Every year it seems one or two Northeast Conference teams present themselves as quality low-majors, capable of representing themselves well if given a spotlight. Then there’s the rest of the league.
This year seems no different. The top two teams in the conference should fight all season long for NEC supremacy and might give a high-major a scare in the non-conference.
Fairleigh Dickinson won the league tournament last year and returns almost everyone, making the Knights the clear-cut favorites. But don’t count out Wagner, which won the regular season title last year and knocked off St. Bonaventure in the NIT.
After that? Well, that’s where things get interesting.
Northeast Conference Preseason Power Rankings
1. Fairleigh Dickinson
It’s always scary when a team made primarily of freshmen and sophomores makes a surprise run to the conference title. That’s what the Knights did last year, and this year, almost all of them return, including Darian Anderson and Earl Potts, who ranked fifth and sixth in NEC scoring respectively last year. As a team, FDU led the conference in scoring offense, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage.
If any team is capable of stopping Fairleigh Dickinson, it might be Wagner, which is out for revenge after falling to the Knights at home in the conference championship game in March. The Seahawks ranked in the top 50 nationally in effective field goal percentage defense and turnover percentage defense, while leading the NEC in overall field goal percentage defense and scoring defense. On the other end, they return four of their top five scorers, including 40 percent three-point shooter Corey Henson.
The middle of the NEC is a mess and any team ranked 3-6 on this list can probably finish anywhere from third to sixth. LIU gets the nod at No. 3, mainly because of Jerome Frink, perhaps the best returning all-around offensive player in the league. The constant double-double threat averaged 16 points and nine rebounds last year, while shooting 37 percent from three. If only Martin Hermannsson had decided to return...
4. Mount St. Mary’s
Junior Robinson can score, rebound, and distribute, and will lead an overall young team that will need contributions from its freshmen. The Mountaineers lose a lot from last year, starting with leading scorer BK Ashe, the conference’s 7th-leading scorer.
5. Sacred Heart
Had Cane Broom not transferred, the Pioneers could have contended for a top three finish in the NEC. Instead, Anthony Latina is left with a team that loses three of its top four scorers from last year, but returns NEC all-rookie selection Quincy McKnight.
After a rough year last year, there’s reason for some cautious optimism in Smithfield. The Bulldogs return each of their top four scorers from last year, including reigning conference rookie of the year Marcel Pettway and all-rookie guard Nisre Zouzoua. Even if Bryant isn’t competitive this year, it has laid the groundwork for the future.
7. St. Francis-Brooklyn
The Terriers went 11-7 in the NEC last year but were unable to recapture the magic that led them to the league title game in 2015. It will get even tougher this year without Tyreek Jewel and Chris Hooper. Glenn Sanabria received a medical redshirt after injuring his shoulder last year, and if he can return to form, the Terriers may be able to outperform expectations.
8. Robert Morris
Last year was a rebuilding year for the former conference titans and the rebuild will have to continue without first-team all NEC guard Rodney Pryor, who graduated. Andy Toole will need Kavon Stewart and Billy Giles to have excellent senior years, while Isaiah Still will look to build on his strong ending to last year.
9. St. Francis-PA
Six straight losses to end last season torpedoed what could have been an exciting season in Loretto. A trio of graduating double-digit scorers won’t make next season any easier for a team struggling to find an identity.
10. Central Connecticut
The Blue Devils finished dead last in the national KenPom ranking last year, going just 4-25 in Howie Dickenman’s final season. The good news for new coach Donyell Marshall? There’s nowhere to go but up. Central will feel Brandon Peel’s loss on the court and in the locker rom, but Khalen Cumberlander and Austin Nehls return and could both find themselves with all-NEC honors by the end of the year.