|Northeast Conference Outlook|
|By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Basketball Editor|
OUTLOOK: Long Island enters the 2012-13 campaign with hopes of becoming the first Northeast Conference team to win three consecutive league titles, and the Blackbirds have an awfully good shot at pulling off that feat. After beating Robert Morris in each of the last two NEC championship games, LIU head coach Jim Ferry took the open job at Duquesne and was replaced by assistant Jack Perri. Perhaps that transition will open the door for Robert Morris, which has played in four straight NEC title tilts, to finally crash through. After all, the Colonials do lead all mid-majors with 117 victories over the last five years.
While those two squads figure to once again be among the last teams standing in the conference, there are plenty of interesting storylines elsewhere. In addition to Perri, three other new coaches join the NEC. Bashir Mason inherits a very favorable situation at Wagner, where the 28-year-old becomes the youngest head coach in Division I. Jamion Christian, who is just two years older than Mason, takes over at Mount St. Mary's, while Rob Krimmel steps into a rebuilding job at St. Francis-PA.
Don't sleep on Quinnipiac, as the Bobcats will turn to a promising frontcourt to replace former leading scorer James Johnson. St. Francis-NY, Monmouth and Sacred Heart could also figure in the mix. Of the rest of the schools, Central Connecticut State has some key holes to fill but plenty of young talent to do it with, while Bryant and Fairleigh Dickinson combined for just five wins a year ago.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Long Island
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Long Island, 2. Robert Morris, 3. Wagner, 4. Quinnipiac, 5. St. Francis-NY, 6. Sacred Heart, 7. Monmouth, 8. Central Connecticut State, 9. Mount St. Mary's, 10. Bryant, 11. Fairleigh Dickinson, 12. St. Francis-PA
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
LIU was picked to finish first in last year's coaches poll, and the Blackbirds went on to win the NEC Tournament for the second consecutive season, even advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Over the last two years, they have won a conference-record 32 NEC games and enter the 2012-13 campaign riding a 27-game home win streak, the second longest in the nation behind Kentucky. Former coach Jim Ferry took the head coaching job at Duquesne back in April, and assistant Jack Perri was promoted to take Ferry's place. Look for Perri to stay with the team's up-tempo style that produced the nation's second-ranked scoring offense (81.4 ppg). Julian Boyd, the reigning NEC Player of the Year, and all-conference selections Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman return, making the Blackbirds a strong candidate to three-peat for the first time in league history. Senior forwards Boyd (17.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Olasewere (16.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) are both highly-efficient scorers. Boyd, who is on pace to become the NEC's all-time leading rebounder, led the conference with 14 double-doubles in 2011-12 and was named NEC Tournament MVP. The athletic 6-7 Olasewere is a matchup nightmare, while point guard Brickman (9.6 ppg, 7.3 apg, .406 3ptr) has led the conference in assists in each of his first two seasons. Third-leading scorer CJ Garner (12.6 ppg) also returns to the backcourt.
The Colonials figure to once again have something to say about who wins the league crown this season. After all, they have played in each of the last four NEC title games (winning two) and are primed to be a contender yet again. Third-year head coach Andy Toole returns the top seven scorers from last season's squad that set a new school record with 26 victories, including a nation-high 14 road wins. It all starts with senior All-NEC guard Velton Jones, who averaged a team-best 16.0 ppg and was fourth in the conference with 4.5 assists per tilt. Jones also went to the foul line a conference-most 270 times. He is joined in the backcourt by junior Coron Williams (10.8 ppg), who buried a league-high 87 3-pointers (.410). On the wing, athletic sophomore Lucky Jones returns after averaging 8.5 points and a team-best 6.1 rebounds off the bench to earn NEC All-Rookie honors. Junior Anthony Myers, a 40.7- percent shooter from beyond the arc, adds depth at point guard. Down low, senior Lijah Thompson (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and junior Mike McFadden (8.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) roam the paint along with senior small forward Russell Johnson (8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg). Juco transfer Vaughn Morgan (6-6) could also work his way into the frontcourt rotation.
The Seahawks won a school-record 25 games last season, including a seismic road win over Big East school Pittsburgh. Four starters return, although the pressure will be squarely on 28-year-old Bashir Mason, who was promoted from assistant to head coach, replacing Dan Hurley. The foundation is certainly in place for a successful 2012-13 season, as Second-Team All-NEC guard Latif Rivers returns after averaging 14.6 points and knocking down 59 three-pointers. Rivers, who has shown a knack for making clutch plays, ranked second in the conference in free-throw percentage (.884). Junior point guard Kenny Ortiz won NEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, finishing in the top- five in the NEC in both steals (second, 1.8) and assists (fifth, 4.3). Michigan State transfer Dwaun Anderson can play multiple positions and will be a welcome addition. Small forward Jonathon Williams returns after averaging 13.4 ppg and a team-best 5.0 rpg, while junior center Naofall Folahan is back after pacing the conference with 1.7 blocks per game.
The Bobcats are coming off an 18-win season (10-8 NEC) and a third straight postseason appearance, but they'll need to replace two-time All-NEC guard and leading scorer James Johnson. Head coach Tom Moore, who is entering his sixth season at the helm, does return a potent frontcourt featuring 6-7 junior forward Ike Azotam. Last year as a sophomore, Azotam led the conference in rebounding (9.5 rpg) and double-doubles (14), and he was second on the team with 15.8 ppg to earn Second-Team All-NEC honors. Joining Azotam once again on the front line are 6-9 sophomore center Ousmane Drame and 6-7 senior forward Jamee Jackson. Drame was an All-Rookie selection after averaging 6.5 points and 7.3 rebounds despite playing less than 20 minutes per contest. Jackson fought through injuries to average 8.4 points and 5.1 boards. Behind that trio, Quinnipiac ranked second nationally in rebound margin (+10.2) behind only North Carolina. In the backcourt, senior point guard Dave Johnson (8.8 ppg, 3.7 apg) is flanked by promising sophomore Zaid Hearst (7.2 ppg), while Garvey Young (5.9 ppg) and newcomers Kendrick Ray and Tariq Carey will likely figure into coach Moore's rotation.
The Bobcats have won 20 games or more in each of the last two seasons, and will have the roster do to it again this season. Quinnipiac has seven starters back, including two starters from 2010-11 in James Johnson and Jamee Jackson. Johnson has started for three years for head coach Tom Moore, and is one of the league's best players. Johnson averaged 16.1 points and 3.5 assists per game as a junior last season, and was a accurate three point shooter (37.3). Johnson averaged 2.6 three-pointers per game. Although the Bobcats must replace Justin Nutty down low, Jackson is a go-to player on the block, where he averaged 6.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game a year ago. Sophomore Ike Azotam gives the frontcourt nice depth, as he averaged 5.1 points and 5.4 boards last season.
ST. FRANCIS (NY)
The Terriers weren't expected to make a whole lot of noise last year, but they turned some heads by starting 9-2 in league play and hosting a NEC tournament game for the first time since 2004. Now, they are eyeing up their first-ever NEC title. Glenn Braica, who was named the NEC Coach of the Year, brings back nearly all of the key components from last year's squad. It all starts in the paint with Jalen Cannon (8.8 ppg), who earned NEC All-Rookie honors after a remarkable freshman campaign. Cannon's 8.8 rebounds per game were second-most among freshman across the country behind Kentucky's Anthony Davis. With Cannon roaming the blocks, St. Francis- NY established a reputation as one of the conference's top rebounding teams. Senior Akeem Johnson is another skilled forward, as he shot an impressive 57.4 percent from the floor while averaging 11.1 ppg. Sharpshooter Stefan Perunicic has moved on, but the Terriers still have a few shooters in tow. Ben Mockford, who led the team in scoring with 11.8 ppg last season, knocked down a league- best 2.8 three-pointers per game. Travis Nichols shot 40.7 percent from the perimeter and averaged 9.3 ppg. At point guard, senior Dre Calloway returns after missing nearly the entire 2011-12 season with a shoulder injury, and he'll be flanked in the backcourt by sophomore Brent Jones (7.9 ppg, 3.9 apg).
Coming off a 14-18 season, the Pioneers will likely go as far as senior All-NEC guard Shane Gibson takes them. Gibson was the nation's fourth-leading scorer a year ago (22.0 ppg), as he shot an ultra-efficient 51 percent from the floor and knocked down a league-high 87 3-pointers (.433). Put simply, there isn't much that Gibson can't do on the basketball court. An 86 percent free-throw shooter, he also averaged 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game last season. Fellow guards Chris Evans (8.1 ppg), Louis Montes (7.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Evan Kelley (7.3 ppg) all logged heavy minutes last year as sophomores, and 35th-year head coach Dave Bike is hopeful they'll each continue to progress. Likewise, point guard Phil Gaetano led the team with 4.0 apg last year as a freshman. Bike added some size in the offseason to try and create better spacing for Gibson, as 6-6 De'Aires Tate and 6-7 Tevin Falzon are new to the fold. Justin Swidowski, a 6-9 senior, averaged 11.1 points and a team-best 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor.
The Hawks (12-20, 10-8) are coming off their best season in the NEC since 2005-06, and more success could be in store this winter. King Rice has plenty of talent on the roster and it starts in the backcourt with speedy senior Jesse Steele, who averaged a team-high 12.6 ppg and knocked down 62- of-177 trifectas (.350). Dion Nesmith (8.8 ppg) can also stretch the floor, as he shot an impressive 38.4 percent (38-of-99) from beyond the arc. Nesmith and 6-6 swingman Andrew Nicholas tied for second on the team in scoring, and both are back. Down low, seniors Ed Waite (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Marcus Ware (6.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg) roam the paint, although Rice would like to see some more scoring from his frontcourt. Freshmen Tyrone O'Garro (6-5) and Collin Stewart (6-7) could work their way into the forward mix. After posting a minus-8.7 scoring margin, Rice believes he has the players to now open up the offense a bit, but that will also hinge on converting more high-percentage looks from the paint.
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE
The Blue Devils finished in the middle of the pack last season (13-16, 10-8 NEC), and now they'll have to try and replace former NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton as well as 1,500-point scorer Robby Ptacek. Still, if anyone is up to the challenge, it is longtime head coach Howie Dickenman. The departures of Horton and Ptacek open the door for sophomore guard Kyle Vinales to become CCSU's primary offensive option. The reigning NEC Rookie of the Year was named the league's rookie of the week a record eight times last season, but the training wheels are now off and Vinales will be asked to carry the scoring load. No freshman in the nation scored better than his 17.9 ppg last season, as Vinales proved deadly from long range (71-of-184) and adept at finding open teammates (3.6 apg). Fellow guard Malcolm McMillan is also looking to take a step forward in his sophomore campaign after leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.02) as a rookie. CCSU is a bit thin down low, but 6-7 freshman Brandon Peel could provide an immediate spark.
MOUNT ST. MARY'S
After finishing 8-21 overall and 6-12 in the conference, the school hired 30-year-old Jamion Christian to replace Robert Burke as head coach. Christian, who previously served as an assistant under Shaka Smart at VCU, played at Mount St. Mary's from 2000-04 and was a three-year captain. Christian had a solid first recruiting class, and Marist transfer Sam Prescott and George Mason transfer Rashad Whack are now eligible, which should make for some interesting competition. Christian plans to shift from the team's familiar slow-paced, defensive style to a more open and up-tempo style. He certainly has the players to pull off such a switch. Junior guard Julian Norfleet led the Mountaineers with 13.7 ppg while knocking down a team-high 69 threes (.373). Norfleet's range provides a nice complement to point guard Josh Castellanos (8.1 ppg), who ranked third in the NEC with 4.6 apg. Rounding out the starting backcourt is former walk-on Kelvin Parker, who came out of nowhere to average 9.0 points and 4.6 rebounds last year as a freshman, also hitting 43 percent from beyond the arc. Raven Barber (9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Kristijan Krajina (5.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg) return to the frontcourt.
Despite winning only two games last season, things are starting to look up for the Bulldogs and fifth-year head coach Tim O'Shea. Junior Alex Francis remains the focal point. The 6-6 forward followed up his NEC Rookie of the Year campaign by averaging 17.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last year as a sophomore, both of which ranked in the top-10 in the NEC. In addition to Francis, the team returns double-digit scorers Frankie Dobbs (13.3 ppg) and Corey Maynard (11.4 ppg). The senior point guard Dobbs finished second in the league with 4.6 assists per game, while Maynard, a junior guard, hit 40 percent of his three-point attempts in 2011-12. Complementing those veterans are seven newcomers, headlined by Columbia transfer Dynami Starks. Another transfer, 6-4 guard Joe O'Shea (Holy Cross), can hit from long range. He is also coach O'Shea's nephew. All in all, the Bulldogs appear poised to make a significant leap in the win column, although they may still be another year or two away from contending for the NEC crown.
After posting only three wins last season, fourth-year coach Greg Vetrone is hoping for a spark from any of his six newcomers. Transfers Yves Jules (Hofstra) and Mustafaa Jones (Hartford) add some depth to the backcourt, while 6-6 freshman Xavier Harris could crack the frontcourt rotation. Just how much those newcomers are ready to contribute remains to be see. However, the backcourt remains a strength with the return of top scorers Melquan Bolding (15.1 ppg) and Lonnie Hayes (13.0 ppg, 4.1 apg). Bolding is a strong ballhandler, although his team-high 38 three-pointers came on only 29- percent accuracy. He'll move back to the two-guard spot to make room for point guard Hayes, whose season was cut short due to a broken foot after 11 games. Another guard, Lonnie Robinson (6.9 ppg), knocked down 35.4 percent of his attempts from long range and will resume his role stretching opposing defenses. Down low is 6-6 senior Kinu Rochford, who averaged 9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting a healthy 56 percent from the field.
ST. FRANCIS (PA)
After a disappointing six-win campaign, the school hired former player Rob Krimmel (1996-2000) to become the new head coach and try to rebuild the program. With 11 underclassmen on the roster, Krimmel will need some time to see what he can do. Still, the cupboard is not entirely bare at St. Francis-PA. Guard Umar Shannon was a Second-Team All-NEC pick two years ago as a sophomore, and his hopes for a breakout season last year were shattered by a knee injury in the opener against VCU. Shannon, who had 26 points before suffering the injury, averaged a team-best 15.8 ppg and made 68 three-pointers in 2010-11. With Shannon unavailable last season, senior Anthony Ervin shot 37.6 percent from the perimeter (38-of-101) and averaged 11.2 points. Elsewhere in the backcourt, sophomores Stephon Whyatt (9.2 ppg) and Ollie Jackson (6.3 ppg) look to build off solid rookie seasons and continue to knock down shots from outside. Down low, the Red Flash are razor- thin. Sophomore Earl Brown (6.0 ppg) showed some promise last season, but coach Krimmel will likely have to rely on some freshmen for minutes.