Mid-Major Top 10: Northeast Conference

Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

7 of 10 players from last season's All-NEC First and Second team players return led by 2010-11 unanimous Player of the Year Julian Boyd, for what should be a loaded conference season.

What happens when just three of 10 first and second team all-conference players graduate? You end up with a pretty loaded conference the next season. That's the case in the Northeast Conference where a ton of individual talent returns in what could be a very strong season for the league. Three teams - LIU Brooklyn, Wagner and Robert Morris - are expected to battle at the top of the league. All three of those teams are loaded with talented players.

Also, last season's particularly strong freshman class will become sophomores, the biggest leap a player can make during their collegiate lifecycle, so expectations are high for some of the best of last season's class.

Of course, all of this might only add up to the conference winner avoiding the 16-seed line come March, but that's a big step. Last season the NEC ranked 26th in the Pomeroy rankings, ahead of the Big Sky, Southland, America East, MEAC and SWAC amongst automatic bid conferences. It could move up even further this season, because of the talent that can be found in this Top 10.

10. Lucky Jones, Robert Morris -- One of those freshmen expected to take a leap is Jones. The 6'5" swingman wasn't afraid to shoot last season and put up strong rebounding numbers on both sides of the ball. He's a defensive presence and should be even better this season with a year of experience in Andy Toole's system. Another good sign for Colonials fans? Jones has been tearing up the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am this summer.

9. Jalen Cannon, St. Francis (NY) -- The Terriers were picked 11th in NEC in the preseason last season and went on to finish fourth in the league. A lot of it had to do with the impact that Cannon made during his freshman season as a rebounder and defensive presence. Last season he was amongst the best rebounders in the country, finishing 11th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. His combination of a low turnover rate and an ability to get to the free throw line resulted efficient offense, but he'll need to look for his own shot more during his sophomore season to move into the conference's elite.

8. Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut -- Last season's NEC Rookie of the Year Vinales has a much bigger load to carry now that All-NEC First Team performer Ken Horton has graduated. Vinales showed last season that he's not afraid to shoot, a lot, but he'll have to improve his accuracy if he wants to be an elite player and not just a volume scorer. Vinales has a chance to become an 1,000-point scorer at CCSU during his sophomore season after scoring 520 points during his freshman season, the most ever for a freshman Blue Devil.

7. Latif Rivers, Wagner -- The way the Seahawks played under Dan Hurley, and probably will play under new head coach Bashir Mason, makes pinpointing any one player as the key cog in the rotation rather difficult, but Rivers did enough last season to make the NEC Second Team as a sophomore. The graduation of fellow Second Team player Tyler Murray should give Rivers even more opportunities to score this season. Rivers shot 35.1% from three in 2010-11, but it can improve. Teammate Jonathon Williams, a senior, could've been on this list too, but I just ran out of room. The former junior college transfer was an instant upgrade last season to Wagner's front court rotation.

6. Jason Brickman, LIU Brooklyn -- Brickman loves to pass and he's the engine that drives the best offense in the NEC. Last season his assist rate of 35.6 ranked 25th nationally. But that doesn't mean you should sag off of him. Brickman also shot 52/41/82 on twos, threes and free throws last season. He's a complete offensive player who can stay on the floor for long periods of time because he rarely gambles or makes a mistake on defense. In fact, Brickman committed fewer than one foul per 40 minutes last season.

5. Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac -- Azotam is probably the best back-to-the-basket big man in the NEC. At 6'7" he's the perfect size for a traditional forward in the NEC. He didn't attempt a single three-point shot last season and shot almost as well from the field (55.6%) as he did from the line (61.1%). He'll need that free throw percentage to improve this season if he wants to help Quinnipiac go further than a first round exit, especially because with James Johnson gone Azotam will be the clear focus of the Bobcats' attack. Johnson's departure makes getting Azotam the ball even more important, but also more difficult. It'll be up to him to demand the ball in the post.

4. Jamal Olasewere, LIU Brooklyn -- The Swiss Army Knife of forwards the 6'7" Olasewere can do a little of everything. He's excellent at putting pressure on opponents with his dribble drives from the top of the key. By shooting 34.1% from three last season he made it so opponents had to respect that part of his game as well. His incredible athleticism is the key to his game. Rim rattling dunks and acrobatic layups helped Olasewere finish 60.2% of his shots inside the arc. It shows up on the defensive end too, where he put up block and steal rates above three percent. The one part of his game that could use some refinement is turnovers. If he can hang onto the ball more he'll be almost unstoppable.

3. Velton Jones, Robert Morris -- Jones is the heart and soul of the RMU team, which has reached the NEC finals in each of his three seasons. His ability as a playmaker is rivaled only by Brickman in the NEC and he's an incredibly pesky defender. The 6'0" point guard is also as tough as they come and is fearless going down the lane. He's a coach on the floor for Toole. Jones is also one of the best clutch performers in the NEC.

2. Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart -- This 6'2" shooting guard might be the best player no one in the country has ever heard about. That's because the Pioneers can't seem to escape the middle of the NEC, despite the fact that no opposing coach wants to see Gibson taking a shot ever. He's a high-volume gunner that shot a ridiculous 56/43/86 last season. Everyone knows that Gibson is going to shoot early and often. NEC teams run as many as four or five defenders at him every game. He still averaged 22.0 points per game last season. His legacy though will be decided by the players around him and if SHU can escape the first round of the NEC Tournament come March.

1. Julian Boyd, LIU Brooklyn -- Considering Boyd is the returning unanimous NEC Player of the Year this is the easiest spot on the list to pick. Boyd, who missed the entire 2009-10 season with a heart ailment, has been one of the best players in the conference his entire career. Last season he led the NEC in rebounding and double-doubles. More of a face-up guy on the low blocks, he stepped out even further last season and hit 42% of his three-point shots as he led the Blackbirds to a 16-2 conference record and their second straight NCAA tournament appearance. Boyd will feel the pressure again as he tries to lead the Blackbirds to a third straight dance.

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