NEC preview part II: the top five

This is part two of a four-part NEC preview. If you missed part one, previewing the “bottom five” of the conference, click here. Today, Chris and Lee preview the “top five” of the NEC. All rankings are reflected by the recently released coaches poll. Tomorrow, we’ll preview Robert Morris.
5. St. Francis Brooklyn (23-12, 15-3 NEC) 
Coach: Glenn Braica (83–74)
Postseason: NIT, lost to Richmond in the first round
KenPom: 217
Biggest Losses: Jalen Cannon (16 points-per-game, 10.5 rebounds-per-game), Brent Jones (14 points-per-game, 3.4 assists-per-game)
Key Games: Like many in the NEC, St. Francis has an absolutely brutal schedule to start the season. Six of their first seven are away from home with games at Boston College, at Saint Louis, at Louisville and at St. John’s to name a few. The lone home game in that stretch is against North Florida, one of the best midmajor teams in the country (they won the A-Sun and lost to RMU in the NCAA tournament, if you were wondering where you heard that name before). It will be imperative that the Terriers get off to a fast start in NEC play come January. After two road games at FDU and at the Mount, they play four of five at home starting January 7th with the lone road game at Bryant. That stretch will go a long way in determining where they will finish.

Names to know: No team in the league loses more than the Terriers. They have to replace two of the best players in the league last season in forward Jalen Cannon and point guard Brent Jones. There is a lot of talent on this roster, but certainly a lot of questions to go with it. Tyreek Jewell (9.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Chris Hooper (5.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Amdy Fall (6.5 rpg, 5.0 rpg) return. All three were key members in last season’s NEC regular season championship.

The guy to watch will be sophomore guard Glenn Sanabria (6.0 ppg). Sanabria has one of the best jump shots in the conference and will be asked to do a lot more with the absence of Jones. The sophomore shot 43 percent from three last year and finished with the second best offensive rating on the team, only behind Cannon. I could see Sanabria breaking out this season and becoming a first team caliber guard.

The Skinny: The Terriers experienced one of the best season’s in program history last year, but like many of the recent past regular season champions it ended in heartbreak. Robert Morris defeated St. Francis in an epic NEC title game and it was off to the NIT where St. Francis lost to Richmond. On the season they went 23-12 and 15-3 in the league. They finished with the second best defensive efficiency and the third best offensive efficiency in the league per KenPom.

It was a great season. Now what? The coaches believe there will be a drop off (selected fifth in the coaches poll), and who can blame them? Unfortunately St. Francis has never made the NCAA tournament. They remain a member of the Forgotten Five (the five schools that have never made the NCAAs despite being members of Division I since the modern re-classification of the division in 1948, per Sports Arsenal). They have a lot of good players on this team, but one would ask, who can set them apart?

4. LIU Brooklyn (12-18, 8-10)
Coach: Jack Perri, fourth season (41-52)
Postseason: none
KenPom: 278
Biggest Losses: Elvar Frioriksson, Gerrell Martin
Key game: LIU doesn’t really have too tough of a non-conference schedule. I’m looking at the Dec. 19 game at UMASS as a good measuring stick game. The Minutemen don’t figure to make too much noise in a loaded Atlantic 10 conference, but they could still be an above-average offensive team. Can the Blackbirds hang with one of the bottom feeders of a really good conference before NEC play?

Names to know: Sophomore guard Martin Hermannsson showed the potential of being a pretty good guard in this conference. He’s big, doubles as a ball handler, got better as the season went on and plays both sides of the ball. All of those are good qualities to have as a two guard.

Speaking of big, let’s talk about Nura Zanna, the redshirt sophomore center who looks like he has an 11-foot wingspan and draws 100 fouls per game. When he figures out exactly how to control his ginormous frame at the basket and how to hit some free throws, look out.

The Skinny: As Lee said in part I of our preview, coaches don’t want to admit to “rebuilding”, but LIU had to do exactly that in 2013-14 when they went 9-20. It paid dividends last year when a young, talented LIU squad looked like they gelled together.

That doesn’t mean this season won’t come without its challenges. Elvar Frioriksson, last years starting point guard, surprisingly transferred to a Division II school. It’s no hyperbole, at least in my eyes, that Friroksson was one the best defensive guards in the league last year. On top of that, him and Hermmannson were developing into one of the best backcourts in the conference. It’s disappointing that we lost out on that potential. Iverson Flemming figures to begin the season as the starting point guard.

There could still be some initial speed bumps. The Blackbirds were able to rely on the steady Gerrell Martin for scoring last year, who has since graduated. With two starting guards out of the mix, I’m not sure who is going to score the points for an offense that was already at the bottom of the conference (and country, for that matter) in points per possession.

The season really could hinder on the development of forward Nura Zanna. Does he become a go-to guy that you dump the ball down in the block to? Can he hit some free throws? LIU needs that go-to guy, and he might have to be it.

3. Bryant (16-15, 12-6 NEC) 
Coach: Tim O’Shea, 14 years, eighth at Bryant (193–234)
Postseason: None
KenPom: 240
Biggest Loss: Dyami Starts (18.6 points-per-game)
Key Game: You’ll be hard pressed to find a team with a more difficult non-conference slate than the Bulldogs. Hell, they open up the season at Duke, the defending National Champions! Games at Harvard, at Georgetown, at Yale, at Providence and at Michigan follow! YIKES! They will certainly be battle tested by January 2nd when they open up NEC play on their home court against CCSU. With all that said, their biggest game is more of a stretch. They get St. Francis Brooklyn, St. Francis PA, LIU Brooklyn and Robert Morris at home in a 10 day stretch starting January 14th. All four of those teams are expected to contend for those coveted top four spots in the league play, guaranteeing a home game in the NEC tournament. If the Bulldogs want to keep their name in that discussion, they need to protect their home court.

Names to know: Dan Garvin — a 6-6 junior — was named to the first team all-NEC preseason squad by the league’s coaches. He’ll have to perform to that level if the Bulldogs are to continue their rise in the NEC. Garvin is a tough minded forward that can be a bit of a mismatch for other forwards in the league. He is quick enough and has the skillset to hurt you on the perimeter if you are not nimble, but can punish smaller, quicker players on the box. Last season he averaged 11 points-per-game, but that number should rise with more opportunity. There will be a lot more shot to go around with guard Dyami Starks now graduated. He’s also a tenacious rebounder, pulling in eight per-game, and creates a bevy of second chance opportunities. Garvin finished 114th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage according to KenPom, one of the best marks in the NEC.

The Skinny: The Bryant basketball program continues to grow. For the third straight season the Bulldogs qualified for the NEC tournament, and this time they won their first ever game, defeating Sacred Heart 91-85 in the NEC quarterfinals before losing at the hands of the eventual champion Robert Morris in the semifinals. Remember, Bryant wasn’t even a DI program until 2008-2009 and wasn’t even eligible to play in the NEC/NCAA tournament until 2012-2013. This program is still very young.

Now comes one of the more difficult challenges that any program –young or old—faces: consistency. Can the Bulldogs remain in the top half of the NEC and continue to build on their postseason success? It will be difficult as Bryant has now lost most of the members that built the program, as Starks and Joe O’Shea are no longer on the roster. Garvin is a great player to start building around, and there are some solid pieces around him including Bosko Kostur (8 ppg, 3 rpg), Hunter Ware (5.6 ppg) and senior point guard Shane McLaughlin (7.5 ppg). Bryant was chosen third in the coaches poll, and even received a first place vote. The pieces are there to have sustained success. Koster and Ware are two great young pieces that have the opportunity to become All-NEC caliber players. If they do, Bryant could threaten for the league title.

2. Robert Morris (20-15, 12-6)
We’ll preview the Colonials separately tomorrow.

1. Mount St. Mary’s (15-15, 11-7)
Coach: Jamion Christian, fourth season (49-46)
Postseason: none
KenPom: 179
Biggest losses: Chris Martin, Andy Smeathers, Kristijan Krajina
Key game: Mount St. Mary’s enters the season as the NEC favorite despite last year’s .500 record and first round loss in the NEC tournament. The Jan. 28 game versus Robert Morris will likely bring in a bonkers crowd.
Names to know: There are so many to list for a team bringing back so many minutes from last year. For the sake of time, we’ll start with sophomore point guard Lamont “Junior” Robinson. The 5-foot-5 guard is the smallest player in Division I basketball but has some serious game. He’s not a great shooter (yet), but he penetrates the paint and knows how to dish it. Robinson had the second best assist rate in conference play last season.

Senior Greg Graves is the money maker. He’s a first team all-NEC forward and is probably the second best player in the conference. I could go on for days about how complete of a game he has, but it wouldn’t do anything justice. He reminds me a lot of former NEC player of the year Jamal Olasewere.

Guard BK Ashe finished third team all-NEC last season and was preseason first team selection this year. He came off the bench to lead the team in scoring at 11.9 points per contest last year.

The Skinny: The coaches have spoken, and they have chosen the Mountaineers as the preseason favorites. They have a proven track record and a lottttttt of returning players. As stated above, Gregory Graves is the best player on the team and is going to lead the way. He averaged 10.1 points while playing a team-high 29 minutes per game.

Graves is only one piece of a highly intense, methodical process on the court. You can’t talk about Mount St. Mary’s without “Mount Mayhem”. At their best, the Mount spends an entire game pressing on defense and running in transition on offense.

Except last year, that wasn’t really the case. In fact, they played really slow last season. I’m interested to see if they get back to that fast tempo.

Either way, they have the athletes to run whatever system they want. This team is loaded with talent. Junior Robinson is a good point guard, Ashe provides a scoring punch, Will Miller is a sharp shooter from downtown and Taylor Danaher is a 7-footer who can shoot and rebound.

The biggest question mark is if the Mountaineers will be able to score enough. They have the talent, but it needs to manifest itself.

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