Welcome to part II of our four-part mega NEC preview. Today, we’ll preview the top five teams according to the preseason coaches poll. if you missed part I, where we previewed the bottom five teams according to the coaches poll, we encourage you to click here! Tomorrow, we preview Robert Morris.
BY CHRIS CAPPELLA
5. Mount St. Mary’s (14-19, 10-8)
Coach: Jamion Christian (fifth season, 63-65)
Biggest losses: B.K. Ashe, Gregory Graves, Taylor Danaher
Key game: The Mountaineers play nine straight road games to start the season. NINE! They are: West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, George Mason, Southern Illinois, UT Arlington, Michigan, Arkansas and Loyola (MD). I’m not picking a key game. Let’s see if the Mountaineers can stay competitive as the non-conference schedule deepens.
Names to know: If you followed the league last season, it’s pretty obvious that junior point guard Junior Robinson is one of the best players in the league. He’s only 5-foot-5, but he’s an outstanding passer and shoots the three ball well. Speaking of shooting from behind the perimeter; senior small forward Will Miller is back for seemingly his 11th year of college. Miller, when he’s at his best, is the most dangerous spot-up shooter in the league.
The skinny: You can throw out the overall record when it comes to the Mount. They consistently play one of the toughest non-conference schedules for any low-major program.
What’s going to be important is forging an identity come NEC time. Mount St. Mary’s is known for their “Mount Mayhem” style of play. They run a full-court press on defense and move with tempo on offense. The Mountainers finished last season as the most efficient defensive team in the conference. With athletes like Chris Wray, Elijah Long and Khalid Nwandu, they could do it again.
There are two big questions this team needs to address:
1) What will they get from their frontcourt?
2) How big of a loss is B.K. Ashe?
Ashe, one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, unexpectedly transferred out of the program prior to his senior season. Ashe saw a dip in his shooting numbers last season but his scoring punch will be missed.
The Mountaineers also graduated Taylor Danaher, a rare 7-footer with shooting touch, and Gregory Graves, one of the most complete, all-around big men in the conference. Both guys offered serious rim protection. Replacing them will be tough.
We know what we’re going to get from Mount St. Mary’s on the defensive end. But they ranked 330th in college basketball in offensive efficiency last season. They’ll have to find a way to score more without two really talented scorers in Graves and Ashe.
4. LIU Brooklyn (16-15, 9-9)
Coach: Jack Perri (fifth season, 57-67)
Biggest losses: Martin Hermannsson, Aakim Saintil, Trevin Woods, Trevon Woods
Key game: The Dec. 11 matchup against St. John’s will be played at the Barclay’s Center as part of the 2016 Brooklyn Hops Winter Festival. Kentucky and Hofstra will also be in the tournament. It’ll be a nice exposure game for the Blackbirds.
Names to know: Forward Jerome Frink is an absolute beast. At 6-foot-7 Frink can shoot the three (37.8 percent last season), work with his back to the basket, rebound and protect the rim. He’s a favorite for NEC player of the year honors. Frink is joined with frontcourt running mate Nura Zanna. Zanna is an excellent rebounder who found a decent shooting touch around the rim and has the length to swat shots away.
The skinny: So here we are. Frink is a senior, Zanna is a junior, Joel Fernandez is a senior, Glenn Feidanga is a senior; it feels like the baby Blackbirds are all grown up.
Unfortunately, things haven’t really gone according to plan. Martin Hermannsson, last year’s leading scorer, unexpectedly signed a professional contract in France this offseason. The year before that, Elvar Frioriksson unexpectedly left. The Woods twins transferred out. It’s down to Frink and some question marks.
LIU was, at best, an average defensive team last season. That absolutely should not be the case. The Blackbirds have too much athleticism to let teams score at will. With some uncertainty in the backcourt, maybe LIU will slow down their fast-pace offense to help on the defensive side.
I have no idea what to think about the backcourt. The Blackbirds have seven freshmen/sophomores listed at the guard position. Some of them are going to get minutes. In the short term, I’d expect Iverson Flemming and Hernandez to see a lot of time with the starters. Hernandez averaged 8 ppg last season. It’s not a stretch that he could jump to the team’s second-leading scorer this year.
3. Bryant (8-23, 5-13)
Coach: Tim O’Shea (ninth season, 81-163)
Biggest losses: Shane McLaughlin, Curtis Oakley
Key game: The Bulldogs end non-conference season with a home matchup against Dartmouth on Dec. 22. They’ll also host a Yale team that won an NCAA tournament game on Nov. 30.
Names to know: Senior forward Dan Garvin is the alpha-male of this team and perhaps the NEC. He’s played at a high level for a long time. Last year he averaged 10 points, eight rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. Hunter Ware is an above-average two guard in the NEC. Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettway will look to build off of their strong freshman campaigns.
The skinny: So how does a team that played well below expectations last year enter this season as the preseason No. 3? It starts with a returning core of players with potential.
Garvin is a very well-respected forward in the conference. We’ve seen just how much transfers have impacted the NEC. It’s easy to appreciate Garvin and how he goes about his business.
Now this year he’s going to have to play better. Garvin’s shooting percentages saw a pretty significant dip. He shot 53 percent from the field as a sophomore and 46 percent as a junior. Things didn’t get much better in conference play. He rebounds and protects the rim so effectively. If he finds his touch again, he should threaten for NEC first-team honors.
Bryant should also be a team that shoots from three well. Guard Nirse Zouzoua shot 36 percent from downtown as a freshman. Hunter Ware was a tad better. Forward Bosco Kostur has the potential to do so too, but followed up an impressive freshman year with a stinker last season.
The thing Bryant struggles with is size. Marcel Pettway saw a lot of time at center last season. He’s 6-foot-5. Garvin is 6-foot-6. Opponents shot 53.1 percent from the field against Bryant last season. It’s not that they’re bad defenders, but bigger teams can easily take advantage of mismatches.
2. Wagner (23-11, 13-5)
Coach: Bashir Mason (fifth season, 71-55)
Postseason: NIT second round; defeated St. Bonaventure, lost to Creighton
Biggest losses: Dwaun Anderson, Mika Aaman, Henry Brooks
Key game: The Dec. 6 home game against Monmouth is juicy. Monmouth, a former NEC school, went 28-8 last season and returns a ton of their key pieces.
Names to know: Junior guard Corey Henson became a household name after shooting 41 percent from three last season. Point guard JoJo Cooper should be considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. He needs to find a more consistent shooting stroke, but he can dish it. Michael Carey finished top-five in NEC rebounding and shot 55 percent from the field last season.
The skinny: The Seahawks bounced back from a rare losing season in 2015 by making it all the way to the NEC championship game last season. They did it through the Wagner way: toughness on the defensive end.
Last year, the offense finally caught up with the defense. Wagner finished second overall in NEC offensive and defensive efficiency. It starts with their backcourt. JoJo Cooper has the makings to be an outstanding point guard. His life is made easier with Corey Henson and Romone Saunders sniping teams from three. Both guys shot 41 percent from downtown last season.
I guess if there’s one concern, it would be replacing small forward Dwaun Anderson and center Mike Aaman. Anderson came to the NEC as a transfer from Michigan State. His numbers never quite matched up with the hype, but he was the type of guy who could legitimately guard four positions on defense and get to the rim on offense. Aaman shot 55 percent from the field last season, protected the rim and rebounded like no other. Greg Senat is going to try and fill that role.
Things look good for Wagner, and you don’t have to look any farther then the man leading the way. Bashir Mason is an unbelievable coach. He has a pretty clear history of getting the most out of his players.
1. Fairleigh Dickinson (18-15, 11-7)
Coach: Greg Herenda (fourth season, 36-57)
Postseason: NCAA tournament, first four loss to Florida Gulf Coast
Biggest loss: Marques Townes
Key game: Rutgers is only a high-major team by name. They’ve finished last in the Big Ten the past two seasons. The Knights travel to Rutgers on Dec. 14. They could do the NEC a solid by pulling an upset.
Names to know: We’ll limit this to three guys. Junior Darian Anderson was a second team all-NEC guard last season. The offense flows through him. Junior Earl Potts is a stretch four who shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three. Sophomore center Mike Holloway led the NEC in field goal percentage in 18 conference games.
The skinny: FDU surprised the hell out of everyone last season. Coming off an 8-21 season, the Knights were picked last in the preseason coaches poll. Then they won the whole damn thing.
A lot of credit has to go to Greg Herenda. The future was bright for FDU. I don’t think anyone saw a bunch of freshman and sophomores making the jump that early. Now they return all but three players from a NCAA tournament team.
FDU had some weird numbers. They weren’t very good defensively (8th in NEC defensive efficiency), they really couldn’t rebound (last in NEC defensive rebounding percentages) and they could be careless with the basketball (sixth in NEC turnover percentages).
What they could do, however, was shoot. They led the conference in two-point, three-point and free throw percentages.
Earl Potts was the biggest reason why. He averaged 14.7 ppg and led the team in rebounding with 6.3 boards per game. He was the NEC tournament most valuable player. He can play shooting guard just as easily as power forward.
Shooting guard Darian Anderson has the makings of a star. He’s pretty good around the rim, a really good passer and isn’t afraid to fire away from three. He dropped 29 points in the NEC championship game. Could that type of performance propel him to the next level?
FDU’s only big loss was Marques Townes, who transferred to Loyola (Ill.). Townes was one of those small forwards who could do a little bit of everything. Sophomore Ghassan Nehme will probably take on a bigger role in his absence.
One other name to name: Sophomore center Malik Miller. Miller was really efficient in a small sample size. He could get more time in a frontcourt pairing with Mike Holloway.
The hardest thing to handle is success. No one is taking FDU lightly this season. Every team is gearing up to give them their best shot. We’ll see if the Knights were more than just a flash in the pan. With the amount of talent returning, it’s hard to imagine they were just a one year wonder.