NEW YORK — Everyone is undefeated.
That is one of the highlights of these get-togethers and a reason everyone seems upbeat.
The Northeast Conference held its own on Wednesday at Barclays Center with head coaches and players from each of the eleven member schools in attendance. Naturally, that feeling of optimism was significantly in the air. No matter what the prognosticators say, there is a positive vibe all around.
While LIU got the nod from the league coaches as the preseason favorite, the general consensus is that five or six teams can break through and cut down the nets in March. Parity was the key word tossed about as NEC coaches discussed the race. Saint Francis University coach Rob Krimmel was even more specific, noting how his top-seeded Red Flash barely got past eighth-seeded Bryant in the NEC quarterfinals this past March. Central Connecticut coach Donyell Marshall feels the foundation of these preseason polls is returning players.
“A lot of times, they look at rosters and see how you finished last year and how many starters and players are coming back,” Marshall noted. “The newcomers are often overlooked and those freshmen or transfers can have an impact.” Marshall’s outlook is positive, as seven freshmen enter the program for this season. He did add the obvious: The Blue Devils want to surprise. How they do it is another matter.
“Last year (a long 11-20), we had too many people trying to win by themselves,” he recounted. “This year, we are trying to share the ball on offense and try to play as a team.” With all the new faces on board, that is a challenge Marshall seems to embrace.
Jared Grasso is not against March Madness, he just embraces the whole picture. Very often, we hear about the first week in March when discussing the Northeast Conference. As a one-bid league, it comes down to those all-important conference postseason tournament games. Grasso is not totally sold on that concept. The Bryant coach realizes the importance of the tournament, but there is much more.
“For us, we try to emphasize being ready for every game,” Grasso said, “be at our best for each game, not be concerned about a few months later. You want to play your best late in the season, but we do not lose sight of now. For us, we want to be at our best when we face Brown on November 5.”
As is the case in recent seasons, Sacred Heart will play an uptempo style. That approach is something Anthony Latina enjoys and has employed during his days at the Connecticut school. Entering this campaign, Latina has an added weapon capable of allowing the Pioneers to run the NEC table, a serious rim protector in 6-foot-10 senior Jare’l Spellman, a shotblocker with game-changing abilities.
“Early last season we really didn’t use him as well as we could,” Latina admitted. “The second half of the season, he came up big for us. This year, right from the beginning, we know what he’s going to do.” Spellman had an 11.9 percent block percentage, good for twelfth nationally in KenPom ratings.
FDU gained a few first place votes in the coaches’ poll. A repeat could be tough for the reigning champions, with the losses of Mike Holloway up front and Darnell Edge in the backcourt. This is far from a rebuild and the Knights will be a tough out. Coach Greg Herenda does have a good mix of veterans and new faces. Jahlil Jenkins is back at the guard spot. Another major cog for FDU will be Kaleb Bishop. At 6-foot-8, the senior forward is an inside presence especially on the boards. Bishop also has the versatility to step out and bury the three. Beyond those tangibles, Herenda is looking for leadership from Bishop.
“Senior leadership is vital,” Herenda said. “We have a lot of young players and look for Kaleb to provide that direction and leadership.”
On the FDU schedule are non-conference meetings at Notre Dame and Kentucky.
“We played Arizona my first year here,” Herenda said. “We have always gone out of conference for some tough competition. It’s a challenge and gets us ready for the start of conference play in January.”
Elaborating on the last point, a common denominator was member schools beefing up their non-league slates. And it is not about collecting a hefty check.
“We will open at Georgetown and also play Kentucky,” said Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad. “We are not there for a payday. We are going in with our best effort. It’s great to have our kids get exposure to that level of a program, but we are going in to run what we normally run and we will be there to compete.”
LIU will visit national championship runner-up Texas Tech in November.
“That’s great scheduling,” laughed Derek Kellogg, head coach of the newly-christened Sharks. “Actually, it’s a great barometer to see how we stand facing a Final Four team. It gives us a great indication of where we stand as a team.”
Defense was another priority among the coaches’ discussions. To a coach, they all prominently mentioned defense in their team assessments.
“Defense is always our first concern,” said Wagner’s Bashir Mason, “this year more than ever, as we have so many players to replace.”
While Mason realizes the Seahawks will dop a bit from the rarefied air of contenders he did add, “we want you to play very well if you are going to beat us.”
Many of the coaches favor the traditional man-to-man defense. A newcomer to the league, Joey Gallo of Merrimack is sold on the zone.
“We play an extended 2-3 zone,” he said. “We want to come out, be aggressive and challenge the three-point line. We do not want you to be comfortable running your offense.”
FINAL THOUGHTS AND QUOTES
“Right now, our practice are very competitive. The way we want to play is uptempo on both ends of the floor. We are still working on that and by mid-conference, I expect us to be a very good full court pressing team.” - Derek Kellogg, LIU
“We are good in some areas — not as good in some — but I think we can be a better team. We will spread things out more this year. Rather than one shooter, we have several that can hit those shots.” - Glenn Braica, St. Francis Brooklyn
“So far, we have had good competition in practice. Each day, guys come to work with intensity. I think a lot of that is due to Josh Williams. He raises the overall intensity level with his presence.” - Andy Toole, Robert Morris