Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson enters senior season with scoring prowess and NEC Player of the Year hopes. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Heart University)
After LIU Brooklyn's ruling that the four players implicated in assault charges last month would only be suspended for the first two conference games of the Blackbirds' season, the Northeast Conference officially sorted itself out and made itself easier to predict. The Blackbirds return almost everyone from last year's championship team, and will no doubt be one of the picks to win the conference again. The other eleven teams in the NEC will have something to say about that, but here is our predicted order of finish:
1) LIU Brooklyn - The Blackbirds lose just two members of their second straight NEC championship team in guard Mike Culpo, who graduated; and head coach Jim Ferry, who took the job at Duquesne in the offseason. In Ferry's place stands longtime associate coach Jack Perri, who returns the other four starters from the last two seasons. Jason Brickman returns for his junior year, and carries the title of being the best pure point guard in the NEC, and maybe even the nation by the time this season is said and done. Joining him in the backcourt will be senior C.J. Garner, whose scoring ability and clutch performance makes him one of the more underrated guards in the conference. Brandon Thompson will likely be the first option to replace Culpo in the starting lineup, as senior forwards Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd; the latter of whom was named the NEC Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament, anchor the Blackbirds inside. Forward Kenny Onyechi will remain invaluable as the unsung hero on the LIU bench.
2) Wagner - Just like LIU ahead of them, the Seahawks were also one of four NEC programs to make a coaching change in the offseason, as 28-year-old Bashir Mason; the youngest head coach in the nation, assumes the helm of the Verrazano Warriors after Dan Hurley replaced Jim Baron at Rhode Island. Hurley left Mason in good hands, however, adding former Michigan State recruit Dwaun Anderson and highly touted Pennsylvania prep star Eric Fanning to a team that returns four starters from last year's school record 25-win team. Anderson should start immediately in place of all-NEC guard Tyler Murray now that the Canadian has graduated, placing the freshman on the wing alongside Wagner's dynamic backcourt duo of point guard Kenny Ortiz and junior shooting guard Latif Rivers. Up front for the Seahawks, Jonathon Williams enters his senior season as an undersized power forward who produces better than some men three inches taller than him. Junior center Naofall Folahan should have yet another career year as the 6-11 big man has filled out more and added more to his game on both ends of the floor. Forward Orlando Parker and point guard Marcus Burton headline a stellar Wagner bench that features players who could start on half the teams in the conference.
3) Robert Morris - The Colonials have had an amazing run in the NEC, participating in each of the last four conference championship games; winning in 2009 and 2010 under former coach Mike Rice, but falling short to LIU in each of the past two seasons under third-year head man Andy Toole. Only Lawrence Bridges has departed from Moon Township, which gives the Colonials just as much of a chance as any other school in the NEC. Point guard Velton Jones will once again be RMU's catalyst as he enters his senior season, with Coron Williams there to serve as his running mate on the heels of a sophomore season where the Virginian shot 41 percent from three-point range. Sophomore Lucky Jones (no relation to Velton) should step into the third guard position as he stands on the precipice of a breakout season. Up front, the loss of Bridges will be easy to absorb as Russell Johnson, Mike McFadden and Lijah Thompson all return for their final campaigns, with the latter two looking to close their careers by potentially reaching the NEC championship in every season.
4) St. Francis (NY) - Glenn Braica took a Terrier team picked eleventh in last year's preseason poll into this same No. 4 spot last season and was named the NEC Coach of the Year for his efforts. This time around, the expectations will be a little higher in Brooklyn Heights despite losing swingman Stefan Perunicic and defensive specialist Justin Newton to graduation. The Terriers do return Dre Calloway to the backcourt though, as the Harlem product returns following a medical redshirt after being limited to five games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Don't be surprised to see Calloway play off the ball alongside Brent Jones in some situations, with sharpshooter Ben Mockford becoming the third guard for St. Francis in certain stretches. If Calloway starts the year as a reserve, Travis Nichols will be the swingman as he enters his senior season. Regardless of who completes the backcourt, the Terriers have perhaps the most underrated front line in the conference in the form of senior Akeem Johnson; the team's leading scorer last season, and imposing sophomore Jalen Cannon, who is simply a rebounding machine. Kevin Douglas will be primed for a breakout sophomore campaign on the bench, and freshmen Anthony White and Alex Isailovic arrive with rave reviews as well.
5) Sacred Heart - Some people may call me crazy for picking the Pioneers this high, but one thing is certain on head coach Dave Bike's roster: His multitude of players who can score. Not only is senior guard Shane Gibson the best player in the conference, he is also the best player you've never heard of unless you cover the NEC on a regular basis. Sacred Heart is also much more experienced, as only Stan Dulaire is no longer around from last year's group that finished eighth in the conference and lost to LIU Brooklyn in the NEC Tournament quarterfinals. In the backcourt, look for Evan Kelley and Phil Gaetano to once again platoon at the point guard position alongside Gibson and Chris Evans, while Louis Montes and Justin Swidowski anchor the Pioneer front line. If Swidowski cannot improve his penchant to get into early foul trouble, Nick Greenbacker will be waiting in the wings to fill in for him up front. Tevin Falzon leads a handful of incoming freshmen that should be able to contribute right away.
6) Quinnipiac - All-NEC guard James Johnson has graduated, but Tom Moore's Bobcats are still an imposing presence for any team in the conference. A large part of that can be attributed to the physical and defensively gifted front line of junior Ike Azotam and sophomore Ousmane Drame. The two Boston natives lead a Quinnipiac team that will adjust to life without Johnson by bringing back Dave Johnson (no relation) for his senior season alongside sophomore Zaid Hearst and senior Garvey Young, the latter of which will likely move into the starting lineup. On the bench for the Bobcats, Marquis Barnett and Jamee Jackson will likely be the first options for Moore on a team that will look to give its incoming freshmen immediate opportunities to make an impact.
7) Monmouth - King Rice enters his second season with a Hawks team that had one of the better stretch runs in the NEC one year ago. South Carolina transfer Stephen Spinella has just been cleared by the NCAA to play immediately, and will augment a backcourt featuring incumbents Dion Nesmith and Jesse Steele, as they return for their senior seasons on the heels of two equally inspiring campaigns last year. Steele's performance was magnified by the fact that he was not a scholarship player until this offseason. Up front, Mike Myers Keitt and Phil Wait have graduated, but Ed Waite's senior presence will be huge for an undersized Monmouth team that will be looking to get as much as it can out of senior Marcus Ware and sophomore swingman Andrew Nicholas. If reserve guard Max DiLeo is anything like his older brother T.J., who plays at Temple, the Hawks may have a diamond in the rough on their bench.
8) Mount St. Mary's - The Mountaineers also welcome a new coach after former VCU assistant Jamion Christian took over following the departure of Robert Burke after two seasons. The Mount has an underrated backcourt going for them above all else, with junior point guard Josh Castellanos returning to set up potential all-NEC shooting guard Julian Norfleet. After a freshman season in which he turned more than a few heads, Kelvin Parker comes back as a sophomore forward looking to inflict more damage up front for the Mount. The Pennsylvanian will have Croatian import Kristijan Krajina back as well, with Raven Barber stepping in to replace Danny Thompson.
9) Bryant - The Bulldogs are now officially a full Division I member, and have a realistic shot of making the NEC Tournament now that they are eligible. Junior Alex Francis and senior Frankie Dobbs are back in Smithfield once again to renew Bryant's one-two offensive punch, while Australians Corey Maynard and Claybrin McMath join them in the starting lineup once again. Tim O'Shea has several guards who could win the fifth spot in the starting five, and the Bulldogs add to that group with Columbia transfer Dyami Starks, a sharpshooter who is now eligible and has three years remaining. In limited action two seasons ago, Starks quickly scored fifteen points in the first half of Columbia's 2010-11 opener against St. John's at Carnesecca Arena, and was difficult for Steve Lavin and the Red Storm to guard in the opening minutes.
10) Central Connecticut State - Howie Dickenman now faces the task of rebuilding the Blue Devils following the graduations of shooting extraordinaire Robby Ptacek and one of the greatest players in NEC history in Ken Horton. Fortunately for Dickenman and CCSU, reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Kyle Vinales is back as the point guard with an uncanny ability to score the basketball. After averaging nearly eighteen points per game while also leading the Blue Devils in three-pointers made, Vinales becomes the go-to guy for Dickenman, with De'Angelo Speech and Joe Efese joining him as CCSU's leaders. Sophomore Malcolm McMillan will be the third guard in the rotation for Dickenman, while Terrell Allen will be counted on to lead an undersized front line.
11) Saint Francis (PA) - The Red Flash are the fourth and final team to usher in a new coaching era, as longtime assistant Rob Krimmel steps up to replace Don Friday in Loretto. Scott Eatherton has transferred to Northeastern, but Saint Francis welcomes back four returning starters, including guards Anthony Ervin and Stephon Whyatt, who will be joined by Umar Shannon as the Atlantic City product comes back from a torn ACL. Kameron Ritter and Earl Brown will need to step up on the front line in more ways than one to keep the Red Flash out of the cellar and in contention for an NEC Tournament berth.
12) Fairleigh Dickinson - Greg Vetrone's Knights lose do-everything guard Briahn Smith, but return three seniors to the backcourt, led by former Duquesne transfer Melquan Bolding. Joining Bolding will be Lonnie Robinson and Lonnie Hayes, the latter of which averaged thirteen points per game despite being limited to eleven games in an injury-riddled junior campaign. Kinu Rochford will anchor the Knights' front line, one that also includes Danish import Mathias Seilund, who should be a full-time starter this season. FDU has already started building for the future with their group of incoming freshmen, led by highly touted New Jersey product Sekou Harris, who could see immediate playing time in the backcourt.
In addition to A Daly Dose Of Hoops, you can keep up with the NEC by following a few friends of ours, both on Twitter and their respective websites:
Ryan Peters (Pioneer Pride, @pioneer_pride on Twitter)
John Templon (Big Apple Buckets, @nybuckets on Twitter)
Nelson Castillo (Blackbirds Hoops Journal, @NelCastBHJ on Twitter)