Thursday, January 3, 2013

Grading The NEC

Julian Boyd's injury has allowed several teams to close gap on two-time reigning champions LIU Brooklyn going into Northeast Conference play.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

After deciding in the offseason to scrap their traditional December league openers, Northeast Conference play starts within the next hour in six of the twelve home venues, and the playing field has been decidedly leveled in the wake of Julian Boyd's ACL injury.  Two-time defending NEC champion LIU Brooklyn has their work cut out for them now, having to work just a little harder to defend their crown against an onslaught of competitors the likes of Wagner and Robert Morris among others.  How did each of the twelve NEC institutions handle their nonconference slate, you might ask?  We'll break it down for you in the grades that follow.  For those of you scoring at home, teams will be listed in the order in which they were predicted when we previewed the league back in October.

LIU Brooklyn: Even without Boyd, the Blackbirds could still be the most talented team in the NEC, but Jack Perri has had a mixed bag accompany him in his first season at the helm, with a win over Columbia in LIU's home opener at the Wellness Center qualifying as their best win of the season.  Jamal Olasewere has done a valiant job carrying the Blackbirds in Boyd's absence, as has C.J. Garner, with Brandon Thompson stepping up nicely to replace the void left by Michael Culpo.  The LIU bench has been a vital part of keeping Brooklyn's finest afloat, and even though he doesn't shoot as much as this writer would like, (check our Twitter feed @DalyDoseOfHoops for more information on that) Jason Brickman is still the best mid-major point guard in the area.  It could be better for the Blackbirds, but then again, it could always be a lot worse.  Grade: B

Wagner: Not to be outdone is the job Bashir Mason has done in his first season at the helm of the Verrazano Warriors.  Wagner's offense may not always be the most beautiful thing on the court, but it wins games more often than not and has the players to do it on any given night.  Jonathon Williams and Kenny Ortiz have been the biggest surprises so far, carrying more than their load while Latif Rivers has been sidelined through most of the year.  However, aside from those two, it has been problematic for the Seahawks at best, as Marcus Burton and Mario Moody's six points per game are the next highest averages on the team if you don't count the mere three-game sample size of Rivers' contributions.  Wagner's defense has kept them in games, and will continue to, but the offensive end needs a lot of work.  Grade: B

Robert Morris: Arguably, the best part of the nonconference season has been the fact that we have come under considerable fire for not believing in the Colonials and still not labeling them the prohibitive favorite to win the league with LIU being compromised after the Boyd injury.  Andy Toole and company have a two-week layoff prior to their matchup against Bryant tonight, but it hasn't stopped junior college transfer Karvel Anderson from making his presence known, leading the team in scoring while the Joneses (Velton and Lucky, no relation) continue to contribute, as does sharpshooter Coron Williams.  A concern down the stretch will be RMU's bench productivity, which has not been necessary given the brilliance of the Colonials' starting five.  Grade: B+

St. Francis College: Glenn Braica's Terriers have won two straight entering tonight's showdown with Quinnipiac, but St. Francis has had major question marks despite Jalen Cannon's coming-out party in his sophomore campaign.  For instance, the backcourt has been an issue at times, as has their shot selection.  In their win over Colgate, St. Francis took an astounding 72 shots, a number that still confounds us two weeks later.  Kevin Douglas would get our vote for the NEC's Most Improved Player if such an award existed, but the Terriers have been hurt trying to find a steady replacement for the lethal outside shooting of Stefan Perunicic.  Their opening schedule does them little favors, with road trips to Quinnipiac and Wagner in the first two weeks before a favorable homestand against Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson in the third week.  Grade: B-

Sacred Heart: Friend of the site Ryan Peters did everything short of call the 2-9 Pioneers an unmitigated disaster in his midseason recap of his alma mater, and while Ryan may be justified, we'll go a little easier on Sacred Heart.  Shane Gibson hasn't been explosive as this writer would have hoped, but in his defense, he has had members of his supporting cast injured for most of the season on a team that has unfortunately not lived up to their hype.  Louis Montes, Justin Swidowski, and especially Steve Glowiak have exceeded expectations out of the gate, while Phil Gaetano has been a pleasant source of stability at the point with his average of nearly seven assists per game.  Not having Chris Evans or Evan Kelley has hurt the Pioneers so far, but if Dave Bike can get the same results out of his lesser bench players, Sacred Heart could see their fortunes reversed.  Grade: C-

Quinnipiac: Garvey Young has been a key contributor in the Bobcats' quest to replace the offense vacated by James Johnson, teaming with Ike Azotam to once again give Tom Moore the inside/outside scoring punch that has become somewhat of a trademark in Hamden.  Ousmane Drame, Zaid Hearst and Dave Johnson have all stepped up as well, with Jamee Jackson even stepping in to average eight points and three rebounds per game.  However, for all the positives such as a win over Iona and near-upset of UConn in the Paradise Jam, the Bobcats have had confounding losses to American and Maine that make critics scratch their heads going into their conference opener against St. Francis.  Grade: B-

Monmouth: Having seen King Rice and the Hawks firsthand at Rose Hill in their 82-71 loss to Fordham Monday night, nothing really stood out at first blush.  Then again, Monmouth was the same way last year before coming out of nowhere to finish with the No. 6 seed in the NEC last season.  Dion Nesmith and Jesse Steele could very well be the most underrated backcourt in the conference, with swingman Andrew "Red" Nicholas as a deceptive scoring threat on the wing.  The Hawks' front line is a major concern, especially when Marcus Ware gets into foul trouble like he did against Fordham Monday night.  With Monmouth moving to the MAAC next season, the need to finish on a high note is stronger than ever, and after their nonconference season, the Hawks will certainly not have an easy road in doing so.  Grade: C

Mount St. Mary's: Rashad Whack has been just as impressive a newcomer for rookie coach Jamion Christian as Karvel Anderson has for Robert Morris, and Whack gives the Mountaineers the second scoring option to go with Julian Norfleet that they desperately need to make the conference tournament this season.  The Mount has been a very respectable 5-6 going into their conference opener with Fairleigh Dickinson, and Sam Prescott has made waves as a qualified shooter to go with the gifted passing ability of point guard Josh Castellanos.  With all the right breaks, the Mount could surprise a lot of people, but the one obstacle in their way is how good all the teams ahead of them are.  Grade: C+

Bryant: In their first season as a full Division I member, the Bulldogs already have a signature win for Tim O'Shea against Boston College, and have played as though they have been around for quite some time.  Bryant has received the expected contributions from Alex Francis and Frankie Dobbs, but two players have stepped up largely unbeknownst to most in the forms of O'Shea's nephew Joe, and Columbia transfer Dyami Starks, who still sticks out in our minds from his impressive first half against St. John's back in 2010.  The Bulldogs' 7-4 record already clinches biggest surprise of the year in the league, and if they can sustain momentum, the big season we predicted a year ago may finally arrive.  Grade: A

Central Connecticut State: Just as Tim O'Shea has done at Bryant, Howie Dickenman has done a great job of silencing those who thought his Blue Devils would have a down year following the graduations of Ken Horton and Robby Ptacek.  Kyle Vinales has become the unquestioned leader of the team in his sophomore season, but his wealth of minutes will be a cause for concern as the season wears on.  Despite Dickenman perhaps overplaying his guard at times, junior college transfer Matthew Hunter; who went for 40 points against Indiana, and Malcolm McMillan have rallied the Blue Devils when Vinales cannot get to the basket.  Adonis Burbage has also been a pleasant surprise, but with he and each of the aforementioned trio averaging more than 34 minutes per game, we're hoping Dickenman is mindful of avoiding fatigue with his starters as NEC play heats up.  Grade: A-

Saint Francis University: The Red Flash have still yet to give new coach Rob Krimmel his first career win, but Umar Shannon has been his usual self with an average of fourteen points per game.  Aside from that, nothing has been spectacular, as no other player averages double figures.  The Red Flash have only yielded less than 65 points twice this season, something that will come back to hurt them if they cannot improve on the defensive end going into conference play.  Grade: C-

Fairleigh Dickinson: Greg Vetrone's Knights have developed a big three in recent games, with the explosive Kinu Rochford teaming with fellow seniors Melquan Bolding and Lonnie Robinson to give FDU a potent scoring troika that rivals anyone in the conference on any given night.  Freshman Sekou Harris has also asserted himself among the frontrunners for Rookie of the Year honors with his stellar play in the opening weeks of the season.  The Knights have played a very ambitious schedule, but in the games where FDU has not looked overmatched, they have performed quite admirably, including big wins against Saint Peter's and Lafayette.  Grade: B-

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