Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014-15 Northeast Conference Preview

Now in his 19th season at Central Connecticut State, Howie Dickenman hopes to lead Blue Devils to fourth NEC championship and first since 2007. (Photo courtesy of the Hartford Courant)

We'll open this preview with good news and bad news, the bad being that our "32 In 32" series will not resume this year as initially planned, due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control. However, the good news is that we will still preview some of the local conferences, beginning with one that has been a focal point of our coverage for several years, that being the Northeast Conference.

Last season, Mount St. Mary's overcame adversity and a No. 5 seed to upend regular season champion Robert Morris to bring the NEC championship to Emmitsburg, Maryland for the first time since 2008. However, Jamion Christian and the Mountaineers' road to a repeat will not be a smooth one, as they must navigate through the 2014-15 season having to replace their top three scorers in Rashad Whack, Julian Norfleet and Sam Prescott. Nonetheless, The Mount will still be a contender as the field of ten once again goes to the post with a spot in the field of 68 up for grabs.

1) Central Connecticut State - Howie Dickenman has seen a lot of them come and a lot of them go in his first eighteen seasons in New Britain. This season, the longest-tenured coach in the NEC sees all five starters come back to the Blue Devils this season, headlined by senior shooting guard Kyle Vinales, who is healthy again after missing ten games with a broken finger that ultimately compromised CCSU's chances of reaching the heights many had expected a year ago. Vinales is joined again by point guard Malcolm McMillan (10.8 points, 3.2 assists per game) and sophomore Matt Mobley, the latter of whom should make a substantial jump in productivity as he begins his second campaign in the Hardware City. Up front, the tandem of senior Faronte Drakeford and Brandon Peel, which combined to average nearly 12 rebounds per game last season, returns as well, with Khalen Cumberlander serving as the sixth man. Dickenman has also infused an experience-rich squad with some youth, too, as a pair of New York prospects in forward Mustafa Jones and guard Kevin Seymour join the program.

2) St. Francis Brooklyn - On the heels of an 18-win season that goes down in the annals as one of the Terriers' most successful seasons in nearly a decade, Glenn Braica retools with perhaps his best chance since his hire in 2010 to finally end the drought on Remsen Street and send the "small college of big dreams" to its first NCAA Tournament. Senior forward Jalen Cannon, the likely favorite for NEC Player of the Year honors, has a very realistic chance to end his career as the league's all-time leading rebounder as well as St. Francis' all-time leading scorer, as he stands 251 boards short of the conference pinnacle and 487 markers behind Ricky Cadell for the points lead in Brooklyn Heights. In the backcourt, Ben Mockford has graduated, but speedy senior Brent Jones returns to run the show from the point with sophomore Yunus Hopkinson likely to have a more integral role in his second season. Kevin Douglas will reprise his position on the wing while Cannon and junior forward Amdy Fall anchor the paint. If the 6-7 Fall replicates his dominant defensive campaign of a year ago, the long history of Terrier heartbreak could very well be replaced with a tale of triumph.

3) Saint Francis University - If you're looking for a sleeper team, look no further than the Red Flash, who emerged from a 3-12 start to win seven conference games and upset Bryant in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament before taking Robert Morris to the wire in the semifinals. Head coach Rob Krimmel brings back all five starters in an attempt to catch the league by surprise, and senior swingman Earl Brown leads the charge while Malik Harmon; the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year, could stake a claim to a spot as one of the elite point guards in the conference. Juniors Ronnie Drinnon and Greg Brown should see increases in their offensive numbers this year, and if the sharpshooting duo of Dominique Major and Canadian import Ben Millaud-Meunier is firing from beyond the arc, Saint Francis could easily finish in the top two.

4) Robert Morris - Going into the season, one would think that Andy Toole would once again have the Colonials at or near the top of the leaderboard after consecutive regular season championships and near-misses in March only served as further fuel to motivate the team known for the biggest victory in NEC history, that being Robert Morris' 2013 upset of John Calipari and Kentucky in the National Invitation Tournament. The Colonials will be contenders, that is for sure, but replacing reigning NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson; he of the 46 percent shooting from three-point range, will be difficult. Lucky Jones gets his unquestioned shot to lead the cavalry as he enters his senior season, but with all four other starters from last season gone, guards Charles Oliver and Kavon Stewart will be expected to shoulder greater loads this year in order to maintain the status quo in Moon Township.

5) Bryant - Much like Robert Morris, the Bulldogs lose their offensive nucleus, and in the case of Bryant, it is twofold as both Alex Francis and point guard Corey Maynard have graduated. However, sharpshooter Dyami Starks returns for his senior season to carry the banner for Tim O'Shea one year removed from a third-place regular season finish. The Bulldogs will need O'Shea's nephew, Joe, to play a greater role in offensive production this season, along with junior guard Shane McLaughlin. Sophomore forward Dan Garvin, who overcame a bout with mononucleosis during his rookie season, is 100 percent for his second go-round in Rhode Island, and thus will be a vital contributor inside on a front line that will need everything it can get out of sophomore Ellis Williams and New Zealander Angus Riley, who joins the team for his freshman season. If the name Justin Brickman rings a bell. that's because the sophomore is the younger brother of Jason Brickman, the LIU Brooklyn legend who eclipsed the 1,000-assist plateau in his senior season last year.

6) Mount St. Mary's - The reigning champions, as mentioned before, have their work cut out for them in their attempt to replace Rashad Whack, Julian Norfleet and Sam Prescott. Seven-footer Taylor Danaher returns as the team's top incumbent scorer (7.1 points, 5.0 rebounds per game) and will benefit from the return of Kristijan Krajina up front alongside him, while the shooting of Byron Ashe and Will Miller could make or break The Mount. The Mountaineers also welcome a pair of transfers after they sat out last season, as Marshall expatriate Chris Martin joins the backcourt while Butler castoff Andrew Smeathers adds to a deceptively strong front line that also includes a breakout candidate in burgeoning 6-7 junior Gregory Graves.

7) Sacred Heart - Anthony Latina seems poised to make a big jump in his second season at the helm of the Pioneers, with Evan Kelley returning to a backcourt that is anchored by incumbents Phil Gaetano and Steve Glowiak as they enter their senior seasons. With Jason Brickman now out of the picture, Gaetano becomes the best pure passer in the NEC, and his skills should benefit the marksmanship of Glowiak, who connected on 84 three-pointers for a blistering 38 percent clip from beyond the arc. Sophomore wing De'von Barnett will be aided immensely by the presence of graduate transfer Jordan Allen, who was an irreplaceable piece to the puzzle at Hofstra the past two seasons, and can truly do a little bit of everything. The key for the Pioneers will be getting junior forward Tevin Falzon back on track after a disappointing sophomore campaign planted doubts of a return to his promising rookie efforts.

8) Wagner - Bashir Mason has never been one to back down from a challenge, be it as a player, a graduate student, or as the youngest head coach in the nation at just 30 years of age. Mason's embrace of adversity will be on full display this season, as he now puts his own imprint on a team that his predecessor Dan Hurley recruited well to ease the transition of Mason's first two years at the helm. Gone are both halves of the two-headed backcourt monster that was Kenny Ortiz and Latif Rivers, finally enabling Marcus Burton to become the face of the team as he enters his senior season. Burton is not alone in his transformation from sixth man to team leader, however, as junior wing Dwaun Anderson must do the same as the Seahawks lose athletic forward Mario Moody as well as the rugged Orlando Parker and 6-11 Naofall Folahan. Sophomore forwards Nolan Long and Greg Senat will be major players in the rotation this season, and the key for the Verrazano Warriors will be finding a reliable three-point option to take the place of the departed Jay Harris, who was a shooting machine waiting to be plugged in.

9) Fairleigh Dickinson - Wins over Rutgers and Seton Hall made Greg Herenda's job easier even though the Knights still faced bumps in the road en route to a 10-21 season. Breakout point guard Sidney Sanders Jr. has graduated, as has Mathias Seilund, but Herenda still has senior guard Mustafaa Jones to mentor a young roster that includes a rising star and potential all-NEC honoree in sophomore swingman Matt MacDonald. Burgeoning big man Xavier Harris and 5-8 guard Malachi Nix, who was instrumental in a victory over St. Francis Brooklyn in the final minute last January, will see their opportunities increase while Tyrone O'Garro waits in the wings, as he sits out after transferring from Monmouth.

10) LIU Brooklyn - Not long ago, the Blackbirds were the kings of the NEC, riding a core led by Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere to three consecutive league championships as the backcourt of Jason Brickman and silent assassin C.J. Garner kept the uptempo attack afloat. Then head coach Jim Ferry left for Duquesne, turning the reins over to longtime deputy Jack Perri, who won the third of LIU's NEC crowns before taking a step back last season in the beginning of a rebuild. Without Brickman, the Blackbirds lose roughly three-quarters of their team assist total from a year ago, leaving a gaping hole at the point that freshmen Elvar Fridriksson and Martin Hermannsson will attempt to fill as Gerrell Martin and Iverson Fleming maintain the shooting guard spots. Up front, the absence of E.J. Reed will be mitigated by the return of Nura Zanna, who missed all of last season with a broken hand. Leading scorer Landon Atterberry also returns for his senior season, and if Glenn Feidanga can stay out of foul trouble, the Blackbirds will finish higher than this.

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