While the NEC might not be the first conference that comes to everyone's mind, it sure is spoiled with a ton of great coverage, and deservedly so. From the analytically driven Big Apple Buckets, to the great team coverage of Colonials Corner and Blackbirds Hoops Journal, there is a lot being said about this exciting mid-major conference.
In fact, there is too much to say in just one post, so we're dividing our preview here at Mid-Major Madness into two parts. I'll be taking part one (top-5), while one our newest contributors, Connor Hagey, takes part two.
We don't want to leave anyone guessing because both parts won't be released on the same day. So, here is how we see things before any game has been played:
1.) St. Francis PA Red Flash
2.) St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers
4.) Central Connecticut State Blue Devils
5.) Bryant Bulldogs
6.) Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
7.) LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
8.) Wagner Seahawks
10.) Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
1. St. Francis PA Red Flash
Overview - I really like teams that return a lot of quality players; they're mostly known quantities. St. Francis PA returns their top-6 scorers from last season that actually played against an NEC opponent; they represent 81% of the teams total points scored.
Their top scorer, senior forward Earl Brown, is a POY candidate and should be a double-double machine. Brown and junior forward Ronnie Drinnon are the only returning frontcourt tandem in the conference that each averaged at least one assist per game last season. Their ability to face the basket from 12-15 feet away and make a play for themselves or others is extremely hard to defend.
Junior guard Ben Millaud-Meunier is one of the best three-point specialists in the NEC, and flashed the ability to put the ball on the floor. The reigning ROY, sophomore point guard Malik Harmon, figures to improve his efficiency on both ends of the floor in his second season. Throw in an experienced guard rotation of seniors Ollie Jackson, Dominique Major and Stephon Whyatt, along with junior Greg Brown, and you have the recipe for preseason hype.
Key Addition - Freshman center/forward Daniel Wallace - SFU doesn't have any newcomer that really stands out, statistically speaking. The Red Flash don't need a lot of help, but Wallace will certainly bolster a pretty thin frontcourt. This team doesn't need additional scoring, but the rebounding ability of Wallace - 12 per game in high school - will be a welcomed addition.
Key Departure - Forward Stephon Mosley - Mosley only played eight games before leaving the team. While St. Francis PA is certainly used to playing without him, he slotted in nicely as a relatively 'big' small forward and a logical fit for the team.
2. St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers
Overview - This team is going to go as far as the broad shoulders of senior forward Jalen Cannon can carry them. If you're a St. Francis Brooklyn fan, that's probably going to be pretty far. Cannon is simply a beast on the low block, particularly the left one. He powers through contact and plays with a ton of energy.
Combined with senior point guard Brent Jones, the duo forms the best guard-forward combo in the conference. The departure of LIU Brooklyn point guard Jason Brickman leaves Jones as the best dime dropper in the NEC, and I doubt he gives up that title in his final season.
I wonder how this team is going to generate offense, particularly from beyond the arc. Guard Ben Mockford took 214 three-pointers last season for the Terriers which accounted for just over 34% of all their attempts. More importantly, he was relatively efficient as he converted 40% of those attempts.
Also, no player besides Cannon and Jones took more than four attempts per contest last season. It's extremely hard to project stats among the incumbents given how small a sample size that is. I think this team is going to play in a lot of close games, and even good teams aren't going to win them all.
Key Addition - Junior guard Tyreek Jewell - SFC is hoping Jewell can shoulder a heavy offensive workload, particularly from three-point distance. He converted 39% of his 146 attempts at Jamestown Community College in New York last season.
Key Departure - Forward Wayne Martin - I believe this team will struggle offensively, and I wanted to slot Mockford here because of that. However, head coach Glenn Braica was prepared for that. The loss of Martin was something that seemingly surprised a lot of people. He was a blossoming forward on both ends of the floor and his loss will be felt.
3. Robert Morris Colonials
Overview - Robert Morris will return six players from the 'Crazy Eight' that fell one game short of making the NCAA Tournament last season. Senior guard/forward Lucky Jones is the only player in the NEC, in my opinion, that has a chance to win both the POY and Defensive POY awards.
Jones is a unique player in the conference because he can play on the perimeter and defend in the post. He is perhaps the most versatile player in the NEC, and will be relied upon heavily as RMU looks to recover from the loss of guard Karvel Anderson - the 2013/14 POY.
The Colonials have a blossoming young point guard in sophomore Kavon Stewart. Stewart is a pesky on-ball defender that can slide laterally with any player in the conference. He possesses an explosive first step to go along with a bevy of dribble hesitation variations. If he develops better touch from the perimeter, he can be a very special player.
Senior guards David Appolon and Charles Oliver bring specialized skills and experience, while junior forwards Stephan Bennett (formerly Hawkins) and Aaron Tate form a strong defensive frontcourt.
Key Addition - Junior Forward Lionel Gomes - Head coach Andy Toole knows he has one of the best players in the NEC in Jones, and has the talent and experience to make another run at an NCAA Tournament berth. Gomes provides experience and an assertiveness in the paint that his team lacked last year.
Key Departure - Guard Karvel Anderson - It's really impossible to state how much a player like Anderson will be missed in just a few sentences. He was one of the most prolific three-point shooters that ever wore a Robert Morris uniform. He rose to the occasion time and time again, and took over games like few can.
4. Central Connecticut State Blue Devils
Overview - Central Connecticut returns their top-3 scorers from last season, including senior guard Kyle Vinales. If you haven't noticed, every team that I've ranked in the top-5 also has a player that's was named a preseason All-NEC First Team selection yesterday.
Vinales can get hot in a second and will vie for the highest points per game average in the conference this season. Fellow senior guard Malcolm McMillan compliments Vinales nicely, and they’re the only returning backcourt in the NEC that featured two players that averaged at least three assists per game last season.
The frontcourt is talented as well. Junior forward Brandon Peel will be in the Defensive POY conversation, while senior forward Faronte Drakeford figures to be an All-NEC player. Sophomore guards Khalen Cumberlander and Matt Mobley have very bright futures, and will be the starting backcourt next season.
A broken finger cost Vinales nine games last season, but the team essentially had the same core and still lost in the first round of the NEC Tournament (thanks Matt). They have as much talent as any team this season, but they'll need to put it all together this season.
Key Addition - Freshman forward Mustafa Jones - The left-handed forward is probably going to receive playing time because of depth concerns in the frontcourt. The guard rotation is already pretty established, so it's going to be hard for a newcomer to receive meaningful minutes as the fifth or sixth wheel.
Key Departure - Guard Matt Hunter - Hunter was ruled academically ineligible before conference play started last season, so the team is used to playing without him. Still, he was their fourth leading scorer and Central Connecticut simply didn't have a significant departure, in my opinion, besides the former guard.
5. Bryant Bulldogs
Overview - Bryant faded down the stretch last season; they lost five of their last seven games, which included a loss in the first round of the NEC Tournament. Senior guard Dyami Starks will be tasked with trying to get his team out of the first round of the conference tournament for the first time in his collegiate career.
That task is much harder this year without forward Alex Francis. Starks is a prolific scorer and supremely confident in his abilities. A slight uptick in his efficiency on the offensive end, coupled with increased production from fellow senior guard Joe O'Shea, should keep the Bulldogs competitive.
In order to climb higher in the standings, sophomore forward Dan Garvin is going to need to take a step forward in his second season. He showed flashes of brilliance in December of last year when he averaged a double-double over three non-conference games. If he find a rhythm during NEC play, Bryant has the potential to turn a few heads.
Key Addition - Freshman guard Hunter Ware - His pedigree and high school statistics suggest he'll be a player that can put the ball in the basket, and the Bulldogs will need to find scoring in the wake of losing Francis and guard Corey Maynard. I think Bryant will have to play three guards at all times, so Ware will have plenty of positions to rotate through.
Key Depature - Forward Alex Francis - Sure, Francis was a walking double-double and an absolute beast. But, he was quietly a willing passer with good hands on both ends of the floor. His presence alone forced teams to either allow him to simply dominate while taking away everyone else, or try to limit his opportunities and force other players to be more assertive. That's something the Bulldogs won't be able to rely on this season.