Somerset, NJ -- Following a thrilling run to the 2011 Northeast Conference (NEC) men's basketball title, head coaches have picked Long Island to repeat as NEC champion. The announcement was made on Wednesday morning during a media teleconference to promote the tipoff of the 2011-12 season, the 31st in the league's history. The Blackbirds, who won the 2011 NEC Tournament crown with an 85-82 overtime victory over Robert Morris, claimed 10 of the possible 12 first-place votes.
The Colonials, who came within a whisker of winning a third straight NEC Championship, were tabbed second with the final two first-place votes, followed by Central Connecticut State in third. Wagner and Quinnipiac, last year's preseason favorite, rounded out the top-five.
Mount St. Mary's, Bryant, Sacred Heart, Saint Francis (PA) and Monmouth occupied spots six through ten, while St. Francis (NY) and Fairleigh Dickinson rounded out the preseason predictions ranked 11th and 12th, respectively.
Conducted annually, NEC coaches have failed to correctly forecast the eventual league champion since selecting Mount St. Mary's to win it all in 1998-99, and have proven inaccurate in 22 of the last 24 years. After its 1999 tourney win, Mount St. Mary's was the choice to repeat the following season, but Central Connecticut State, tabbed third, captured the championship. CCSU was then installed as the favorite in 2000-01, but the title went to Monmouth, picked sixth in the preseason. Monmouth received the nod in 2001-02, but it was CCSU, predicted fourth, which went on to win its second title in three years. In 2002-03, NEC coaches continued their trend of selecting the previous year's champion as preseason favorite when they went with CCSU, only to have Wagner earn its first-ever NEC Tournament crown.
Three years ago, it was Quinnipiac that was placed on the preseason perch, but the Bobcats struggled all season and finished in 10th place. Monmouth garnered its third league crown that year after being selected third in the preseason. In 2004-05, the Hawks were the logical choice to repeat, and even won the conference regular season title, but were eliminated in the NEC semifinals as Fairleigh Dickinson went on to claim the championship. Fairleigh Dickinson was then installed as the 2005-06 favorite, but dropped a one-point decision to Monmouth in the title contest. Monmouth was picked first in 2006-07, but became the first defending NEC champion to fail to qualify for the tournament the following year.
It was Sacred Heart's turn in 2007-08, and the Pioneers made it all the way to the title game for the second straight season, but came up short in a setback to Mount St. Mary's. The Mount nearly broke the streak in 2008-09, but the preseason favorites dropped a two-point decision to Robert Morris. Similarly, the Mount was again picked to win the prize in 2009-10, but suffered another semifinal loss to eventual champion Robert Morris. Finally, Quinnipiac was the unanimous pick in 2010-11 only to have its season cut short in a last-second loss to Robert Morris in the NEC semifinals.
In winning its first NEC title in 14 years and earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Long Island (27-6, 16-2 NEC) proved to be the hottest team down the stretch, earning victories in 13 straight before bowing to North Carolina, 102-87, in the first round of the big dance. Led by 2011-12 NEC and NABC District 18 Coach of the Year Jim Ferry, the high-flying Blackbirds matched a league record with 27 wins and were a juggernaut on offense, averaging a NEC-high 82.7 points per game thanks to the talents of preseason All-NEC forwards Julian Boyd (San Antonio, TX/William H. Taft) and Jamal Olasewere (Silver Spring, MD/Springbrook).
Boyd, a 6-7 native of San Antonio, TX, led the charge by averaging a team-high 13.0 ppg en-route to first team All-NEC honors. Along with leading the team in scoring, the junior also was dominant on the boards, finishing second on the circuit with 8.9 rebounds per game. Silver Spring, MD product Olasewere was just behind his classmate in lighting up the scoreboard with 12.9 ppg. He was brilliant during the NEC Tournament, earning MVP honors after registering three double-doubles, including a career-high 31 points to go along with 11 boards in the title game. One of Boyd and Olasewere's favorite teammates was NEC All-Rookie standout Jason Brickman (San Antonio, TX/Clark).
The 5-11 sophomore guard displayed a knack for finding the seams in opposing defenses with laser-beam passes both in transition and in traditional halfcourt sets. Brickman came off the bench in all 33 games and played just 23 minutes per game yet still led the NEC with 5.5 apg. He'll team in the backcourt with cat-quick junior guard CJ Garner (Silver Spring, MD/Springbroo (S. Alabama)) (9.5 ppg) and sharpshooting senior guard Michael Culpo (Pittsfield, MA/St. Andrew's (RI)) (7.8 ppg, 53 3PFG). Interestingly, the Blackbirds went to the line a staggering 999 times last season, the highest figure in the nation and over 300 opportunities more than their next closest NEC competitor.
Robert Morris (18-14, 12-6 NEC), fresh off back-to-back NEC championships in 2009 and 2010, had a solid year under first-year head coach Andy Toole. The Colonials found their groove down the stretch, winning eight straight to reach the NEC Title game, thanks in part to its stingy defense, a trademark of the program in recent years. RMU yielded just 65.5 ppg to lead the league and held seven league opponents under the 60-point mark. Junior guard Velton Jones (Philadelphia, PA/Northeast Catholic) emerged as a top all-around player, pacing the team in scoring (12.1 ppg) and assists (4.0). He also enhanced his reputation as a clutch performer, hitting the game-winning floater with just seconds to go to propel the Colonials past Quinnipiac and into the championship game.
Junior forward Russell Johnson (Chester, PA/Chester) took on a sixth-man role as the season wore on, an opportunity he embraced. With a terrific inside-outside game, Johnson led the Colonials with 6.7 rpg while averaging 11.0 ppg. There are few NEC players who improved as much as 6-7 junior forward Lijah Thompson (Philadelphia, PA/Monsignor Bonner) did a year ago. With a soft touch around the hoop, Thompson assumed a starting role and put up 8.6 ppg while shooting 55.5 percent from the floor. Sophomore guard Coron Williams (Midlothian, VA/Christchurch School) came on late in his freshman year and provided a needed spark from the outside. He shot a league-leading 46.6 percent from beyond the arc and averaged 14.3 ppg in the NEC Tournament.
Central Connecticut State (19-12, 11-7 NEC) comes off a 19-win season that saw the Blue Devils nearly knock off top-seeded Long Island in the NEC semifinals in Brooklyn. CCSU has the majority of its roster returning, including reigning NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton (Ossining, NY/Ossining). Horton, a lanky 6-6 senior forward and potential 2,000-point career scorer, anchored the Blue Devils and ranked near the top of the NEC in nearly every statistical category en-route to winning the league's top honor. The Ossining, NY native led the Conference with 19.5 points and 1.6 blocks per game, and also finished in the top-10 in rebounding (8.9, third), free throw percentage (.869, third), steals (1.4, eighth) and field goal percentage (.492, ninth). One of the premier mid-range shooters on the loop, senior guard Robby Ptacek (Bayport, NY/Blue Point) improved his scoring total from 12.1 ppg to 14.9 ppg per game, the seventh-best mark in the NEC, and was a lights-out free throw shooter, hitting at an 88.5 percent clip to rank second in the league.
While 16th year head coach Howie Dickenman must replace do-everything guard Shemik Thompson, he does return 6-5 sophomore De'Angelo Speech (Oak Park, IL/Lee Academy), who showed promise in his first year and could be the prototypical CCSU defensive stopper out on the perimeter. The Blue Devils look to be solid up front with the return of senior forward David Simmons (Syracuse, NY/Henninger) (6.6 ppg in 2009-10), junior forward Joe Efese (Spring Valley, NY/St. Joseph Regional) (5.1 ppg) and senior forward Chris Baskerville (Hartford, CT/Bulkeley) (4.9 ppg).
Picked fourth, Wagner (13-17, 9-9 NEC) will look to return to the top of the NEC ladder following a promising first year under head coach Dan Hurley, which saw an eight-win improvement for the Seahawks. The deep Wagner rotation starts in the backcourt with the return of senior Tyler Murray (Toronto, Ontario/Eastern Commerce) and sophomore Latif Rivers (Elizabeth, NJ/Elizabeth (Avon Old Farms (CT))). As a junior, Murray was Hurley's top offensive option, averaging 16.9 PPG to rank third in the NEC. The first team All-NEC guard also connected on 41.5 percent (59-142) of his shots from beyond the arc, the third-best mark in the league. Rivers, a local product from Elizabeth, NJ, broke out in just his first season, ranking second on the team in scoring with 13.9 ppg. Rivers, who ranked second among all NEC freshman in point production, was the top-ranked free throw shooter in the Conference at 89.1 percent.
Rivers wasn't the only freshman starter for the Seahawks a year ago, as 6-8 Orlando Parker (Orlando, FL/Orlando Christian Prep) (7.5 ppg) and 6-11 Naofall Folahan (Cotonou, Republic of Benin/Wilbraham and Monson Academy (MA)) (1.5 bpg) gave the Wagner significant length up front and a shot blocking presence in the paint. Senior guard Chris Martin (Sicklerville, NJ/Winslow Township (Apex Academies) (9.8 ppg, 50 3PFG) and junior forward Josh Thompson (Richland, NJ/St. Augustine Prep) (7.3 ppg) are a pair of veterans hands who have produced in big-game situations over the course of their careers.
Quinnipiac (22-10, 13-5 NEC) has been one of the NEC's brightest stars in recent years, having won a total of 45 games over the past two seasons. In 2011-12, after a narrow semifinal playoff loss, the Bobcats advanced to the postseason for the second straight year, earning an invite to the CIT. Tom Moore has been the architect of the Quinnipiac basketball renaissance, but in his fifth season must contemplate life in the paint without Justin Rutty, the NEC's all-time leading rebounder and a former NEC Player of the Year. While Rutty may have to be replaced up front by a committee approach, Moore can count on the veteran leadership of senior guard James Johnson (Brooklyn, NY/Bishop Loughlin), a preseason All-NEC pick.
Named a first team NEC all-star a year ago, the battle-tested Johnson led the league with 84 three-pointers and averaged 16.1 ppg to rank fifth in the Conference. He enters his final year with 1,218 career points, second among active NEC players. His counterpart in the backcourt, junior Dave Johnson (Jackson, NJ/St. Mark's (MA) School), is a steadying hand who was fourth in the league with a 2.27:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Sophomore forward Ike Azotam (Boston, MA/O'Bryant (Marianapolis Prep)) isn't afraid to throw around his 6'7", 230 lb. frame, and as a freshman was the team's second-leading rebounder with 5.4 per game in just over 17 minutes of action. Junior forward Jamee Jackson (Newark, NJ/St. Anthony's) (6.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) continued to improve last season, and brings an athletic presence to the front line. Look for Vermont transfer Garvey Young (Washington, DC/Georgetown Prep (Vermont)), a 6-5 swingman, to become a key member of the rotation.
Stung by losses to graduation, Mount St. Mary's (11-21, 9-9 NEC) suffered its first sub-.500 season since 2006-07 a year ago. Second year head coach Robert Burke still managed to guide the Mountaineers to a .500 season in league play and a sixth straight NEC Tournament berth. The calling card of Mount St. Mary's teams in recent years has been its defense and that did not change under Burke. The Mount permitted just 66.4 ppg, but in league play that number dipped even further to 63.1 ppg, the best mark in the Conference. Looking to increase the team's efficiency on the offensive end of the court, Burke will once again hand the keys to senior floor general Lamar Trice (Philadelphia, PA/Imhotep Charter), the 2010-11 NEC Most Improved Player award winner.
Trice averaged just 1.9 ppg as a sophomore, but boosted that number to a team-best 13.3 ppg last season. A Philly native who measures just 5-11, Trice has a non-stop motor and deep range on his shot (62 3PFG). He was paired in the backcourt last season with newcomer Julian Norfleet (Virginia Beach, VA/Landstown), a sweet shooter who started 31 games and led all NEC freshman with 60 three-pointers. There is experience up front in the way of senior forward Danny Thompson (Springdale, MD/C.H. Flowers) and junior Raven Barber (Edgewood, MD/Paul VI (VA)). The 6-7 Thompson was the NEC's 10th-leading rebounder with 6.0 per game, while the 6-8 Barber shot a scorching 63.2 percent from the field and averaged 7.3 ppg.
Entering its final year of NCAA Division I reclassification, Bryant (9-21, 7-11 NEC) fourth year head coach Tim O'Shea has begun to assemble the building blocks of his program, most notably in cornerstone players Alex Francis (Harlem, NY/Holderness Prep (NH)) and Frankie Dobbs (Berea, OH/Saint Edward). If there was a player to inherit the franchise tag in Smithfield, it would be Francis, who is coming off a sensational NEC Rookie of the Year campaign. Armed with a diverse offensive repertoire, the 6'6" forward seemed unfazed by the adjustment to the collegiate game and proceeded to lead all league freshman with 14.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
He placed an exclamation point on his year by breaking out for 43 points in the final game of the season against LIU, which set an NEC freshman mark and was the highest total by a player in the Conference in nine years. A transfer from Ohio University, Dobbs eased right into the playmaker role for the Bulldogs. Whether it was hitting game-winners, easing the load on Francis (12.4 ppg) or setting up his teammates (5.3 apg, second in the NEC), the Berea, OH native did it all. Junior forward Vlad Kondratyev (Nikolayev, Ukraine/The Rock School (FL)) is a versatile player who can tussle in the paint, but at 6-8, also step back and stroke it from three-point range.
Sacred Heart (11-18, 6-12 NEC) could be a much improved team after taking the trial-by-fire approach last season. Dave Bike, now entering his 35th year at the controls, started up to three freshman at times, a move that could pay dividends in 2011-12. The backcourt is solid with junior shooting guard Shane Gibson (Killingly, CT/Killingly) flanked by sophomore Evan Kelley (Norwalk, CT/Norwalk). Gibson had a breakthrough season a year ago, finishing second in the league with 17.2 ppg to earn second team All-NEC honors. Explosive off the dribble and deadly from the outside, Gibson drained 75 three-pointers on the year and scored 26 points in a tight loss to Providence last December. Kelley averaged 7.3 ppg as a freshman and could be given the shot to replace Jerrell Thompson at the point.
The Pioneers fielded an undersized frontcourt last season with athletic 6-5 forward Stan Dulaire (Bloomfield, CT/Watkinson School) (7.4 ppg, team-leading 5.3 rpg) often joined by 6-3 Chris Evans (Stamford, CT/Stamford (Taft School)) (9.1 ppg) and 6-4 Louis Montes (Brockton, MA/Brockton) (7.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), a pair of hard-as-nails freshmen who should see even more playing time in 2011-12. Justin Swidowski (Cinnaminson, NJ/Holy Cross (Holy Family)), a 6-9 forward/center with a soft touch, will challenge for a starting role after transferring from Division II Holy Family.
With a strong midseason push, Saint Francis (PA) (9-21, 7-11 NEC) put itself in position to make a run at the upper half of the standings, but a number of close loses in the latter portion of the schedule forced the Red Flash to settle for the eighth and final playoff spot and a first round battle with eventual champion Long Island. In making its second straight NEC Tournament appearance under fourth year head coach Don Friday, Saint Francis found itself a go-to player in junior guard Umar Shannon (Atlantic City, NJ/Atlantic City). Shannon displayed a flair for the dramatic throughout the 2010-11 campaign, hitting big shot after big shot for the Red Flash in a variety of ways. Possessing deep range on his jumper, Shannon converted 68 opportunities from three-point territory, but also used his quickness to get to the line 142 times. On the year, the second team All-NEC performer ranked sixth in the NEC in scoring with 11 games of 20+ points.
A solid guard core also includes juniors Chris Johnson (Newport News, VA/Denbigh) and Anthony Ervin (Chesterfield, VA/Fork Union Military Academy). Johnson (8.3 ppg) ran the point and finished the season fourth in the NEC with 4.4 apg, while Ervin primarily gave a spark off the bench, averaging 7.2 ppg. Senior Jon Taylor (Bowie, MD/Montgomery College-Germantown) (4.1 ppg) and sophomore Scott Eatherton (Hershey, PA/Hershey) (3.9 ppg) - who came on strong down the stretch of his freshman campaign - will anchor the frontcourt.
Its the start of a new era at Monmouth (9-21, 5-13 NEC) with the arrival of King Rice, a former standout guard at North Carolina who takes over as the fifth head coach in program history. Upon setting foot onto the West Long Branch campus, Rice indicated a change in the team's style of play would be forthcoming, namely a more up-and-down approach to take advantage of some of his team's athleticism. Senior Mike Myers-Keitt (Waterbury, CT/Fairfield Prep (Marianapolis Prep)) enjoyed somewhat of a career rebirth last season when he led the Hawks in both scoring (10.1 ppg) and make three-pointers (39). Long, lanky and with the ability to get out on the break, Myers-Keitt will likely be a beneficiary of the team's new offensive approach.
Burly junior forward Ed Waite (Fort Lauderdale, FL/Pine Crest) is one the NEC's strongest and most physical players. Waite, at 6-3 and 215 lbs., is the team's leading returning rebounder (5.9 ppg) and second-leading scorer (9.2 ppg). Junior forward Marcus Ware (Vineland, NJ/Vineland) missed the 2009-10 season with an injury, but was healthy enough last season to average 7.6 ppg and 4.3 rpg to claim NEC All-Rookie accolades. Senior Will Campbell (Willingboro, NJ/Paul VI) (8.6 ppg) and Jesse Steele (Milford, NJ/Oak Hill Academy (Army)) (8.9 ppg) are a pair of outside shooting threats.
St. Francis (NY) (15-15, 10-8 NEC) was a team no one wanted to face last season. With the one-two scoring punch of backcourt tandem Ricky Cadell (16.2 ppg) and Akeem Bennett (14.0 ppg) - both of whom were named second team All-NEC - the Terriers could knock off anyone on a given night as evidenced by big wins over Robert Morris and CCSU over the course of the regular season. The program's fifth place finish was its best since 2003-04, but if the Terriers are to match or exceed their 2010-11 showing, second year head coach Glenn Braica must find a way to replace his two all-stars lost to graduation. Senior guard Dre Calloway (Harlem, NY/Abraham Lincoln (CO) (Northeastern JC)) slipped right in to the starting role at the point in Braica's three-guard alignment last season and led the team with 3.6 apg. Local product Akeem Johnson (Brooklyn, NY/Susan S. McKinney) made great strides in 2010-11, emerging as one of the NEC's better post players.
The 6-6 junior forward is the team's leading returning scorer (8.9 ppg) and rebounder (5.0 rpg), and ranked sixth in the league in field goal accuracy (.512) a year ago. Long distance bomber Stefan Perunicic (Belgrade, Serbia/Dimitrije Tucovic) is back for his senior campaign. Perunicic (8.6 ppg) has hit 207 trifectas in his three years, the most among returning NEC players. Junior forward Travis Nichols (Brooklyn, NY/Food & Finance) showed great promise last season, averaging 7.3 ppg, while sophomore forward Matt Milk (Wantagh, NY/Pine Crest (FL)) (2.9 ppg) earned 16 starts as a freshman.
Fairleigh Dickinson (5-24, 3-15 NEC) fans will no doubt take a close look at the game program at the team's home opener as the new-look Knights will feature no less than ten newcomers as part of a completely overhauled roster following the graduation of four starters. Now in his third year, head coach Greg Vetrone must go without Mike Scott, one of the best point guards in recent NEC vintage. To his credit, Vetrone had Duquesne transfer Melquan Bolding (Mt. Vernon, NY/Bishop Stepinac) waiting in the wings. Bolding, a 6-3 guard, played two seasons for the Dukes, earning Atlantic-10 All-Rookie honors as a freshman before averaging 11.8 ppg as a sophomore. Of FDU's five returnees, look for senior guard Briahn Smith (Detroit, MI/Madison) and sophomore forward Mathias Seilund (Dragoer, Denmark/Falkonergaardens Gymnasium) to make the most impact.
Smith is the top returning scorer for the Knights, having contributed 6.1 ppg and 35 three-pointers in 2010-11, while the 6-7 Seilund chipped in with 4.6 ppg in his first year of collegiate ball. A number of high impact transfers will take the court this year including 6-9 forward George Goode (Raytown, MD/Raytown South) (Louisville) and 6-7 forward Mouhamed Lo (Port Chester, NY/Port Chester) (Toledo), both of whom are graduate students. Junior guard Lonnie Hayes (Cincinnati, OH/Harmony Prep (Missouri State-West Plains JC)) was a junior college All-American last season.Northeast Conference 2011-12 Men's Basketball Preseason Coaches Poll
First-place votes in parentheses