Sacred Heart took a 77-76 lead with a baseline out-of-bounds play ending with a Jordan Allen layup. St. Francis (PA) Greg Brown raced down the floor, attracting three defenders as he drove to the basket. His layup was off the mark, but his drive drew the attention of another Pioneer defender, allowing Earl Brown to sneak in for the second-chance effort and the game-winning bucket.
Brown, the 6-foot-6 senior forward, ended with nine points and six boards. The buzzer-beating win keeps the Red Flash atop the Northeast Conference standings along with Bryant and St. Francis (NY).
For 18 weeks last season Mount St. Mary’s carried a losing record. However, the Mountaineers picked up momentum beginning in March with four straight wins, three of which came in the Northeast Conference Tournament.
On March 11, Mount St. Mary’s ran away with an 88-71 win against top-seeded Robert Morris, dashing the Colonials NCAA tournament hopes for the second consecutive season.
A week later, one day after St. Patrick’s Day, the Mountaineers’ luck ran out, as Albany ended their season with a 71-64 victory in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. On the same night, Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole had a postseason game of his own, as the Colonials went into Carnesecca Arena and defeated St. John’s, 89-79, in the first round of the NIT.
Despite the postseason success and a 72-37 (42-11 NEC) record over the past three seasons, Robert Morris hasn’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2010 when it nearly upset No. 2 seeded Villanova.
Toole has maintained the success of the program, never finishing lower than third in the conference during his tenure as head coach. There’s an established tradition at Robert Morris with 11 regular season conference titles, but bittersweet success is what is driving Robert Morris during the first few weeks of practice.
“It’s something that pushes us and motivates us,” Toole told NBCSports.com. “We keep saying that if we continually get back to that spot you’ll eventually get over the hump. It’s not easy to get back into those tournament championship games.”
This year more than others there is uncertainty around the league. Many of the top players have graduated, including Robert Morris guard Karvel Anderson, who was named NEC Player of the Year in 2013-2014. Mount St. Mary’s graduated three 1,000 career scorers. Wagner is without the conference’s three-time defensive player of the year, Kenneth Ortiz and Bryant forward Alex Francis, a two-time first team selection, is also gone.
“There is a lot of unknowns,” Toole added. “You look at that teams that return the most, a lot of people are choosing those teams toward the top of the league because they have more proven entities than some of the other groups.”
Central Connecticut State has four starters back, including a healthy Kyle Vinales. St. Francis (NY) returns six of its top nine scorers, including first-team all-conference forward Jalen Cannon. However, both those teams committed the most turnovers in the league last season. St. Francis (PA) has the same starting five as last year, but is this the year for the Red Flash to end a 23-year tournament drought?
Robert Morris, like Bryant, Wagner and Mount St. Mary’s has its personnel losses to overcome, however, each of those teams have the pieces to be in the conversation come March.
By the end of the season, the Colonials were down to just eight scholarship players. Two of those players — Anderson and starting point guard Anthony Myers-Pate — exhausted their eligibility. Fortunately for Toole, all six of those returning players logged 15 or more minutes, headlined by wing Lucky Jones, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in an all-NEC second team junior season.
The 6-foot-6 Jones has been a stapel in the Colonials lineup, starting 66 of 70 games in the past two seasons. He’s also a reliable big-game player, going for 25 points, nine boards and five assists in a NIT win over the Johnnies in March. The previous year, he scored a team-high 15 points in the monumental win over Kentucky.
“It’s huge [having Lucky],” Toole said. “He’s a guy that is so versatile and can do so many things on the floor, whether it’s rebounding, scoring or defending. He can give us a little bit of confidence as we go into games because we know what we can get from Lucky and we can build from there. Having him on the roster and him as a senior is invaluable to us.”
Will arguably the conference’s top player, six key contributors and a competitive non-conference schedule (North Carolina, Georgetown, Toledo) be enough to push the Colonials over that hump and into the field of 68? In a conference as unpredictable as the Northeast has been over the last few seasons it’s too early to tell. But one thing is for certain, Toole will have his guys ready.
“There are so many teams that can compete for a championship,” Toole said. “If you aren’t prepared or playing with the urgency you need to play with, I think that can beat you. That goes across the board, from top to bottom, in the conference. Like I said, there’s a lot of unknowns. Each and every game is going to be a challenge, as it has been every other year we’ve been in the NEC.
“It’s a long, long process and we can’t take any shortcuts as we build toward conference play because everyone is going to be at their best, everyone is going to try to win those league games and I think everyone believes they have chance.”
Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole has guided his program to back-to-back 20-win seasons, although his Colonials have no NCAA tournament appearances to show for it. For two straight seasons, Robert Morris has been relegated to the NIT following an upset in its conference tournament at the hands of Mount St. Mary’s.
Despite having one of the best young coaches in the nation and arguably the conference’s top player again this season, the Colonials have had trouble navigating through the NEC field, and this season the conference could resemble a minefield.
The Colonials lose the back court of Karvel Anderson and Anthony Myers-Pate, but six returning players, led by all-NEC second teamer Lucky Jones, logged 15 or more during the 2013-2014 season. Toole also brings in a six-man recruiting class (two JuCo transfers), which should help add size up front and depth on the perimeter.
While Robert Morris looks to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010, St. Francis (NY) is looking to qualify for the tournament for the first time in school history. The Terriers bring back six key contributors from a season ago, including all-NEC first team selection Jalen Cannon, who averaged 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds as a junior. Bryant may be without Alex Francis and his 2,000-plus career points, but Dyami Starks gives Tim O’Shea a go-to scoring option for a team coming off a third-place finish.
One of the conference’s others top scorers, Kyle Vinales, was sidelined with a finger injury for Central Connecticut State last season. The 6-foot-1 Vinales is one of four returners for the Blue Devils, a team looking to jump from the middle of the pack to conference contenders. St. Francis (PA) also returns the bulk of its lineup, led by second-team selection Earl Brown.
Mount St. Mary’s, which reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, has to account for the loss of three 1,000 point scorers. Wagner will be without the conference’s three-time defensive player of the year, Kenneth Ortiz and second-leading scorer, Latif Rivers. But both the Mountaineers and Seahawks have quality pieces that could continue to make this low-major conference and interesting one to track as the season shifts into March.
PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Lucky Jones, Robert Morris
As a junior, playing alongside NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson, Jones averaged 13.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, earning all-NEC second team honors. The 6-foot-6 wing will carry a heavy load for Robert Morris this season: on offense, on defense and on the glass. He’s been a stable part of the program’s success from its two regular season conference titles to his 15-point performance in the Colonials’ NIT upset win over Kentucky in 2013.