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October 23, 2012

RMU picked 2nd in NEC, Jones All-NEC

The Northeast Conference unveiled its new-look media day on Tuesday, hosting all 24 of its mens and womens basketball coaches at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. for a televised session with the media. As the various coaches sat down with assembled media at the center, they also took turns chatting with members of NEC-TV for the web audience on the conference's new NECFrontRow web channel.

The main event went off without any surprises. Two-time defending champion LIU-Brooklyn is once again the top team in the preseason coaches poll, garnering nine of the 12 first place votes. Robert Morris, the runner-up the last two years, is second with three first place votes. Wagner came in third and Quinnipiac came in fourth.

LIU-Brooklyn is looking to become the first team to win three consecutive NEC titles in league history. Multiple teams have won back-to-back titles, but the three-peat remains elusive. But the Blackbirds have made recent history in the league, as they became the first team in 13 years to fulfill the coaches' preseason projections, running the table in the league last year. The NEC coaches are faithfully incorrect in predicting a winner, as they've been wrong 88 percent of the time.

The coaches chose LIU despite the departure of former coach Jim Ferry for Duquesne and the hiring of long-time assistant Jack Perri, as well as the two-game suspensions four LIU players will have to endure at the start of league play. Wagner was another high profile team to undergo a transition, as Dan Hurley left for Rhode Island. The Seahawks promoted assistant Bashir Mason. His hiring, coupled with Jamion Christian taking over at Mount St. Mary's, bumped Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole from youngest coach in the NEC to almost elder statesman.

LIU placed forwards Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd on the All-NEC team, where they were joined by Quinnipiac's Ike Azotam, Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson, and Robert Morris' Velton Jones. All five were sure bets to make the squad. Toole told NEC-TV that Jones' leadership plays as much of a role, if not more, than his numbers.

"There's no doubt that his leadership is the biggest thing that he brings to our team. You look at some of his statistics and it's not always the prettiest thing in the world, but what he looks at is wins and losses," Toole said. "It's always amazing that when he speaks, the guys listen so much more intently than when I do. I try to get him to coach the guys as much as I can because they believe in him and know that he's been through everything and will lead them in the right direction."

The hope is that the senior class, led by Jones, will piece together the lessons learned and years of experience to lead the way to another title. Jones, Russell Johnson, and Lijah Thompson were all freshmen when Robert Morris nearly stunned Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. They haven't had a single season go by without making an appearance in the NEC final. Toole said he hopes that's an advantage."

"There's a hunger and desire to get back to that championship again," Toole said. "We have a senior class where all they know is playing in NEC championship games and I think they want to go out with another opportunity and maybe right the ship from the last two years."

In order for that to happen, it can't just be Jones. That's especially true now that Robert Morris has been handed its first hurdle of the season. They'll be without Thompson, a 6-foot-7 forward, for the entire season after he suffered a knee injury. Thompson was a potential starter alongside Mike McFadden on the front line. Now Robert Morris will have to turn to junior college transfer Vaughn Morgan, sophomore Keith Armstrong, and freshman Stephan Hawkins for more minutes at forward.

Toole is also hoping for a big year from Johnson, the other remaining senior. The 6-foot-6, 190 pound Johnson is one of the most versatile Colonials but has struggled through injuries and inconsistent play to fully realize his potential. With Thompson out, Johnson could play more at the power forward spot while also playing on the wing.

"I think we've all seen flashes of what he's capable of. I think he's worked harder to prepare himself for this season than any of the other three seasons he's been a part of this program," Toole said. "I hope he can just continue to get healthy. It seems every year, once he gets it going, some fluke injury happens that he has to deal with. I'm just hoping for his senior year that he can remain healthy, because I think if he does, he can provide us with a big lift."

A healthy Johnson, a determined Jones, continued improvement from a group of juniors and sophomores, and strong debuts from Morgan, Hawkins, and Karvel Anderson seems to be the recipe Toole is banking on getting RMU to the final once again.

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