NEC preview part I: the bottom five

This is part one of a four-part NEC basketball preview, as written by Chris Capella and Lee Kunkel. Part one will preview the “bottom five” teams, according to the recently released coaches poll. Tomorrow will preview the “top five” of the coaches poll.

10. Central Connecticut State University(5-26, 3-15 NEC)
Coach: Howie Dickenman, 20th (278–286)
Postseason: None
KenPom: 340
Biggest loss:Matt Mobley (17 points-per-game, 1.8 assists per-game)
Key game: The Blue Devils have a pretty tough non-conference schedule that includes games at Boston College, Rutgers, and UCONN but as we’ve learned over the years, non-conference play is simply a tune up for the NEC. With that said, Dickenman’s bunch plays three of their first four conference games on the road including two at Bryant and Mount. That is not easy, and makes the home game sandwiched in against LIU Brooklyn on January 4th a near must win if CCSU wants to make the NEC tournament.
Names to know: Brandon Peel is one of my favorite players in the league. He is a tough kid that brings a variety of skillsets to the table. It’s a shame CCSU has had so much turnover on their roster because he can really play. There aren’t many more tenacious rebounders in the league. He averaged a near double-double last year with 9 PPG and 9 RPG. This season, he’ll be asked to do even more, especially early in the season as Dickenman gets the roster and rotations figured out. The 6-7 senior should have no problem carrying his share of the responsibilities, but where will the help come from?
The Skinny: This team was picked second in the NEC last season by the coaches as we began play a year ago. Then the wheels fell off. Losing Mobley kills (Transfer to St. Bonaventure). He gave them big minutes (37 per-game last year), provided a huge scoring punch, could shoot the three, and was the leader on the offensive end. This is a team that has been destroyed over the last few years by players leaving. Hell, you can make the argument that CCSU has lost the best guard in the NEC back-to-back years (Kyle Vinales left the program last season). The good news? There really isn’t anywhere to go but up. This team went 1-13 on the road and posted a 0-8 record in the NEC away from New Britain. Peel and Khalen Cumberlander are two solid pieces to build around. They will struggle to win games in the non-conference but it will be important to find out whom they can rely on come January.
9. Fairleigh Dickinson (8-21, 3-15)
Coach: Greg Herenda, third year (18-42)
Postseason: none
KenPom: 320
Biggest losses:Matt McDonald, Xavier Harris, Mustafaa Jones
Key game: Nov. 23 vs. Saint Peter’s. With a tough non-conference schedule, this could be FDU’s best chance at a Division I win before conference play.
Names to know: Sophomore guard Darian Anderson has a long frame and showed flashes of being a pretty good scorer in this league last year. He shot 40.4 percent from the floor, 33.7 percent from three and has the ability to pass and defend. He led the team is assists and steals, and was second in scoring at 11.4 points per game. He’s certainly not shy about shooting, leading FDU in usage and percent of shots for the Knights offense. Confidence is a good thing, Darian, so keep letting it fly.
Marques Townesreally impressed me last season. He’s listed as a guard, but has a thick 6-foot-4 frame and was used as a small forward and power forward at times. He’s not going to kill you with the three ball but he does a good job working with his back to the basket and spacing the floor to find good shots. As a freshman, he shot almost 60 percent from the floor last season.
The Skinny: So here we are with Fairleigh Dickinson. Another year is approaching, and it’s another year where the talent is minimal and the expectations are even smaller. Quite frankly, I’m surprised the departures of Matt McDonald, Xavier Harris, Mustafaa Jones and even Malachi Nix didn’t make the Knights the last pick in the preseason poll. None of those guys were superstars, but they were at least serviceable players who could be nice role players on a better team. I especially think the loss of Harris, the team’s best rebounder and toughest player, will sting early.
My feeling is there’s a great respect for head coach Greg Herenda, who is now set to enter his third season. Two years ago, Herenda got the most out of Sidney Sanders Jr. and was able to sneak into the NEC tournament as an eight seed. Last year, he showed an ability to develop Anderson, Townes and some other younger players (notably, Stephan Jiggetts), which could be promising.
Ryan Peters from NYC Buckets did a good job detailing the struggle FDU is going through. I’m hoping for the best for you, FDU, but, man, I don’t know. This could be a long season filled with brief moments of joy as Andersonlooks to develop as one of the ten (?) best guards in the conference.
8. St. Francis PA (16-16, 9-9)
Coach: Rob Krimmel, fourth season (31-61)
Postseason: Lost in first round of the CIT Tournament to Bowling Green, 67-64
KenPom: 277
Biggest losses:Earl Brown, Ollie Jackson
Biggest game:Dec. 2 vs. Lehigh: How is this for an early season matchup? The Red Flash get a Patriot League favorite, at home. Good measuring stick game.
Names to know: Center Ronnie Drinnon not only poses a league-best man bun, but has some game to go with it. Drinnon was always a good rebounder but took it to another level last year, ranking 86 and 175 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively. He can finish around the rim with both hands and can occasionally step back and hit a three, which might actually take away from his game.
I wrote about point guard Malik Harmon a little bit a few weeks ago when I posed the question “who is the best point guard in the NEC?” The junior guard is a good shooter, hitting at a 47/32/64 percent clip last year. He doesn’t do anything great, but he’s a good point guard.
The Skinny: It’s time to preview the most unpredictable team in the conference! St. Francis PA finished as the NEC’s fifth best team last season, and that was with the second best player in the conference, the now-graduated Earl Brown. Now, they’ll have to move forward without Brown and guard Ollie Jackson, who was the team’s best perimeter shooter.
That doesn’t mean this team still doesn’t have the talent to be competitive, but it’s going to be tough sledding. It starts right away with one of the toughest non-conference slates in the conference. Seven of SFU’s 11 non-conference games are against teams ranked in KenPom’s top 150.
So how does SFU turn it around? It starts with improved perimeter shooting. This is a squad that has capable guard play that disappointed last year. Dom Major, Ben Millaud-Meniuer, Malik Harmon and even Ronnie Drinnon had pretty disappointing shooting seasons. At least one of those guys is going to have to step it up this year.
Now, this team is going to have to undergo a small makeover. They could always count on Earl Brown to get a bucket when it needed. Who becomes that go-to guy? How do they manufacture buckets in the paint? One of the more underrated players in the conference was guard Greg Brown, who can act as a ball handler and slasher off the ball. If Brown can keep his numbers steady and Harmon can improve his game as the ball handler, there might be a chance to make some noise in the NEC.
7. Sacred Heart (15-17, 9-9)
Coach: Anthony Latina, third year (21-43)
Postseason: None
KenPom: 221
Biggest losses:Evan Kelley, Phil Gaetano, Steve Glowiak
Biggest game:Sacred Heart announced themselves as one of the better teams in the NEC last season. Now, the expectations are only going to rise. What’s the best way to paint “CONTENDER” on your forehead? Start off conference play by beating Robert Morris, in Robert Morris, on Dec. 2nd.
Names to know: If it wasn’t for the outstanding play of RMU guard Marcquise Reed, Cane Broome would have won NEC rookie of the year. He was that good, leading the team in scoring (14.2 ppg), minutes, free throws made, free throw percentage (75.2 percent) and ranked second in six other categories.
De’Von Barnett is your classic back-to-the basket power forward. If the NEC has an equivalent to Zach Randolph, it would be Barnett, who punishes forwards everywhere with his bruising style of play. Last year, the sophomore shot 57.8 percent from the field. He’s probably the third best forward in the league.
Tevin Falzon is one of the more underrated players in the league. he’s the mold of RMU’s Aaron Tate or CCSU’s Brandon Peel, except better. He had the 12th best offensive rebounding percentage in the country last season and dominated the paint in conference play. Now a senior, Falzon is a sleeper for defensive player of the year.
The skinny: It might have been a little surprising to see Sacred Heart not crack the top five in the preseason poll. One of the biggest reasons was probably the loss of point guard Phil Gaetano, couldn’t have played a much better point guard. He was the type of guy who just didn’t make a mistake on the floor. Now, sophomore Cane Broome is going to have to transition from playing off the ball to being the primary ball handler. While the transition can be tough — and at times awkward — Broome finished top 15 in the NEC in assists. If there’s a young guard who is going to make the transition look easy, it’ll be Broome.
Building a team around Broome is a nice luxury to have, but this team will go as far as the frontcourt takes it. De’von Barnett and Tevin Falzon make up, in my eyes, the best frontcourt in the conference. You have the extremely efficient and talented Barnett paired with Tevin Falzon, who will be the league’s best rebounder and shot blocker. Also, graduate forward Jordan Allen is an incredible luxury to bring off the bench. He shot 60 percent from the field last year.
Yes, Sacred Heart lost a few key players, but the talent more than makes up for it. This has the makeup of a team that could be playing a home game in the NEC tournament this year.
6. Wagner (10-20, 8-10 NEC)
Coach: Bashir Mason, fourth year (48–45)
Postseason: None
KenPom: 256
Biggest Loss: Marcus Burton (17.5 points-per-game)
Key Game: For a team that got into the NEC tournament last year, the goal will be to build on that and push for a top four finish. They were selected sixth in the coaches poll, and should be in the discussion for a spot when the calendar turns to February. The February 6th home game against preseason number one, Mount St. Mary’s, looms large. A win there could propel Mason’s team to a strong finish. A loss, and things could snowball downhill quickly. After that game Wagner plays four straight games away from home, their longest road trip of the season.
Names to know:There are a few guys who will have an opportunity in the Seahawks backcourt to make a statement and take rein of the team, and my money would be on sophomore JoJo Cooper doing just that. As a freshman, he played almost 29 minutes-per-contest gaining valuable experience alongside the now departed senior guard Burton. He averaged an impressive 4.0 assists-per-game and even chipped in 7 points-per-game. He’ll need to improve his shooting numbers, and he’ll certainly have more opportunity to do just that.
The Skinny: In college athletics, the word “rebuild” is one you do not want associated with your program for too long. Coaches would often prefer to “reload” their roster from year-to-year as waves of seniors and transfers move on with their careers. Wagner went through that transition period going 10-20 on the season and losing in the first round of the NEC tournament. The next question, how long will it take to get back to the top of the Northeast Conference?
While the team lost its starting point guard Marcus Burton (Robert Morris fans rejoice), there is a lot of depth on the roster. Coach Mason has done a great job getting a few key transfers over the past few seasons, starting with wingman Dwaun Anderson(Michigan State) and big man Mike Aaman (Rhode Island). While Anderson has not quite lived up to the hype when he arrived from East Lansing, he still is a very talented athletic guard that will be asked to carry a large load in the backcourt. He battled injuries last season that cost him a ton of time. Aaman will need to establish himself as one of the best centers in the league if the Seahwaks are going to out perform expectations. He can control the paint and the glass, and even posted a 20-20 game last year against FDU. This year, another transfer will look to make an impact. 6-8 forward Henry Brooks (Penn) should give Wagner one of the biggest frontcourts in the NEC.

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