It’s been a tough season for Howie Dickenman’s Central Connecticut State Blue Devils, as they entered Saturday night’s home game against Wagner with a 2-18 record. CCSU appeared to be headed to overtime, with Wagner’s Marcus Burton hitting a three-pointer to tie the game up at 50. Luckily for the Blue Devils there was still a second left on the clock and they took full advantage of the opportunity.
Faronte Drakeford hit teammate Brandon Peel with an accurate 65-foot inbounds pass, which Peel caught and released a turnaround three-pointer that fell after time expired. Peel finished the game with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots as CCSU picked up its first conference win of the season.
This is how Wagner tied the game:
Video credit: Northeast Conference
Andrew Toole hoping Robert Morris can ‘get over the hump’ and back into NCAA Tournament in 2015
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.”