Monday, October 22, 2012

Conference Calling's 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 Northeast Conference Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9. 


The Northeast Conference race had a wrench thrown in the gears last month when prospective league favorite Long Island University at Brooklyn saw four players, including three starters, involved in an on-campus fight. Expulsions were initially feared, but the resulting suspensions are relatively minor.

The players will miss the Blackbirds' first two NEC games, Jan. 3 at Sacred Heart and Jan. 5 at Quinnipiac. Considering that Quinnipiac is a dark horse contender and SHU has one of the league's top players in guard Shane Gibson, those games could prove pivotal in a race that's a little tighter than LIU might be used to.

But can Robert Morris or Wagner, or anyone else, break the Blackbirds' hold on TBI's No. 19 conference?

Read on after the jump.

1. Robert Morris
--Told you those first two LIU games would be pivotal. It says here that Long Island drops one of those, if not both, and then will need to beat RMU in their one meeting (Jan. 31, if you want to set the DVR now) to at least have a tiebreaker. Because while LIU lost only one starter, so did Bob Morris.

RMU point guard Velton Jones is Mr. Primetime for the Colonials, turning his game up another notch when it's most critical. A 12-PPG career scorer, Jones averages nearly 15 in his nine career NEC tournament games, along with 4.3 APG and two SPG. He put in 33 points, 12 assists and five steals in his two meetings with LIU, and he helped hold Ohio's D.J. Cooper to 3-of-17 shooting in a Morris win on January 2. Yes, the same D.J. Cooper that became a national darling when Ohio made the Sweet 16 last March. Moral of the story is that if Velton Jones can ever shoot better than 40% from the floor, he may well be the best player in the NEC.

His backcourt mate, 6'2" junior Coron Williams, finished first in the league in threes made and fourth in percentage, meaning don't even think about sagging off of him to trap Jones. He scored 25 on Monmouth in the NEC tournament first round and also dropped 17 on Toledo in the CIT. He did struggle with inconsistency and occasional foul trouble late in the year.

The backups will be junior Anthony Myers at the point and juco import Karvel Anderson (6'2", 190). Anderson threw in almost 25 PPG at Glen Oaks (Mich.) CC, making 43% from deep in the process. His presence will help keep Williams from wearing down in February. Myers has been a 5-3-3 man over his first two seasons, making 14 starts. He also drilled 40% from long range last season, a major improvement over 24% as a freshman.

Up front is where the Colonials get Lucky. That's as in Lucious "Lucky" Jones, a 6'5" swingman who played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony's (N.J.). Lucky was named to's Freshman All-American squad after averaging 8.5 PPG and 6.1 RPG. He could have been All-NEC if he played Monmouth every night. In three meetings with the Hawks, Jones averaged 12.3 points and 9.3 boards. He struggled with his jumper, making only 39% from the floor and 27% from deep, but his 47.2 FTR (that's (FTA/FGA)*100) helps explain some of the misses. Dude loves to get fouled, what can we say?

Seniors Russell Johnson (6'6", 180) and Lijah Thompson (6'7", 215) join Lucky up front. Thompson may be the one man on the RMU roster that doesn't fancy himself a three-point gunner, and that shot selection helped him shoot 46% from the floor. He's also established himself as a strong offensive rebounder, foul shooter and shot blocker. Johnson likes to drift out to the arc, so he's not as much of an offensive glass-eater, but on the defensive boards, he's hard to outwork.

Junior Mike McFadden, formerly of Iona, started 26 games after becoming eligible at the semester break. While not a consistent scorer (partially thanks to his 52% foul shooting), McFadden did put in yeoman work on the boards, finishing third on the team behind Lucky Jones and Johnson. McFadden did end the year strong, though, recording 20 points and seven rebounds in the CIT loss to Fairfield.

More depth comes from a couple of new faces. Juco Vaughn Morgan, a Pittsburgh native, averaged 16.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG and 3.3 BPG at Southwestern (Tex.) Christian College. The 6'6" 235-pounder is a noted post defender, which will come in handy against some of the NEC's skilled power forwards. Freshman Stephen Hawkins (6'9", 205) averaged almost 12 and 8 last season.

The Colonials made their name defensively last season, leading the NEC in scoring defense. That helped offset the fact that the team made less than 42% from the floor. Only Bryant and Fairleigh Dickinson shot worse, and they combined for five wins all season. That defense can't stop shutting opponents down, since it's unlikely guys like Velton Jones, Coron Williams and Karvel Anderson will stop shooting.

2. LIU-Brooklyn
----RMU and LIU play nearly polar-opposite games. Long Island was second in Ken Pomeroy's 2012 adjusted tempo rankings, Morris ranked 277th. RMU led the NEC in scoring defense, LIU finished dead last. Yes, these two statistics are related. But, we can hear the question now: LIU still won the league, so why be so concerned about their defense?

Because Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart can score. Without Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and C.J. Garner, we're not totally sure LIU can score at the level to which they're accustomed, hence the above projection of at least one loss in these two games. That one game will make all the difference at season's end.

Boyd and Olasewere are both nearly guaranteed All-NEC first-teamers, two of the league's top four returning scorers and rebounders. Both shot over 55% from the floor and sported TS%'s over .622. Olasewere also ranked in the NEC's top 10 in steals and blocks. You think they'll be missed in January?

Garner is a combo guard who used to play the point before Jason Brickman showed up, but playing at the two helped him settle down offensively and focus on his shot. His foul shooting jumped by 17 points from his sophomore year. He can continue being a reliable double-figure scorer as long as those foul shots keep falling, as he's likely to keep attacking the rim (career FTR of .544). He'll be missed, too.

The only starter who'll be available all conference season is the aforementioned Brickman, packing one of the most unfortunate names a basketball player can carry. Thankfully for Long Island fans, Brickman defies his name with .448/.406/.821 shooting percentages last season. Providence's Vincent Council is the only returning player who averaged more assists last season. Brickman will need to play to All-American levels to pull the Birds through the suspensions.

Senior Kenny Onyechi provides the interior muscle behind the flash of Boyd and Olasewere. If he's fully healthy after struggling with a nagging foot injury last season, he may rival the two stars on the glass and free them to pursue even more shooting opportunities.

Backcourt depth is a bit more experienced than the frontcourt. Senior Brandon Thompson, a former Arizona State Sun Devil, shot 32% from deep and drained three bombs in the NEC quarters against Sacred Heart, helping the Birds pull away late. Sophomore Gerrell Martin saw sparse playing time last year, but did score 13 points early in the season against Penn State.

Senior forward Booker Hucks had the same problem as Martin, playing only five minutes per game last season. When he was in, he was an effective rebounder and finisher around the basket. Freshman E.J. Reed (6'6", 200) has been compared to Olasewere in his versatility.

All of this going on, and we haven't even mentioned the LIU coaching chair. Jim Ferry built the program to its current state, then headed off hoping to do the same at Duquesne. Longtime assistant Jack Perri will look to keep continuity, and should have better luck at that than an external hire.

The non-conference slate will be critical for Perri to find his rotation and also discover the guys who will fill in most effectively while his stars are out in January. If those bodies are on the roster, LIU might still beat Morris to the finish line. It'll be a close race either way.

3. Wagner
--Eight of the top 10 Seahawks return, and a newcomer from a high-profile program enhances the roster for first-time coach Bashir Mason. There may not be another new coach in America with a better chance at a conference title in his debut.

Wagner may pack the NEC's best backcourt, led by juniors Latif Rivers and Kenny Ortiz. Rivers is a reliable scorer, one of the top 10 returnees in the NEC. He can struggle with consistency, and the Hawks often struggle with him. Four of Wagner's six losses last year came when Rivers shot .333 or less from the floor, including a pair of losses to LIU where he shot 10-for-35 (.286).

Ortiz won NEC Defender of the Year and was one of the league's top playmakers. He ranked second in the league in steals, fifth in assists and eighth in A/T ratio. 6'6" swingman Jonathon Williams can slide into the backcourt, where he will create enormous mismatches. Williams led the team in rebounding at five per game and finished top-10 in the league with a .534 FG%.

Williams may not need to play much guard this year if Michigan State transfer Dwaun Anderson is everything he's supposed to be. Anderson was a top-100 recruit when he signed with the Spartans, but left without playing a game. The 6'4" 200-pounder is a superb athlete and scorer who also averaged 3.3 steals per game as a high school senior.

As if they need extra depth, sophomore Marcus Burton can play either guard spot and freshmen Eric Fanning (6'4", 205) and Langston Burnett (6'5", 210) provide more athleticism and size.

The frontcourt brings back yeoman experience, led by 6'11" junior Naofall Folahan. Folahan is the league's best shot-blocker (2nd and 1st in his two seasons) and one of its top offensive rebounders. Folahan's classmate, 6'8" Orlando Parker, was a bench presence after starting as a freshman. He can be relied on for some strong rebounding himself if he can stay out of foul trouble (6.8 per 40 last year).

Sophomore Mario Moody (6'7", 210) got into the rotation as conference play began and rewarded the coaches with double-doubles against LIU and Bryant.

Fifth-year senior Josh Thompson nearly opened last season with his own dub-dub, going for 14 and 9 against Princeton. A sure sign that he's upped his game from last year is that at this season's opening festivities, he posterized both his parents, not just his mom:

Lucky he didn't kill himself doing it, but he finished the dunk.

Wagner's the third leg of the barstool in the NEC, and has every capability of catching LIU and Morris. If the players fit well in Mason's system, the Northeast will put on another strong race at season's end.

4. Sacred Heart
--You can't put together any shortlist of NEC Player of the Year candidates without having Shane Gibson's name on it. The nation's fifth-leading scorer last year nearly beat Mount St. Mary's singlehandedly by scoring 41 points on them in January. He broke 30 four times, 20 on 22 occasions and was held below 10 never. Only three times all season did he shoot less than 40 percent.

Without Gibson, SHU would struggle to win a game. With him, they have the ability to secure a home first-round game in the NEC's unique playoff. The Pioneers could do worse than to emulate the LIU method of just outscoring kids, and coach Dave Bike is reportedly open to the idea.

Gibson will need some support, and he gets fairly reliable help from 6'9" senior Justin Swidowski. Swidowski's an effective rebounder and shot blocker who can score inside and out (13-of-30 from deep). His problem is in avoiding whistles. He had 13 games of four or five fouls last season, restricting his minutes and placing more pressure on Gibson. He struggled with a shoulder injury and his own 215-pound frame. Better health and some weight room work could make him an all-conference candidate.

Point guard duo Evan Kelley and Phil Gaetano aren't big scoring threats, but they can't be ignored, either. The two combined for 11.6 points, 6.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last year. Kelley could make improvements on finishing at the basket, making it that much harder for defenses to double Gibson.

Swingmen Louis Montes (6'4", 220) and Chris Evans (6'3", 210) can help tremendously if Evans is recovered from offseason knee surgery and Montes can show up to work every night. Evans racked up eight double-figure nights last season. Montes could be alternately dominant, as he was in racking a combined 49-and-19 in consecutive January games, or invisible, as he was in the very next game against Wagner, where he scored three points on 0-for-6 shooting.

There's talent on the Pioneer roster, but the team will go as far as Shane Gibson can carry them. SHU allowed more threes than any team in the NEC, and the .358 percentage they surrendered will need to decrease this season. If that defense tightens, the 5-8 record in close games will improve, and a winning season could easily be in the cards.

5. Quinnipiac
--The Bobcats can do all the dirty work, making opponents work hard with their defense and rebounding. Quinnipiac's issue, though, may be shooting. While the team was fourth in the NEC in scoring offense and defense, it ended up sixth in FG%, eighth on threes, and dead last from the foul line.

Coach Tom Moore has to find shooters if 6'7" junior stud Ike Azotam is to fulfill his All-NEC potential. Azotam still had a great sophomore year, making second-team all-conference after averaging a near-double-double. He led the league in rebounding and came top-10 in scoring and blocks.

Azotam led a front-line wrecking crew on the glass. QU led the nation in offensive rebounds, and their total boards and margin trailed only North Carolina. But is it even worse that a team pulling that many offensive rebounds still couldn't post a respectable shooting percentage? Putbacks? Anyone? Bueller?

Senior Jamee Jackson and sophomore Ousmane Drame, 6'7" and 6'9" respectively, were also voracious glass-eaters. Drame averaged 6.5 and 7.2 last season despite playing less than 20 minutes per game. Jackson missed half the season with injuries, but was still a strong presence on the offensive glass and a reliable finisher in the paint.

Drame and Azotam both struggled with fouls, but burly 6'8" sophomores Marquis Bennett and Justin Harris will provide extra girth. Neither played a lot, but their size will be hard for other NEC teams to fight.

The backcourt is spearheaded by senior point guard Dave Johnson and off-guards Garvey Young (6'5", 196) and Zaid Hearst (6'4", 190). Johnson helped QU lead the league in A/T ratio with his 1.5, finishing in the top 10 in both that category and APG. He's improved his three-point shooting to around 35%, but still has issues finishing in traffic.

Young and Hearst are both versatile players who don't live outside the arc. Young is a former America East all-defensive teamer at Vermont who needs better health after a shoulder injury bothered him last season. Hearst could be the player who steps up in scoring after a season spent deferring to and playing behind All-NEC guard James Johnson. He ended the season on a hot streak, averaging 12.5 and 6.5 over the last six games.

Freshmen James Ford and juco transfer Shaquille Shannon are expected to provide shooting depth. Shannon shot 56% from deep at Connors JC, while Ford was an 18.5-PPG man in his senior season.

Freshman point guards Kendrick Ray and Tariq Carey can face off to back up Johnson. Carey is another one off the St. Anthony's assembly line, playing there as a senior.

6. St. Francis (NY)
--The Terriers weren't expected to be good to begin with last season, with most projections having them struggling to escape the cellar. Then they lost their point guard, and the sky was supposed to fall. So, the remaining players decided it would be cool to finish fourth and confound everybody. So they did.

This year, the point guard in question, Dre Calloway, is back after being granted an extra year of eligibility, and SFNY wants to send him off big. Calloway was off to a decent start, but was struggling at the foul line and with ball security. It may not be out of line to suggest that sophomore Brent Jones should start at the point instead.

Jones matched or bettered Calloway in every category, finishing among the league leaders in assists, steals and recording a positive A/T ratio, something that Calloway was unable to do.

Neither Jones nor Calloway are superb outside shooters, but junior guard Ben Mockford and senior forward Travis Nichols are close. Mockford has the two-guard spot practically to himself this season after splitting shots with the graduated Stefan Perunicic. His 34% three-point stroke ranked him in the league's top 10.

Nichols was one of the team's most efficient shooters, sporting a .576 TS% and leading the team from the foul line. He spent a lot of time as a stretch-four despite only standing 6'4". In a guard-heavy league like the NEC, you can get away with such things.

Coach Glenn Braica needed more shooters and guard depth, and he found 6'4" juco transfer Aleksandar Isailovic and 6'2" freshman Anthony White. White will likely become Calloway's replacement next season, and Isailovic is expected to replace Perunicic's 42% three-point stroke.

Up front, 6'6" forwards Jalen Cannon and Akeem Johnson carry the load. Cannon was one of the NEC's top freshmen, leading the team in rebounding and posting some dominant outings along the way (20 boards vs. FDU, 19 vs. Quinnipiac). Among freshmen, only Anthony Davis ripped more boards per game.

Johnson averaged over 11 PPG and shot 58% from the floor, becoming by far the team's most reliable inside presence. He also pulled five boards per game and led the team with 28 blocks.

A host of frontcourt options are available to Braica, led by 6'8" junior Matt Milk and 6'5" sophomore Kevin Douglas. Milk matched Johnson's 58% shooting, while Douglas contributed whenever he could find minutes. Douglas's highlight game may have come against FDU, when he carded 14 and 5 in his second career start.

Is there a single top-quality star player on this Terrier team? Probably not, unless you really tip Cannon or Johnson for a major breakout year. The team plays as a team, though, and Braica has nothing but praise for their hard-nosed attitude in practice. Even if they don't crack the top half of the league, they'll be a hard team to blow out.

7. Monmouth
--The Hawks crept up and tied for fifth in the NEC last year, and they return a sizable portion of that team. Their three-guard attack of sophomore Andrew Nicholas and seniors Jesse Steele and Dion Nesmith will pull a lot of the weight.

Steele was a walk-on last season, so the school essentially got a team-high 12.6 points, 4.2 assists, 82% from the line and a 1.6 A/T ratio for free. Coach King Rice granted Steele a scholarship for this season, and Hawks fans should rest assured that there will be a solid return on the investment.

Nesmith and Nicholas each averaged 8.8 PPG, with Nesmith doing it in a more efficient manner. Nesmith may be able to break a double-figure average this year, but Nicholas will need to improve his shot selection if he wants to lead the team after Steele and Nesmith are gone.

South Carolina transfer Stephen Spinella was cleared to play immediately and could be the first guard off the bench. He had a combined 25 points in back-to-back games against Michigan State and Radford as a sophomore.

Forwards Ed Waite and Marcus Ware will hold down the other two starting spots. Waite (6'3", 215) led the team in rebounding at 5.4 per game and was also tops in steals. Ware (6'8", 215) scored more than six points a night in less than 20 minutes, but needs to refine his 42% shooting. At his size, he should be the Hawks' most reliable inside man.

Sophomore Khalil Brown (6'9", 190) may take away some of that inside burden if he continues to bulk up. Yes, that 190 is up from what he once weighed. He was an 18-9-6 man with three blocks a night at Westwind Academy in Phoenix.

8. Mount St. Mary's
--New Mount coachand former player under Jim PhelanJamion Christian comes from VCU, where head coach Shaka Smart demands depth and discipline to pressure opponents for 40 minutes. Christian has depth, but discipline is a question for any team under a new head coach.

MSM was among the best defensive teams in the NEC last season, but struggled to score (only 60.3 PPG). Forwards Kristijan Krajina and Raven Barber are the only returnees who shot better than 43% last season. Both can work inside and out, sort of a poor man's Olasewere and Boyd.

Christian also seeks an up-tempo offense that will test his guards, Julian Norfleet and Josh Castellanos. Both are capable ballhandlers, and Norfleet was a 37% shooter from deep last season. Transfers Sam Preston (Marist) and Rashad Whack (George Mason) are eligible this season, and Preston was Marist's scoring leader in 2010-11 at 11.4 PPG.

Backup forward Kelvin Parker, despite standing only 6'3", finished as the team's second-leading rebounder at 4.6 per game. He was also second on the team in three-point shooting behind Norfleet.

Four freshmen and one redshirt should also see some court time early. Seven-foot redshirt Taylor Danaher has ability to score inside and out. Point guard Shivaughn Wiggins stayed on Christian's radar after being considered by the VCU staff and may threaten Castellanos's minutes.

9. Fairleigh Dickinson
--The Knights had serious issues last season. That's an obvious statement when a team only wins three games, but once point guard Lonnie Hayes went down, the world unraveled.

Hayes dropped at least 19 points in four of his first six games before hitting a shooting skid, then breaking his foot after game 11. Now that he's back, he and shooting guard Melquan Bolding should form another strong NEC backcourt. Bolding took a minute to find his groove in Teaneck, but he finished the season averaging more than 20 PPG over his final six. His shot needs to be more consistent after making only 35% from the floor and 29% from deep.

Juco guard Sidney Sanders may get immediate run if Hayes is rusty from his layoff. Sanders averaged nearly 14 points along with 3.5 assists and 2.8 steals at Polk State CC in Florida.

On the wing lurks 6'5" senior Lonnie Robinson. Robinson finished as the team leader in assists and shot a team-best 35% from long range. Senior Kinu Rochford (9.3 PPG/6.8 RPG) could be a consistent double-double man if he can avoid the fouls. He was whisted for 3.6 fouls per game and DQ'd eight times.

Juniors Mathias Seilund and Ayotunde Oyeniyi are the other frontcourt vets. Seilund occasionally drifts outside to stretch the floor, while Oyeniyi is another low-post bruiser (6.4 fouls/40).

The Knights have no one on the roster taller than the 6'7" Seilund, so they may struggle against bigger players. Luckily for them, the NEC is a guard-heavy conference, but teams with bruising rebounders like Quinnipiac and Wagner may be able to feast on FDU's "bigs."

10. Central Connecticut State
--CCSU had three of the league's top five scorers last season, but two of them are gone. Departed forward Ken Horton was the only player on the team to average more than four rebounds per game. There are certainly big questions for the Blue Devils, and the answers will have to start in the backcourt.

Sophomore guards Kyle Vinales and Malcolm McMillan snatched their jobs early and never let go. Vinales hammered home 63 points in his first two games, making a hot start to a season that ended with him averaging nearly 18 a night. McMillan led the NEC with a 2-1 A/T ratio, the only player in the league to reach that plateau.

There's very little experienced depth, though, so if one of the two goes down, CCSU has serious problems. Junior De'Angelo Speech lost his chance at a starting spot when McMillan emerged, and nearly lost all of his minutes, too. Freshman shooter Khalen Cumberlander, a 17-6-6-5 man as a senior, may see action in relief of Vinales, if he ever leaves the court.

The frontcourt will miss the input of Ken Horton and Robby Ptacek dearly, since the likely replacements for their 36.3 PPG and 12.8 RPG are senior Joe Efese and junior Terrell Allen (6.0 PPG/6.4 RPG). Efese looks great getting off the bus and averaged a double-double per 40 minutes, but had more double-donuts than double-doubles. Allen shot only 34%, disconcerting for a player who doesn't venture to the perimeter.

Juco transfer Matt Hunter could make an immediate splash. He's a friend of Vinales's from Detroit who averaged 17.5 and 6.2 at Odessa JC last season, making 42% from deep. At 6'5", he could possibly play the four in the NEC and fill some of Horton's responsibilities.

11. Bryant
--Every player who played in at least eight games for Bryant started at least four games last year. That should sum up the injury issues the Bulldogs fought with last year. A lot of guys got experience, but no combination could be found that could lead Bryant to that ever-elusive third win.

It's odd to think of a player on a basement-dweller as an all-league performer, but put junior forward Alex Francis in that discussion. Francis averaged nearly 15-and-8 as a freshman, then carded close to 17-and-7 last year. He now needs to figure out how not to turn the ball over 143 times. He came one short of tying for the national lead.

Senior point guard Frankie Dobbs came second in the NEC in assists and carded a strong 1.7 A/T ratio. He also drained a team-high 70 threes and shot nearly 82% from the line. Unfortunately, his 35% shooting overall was a large weight dragging the team down to a league-low .403 from the floor.

If the Bulldogs are to get more consistent shooting from Dobbs, more options will need to be found to take defensive pressure off him. Guard Corey Maynard was a producer when healthy, averaging 11.4/4.8, but an ankle injury cost him almost half the season. Senior guard Raphael Jordan carded 7.6/3.0 while shooting 40% from the field, which on this team qualifies as reliable.

The best veteran frontcourt option is Aussie junior Claybrin McMath, who carded 5.2/3.0 while making 18 starts. Ukrainian Vlad Kondratyev, who like McMath stands 6'8", averaged only eight minutes, but shot 44% while he was in there.

Freshmen Andrew Scocca (6'8", 235) and Curtis Oakley (6'4", 215) should get into games immediately. Oakley is the nephew of 19-year NBA enforcer Charles Oakley, and did well for himself as a high school senior (19.0/7.5). Scocca was likewise strong, with 15/10 averages, but also dished three assists.

Bryant fell into the bottom third of the NEC in nearly every category, and returnees gaining experience will only carry them so far. Coach Tim O'Shea will need to hope for better health and preach better ball security, and if those come, some of the other woes may take care of themselves.

12. St. Francis (PA)
--New Red Flash coach Rob Krimmel was one of the more controversial coaching hires of this offseason. He had done little of distinction as an assistant and his dad is the AD. He'll need to put up results quickly, or both Krimmels will need new jobs. And that'll make the summer barbecues super awkward.

Redshirt junior guard Umar Shannon dropped 26 points on VCU in last season's opener and was never heard from again after blowing out a knee. As a sophomore, Shannon averaged nearly 16 a night, shooting 41% from the floor and 80% from the line. Krimmel hopes that's a realistic baseline as he returns from the injury.

Sophomores Stephon Whyatt (6'1", 155), Ollie Jackson (6'3", 163) and Earl Brown (6'6", 206) were prominent pieces in the wake of injuries to Shannon and backcourt mate Chris Johnson. Each topped six PPG, and Brown is the team's second-leading returning rebounder at 3.0. Whyatt and Jackson made a combined 70 threes, but need much greater efficiency on their shots.

Senior guard Anthony Ervin is the team's returning leader in scoring, rebounds and steals. He's also the team's top free throw shooter and made a somewhat respectable 42% from the floor. It's essential that he hit the ground running in case Shannon is rusty in his return.

Junior Kameron Ritter is the most productive frontcourt veteran. His shooting slid from his freshman year, but he did establish himself as a defensive pest (sixth in the NEC at 1.4 SPG).

Four freshmen will have to provide instant depth. The most promising may be 6'6" forward Stephen Mosley, who racked 14 and 7 at Seton Hall Prep. Ohio native Ronnie Drinnon (6'7", 225) may have an extra advantage after enrolling early and joining practice in January.

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference matchup, weighted for visibility and chance of a win.
Bryant: Nov. 9 at Indiana
--If only to see if the Bulldogs can keep it closer than 90-42. With the influx of talent into Bloomington this offseason, I'm not sure I like the odds.
Central Connecticut State: Nov. 10 vs. Fairfield (Connecticut 6 Classic, Hartford)
--There are a couple of body bag games on the Blue Devils' slate, but let's spotlight a little civic pride against a MAAC contender.
Fairleigh Dickinson: Nov. 9 at Xavier
--The Knights get first crack at a Xavier team that bears nearly no resemblance to the team that finished last season.
LIU-Brooklyn: Dec. 22 vs. Seton Hall (Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational, Barclays Center)
--The Birds open the season at Barclays taking on Morehead State, but which is the sexier game: an OVC opponent or a Big East opponent? Thought so.
Monmouth: Dec. 22 vs. Villanova
--A Big East opponent in a down year is still a tough task for a NEC club, but at least one of the tough tasks comes in front of the home crowd.
Mount St. Mary's: Nov. 24 at Georgetown
--A solid Mount backcourt tests the always-rugged Hoya defense. May not be a difficult test, but it'll be good experience for the Mountaineers.
Quinnipiac: Nov. 16 at Iona (Paradise Jam, US Virgin Islands)
--Iona always likes to run, but can they make shots without floor general Scott Machado pulling the strings? If not, look for the Bobcats to crash the glass with a vengeance.
Robert Morris: Dec. 1 vs. Ohio
--Games against Lehigh, Xavier, Arkansas and a potential meeting with Pitt are all intriguing, but this one's a rematch of last season's win, it's at home, and everyone knows who the hell D.J. Cooper is now. Another win would register large.
Sacred Heart: Nov. 25 vs. Lehigh
--Shane Gibson going up against C.J. McCollum? Absolutely.
St. Francis (NY): Dec. 15 vs. St. John's (Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, Barclays Center)
--Not sure how this is different from the Holiday Invitational, but it's a week prior to LIU-Seton Hall, and it's another big Brooklyn opportunity for a NEC contender against the Big East.
St. Francis (PA): Nov. 9 at Penn State
--First Penn State basketball game since the football team got hammered with sanctions. Can the basketball Lions get a little "We Are Penn State" love?
Wagner: Nov. 18 at Syracuse
--Wagner first got on the radar by winning in Pitt's house last season, but the Carrier Dome is a different animal from the Petersen Events Center.

SPOILER ALERT: Gibson's going to score.
F Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac (6'7", 231, Jr.)
--The most likely man in the NEC to average a double-double for the season. Ripped 73 boards in his first five full games of last season.
F Julian Boyd, LIU-Brooklyn (6'7", 230, Sr.)
--Boyd makes all the offensive plays, has a good sense of shot selection and can produce a double-double any night. If it wasn't for the suspension, he'd be an easy pick for NEC POY. But, alas.
G Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart (6'2", 180, Sr.)
--50% from the floor, 40% from deep and 85% from the line is an exclusive club. No reason to think Gibson can't do it again. NEC POY.
G Velton Jones, Robert Morris (6'0", 170, Sr.)
--Top-10 in scoring, assists, steals, and A/T ratio. And only four players in America made more free throws. For that, we can almost forgive the 35% FG shooting.
G Jason Brickman, LIU-Brooklyn (5'11", 165, Jr.)
--Brickman gets the first-team nod ahead of Olasewere in anticipation of his work during the suspensions.


F Jalen Cannon, St. Francis (NY) (6'6", 225, Soph.)
--He and Azotam will wage a spirited battle for the league rebounding crown.
F Alex Francis, Bryant (6'6", 205, Jr.)
--He's really got to fix those turnovers, or the Bulldogs aren't climbing anywhere.
F Jamal Olasewere, LIU-Brooklyn (6'7", 215, Sr.)
--If Boyd's not producing a dub-dub, chances are good that Olasewere's sucking up all the rebounds and getting one himself. Olasewere's also the bigger threat in the passing lanes.
G Jesse Steele, Monmouth (5'8", 180, Sr.)
--If Steele gets a little more offensive support, he could lead the NEC in assists.
G Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut State (6'1", 180, Soph.)
--41% from inside the arc could be forgiven if he was getting more than a .236 FTR. If he attacks the basket harder, he can at least break 20 PPG on the strength of his deadly free throw shooting.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart
COACH OF THE YEAR: Jack Perri, LIU-Brooklyn
--If he keeps the train rolling through a coaching transition and star players' suspensions, there should be hardware involved.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Dwaun Anderson, Wagner
--He might have been a strong performer at Michigan State, so look for him to do impressive things in the NEC.

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