Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mason leads up-and-coming Wagner into battle in wide-open NEC

Bashir Mason enters fourth season at Wagner with roster that reminds him of Dan Hurley's team he served as an assistant on. (Photo courtesy of the Staten Island Advance)

Already deemed to be the unpredictable league it usually is, the Northeast Conference prognostications have already come rolling in, with several winners among those who have weighed in. Some believe Robert Morris has what it takes to become the NEC's first repear champion since LIU Brooklyn won three straight from 2011-13. Speaking of the Blackbirds, those around Brooklyn are as bullish as head coach Jack Perri is of their chances to be a contender. Others feel that Mount St. Mary's, who returns nearly everyone from last year's team, is just as safe a bet to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Saint Francis University and St. Francis Brooklyn, the regular season champion that came tantalizingly close to a first-ever conference championship last March, are also potential dark horses, and so too is the league representative from Staten Island.

Wagner may not be receiving national attention just yet, but what the Seahawks lack in eyes fixated on their roster, they more than make up for with enormous upside and a hungry group of players whose biggest benefit was getting a wealth of much-needed experience that made a 10-20 season much more manageable than their record let on.

"They really reminded me of the team I had in my first year with Danny (Hurley)," head coach Bashir Mason said in assessing his players and their performance last season. "That year, we just threw Latif Rivers out there, Orlando Parker, Naofall (Folahan). They started every game for us, (and) year two, they were like juniors."

The rebuild from a program that was built for the long haul before Hurley took over at Rhode Island was mitigated in large part by the continuity of Rivers, Parker, Folahan, and Kenny Ortiz as well, with the Southern Mississippi transfer not only running the Wagner offense adeptly, but also winning an unprecedented three consecutive NEC Defensive Player of the Year awards. In their place, the Seahawks have a new "core four," so to speak, their backcourt troika of Corey Henson, Romone Saunders and JoJo Cooper, all of whom enter their sophomore seasons alongside Dwaun Anderson, who is finally healthy again as he heads into his senior campaign.

Although Mason would not commit to a starting five at the present moment, he is anticipating Cooper entering the season opener as the starting point guard after a rookie season that saw the Delaware native average four assists per game. He will be balanced by the proficient shooting of Henson and Saunders in the backcourt, the latter of whom made highlight reels with his two separate four-point plays against Rider last December. On the wing, Anderson returns to salvage a career headlined by mounds of hype, but tragically marred by injuries in each of his three years following his transfer from Michigan State, with junior college transfer Michael Carey; who has drawn positive reviews from Mason during the offseason, there to spell him if need be. Sophomore Aaren Edmead will also be in the mix for minutes as the Seahawks adjust to life without four-year stalwart Marcus Burton, as will incoming freshman Devin Liggeons of Philadelphia.

Up front, the Seahawks may be looked at as a question mark based solely on their lack of playing time together, but what critics view as a high-risk unit, Mason considers a high reward. Playing a full season for the first time since his transfer from Rhode Island, Mike Aaman is viewed as a first team all-NEC player by Mason, who feels the lengthy 6-8 forward can make an impact seldom seen in his guard-heavy league. The New Jersey native is joined by newcomer Henry Brooks, who arrives from Penn with one year of eligibility. "He's been a pleasant surprise," said Mason of his graduate transfer. "I could see him starting at the four for us." Junior Greg Senat and sophomore Japhet Kadji will see significant playing time along with junior college swingman Marquis Salmon, and AJ Sumbry will serve his NCAA-mandated year in residence after transferring from Quinnipiac.

Wagner will be tested early with the likes of St. John's, Seton Hall and George Mason on a schedule that Mason has stated is "as good as it's ever been" in his time on Grymes Hill. As far as what fans can expect, the coach had this to say:

"I think we're really long, really athletic," he revealed. "I think we're going to play really fast. I won't let it out of the bag, but we'll be a little different defensively than what coaches have seen from us. I'm excited about this group."

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