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Northeast Conference 2019-20 Season Preview

Finally, the 2019-20 college hoops season is just about here, in what should be a really good year for the Northeast Conference. Sure, some great players have graduated, but unlike in previous seasons, NEC programs were not ravaged by up-transfers, which means there are more returning stars. In fact, the league returns the NEC Player of the Year (Keith Braxton), and seven players who appeared on one of the three All-Conference teams (Braxton, Raiquan Clark, E.J. Anosike, Ty Flowers, Adam Grant, SaBastian Townes, and Josh Williams). Additionally, the league returns all ten head coaches from last season, plus welcomes in new league-member Merrimack College, which has had a ton of success at the Division 2 level. It’s going to be fun!

Last year was the first year for the Blue Devils Den, and my first year blogging about College Basketball. There was a ton of support from people in our little corner of the internet, and it was tremendously appreciated. However, I quickly realized that covering one program as in depth as I did became stale. So, we’re mixing it up a bit!

This year we will be covering the Northeast Conference, not just the CCSU Blue Devils. Gone will be CCSU game previews/recaps, and instead will spend time focusing on all eleven NEC programs. How that will look will likely evolve, but it will be fun. (Note: For my fellow CCSU fans, I will be doing regular “thoughts” posts that will dig deep into the Blue Devils. Like this one.)

Anyway, last year it was just me; this year I’m welcoming aboard John McNair, who coached at Cheshire High School, Western Connecticut State, was a graduate assistant at the University of New Haven, and spent time as the Coordinator of Men’s Basketball Operations at Sacred Heart. John’s a “civilian” now, but has a wealth of basketball knowledge and is someone we can all learn from (myself, certainly, included).

Below is our 2019-20 NEC Preview. The rankings are a composite of John and I (I posted my personal rankings on Twitter, and I’m sure we can get John to do the same). Note: we did not preview Merrimack, as there is limited information on the Warriors at this point (their roster was only recently posted). Enjoy!

#1. Sacred Heart

Last season: (15-17, 11-7 in the NEC); lost to LIU Brooklyn 71-62 in the NEC Quarterfinals

Offense: 109.1 Rating (3rd)

Defense: 102.0 Rating (6th)

Efficiency Margin: +7.1 (1st)

What they did well: Free Throw Rate (42.9%, 1st), eFG% (52.4%, 2nd)

Where they can improve: Defensive TO% (16.9%, 10th), Turnover % (20.1%, 8th)

Key Losses: Sean Hoehn (18.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.5 apg)

Potential Rotation: 6’2” Soph. Cameron Parker; 6’1” Soph. Koreem Ozier; 6’2” Sr. Zach Radz; 6’8” Jr. E.J. Anosike; 6’10” Sr. Jare’l Spellman; 6’1” Soph. Aaron Clarke; 6’3” Sr. Kinnon LaRose; 6’8” Soph. Zach Pfaffenberger; 6’4” Fr. Tyler Thomas

The Guy: Anosike was named to the NEC’s 2nd team in 2018-19, yet one could easily make an argument he was last season. Offensively, his 119.7 O-Rating was the highest of any player with a usage rate north of 15%, he had the 4th highest offensive rebounding rate (12.6%), and according to Bart Torvik, he was the league’s 2nd most valuable player. Perhaps what’s most impressive is Anosike’s ability to turn a weakness into a strength; as a freshman, he attempted just five three-pointers. As a sophomore? 19 for 53 (36%); don't be surprised to see the Power Forward see a jump in his 3 point shooting as well as his overall scoring.

Player to Watch: There’s not many players in the NEC who have more talent than Koreem Ozier; however, he had just a 93.2 O-Rating in league games, and had a tendency to force shots which showed up in his eFG%; his 41.9% mark ranked 48th out of 53 players who played more than 50% of available minutes. After scoring 23 points in his debut at Holy Cross, Ozier was suspended for 9 games by the University. Upon his return, he immediately picked up where he left off, averaging nearly 16 ppg over a 6-game stretch, and can both shoot it from deep and get to the rim, as well as excel in transition.

Reason to Believe: Point Guard? Check (Parker). Big-time Scorer? Check (Anosike, Ozier). Rim Protector? Check (Spellman). Shooting? Check (Anosike, LaRose, Ozier, Radz). Depth? Check. With arguably the best starting 5 in the conference, SHU returns 4 of their 5 starters from the end of the 18-19 season, with two others having previous starter experience, and a talented freshman in Thomas who may force his way into the rotation.

Cause for Concern: It’s tough to poke holes in a roster as talented as the Pios, but let’s try; Sacred Heart really struggled with turnovers last season, and that’s what happens with you toss the keys to the offense to a freshman point guard. Parker, who averaged 3.8 turnovers per game last season, should improve in that area with a season under his belt. Another concern could be the depth up front behind Anosike and Spellman. Though neither were excessively foul prone last season (Spellman averaged 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes, Anosike just 3.4), when they head to the bench, both Pfaffenberg (18.5% of minutes) and Myles Cephas (RS Freshman) are relatively inexperienced.

How Matt Sees It: If you just look at the numbers, Sacred Heart should be your pick to win the Northeast Conference. They had a +7.1 Efficiency Margin last season, easily tops in the league, and they lost just one player from that rotation. Of course, that one player was leading scorer and leader Sean Hoehn, and while they certainly have the talent to overcome that loss, do they have the leaders to fill that void? With that said, the talent is unquestionably good enough to win this league, and I see Cam Parker taking the step from “flashy” to “nasty”. If Ozier can become more efficient, I see no reason why the Pios can’t go dancin’ for the first time in school history.

How John Sees It: Ozier will most likely fill the scoring hole left by Hoehn, while LaRose, Anosike and Spellman will take up the leadership side of things, with their basketball acumen not far behind. LaRose was named a captain midseason last year by Coach Latina, who could not help but rave about LaRose, who is also a top shooter in the conference. Anosike looks to continue to build on his impressive resume, while Parker could improve slightly when it comes to decision making. The Pioneers are poised for a big year.

#2. Long Island

Last Season: (16-16, 9-9 in the NEC); lost to St. Francis U. 72-64 in the NEC Semifinals

Offense: 103.2 Rating (5th)

Defense: 100.0 Rating (2nd)

Efficiency Margin: +3.2 (4th)

What they did well: Defensive eFG% (47.5%, 1st), eFG% (51.8%, 3rd)

What they can improve: Turnovers (20.3%, 9th), Free-Throw Rate (31.5%, 9th)

Key Losses: Raul Frias (8.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Julius Van Sauers (3.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 5’11” Sr. Jashaun Agosto; 5’11” Sr. Julian Batts; 6’6” Sr. Raiquan Clark; 6’9” Jr. Ty Flowers; 6’7” Jr. Eral Penn (injured); 5’10” RS Soph. Jermaine Jackson, Jr. (via Detroit); 6’2” RS Soph. Virshon Cotton (via Akron); 6’9” RS Soph. Jack Ballantyne (via Detroit); 6’4” Jr. Ashtyn Bradley

The Guy: Every once and awhile, the NCAA does the right thing. So now we get Raiquan Clark back for a 5th year, which is what we all deserve. Clark had a monster season last year, leading the league in scoring (18.9 ppg) while doing the majority of his work in the paint. Perhaps the best Clark stat: just three players in the took more shots at the rim than Clark (308), and he made 58.3% of those attempts. In short; Clark knows what he’s good at, and he makes an effort to get the ball to the rim. He’s also a really good rebounder for his size, and his length allows him to defend five positions at an above average (or more) level. The advanced data doesn’t love Clark; he’s fairly inefficient thanks to his poor three-point shooting and penchant for turnovers, but he’s also asked to do a ton; that 31.5% usage rate was only eclipsed by CCSU’s Tyler Kohl last season. If he can continue to improve that outside shot (he made just 7 three-pointers two years ago, before making 20 last season),and avoid trying to do too much against congested defenses (which led to a lot of turnovers and offensive foul calls) he could push Braxton for that POY award. Even without an improvement, however, he’s a lock for a first-teamer.

Player to Watch: Coming into last season, Matt was super high on the Blackbirds, and it wasn’t because of Raiquan Clark or the addition of Ty Flowers. It was the backcourt; in 2017-18, Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts were almost interchangeable at either guard position, but had completely different styles (and were really good). Then the 2018-19 season started, and both players struggled immensely. Agosto saw his shooting numbers drop across the board, which caused his eFG% to drop from 47.3% to 42.1%. His perimeter shot, in particular, seemed to be effected; he made just 27% of his 3P attempts (down from 36.5% as a freshman and 32% as a sophomore), and even his free throw shooting decreased from 76% to 66%. So what gives? There’s been no public mention of an injury, but of course that’s always a possible explanation. And while many guys struggle with increased usage, which was necessary given the loss of Joel Hernandez, usually it doesn’t cause large of a drop in shooting numbers. Whatever the reason, who would be surprised if Agosto bounced back and shot 34%/41%/75% (like he did in his first two seasons), while also averaging close to 5 assists per game? Derek Kellogg doesn’t need him to be the team’s leading scorer; Raiquan Clark and Ty Flowers will handle that. But if Agosto can be the playmaker that he was as a sophomore, the Blackbirds…nay, Sharks…will be the favorites to cut down the nets in March.

Reason to Believe: Derek Kellogg has a ton of experience in his rotation; Clark, Batts, and Agosto were all starters on the 2017-18 NEC Championship team. Ty Flowers is super-talented red-shirt junior, and guys like Jermaine Jackson, Virshon Cotton and Jack Ballantyne have D1 experience. In fact, just about the entire rotation is at least two years removed from high school. Kellogg has done a great job of supplementing his roster with D1 transfers (Alex Rivera from UMass-Lowell and Tre Wood from UMass are sitting out this season), and because of that, there should be more depth this season.

Cause for Concern: Can Kellogg find enough perimeter shooting? We’ve already addressed Agosto and Batts’ struggles (largely injury related), but Derek Kellogg also loses his best three-point shooter (Raul Frias, 40.3% 3P%) , with Ty Flowers the only returning rotation player who shot better than 33% from deep. Batts is a career 37.5% shooter from deep, Agosto 31.3%, Cotton shot 38.3% as a freshman at Akron two seasons ago, and Jackson has the ability to knock down perimeter shots. LIU shot 34% from three as a team last year, and while that’s fine, that’s not enough to take them where they want to go. Additionally, their front court depth will be tested now that Eral Penn is expected to miss the season due to injury.

How Matt Sees It: Not only do I love the talent, but I dig how the lineup fits together. Raiquan Clark and his ability to get inside offensively and guard the perimeter is the perfect ying to Ty Flowers’ yang, the backcourt has depth with players who can both score the ball and handle the 1. I see a complete return to form for both Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto, both guys are too talented for 2018-19 to be their baseline, and Clark and Flowers will continue to do their thing, with both competing for All-NEC 1st team honors. I do think depth could be an issue, especially if the transfers struggle to make an immediate impact, but I think that’s unlikely. Will they run away with the regular season crown? Of course not, but I think a 13-5 finish is feasible, and I fully expect Derek Kellogg to cut down the nets in early March, even after the news of the Penn injury.

How John Sees It: With the newly branded Sharks returning 4 of their 5 main starters from last year, LIU should have an explosive offensive this season. Derek Kellogg likes to push the tempo (they finished 2nd in tempo in the conference, only behind SHU), but they will have improve their offensive efficiency. More possessions often means more turnovers, but that does not always need to be the case (SFU was 4th in tempo last season, but led the league in avoiding turnovers on a rate basis). If LIU can find enough shooting to space the floor to allow Clark to be at his best attacking the hoop, Agosto can push it up the floor and find the scorers opportunities, and Flowers and Batts can be consistent, the sky is the limit for this offense.

#3. Saint Francis

Last Season:(18-15, 12-6 in the NEC); lost to Fairleigh Dickinson 85-76 in the NEC Finals; lost to Indiana 89-72 in the NIT 1st Round.

Offense: 110.4 Rating (1st)

Defense: 105.9 Rating (8th)

Efficiency Margin: +4.5 (3rd)

What they did well: Turnover % (17.1%, 1st), Offensive Rebounding (32.8%, 1st)

What they can improve: Defensive eFG% (52.8%, 8th), Defensive TO% (18.2%, 7th)

Key Losses: Jamaal King (15.5 ppg, 4.1 apg); Andre Wolford (8.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 6’4” Sr. Keith Braxton; 6’1” Sr. Isaiah Blackmon; 6’3” Sr. Randall Gaskins Jr.; 6’6” Soph. Myles Thompson; 6’9” Jr. Mark Flagg; 6’3” Jr. Ramiir Dixon-Conover; 6’2” Sr. Scott Meredith; 6’8” RS. Soph Tyler Stewart (via Binghamton); 6’10” Sr. Deivydas Kuzavas

The Guy: Braxton can score seemingly at will, he rebounds the hell out of the ball despite being just 6’4”, he’s unselfish (led SFU in assists last season), plays defense, and oh by the way, he stuck around for four years. There’s really not much negative to say about Braxton; he could probably improve upon that 34% three-point percentage, and might want to tone down the mid-range game (19% of his shots, which isn’t terrible, though he made just 29% of them) but by and large Braxton is a coach’s dream. Over the past two seasons, the reigning NEC POY has largely played a small-ball 4 as Rob Krimmell opted for a smaller, quicker lineup. While he’s likely to see minutes there, I would expect the him to see most of his playing time at the ‘3’, and perhaps even as a point guard given the graduation of Jamaal King. No matter where he plays, however, he’s the easy frontrunner to win back-to-back POY awards, and should make some good money playing professionally.

Player to Watch: Last season’s PG Jamaal King and his 16 points and 4 assists a night are gone, which means Rob Krimmel needs to find a point guard. Many in Loretto are hoping Ramiir Dixon-Conover can be that guy; he’s got the athleticism to be a difference maker, and did average 8 ppg and 3 rpg at Southeastern CC as a freshman. In his first season at SFU, the numbers didn’t look good; a 31.6% eFG% (2 for 9 from three) and 37.8% turnover rate. However, it’s tough to get it going when you’re playing sparingly (just 14.5% of available minutes), and the hard truth is Dixon-Conover wasn’t needed last season. He’s needed now, and if the Red Flash are going to compete for a league title, he will need to be a guy for Rob Krimmel.

Reason to Believe: The Upperclassmen. Braxton is the rare kind of talent who sticks around for 4-years, and he has the ability to carry a team to a win almost single-handedly. Meanwhile, Blackmon is a 5th year senior who recovered nicely from a knee injury, and might be best shooter in the league (plus he’s got ridiculous hops). Gaskins is a defensive stud who can also knock down threes, and Mark Flagg is a serviceable big, with the talent to be more than that. There’s a ton of experience here. The return of Scott Meredith (missed last season due to injury) should help on the wing, and senior Deivydas Kuzavas provides depth, as does Binghamton transfer Tyler Stewart, who was recently ruled immediately eligible.

Cause for Concern: Last season, just three Red Flash players carried an assist rate greater than 8.6%; Jamaal King (25.1%), Keith Braxton (22.5) and Ramiir Dixon-Conover (18.1%). To put that into perspective, of the 64 NEC players who played at least 40% of their team’s minutes, just 24 of them had an assist rate below 8.6%. Jamaal King isn’t walking through that door, so now what? Braxton is motivated to see time at the ‘1’, given his future NBA hopes, but the best thing for the Red Flash is probably to keep him off the ball. Which means Krimmel needs Dixon-Conovor to step up, as noted above, as it doesn’t appear there is another ball handling option on the roster.

How Matt Sees It: Man, I’m still upset with the Red Flash. Not only did I think they’d punch a ticket to the Big Dance last season, I thought they’d go nuts and finish something like 16-2 in league play, and even get off that 16-line in the NCAA Tournament. It obviously didn’t happen; it felt like they never put it together despite winning the regular season title, and for the second year in a row finished below expectations. What does that mean for this year? Not much, but when a team graduates its point guard and his 25.5% usage, that can be difficult to overcome. Braxton, Blackmon, and company will keep this team above .500, but the lack of a proven point guard is likely to haunt this team all season long.

How John Sees It: When the player of the year returns, you are in a great position. Keith Braxton has been a special player since his days at Delsea Regional, and looks to lead SFU into the 2019-2020 campaign with teammates who are poised and ready for another postseason run. The Northeast Conference Championship has eluded this group for a long time, and the sight of FDU celebrating in Loretto should have them hungrier than ever. The biggest leap I expect to see this year is from Randall Gaskins. He has been a solid role player showing only glimpses of his abilities in various moments when his team needs. SFU will look to improve on the defensive side of the ball, finishing in the bottom tier of the conference for efficiency; however, offensively they were the most efficient team in the conference. Seeing Braxton play some time at point will probably be the best way to fill the void left by King, but expect Coach Krimmell to experiment with various lineups early on to see where he can fit all of his pieces.

#5. Fairleigh Dickinson

Last Season: (21-14, 12-6 in the NEC); Defeated Saint Francis 85-76 in the NEC Championship game, lost to Gonzaga 87-49 in the NCAA Tournament 1st Round

Offense: 109.9 Rating (2nd)

Defense: 103.9 Rating (6th)

Efficiency Margin: +6.0 (2nd)

What they did well: eFG% (55.1%, 1st), Defensive FT Rate (27.6%, 1st)

What they can improve: Defensive Rebounding % (67.3%, 9th), Offensive Rebounding % (29%, 7th)

Key Losses: Darnell Edge (16.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg), Mike Holloway Jr. (12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 5’10” Jr. Jahlil Jenkins; 6’4” Jr. Xzavier Malone-Key; 6’2” Soph. Brandon Powell; 6’8” Sr. Kaleb Bishop; 6’7” Jr. Elyjah Williams; 6’4” Soph. B.J. Saliba; 6’3” Fr. Brandon Rush, 6’0” Callum Baker; 6’11” Jr. Oscar Okeke

The Guy: Sure, his “per game” numbers aren’t super sexy, but Jahlil Jenkins’ PORPAGATU! of 3.1 in NEC play was 4th highest in the league, and his 117.8 O-Rating in conference play was 2nd highest among players with at least 18.4% usage. The fact that he was left off all three All-NEC teams last year was borderline criminal. He was able to cut his turnovers from 2.7 per 40 minutes as a freshman to 2.3/40 (for comparison’s sake, Cam Parker turned it over 5.4 times per 40 mins), and he’s probably the quickest player in the league. Every coach in the NEC (and probably most mid-major coaches) would take Jenkins as a lead guard. He’s that good.

Player to Watch: When Bishop came on the scene as a freshman, he had star potential written all over him; 6’8”, super athletic, and a nice looking stroke (career 38.8% 3P%). While he’s certainly been a really good player in the NEC, he’s never quite taken that next step, instead being over-shadowed by Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway, and Jenkins. What he is, is efficient; his 57.1% eFG% was 10th in the NEC (just behind Ty Flowers), and he was also 5th in offensive rebounding percentage (10.9%). With Edge and Holloway gone, Head Coach Greg Herenda needs Bishop to become a go-to scorer.

Reason to Believe: When all else fails, put your money on the good coach with the star point guard. Jenkins is the kind of player who makes others better, and his ability to both make plays for others and score for himself will be on full display this season, while Greg Herenda has had quite a run of success (two NEC titles in the past four seasons) and success on the recruiting trail. Throw in Kaleb Bishop, and there will be many times when the Knights have the two best players on the floor, which will lead to wins more often than not.

Cause for Concern: Depth was a problem last year for Greg Herenda, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better in 2019-20. Mike Holloway’s graduation and the absence of his presence up front will hurt, but Herenda has a capable replacement in Elyjah Williams. But who can fill the shoes of Darnell Edge, both on and off the court? Sophomore Brandon Powell should get the first crack, as his talent was on full display in the NEC Quarterfinal win over Robert Morris when he scored 11 points with Malone-Key sidelined. Sophomore B.J. Saliba and freshman Brandon Rush may also be called upon, but no matter who it is, Herenda needs some bench players to step up, both in the backcourt as well as up front (Oscar Okeke, Marc Dadika, or Collin McManus).

How Matt Sees It: FDU is the first team on our list that lost more than one major contributor off last season’s squad, but they also return two top 15 (maybe top 10?) players in the league, which has to count for something. I’m on record as one of the biggest Jahlil Jenkins fans around (at least, as far as non-FDU students/alumni go), and I think he has the ability to win games single-handedly for this team. I do worry that their lack of depth will hurt them against the top teams in the NEC, but if they can get one or two players to step up on the wing (and one big), they have a good shot to return to the NCAA Tournament.

How John Sees It: It is no surprise that Coach Herenda has FDU poised for another postseason tournament run. With their senior leadership of Holloway and Edge having graduated, the Knights will look to their NEC All-Tournament and pre-season 1st Team All-NEC player, Jahlil Jenkins. As a sophomore, Jenkins was crucial in their NEC tournament victory, and his play in the NCAA tournament surely did not disappoint, scoring 22 points and dishing out 6 assists against Prairie View A&M. Jenkins will find himself amongst plenty of talent. Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams and Xzavier Malone-Key return to the defending NEC champions, and look to celebrate on their own floor this year. Look for Brandon Powell to see a jump in his game. Appearing in all 32 games as a sophomore, Powell should be the added shooting off the bench that could catapult FDU to the top of the ranks by season’s end.

#5(t). Robert Morris

Last Season: (16-15, 11-7 in the NEC); lost to Fairleigh Dickinson 66-62 in the NEC Semifinals.

Offense: 101.0 Rating (7th)

Defense: 98.6 Rating (1st)

Efficiency Margin: +2.4 (5th)

What they did well: Defensive Turnover Rate (22%, 1st), Defensive Rebounding (73.3%, 2nd)

What they can improve: Turnover Rate (21.7%, 10th), Defensive Free Throw Rate (40.8%, 9th)

Key Losses: Matty McConnell (10.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg), Malik Petteway (9.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Koby Thomas (7.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 6’1” Jr. Jon Williams; 6’2” Sr. Josh Williams; 6’7” Jr. A.J. Bramah (Sheridan College); 6’7” Jr. D.J. Russell (Miami Dade CC); 6’8” Jr. Charles Bain; 6’0” Soph. Dante Treacy; 6’2” Soph. Jalen Hawkins (Odessa College); 6’5” Soph. Cameron Wilbon; 6’8” Sr. Yannis Mendy

The Guy: Josh Williams had a really nice first season in the NEC after transferring from Akron, including tying an NCAA record with 15 three-pointers (on 25 attempts) in a win over Division III Mount Aloysius College in November. Williams made the 2nd most three-pointers in the NEC last season, just behind Darnell Edge, and was the leading scorer on a really good Robert Morris team. However, digging a little deeper and things aren’t as rosy; his eFG% was just 48.8% (it was 57.4% during his freshman season at Akron), he had a 96.1 O-Rating in league play, and made just 41.1% of his two-pointers. Williams was asked to take on a heavy offensive burden for a team without a ton of offensive options, similar to Bryant’s Adam Grant in 2017-18. Williams is best utilized as a pick-and-pop shooter, and not necessarily as a “scorer”. With more players around him, his “per game” numbers may drop a bit, but he should be better all around.

Player(s) to Watch: Andy Toole brought in two dynamic 6’7” Junior College players in A.J. Bramah and D.J. Russell, and both will likely be asked to step in and contribute immediately. Bramah is a guy who can score at all three levels, and has the ability to defend multiple positions (13.2 ppg and 7.6 rpg at Sheridan College last season). Meanwhile, Russell is more of a big who should be able to affect the game on both sides of the ball (19.2 ppg and 9.7 rpg at Miami Dade College) .The performance of the two newcomers could be the difference between a middle-of-the-pack finish and competing for a league title.

Reason to Believe: As long as Andy Toole is the head coach of the Robert Morris Colonials, fans should expect the team to compete for a top 4 spot in the NEC, and this season is no exception. Things haven’t gone as well over the past four seasons (37-35, compared to 65-23 in his first 5 seasons), but that’s what happens when schools with more resources poach your talent. Given that he didn’t chose to rebuild with freshman, but rather is bringing in three highly ranked Junior College players (Russell, Bramah, and Jalen Hawkins), tells me that he believes this core group of players can win the league. He’s got plenty of talent, knows how to coach up a defense, and should mold them into a winner.

Cause for Concern: Last season, point guard was a real area of concern for Andy Toole, and going into 2019-20, my big question for RMU is: can someone step up and be a capable ‘1’? Jon Williams (Josh’s brother) really struggled at times last season (95.2 O-Rating, 2.3 turnovers per game), but he’s also super talented as evidenced by his 41% career 3P% and 4.2 apg per game as a sophomore. Sophomore Dante Treacy is a smooth lefty who had his moments last season, but also really struggled in the turnover department when given the chance. However, the answer may be JUCO transfer Jalen Hawkins, who chose RMU over Fordham, George Mason, Iona, Manhattan, St. Bonaventure, Siena, Towson, and Wagner, though he may be better off the ball. No matter who it is, Toole needs to find a consistent lead guard.

How Matt Sees It: What Toole did out on the recruiting trail is unfair to the rest of the league, as is their new, shiny arena. I always hedge a bit when teams are relying on Junior College players, and also I have a difficult time trusting teams with questions at point guard. With that said, Robert Morris has, perhaps, the most upside of any team in the league, and if the new guys are as good as their reputations, the Colonials could be in the conversation with Sacred Heart and Long Island as the top dogs in this league. I would not be surprised if they are sitting on the top of the standings come March, nor would I be shocked if they are hovering around .500 again.

How John Sees It: It is no surprise that Robert Morris was 1st in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, last season in the NEC. Coach Toole always gets his team to defend and that is the foundation he has built his program on. As is typical, forcing turnovers was one area where the team found great success, however, they also struggled to take care of the ball last year, finishing last in the NEC in turnover rate. With that being a point of emphasis this year, there is no doubt that Robert Morris will be a game that no coach is looking forward to. A new facility has the NEC buzzing with excitement as does a team that returns 3 of their 5 starters and 2 of their 3 leading scorers. If Coach Toole can get his team to play his style; that drag ‘em out, beat ‘em up pace where every single possession is exponentially more valuable, than the sky will be the limit for this team.

#5(t). Bryant

Last Season: (10-19, 7-11 in the NEC); lost to Saint Francis 67-63 in the NEC Quarterfinals

Offense: 103.8 Rating (5th)

Defense: 109.5 Rating (10th)

Efficiency Margin: -5.7 (t-8th)

What they did well: Free Throw Rate (39.4%, 2nd)

What they can improve: Defensive eFG% (52.2%, 9th); Offensive Rebounding % (27.3%, 9th)

Key Losses: Byron Hawkins (11.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Joe Kasperzyk (10.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.4 apg)

Potential Rotation: 6’0” Jr. Ikenna Ndugba; 6’1” Sr. Adam Grant; 6’4” Fr. Charles Price; 6’5” Sr. SaBastian Townes; 6’7” Sr. Juan Cardenas; 5’11” Fr. Michael Green III; 6’2” Jr. Ayo Dada (Eastern Florida St. College); 6’4” Fr. Benson Lin; 6’7” Jr. Hall Elisias (New Mexico JC); 6’9” Jr. Mikail Simmons (Bossier Parish CC)

The Guy:Adam Grant has had a wild three years in Smithfield; he had a great freshman season, averaging 13.4 ppg while playing “Robin” to Nisre Zouzoua’s “Batman”, then was asked to do way too much offensively as a sophomore. While his per game numbers looked fine (15.6 ppg), his O-Rating slipped to 93.6, and his eFG% was 45.9%. Then, of course, he went through a coaching change, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to Grant. With Jared Grasso bringing in more talent, Grant was allowed to do what he does best; shoot. After struggling a bit in non-conference play (34%), he nailed 43% of his three-point attempts in NEC play, set a career high with a 51.4% eFG%, and also cut down on his turnovers. With what appears to be another loaded recruiting class, it would be reasonable to question if Grant can replicate last season, which saw him play 88% of his team’s available minutes (90.3% in league play, 3rd highest in the NEC). However, he might be the best shooter in the Northeast Conference, is a senior, and also gets his point guard back (Ikenna Ndugba). Maybe he won’t top his 15.6 ppg, but he should be just as efficient (and better), if not more so.

Player to Watch: Ikenna Ndugba is back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the entire 2018-19 season, and it’ll be a welcome sight for Jared Grasso. Bryant struggled at the PG position a year ago, as freshman Joe Kasperzyk (93.2 O-Rating, 25.4% turnover rate) was forced to play out of position a bit to make up for Ndugba’s injury. The redshirt junior from Boston wasn’t perfect offensively two seasons ago, as his 95.2 O-Rating (24% usage) left a lot to be desired, but it’s no secret that Ndugba was asked to do too much by then-head coach Tim O’Shea (just like Grant). However, he was 6th among NEC players in 2017-18 with a 24.5% assist rate in league play, and he made 34% of his three-pointers. Combine that with his reputation as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and he’s a sight for sore eyes for Bryant fans. Guys don’t always return to form following a serious injury, but this was a shoulder, not a knee or a back. While it’s reasonable that there will be rust, it’d be surprising if Ndugba didn’t see a huge improvement over his sophomore season, largely because Grasso has surrounded him with plenty of talented players. His usage rate will almost certainly come down, and he could see decreased minutes as a guy like freshman Michael Green could force himself into the lineup, but he should be one of the best lead guards the Northeast Conference has to offer.

Reason to Believe: After coming over from Iona, Grasso has followed in the footsteps of his former boss Tim Cluess; hit the recruiting trail hard and bring in as much talent as possible. However, the fact that Grant, Ndugba and Townes are still around is a testament to the 2nd year Head Coach, as all three could have left after their sophomore seasons. Grant is an All-NEC player, and Ndugba could also be that (as could Townes and Cardenas), while Pride could compete for NEC Rookie of the Year. With Grasso filling out the rotation with talented role players, they should be able to get up and down like he prefers.

Cause for Concern: Can the Bulldogs improve on the defense? Last season, their defensive efficiency was putrid; they allowed nearly 1.10 PPP, which was significantly more than the 2nd worst team (CCSU, 1.06 PPP). The return of Ndugba should help things, and they do have plenty of quickness on the perimeter, but it’s difficult to project these sorts of things in October. It’ll be tough to move up near the top of the standings, let alone win three straight games in March, when all the pressure is on the offense to outscore the opponent. Knock about 0.05 PPP off that D-Rating and be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league, and we can start talking about Bryant making a title run.

How Matt Sees It: Jared Grasso must be a good salesman, because I’m buying what he’s selling. And to be clear, I’m not supposed to; I was a student at CCSU when he played at Quinnipiac, and now he’s the head coach at a CCSU rival. I’m supposed to come on here and kill the guy. But he’s said all the right things, seems to be a hard worker, and has recruited at a high level, specifically in NYC. Does that mean I think they will contend for a title this year? No, I don’t. Hawkins and Kasperzyk will be tough to replace, and while I think Ndugba alone makes this team better than last season, I can’t trust the overall team defense enough. I could see them challenging for a top 4 seed if one of two things happen: i) the offense averages ~1.10 PPP; or ii) the defense goes from bad to average. If both happen, they’ll be in the hunt for the league title. I think they’re a year away, however.

How John Sees It: Coach Grasso enters his second season at the helm, and will be ready to take his shot at the top of the NEC. The Bulldogs enter this year with a few uncertainties, but they have a “Big 3” that can compete with anyone in this league, Grant, Ndugba, and Townes. I’ve always been partial to Grant since his freshman season when, while I was on SHU’s bench, he scored 32 points and hit 9 threes, including a three-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime. Ndugba is one of the craftiest point guards in the league, ranking 3rd two seasons ago in assists (4.6) while scoring 13.8 PPG. He will certainly be welcomed back with open arms. With that said, it is the depth of the Bulldogs that causes concern for me. Losing Joe Kasperzyk & Byron Hawkins leaves a big hole that Coach Grasso will try to fill with with either transfers or freshmen.

#7. Mount St. Mary’s

Last Season: (9-22, 6-12 in the NEC); Did Not Qualify for NEC Tournament

Offense: 99.9 Rating (8th)

Defense: 105.6 Rating (7th)

Efficiency Margin: -5.7 (t-8th)

What they did well: Turnover % (17.7%, 2nd), Defensive Free Throw Rate (32.9%, 3rd)

What they can improve: Offensive Rebounding % (23.4%, 10th), Defensive Rebounding % (67.1%, 10th)

Key Losses: None

Potential Rotation: 5’8” Soph. Damian Chong Qui; 6’0” Soph. Vado Morse; 6’3” Jr. Jalen Gibbs; 6’6” Jr. Omar Habwe; 6’9” Soph. Malik Jefferson; 5’8” Fr. Ayan Teel; 6’2” RS Fr. Matt Becht; 6’4” Fr. Naim Miller; 6’4” Soph. Dee Barnes; 6’8” Soph. Nana Opoku

The Guy: The NEC’s 2018-19 Rookie of the Year, Vado Morse showed a lot of promise on a young team during the non-conference portion of the schedule before during NEC play. His 27.1% usage rate in league play is clear “go-to-guy” territory, and he carried a 106.2 O-Rating. How many players were that efficient at that level of usage and playing more than 50% of their team’s minutes, you ask? Just one; Ramone Saunders, who had a 107 O-Rating and 27.2% usage rate in conference play. Oh, and just for good measure, he was 8th in the league in assist rate (24.6%). Second year Head Coach Dan Engelstad returns effectively the entire roster and no one will be important to the Mount than Morse. He was prone to taking bad shots at times (32% of his shots were 2P jumpers, making 45.5% of them), and he needs to improve on getting to the rim and finishing (he made 46.2% of his shots at the rim). But if he can make incremental improvements in those areas, Morse will be a darkhorse POY candidate (obviously Keith Braxton is the favorite), and Mount fans will be crossing their fingers that Morse sticks around for all 4 years. He should be a household name by March 2020.

Player to Watch: Jalen Gibbs was the only other player, besides Morse, to average in double-figures for the Mount last season, and he’s likely expected to be the #2 option for Dan Engelstad again this season. However, Gibbs made just 28.7% of his three-point attempts in his first season in the NEC after transferring from Drake, where he shot just 27.7% from three. Gibbs has a knack for converting at the rim (58%), but his struggles with a consistent jumper resulted in a poor 92.1 O-Rating. He’s got the talent (he made 81% of his free throws attempts in league play), and if he can become an average threat from deep, it’ll open up the Mount offense that much more.

Reason to Believe: In a seven game span to end the season, the Mount took down Sacred Heart, Robert Morris, CCSU, and St. Francis Brooklyn, plus a two-point loss to Wagner and a six-point loss to FDU, the NEC Champs. There were times last season where Engelstad’s bunch looked like a group of juniors and seniors, not freshman and sophomores. Everyone returns, and with a year of playing together under their belt, they should be able to improve upon last year with their eyes closed. Add in some of the depth the coaching staff has brought in, specifically in the backcourt, and Engelstad should be able to turn up the defensive pressure.

Cause for Concern: Can this team mature into a contender in Year 2? The talent is unquestionably there, and Morse could be a low-key POY contender, but this team is still young; the roster has 7 sophomores and 3 freshmen (and no seniors). They should be fun to watch offensively, with a myriad of three-point options 1-4, but they really struggled to contain the boards on both sides of the ball last season, and it’s not like Engelstad brought in a ton of reinforcements up front. He will have to hope the young players will get better in that department.

How Matt Sees It: It’s a year too early. Do I think they can approach, and even eclipse, .500 in league play? Absolutely! But you don’t often see programs go from 6-12 to 12-6, at least not without some transfers or big-time recruits. But that’s not to suggest Engelstad hasn’t done wonders in his first ~16 months at the helm; to the contrary, despite taking the job in the spring of 2018, he brought in some game-changing talent and was able to keep them together through his first off-season. I could see the Mount going from 6-12, to 9-9, to 12-6 in 20-21, assuming he can keep Morse and Company in Emmitsburg. Don’t be shocked to see them at the top of this list in October of 2020.

How John Sees It: Sometimes the beauty in being on a coaching staff is the ability to create a roster to your liking. Coach Engelstad had that opportunity after taking over for Jamion Christian, and he took full advantage of it. The Mount took their lumps during the 2018-19 season, but in the process the players and coaches learned a lot from their mistakes. Now, the Mount looks to make good on expectations and compete in the NEC. The key for this Mount team will rest with their guards, Vado Morse and Jalen Gibbs. The duo was very impressive as underclassmen last season, and their upside is tremendous heading into the 19-20 campaign. The success of this season will also be impacted by the development of players like Dee Barnes, Omar Habwe, and Damion Chong Qui. Bringing back all 5 starters with a full year of playing together under their belt, the Mount has some promise going into this season.

#8(t). Wagner

Last Season: (13-17, 8-10 in the NEC); lost to Fairleigh Dickinson 84-46 in the NEC Quarterfinals

Offensive Efficiency: 97.9 (9th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.1 (4th)

Efficiency Margin: -3.2 (7th)

What they did well: Offensive Rebounding % (32.5%, 2nd); Defensive eFG% (48.7%, 3rd)

What they can improve: eFG% (44.1%, 10th); Defensive Free Throw Rate (45.7%, 10th)

Key Losses: Romone Saunders (16.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.6 apg); Elijah Davis (12.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), A.J. Sumbry (8.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Devin Liggeons (5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 5’11” Jr. Chase Freeman; 6’4” Sr. Curtis Cobb (via UMass); 6’5” Jr. Will Martinez (Monroe College); 6’6” Jr. Alex Morales (Prince George CC); 6’7” Jr. Nigel Jackson; 6’5” Soph. Tyrone Nesby; 6’5” Jr. Elijah Ford (Barton CC); 6’4” Fr. Jordan Mason; 6’7” Fr. Ja’Mier Fletcher; 6’7” Fr. Darion Jordan-Thomas

The Guy: Bashir Mason lost five of his top six scorers from a season ago, so bringing in some offensive firepower was needed, and in steps grad-transfer Curtis Cobb. Cobb played at UMass last season, averaging 8.4 ppg in 25.4 mpg after starting his career at Fairfield. As a sophomore in 2016-17, Cobb averaged 12.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and shot 34.5% from three for the Stags. No, he wasn’t efficient (90.7 O-Rating), but he does have the ability to shoulder a heavy scoring load, especially at the NEC level. He’s got good size to play the wing, and should see his rebounding numbers improve with the step down in level. With Romone Saunders gone, Cobb certainly has the opportunity to step in and immediately become one of the team’s primary scorers. He’s likely one of the highest impact newcomers in the league, and should help Bashir Mason’s offense stay afloat while he waits for his younger players to gain some seasoning.

Player to Watch: Taking over the point guard role after JoJo Cooper graduated, Chase Freeman had a tough sophomore season; his O-Rating of 94.2 ranked 51st out of 64 NEC players who played at least 40% of available minutes. Mason brought in the wings (Cobb, Martinez, Ford) and the bigs (Morales, Fletcher, Jordan-Thomas) to make a run at a high seed, but he’s going to need more consistent play at the point guard position. Freeman has an ability to shoot it from deep (33% last season), and his 4.1 assists per game is more than solid. If he can take care of the basketball and make better shot choices, the Seahawks could surprise.

Cause for Concern: As a CCSU alum/fan, I’ve witnessed first-hand that talented transfers don’t always result in wins. While some of the teams ahead of Wagner on this list are supplementing a talented nucleus with transfers (both D1 and JUCO), Bashir Mason is almost entirely relying on them as just three players return from last season’s team. Sure there are some capable returnees, such as Nigel Jackson (6.8 ppg) and Freeman, but one could foresee a situation where at times the lineup consists entirely of newcomers. Mason may be able to get this team to click together, but it won’t be an easy job.

How Matt Sees It: Maybe there’s some PTSD at play here, but I have a difficult time with teams relying on newcomers. There’s probably not many players in the NEC more talented than Curtis Cobb, but he’s not exactly been efficient at the D1 level (a career 95.1 O-Rating and 48.9 eFG%). He should put up big numbers, as should Alex Morales, while Elijah Ford was a big-time scorer at Barton CC. Bashir Mason is as good a coach as anyone in this league, but I can’t put my money on a team with a rotation made almost entirely of players who are in their first season on Staten Island.

How John Sees It: Every year there seems to be a program picked towards the bottom of the conference, shines and catches everyone by surprise. That team this year will be the Wagner Seahawks. Losing a ton of experience and scoring, it would be no shock to anyone outside of the program if Wagner was “rebuilding.” However, the moves Coach Mason made this offseason lead me to believe that he is only focused on taking the NEC by storm. The key addition and someone who will thrive in the NEC is Grad Transfer, Curtis Cobb. Cobb comes from UMass where he was productive, but not the extent he could have been. Put an offensive talent like Cobb, with a defensive mind like Coach Mason, and that could create one scary, dare I say, 1st team All-NEC type of player. Adding a guard like Cobb, and another Grad Transfer Patrick Szpir, could set them up nicely to win some games that nobody expects them to win.

#8(t) St. Francis-Brooklyn

Last Season: (17-16, 9-9 in the NEC); Lost to Robert Morris 69-65 (OT) in the NEC Quarterfinals

Offense: 101.8 Rating (6th)

Defense: 101.1 Rating (3rd)

Efficiency Margin: +0.7 (6th)

What they did well: Defensive eFG% (47.9%, 2nd); Defensive TO% (20.1%, 2nd)

What they can improve: Free Throw Rate (28.5%, 10th); eFG% (49.7%, 8th)

Key Losses: Jalen Jordan (14.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Glenn Sanabria (12.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg); Keon Williams (4.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 5’8” Jr. Chauncey Hawkins; 6’2” Jr. Unique McLean (via UMass); 6’5” Sr. Rosel Hurley; 6’8” Sr. Deniz Celen; 5’11” RS Fr. Larry Moreno; 6’1” Fr. Trey Quartlebaum; 6’2” Fr. G Rob Higgins; 6’5” Soph. Stevan Krtinic; 6’6” Jr. Yaradyah Evans; 6’10” Sr. Josh Nurse

The Guy: Chauncey Hawkins is just so fun to watch; listed at just 5’8”, he’s as quick as any player in the NEC, and isn’t afraid to mix it up as he attempted 132 shots at the rim last season, making 47.7%. During his sophomore season he had some impressive scoring outputs, including 25 against CCSU, 23 vs. SFU, and 21 against UMass-Lowell. With Glenn Sanabria and Jalen Jordan now gone, it’s time for Hawkins to go from “offensive punch off the bench” to all-around stud. He’s certainly got the chops, with an ability to score at all three levels and make plays for others. However, in order to do that, he’s going to have to get better at shot selection; he made just 26% of his two-point jumpers which caused a sub-par 45.6% eFG%, and, given how often the ball will be in his hands, needs to improve at the free throw line (just 59.5% last season).

Player to Watch: Unique McLean, while also having one of the better names in the NEC, is as athletic as they come. The 6’2” wing averaged 22.5 mpg in his two seasons at UMass, including 28 starts, and was pretty efficient; a 108 O-Rating last season and 52.9% eFG%. However, he wasn’t asked to do a ton; his usage was just 11.6% last season, and he shot just 14 for 54 (26%) from three. Glenn Braica will need him to be a guy who can defend and be a reliable offensive player, specifically in transition.

Reason to Believe: Yes, losing Jalen Jordan (transferred to Middle Tennessee St.) was a gut-punch, especially for a team looking to build on a 9-9 NEC season last year. However, all is not lost; while their top two scorers are gone, just about everyone is back, including plenty of frontcourt pieces (Deniz Celen, Yay Evans, Christian Rohlehr, and Cori Johnson). Plus, the strength of last season’s team was the defense; they finished 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency, and have plenty of rim protectors. While they may struggle a bit offensively, the Terriers should have one of the top defenses in the league.

Cause for Concern: Last season, the Terriers really struggled to make shots; their eFG% in NEC play of 49.7% was 8th in the league, and that was with Glenn Sanabria and Jordan (and senior Keon Williams, who shot 35% from three). Sophomore Stevan Krtinic shot 43% in limited minutes (29.6%) last season, and no other returning player shot better than 30.1% from deep. What’s more, a key part of SFC’s offensive efficiency (they finished 6th in the NEC) last season was limiting turnovers, and very few lead-guards were better at limiting turnovers than Sanabria. If the shooting takes even a small step back, and Braica struggles to find a replacement at point guard (freshmen Larry Moreno, Rob Higgins and Trey Quartlebaum should be in the mix), it may not matter how good the defense is.

How Matt Sees It: I think Glenn Braica is one of the more underrated coaches in the NEC, and I love how he’s been able to keep St. Francis-Brooklyn afloat despite a limited budget and the loss of talented players. He brings back a deep frontcourt, earned a major recruiting coup is bringing Unique McLean back home to Brooklyn, and has a potential star in Chauncey Hawkins. The defense should be top-notch, but I really worry about this team’s ability to score. Plus, the lack of an established point guard really concerns me; neither Hawkins nor McLean are really equipped to be a primary lead-guard, which means that role could fall to a first year player. I do not think they’ll be bad, and I could see them finishing in the middle of the pack, but not much higher than that.

How John Sees It: Victim to the transfer bug, yet again, St. Francis Brooklyn will struggle to win against what could be a loaded NEC. Losing Jalen Jordan was a big loss, but Coach Braica has done his best to make that up by doing his own damage on the transfer market by landing Unique McLean. McLean is a tremendous athlete who could create all types of chaos in this league. The key to their success this year will be finding continuity in their rotations and maintaining that defensive efficiency from last season. McLean fits nicely into that defensive mold and should be able to give them a scoring boost as well. St. Francis will not be any type of pushover in the 19-20 season, but they will struggle to rack up enough wins to make the NEC tournament.

#10. Central Connecticut St.

Last Season: (11-20, 5-13 in the NEC); Did not qualify for the NEC Tournament

Offense: 96.4 (10th)

Defense: 106.2 (9th)

Efficiency Margin: -9.8 (10th)

What they did well: Defensive Rebounding (73.5%, 1st)

What they can improve: Defensive eFG% (52.5%, 10th); eFG% (45.1%, 9th)

Key Losses: Tyler Kohl (18.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.6 apg); Joe Hugley (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Deion Bute (8.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Tyson Batiste (3.6 ppg, 2.7 apg), Kashaun Hicks (4.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg)

Potential Rotation: 6’1” Soph. Zach Newkirk (Brunswick CC); 6’2” Soph. Ian Krishnan; 6’2” Fr. Myles Baker; 6’7” Sr. Jamir Coleman; 6’6” Jr. Stephane Ayangma (Hinds CC); 6’4” Fr. Trey Tennyson; 6’4” Fr. Jamir Reed; 6’7” Soph. Karrington Wallace; 6’7” Fr. Xavier Wilson

The Guy: Jamir Coleman just drips athleticism. At 6’7”, he can jump out of the gym, put the ball on the floor, and has a very fluid jump shot (34% from three in 2018-19). With Tyler Kohl gone, Coleman is likely to be “The Guy” in 2019-20; he’s the only returning player for CCSU who has shown the ability to score at all three levels at the D1 level, and his presence should take the pressure off of Donyell Marshall’s young guns. If he can become more consistent, as well as improve on the defensive end where his athletic ability should allow him to be a plus defender, Coleman could easily put up some eye-popping surface level numbers. However, don’t expect him to play the same role that Kohl did a year ago; Coleman averaged less than 1 assist per game last year, and making plays for others isn’t really part of his game. Still, given the inexperience on CCSU’s roster, Marshall will likely look to Coleman when he needs a bucket.

Player to Watch: Ian Krishnan had a very good freshman season; when you average double-figures in points (12.0) and make nearly 34% of your three-point attempts in your first season in D1, you’re doing something right. However for Blue Devils fans, those final numbers almost felt like a disappointment; after scoring just 6 points in the season-opening win at Hartford, Krishnan went for 28 at Georgetown, 22 against UMass-Lowell, and 20 down in Jamaica against a good Austin Peay squad. After that strong start Krishnan struggled to find consistency, and during a 7 game stretch in December and January he made just 11 of his 54 three point attempts. He’s got as pretty of a shot as you’ll find, and he showed a ton of toughness as a freshman, including knocking down big shots in crunch time. If he can become a bit less one-dimensional (he attempted just 44 shots at the rim and averaged just 1.2 apg), he could become a star in this league.

Reason to Believe: For 2019-20? Could the JUCO guys (Ayangma, Newkirk) knock it out of the park, with Baker, Tennyson, and Wilson playing like All-Rookie teamers, to go along with Coleman and Krishnan being absolute studs? Sure, anything can happen. But if you are a Blue Devil fan (like Matt), what you should believe in is the future. After a season in which the players in the locker room struggled to get along, Donyell Marshall went out and brought in 7 freshmen in the hopes of building something from the ground up. Add them to returning sophomores Ian Krishnan, Karrington Wallace and Thai Segwai, as well as JUCO transfer Zach Newkirk, 11 of the team’s 13 scholarship players have at least three years of eligibility remaining. They may take their lumps early on, but there’s a very real chance this is the beginning of something.

Cause for Concern: Marshall would be the first one to tell you that he needs to put a winning product on the floor, and in his first three years at the helm he is just 31-61, finishing#341, #310, and #321 at Kenpom. It’s unlikely to get much better in 2019-20, as the majority of minutes will be going to underclassmen, which is rarely a good thing at the mid major level. Plus, given the fiscal issues in the State of Connecticut and the lack of a budget for his program, Marshall is swimming upstream in trying to rebuild this program.

How Matt Sees It: I really want to see the Blue Devils back to battling for NEC crowns year in and year out, believe me. And I think Marshall did the right thing for the program by rebuilding it with talented freshman, as opposed to Junior College guys. They looked good in a 104-64 exhibition win over Division-3 Coast Guard, but it’s difficult to draw grand conclusions from one game against an overmatched foe. While there may not be a Vado Morse-level talent in this bunch, I could see a scenario in which Central Connecticut follows the 2018-19 Mount St. Mary’s patch; struggle early, then become a tough out in February after the young players gain some seasoning. It’s been a long time since CCSU fans had something to cheer for (we’re going on 12 years since they won an NEC playoff game), but there are reasons for optimism.

How John Sees It: There will be a lot of new faces in New Britain this year, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Very rarely are there opportunities to start fresh in a coach’s tenure, but this year seems to be just that. Finishing last in offensive efficiency and 2nd to last in defensive efficiency in the conference last year, CCSU has recruited some extremely athletic wings and bigs, which should allow Coach Marshall to be experimental, and also create a level of uncertainty amongst the other coaches as to what type of team will be taking the floor in Detrick Gymnasium. The tide was turning last year until there were a few unfortunate events late in the season, hopefully this season will be smooth sailing for CCSU.

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