Conference preview: Northeast Conference still LIU’s world

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Long Island might’ve been the luckiest team in college basketball this offseason. Four players were involved in an on-campus brawl that ended with all players being charged with third-degree assault. They included the team’s top three scorers — last year’s conference Northeast Conference Player of the Year Julian Boyd, Jamal Olsawere and C.J. Garner. Fortunately, the charges only resulted in a two-game, conference play suspension for all of them. With that, they should be primed to repeat as conference champions.

Behind them, Wagner lost coach Dan Hurley, but new head man Bashir Mason gets four starters back, including leading scorer Latif Rivers (14.6 points per game) and forward Jonathon Williams (13.4 points, five rebounds per game). Robert Morris might’ve been one the most neglected 20-win teams in 2011-12 en route to a 26-11 record, including a 13-5 mark in NEC play. The Colonials get four of their starters back, including first-team all-conference guard Velton Jones. Quinnipiac could be in for its best season in school history after 18 wins last season and Ike Azotam returning. Expect Sacred Heart to make an impact with four starters coming back, including first-team All-NEC pick Shance Gibson and his 22 ppg last season, fourth in the country. Glenn Braica and the St. Francis (N.Y.) Terriers will get back guard Shane Calloway after a season-ending injury in 2011-12 and Monmouth is hoping to bounce back from a 20-loss season behind Jesse Steele (12.6 ppg) and five returning scorers.

Kyle Vinales is pretty much the only ray of light for a Central Connecticut State team that lost a lot of offensive firepower with the graduation of Ken Horton and Robby Ptacek. But Vinales led all freshman in the nation in scoring last season. Mt. St. Mary’s is hoping for new life under new head coach Jamion Christian while St. Francis (Pa.) is looking for more than the six wins they had last season under new coach Robbie Krimmel. Bryant lost 28 games last season, so there’s nowhere to go but up, really, behind forward Alex Francis (17 ppg, 7 rpg in 2011-12) and Frankie Dobbs’ 13.3 ppg. Fairleigh Dickinson is coming off the worst record in school history — 3-26 — and gets back only Lonnie Hays, from injury.

All-Conference Team

G: Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart

G: Velton Jones, Robert Morris

G: Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut State

F: Jamal Olaswere, LIU

F: Julian Boyd, LIU*

*-Player of the Year

Predicted Finish

1.) LIU

2.) Wagner

3.) Quinnipiac

4.) Robert Morris

5.) St. Francis (N.Y.)

6.) Sacred Heart

7.) Monmouth

8.) Central Connecticut State

9.) St. Francis (Pa.)

10.) Mt. St. Mary’s

11.) Bryant

12.) Farleigh Dickinson

David Harten is the editor of The Backboard Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.