NEC Preview: Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary’s among the contenders

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Northeast Conference.

In the recent history of the Northeast Conference a safe bet would be that Robert Morris would make its way to the conference tournament title game. In six of the last seven years that has been the case, with last season’s run being capped by a three-point win over regular season champion St. Francis-Brooklyn. Andy Toole’s team faced challenges throughout, including a 2-6 start to the season and a stretch in conference play beginning January 31 in which they dropped four of six.

But as they have in the past under Toole the Colonials found a way to bounce back, ending the regular season with three straight wins and taking that momentum into the NEC tournament. Now, the question is how this group will account for the loss of two of their top three scorers in Marcquise Reed and Lucky Jones. While the loss of the tough, versatile Jones was expected since he was a senior, having Reed transfer (to Clemson) came as a surprise when he announced his intentions in the spring.

The good news for RMU is that the cupboard isn’t bare. One of the conference’s top players in Rodney Pryor is back for his senior season as are junior point guard Kavon Stewart and a sophomore forward in Elijah Minnie who can be an all-conference caliber player. One area in which the Colonials will need to get better this season is on the defensive glass, as opponents rebounded nearly 36 percent of their missed shots. And with the NEC race looking to be tighter than last year’s, which SFBK won by three games, “little things” such as that could be the difference.

One team looking to make a move up the conference pecking order is Mount St. Mary’s, which had issues establishing consistency on the offensive end of the floor in a 15-15 campaign. Jamion Christian’s Mountaineers finished the season ranked 283rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, and they weren’t particularly good at getting to the foul line either. Junior guard BK Ashe, who led the team in scoring in a sixth man role, is back as are starters Gregory Graves and Junior Robinson.

The Mount finished last season with an effective field goal percentage of 47.2 percent, and the hope is that another year of experience for players such as the three mentioned above will lead to strides being made on that end of the floor. If that proves true, Mount St. Mary’s will be a factor in the title race.

St. Francis-Brooklyn, which won the regular season title for the first time since 2004, will have to account for the loss of NEC Player of the Year Jalen Cannon and fellow first team all-conference selection Brent Jones if they’re to repeat. But head coach Glenn Braica has some talent returning to Brooklyn, including NEC Defensive Player of the Year Amdy Fall, guard Tyreek Jewell, forward Chris Hooper (all seniors) and sophomore guard Glenn Sanabria.

Where Cannon’s absence may be felt the most (even with his leading the team in scoring) is on the boards, as he was the NEC’s best rebounder and a big reason why the Terriers managed to rebound 39.6 percent of their misses. Those second-chance opportunities were critical for a team that finished the year shooting 29.1 percent from three and with an effective field goal percentage of 46.3 percent. While St. Francis-Brooklyn needs to improve their shooting either way, players such as Fall, Hooper and fellow senior Antonio Jenifer will need to raise their production on the boards as well.

Bryant has to account for the loss of the conference’s leading scorer in Dyami Starks, but it’s important to note that Tim O’Shea welcomes back six of last season’s eight most productive scorers led by forward Dan Garvin. Garvin was a second team All-NEC selection last season, and if anything the loss of Starks should lead to a more even distribution of the scoring opportunities. The question in all of this is whether or not players such as sophomore guard/forward Bosko Kostur and senior guard Shane McLaughlin can take advantage of those opportunities.

LIU Brooklyn, which enjoyed a run of three straight NCAA tournament appearances from 2011-13, was the eighth and final team to qualify for last season’s NEC tournament after missing out in 2014. Jack Perri’s Blackbirds are a year older and in all likelihood better equipped to consistently challenge some of the upper echelon teams in the conference. Two of their top three scorers, Gerrell Martin and Elvar Fridricksson, have moved on but overall three of their five six scorers from a season ago return led by sophomore guard Martin Hermansson.

LIU Brooklyn’s biggest issue last season was shot selection, with that issue being the reason why they made just 39.2 percent of their shots. With their returnees a year older and two impact transfers in point guard Aakim Saintil (South Alabama) and power forward Jerome Frink (FIU) on board, look for the Blackbirds to make decent leap up the NEC standings.

After those five the race becomes more about making sure you qualify for the conference tournament, with the top eight teams getting a berth. Wagner, which last season went winless in December (0-6) and lost their NEC opener, managed to do enough to get into the conference tournament. Bashir Mason’s Seahawks should be better than that this season, even with the loss of leading scorer, with four of their top five scorers returning and Dwaun Anderson healthy after playing in just one game due to injury.

Sacred Heart will be led by sophomore point guard Cane Broome, and with forward De’Von Barnett sidelined with a shoulder injury Jordan Allen and Matej Buovac become even more important options for head coach Anthony Latina. Saint Francis University welcomes back guards Malik Harmon and Greg Brown, which should help them in the race for an NEC tournament berth. Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson missed out on the conference tournament last season, and the climb out of those two dreaded slots appears to be a bit steep for both. The Blue Devils lost their top two scorers and the Knights bid adieu to their top three, meaning that there are some sizable holes for both to fill.

Look for this to be a fun race, with the NEC champion likely not being determined until the final weekend of the regular season.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “I gotta think The Mount is. They’ve got a lot coming back. They were tough last year, and because they’ve got a lot back they’re going to be good. Their guard play is good and that’s what you need in this conference.”
  • Sleeper: “I don’t know if I’d call them a sleeper but I think St. Francis-Brooklyn will still be up there. They lost two first team all-league guys but I still think they’ll be pretty good. They’ve got a lot of pieces.”
  • Star to watch: “I’d put (BK) Ashe and (Rodney) Pryor in the mix. They’d be up there for me, and I don’t think Jerome (Frink) will be too far behind those guys either.”

PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rodney Pryor, Robert Morris

The senior guard/forward was Robert Morris’ leading scorer in his first season with the program, averaging 15.6 points per game, and he shot relatively well in posting that figure. Pryor shot 48.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three, ranking eighth in the NEC in the former category and second in the latter. And with fellow double-digit scorers Marcquise Reed (transfer) and Lucky Jones (graduation) having moved on, Pryor will be in a position where he’s asked to do even more from a production standpoint. And he can.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM:

  • Cane Broome, Sacred Heart: The 6-foot Broome averaged 14.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a freshman.
  • BK Ashe, Mount St. Mary’s: In a reserve role the third team All-NEC selection averaged a team-best 11.9 points per game.
  • Daniel Garvin, Bryant: The 6-foot-6 Garvin made 31 starts last season, averaging 10.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
  • Amdy Fall, St. Francis-Brooklyn: Fall (6.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is the NEC’s best shot blocker (2.8 bpg), and with Jalen Cannon moving on the NEC Defensive Player of the Year will see even more playing time.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @pioneer_pride

PREDICTED FINISH
1. Robert Morris
2. Mount St. Mary’s
3. St. Francis-Brooklyn
4. Bryant
5. LIU Brooklyn
6. Wagner
7. Sacred Heart
8. Saint Francis U.
9. Central Connecticut State
10. Fairleigh Dickinson