Already one of best point guards in nation, Jason Brickman now seeks to lead LIU Brooklyn to unprecedented fourth straight NEC championship. (Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)
Following a weekend hiatus, our "32 In 32" series resumes with two conference previews today. Before our second league is profiled later in the day, we'll resume our in-depth looks at each conference in the nation by shifting our focus to the Northeast Conference, a league that has gone through Brooklyn in each of the last three years to crown its champion. Will Long Island University be the last man standing for a fourth year in a row? Here is how we see the events playing out as the Blackbirds' historic reign opens the curtain for another encore.
1) Wagner - This may be a dark horse pick, but when Bashir Mason was named as the head coach of the Seahawks following Dan Hurley's departure for Rhode Island, he inherited a team that could not only compete immediately; but was built for the long haul as well, thanks to Hurley's successful recruitment of underclassmen such as Latif Rivers and Kenny Ortiz, both of whom enter their senior seasons anchoring the backcourt for the Verrazano Warriors, who may have the best guard depth in the NEC. In addition to Rivers and Ortiz, Wagner also welcomes back Marcus Burton for a junior season in which he will see more minutes at the point following a very productive sophomore campaign, and Valparaiso transfer Jay Harris is finally eligible after sitting out last season. The junior from Illinois is a shooting machine waiting to be plugged in, and will get mounds of open looks from Dwaun Anderson on the wing. Although Jonathon Williams has graduated, he is really the only significant loss for the Seahawks, who will now insert explosive junior forward Mario Moody into the starting lineup alongside 6-11 senior Naofall Folahan, whose post evolution has made him much more formidable than in recent years. Finally, Orlando Parker is a senior forward that could start for any other team in the NEC, and will be able to use his experience off the bench to change games for the pride of Staten Island.
2) Robert Morris - The second spot is just as much up for grabs as any other in the NEC, but it is hard to ignore what Andy Toole has done over his first three years in Moon Township, winning 68 games since replacing disgraced former Rutgers head man Mike Rice; the last of those victories being the Colonials' biggest win in program history, their opening round National Invitation Tournament win against John Calipari and Kentucky. Senior point guard Velton Jones is gone, as are big man Lijah Thompson and sharpshooter Coron Williams; who transferred to Wake Forest, but Robert Morris has arguably one of the most underrated players in the league in swingman Lucky Jones, who will become a household name as he enters his junior season following averages of over eleven points per game and 43 percent from three-point range. Speaking of long distance specialists, senior guard Karvel Anderson is one by virtue of his 44 percent clip from beyond the arc in a year where he led the Colonials in scoring, and will get a handful of looks every night from new point guard Anthony Myers-Pate, who averaged nearly three assists per game as Jones' backup last season.
3) Bryant - The Bulldogs were arguably the quietest success story in Division I last season, their first as a full member of the NEC, an accomplishment they validated with a postseason appearance. Point guard Frankie Dobbs has graduated, but head coach Tim O'Shea brings back the bulk of last year's squad, including the other two members of his backcourt, Australian Corey Maynard and Columbia expatriate Dyami Starks, who turned heads on his way to leading Bryant in scoring a year ago. The two will join senior forward Alex Francis to form a potent inside/outside scoring trio, with O'Shea's nephew Joe being a deceptively strong offensive option in his own right. Look for freshman Justin Brickman, whose older brother Jason has blossomed into one of the nation's best point guards at LIU Brooklyn, to make a quick impact early and often as Bryant's floor general.
4) LIU Brooklyn - Speaking of the elder Brickman, Jason goes into his senior year with one goal in mind, that being to complete the championship grand slam and win a title for every year he has donned a Blackbird uniform. The San Antonio product has his biggest challenge yet, however; as not only have his former running mates C.J. Garner and Jamal Olasewere graduated, but Julian Boyd is out until at least January after suffering his second torn ACL in eight months. In Boyd's absence, swingmen E.J. Reed and Troy Joseph will help make the Blackbirds a more athletic unit that will seek to combat their relative youth. Of the eight newcomers on Jack Perri's roster, freshman forward Nura Zanna; whose older brother Talib played for Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh, has one of the bigger opportunities to make a name for himself. LIU could realistically finish lower than fourth, perhaps in the lower half of the standings, but the Blackbirds' championship pedigree will keep them alive deep into the season.
5) Central Connecticut State - If last year taught us anything, it is to never discount the coaching ability of Howie Dickenman, as the longtime former Jim Calhoun assistant once again led the Blue Devils into the NEC Tournament when we picked him to finish near the bottom of the pack. This time around, there is no reason to underestimate CCSU, even with third-leading scorer Adonis Burbage having transferred. Dickenman dodged a huge bullet in the offseason, when junior guard Kyle Vinales reneged on a decision to transfer to Toledo following a campaign in which he ranked among the top ten in the nation in scoring, and Vinales will return to New Britain to join point guard Malcolm McMillan and swingman Matt Hunter in the backcourt for the Blue Devils. Central Connecticut may be undersized on paper, but the natural rebounding ability of forwards Terrell Allen and Brandon Peel will keep the Blue Devils alive in every game.
6) Mount St. Mary's - Now that Jamion Christian has a year of his "Mayhem" system under his belt, all eyes will be on the Mountaineers this season to see if their appearance in the NEC championship game last season was a harbinger of things to come, or merely an aberration. Point guard and reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins' transfer to Coastal Carolina has made things somewhat harder for the Mount, but the return of guards Rashad Whack, Sam Prescott and Julian Norfleet; all of whom enter their senior seasons, enables the Mountaineers to maintain their status among the league's contenders. The key for Christian, however, will be to find a consistent interior scoring option to pair with 6-10 senior Kristijan Krajina, who may just be the most efficient shot taker in the NEC by virtue of his 63 percent clip from the field.
7) St. Francis College - Not very often does a team who returns four of its five starters get picked seventh out of ten, but the overall depth and unpredictability of this year's NEC places the Terriers toward the middle of the standings this year. The biggest positive for Glenn Braica's team this season is that junior forward Jalen Cannon could very well be the NEC Player of the Year by the time the ballots are submitted in March. In addition, the backcourt of Brent Jones and sharpshooting Englishman Ben Mockford gets much-needed continuity this season, and swingman Kevin Douglas should see an increased role with the graduation of forwards Akeem Johnson and Travis Nichols. The St. Francis bench will be a concern throughout the season, with four newcomers arriving in Brooklyn, including 6-6 freshman forward Wayne Martin, a homegrown product who averaged close to a double-double per game in high school.
8) Sacred Heart - The Pioneers are responsible for one of two coaching changes in the NEC, as Dave Bike's retirement has paved the way for his longtime assistant Anthony Latina to succeed him in Fairfield. Latina's first season at the helm will be the one in which Sacred Heart has to attempt to replace program legend Shane Gibson, but junior point guard Phil Gaetano, one of the nation's assist leaders last year, will get everyone else on the team involved. A difference in Sacred Heart on the court this year will be the offensive production being much more spread out than usual, with several capable scoring options led by senior forward Louis Montes and junior guards Chris Evans and Evan Kelley, both of whom will be counted upon to stay healthy throughout the season. In addition, three-point specialist Steve Glowiak has a deceptive shot that can sneak up on several teams, while sophomore forward Tevin Falzon has mounds of potential waiting to be realized.
9) Saint Francis (PA) - The Red Flash lose the services of senior guard Umar Shannon after he transferred to Quinnipiac, but Rob Krimmel still maintains several pieces to contend despite not having a senior on the roster. Junior forward Earl Brown, the conference's Most Improved Player last season, leads the charge for Saint Francis, along with a trio of guards who can score proficiently in threes; specifically Canadian import Ben Millaud-Meunier, who shot an eye-popping 48 percent from beyond the arc last season, setting the tone for fellow sharpshooters Dominique Major and Ollie Jackson, who shot 38 and 32 percent from three, respectively.
10) Fairleigh Dickinson - The Knights usher in a new era as Greg Herenda replaces Greg Vetrone, and will face a long road ahead. Gone are each of FDU's top four scorers, leaving senior swingman and Danish import Mathias Seilund as the leading returning offensive weapon alongside incumbent point guard Sidney Sanders and junior shooter Mustafaa Jones. Among the positives for the Knights will be the immediate eligibility of Scooter Gillette, a 6-9 graduate transfer who should be a welcome addition to the frontcourt after playing for new Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich at Niagara.