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Northeast Conference preview: Sacred Heart can make a run, even without Quincy McKnight

The Pioneers’ strength lies in the front court.

The Mid-Major Madness Northeast Conference preview series continues with the Sacred Heart Pioneers, led by fifth-year head coach Anthony Latina.

Last Season: Sacred Heart finished the 2016-17 season 13-19 overall and 8-10 in NEC play, which was just enough to finish eighth and qualify for the NEC tournament. In the first round, the Pioneers gave 1 seed and eventual champion Mount St. Mary’s all it could handle, but fell 76-73.

A Look At The 2017-18 Roster: The Pioneers lost their leading scorer in first-team all-NEC selection Quincy McKnight, who transferred to Seton Hall. So right off the bat, Sacred Heart will have to fill in the 18.9 points that he averaged, not to mention the intangibles that one of the conference’s best players brings.

The backcourt responsibilities he leaves behind will fall to junior Sean Hoehn and senior Charles Tucker Jr. Tucker returns after being one of the leaders in the NEC in assists last year, averaging 4.1 per game. Hoehn will need to be more of a scorer, and senior Chris Robinson will most likely be the third guard coming off of the bench for the Pioneers.

Thanks to some info from mid-major expert Kevin Sweeney (the guy knows his stuff at CBB central), transfer Kinnon LaRose from Siena, who is eligible after sitting out last season, could be the answer the backcourt needs. In high school, he scored 1,769 points and was New York’s Mr. Basketball.

Sacred Heart also returns arguably the top front court in the NEC heading into 2017-18. Forward Joseph Lopez will be Sacred Heart’s most important player, coming off a junior campaign in which he averaged 13.2 points and 8.5 rebounds, recorded 11 double-doubles, shot 56.5 percent from the field (which led the conference), and was named all-NEC third team.

There is no shortage of talent in the front court, as redshirt 6-8 senior Mario Matasovic will look to improve upon 5.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Look for Matasovic to have more of an opportunity to prove himself as a more consistent member of the starting lineup.

Standing at 6-5, redshirt senior De’von Barnett should get the nod at starting small forward. Barnett only averaged 7.7 points per game last season, but is one of the team’s more reliable shooters, hitting at a clip of 52.2 percent from the field.

Sacred Heart will also add four new additions to their 2017-18 roster. Jaecee Martin, a 5’8 guard from Hartford, could develop into a key role player off of the bench as a freshman. Martin averaged 18 points and led the state in assists per game at 6.6. He was also second statewide in steals per game, with 4.7.

The Pioneers welcome another talented guard in 6’3 Alex Watson from Marietta, Georgia, who averaged over 20 points per game as a high school senior. The Pioneers also picked up 6-10 center Jarel Spellman, a transfer from Division II Florida Southern. Spellman will sit out, but is expected to be an impact player when he is eligible for the 2018-19. Forward EJ Anosike and guard Tony Boateng round out the class.

2017-18 Outlook

The Pioneers will face three local high-majors in the non-conference in Boston College, Providence, and St. John’s. They will also have the opportunity to win their side of the bracket in the 2017 Hall of Fame Tip-off tournament. Sacred Heart will first face defending CIT champion Saint Peter’s, then either Maine or South Alabama. The rest of the non-conference schedule is filled with mid-major programs to prepare the team for NEC play.

Sacred Heart is unlike much of the NEC in that guard play is not its strong suit. The Pioneers will make up for that, however, with an unequaled front court, led by Lopez.

Given how unpredictable the transfer market has made this conference, Sacred Heart can finish anywhere from second to seventh. It sounds like a wide range, but the gap between those teams should not be immense.

If the Pioneers can play a little above expectations and collectively replace McKnight’s production, they will be in position to be a handful of contenders for the NEC title.