By Kevin Sweeney
Although the NEC doesn’t typically produce mid-majors that garner attention in March for deep NCAA Tournament runs, it is still a very exciting league to follow. It is one of the tightest leagues in college basketball, with 2nd and 8th place separated by just 3 games last season. Some NEC teams have been hurt by transfers, with Sacred Heart losing superstar Cane Broome to Cincinnati and Robert Morris’s Rodney Pryor transferring to Georgetown. Despite that, there are a lot of strong teams primed to make a NEC title run.
- Fairleigh Dickinson
- Sacred Heart
- St. Francis (NY)
- Mount St. Mary’s
- Robert Morris
- St. Francis (PA)
- Central Connecticut State
Champions: Fairleigh Dickinson- The Knights were one of the best stories in college basketball last season, reaching the NCAA Tournament despite being picked 9th by the coaches in their own conference. Now, it looks like FDU has a chance to do something special. Their top 8 scorers from last season were all freshmen and sophomores, and while they do lose 3rd-leading scorer Marques Townes to a transfer, it appears that the Knights have what most teams dream of, a young core of talent that has already had success. They have 2 of the best scorers in the conference in Darian Anderson and Earl Potts Jr, but offense won’t be an issue for FDU. The only thing that can hold back the Knights is their defense. They were dreadful on defense last season, allowing nearly 79 points per game, the worst in the conference and 315th in Division I. If they can solve their defensive woes, the Knights could be a mid-major to watch this season.
Dark Horse: Bryant- The 2015-16 season was a forgettable one for Bryant, as they won just 7 games against Division I competition and finished the season on a 1-12 skid. However, optimism is high for the Bulldogs, thanks mostly to a pair of sophomores in Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettway. Each had impressive freshmen campaigns, with Zouzoua leading the Bulldogs in scoring and Pettway earning Rookie of the Year honors in the NEC. Combine that duo with 2 other returning double-digit scorers in Hunter Ware and Dan Garvin, and you get a nice nucleus to build around in Smithfield. One area that the Bulldogs must improve upon is free-throw shooting. They shot just 64.2% from the charity stripe, one of the worst marks in college basketball. Good teams don’t give away free points, and Bryant did just that much too often last season.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Michael Carey- Wagner
- F:Jerome Frink- LIU-Brooklyn
- G: Darian Anderson-Fairleigh Dickinson
- G: Earl Potts Jr.- Fairleigh Dickinson
- G: Junior Robinson- Mt. St. Mary’s
Player of the Year: Jerome Frink- It’s hard to have a better first season with a new school than Frink had last season at LIU-Brooklyn. After 2 seasons at Florida International, Frink returned to the metro New York area after growing up in Jersey City. He averaged 16.9 points and 9 rebounds per game last year, and should put up even better numbers this season. His versatile offensive game from the forward position is very difficult to defend at the mid-major level, as he can dominate in the post or step out for a jump shot. With the graduations of Martin Hermannsson and Aakim Saintil, Frink is the unquestioned leader of this Blackbird team, and his performance will be paramount to his team’s success this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Shawn Montague (Sacred Heart)- While it is usually difficult to predict the performances of mid-major freshmen, I truly believe that the Pioneers have found a diamond in the rough in Montague. A late bloomer who didn’t play organized basketball until high school, Montague is still developing, but packs tons of potential into his lanky 6-5 frame. He garnered interest and offers from multiple power 5 and upper-tier mid-majors before choosing the Pioneers. It is clear that Montague is a natural scorer who can help Sacred Heart right away.