I apologize in advance for quoting one of my favorite bands from my college days, but “I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend.”
Yes, the NEC has been hit hard with several players deciding to take their talents elsewhere—seven of the league’s top 12 returning players, by my estimation—yet there still will be NEC basketball next November.
The league isn’t cancelling the season just because no one is returning from last year’s All-NEC first team. All this turnover means is there are plenty more opportunities for other student-athletes to step up and make a name for themselves. And in the end, if you’re devoted enough to read this post, then you’re going to still bleed your school colors and be glued to NEC Front Row in early 2018. Does it really matter if your league is ranked 24th or 30th in conference RPI?
With that mini-diatribe out of the way, I wanted to go through the exercise of identifying the league’s top 15 players. Of course, others from these lists may still leave and it’s entirely possible one or two players may return with their tail between their legs after requesting a release from their scholarship (a la Kyle Vinales a few years back). But for now, allow me to have some fun.
Before I begin please note the following: These teams aren’t in any particular order. I just listed the guards first and forwards next. Also, I haven’t done a deep dive into each team’s recruiting classes even though I’m sure at least a couple of freshmen or transfers will eventually infiltrate the top 15. For now, I’m focusing on returning players.
All-NEC Preseason First Team
- Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson
- Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s
- Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis University
- Keith Braxton, Saint Francis University
- Joe Lopez, Sacred Heart
Four-year seniors are now a rarity in this league, especially grizzled vets as accomplished as Darian Anderson. Unlike Earl Potts, Stephen Jiggetts and Marques Townes, Anderson has a chance to cement his legacy as one of the greatest players in Fairleigh Dickinson history. He’s currently on pace to accumulate at least 1,700 points, 400 assists and 200 steals for his career. Luckily for Jamion Christian, Junior Robinson is the only 2014-15 All-NEC rookie team recipient that remains in the NEC. Robinson, who himself is an accomplished four-year senior, carved up conference opponents last season by posting an offensive rating north of 100 in 15 of 21 games. If it wasn’t for Rob Krimmel wisely curtailing Isaiah Blackmon’s minutes last November/December coming off knee surgery, then he may have cracked the league’s first team. His ability to affect the game a myriad of ways is invaluable. In league play last season, Blackmon led the conference in 3-point shooting (50.8%) while finishing third in offensive rating (119.6). Defensively, his athleticism lead to steals on 2.7% of his opponent’s possessions and yet he has never fouled out of a game in his career. Blackmon’s teammate, Keith Braxton, looks to build off an incredible freshman season where he was difficult to contain at the 4. If Krimmel continues to push the tempo, Braxton has Player of the Year type of potential even if Josh Nebo’s departure complicates things on the defensive end. Finally, the best big man in the league is senior Joe Lopez, who has a chance to become only the third player in the last seven years to average a double-double (Jalen Cannon twice, Ronnie Drinnon). He’s been described to me as a cross between Mike Aaman and Michael Carey, and given his play last season, I think that’s a reasonable assessment.
All-NEC Preseason Second Team
- Glenn Sanabria, St. Francis Brooklyn
- Rasheem Dunn, St. Francis Brooklyn
- Adam Grant, Bryant
- Joel Hernandez, LIU Brooklyn
- Chris Wray, Mount St. Mary’s
It was just a rough year for all parties involved in Brooklyn, and Glenn Sanabria certainly wasn’t immune to that. Although he illustrated flashes early in the 2016-17 season, injuries and poor team performance brought Sanabria’s individual numbers down to a more average level. Still, a miniscule turnover rate (11.8% last season) and an expected production spike as a junior makes it plausible to believe he’s a top 10 player in this league. Sanabria’s teammate, Rasheem Dunn, had an extremely encouraging freshman season after reaching double figures in 21 of 29 games. His ability to protect the basketball (13.4% turnover rate), rebound despite his smallish 6-foot-2 frame (6.8 rpg) and create turnovers (2.8% steal rate) should have Terrier fans excited for his sophomore season. It’s possible I’ll find a way to get Adam Grant onto my Blue Ribbon All-NEC first team later this offseason, because of his talent and the opportunity laid out in front of him. Nisre Zouzoua as a freshman had a similar statistical profile as Grant, and with more seasoning it isn’t a stretch to make the 6-foot-1 combo guard an 18 ppg scorer. You can make the argument that Joel Hernandez’s broken wrist was the difference in LIU Brooklyn falling one game short for the regular season championship and, sadly, saving Jack Perri’s job. Nevertheless, Hernandez will look to build off an encouraging 2015-16 campaign where he greatly improved his offensive rating, shooting efficiency and turnover rate. He’ll be the senior leader Derek Kellogg should lean on in his first season at the Brooklyn campus. I’m not sure if the coaches will ever vote Chris Wray and his career 5.4 ppg and 31.9% FT% into the NEC top 10, but they should. Seriously, where else will you find a player who finished in the league’s top 10 in the following: effective field goal percentage (60.8%), offensive rebounding rate (11.5%), block rate (6.3%), steal rate (3.1%), fouls committed per 40 minutes (2.1) and free throw rate (54.9 FTA/FGA)? He may be a poor outside shooter, but he excels in nearly every other facet of the game and that’s incredibly valuable to the Mount. (Editor’s Note: This is what Chris Wray is doing with his offseason.)
All-NEC Preseason Third Team
- Jamaal King, Saint Francis University
- Romone Saunders, Wagner
- Bosko Kostur, Bryant
- Mario Matasovic, Sacred Heart
- Mike Holloway, Fairleigh Dickinson
As expected, Jamaal King flashed immense upside and also maddening inconsistency in his first full season as the Red Flash’s point guard. Collectively, the final statistics were encouraging with King finishing with a 25.3% assist rate and a 2.5% steal rate. While his role is a little murky with the return of Malik Harmon, I believe the combo guard’s explosive talent and ability to lead in transition will force Krimmel to play him more often than not. Someone has to step up with Wagner’s top 3 scorers moving on, hence my selection of the oft-injured Romone Saunders. Health is the biggest hurdle for the red-shirt junior, who broke his foot after the team’s historic upset at UConn last November. When healthy, Saunders gives Bashir Mason a reliable combo guard who has made 37.1% of his career 3s and dished out 55 assists against 42 turnovers over the past two seasons. Speaking of injuries, Mario Matasovic was another player who was limited last season due to various ailments. There was a period, before an untimely calf injury, when Matasovic was coming into his own. The junior transfer averaged 10.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg and made 42.9% of his triples over the aforementioned 7-game stretch. Anthony Latina will need an uptick in those numbers, which is reasonable assuming (knock on wood) Matasovic stays off the trainer’s table. At 6-foot-8, he’s a difficult power forward to defend. Here’s the definition of an enigma: a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand. That’s exactly how I’d describe the Bryant career of Bosco Kostur, who was tremendous once playing time came his way last season. Offensively, he is simply too good to leave off the floor when you factor in his offensive rating (117.2), fouls drawn (5.1 per 40 minutes) and long-range shooting ability (41.8% 3PT). While it’s far from a sure thing, I’d expect Tim O’Shea to give Kostur significant minutes in his senior campaign as a valuable stretch four. It’s not easy for an underclassman to make 55.7% of his 2s, but that’s exactly what Mike Holloway did in his first two seasons at FDU. His scoring efficiency, as well as his rebounding, make him one of the best back-to-the-basket players in the NEC. If his foul rate continues to decline, then even better numbers are ahead for the New Jersey native.
Also Considered: Austin Nehls, Central Connecticut; Marcel Pettway, Bryant; De’von Barnett, Sacred Heart; Darnell Edge, Fairleigh Dickinson
Update (5/8 at 2:20 PM): According to Kevin McNamara, Bryant’s Marcel Pettway has asked and will be released of his scholarship and will likely transfer. He has 2 years of eligibility remaining.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride