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Northeast Conference preseason awards: Keith Braxton is the best player on the best team

Our preseason player of the year could lead Saint Francis to the dance.

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Northeast Conference once again suffered a talent drain during the offseason, as a number of talented underclassmen headed off to bigger leagues. Dachon Burke, Rasheem Dunn, and Blake Francis were all on the NEC All-Conference Second Team at the end of last season. Now, the three juniors are sitting out the 2018-19 season at Nebraska, Cleveland State, and Richmond respectively. Despite those departures, there is still a bunch of talent in the NEC, including maybe the conference’s best player last season, Keith Braxton. The Saint Francis U. guard competed all season with eventual winner, and Atlanta Hawks summer league participant, Junior Robinson. Now Robinson is off to a professional career in Spain and Braxton is the league’s definitive standard bearer.

NEC Preseason Awards:

Player of the Year: Keith Braxton, Saint Francis University, Jr., G

Braxton has been a devastating force since he stepped foot on campus in Loretto, Pa. three years ago. A 6-foot-5, 208-pound athletic freak, Braxton is an excellent offensive player, but also provides a ton of value on the defensive end thanks to his rebounding and ability to create turnovers. Braxton took nearly a quarter SFU’s shots when he was on the court last season and averaged 17.5 points per game. He also shot 41 percent from three, which helped open up his game and led to him getting to the free throw line at will. The only thing that might prevent him from winning the Player of the Year award this season is that he’ll have an even stronger supporting cast that may mean he’ll need to score less, and do a little more of everything else. Hopefully voters will appreciate that versatility.

Newcomer of the Year: K.J. Scott, Mount St. Mary’s, Gr., G/F

There are a ton of potential choices for this award, but Scott should get the biggest opportunity of any newcomer to the NEC. The graduate transfer from Texas Southern arrived to Emmitsburg, Md. right after the departure of Jamion Christian — and almost all of the Mount’s talent. It will be Scott’s job to help make Dan Engelstad’s rebuild easier and he should be able to help. Scott was a preseason first-team All-SWAC selection last season and averaged 12.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game in seven contests before suffering an injury that knocked him out for the rest of the campaign. Fully healed, Scott should be a force in the NEC.

Darkhorse Team: Robert Morris

Any of the bottom six teams in the conference could conceivably be chosen as this season’s darkhorse candidate in the NEC. The standings should be a nightly battle. Choosing Robert Morris is choosing to bet on Andy Toole. There was a time after the 2014-15 season that Toole was a rising star among college coaches. He didn’t make the jump then and has fallen on harder times, but RMU’s trademark defense never left. Toole still knows how to manipulate NEC offenses with the best of them. The Williams brothers, another year of development from Koby Thomas, and another efficient season from Matty McConnell gives RMU a chance to climb up the standings.

First Team All-NEC

Keith Braxton, Saint Francis U., Jr., G

Mike Holloway Jr., Fairleigh Dickinson, Sr., F

Tyler Kohl, Central Connecticut, Sr., G/F

Jamaal King, Saint Francis U., Sr., G

Romone Saunders, Wagner, R-Sr.,

Holloway has been one of my favorite players in the NEC since he arrived three seasons ago. He arguably took a step back last season after being asked to take a larger burden on offense due to the injury to Darian Anderson, but he knocked down threes (30% in 23 attempts) and continued to rebound at a high rate. Holloway is one of the true frontcourt difference makers in the NEC and that’s why he deserves a first-team slot. Kohl, King and Saunders are all efficient guards and their teams’ leading returning scorers. All of them will have high expectations heading into 2018-19.

Second Team All-NEC

Koby Thomas, Robert Morris, So., F

Raiquan Clark, LIU Brooklyn, Sr., F

Darnell Edge, Fairleigh Dickinson, Sr., G

Glenn Sanabria, St. Francis Brooklyn, Gr., G

Adam Grant, Bryant, Jr., G

Picking just five players for the second team was quite difficult. By the time you get down to Sanabria, Edge and Grant, there are host of other guards who could’ve potentially made the team, including Jalen Jordan (St. Francis Brooklyn), Andre Wolford (Saint Francis U.), Sean Hoehn (Sacred Heart) or Jashaun Agosto (LIU Brooklyn). Then there is Isaiah Blackmon, who is returning from injury for Saint Francis U., and newcomers such as Scott (Mount St. Mary’s) and Josh Williams (Robert Morris). All this means that despite some recent high-profile departures, there is a lot of talent in the NEC and the chance for every team to be highly competitive.