By Kevin Sweeney
I would be remiss if I didn’t open my discussion about the NEC with a breakdown about its issues with transfers. 6 out of the top 10 returning scorers in the NEC transferred this offseason, and players from the NEC headed to places like Miami, Texas, Kansas State, and Seton Hall. This transfer crisis has made it impossible for the league’s stature to improve, as it seems many teams are in a perpetual state of reloading. That said, it is one of the more entertaining and wide-open leagues in the country as the result of this player movement, and I’m looking forward to watching the drama unfold this season.
- St. Francis (PA)- The Red Flash seem to be a pretty strong favorite this season in the NEC. They have one of the better guard pairings at the mid-major level in Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton, and have the experience of a deep NEC Tourament run from a season ago. The one concern I have is how they’ll handle losing an interior threat and rim protector like Josh Nebo (now at Texas A&M).
- Mount St. Mary’s- The defending league champions certainly lose a ton from last season, but I’m betting on Jamion Christian and his 12 freshmen along with Junior Robinson to not let the Mount fall off The Map.
- LIU-Brooklyn- Definitely one of the more interesting teams in the conference this season, the Blackbirds have a new coach in Derek Kellogg and a talented backcourt featuring senior Joel Hernandez and sophomores Jashaun Agosto & Julian Batts. Look for UMass grad transfer Zach Coleman to stabilize a frontcourt that loses Jerome Frink from last season’s club.
- Sacred Heart- The loss of Quincy McKnight is on its face crushing, but it may not be as huge as some have suggested. The Pioneers still have the best frontcourt in the conference featuring Joseph Lopez, but it will be the guard play that will determine how good SHU will be. Watch out for Kinnon LaRose, a transfer from Siena who can shoot the cover off the ball.
- Fairleigh Dickinson- FDU has the best scorer in the conference in Darian Anderson, but the departures of Stephan Jiggetts and Earl Potts to the transfer market definitely hurts. The Knights will need steady PG play from freshman Jahlil Jenkins in order to contend.
- Wagner- A pair of stat-sheet-stuffers return in guards JoJo Cooper and Ramone Saunders, but Corey Henson, Michael Carey, and Mike Aaman all depart for Bashir Mason’s club. This is a hard team to predict preseason, but I could see them climbing the standings in the NEC and contending once again.
- Bryant- The bad news for the Bulldogs is Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettway transferred this offseason. The good news is that sophomore guard Adam Grant returns, and I expect him to be one of the best scorers in the conference. The Bulldogs will go as far as Grant takes them.
- Central Connecticut State- I really like what Donyell Marshall is beginning to build at CCSU, and I think for this season a reasonable target is qualifying for the conference tournament. JUCO wing Tyler Kohl should be one of the better newcomers in the league.
- Robert Morris- Other than guards Dachon Burke and Matty McConnell, pretty much every contributor from a season ago is gone for RMU. A huge group of newcomers will look to fill out the holes in the roster, but it’s hard to have any expectations at this point.
- St. Francis (Brooklyn)- The Terriers were really bad last season, and while I believe they should be improved from a season ago, it won’t be enough to keep them out of the cellar of the NEC.
Champions: St. Francis (PA)
The best way to describe the Red Flash’s season in 2016-17 is “ahead of schedule”. Relying on a very young team, St. Francis went 11-7 in league play and made a run to the conference title game. Now, with the aforementioned Blackmon and Braxton anchoring the team as juniors and sophomores respectively, this team has a chance to be incredibly dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, the loss of a guy like Nebo can’t be overstated, but SFU should be the best team this conference has to offer this season.
Dark Horse: Sacred Heart
One of the biggest reasons I am high on the Pioneers this season is their ability to create mismatches. With a frontcourt that features the experience of guys like Lopez and Mario Matasovic and youth like talented freshman EJ Anosike (brother of former Siena star and NCAA rebounding champion OD Anosike), SHU can bother opponents with their size. The question will be the guards, but if someone can step up as a true scoring threat, the Pioneers will be a team that can surprise people.
First Team All-Conference
- G: Darian Anderson (Fairleigh Dickinson)
- G: Keith Braxton (St. Francis PA)
- G: Adam Grant (Bryant)
- G: Junior Robinson (Mount St. Mary’s)
- F: Joseph Lopez (Sacred Heart)
Player of the Year: Keith Braxton (St. Francis PA)- I’m not sure some people realize just how phenomenal Braxton was as a rookie. He led the conference in win shares while averaging over 13 points and 8 rebounds per game and being one of the best perimeter defenders in the NEC. He scored at high efficiency as well, shooting 53% from the field and 44% from 3. After doing all of that as a freshman, I can’t wait to see what he does with another year of seasoning under his belt.
Breakout Player of the Year: Adam Grant (Bryant)- One could certainly make the case that Grant is already an established commodity in the NEC, but with the boost in production I expect to see from him this season, I think he deserves the breakout tag. With Zouzoua, the conference’s leading scorer a season ago, gone, Grant will be expected to score a ton of points for the Bulldogs, and I truly believe the sky is the limit for the production we could see from him.
Newcomer of the Year: Donald Carey (Mount St. Mary’s)- a 6-5 guard who can play the 1, 2, or 3, Carey is a high-level talent at the NEC level who was an outstanding pickup for Jamion Christian. He’s long and handles the ball well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up being a starter from day one. My only concern is how he recovers from a torn meniscus suffered this summer as the season approaches.