On to yet another week of conference previews! Next up is the NEC, a league that tends to produce lots of close games and tons of parity from top to bottom. The league was dealt a blow with the departure of Robert Morris for the Horizon League – RMU had long been one of the better programs in the conference, and that was only to be strengthened by the beautiful new arena they unveiled last year. That said, the instant success for Merrimack is good news for the future of the league: like many low-major conferences, the NEC has gambled on D2 upstarts to boost long-term viability, and Merrimack looks like a good bet.
Let’s dive in:
- Bryant – We’ve known since he took the job in the spring of 2018 that Jared Grasso would bring talent to Bryant. As he enters year three, the talent level with this group is simply higher than anyone else’s in the NEC, a remarkable achievement considering he inherited a team that went 3-28 in 2017-18. This year’s collection of newbies is the most talented one yet for Grasso: he adds four Division 1 transfers, two JUCO imports, and three freshmen join the fray, and all of them should be immediately eligible. The biggest addition for my money is Peter Kiss, a grad transfer from Rutgers who Grasso originally pursued at Iona when Kiss left Quinnipiac. Kiss is a athletic guard who averaged 13 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists as a freshman at Quinnipiac before heading to Piscataway, where he was a part-time player in year one before sitting out last season. Kiss can really score, and he’ll be empowered to hunt shots from day one in Smithfield. Meanwhile, Melo Eggleston (Arkansas State) and Luke Sutherland (Siena) add length and versatility in the frontcourt to pair with elite shot-blocking center Hall Elisias. Young returners Michael Green and Charles Pride have high upside in the backcourt, with Green taking on a critical role as the full-time point guard. One x-factor: JUCO import Chris Childs, who is a dynamic shooter from downtown and played at NJCAA powerhouse Indian Hills CC. With Adam Grant graduating, adding another guy who can light it up from deep was critical, and Childs can fill that role. The main concern is chemistry: piecing together that many new faces is a major challenge, particularly in a year with so many disruptions to the normal practice schedule. But guys like Kiss, Elisias, Childs, and Pride are just more talented than what you normally find at the NEC level, and with no clear favorite at the top I’m buying the Bulldogs at the top.
- LIU-Brooklyn (Note: no non-conference) – The Sharks graduate the lifeblood of their program in Raiquan Clark, who went from walk-on to 2,000-point scorer in one of the great stories in college basketball in recent years. But Derek Kellogg’s club should remain among the best in the NEC thanks to the return of a pair of experienced double-figure scorers. Skilled forward Tyrn Flowers is one of the NEC’s best, a huge matchup problem up front thanks to his ability to handle the ball and space the floor while also making an impact defensively with his rim-protecting skills. RS junior Eral Penn could be the major beneficiary of Clark’s graduation: Penn missed last season with an injury, but is tough around the rim and plays with great energy. Another guy who could assert himself at the 4 is freshman Anthony Kabala, a late stock-riser with tons of ball skills at 6-9. A pair of transfers in Alex Rivera (UMass-Lowell) and Tre Wood (UMass) should buoy a backcourt that graduates a few key contributors. Rivera loves to fire away from deep, and Wood is a capable floor general who played legit minutes in the A10 as a freshman. I do have some concerns about this team’s rebounding, particularly given the graduation of Clark from a unit that was one of the worst in the NEC a season ago. But if Penn and some younger guys can help solidify that area of the game, the Sharks will be as good as any in this conference.
- Fairleigh Dickinson – Greg Herenda’s group returns plenty in the backcourt and should have lots of firepower in 2020-21. Jahlil Jenkins is the best returning point guard in the league, a high-level shooter and ballhawking defender who has started all but five games of his collegiate career so far. Jenkins isn’t the only Knight who can light it up from deep: both Brandon Powell and Devon Dunn hit over 40% from deep in 2019-20, giving Herenda plenty of options in the backcourt alongside Jenkins and Xzavier Malone-Key. Defense was the team’s achilles heel in 2020, as the Knights ranked 9th in the conference in defensive efficiency and 10th in defending two-point shots. That unit doesn’t project to get much better in 2021: top shot-blocker and rebounder Kaleb Bishop graduates, leaving behind only Elyjah Williams in the frontcourt as far as proven contributors go. If I were Herenda, I would have targeted a JUCO big man with some rim protecting ability to compliment Williams up front. Without improvement on the defensive end, it’s hard to see this team winning a conference title.
- Merrimack – Merrimack’s year one run to the NEC title was an incredible achievement and a credit to the job Joe Gallo has done building a program in North Andover. Gallo’s team won with its defense, a ball-hawking extended 2-3 zone that limited the 3-point shot and forced a ton of turnovers. The Warriors led the nation in steal rate, stealing the ball on a ridiculous 14.5% of opposing possessions per KenPom. While I certainly think Gallo’s system is unique and will produce consistently strong defenses, losing the secret sauce of sorts in Juvaris Hayes will be a challenge: Hayes led the nation in steals with 121, and his ability to not only make plays on his own but also direct traffic in the zone will be missed. Two other key contributors in Idris Joyner and Jaleel Lord also graduate from last year’s club. I’m incredibly excited about year two for Jordan Minor, a physically-imposing 6-8 post player who showed tons of flashes as a freshman. Minor did a great job getting to the free throw line and also showed impressive defensive instincts. Fellow sophomore Ziggy Reid also should be in line for a bigger role – Reid settled for two many perimeter jumpers for a guy with such great size on the wing, but is certainly packed with upside. But the team’s most critical piece will be junior guard Mikey Watkins. Watkins seems likely to take the reigns at point guard after playing off the ball with Hayes. He’s a capable shot-maker and a playmaker on defense, but has struggled with turnovers. Consistent point guard play from Watkins will be huge for a team that struggled enough as it was last season putting the ball in the basket.
- Mount St. Mary’s – Dan Engelstad enters a critical year three at the helm of the Mount coming off a pair of 20-loss seasons, but with a relatively experienced group that has played a lot of basketball together despite having no seniors on the roster. Diminutive point guard Damian Chong-Qui blossomed as a sophomore, improving as a shooter as he morphed into a full-time lead guard for Engelstad’s bunch. He pairs with solid two-way guard Jalen Gibbs in the backcourt, while junior bigs Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson look to continue their development up front. Opoku is a guy whose stock I continue to buy: he can block shots, make free throws, and even stretch the floor a bit at 6-9. The departure of scoring guard Vado Morse may be something of addition by subtraction: Morse was incredibly inefficient despite his high usage, and his shots may be better distributed to the likes of freshmen Dakota Leffew and Josh Reaves. Waivers for one (or both) of Deandre Thomas (Samford) or Mezie Offurum (George Washington) would help – Offurum’s defensive versatility and ball skills at 6-8 make him an intriguing option moving down a level if he can play right away after playing for former Mount HC Jamion Christian in Foggy Bottom. With no seniors on the roster, this opens a two (or three, thanks to blanket eligibility) year window for the Mount to make significant strides in the NEC. Engelstad’s ability to do so (or not) could define his tenure in Emmitsburg.
- Saint Francis (PA) – The Keith Braxton/Isaiah Blackmon era is over in Loretto, and while it didn’t end in an NCAA Tournament bid, the duo’s accomplishments shouldn’t be overlooked. Braxton and Blackmon led the Red Flash to consistent success not seen for the program since the 1960s, and both guys’ names will undoubtedly be etched into the program’s record books for many years to come. So can Rob Krimmel build something sustainable following the graduation of those two stars? This will without a doubt be a young team, with six freshmen and just four returning players from the regular playing rotation a season ago. Things start with Myles Thompson, a versatile wing-forward who can do a little bit of everything on the floor. He’ll certainly be expected to step into a bigger scoring role, as will athletic wing Tyler Stewart. While the Flash do have a steady game manager at point guard in Ramiir Dixon-Conover, Krimmel could really use impact play early from at least one of his three freshman guards in Zahree Harrison, Ronell Giles, and Maxwell Land. Harrison is a guy I’m really excited about, a tough Philly guard who was very good in on the Adidas circuit for K Low Elite before missing much of his senior season of high school with a knee injury.
- Saint Francis Brooklyn – Glenn Braica’s club is always feisty, and this year should be no different. Well-traveled wing Travis Atson returns home to Brooklyn as a grad transfer with hopes of making as big an impact as fellow local product Unique McLean made when transferring into the program a season ago. Atson was a highly-regarded scorer in high school who could cause some matchup issues thanks to his size and physicality on the wing. Meanwhile, the backcourt is deep: McLean’s elite rebounding ability at 6-2 allows Braica to play small and get younger guards like sophomore Rob Higgins on the floor. Higgins is a better shooter than the 26% he shot last season as a freshman, and it will be critical that he gets it going from downtown for an offense that shot under 30% from deep as a team in 2019-20. One x-factor: big man Rheaquone Taylor, another NYC native who was a productive JUCO player at Hutchinson CC in 2018-19 before sitting out last season. With big man Deniz Celen graduating, getting productive minutes from Taylor at the pivot spot would be huge.
- Wagner – Things have stalled for Bashir Mason at Wagner, as the Seahawks have tallied back-to-back 300+ finishes in KenPom. Last year’s Wagner club was built primarily around two wings putting up shots, and the more efficient of the two in Alex Morales is back for one more season while Curtis Cobb graduates. Morales isn’t a natural point guard but was asked to create a lot, and struggled with turnovers as a result. Still, he’s one of the better returning shot-makers in the conference and is a good place to start for a team looking for pieces. A waiver for Duquesne transfer Ashton Miller would help: he didn’t get a ton of run for the Dukes, but was well-liked out of Seton Hall Prep and has good size on the wing at 6-5. Fixing the defense will be critical: the Seahawks fouled like it was their job on the interior and teams shot almost 39% off of them from deep. Without improvement on that end of the floor, a third straight ugly season in Staten Island seems likely.
- Sacred Heart – Anthony Latina deserves a lot of credit for leading the Pioneers to their first 20-win season in program history last season, but transfers and graduations sets SHU up for a rebuilding year in 2020-21. Already to set to graduate shooter Kinnon LaRose and rim-protector Jare’l Spellman, the team’s three most talented returners hit the transfer portal this spring. Losing a guy like EJ Anosike as a grad transfer to Tennessee is understandable – Anosike had little left to prove at the mid-major level and has the chance to play on an SEC contender. But the departures of Koreem Ozier (Louisiana-Monroe) and Cameron Parker (Montana) were more puzzling, and leave Latina with a roster with just three returning contributors from last season. One of those, rotation big man Zach Pfaffenberger, may miss the season with an achilles injury suffered in preseason practice. Expect Aaron Clarke to step into a starring role: Clarke was the team’s third-leading scorer last season and is a capable shot-maker and distributor. He’ll likely wind up being one of the more high-usage guys in the conference this season as a junior. Building out a backcourt likely will feature returners Tyler Thomas and Zach Radz (Radz missed the 2019-20 season). I’m also high on tough freshman guard Quest Harris, who could start at point guard in his first season on campus. But things are AWFULLY thin up front if Pfaffenberger is in fact done for the year: a pair of newcomers in freshman Nico Galette and JUCO import Cantavio Dutreil will be looked to for immediate production.
- Central Connecticut State – Things were as ugly as expected for the Blue Devils in 2019-20, losing the season’s first 20 D1 games and finishing 347th in KenPom. CCSU didn’t do anything well, ranking 342nd in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric and 340th in defensive efficiency. The good news? CCSU brings a lot back from a team that was supe, super young last season: Greg Outlaw, Jamir Reed, and Myles Baker all showed flashes as freshmen, and junior Ian Krishnan can flat-out shoot it from deep. JUCO imports Tre Mitchell and Nigel Scantlebury could also provide some firepower in the backcourt. Still, Donyell Marshall has really struggled to win games during his time at the helm of the CCSU program, and that culture of losing will make it hard to turn the corner this season.
All-Conference First Team:
- Chauncey Hawkins (Saint Francis Brooklyn)
- Jahlil Jenkins (Fairleigh Dickinson)
- Peter Kiss (Bryant)
- Alex Morales (Wagner)
- Tyrn Flowers (LIU)
Player of the Year: Tyrn Flowers (LIU) – The choice between Jenkins and Flowers was a tough one, but overall I believe Flowers makes a bigger impact on the game. Guys with his skill level at 6-9 are a rarity at any mid-major, let alone the NEC. Even with some shooting regression (he shot 39% from 3 in 2018-19 before shooting 30.5% in 2019-20), Flowers’ ability to stretch the floor impacts the game greatly by creating lots of spacing for drives from guards. Flowers also can grab-and-go off defensive rebounds, which opens up transition opportunities for the Sharks. He could have a massive season with Raiquan Clark having graduated.
Breakout Player: Jordan Minor (Merrimack) – Minor was productive as a freshman, but you could tell he was only scratching the surface. Minor’s frame was game-ready as a freshman, and he looked the part even in “up” games like the Warriors’ early-season win at Northwestern. Minor plays with great energy, can block shots, and is good around the rim. With starting big man Idris Joyner graduating, it is Minor’s turn to man the pivot-spot full-time. He could have a big sophomore season.
Newcomer of the Year: Peter Kiss (Bryant) – I mentioned Kiss at length in my comments about Bryant, but I’ll double down here. I think Kiss is a perfect fit for what Jared Grasso wants to do with this Bryant program. He is a proven contributor at the mid-major level, is a fiery guy who wants to win, and can take and make tough shots. I expect him to be the #1 option scoring the ball for the Bulldogs this season.