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NEC Season Preview: Sacred Heart, Merrimack aim to make last run memorable

The Pioneers were tabbed as the preseason favorites, and the Warriors were picked fourth heading into their final NEC season

NCAA Basketball: Sacred Heart at Rutgers
Nico Galette was named the Preseason NEC Player of the Year after leading Sacred Heart in scoring with 15.4 points per game last season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The NEC has changed drastically over its history. Just four of of the league’s 11 founding members are still in the conference after St. Francis (NY)’s athletic program was disbanded last March.

The league has lost a plethora of programs over the recent years, forcing it to add from Division II, but now even those programs are beginning to file out. Merrimack (and Sacred Heart) announcing their intentions to depart the league for the MAAC in 2024-25.

So, it’s one last rodeo in 2023-24 for the conference before it becomes a mere seven-team league, barring more additions.

Preseason Honors

Ansley Almonor, FDU

Kellen Amos, Central Connecticut

Nico Galette, Sacred Heart

Joey Reilly, Sacred Heart

Max Zegarowski, Stonehill

Preseason Poll

1. Sacred Heart (7)

The final ride in the NEC for the Pioneers is expected to be one to remember. Preseason NEC Player of the Year Nico Galette is one of the best two-way players in the region.

Nearly the whole core is made up of returning players. The backcourt features three returning grad students in Brendan McGuire, Joey Reilly and Raheem Solomon.

Division III National Player of the Year Alex Sobel will patrol the paint in his final year of eligibility. The bench is stocked with experienced players such as Aidan Carpenter, Mike Sixsmith and Tanner Thomas.

It’s going to be hard to match the amount of playmaking, depth and length on this Sacred Heart roster.

2. Central Connecticut (1)

CCSU lost the talents of Nigel Scantlebury and Andre Snoddy, but do-it-all forward Kellen Amos returns to run the offense with his scoring ability. The backcourt of Jay Rodgers and Davonte Sweatman return to the fray as well.

In the frontcourt, the defense should be among the best in the conference with the long and versatile Allan Jeanne-Rose transferring in from Fairfield. Rim protector Abdul Momoh is back in the picture too.

Off the bench, freshman Darin Smith Jr. and Division II transfer Jordan Jones should bring an element of depth to the roster.

3. Fairleigh Dickinson (1)

Unlike many teams who lose a coach to upward movement, FDU kept most of its possible returning pieces from last year’s Cinderella team. Four players who played over 20 minutes per game are back. New head coach Jack Castleberry will continue to bring the same intensity and style that Tobin Anderson instructed.

Ansley Almonor, who was the de facto center last season. Sean Moore, who hit the big shots against Purdue, is back as well.

Replacing Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton will be difficult, but DeVante Jamison was a stud at St. Thomas Aquinas and looks to bring his talents to the Division I level.

On the negative, Cam Tweedy, another returning piece, is out for the season with an injury.

4. Merrimack

Life without Jordan Minor, Ziggy Reid and Javon Bennett for Merrimack begins now. Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage are two key returning pieces. They will continuing to bring the defensive intensity to Joey Gallo zone defense.

Manhattan transfer Samba Diallo sat out last season, but his final year in college basketball will come as a long, impactful defender in the Merrimack zone with the ability to run in transition.

The x-factor for the Warriors in the final rodeo of NEC play is freshman point guard Budd Clark. The former Philadelphia high school star needs to step up and provide a scoring, playmaking and defensive punch for Merrimack immediately.

5. Wagner

While some programs in the league decided to get younger, Wagner decided that the best path to success was through experience. With Zaire Williams, Rob Taylor and Javier Esquerra, there are still a few pieces that remain from Bashir Mason’s final team. Rahmir Moore, Keyontae Lewis and Julian Brown also return.

A plethora of transfers are expected to make a major impact too. Chief among them is Monroe JUCO transfer Melvin Council Jr., a 6-foot-4-inch combo guard who averaged over 20 PPG in his two-year JUCO career.

6. Stonehill

Stonehill stunned a lot of people with how competitive it was last season, finishing in a tie for second in the conference. While Andrew Sims is gone, Max Zegarowski returns for his graduate season and is expected to be one of the best players in the NEC.

VMI transfer Tony Felder will man the point. Freshman Seyphon Triplett will serve in back-up duty. Shane O’Dell comes in from Division II, where he did a little bit of everything. The Saint Rose transfer can score, rebound, pass, defend the perimeter and protect the rim. Chris Kraus will ask a lot out of him.

7. LIU

Just seven months removed from being the worst team in Division I, LIU enters year two under Rod Strickland.

Australian wing Tana Kopa transfers in from the Division II level, where he scored 19 PPG. The Sharks are going to pair his shooting along with the scoring and playmaking of Andre Washington and RJ Greene in the backcourt.

Georgia Southern transfer Tai Strickland rounds out the outside. The development of sophomore big man C.J. Delancy will be a major storyline to follow.

8. St. Francis (PA)

St. Francis lost a ton of key pieces, including superstar big man Josh Cohen. The roster has seen a major reset. Of the 12 scholarship players on the Red Flash roster, there are seven freshmen and five sophomores, which means there is not a single upperclassman.

Six-foot-five-imch guard Cam Gregory is expected to be the go-to guy, while Carlos Lopez is likely to be the most impactful of the many freshmen.

9. Le Moyne

Point-guard-turned-head-coach Nate Champion takes his Dolphins up to the Division I level with a team that will shoot at a high level.

Top two scorers Isaiah Salter and Luke Sutherland return. Darrick Jones Jr. looks to pick up right where he left off after breaking out in the second half of last season.

The big x-factor is JUCO transfer Ocypher Owens, a six-foot-eight-inch athlete, who can finish at the rim with the best of them, while also running really well in transition and providing a big target in the post.