Saturday, October 26, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #21 Northeast

"Martin making faces at me back there?"
Last season, three new coaches joined the Northeast Conference and made a quick mark.

LIU Brooklyn stormed to its third straight NCAA tournament under former assistant Jack Perri. Ex-Mount St. Mary's guard Jamion Christian took over at his alma mater and and won 18 games before losing to LIU in the NEC title game. Finally, Wagner hired 28-year-old Bashir Mason and watched him take the Seahawks to 19 wins.

All three inherited some decent talent, which may be more than one of this season's noobs can say. The other only has the unenviable task of replacing his program's all-time Division I scoring leader.

Lest anyone get the impression that this coaching stuff is easy, especially in the NEC, the conference might deliver two of its bench bosses a cold, hard dose of reality.

Who finishes where? How bad is the outlook for the NEC's cellar-dwellers? Why do bananas turn brown before you get them home from the market?

The answers to some of these questions will be found after the jump. For the others, Google is your homeboy. (Homesite?)

(All stats and rankings via unless otherwise noted.)

1. Wagner

--The Seahawks aren't a big team, but they are athletic as all hell and more equipped than most to replace a major departure. In Wagner's case, swingman Jonathon Williams' graduation takes more than 15 points and six rebounds out of the lineup. It may take a committee approach to fill the void, but there are plenty of candidates.

The eligibility of Valparaiso transfer Jay Harris gives coach Bashir Mason five guards who can be strong NEC producers. Over Harris' two seasons at Valpo, he was good for seven PPG in 21 minutes a night. A deadly foul shooter, he might be able to attack the rim more often in the NEC than he could in the Horizon League.

Point guard Kenny Ortiz likes to get inside, but he's also frequently careless with the ball. Cutting down his 27% turnover rate could make him an All-NEC selection, especially if he once again puts up a national top-60 assist percentage. Backcourt mate Latif Rivers scored a career-low 13 PPG last season, a sentence that's still impressive to say about a senior in the NEC. If he's fully healthy and free of the injuries that nagged him last season, look for him to lead the team (conference?) in scoring.

Marcus Burton and Dwaun Anderson could be the starting backcourt for other Northeast schools, but they provide tremendous support for the top three. Burton coughed the ball up on only 13% of his possessions, and he'll occasionally play on the ball right next to Ortiz.

Up front, there's not a lot of experienced size, but the big men that are there are effective. Seniors Orlando Parker and Naofall Folahan join junior Mario Moody in a group that combined for 13 boards and 3.5 blocks. The three will keep splitting minutes while Mason tries his best to get as much of the backcourt talent on the floor as possible.

Folahan's block percentage has ranked in the nation's top 40 in all three of his prior seasons, and he's the essential last line of the Seahawks' defense. Moody was a 15% offensive rebounder, and Mason would love to see him be more aggressive with the ball in his hands.

Mason added a pair of freshman bigs, New Yorker Greg Senat and Connecticut product Nolan Long. Both could be solid rebounders on the collegiate level.

2. Robert Morris

--Bobby Mo will forever be an epithet to hurl at obnoxious, arrogant Kentucky fans (as if there's any other kind, amirite?) after the NIT upset in Moon Township. NEC opponents may also be cursing the Colonials this season, thanks to a steady defensive approach that flies in the face of so many up-tempo offenses. With six new faces, though, how quickly will RMU get it together?

Stud defenders Velton Jones and Russell Johnson will be missed, and Jones' steady hand on the offense will also prove hard to replace. Senior Anthony Myers-Pate is a veteran who filled in capably when Jones battled injuries, but he regressed badly as a shooter. He'll need to recapture the 50% eFG performance of his sophomore season.

The rest of the Morris backcourt will be dangerous offensively, led by the NEC's best three-point threat in senior Karvel Anderson. Anderson had the game of anyone's life with a 10-10, 28-point effort against Ohio last December, and he's the same guy who disappeared from the Kentucky win. Still, he shot 44% from three on the season while dealing with a broken wrist for six weeks.

Junior David Appolon can be a lockdown defender, and he'll have to be to get minutes ahead of a sea of new guards. Jucos Desjuan Newton and Charles Oliver, along with freshmen Britton Lee and Kavon Stewart, are all dueling for minutes. Oliver averaged 19 PPG in his stopover between Rider and RMU. Lee ripped 2.5 SPG as a high school senior, and he may also swipe the backup role behind Myers-Pate.

Up front, Lucky Jones will assume the team leadership mantle after putting up a strong 11.6/6.0 season as a sophomore. He's also the returning steals leader, so we can't assume all the defensive skill left with V. Jones and Johnson. Senior Mike McFadden and sophomore Stephan Hawkins are the only experienced big men. Hawkins can be a fearsome rebounder and rim protector, while McFadden is a capable post scorer.

Freshman Jeremiah Worthem drew 3* ratings from Scout and Rivals, and could steal a starting spot if Hawkins isn't ready for big minutes or McFadden's ever-present injury problems recur.

3. Bryant

--The four schools joining D-I this season could look to Bryant for a textbook example of how to handle the transition. The Bulldogs stormed through a 19-win season one year after slumping to only two victories. The question for this season lies in how well the team performs with higher expectations and opponents not looking past them to bigger games.

Shooting guard Dyami Starks exploded into the NEC after transferring from Columbia. He finished fourth in the conference in scoring and 3P%. Dartmouth was the only opponent to hold him empty from the arc. More typically, Starks torched opponents like Lehigh and Robert Morris, against whom he drained 11 triples in back-to-back games at New Year's.

Forward Alex Francis gave Bryant two of the league's top five scorers, ranking just behind Starks. Another season like last year will put Francis over 2,000 points and close to 1,000 rebounds for his career.

Depth was a problem last season, with only six players averaging more than two points per game. Of the six, four return including Starks and Francis. Australian Corey Maynard and coach Tim O'Shea's nephew Joe provided solid minutes last season, but Joe O'Shea needs to work on avoiding foul trouble. He was whistled more than five times per 40 minutes and fouled out of five games.

The point guard and center positions still need to be solidified. Sophomore Shane McLaughlin will get first crack at the point, but his ball security needs drastic improvement. He turned the ball over on more than 40% of his possessions. Keep an eye on Texan Justin Brickman, whose brother Jason is the star floor general at LIU Brooklyn. 

Senior Claybrin McMath represents the only experienced size on the roster, although he averaged only five MPG last season. Freshman Ellis Williams and redshirt Andrew Scocca will need to adapt quickly to the college game.

Don't expect the Bulldogs to rank among the most efficient offenses in the country again this season, but they certainly have the tools to contend in the NEC once again. Their non-conference schedule is the stuff of a team that expects great things, and they won't fall too far with two of the league's five best players on the roster.

4. Central Connecticut State

--It all still starts in the backcourt for CCSU, whose fans breathed a sigh of relief when NEC scoring champ Kyle Vinales decided not to transfer. He sought out programs that would help him get to the NCAA tournament, but schools like LSU and Memphis would have sought to make the 6'1" junior play point guard. While he led the Blue Devils in assists last season, Vinales likes scoring better. He's less than 800 points away from CCSU's all-time record.

Senior Matt Hunter and junior Malcolm McMillan both had solid all-around seasons in 2012-13. Hunter ranked seventh in the NEC in both scoring and rebounding while leading the league in steals. He even averaged nearly one block per game. The personal highlight had to be dropping 40 on Indiana at Assembly Hall. Now, about that 39% shooting from the floor...

McMillan put up a very solid line of 8.2/4.3/3.5/1.5 and was the team's top three-point shooter at 38%, albeit in a much smaller sample size than Vinales or Hunter. The three guards never left the floor for Howie Dickenman's club, as McMillan ranked third on the team in minutes at 36.4. Developing depth must become a priority, especially for the tempo the Devils played last year.

Forwards Brandon Peel and Terrell Allen can both be capable rebounders and shot blockers with full-time minutes, and they should get that kind of time this season. New faces will need to play well early up front. Jucos Faronte Drakeford and Juwan Newman have solid credentials, with Drakeford snagging third-team All-American honors last season.

For the Blue Devils to climb this high, they'll need some backbone on the glass and on the defensive end. Both their overall rebounding percentage and defensive efficiency ranked in the 300s last year. Vinales and Hunter are both volume shooters who took more than half of CCSU's shots and converted only 40% combined.

Someone else needs to assert himself as a scorer and Dickenman needs to convince his stud scorers to share the rock more. Of course, it could be a catch-22. If Vinales doesn't get to lead the NEC in scoring again, he may just go ahead and follow through with that transfer threat.

5. Mount St. Mary's

--As is appropriate for a man whose previous job was under Shaka Smart at VCU, Mount coach Jamion Christian employs an aggressive, hyperkinetic defense that either gets turnovers or folds like a cheap card table. The Mount's "Mayhem" system was one of the best in America (23rd, TBE) at making opponents hock up the ball, but it surrendered an unsightly 55.7 eFG% as well. That was third-worst in the country.

It would help if the four returning starters were supplemented by experienced backups, but nearly all of the bench veterans bailed in the offseason. Guards Rashad Whack, Sam Prescott and Julian Norfleet combined for a 36/10/6/4 line and form easily the NEC's most talented backcourt trio. However, they'll miss fourth wheel Shivaughn Wiggins, the NEC Rookie of the Year who left for Coastal Carolina. Wiggins was the most efficient scoring threat of the four, if the least prolific.

Whack and Prescott were both 36-percent three-point shooters last season, and Whack finished second in the conference at 2.1 SPG. Norfleet was a secure floor general, posting a 1.8 A/T ratio and a TO% hovering around a very respectable 16. He's made a vast improvement from simply being a spot-up shooter when he arrived at the Mount.

In the frontcourt, there's no experience outside of senior Kristijan Krajina and sophomores Taylor Danaher and Gregory Graves. lists Krajina and Danaher as 69% and 65% shooters at the rim, respectively, so they can both be decent scoring threats if the bomb squad slows down on the ill-advised threes. The two could also stand to stay out of foul trouble, especially Krajina. Krajina was busted nearly seven times per 40 minutes, Danaher 5.2. Graves was a 28% defensive rebounder in his sporadic minutes last year.

6'6" Texan Will Miller is the only new face in the frontcourt, but he's more known as a shooting threat. Pennsylvania guard Khalid Nwandu should see immediate minutes, and perhaps a starting spot as Wiggins' replacement. The 6'3" freshman put up a 17/7/5/4 average line as a high school junior and boasts an impressive 6'9" wingspan. Fellow rookie Byron Ashe is another shooter who averaged 20 PPG as a senior.

The new faces will be the key to MSM's success in 2013-14. No system even remotely similar to VCU's Havoc will work with a 5-, 6-, or 7-man rotation, so all these players need to be fully dedicated to defense. Scoring is great, but if you can't get stops, how often can you build a lead? The Mount plays with similar aggression to Wagner, but simply doesn't have the bodies to sustain the pressure all season.

6. LIU Brooklyn

--It may be folly to spot the Blackbirds this low, but over its run of three straight NCAA tournament bids, the Long Island program hasn't faced down the sort of adversity it now does. The school's all-time scoring leader, Jamal Olasewere, is gone. Other reliable pieces like C.J. Garner, Booker Hucks and Brandon Thompson have also graduated. To top it off, high-scoring wing Julian Boyd has re-injured the ACL that cost him most of last season. January is projected as an optimistic time frame for his return, and even that quick a comeback would have a Wolverine-ish quality. Oh, and touted freshman Nura Zanna broke his wrist while blocking a shot against the backboard in a pickup game.

In summary: Karma seems to officially have a foot up LIU's collective ass. So what's left for second-year coach Jack Perri to turn into another competitive squad?

First off, LIU's not out of a game as long as point guard Jason Brickman is running the show. Last season's national assist king, Brickman may be called upon to get points himself more often this year. And don't think he isn't capable, because he drained 46% from long range and 80% from the foul line as a junior.

"7.3 fouls per 40 is no way to get through a season, son."
Brickman's favorite target in Boyd's absence is likely to be sophomore E.J. Reed. Reed shot 50% from the floor, including 39% from long range, in his rookie season. 10 of his 11 double-figure scoring games came in NEC play, including a 25-point effort against Mount St. Mary's. He needs to learn to dial down the defensive aggro, though. His 121 fouls and eight disqualifications both ranked among the nation's top 10.

Juniors Troy Joseph and Gerrell Martin played well in reserve roles last year, and how they adapt to starter's minutes will be a key for Perri's club. Both are deadly shooters, which is essentially a prerequisite to get a scholarship to LIU. Juco forwards Chris Carter and Landon Atterberry will see immediate minutes up front, while the backcourt should be bolstered by freshmen Joel Hernandez and Iverson Fleming.

A lot of "if"s dominate the outlook for LIU. If Boyd is back in January. If Reed is ready to be a leading scorer. If Brickman can stay as efficient a shooter without studs on both wings. If Joseph and Martin can step up and be leaders. If the new guys play like the Blackbirds we've seen the past three seasons. If most of those things occur, Brooklyn is still in the house. If not, the NEC is sending some new blood to the Big Dance.

7. St. Francis (NY)

--The Terriers have a potential all-league performer in Jalen Cannon and a shooting threat in Ben Mockford, but the most important piece may be junior PG Brent Jones. Jones had the team's highest usage rate last season, but most of those possessions were as nutritionally empty as Twinkies. Jones was a 42% true shooter and turned the ball over 30% of the time. SFC's offense can be much more efficient if Jones cuts down his mistakes.

Cannon ranked among the NEC's top 10 in scoring, rebounding and FG%. He's averaged 8.8 RPG and shot 55.6% from the floor in each of his first two seasons. Another consistent season will make him an All-NEC candidate once again. Mockford knocked in 40% of his threes last season, ranking as one of the NEC's top snipers, but has shown little else to his game.

Versatile wing Kevin Douglas was a major factor early in the season, but a broken arm effectively shut him down in early January. He can score and defend at multiple levels, making him a key factor on both ends.

Normally a tough, athletic man-to-man defensive team, the Terriers had to resort to a zone last season due to injuries and the limitations of what players were left. Athletic newcomers like juco Amdy Fall and freshman Wayne Martin will aid the team's depth. Fall blocked a ludicrous 8.6 shots per game as a high school senior. Matt Milk is the only experienced big man, and he'll need to provide some quality work in the low post to help keep Cannon out of foul trouble.

8. Sacred Heart

--New coach Anthony Latina inherits a team that's tough to read. All-time scoring leader Shane Gibson is gone, but solid pieces return in point guard Phil Gaetano and forward Louis Montes. Gaetano ranked second in the nation at 7.9 assists per game, trailing only NEC rival Jason Brickman. Montes had a good run as Gibson's sidekick, averaging 14.4 and 6.2 last season. Now, how will he handle being the lead horse pulling the Pioneers' wagon?

Veteran performers Evan Kelley and Chris Evans return from injuries that cost them all of last season. Both guards were at least part-time starters before the injury bug bit, combining for 15 points, six rebounds and five assists per game in 2011-12.

Junior Steve Glowiak isn't the penetrating threat that Gibson was, but he'll open up lanes for others with his shooting ability (37% from deep in 2012-13). Forwards Tevin Falzon and Mostafa Abdel Latif were the team's top offensive rebounders by percentage and could prove valuable this season.

SHU will have better balance this season, to be sure. If Montes is ready to be a star and Kelley and Evans bounce back strong from their injuries, the Pioneers could push for a top half finish. Still, defensive rebounding and all-around defensive efficiency will need to improve for Sacred Heart to compete night in and night out.

9. St. Francis (PA)

--Before he ever coached a game, Rob Krimmel had to answer questions about his hire being nepotistic, seeing as how his father Bob is the AD at St. Francis. After a five-win debut season, not much was answered and it's hard to see a lot of progress being made in 2013-14.

Point guard Umar Shannon's departure for Quinnipiac leaves a lot of unanticipated questions, but the one known quantity should be junior forward Earl Brown. Brown averaged 10 points and eight boards last season, and his 25.9 DR% ranked 14th in the nation. At one point last season, he ripped off seven straight double-doubles, including crushing CCSU for 16 and 25. He'll pair with NEC All-Rookie forward Stephon Mosley in the frontcourt. Mosley put up 8.3/4.6 last season and was an 11% offensive rebounder.

Shannon is the only one of the Red Flash's top nine minute men who does not return, but that still leaves St. Fran as a small team likely to get smoked on the glass and the defensive end. Shooters like Ollie Jackson (32% from three), Dominique Major (38%) and Ben Millaud-Meunier (48%) give SF a chance to outscore some of its truly barren opponents, but unless someone steps up to fill that point guard spot, the offense will be as stuck in the mud as the defense.

Greek import Georgios Angelou and Queens product Malik Harmon are the leading candidates to take over at the 1. Harmon led Christ the King to city and state titles as a senior, being named to the All-Queens, all-NYC and all-state teams himself.

10. Fairleigh Dickinson

--This may seem harsh, but hell with it, we'll say it anyway: New FDU coach Greg Herenda may have left a better job at new D-I member UMass-Lowell. Over the past three seasons, the Knights have won five, three and seven games total. Or, only four more than Robert Morris won in conference play last season. And there's nothing on hand to suggest anything's getting better overnight.

Herenda inherits five returning rotation players who combined for about 23 PPG last season. Senior forward Mathias Seilund may be the most dangerous scorer on the team after he carded a 51.9 eFG% last season. That included 41% from beyond the arc.

Sophomore Xavier Harris is the top returning rebounder left from a team that was routinely crushed on the glass (second-worst TR% in the nation). 250-pound redshirt freshman Myles Mann, Niagara transfer Scooter Gillette and 6'9" true frosh Mike Owona will be counted on to help Harris fight for rebounds. Gillette averaged 3.5/2.4 in about 14 MPG during his time at Niagara.

The backcourt is led by senior PG Sidney Sanders Jr. and junior SG Mustafaa Jones, the latter of whom was little more than a spot-up shooter last season. Herenda does have some good size among the incoming class, with 6'5" Chicago guard Scott Kingsley, 6'5" Matt MacDonald of Buffalo and 6'2" Montreal PG Jayde Dawson.

Somebody needs to learn to rebound and play defense before Dickinson can even entertain the possibility of getting out of the NEC basement. Will anyone be surprised if Herenda's old school wins more games than his new one this year?

Because trolling BBN will never...EVER...get old.

Bryant: Nov. 9 at Gonzaga
--The Zags are still a top-25 team, but they have a couple more question marks than usual. Bryant will try to catch them while they're still searching for answers.
Central Connecticut State: Dec. 7 at Ohio State
--Can Hunter torch another Big Ten team?
Fairleigh Dickinson: Dec. 1 at Seton Hall
--One of only two times FDU's expected to be on national TV this season. This game's on Fox Sports 1 and it's more likely to be competitive than the Arizona curb-stomping on ESPNU.
LIU Brooklyn: Dec. 21 vs. Temple (at Barclays Center, Brooklyn)
--The more LIU can use the Barclays as a de facto home gym/recruiting tool, the better. And Temple's personnel is in as much flux as the Blackbirds', so a win here is not totally unthinkable.
Mount St. Mary's: Dec. 22 at Penn State
--There are bigger fish on the schedule, but PSU's backcourt of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill will pose a major test for the Mount's skilled trio. This one could be winnable.
Robert Morris: Nov. 17 at Kentucky
--Self-explanatory. Big Blue Nation will be looking to exorcise a demon, so don't expect Coach Cal to show any mercy.
Sacred Heart: Nov. 26 at Boston College
--BC is expected to be seriously improved this year, but can still occasionally play down to their competition. (See Bryant 56, BC 54.)
St. Francis (NY): Dec. 1 at Stony Brook
--The Seawolves are expected to contend in the America East, and this is a better barometer for St. Francis' chances this season than games like Syracuse or Miami.
St. Francis (PA):
Wagner: Nov. 15 at St. John's
--Like Mason, Johnnies coach Steve Lavin will be trying to assemble a full-time rotation this early in the season. Shots will have to fall, since there ain't no one on Wagner's squad that can drive on Chris Obekpa.

"Yeah, yeah. Brick Man. Ha."

Jason Brickman, LIU Brooklyn
Jalen Cannon, St. Francis (NY)
Alex Francis, Bryant
Dyami Starks, Bryant
Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut State

Matt Hunter, Central Connecticut State
Lucky Jones, Robert Morris
Julian Norfleet, Mount St. Mary's
E.J. Reed, LIU Brooklyn
Latif Rivers, Wagner

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jason Brickman, LIU Brooklyn
--If Brickman played in the ACC, he'd be getting All-America love. Blackbird Nation gets to enjoy him for one more year.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Andy Toole, Robert Morris
--Toole's approach runs so counter to the typical fast-breaking NEC approach, and he's doing very well with it so far.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Jay Harris, Wagner
--Should be a very capable NEC scorer after some decent work in the Horizon League.

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