On Friday, the new college basketball season begins. In the Northeast Conference, after an offseason filled with elite players up-transferring, preseason injuries to some key players, one coaching change, a coach getting suspended for an exhibition game for arguing with his assistant, it is finally to put all the noise aside and get to what really matters, the games!
I came up with ten (plus one) burning questions that most NEC fans including myself have been debating in our minds and across social media on the eve of the 2017-18 season and share my thoughts on the NEC as the tip-off to the new season gets set to begin.
1. Will Mount St. Mary’s repeat?
The Mount certainly has a chance at repeating. They have one of the best players in the NEC in 5-foot-5 senior point guard Junior Robinson who even though battled an injury during the preseason, played outstanding in their two exhibition games going for 27 versus Delaware and 38 versus Hood College. They also have another dynamic player in Chris Wray but he is going to be out for a while with a wrist injury. Although Mount has three very experienced seniors on their roster, this is a very young team with TWELVE freshman and one sophomore. Plus, no team has repeated in the NEC since 2013 when LIU Brooklyn won their third of three straight NEC titles. But Mount has won two of the last four NEC crowns under Jamion Christian so you can’t rule them out but it won’t be easy given the seeming parody of the conference this season.
2. Will preseason favorite Saint Francis U. actually win the NEC?
Everyone, including myself, picked Saint Francis U. to win the NEC this season. With good reason. They have the most talent in the NEC returning from a team that went to the NEC Championship Game last season. They have great backcourt depth which will likely lead them to a very successful season. The bad news is, in the last five years, the team picked preseason favorite in the NEC coaches poll has failed to come through as champion. Not since LIU Brooklyn in 2012 has a preseason favorite won it all. SFU is in an unfamiliar position of being the team being hunted and that always put pressure on teams even when they say they don’t pay any attention to preseason hype. My gut feeling is they will have a great season but will have a battle with a couple of teams to finish with that all-important top seed. If they get it, they will win it all. If they don’t, I don’t see it happening.
3. Who will be this season’s NEC Player of the Year?
In my mind, there are four legit candidates for NEC Player of the Year. The aforementioned Junior Robinson at Mount St. Mary’s. Saint Francis U. sophomore guard Keith Braxton, the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year, coming off a freshman season that saw him average over 13 ppg and 8.6 rpg while shooting 53 percent from the field. Fellow SFU teammate junior guard Isaiah Blackmon who averaged 13.7 ppg while shooting an incredible 50 percent from three. Finally, the preseason favorite in Fairleigh Dickinson guard Darian Anderson, who averaged 17 ppg last season. The depth SFU have in the backcourt as well having multiple go-to scorers will likely hurt both Braxton’s and Blackmon’s chances. That leaves it up Robinson and Anderson to battle it out. As per NYC Buckets’ NEC Insider Ryan Peters, Anderson currently is injured dealing with a stress fracture that will likely have him out for an unspecified period of time. Once Anderson returns, I think Anderson will just edge out Robinson as FDU will put up a ton of points once again this season and FDU has other weapons that won’t leave Anderson as the sole focus of defenses which might not be the case as much for Robinson.
4. Who is the most underrated player in the NEC?
It just might be St. Francis Brooklyn’s sophomore guard Rasheem Dunn. He pretty much went completely under the radar last season on quite frankly a bad Terriers team that went 4-27. He had a heck of a first year in which he averaged over 13 points, 5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game and became the Terriers go-to guy. He will once again be the go-to guy for them this season on a team expected to have another rough season near the bottom of the conference standings. Yet, he should have another great season and likely improve on his numbers from last season and get himself on an All-NEC team at season’s end.
5. Who will surprise in the NEC this season?
I think two teams that will surprise this season. One, I believe will be Sacred Heart. They have a nice veteran team and are in win-now mode. They have probably the best frontcourt in the NEC with guys like Joseph Lopez, Mario Matasovic, and Da’von Barnett, all seniors and a new name added to the group in freshman E.J. Anosike. Plus, they have an experienced group in the backcourt with Sean Hoehn, Cha Cha Tucker, and Chris Robinson. They are going to play fast and could play big at times which could make them hard to match up against. They are going to end up being a legit top-four threat this season. Another team, I think will do better than most expect is LIU Brooklyn. Ok, I see some of you with the eye-rolls. Hear me out. The Blackbirds have plenty of talent returning with Jashaun Agosto, Raiquan Clark, and Julian Batts. They are also getting back a top-ten player in the NEC in Joel Hernandez who missed nearly the entire season with a wrist injury. They are going to more need productivity from guys like Julian van Sauers and Raul Frias this season. Adding grad transfers like Jamall Robinson and Zach Coleman in the frontcourt should help in a major way. They want to get back to running up and down the floor again which they can do especially with Agosto running the show at the point. They are going to be interesting to watch.
6. What team will disappoint in the NEC this season?
I hate to say it as a guy who has a ton of respect for Andy Toole, I think Robert Morris is in for a rougher than what they’re used to season. One, it finally seems like the deluge of transfers out of the program has caught up to the Colonials. They have just two players returning who played last season and have eleven newcomers including seven freshmen. Two, I believe once again they are going to have their issues scoring on offense. They had issues last season with guys like Isaiah Still and Kavon Stewart still on the team. Now with neither around, the scoring load falls on junior guard Matty McConnell, who looked primed for a big year from watching him in exhibition games, to be their go-to scorer this season. But who else around him will be guys Toole can rely on to help McConnell out? Right now, the answer is really unknown. Three, Robert Morris will not play a single-game on their campus this season as their old home the Sewall Center has been torn down to make way for their new home, the UPMC Events Center, which is a beautiful new facility they will have in 2019. Until then, they will be playing the majority of their games at the PPG Paints Arena with a few games at Duquesne’s A.J. Palumbo Center. Last season, RMU averaged 1,072 fans per game at the 3,056-seat Sewall Center. Crowds like that at the PPG Paints Arena over eight home games will seem far from a home-court advantage.
7. Which coach will have the most pressure on him this season?
I don’t think any coach is endangered of losing their job with a bad season this season unless a team goes 0 for the season which isn’t likely. They will be some pressure on a few coaches to have a good showing at the very least. Sacred Heart’s Anthony Latina is in year five and has yet to produce a winning season overall and one winning season in the conference. This could be his best team since becoming head coach at Sacred Heart and it would be greatly disappointing if he didn’t have at worst a .500 season. New LIU Brooklyn head coach Derek Kellogg is in no danger in year one at the helm but don’t think he won’t be scrutinized as he takes over a program that didn’t return their previous coach who won twenty games last season and has been adamant about making noise beginning this season. So there is some pressure there for LIU to be good once again this season.
8. Will CCSU finally get make their way back into the NEC tournament?
It has been a long last three seasons since Central Connecticut last made the NEC tournament. They have won just 15 games in that span and have had a change in their head coach since then. Even though CCSU won just six games last season, four of those wins came in the final eleven games of the season as they built up to this season. Second-year Blue Devils’ head coach Donyell Marshall added another infusion of talent to surround sharpshooter Austin Nehls and inside threat Mustafa Jones. It won’t be easy for CCSU to get back in the NEC postseason mix especially with how tight things might be in the top seven in the NEC standings. But there is an opening at eight and I think CCSU will break their streak this season and get themselves in with the final playoff position.
10. Will the NEC finally get themselves out of going to Dayton in the First Four?
As a follower and supporter of the NEC, I really want to YES! But if I’m honest with myself, I believe the answer is going to be no. KenPom preseason rankings have Saint Francis U., the top-ranked team in the NEC in his rankings…at 229. Whomp Whomp. Now, of course, the season hasn’t started yet and with some upsets, things could change. The thing is, nobody really expects there to be a dominant team in the NEC this season. There doesn’t seem to be a team that will have at least two high quality wins in non-conference and then runs through the NEC with just a loss or two. Especially with the NEC being in the first four in the last five seasons and being a 16-seed in the last six, a team pretty much needs to win north of 25 games just to have a chance at getting a seed better than 16 and totally clear of Dayton. I just don’t see that happening this season but I’m hoping I wrong.
11. Who will be raising an NEC trophy on March 6th?
Like I said earlier, if SFU gets home-court throughout, I can’t see anyone beating them on their home floor. But if SFU somehow gets knocked off, I think Fairleigh Dickinson has a great chance of winning another NEC title. Something was off with FDU last season and if they find the magic that propelled them to a conference championship two seasons ago once again, they have a real chance.