Monday, October 20, 2014

Northeast Conference Roundtable

Lucky Jones seeks to follow in footsteps of former teammate Karvel Anderson as Robert Morris swingman enters senior season in search of Northeast Conference Player of the Year honors. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The Northeast Conference opens its doors to another basketball season with their annual media day tomorrow morning inside Brooklyn's Barclays Center, an affair that is a unique event in college hoops, a "social media day" in fact, wherein a fan-friendly interaction is given equal billing alongside the coaches and student-athletes of both men's and women's programs in the NEC, a credit to an outstanding league office staff, particularly the likes of social media coordinator Ralph Ventre, whose yeoman's efforts deserve greater recognition.

This year's NEC landscape will feature usual suspects such as Robert Morris near the top as Mount St. Mary's seeks to overcome the loss of a three-pronged senior class in its attempt to repeat as league champions, while teams like St. Francis Brooklyn and Bryant hope to build on their success of last season by returning strong core players. For further insight, we now turn to the "Mount Rushmore" of NEC wise men, with our Jaden Daly serving as moderator of a roundtable panel featuring the four foremost authorities on Northeast Conference basketball:

Nelson Castillo, Blackbirds Hoops Journal (Twitter: @NelCastBHJ)
Craig D'Amico, NEC Front Row play-by-play announcer and studio host (Twitter: @CraigCD13)
Ryan Peters and John Templon, Big Apple Buckets (Ryan's Twitter: @pioneer_pride, John's Twitter: @nybuckets)

1) Who is the likely NEC champion, and why?

Nelson Castillo: Although I have been debating this in my head with two teams (St. Francis Brooklyn and Robert Morris), I believe Robert Morris should win the NEC this season and finally put the disappointments of the last several seasons behind them. I think their defense will be good as always and they have more offensive firepower I believe than St. Francis Brooklyn has coming into the season. These two teams are best two teams in the NEC this season in my mind.

Craig D'Amico: It’s so hard to narrow it down to just one, so I’ll give you four. First, Robert Morris has to be in the discussion because under Andy Toole all they do is win. They’ve won the last two regular season titles and return Lucky Jones, who most likely will finish his career top ten in points and at the top spot in rebounds in Colonial history. Second, is the Red Flash of Saint Francis. They were four points away from advancing to the NEC Championship Game last year and return nearly the entire team. I’m a big believer that come playoff time, it’s not the superstar player but the veteran teams who win. The overseas summer trip the Red Flash took together can only help with the cohesiveness of the unit. The St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers, behind Jalen Cannon, also have to be in the title discussion. Finally, I can’t count out the reigning champs. Mount St. Mary’s has defied the ‘expert’ preseason predictions two years in a row to make the finals, and to win it all last year. Despite losing Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, I don’t want to make the same mistake three years in a row and totally count out coach Jamion Christian and his crew again. The Mount play five of their last six at home and could easily get on a hot streak going into the playoffs and make a run yet again.

Ryan Peters: It's so hard to predict the next NEC champion given the parity, but if I had to guess I'd go with Robert Morris at this point. I know Andy Toole has suffered a fair amount of heartbreak in the NEC tournament, but he always gets them in a position to win and one of these years his team will eventually break through. I originally liked St. Francis Brooklyn as the champion, but I'm concerned about their perimeter play (how do you make up the loss of Ben Mockford?) and their front court depth. Losing Wayne Martin definitely hurts, and puts more pressure on Amdy Fall to emerge as an all-conference type of player. Do they have enough behind Brent Jones and Jalen Cannon?

John Templon: This is going to be a really interesting season in the NEC considering how open it is, but I'm going with St. Francis Brooklyn to win their first title. The Terriers have a solid inside-outside combination in Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones and return a bunch of other pieces. My biggest concern with them? The giant hole at shooting guard. Of course you have to watch out for Robert Morris.

2) In your opinion, which teams are the most overrated and underrated?

NC: Most overrated team right I believe is Central Connecticut State. A lot of people I see are buying into CCSU, I'm not one of them. I think Kyle Vinales will have a great senior year and they have other good players like Malcolm McMillan, Brandon Peel and Faronte Drakeford, but I don't see how they are going to be dramatically better than they were last season where they are now considered a NEC contender. I think they will be good just not that good. I wouldn't put them any higher than a 4-seed. Most underrated team I believe (surprise) will be LIU Brooklyn. Yes, they have a lot of youth on this team but a lot of that youth can play and if they can stay healthy which was a big problem they had last year and play some defense, they are going to sneak up on some teams.

CD: Overrated: CCSU – Since the Blue Devils won the 2007 NEC Championship and played Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve only won ONE playoff game. That’s a 1-7 record, with their one victory coming in a two point game in the 2011 quarters. Yes, it’s a testament to all involved to get an invite to the playoff party year in and year out, but you eventually have to win. I don’t know with this year’s group that the Blue Devils are any different than the team that finished around .500 in conference the last few years.  

Underrated: SFU and Mount St. Mary's – As mentioned above, you can’t discount a team’s returning chemistry and you can’t discount the heart of a champion. With SFU failing to reach 10 wins for the last four seasons and having gone since 1995 without a playoff win until last year, it would be easy to overlook the Red Flash. And with key players having graduated Mount, it also would be easy to overlook them too. But due to the chemistry of Saint Francis and the Mount’s knowledge of what it takes to win. Besides Gerrell Martin at LIU, Mount features the only active players in the NEC who own championship rings.

RP: I'm not terribly high on the other St. Francis team, just because I think some are making too big a deal of the Red Flash's two games in the past NEC tournament. If St. Francis went quietly in the NEC quarterfinals (and honestly they would have had Bryant not given the game away in the 2nd half) then no one is talking about Rob Krimmel's team as a top 3 or 4 squad. I have my concerns with their lack of front court depth behind Ronnie Drinnon and Earl Brown and their ability to create off the dribble with the exception of Malik Harmon. I'd be surprised if they earn a home playoff game.

As far as the underrated team is concerned, I think the Mount will be picked by the coaches to finish 6th, but I'm willing to bet they'll exceed that expectation. Sure, they lose three 1,000 point scorers (Norfleet, Whack, Prescott), but two transfers should help mitigate those losses in Chris Martin, and starting in January, Andy Smeathers. I think we'll see Christian resort back to the 40 minutes of Mayhem approach, where he has 9-11 guys in his rotation. Last year, he couldn't do that due to injuries, but this year there should be 4-6 guys averaging 9-13 PPG. 

JT: Most overrated? Central Connecticut. Having Kyle Vinales for a full season will help, but they were only basically a .500 NEC team with him in the lineup last season. Not sure they have enough yet. Most underrated? Wagner. The Seahawks have a different type of team and a lot of players to replace, but I think they'll have the right pieces. I also think that Bashir Mason has shown he knows how to coach defense. His team will grind out wins.

3) What is the early contender for "game of the year" in the NEC?

NC: I think the early game of the year will come on January 17 when St. Francis Brooklyn travels to Robert Morris. I believe these are the two best teams in the NEC this season. Both teams can play defense and rebound. Both teams have player of the year candidates on their squads. This going to be a fierce battle for forty minutes and I got to imagine the NEC is going to showcase this game on its TV package for the country to see. 

CD: Mount at Robert Morris, Saturday, January 3rd at 4pm - We kick off conference play in 2015 right where we left off in 2014. Mount and Robert Morris renew their rivalry in this championship game rematch. 

St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris, Friday, January 16th at 9pm - Possible preview of the 2015 NEC final? The Terriers and Colonials meet twice over the span of nine days in January.

JT: Game I'm most looking forward to right now is St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris on January 16. The game will be broadcast on EPSNU. If the Terriers can go to Moon Township and get the victory they'll be in the driver's seat for a title challenge.

4) Award predictions

NC: Player of the Year: Jalen Cannon – Sr., Forward, St. Francis Brooklyn
I think this will end up being a two player race between Cannon and RMU’s Lucky Jones and I believe Cannon’s numbers will be good enough to just edge out Cannon for the award. I think Cannon will lead the NEC in rebounding and score over 16 points per game. I predict he will be the first Terrier since 1999 to win the award.
Coach of the Year: Glenn Braica – St. Francis Brooklyn
Braica won this award three seasons ago when he guided the Terriers to a fourth-place finish when they were picked 11th in the preseason coaches poll. Braica has a much better team then he had then but if he gets them to a top two finish, I believe he will once again win this award.
Rookie of the Year: Nura Zanna – R-Fr., Forward – LIU Brooklyn
Zanna was a popular pick for this award last season before a wrist injury knocked him out for the entire season. He is got to sit and watch a year and now that he is healthy, I believe he will be the best freshman in what will be a pretty good NEC rookie class.
Defensive Player of the Year: Amdy Fall – Jr., Forward – St. Francis Brooklyn
Fall finished third in the NEC in blocks last season with 1.7 blocks per game. He only play 16.8 minutes per game. He had a 10 block game against Robert Morris last season in one of two games he started. His minutes will likely increase with the departure of Wayne Martin which means more blocks and rebounds for Terrier forward. If he gets starter minutes, he will get this award.
Most Improved Player: Dwaun Anderson – Jr., Guard – Wagner
I made this exact same pick last season and Anderson had another underwhelming season. Anderson has the talent and the ability but has yet to become the player everyone thought would take the NEC by storm when he showed up two seasons ago. If it doesn’t breakout this season then it is likely will never be that top line player most people thought he will be. It can’t be all about highlight dunks, his team needs him to produce and I believe he finally will this season.
CD: Player of the Year: Lucky Jones 
Coach of the Year: Andy Toole

RP: I like Lucky Jones as my Player of the Year, just because of the tremendous value he brings on both sides of the ball. Look for him to improve his scoring average from last year now that Karvel Anderson has graduated. I'll stick with Nura Zanna as my Rookie of the Year since he has the pedigree (brother Talib was an excellent player at Pitt) and the impressive blend of size, athleticism and physicality. Amdy Fall is my defensive player of the year. Only 30 players in the country had a better block rate than Fall (10.5%) last season. Look for that to continue. Finally, I'll go out on a limb and choose Sacred Heart's Evan Kelley as my Most Improved. He was a shell of himself in the 2nd half of last season after suffering a tough shoulder injury in December. Now healthy off an offseason surgery, look for him to lead the Pioneers in scoring and do it efficiently. He's one of the few guards in this league that can attack the rim at will, in my opinion.

JT: POY: Jalen Cannon, St. Francis Brooklyn
COY: I hate picking a Coach of the Year in preseason, to me it's how you perform versus expectations that makes a winner here. So I'm withholding judgment.
ROY: Nura Zanna, LIU Brooklyn. He's had a year to sit out after a wrist injury and should get a ton of opportunities.
DPOY: This might be the toughest call, but I'm going with Lucky Jones of Robert Morris. He has the ability to cover almost every position on the court in the NEC and he just makes plays defensively.
MIP: Marcus Burton, Wagner. Burton is going to go from sixth man to starter and his numbers should rise with that extra playing time. I expect a big-time scoring season from him this season.

5) Word association (as few words as possible to describe each team)

NC: BRY - "Pretenders"
CCSU - "Overrated"
FDU - "Overachievers"
LIU - "Youth"
MSM - "Dangerous"
RMU - "Tough"
SHU - "Rebuilding"
SFC - "Determined"
SFU - "Challengers"
WAG - "Time Has Passed"

RP: Robert Morris - Toughness (can they be as tough in recent years despite the recent graduations?)
St. Francis Brooklyn - Paint Dominance (they'll make their living out-rebounding and defending opponents)
Central Connecticut - Chemistry (can they finally end this period of underachievement despite their talent?)
Bryant - Athleticism (They are more athletic than ever before, which should help their porous perimeter defense)
Mount St. Mary's - Mayhem (explained above)
St. Francis PA - Consistency (can they play well against the NEC elite, last year they were 1-10 vs NEC top 5)
Wagner - Defense (they'll struggle to score, but I think Bashir Mason will have them defending at a high level)
Sacred Heart - Guard Play (they need Gaetano, Glowiak, Kelley all to have big years to sneak into NEC top 5)
LIU Brooklyn - Rebuilding (9 underclassmen on this roster, only Gerrell Martin has been on team for more than 1 yr)
FDU - Complete Rebuild (even more so than LIU)

JT: Bryant: Darkhorse
Central Connecticut: Vinales
Fairleigh Dickinson: Questionmarks
LIU Brooklyn: Rebuilding
Mount St. Mary's: MAYHEM
Sacred Heart: Fast-paced
Saint Francis University: Sleeper
St. Francis Brooklyn: Contender
Wagner: Defense

6) Shameless plug (what fans can expect from each team)

NC: BRY - Dyami Starks will have a monster season. Will not be surprised if he is the NEC's top scorer. Otherwise, the team will just be average. 
CCSU - Good starting lineup. Will win games but I don't see them as a true threat for a championship. 
FDU - Greg Herenda will have them playing hard every game. Will win a couple of games they shouldn't and could see them sneak into the NEC tournament. 
LIU - Will be fun to watch. They have a lot of youth but I think Gerrell Martin will have a tremendous season and help carry them. They got to stay healthy and need to improve their defense if they want to win games this season. 
MSM - Will play to the same formula of the first two season under Jamion Christian. Will likely start off slow, gain traction and then by February will once again be a team no one wants to play in March. 
RMU - They have both experience and good looking youth. They have a great head coach in Andy Toole. They have a great player in Lucky Jones who will be a candidate for NEC POY. They rebound, they defend, they score points. They will be a title contender once again. What's new?
SHU - Year two of the Anthony Latina era should be better than year one but I don't know if it will be significantly better. They should be better equipped with players to run the type of system Latina wants to run. 
SFC - Jalen Cannon is a beast. If Brent Jones duplicates his junior year performance then SFC has a real shot at winning their first NEC title. If Jones struggles, this team will struggle but otherwise this team will be a force. 
SFU - Return a lot of experience. Will only get better this season. Earl Brown is under rated. Ronnie Drinnon will be a terror this season and I loved watching Malik Harmon play last season. He will only get better this season. 
WAG - Unfortunately for them, their contending days are over. I like Marcus Burton, he is wonderful player. Dwaun Anderson should shine now in year three as a go-to player. Bashir Mason is a good coach and they will play hard but this could be the start of a rebuild. 

CD: Bryant: Great homecourt advantage, key to season is production from frontcourt 
Central: If healthy, Vinales finishes top two on CCSU all-time scoring list
FDU: Coach Herenda knows how to get the most out of his players. This team will compete hard night in and night out.
LIU Brooklyn: A lot of changeover, only one player remains from title team of two years ago.
Mount: Play five of final six games at home. Will count on transfers Chris Martin and Andrew Smeathers to contribute, making up for the loss of three senior starters.
Robert Morris: Only 25 conference losses over the last seven years. An incredible stretch of success that is likely to continue.
Sacred Heart: Will win more than last year’s five games, but still miss the NEC Tournament 
St. Francis Brooklyn: Improved from last year, will contend for title on the back of Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones. 
Saint Francis: Returning 94% of minutes from last year, will be sleeper for NEC title due to team cohesiveness and experience in last year’s tournament 
Wagner: Had a great run the last few years, but couldn’t get over the hump to the finals. They will still contend for a playoff spot, but might have the biggest regression in NEC wins of any team from last year.

JT: I don't know if I can do every team in the league justice, but I do want to say this, even though I'm preaching to the choir. You should watch NEC basketball. Outside of Wagner and Saint Francis U. all of these teams play athletic, relatively fast-paced, high-scoring basketball. The games are always close and there are new heroes week-to-week. The NEC is one of the best mid-major leagues to watch on a nightly basis. (And you can watch for free on NEC Front Row.) Everyone thinks they know who will make up the league's First Team will be at the end of the season (Jalen Cannon, Lucky Jones, Kyle Vinales, Dyami Starks and Earl Brown), but I'm sure something crazy is going to happen and you want to see it.

1 comment:

  1. Something crazy is going to happen this year in the NEC. Watch Marcus Burton turn this league into his own show. You saw it here first. Marcus Burton will be the surprise NEC Player of Year 2015. Moadams