The holiday season means one thing for college basketball: non-conference play has ended and now league play starts for real.
In the preseason, St. Francis PA appeared to be the clear favorite to win the conference. After that, everything else appeared up for grabs, as just about every team was loaded with questions due to significant roster turnover.
There have certainly been some surprises and developments in non-conference play which will carry over into January and February.
St. Francis PA is no longer alone at the top
As a result of junior guard Isaiah Blackmon suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season, St. Francis PA is no longer the runaway favorite. Blackmon was the leading returning scorer from last season’s team and had averaged 14.3 points this season through the first three games.
Not only was Blackmon important on offense, but he was also a valuable player on defense. In its own right, St. Francis is still a strong contender to win the NEC despite no longer being the clear favorite.
The Red Flash still have a scary back court; Keith Braxton and Jamaal King have been performing up to expectations, and they have been joined by a pleasant surprise in Andre Wolford. These three guards have combined to average a combined 43 points per game.
Rob Krimmel’s team had some questions in the front court entering the season. Sophomore Deivydas Kuzavas has developed into a solid threat on the interior, averaging nine points and five rebounds per contest. The Red Flash have some liabilities on defense they will look to improve on entering NEC play.
Bashir Mason has yet another good team at Wagner
The Seahawks have the biggest surprise player in the NEC up until this point in sophomore guard Blake Francis. Francis has simply been phenomenal, averaging 19 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field. JoJo Cooper has silently been having a solid season out of the back court. If Romone Saunders can increase scoring in conference play, Wagner becomes a legitimate threat to win the NEC.
Bashir Mason is 33 years old, and already in his seventh season at the helm at Wagner. Mason is one of the great young coaches on the rise in college basketball with a career record of 94-73. Of course that’s no surprise from a Danny Hurley mentee.
Mason played under Hurley in high school, and was his assistant at St. Benedict’s, then at Wagner when Hurley was briefly the head coach there. Before the season, I sat down with Mason and spoke to him about his important relationship with Hurley.
“Danny has had not just a huge impact on my coaching career, but also a huge impact on my life,” he said. “Playing for Danny at St. Benedict's in high school was probably one of the most impactful moments of my life, not just as a coach but as a father figure. As a coach I learned so much coaching for him, and I like to say my coaching style and philosophy reflects what I learned from Danny.”
Two Huge Surprises
In former NBA player Donyell Marshall’s second season as a Division I head coach, Central Connecticut finished non-conference play with a winning record for the first time since the 2010-11 season. The Blue Devils have gone from a team that was looking to make the NEC Tournament for the first time in three seasons to a team with a legitimate chance to finish as a top-five team in the conference.
The second huge surprise from the NEC during non-conference play has been the emergence of Robert Morris. Coming into the season, Robert Morris was the third youngest team in the nation after Duke and Kentucky. Everyone knows Duke and Kentucky are young but ultra-talented. For Robert Morris, obviously the case appeared to be much different.
However, this youthful squad is ready to prove the doubters wrong, including myself. Ken Pomery predicts Andy Toole’s squad to go 11-7 in conference play, which would put them in a tie for second place according to those projections. Toole may be well on his way to putting together his best coaching job yet.
Predicted NEC final standings after non-conference play
- St. Francis (PA)
- Mount St. Mary’s
- Robert Morris
- LIU Brooklyn
- Fairleigh Dickinson
- Central Connecticut
- Sacred Heart
- St. Francis Brooklyn
NEC Player of the year after non conference play: Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s.