash last year, and could get better results this time around despite having to replace the unrivaled productivity of forward Will Felder. All three starting guards come back for St. Francis this year, led by 5-11 sharpshooter Umar Shannon and junior point guard Chris Johnson. Anthony Ervin is the third member of the Red Flash backcourt troika, and will be the focal point on defense for the southwestern Pennsylvania program.
9) Mount St. Mary's - Former Georgetown assistant Robert Burke took the Mountaineers to the NEC tournament in his first season, where his team gave Quinnipiac a scare early before ultimately being done in by the Bobcats. Forward Shawn Atupem, who made the motor run for the Mount last year, is gone; but Lamar Trice and Julian Norfleet return to give Mount a solid guard duo. Danny Thompson should expect more opportunities inside on an improving Mount frontline as he goes into his senior season.
10) Sacred Heart - The Pioneers and longtime coach Dave Bike are an institution in Fairfield, and junior guard Shane Gibson is well on his way to joining the program and its head man in that elite group. Gibson should be a lock for a first team all-NEC selection this year if he can replicate his form from last season, a campaign that was highlighted by averaging seventeen points per game and shooting 39 percent from three-point range. Chris Evans and Evan Kelley will likely be the Pioneers' new point guards after the graduation of Jerrell Thompson, while Stan Dulaire anchors the paint for a team that looks like they are back on the right track.
11) Monmouth - The start of a new era takes center stage in Long Branch as new head coach King Rice replaces longtime Hawks leader Dave Calloway after a long tenure marked by multiple NCAA Tournament appearances. Monmouth returns most of last year's team, including leading scorers Mike Myers Keitt and Ed Waite, along with productive reserves Jesse Steele, Will Campbell and Marcus Ware. The Hawks also possess the tallest player in the conference in 7-1 senior center Phil Wait, who Big East fans will recognize as a former St. John's transfer who spent the 2008-09 season on the Red Storm bench under Norm Roberts.
12) Fairleigh Dickinson - Greg Vetrone embarks on his second full season in New Jersey with a team that loses each of its five top scorers from last season. Senior guard Briahn Smith is the Knights' top returning player, as FDU will be a completely different team than they were a year ago. An interesting story for the Knights this year will be the return of Mohamed Lo to the court after not playing the last two years following his transfer from Toledo. A 6-8 graduate student, Lo has only been playing competitively since coming to the United States at 14, when he enrolled at my alma mater of Monsignor McClancy High School in 2002 and quickly became the tallest person (student or teacher) in the building. After transferring out of McClancy and playing at the Patterson School in North Carolina, a program that has produced a Who's Who of local players, Lo's skills have improved dramatically; and the Senegalese big man could be a pleasant surprise in New Jersey.