Ten (plus one) Burning Questions Heading Into 2017-18 NEC Season

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. Continue reading “Ten (plus one) Burning Questions Heading Into 2017-18 NEC Season”

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LIU is dancing again

Often the sequel doesn’t live up to its original. That was the case on Wednesday night at the WRAC, but LIU Brooklyn is just as happy with the ending.

The Blackbirds captured their second straight NEC tournament title with a 90-73 home victory over Robert Morris in front of a jubilant sellout crowd.

Unlike last season, when the Blackbirds needed overtime to secure the title, LIU took much of the drama out of this game early. RMU’s star point guard Velton Jones went down hard after a layup just a minute into the game. He returned, but never really seemed the same.

In the meantime the Blackbirds went about establishing a game plan that was far removed from the one they failed to execute when they lost at Robert Morris during the regular season. Midway through the first half the Colonials looked to be in control, up 19-15, but the Blackbirds exploded for 13-straight points to take a lead they’d never relinquish.

The reason LIU was able to hang onto the lead was the spectacular play of sophomore point guard Jason Brickman. Early in the season the Blackbirds struggled a bit while Brickman worked to define his role in the offense. As conference play started he seemed to get more comfortable taking on a scoring role as well as a playmaking one. In the NEC tournament that experience was on full display.

“I think just playing more games and getting practice in,” Brickman said about how he turned it around. “Just getting chemistry together in my first year as a starter and playing with these guys more minutes.”

Brickman set single game, championship and tournament records for assists as the Blackbirds rolled through the competition for the title. In the championship he had 18 points and 11 assists. While teammate Julian Boyd was named tournament MVP, he gave his credit for all his success.

“I definitely wouldn’t have got player of the year. I wouldn’t get all the accolades and we would not be where we are without him,” Boyd said.

As Jones struggled with injured ribs the Colonials struggled to find anyone that could contain LIU’s dynamic triggerman. Whether it was getting into the lane for layup, or firing a pass out onto the wing Brickman made the right decision more often than not during his 35 minutes on the court.

“He was incredible,” said RMU head coach Andy Toole about Brickman. “He has an uncanny ability to read a defense.”

Brickman said he developed that ability by watching NBA point guards like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd play. Knicks super fan Spike Lee, who was in attendance on Wednesday, would certainly approve.

Now that LIU has conquered the mountain of back-to-back NEC titles, a new challenge begins. The NEC hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2008 when Mount St. Mary’s defeated Coppin State in the play-in game. Next weekend LIU will have a chance to change that, hopefully as a 15 seed or better. Whatever higher seed awaits is in for a difficult challenge. Brickman, Boyd and Jamal Olasewere can cause matchup problems for any team.

“One of my goals at the beginning of the season was to win a game in the NCAA tournament,” Brickman said. “I think with a lot of guys back from last year we have experience. I think we’re going to be a lot more comfortable going in.”

Now they’ll have that shot.

Four Questions for the NEC Championship

Tonight on ESPN2 LIU Brooklyn and Robert Morris will meet again with the NEC title, and the NCAA tournament automatic bid that comes with it, on the line. Last season the Blackbirds pulled out the home victory in overtime. Earlier this season though the Colonials got the 75-66 win at the Charles L. Sewall Center. Looking back on that game here are four key questions and things to watch.

1. Will someone else step up? — The last time these two teams played Julian Boyd scored 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Jamal Olasewere added 18 points and that was about it. The Blackbirds scored 66 points that night, the third fewest this season and the fewest when Boyd was completely healthy. Michael Culpo was 0-10 from the field and the LIU shot 3-16 from three as a team. That can’t happen again. LIU’s defense just isn’t good enough to score fewer than 70 points and win. Thus someone else is going to have to step up. Whether it’s Jason Brickman getting involved offensively, C.J. Garner slicing down the lane or Culpo knocking down jumpers, a third scorer must emerge.

2. What happens at the free throw line? — One thing that might help LIU’s offense is that the Blackbirds will be playing at home. Last time LIU shot 19-20 from the free throw line, but Robert Morris actually had more attempts, going 17-27 from the line. LIU has lost all three games in which its opponent shot more free throws (at Hofstra, at Norfolk State and at Robert Morris). How the officials call the game will impact this contest just as much, as it completely destroyed the rhythm of RMU’s semifinal against Wagner. If officials call the touch fouls it could be a long night for the Colonials. During the conference season RMU was the worst in the NEC in defensive free throw rate. LIU was the best at getting to the line. A parade of free throw shooters wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing, but it’d certainly get the job done.

3. Who guards Velton Jones? — Jones scored 25 points in the win over Wagner, including 14-16 from the free throw line. He also scored 23 points the last time these two teams met. Jones is RMU’s heart. If you can contain him there’s always a shot. Robert Morris is 2-3 when Jones scores fewer than 10 points this season. A big, physical point guard he’s a bad matchup for LIU. It’s likely the Blackbirds come out in a zone and hope that RMU has a cold shooting night from three.

4. Can LIU hang onto the basketball? — At the beginning of the season it seemed like LIU couldn’t stop itself from turning the ball over. When LIU turns the ball over on more than 25% of its possessions there’s a ton of vulnerability. Last time against RMU that number was 26.9%. Brickman, Garner and Olasewere each had four turnovers in the last game and Boyd had five. That can’t happen tonight.

Bonus tip: LIU was the best three-point shooting team in the NEC during conference play at 37.5%. Robert Morris was the worst team at defending the three during conference play allowing opponents to shoot 39.1%. If playing at home is the magic formula from beyond the arc it should help the Blackbirds.

Extra bonus tip: Check out these articles on potential NEC seeding and the NEC title game by the numbers from Colonials Corner.

This should be a great game. If you can’t make it to Brooklyn be sure to watch.

Why all the NEC’s top coaches could be staying

The NEC championship game hasn’t even been played, but the coaching carousel doesn’t wait for anything. When the Rhode Island Rams decided to part ways with head coach Jim Barron three NEC coaches found themselves thrown into the rumors. Two of those coaches are coaching on Wednesday and all three will hear their names mentioned many more times. It’s possible though that all could stay at their respective institutions.

That sounds weird, because the NEC is a single-bid conference near the bottom of Division I by almost any metric, but all three have lots of reasons to be excited about the future of their respective programs and each has more to do. In turn the league should benefit and continue to rise in 2012-13. Will they all stay? Let’s take a look at each’s unique situation.

Dan Hurley: Destined for big things

When Dan Hurley came to Grymes Hill he was already a high school coaching legend, with a career record of 223-21 at Saint Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. He has a famous father and brother and was expected to succeed from day one, even as he stepped into a program that had won just five games the year before he took over. Two seasons later the Seahawks lost at home in the semifinals of the NEC Tournament after going 15-3 in conference play. They also beat Pittsburgh, Princeton and Penn in non-conference play. Hurley’s name was being thrown around in Twitter rumors for the URI while the semifinal was still in progress.

There will always be jobs out there for Hurley. He’s got the name, the pedigree and the system to shoot for the biggest of jobs when he decides to leave Staten Island. His defensive system will play anywhere and as he moves up the ladder he’ll just be able to get more and more talent.

That ability to acquire talent is one of the reasons that Hurley shouldn’t leave Wagner after this season. Chris Martin and Tyler Murray both graduate, but the cupboard is far from bare. Former Michigan Mr. Basketball Dwaun Anderson may be eligible next season. He’ll complement Latif Rivers, NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz and the developing Naofall Folahan and Mario Moody in the paint. Once again Hurley will have the talent to compete for an NEC title.

Jim Ferry: Building a program

If he wanted to LIU Brooklyn head coach Jim Ferry could’ve left after last season. He accomplished pretty much everything an NEC coach can by winning the conference regular season and tournament titles and claiming a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Manhattan came calling last off season and it seemed like Ferry might go, until he didn’t. Instead he returned and once again won the NEC regular season title.

Now, after back-to-back seasons with NEC titles, Ferry is in charge of one of the premiere programs in the conference. He took eight seasons to build the foundation for this success and it’s going to take the perfect job for him to leave. Like Hurley’s Seahawks the Blackbirds will be loaded against next season. NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd will be back for his senior season with Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman is there to run the floor with them. Ferry will need to find some more front court depth, but Brandon Thompson could be starting in the NEC right now and more talent is surely on the way.

Andrew Toole: The youngster

It’s a testament to Mike Rice, the Robert Morris program and Andrew Toole what has happened in Pittsburgh the past few seasons. When Rice got the opportunity to go to Rutgers Toole took the reigns and has never faltered. The Colonials played in the NEC title game last season and are there once again after their upset of Wagner on Sunday. Like their coach, the Colonials are a careful blend of experience and youth. Just one player, Lawrence Bridges, will graduate at the end of this season.

Toole is the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I. He’s been a head coach for just two (albeit very successful) seasons. Is he ready to leap? Will the struggles his mentor Rice has had at Rutgers serve as a cautionary tale? Toole is a shooting star, but it’s obvious that success can be sustained at Robert Morris. There are athletes to be found in that area of the country who can play the switching defensive system that RMU so deftly employs. The majority of the roster comes from the area surrounding the city. There are lots of gems to be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which make up more than half the roster.

And there’s this wildcard, Karon Abraham, arguably RMU’s most talented player, will return next season. He was suspended all season due to violating school rules. It was a gutsy move by a young coach, but it’s paid dividends and showed Toole wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions.

More to come

Where does that leave us? Could all three return? Surely. If they did the NEC would probably be prepared for the best season in conference history. These three programs should be joined by others like Central Connecticut, St. Francis (NY) and Monmouth next season. Seven of the league’s top 10 players return. It could be a banner year for the conference, but it’ll only be as strong as possible if Hurley, Ferry and Toole resist the siren’s song of other jobs and come back to finish what they’ve started.

Wagner’s season ends too quickly

In stunningly swift fashion a special Wagner season that had taken months to build came to a crashing end on Sunday afternoon against Robert Morris at the Spiro Sports Center in the NEC semifinals. Robert Morris’ Velton Jones controlled play and led the Colonials to a 71-64 win.

The game was a story of two halves. In the first the officials dominated play, calling 29 personal fouls. Both teams struggled offensively, but Wagner came out of the first 20 minutes with a 31-29 lead on its home court.

But at the opening of the second half it all disappeared. RMU scored 10 of the first 11 points of the second half to build an eight-point lead, 40-32, and never looked back, pushing the lead to as many as nine and withstanding a late Wagner charge for the victory.

“We’ve been a great start of second half team all year,” said Wagner head coach Dan Hurley. “We weren’t tonight. We had some opportunities for some finishes around the basket. We could’ve maintained control of the game. We didn’t make the plays. They made the plays.”

Jones was the best player on the court. Robert Morris’ junior point guard 25 points on 5-10 shooting and 14-16 from the free throw line. He picked up three fouls in the first half, but managed to avoid picking up his fourth until 1:24 remained in the game. It was a foul he drew against Kenneth Ortiz with 1:03 remaining, the shot clock expiring and the Colonials hanging onto a three-point lead that was the biggest play of the game. He calmly knocked down all three free throws and RMU finished out the game.

For Wagner it was the culmination of two seasons of hard work under Hurley coming to their first crest. The Seahawks finish with a record of 25-6 (15-3), a place no one could’ve imagined them being two seasons ago.

“Coach came in here with a style two years ago and we bought it right away,” said senior Tyler Murray. “To make a such transition, it’s incredible.”

Part of the resurgence has been the leadership and play of Murray. He scored 15 points on 6-11 shooting in 26 minutes on Saturday before fouling out. Sophomore Latif Rivers led the way with 18 points, most of them coming on 11-12 shooting from the line.

Unfortunately, Wagner didn’t have the post play to complement those two against Robert Morris’ talented trio of Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson and Russell Johnson. Thompson in particular helped RMU dominate on the boards with eight offensive rebounds. The Colonials grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and won the overall rebounding battle 45-30. If Thompson had been able to make more of his 10 point-blank shots RMU would’ve had an even bigger cushion to work with.

The Colonials also displayed the maturity that comes with being in this situation multiple times in the last four seasons. As RMU struggled with fouls in the first half they didn’t let the game get away. In the second Andrew Toole expertly shuffled his lineup. The Colonials committed 30 fouls in the game, but not one player fouled out. Six players ended up with four fouls.

“I think [the experience] helps us a lot,” Jones said. “We’ve played in big games like this throughout our years here. I think that helped us a lot to be able to finish out the game and be composed even though they made a run at the end.”

On the other side the youthful Seahawks often forced things that weren’t there in transition. Wagner had just four fast break points off 12 RMU turnovers and shot 27-40 from the line. It’s those types of things that Hurley will have to continue to work on.

“Sometimes you want it so badly, you get in your own way,” Hurley said. “It’s tough to take, but you’re just so proud of who these guys are.”

Hopefully Wagner will get a bid to the NIT. The Seahawks, with road wins over Pittsburgh, Princeton and Penn and just one bad loss (at Central Connecticut) certainly deserve to be considered. Hurley hopes his team will get that chance.

“We hope for the opportunity to play in [the NIT] because of everything that we’ve achieved throughout the year,” Hurley said. “I think we’ve earned it. Hopefully the committee feels the same way.”

It’ll be another opportunity build towards what looks like a bright future.