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October 23, 2012

NEC Preview: Robert Morris back on top?

As part of our 2012-2013 basketball preview, ColonialsCorner presents our analysis for the upcoming season. You'll find a projected order of finish, All-NEC teams, and team capsules for all 12 NEC schools.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Robert Morris
2. LIU-Brooklyn
3. Wagner
4. Quinnipiac
5. Mount St Mary's
6. St. Francis (N.Y.)
7. Sacred Heart
8. Monmouth
9. Central Connecticut State
10. St. Francis (Pa.)
11.Bryant
12. Fairleigh Dickinson

FIRST TEAM NEC
Velton Jones (RMU)
Shane Gibson (SHU)
Julian Boyd (LIU)
Jamal Olasewere (LIU)
Ike Azotam (QU)

SECOND TEAM NEC
Jason Brickman (LIU)
Lucky Jones (RMU)
Alex Francis (BRY)
Umar Shannon (SFPA)
Latif Rivers (WAG)

Player of the Year: Velton Jones (RMU)
Newcomer of the Year: Dwuan Anderson (WAG)
Coach of the Year: Jamion Christian (MSM)

The team capsules below are listed in projected order of finish.

ROBERT MORRIS
The Colonials have been on some run the past few years, playing in four straight NEC championships, and setting many records on the way. Coach Andy Toole has picked up right where Mike Rice left off before going to Rutgers two years back. The only problem under Toole: RMU has yet to win the big one, falling to LIU back to back years in the NEC title game in Brooklyn.

This year's team has a chip on their shoulder, as they look to get back to the NEC title game, and get over that hump and get back to the NCAA tournament. RMU returns virtually everyone from last year's squad. Lawrence Bridges is the only contributor that is no longer with the team (graduation), and almost all of the starting lineup returns. Velton Jones and Coron Williams will lead the group of guards that can fill it up, but need to work on their consistency. Jones, a senior, certainly was not the problem, as he was the leader of the team and always brought his best effort. Jones can get to the bucket against anyone, and has improved his shooting over the years.

The one thing that could potentially derail RMU's title hopes is an injury to the senior point guard. Jones plays the game like a linebacker, and there were many times, including the NEC title, in which Jones put his body on the line and got banged up. Williams, along with Anthony Myers need to help carry the load more this season, and take some of the pressure off Jones. Myers is pass first point guard, but last year became a go to three point shooter, and will look to build off that success. Look for Karvel Anderson, a sharp shooting guard from Glen Oaks CC to provide a scoring punch off the bench. If Anderson or Williams can provide consistent scoring for the Colonials, RMU may have the best group of guards in the league.

The front court is led by sophomore Lucky Jones, who is coming off a great freshman year, and even better offseason. Many expect Jones to take that next step and become a go to player for the Colonials this year. Russell Johnson will provide a little bit of everything for RMU. The senior can score, rebound, defend and is a match-up nightmare for many teams within the NEC. Mike McFadden could have a huge season, as he becomes more accustomed to the system. McFadden became eligible last December, and had to learn a lot on the fly. Lijah Thompson, another senior will compete with McFadden for minutes, and needs to work on his consistency, and needs to avoid foul trouble.

Keith Armstrong and newcomers Vaughn Morgan, and Stephan Hawkins should provide good depth in the front court. Expect Armstrong to become more of a contributor this season. His big body should be able to provide an advantage for RMU on the boards. This group has a ton of upperclassmen, and knows what it takes to win. The seniors will have one last shot to make the NCAA's and Colonial fans should have a fun time watching this group.

LIU BROOKLYN
LIU-Brooklyn will look to make history this season. The Blackbirds have won two straight NEC titles, defeating Robert Morris in Brooklyn in front of a national TV audience two years running. LIU will have a great shot to three-peat as they return the core that did most of the work the past two years. NEC player of the year Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, C.J. Garner, and Jason Brickman all return, as does key reserve forward Kenny Onyechi.

Brickman is one of the best point guards in the country, and always puts his teammates in a great position to succeed. Garner can take anyone of the bounce, but can be a bit erratic at times. Boyd is the complete player. He is the best weapon in the NEC, and can do it all. He rebounds well, can score in the post, shoots the 3 effectively, and can provide a highlight dunk if given the opportunity (see last year's NEC title highlights). Olasewere is one of the better lefties in the country, and is a huge mismatch for most teams, but can get into foul trouble at times, and needs to work on that aspect of his game. The team will have to replace sharp shooting guard Michael Culpo.

The biggest block LIU will have to hurdle is the loss of their head coach Jim Ferry. Ferry built this LIU program from the ground up, and will be tough to replace. Jack Perri takes over, and will have a solid group to help smooth the transition. One thing to keep an eye on will be the effect this offseason takes on the team. Not only did the program endure a coaching change, but an off campus brawl that led to the suspension of Boyd, Olasewere, and Garner for two NEC games (at Quinnipiac and at Sacred Heart) could stall what's been a great run for the program. It will be interesting to see how those suspensions affect LIU's quest for home court the NEC tournament, which has benefited LIU greatly over the past few years. Expect the Blackbirds to be right there for the title, but those suspensions could cost them home court, and that may cost them a three-peat.

WAGNER
What a year it was for the Seahawks. Wagner notched one of the best wins in Northeast Conference history, beating the Pitt Panthers at the Peterson Events Center, went 25-6 overall, and look to be one of the top programs on the rise in the NEC. The season ended with disappointment as Robert Morris went to Staten Island and knocked the Seahawks out of the NEC tournament. Like most mid-major programs, they will have to replace some key components this season.

Head coach Dan Hurley left for the A10 and is now at Rhode Island. Assistant coach Bobby Hurley went with him, and the Seahawks have turned to one of the youngest coaches in the game Bashir Mason to lead the ship. Wagner will also have to replace two of the guys who led the turn around, as Tyler Murray and Chris Martin have graduated. There is good news for Seahawk fans; the services of Mr. Basketball in the State of Michigan stayed at Staten Island. Michigan State transfer Dwaun Anderson should run away with freshman of the year in the league. His 6-4 frame and elite athleticism will be tough to guard for many teams in the league. Anderson has already displayed some of that athleticism at Wagner's midnight madness dunk contest, making the Sport Center top 10.

The good news for Anderson, he won't be asked to carry the whole load this season. Wagner has a deep backcourt led by junior Latif Rivers and maybe the best defender in the NEC, Kenny Ortiz. You can't forget about Jonathon Williams, who is one of the better hybrid guards in the NEC at 6-foot-6. Marcus Burton is a sophomore who has the talent to be a starter for a lot of teams in the league, but could struggle to find minutes in this rotation. One thing that could help Burton, he is really the only point guard of the group. Murray was the floor general and one of the best point guards in the league.

Without a true point, Wagner could struggle against teams of equal talent. They don't have a Velton Jones, or Jason Brickman. The frontcourt is talented but raw. Naofall Folahan is long, athletic, and a great defensive presence but needs to work on his offensive game. Josh Thompson also produced a Top 10 dunk at Wagner's midnight madness (he had one last year too) but is a bit undersized at only 6-foot-5. Mario Moody, a sophomore and Orlando Parker, a junior could be the two key players in the front court.

If one of them can provide a consistent low post threat off the bench, Wagner could make up for that lack of scoring from their starting bigs. The Seahawks will be very competitive, but look like a team a year away from competing for a NEC title. One thing is for sure though; they will produce the most highlight reel dunks with Anderson and Thompson leading the way.

QUINNIPIAC
Did the window just close? Or is it opening? That will be the big question surrounding the Quinnipiac basketball program. QU has the most resources in the league, has a great young coach, and some of the best facilities in the conference. Robert Morris and LIU Brooklyn haven't cared. The Bobcats have never made the NCAA tournament, and missed a great opportunity the past few years. Justin Rutty is now two years removed from the program and now James Johnson, the do everything guard has exhausted his eligibility as well.

Replacing Johnson will be harder than last year's task of replacing Rutty. Johnson was maybe the best pure scorer in the league (Shane Gibson may disagree) and logged 36 mpg for the Bobcats. The pieces are there to help ease the transition. Zaid Hearst and Dave Johnson should lead the way, and newcomers Kendrick Ray and Tariq Carey could provide a boost as freshman. Hearst could be a star. He averaged over 7 points per game as a freshman last year and with Johnson gone will get a lot more opportunities to shoot.

With all that said, the Bobcats will lean heavily on their bigs as the guards ease into their new roles. Ike Azotam is an absolute man down low. He led the conference in rebounding with almost 10 a game. He also contributed 16 ppg and that number should increase this year. He is the second best big man in the conference behind Julian Boyd, and will be an all NEC first team member. He has some help down low too. If Jamie Jackson can stay healthy, the Bobcats will have a powerful duo. Ousmane Drame is another big body that should again help Quinnipiac be one of the best rebounding teams in the country.

With all that size, QU will once again be a threat, but it will come down to getting buckets. In the NEC tournament last season QU looked like they were heading to the NEC title game with an upset win over LIU Brooklyn. The Blackbirds took James Johnson away down the stretch, and QU flat out couldn't score. That will once again be the question for the Bobcats.

MOUNT ST. MARY'S
A few years back, the Mount looked like they were building an NEC powerhouse. A few key players graduated, Milan Brown took the job at Holy Cross, and all of a sudden Mount went from contending for the NEC title, to just squeaking into the NEC tournament, and then last year, missed it all together. In 2012-2013, the Mount will start its climb back to the top of the NEC.

Jamion Christian takes the helm, and in his first season as a coach, energy will not be a problem. HAVOC! Expect the Mount to play at a frenetic pace similar to what Shaka Smart employs at VCU, Christian's last stop. Christian will have a young but experienced group to work with in his first year. Only Danny Thompson has moved on, and while his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame will be missed, the pieces are there to replace him. Junior Kristijan Krajina will be asked to pick his play up this season, as will senior Raven Barber and sophomore Xavier Owens. The frontcourt will get some added depth from newcomers Gregory Graves and Melvin Gregory. If the bigs can play solid defense, control the boards, and provide a steady low post threat, this team could be a force. The reason? The Mount may have one of the best backcourts in the NEC this year.

They return Julian Norfleet and his 13.7 ppg. He could have an All NEC type season in this his junior year. Kelvin Parker will be back after a great and surprising freshman year. Parker earned a scholarship averaging almost 10 a game and providing good defense. Those two are a great duo, but will get some help from two big transfers. Rashad Whack comes from George Mason and should provide a big impact this year. Whack was a big recruit out of high school, can shoot the ball extremely well, and could find a nice home playing in the NEC. Sam Prescott comes from Marist, and should help add to the back court depth. One other name to keep an eye on is Shivaughn Wiggins. He could be one of the better recruits in the NEC (Our friends over at NYBuckets have him in the top 5), but will have to fight for minutes in this crowded back court.

This group will have to put up some points. Mount average only 60 per game. That will not get it done. They need to shoot a lot better from the field, and from the three point line, but added experience for this young group should help a lot. Most see Mount as a seven or eight seed, but I believe they will sneak into top half.

ST. FRANCIS N.Y.
The Terriers were the league's anomaly last year. They went to Moon Township and beat RMU, went 12-6 in league play but found a way to lose to one of the worst teams in the nation on the final day of the season at FDU 45-44 and in the process blew the three seed in the NEC tournament. They followed that tough loss up with a first round home exit in the NEC tournament at the hands of Quinnipiac.

This year St. Francis will look for a little bit more consistency, and needs to find a scoring threat. The team doesn't have Top 4 talent but didn't make mistakes, and shot the ball very well. Glenn Braica will look to use that formula this season, and with the return of Dre Calloway from injury, St. Francis will once again surprise some people in the NEC. The team lost forward Stefan Perunicic but that should mean more of Jalen Cannon and Travis Nichols which isn't a bad thing. Along with that tandem, Akeem Johnson will give the Terriers a nice attack from their bigs.

The backcourt will be the key. Braica will have a lot of options to choose from, and will probably ride the hot hand a lot. Ben Mockford led the group with 11.8 ppg but expect Calloway to take over the leading scorer role. One guy to keep an eye on will be Brett Jones. The sophomore averaged around 8 ppg as a freshman, and could be the key to the Terriers attack when teams take away Calloway. St. Francis really is the sum of all parts team. Those parts are a year older, and while it appears they don't have that all NEC player on their team, Cannon or Calloway could emerge as that type of player.

The goal should once again be to finish in the top 4 of the league, and get a home game in the first round of the NEC tournament. Expectations will be high for the Terriers, and the fan base and alumni expect a lot. The excuse that being a small school in New York City doesn't hold anymore. Their Brooklyn brothers have built a mini NEC dynasty and Terrier fans are expecting a lot this season.

SACRED HEART
Shane Gibson. More Shane Gibson, and on top of that some Shane Gibson. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration but Gibson will once again have to carry the Pioneers this season, as he did last. The senior average 22 a game and hit an astounding 87 threes. Justin Swidowski could provide some help, but he needs to stay healthy. Those two will be a viable one-two punch. If Chris Evans can take that next step and become an every game double figure scorer, Sacred Heart will be just fine offensively.

Where the team needs to improve is the defensive side of the ball. They allowed over 70 points per game, and that just isn't acceptable in the NEC. They lack athleticism and will once again struggle with teams that run a fast tempo offense. One thing that should help coach Dave Bike out is experience. The team returns virtually everyone, including 4 starters. Stan Dulaire has moved on, but the forward should be easily replaced. Louis Montes, and Nick Greenbacker will join Evans and Swidowski in the frontcourt, and the team brought in a ton of size with newcomers Mostafa Abdel Latif, De'Aires Tate, Cole Walton and Tevin Falzon. All four are 6-foot-6 or taller, so the Pioneers will have plenty of options at the 4-5 positions. Evan Kelly and Phil Gaetano will have to step up and help Gibson in the backcourt. They are thin at guard, but all three have experience.

Sacred Heart will probably beat someone they shouldn't when Gibson goes nuts, and lose to someone they shouldn't when he goes cold. He is the team, and does a great job carrying them. The team will have a great opportunity early in the year when LIU-Brooklyn comes to Fairfield because they will catch the Blackbirds without Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and CJ Garner. That game became a lot more winnable than a month ago, and could help gain some major momentum heading into conference play. If they can improve the defense, and find some other scoring threats, they could be sleepers. One thing is for sure; whoever draws Sacred Heart in the first round of the NEC tournament will not have a fun time stopping one of the best scorers in NEC history as the senior shoots for that elusive NCAA bid.

MONMOUTH
King Rice is building something at West Long Branch. A few weeks into the season the Hawks looked awful, but as the team learned the system, and young guys got more experience, they started gaining confidence, and that led to some very nice wins. They went 9-4 in their last 13, and were a surprising participant in the NEC tournament. The last game of the regular season, they beat LIU Brooklyn 106-78. The school has some of the best facilities in the conference, and Rice is a great young coach, but this will be a process, and Monmouth is still a year or two away from contending for a home game in the NEC tournament.

As Rice gets recruits to fit his system, the quality of play will improve. They have a few very good pieces, but just are not athletic enough t run the hectic pace and press like Rice would prefer. Jesse Steele is a great point guard, and does a lot of things well. He will be a candidate for the all NEC team, and will once again have to be the leader. Dion Nesmith enters his senior year coming off a solid junior year, but needs to pick up his scoring. No reason he should not be in double figures this season. Ed Waite, a senior forward will also have to pick his game up along with fellow senior Marcus Ware. The seven footer Phill Wait has graduated, and while his statistics weren't great, it's always tough to replace size like that. Newcomers Khalil Brown, Tyrone O'Garro and Collin Stewart should help ease the loss. Monmouth will certainly have some options and the four and five spot.

The key to the whole team may be Andrew Nicholas. The 6-foot-6 hybrid guard/forward had a nice freshman year averaging just fewer than nine a game but will need to pick that up this year. He is one of the better shooters in the whole conference, and with a year under his belt, could become a lethal weapon for King Rice. Top recruit, point guard Christian White should get some minutes with Austin Tillotson transferring to Colgate, and needs to use this year to gain experience and learn from the wily vet Steele. This year the goal for Monmouth should be to return to the NEC tournament. They could finish as high as fourth or fifth, or miss the tournament all together. This is a big year to build of the momentum the team gained at the end of last season. With the facilities in place, a young exuberant coach, and a good group of young players, Monmouth is certainly on its way up.

CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE
Time to rebuild. CCSU could be in for a tough season, and has to replace two of the better players in the NEC last season. Ken Horton (19 ppg) one of the best players in program history, and a match-up nightmare has graduated, and joining him is guard Robby Ptacek who was the leader in the front court, and averaged almost 18 a game himself. The good news for Blue Devils fans? Kyle Vinales (18 ppg) is back, and still has three years of eligibility left. The sweet shooting Vinales took the NEC by storm, and put on some impressive shooting clinics, but will have to carry even more of the load this year.

Coach Howie Dickenman has plenty of experience as he enters his 17th year as the head man in New Britain, and hopefully can push the right buttons to steer CCSU in the right direction. Malcolm McMillan will join Vinales in the backcourt. He is great at getting others involved, and could be among the leaders in the league in assists. If sophomore Adonis Burbage or newcomer Khalen Cumberlander can provide a punch off the bench for CCSU, they may have a serviceable guard rotation, but make no mistake, Ptacek will be sorely missed. With Horton gone, the frontcourt may be even more of a mess. He averaged almost nine rebounds a game, and was a matchup nightmare with his size and ability to shoot, and score off the bounce.

The top candidates to replace the CCSU legend will be Joe Efese and Terrell Allen. The upperclassmen both averaged less than five ppg but will have much more freedom on the offensive end this season. Newcomer Brandon Peel will certainly have a chance to show what he has, but as is with the back court, the team will mightily struggle to replace Horton this year. It should be considered a very good season if they can break into the NEC tournament.

ST. FRANCIS (PA)
St. Francis, believe it or not, might be adding the best player of any team in the conference that did not play an NEC game last season. Umar Shannon is back after tearing his ACL in the first game of the year, and should help Rob Krimmel in his first year at the helm in Loretto. Shannon was second team All-NEC two years ago, and in that one game he played in last season vs VCU, he did what he does best scoring 26 points. His return should be a big boost to a team that went 6-23. If there is a silver lining, it's that five of those wins came in conference and with Shannon back, St. Francis will look to build on that.

Versatile forward Scott Eatherton is gone, and so are his 14 ppg and 7 rpg. He will be a tough guy to replace, but the pieces are there to do so. Sophomore Earl Brown and junior Kameron Ritter will be the two expected to step up and fill Eatherton's void, and senior Tony Peters should be able to help those two out. St. Francis will not have a lot of size, and could struggle to handle some of the bigger teams in conference. That group has nobody taller than 6-foot-6, and newcomer Ronnie Drinnon is also listed at 6-foot-6. Krimmell will certainly lean on Shannon and the rest of his guards to do a bulk of the work. Joining Shannon in the backcourt is senior Anthony Ervin, sophomore Stephon Whyatt, and fellow sophomore Ollie Jackson.

This group has some experience under their belt, and should benefit greatly from Shannon returning. While they may not get the same quantity of shots, the quality should improve immensely with teams having to focus a bulk of their attention on Shannon. Ben Millaud-Meunier and Greg Brown join the program this year, and should provide some nice depth at the guard spots. Look for St. Francis to improve in the win category this season, but as much as the return of Shannon should help, the loss of Eatherton and lack of size will be too much to overcome.

BRYANT
The wait for Bryant fans is over. The Bulldogs are finally eligible for the NEC and NCAA tournament after the jump from Division II, to Division I. The next question? How long will it now take Tim O'Shea to get the Bulldogs to NEC tournament contender status? Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will Bryant's basketball program. The good news? The team did not lose a starter from last year's squad, and finally has some experience under their belt. The bad news? The group wasn't exactly successful, winning only two games, one in the NEC over fellow doormat SFPA, and ending the year on a 15 game losing streak. The squad should improve on those marks but it will still be a long year in Smithfield.

The team has two solid players in junior Alex Francis and senior Frankie Dobbs but lacks depth behind these two upper classmen. Francis (17 ppg), at 6-foot-6 has had a very good career at Bryant and does a lot of things well. He is a tough match-up, because he can score in so many ways, and averages close to 8 rpg. Dobbs is the leader, and finished with a very respectable 138 assist last season, while averaging almost 14 a game. These two will provide a good 1-2 punch, but the Bulldogs will need others to step up if there is to be improvement.

Sophomore Ben Alit, junior Corey Maynard, and senior Raphael Jordon all need to improve on what they did last season. If that trio can pick it up a notch, Bryant will have a very respectable starting five. The bench will be a revolving door. Transfers Dyami Starks and Joe O'Shea should help add some depth, and should stretch the floor. Both are known for their ability to knock down outside shoots. The team returns Dan Calandrillo, Vlad Kondratyev, and Erick Smith. To go along with that group, they added freshman Curtis Oakley, Shane McLaughlin, and Andrew Scocca.

As you can tell the Bulldogs will have a lot of bodies, the question is, can somebody step up and help lift Bryant out of the shadows of the NEC. The program took a considerable step back last season, but that's the glory of college basketball. This is a new season, a new opportunity for the Bulldogs to do something they have never done before. Bryant came to the D-I level for the opportunity to play for that all important NCAA bid, and they will finally get the opportunity to do so.

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON
Many outlets and publications have the Knights vastly improving on lasts years' awful campaign. I simply do not see a climb out of the NEC basement. The team won two NEC games, one over fellow bottom dweller and equally as bad Bryant. Some good news to draw from last year was the way it ended. The team upset St. Francis N.Y., ruining the Terriers shot at the three seed in the NEC tournament. The bad news? Even in that win, FDU really struggled to score points (They won 45-44).

One thing the Knights will certainly be able to build upon is the play of senior Melquan Bolding last season. He averaged 15 ppg and was one of the better scoring guards in the conference. He will need a lot more help this season if the Knights want to contend for a spot in the NEC tournament. Lonnie Hayes returns and he will be asked to build off last season's double digit scoring effort (13 ppg) but needs to raise his three point percentage. He shot only 25 percent from beyond the arc last year. Transfer Sidney Saunders may be the key to the whole team. He comes from Polk State College and is known for his ability to go on hot streaks. Lonnie Robinson is also back after being a regular starter, so the Knights should have a solid group of upperclassmen in the backcourt.

George Goode has moved on and his size and production will be something FDU must find away to replace. Goode averaged almost 13ppg and just under 8rpg. Kinu Rochford and Mathias Seilund will have the first shot to become the go to big man, but do not sleep on three freshmen, all of whom expect to play a good amount this season. If the group of Xavier Harris, Myles Mann, and Kyle Pearson can provide one or two reliable players, FDU may have a serviceable rotation. If everything comes together, Greg Vntrone may be able to piece together a respectable season. Vetrone is 19-71 at FDU, and that simply will not cut it. If he has another season like last, he could find himself unemployed next March.

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