By Kevin Sweeney
The NEC has become synonymous with the transfer bug in college basketball, but actually escaped without too much damage this offseason. Blake Francis and Dachon Burke were the headline departures, with Francis off to Richmond from Wagner and Burke departing Robert Morris for Nebraska. The league also lost some young talent that had a chance to become all-conference types in Jonah Antonio (JUCO), Noah Morgan (JUCO), and Donald Carey (Siena), but given the losses over the last couple years, it could have been worse. With some returning players, the league has a chance to be somewhat improved from last season.
#1. Saint Francis (PA)
Featuring an incredibly deep and talented backcourt, the Red Flashes have to be seen as the preseason favorite in the NEC. Keith Braxton stuffs the stat-sheet, a great rebounder and dynamic slasher at 6-4, and Rob Krimmel gets back a high-level scorer in Isaiah Blackmon, who missed much of last season with an injury. This team should be elite on offense, and Krimmel’s club should be improved on defense and on the glass thanks to an improving frontcourt pairing in Mark Flagg and Deivydas Kuzavas.
I love this roster’s versatility. UMass transfer Tyrn Flowers and breakout candidate Eral Penn gives LIU some intriguing frontcourt options to pair with combo forward Raiquan Clark and a outstanding backcourt. Derek Kellogg could deploy a 5-out offense with Flowers, a 6-9 athlete who can shoot 3’s, at the 5, Clark at the 4, and 3 guards, or they can go with high-level freshman big man Ousmane Ndim anchoring the defense at the 5.
#3. Fairleigh Dickinson
In a league that has become known for its roster turnover, FDU is the rare club that brings back almost all its production from the previous year. A Darnell Edge/Jahlil Jenkins/Kaleb Bishop/Mike Holloway core is a potent one, though defense remains a concern as it has throughout the Greg Herenda era.
Bashir Mason has done a terrific job in his time at Wagner, and it would surprise me if the Seahawks don’t contend once again in the NEC. Mason’s teams play great defense, win on the glass, and don’t make many mistakes. Losing Blake Francis was a crusher, but Wagner returns a fair amount of backcourt talent in Romone Saunders, Devin Liggeons, and Elijah Davis.
Hiring longtime Iona 2nd-in-command Jared Grasso was an absolute slam dunk for this Bryant program, and Grasso has them in position to make big strides in year one. Tim O’Shea leaves behind a talented guard pairing in Ikenna Ndugba and Adam Grant, both of whom are excellent fits in the guard-heavy offense Grasso will deploy. Grasso also brought in a trio of impact newcomers that fit his style of play, with Murray State grad transfer Byron Hawkins an all-league talent in the NEC, JUCO big man Juan Cardenas likely to step in right away up front, and freshman Joe Kasperzyk earning rave reviews early on.
This may be an ambitious rating for a team that won 3 games last season, but I’m a big believer in what Grasso is building in Smithfield.
#6. Robert Morris
No program in college basketball has been hurt more by transfers than Robert Morris. Marcquise Reed, Elijah Minnie, Isaiah Still, and Dachon Burke are among the players still playing college basketball who began their careers at RMU and are now at higher levels. Losing Burke this offseason leave Andy Toole picking up the pieces like usual, but he’s in a better situation than in previous years with key cogs Koby Thomas and Matty McConnell back. Meanwhile, Akron transfer Josh Williams has earned high praise since arriving, and freshman Philmon Gebrewhit has tons of potential. This team needs someone to step up and put the ball in the basket, but the pieces are intriguing.
#7. Central Connecticut State
JUCO product Tyler Kohl helped Donyell Marshall’s club make some positive strides in 2017-18, as the do-it-all wing was one of 2 players in the entire country to average at least 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. If he gets some help in the shot-creating department this season, the Blue Devils could surprise.
#8. Saint Francis (NY)
Losing talent out of your league to high-major programs is one thing, but it has to be frustrating to see some of your top players leave for Cleveland State. That’s what happened to the Terriers this offseason, when they lost sturdy wing Rasheem Dunn to the Vikings. That was a major blow to a club that had a chance to move up the NEC standings this season, especially given how important Dunn’s rebounding was to a team with questions in the frontcourt.
#9. Sacred Heart
Despite having one of the league’s best frontcourts, the Pioneers really struggled in 2017-18, and lose both senior starters from that forward rotation. D2 transfer Jarel Spellman has high upside as a rim protector, but I just don’t know if there’s enough guard talent to put the ball in the basket consistently. A 6-man freshman class showing promise is key for Anthony Latina’s job security.
#10. Mount St. Mary’s
The Mount lost their star young head coach in Jamion Christian to Siena late in the coaching cycle this offseason, and what was already going to be a bit of a reload became a full-on rebuild. Potential centerpieces Donald Carey and Jonah Antonio (who left before Christian) transferred out of the program, while Junior Robinson and Chris Wray were already graduating. New head coach Dan Engelstad did a great job at the D3 level, but winning games this year with perhaps the youngest roster in Division 1 basketball will be quite a challenge.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jamaal King: St. Francis (PA)– (18.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .473/.340/.816)
- Tyler Kohl: CCSU– (16.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 4.1 apg, .422/.291/.788)
- Romone Saunders: Wagner– (14.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.0 apg, .421/.343/.704)
- Keith Braxton: St. Francis (PA)– (17.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, .475/.367/.795)
- Raiquan Clark: LIU-Brooklyn– (17.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.5 apg, .556/.241/.750)
Player of the Year: Keith Braxton (St. Francis PA)
Braxton is one of my favorite mid-major players to watch in the country. He’s an excellent rebounder, is very athletic, and can defend multiple positions. He’s also an underrated shooter who is still getting better in that area of his game. I’m excited to see what he does this season.
Breakout Player: EJ Anosike (Sacred Heart)
The brother of former Siena star OD Anosike, EJ showed major promise as a freshman behind a pair of senior starters. Now, he gets a chance to shine. He’s not quite as tall or athletic as his brother, but his burly frame should play well in the NEC.
Newcomer of the Year: KJ Scott (Mount St. Mary’s)
The elder statesman on an incredibly old Mount St. Mary’s team, Scott was a steal at the NEC level after missing much of last season at Texas Southern with an injury. He should provide a lot of experience and scoring punch on the wing in a rebuilding campaign, and it would surprise me if he’s not in the running for all-conference honors this season.