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November 4, 2011

Coaches call NEC strongest its ever been

Repeating as conference champion is never easy in the Northeast Conference. Before Robert Morris did it in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the last champion to grab back-to-back titles was Rider in 1992-1993 and 1993-1994.

That parity has led to some talented teams, but also a lot of playoff upsets, resulting in low seeds and a low conference RPI. Perhaps that's why the league's coaches have correctly picked a conference winner just twice in 24 seasons.

There's little question the league is on the rise. Maybe it was Robert Morris' win over Boston College a few years ago, or the near upset of Villanova in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Maybe it was Long Island's 27 wins last year.

Maybe it's been the influx of young, talented coaches and a re-dedication to improving the league as a whole.

Whatever the explanation is, the college basketball world is beginning to notice. Teams are beginning to cross top NEC opponents off their lists (Andy Toole and Jim Ferry have rejection lists that could wallpaper the U.S. Steel Building). "It surprised me at the level of play in the conference," Wagner coach Dan Hurley said of his first year in the league. "As a high school coach at St. Benedict's, it wasn't really discussed as a really good, developing mid-major league, and I think our league played as a mid-major league last year."

And the coaches say this year could be the league's best ever.

"I'm going into my 11th year in the league and I think this is the best the league has been in ten years," Long Island coach Jim Ferry said. "I think we have really good players, we have really good coaches. The league has just gotten better."

The numbers bear out the coaches' belief. According to realtimerpi.com, the NEC had two Top 100 RPI teams in Long Island (No. 75) and Robert Morris (No. 100) last year, allowing the conference to finish with the 18th best conference RPI. The league was 29th in 2009-2010 and 28th in 2008-2009.

It's not just RPI. According to renowned basketball statistical guru Ken Pomeroy, the Northeast Conference was ranked No. 25 by his methods last year and is projected as No. 24 for the start of the season this year. In the two years before that, the NEC was 29th.

And here at Rivals.com, the league enters the season ranked No. 23 by our gurus.

That's a significant jump for a league that not long was destined for the play-in game. Now, barring a major upset, the likely league winner could be destined for the conference's highest seed yet.

"I think the breakthrough will be winning some games in the NCAA Tournament, and I think we're right there with the quality of teams we have in the league," Bryant coach Tim O'Shea said.

Ferry agreed and said the proof will be in the conference champion's seed.

"I think it's very close and it could be this year. There's no question about it," he said. "If we can get the respect that I think this league deserves and we get an appropriate seed in the NCAA Tournament, then I think it could be this year. A team could win a game in the NCAA tournament and obviously once that happens, you can always win the next one."

It's not just about the conference or the tournament. The next major step for the league in the regular season is higher profile games and higher profile wins. That ranges from getting wins over the Big Six conferences to solid mid-major wins against the likes of Xavier, Dayton, or even projected conference winners like Iona.

There's also the larger stage games, from preseason tournament games to one-off events like Long Island's Brookyln showdown against St. Francis (N.Y.) at Madison Square Garden.

"I think it's special as a basketball guy and a New York basketball guy to have the opportunity to play in MSG," Ferry said. "I think that's just awesome for our kids and our program."

The other issue is maintaining success from season-to-season. Good leagues have perennial contenders. Robert Morris has enjoyed some of that the last five years, but there needs to be more than just one team. Long Island appears poised to be able to form a nice duo with Robert Morris, as both teams have strong junior classes and small senior classes. If Quinnipiac, Central Connecticut State, and Wagner can join that group and create a strong top five, it'll only help the league.

It's starting now, as the pace the elite teams in the league go through during the conference schedule has also changed.

"As I'm looking at the list of the preseason poll, I don't really want to play any of these guys at certain points during the year," Toole said. "In the past, there were times where you could get by just by being a little more talented. Now you have to make sure your guys are prepared and focused and make sure they're playing as hard as they can."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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