By Kevin Sweeney
The NEC now has an 11th team.
The continued growth of the Division 1 landscape hit the NEC this season, as Merrimack will join the fray as it begins its four-year transition to full Division 1 membership. While the Warriors may not be eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, they should be far from a pushover in conference play throughout the season.
I wrote in August about why I’m fascinated by Merrimack following an interview with head coach Joe Gallo— a likely top-10 D2 getting its shot to show off against one of the weaker conferences in D1. That transition will be one of the many storylines I’ll be following in the NEC this season.
#1. LIU– The Sharks (yes, it’s weird, I know) got the best news possible this offseason: a waiver for star forward Raiquan Clark to get an extra year of eligibility after he played a grand total of two minutes as a freshman walk-on in 2015-16. Clark is perhaps the NEC’s best, a prototypical mid-major star whose heart and toughness overshadows being perhaps an inch or two too short by most coaches’ standards. He forms a very formidable frontcourt with the highly skilled lefty Tyrn Flowers, and that frontcourt is complimented by a wealth of talented scoring options in the backcourt. In terms of athleticism and talent level, this doesn’t look like your typical NEC roster– credit Derek Kellogg’s recruiting ability as to why.
#2. Sacred Heart– Anthony Latina entered last season with pressure to win but low expectations outside the program, but an outstanding freshman class and the development of a young core quickly took the Pioneers to contender status in the NEC. Replacing the elite-shooting Sean Hoehn’s game and leadership won’t be easy, but this team has likely the best quartet in the league– an absolutely dominant front line with the bruising EJ Anosike and elite rim protector Jare’l Spellman paired with two terrific young guards in Cameron Parker and Kareem Ozier. Defending the three better will be critical.
#3. Fairleigh Dickinson– Greg Herenda got a few looks for better mid-major jobs in the region this offseason and deservedly so– he has done an excellent job in his six years at FDU. The Knights won on the backs of blistering three-point shooting: in conference play, FDU shot 42% from downtown and were 5th nationally in 3-point shooting on the season. The loss of Darnell Edge, who shot 48% from beyond the arc, will likely eat into that edge, but this roster is still good enough to remain right in the thick of things in the NEC. Those around the league rave about Jahlil Jenkins at the point guard position, and skilled big Kaleb Bishop could shine more with the graduation of Mike Holloway down low.
#4. Saint Francis (PA)– Saint Francis (PA) gets one more shot to get over the hump during the Keith Braxton era in 2018-19, but one worries they may have missed their best chance. With two NEC Championship Game losses in the last three years, Rob Krimmel’s bunch now loses point guard Jamaal King– a perfect fit next to Braxton who fit perfectly into everything the Red Flashes do. With an interior defense that has been ugly to say the least since Josh Nebo transferred two years ago, Krimmel had to rely on outscoring the opposition. I’m not sure they can do that consistently enough without King to be true contenders for an NEC title.
#5. Robert Morris– The Colonials open a new arena for the 2019-20 season, the beautiful UPMC Arena that should help RMU recruit against its NEC foes.
In with that new arena comes a strong trio of JUCO imports to augment a nice returning core for Andy Toole’s bunch. The one I’m most high on is skilled forward AJ Bramah, who starred at Sheridan College and whose ability to make plays as a forward creates an intriguing statistical profile. I also like athletic guard Jalen Hawkins, who should make a nice impact in the backcourt and pick up some of the defensive slack left behind by Matty McConnell. Josh Williams is one of the best guards in this conference, and the talent around him is good enough to remain very competitive night-in, night-out.
#6. Bryant– Jared Grasso continues to flex his recruiting muscles at Bryant and bring in upper-level mid-major talent that fits his system to the NEC. The dismissal of speedy guard Joe Kasperzyk this offseason was a blow, but the additions of extremely talented wing Charles Pride and JUCO scoring guard Ayo Dada should make most folks quickly forget about Kasperzyk. With a healthy Ikenna Ndugba and Adam Grant already in tow, special things could be in store for this Bryant backcourt.
#7. Mount St. Mary’s– The Mount played its best basketball in February in what was always going to be a trying season for Dan Englestad with an extraordinarily young group left behind from the Jamion Christian era. However, Christian left behind one great parting gift: rising star point guard Vado Morse. The NEC Rookie of the Year was just superb as a freshman, averaging 17 points and shooting 37% from 3 during A10 play despite getting loads of attention at all times. If a few more of these young players can continue to assert themselves, watch out for the Mount in a year or two.
#8. Merrimack– It wouldn’t surprise me if Merrimack even creeped up higher than this, but this feels like a reasonable spot to rank the Warriors preseason. Joe Gallo has a legit star in Juvaris Hayes, a dynamic point guard who put up video game numbers at the D2 level (19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 3.9 steals a game) and brings back all but one contributor from last year’s NE-10 title team. They also add a strong recruiting class, including some pop on the inside in Jordan Minor. Another thing to watch out for: Merrimack plays a unique extended 2-3 zone that could catch teams off-balance in their first go-round facing it.
#9. Saint Francis (NY)– This feels somewhat low for a Glenn Braica team– I love how tough all his teams are, and as a result they usually steal a few games they shouldn’t every season. The loss of starting guards Jalen Jordan and Glenn Sanabria will be tough to replace: Jordan in particular was a terrific shooter and a good athlete who’s off to Middle Tennessee State. UMass grad transfer Unique McLean could make an impact in their absence– a nuclear athlete who struggles to shoot the ball.
#10. Wagner— I’m not overly comfortable with having a Bashir Mason team this low, but this is very much a team in transition after losing four of its top five scorers from a season ago. The well-traveled Curtis Cobb should put up big numbers in the NEC as a grad transfer from UMass– when engaged, the guy can get buckets. After him, it’s difficult to find who is putting the ball in the basket.
#11– Central Connecticut State– Speaking of teams in transition, it’s rebuilding time for Donyell Marshall’s CCSU group, with seven freshmen and four sophomores on the roster for the upcoming season. Marshall has done a nice job collecting talent with this big freshman class, and success this season should be measured more based on how that young group looks as building blocks than simply by counting wins and losses. One name in particular to be excited by: Myles Baker, a smooth combo guard from Chicago who put up big numbers on the Adidas circuit and had a nice list of other suitors before choosing CCSU.
ALl-Conference First Team:
- Juvaris Hayes (Merrimack)
- Vado Morse (Mount St Mary’s)
- Keith Braxton (Saint Francis PA)
- Raiquan Clark (LIU)
- EJ Anosike (Sacred Heart)
Player of the Year: Keith Braxton (Saint Francis PA)
I love Braxton’s game, a true Swiss Army Knife who can hurt NEC teams in a number of ways. He has the size to bully smaller men and fight on the boards against bigs as well as the skill level to lead the break and distribute. He should put up even bigger numbers in his senior season with Jamaal King gone, and if he stays healthy he should eclipse both the 2,000-point and 1,000 rebound marks. He might even push for 500 career assists.
Breakout Player: Malik Jefferson (Mount St Mary’s)
A late signee, Jefferson was incredibly productive for a freshman big. He’s excellent around the rim and a steady rebounder who was terrific on a per-minute basis a season ago. Doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble will be critical, but he’s another building block piece along with Vado Morse for Dan Englestad.
Newcomer of the Year: Curtis Cobb (Wagner)
Cobb should be expected to put together a pretty massive statistical season in 2019-20. Talent has never been the problem– a well-regarded recruit out of high school, Cobb’s shot-making ability pops whenever you watch him. If he can keep his head screwed on straight, this could be a game-changing pickup for Bashir Mason.