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Northeast Conference preseason power rankings: Saint Francis is ready to dance

The NEC standings should be crowded once again.

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The story in the NEC this year appears to be Saint Francis U. The Red Flash bring back almost every key piece from a team that finished tied for second in the conference and made the school’s second consecutive postseason appearance. The teams below them have a host of personnel questions that will need to be sorted out, but any of them could potentially disrupt the standings if the breaks go their way. Everything below SFU in these rankings in a complete guess, and anyone who tells you otherwise either has a bridge to sell you or one impressive crystal ball.

1. Saint Francis University Red Flash, 18-13 (12-6), Lost to UIC in CIT First Round

Before 2016-17, the Red Flash had not won 10 conference games in a season since 2004-05. Now, they’ve done it in consecutive years and they’ll take on another new role in 2018-19 as the presumed leaders of the pack. Combining Isaiah Blackmon’s return with NEC Player of the Year favorite Keith Braxton, the NEC’s most improved player last season Andre Wolford, and All-NEC First Team guard Jamaal King gives SFU a plethora of talent in the backcourt. The frontcourt is a little bit of a question mark, but Deivydas Kuzavas and Mark Flagg gained valuable experience last season. If coach Rob Krimmel can work Blackmon back into the lineup, the Red Flash should be an explosive offense and the best team in the NEC.

2. Wagner Seahawks, 23-10 (14-4), Lost to Baylor in NIT First Round

There is no question that Wagner will be able to defend, but can the Seahawks score enough to win those tight games? That will be the question facing Bashir Mason after he lost do-everything guard JoJo Cooper to graduation and elite scorer Blake Francis to an up-transfer. The good news is that Romone Saunders, who averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season, returns. Mason has only been under .500 once in his six seasons and the returning players are too talented — particularly Devin Liggeons, A.J. Sumbry, and Nigel Jackson — for them to take a significant step back.

3. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, 13-18 (9-9)

FDU came into 2017-18 with high expectations and the Knights failed to deliver. Part of it was due to injury. Greg Herenda had to retool his team when star guard Darian Anderson went down with an injury six games into NEC play. Anderson’s absence led to Jahlil Jenkins and Darnell Edge playing huge minutes in the backcourt. For Jenkins, it was a trial by fire as a freshman and for Edge it was a huge step up in responsibility. Both players responded admirably on offense. Neither, though, was able to fix FDU’s biggest problem: defense. Herenda should have enough offense to once again score with any team in the NEC, but either the offense will have to take another step forward into an elite status (which is how FDU made the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17) or the defense will have to clamp down more often in order for the Knights to challenge for a conference title.

4. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, 18-17 (10-8), Lost to Radford in the NCAA Tournament Play-In Game

The Blackbirds surprised everyone by coming out of a nowhere to capture the NEC Tournament title in Derek Kellogg’s first season. While the Blackbirds lose Joel Hernandez, who was an absolute world destroyer during that conference tournament run and the key to almost everything LIU did last season, the Blackbirds return a number of talented veterans that should give them a chance to make a return trip to the Big Dance. Raiquan Clark, Jashaun Agosto, and Julian Batts form a strong trio offensively. It’s also possible that forward Tyrn Flowers will provide a boost. The UMass transfer sat out last season, but could pose a problem for NEC front courts as a 6-foot-9 stretch forward.

5. Robert Morris Colonials, 16-17 (9-9)

Robert Morris desperately needs someone who can put the ball in the basket. The Colonials have continued to play their trademarked strong defense the past three seasons, but have had one of the worst offenses in the nation. Part of the reason has been that RMU’s most talented offensive players continue to transfer up to other programs. This offseason it was Dachon Burke who left Moon Township, PA for a major conference program. One of the players that will be expected to pick up Burke’s scoring load is Akron transfer Josh Williams. Williams, the older brother of RMU guard Jon Williams, should make an immediate impact. Also important will be the development of Koby Thomas. The 6-foot-6 forward was the NEC Rookie of the Year last season, but slowed as RMU lost four of its final five games down the stretch. His development into a go-to offensive weapon should help the Colonials put together an offense that can rival their defensive intensity.

6. Bryant Bulldogs, 3-28 (2-16)

After winning just three games all season (and two in NEC play) there is optimism again in Smithfield, RI. The reason? The arrival of Jared Grasso, the new head coach of the Bulldogs. Grasso was the top assistant for Tim Cluess at Iona before jumping into the head coaching ranks this offseason. He comes to Bryant with a reputation as an excellent recruiter with an eye for undervalued talent. Bryant already played fast last season, so Grasso’s new team should be ready to try out Iona’s pace-and-space brand of basketball. Tim O’Shea — who led Bryant for the past decade — didn’t leave the cupboard bare either. Ikenna Ndugba is a solid starting point guard and Adam Grant should be one of the best shooting guards in the NEC. A new face, Murray State transfer Byron Hawkins, should give Bryant even more firepower in the backcourt. Iona, though, has never been known for its defense, and Bryant had the worst defense in the NEC last season. Can Grasso get the Bulldogs to grind it out on the other end of the court? Their darkhorse status depends on it.

7. St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers, 13-18 (10-8)

Once again, St. Francis Brooklyn is one of the biggest enigmas in the NEC. The Terriers have a dynamic backcourt combination in Glenn Sanabria and Jalen Jordan, but the question is how both of those players will fare now that they don’t have Rasheem Dunn to lean on. Beyond Dunn’s scoring, the 6-foot-2 guard also led the team in defensive rebounding. That aspect of his game will be tougher to replace, as it’s hard to know how SFC’s frontcourt will hold up. Jagos Lasic’s graduation leaves the Terriers needing Cori Johnson, Milija Cosic, or a newcomer to step up and help control the paint.

8. Central Connecticut State Blue Devils, 14-18 (7-11)

Honestly, this ranking might undersell the Blue Devils. In Donyell Marshall’s third season, CCSU has an all-conference talent in Tyler Kohl and additional upperclassmen talent in Joe Hugley and Deion Bute. But who is going to get them the basketball? The biggest question is at point guard. Marshall has apparently tried to solve the problem through quantity. The Blue Devils have brought in three freshmen who could potentially be the team’s lead guard. It’s also possible that the role will fall to Kohl. Even though he is 6-foot-5, which is quite tall for an NEC point, Kohl often initiated CCSU’s offense last season. He had the third-highest assist rate in the NEC behind only Junior Robinson and JoJo Cooper. It would be a luxury for Marshall to be able to move Kohl off the ball. If he finds a way, or a freshman that can complement his star playmaker, look for the Blue Devils to quickly move up the NEC standings.

9. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers, 18-14 (12-6)

A disappointing home loss to Robert Morris in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament brought the Jamion Christian (now at Siena) era at Mount St. Mary’s to a devastating finish. NEC Player of the Year Junior Robinson and uber-athlete and NEC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Wray graduated, and the hits kept coming during the offseason when promising freshmen Jonah Antonio and Donald Carey (among others) transferred. The Mount hired former Southern Vermont College head coach (and Mount alum) Dan Engelstad to be the school’s next head coach. Engelstad immediately started to build up a roster that will be one of the youngest in all of Division I next season (there are nine freshmen and seven sophomores). The youth means that there is a lot of promise, but also a host of unanswerable questions. Expect graduate transfer K.J. Scott, sophomore forward Omar Habwe, and freshman guard Matt Becht to potentially play big roles.

10. Sacred Heart Pioneers, 10-21 (5-13)

Last season was supposed to be the one where Sacred Heart made its move under Anthony Latina. The Pioneers had a veteran roster, but the offense never gelled and SHU missed the NEC tournament for the first time in Latina’s tenure. Now a much younger lineup offers a bunch of potential, but also many question marks. One of the biggest is how the Pioneers will replace the frontcourt production of Joseph Lopez and Mario Matasovic. The two seniors scored a combined 23.7 points per game last season. Jare’l Spellman certainly provides an intriguing option. The 6-foot-10 forward sat out last season after transferring from Division II Florida Southern, but was his conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17. The Pioneers are also hoping that E.J. Anosike takes a step forward in year two. Expect the offense to revolve around senior guard Sean Hoehn, who led the Pioneers with 13.1 points per game last season, with help from sharpshooting freshman Koreem Ozier.