We continue with Part 2 of our NEC Power Rankings, which features our top six teams in the conference. For Part 1, go here.
6) Sacred Heart Pioneers, 8-13 (6-4 NEC)
High Point: After winning four of their first six NEC games, Sacred Heart impressively dispatched then undefeated Bryant at home, 87-76. The upset easily qualifies as their most impressive victory of the season.
Low Point: The Pioneers headed south in late December for two paycheck games with A-10 schools, only to get absolutely shellacked by a combined score of 177-109. The noncompetitive defeats to La Salle and George Washington sunk SHU’s non-conference record to 2-9. If that wasn’t rock bottom, then I don’t know what is.
Team MVP: Shane Gibson. After an uneven two months to start the season, Gibson has been terrific in NEC play leading all players with 24.3 ppg and a 91.4% free throw percentage.
Moving Forward: With a very competitive starting five of Gaetano, Gibson, Glowiak, Montes, and Greenbacker, the Pioneers have the potential to earn a home game in the NEC playoffs. The question, however, lies in the health and performance of its unproven bench. Freshmen Tevin Falzon and De’Aires Tate are playing a bigger role these days, but consistency is needed from both youngsters if the Pioneers have visions of upsets in their heads.
End of Season Projection: John and I differ a bit on where the Pioneers will end up, but I feel they’ll cozy into a #5 to #6 seed at the regular season’s end.
5) Central Connecticut Blue Devils, 10-11 (6-4 NEC)
High Point: Even though it has little bearing on today’s NEC race to the top, CCSU’s upset over a very good La Salle team in November officially opened the eyes of many. It was only their fourth win in their last sixteen tries versus A-10 competition.
Low Point: Things looked pretty bleak for the Blue Devils when they lost their fifth straight game to the winless Red Flash, 77-67, in the NEC opener.
Team MVP: Kyle Vinales. I could have went with the JUCO Matt Hunter, but instead elected to go with Vinales who has been a touch better in his sophomore campaign. His efficiency handling and scoring the basketball is quite good, even though he’s taking nearly one third of CCSU’s total shots.
Moving Forward: I hope the weave offense never ever comes back, because this brand of Blue Devils basketball is a blast to watch. After one game this season, Howie Dickenman admitted his team only ran two set plays the entire game. Imagine that, just two set plays! With only Joe Efase graduating, these Blue Devils have a bright future as long as the freshmen brought in next season can add some quality bodies to their ridiculously thin bench. Dickenman can’t play six to seven guys forever; it would eventually come back to bite him.
End of Season Projection: Like St. Francis Brooklyn, no one would want CCSU coming into their arena in round one of the NEC playoffs. With Vinales and Hunter, this team has the juice to rip off three victories in a row in early March, but we’ll settle for a first round upset before they succumb to a superior opponent in the semifinals.
4) Wagner Seahawks, 12-9 (6-4 NEC)
High Point: Perhaps taking advantage of the sudden return of Jamal Olasewere, C.J. Garner, and Troy Joseph, Wagner jumped all over the Blackbirds at the WRAC, winning their third straight NEC contest. The victory moved Wagner to 3-0 in the conference and had everyone (myself included) praising the job done by Bashir Mason.
Low Point: A road blowout loss to Bryant, 82-59, highlighted Wagner’s poor health and suddenly porous defense that had allowed 1.08 points per possession in three consecutive losses.
Team MVP: Kenneth Ortiz. The heady 6’0″ point guard’s value is felt most on the defensive end, but Ortiz has also been the steady influence offensively throughout the season. His shooting percentages may need improvement, but Ortiz is getting to the line at a high rate and is in KenPom’s top 100 in assist rate.
Moving Forward: With only the 9th most efficient offense in the NEC, victories never seem to come easy for Mason’s Seahawks, especially with Latif Rivers playing at less than 100%. Yet every night, Wagner will continue to grind it out and make themselves a factor. Even without Jonathan Williams, next year may be their golden opportunity with another year of seasoning for Eric Fanning, Dwaun Anderson, and transfer Jay Harris.
End of Season Projection: Offense is the name of the game in this year’s NEC and because of that we feel Wagner lacks the firepower to reel off three straight victories in the NEC tournament. Especially when they’ll need to get through Bryant, RMU, and/or LIU Brooklyn.
3) LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, 11-11 (6-4 NEC)
High Point: Their narrow triumph over Bryant sent a clear message to the conference that the Blackbirds are back. It also helped that the win wasn’t possible without the bench contributions of E.J. Reed, Booker Hucks, and Kenny Onyechi.
Low Point: It doesn’t get any lower then seeing your star player and reigning NEC Player of the Year in significant pain on the floor, only to find out he tore his ACL.
Team MVP: Jamal Olasewere. The phenomenally versatile senior has done a better job of staying on the floor during NEC play, and it has translated into success for the Blackbirds. At the moment, Olasewere is nationally ranked in KenPom for every category of significance except assist and turnover rate and is posting monster numbers of 18.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and 1.7 spg.
Moving Forward: Even without Julian Boyd, LIU is a dark horse contender and could absolutely capture a record third straight NEC title. Though Jack Perri would obviously want him now, Boyd possibly coming back for a sixth season won’t push LIU out of the elite company of the NEC next season.
End of Season Projection: We wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the NEC finals once again, but they’ll more than likely have to win their third straight title on the road. For that reason, we feel LIU Brooklyn will fall just short in their quest.
2) Bryant Bulldogs, 15-6 (8-2 NEC)
High Point: There’s so many to choose from! The Bulldogs shocking defeat of the C.J. McCollum led Lehigh Mountain Hawks kind of kick-started this fantastic run, therefore it gets the nod here.
Low Point: Back-to-back losses against Sacred Heart and LIU Brooklyn quelled fan’s expectations somewhat, especially when their sometimes mediocre defense was exposed by giving up 1.32 points per possession in those two defeats.
Team MVP: Frankie Dobbs. I could have gone with Alex Francis or Dyami Starks, but instead I chose the floor general for Tim O’Shea’s potent offensive attack. When you post season averages of 14.4 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.6 rpg, and 1.2 spg, that’s simply too good to ignore.
Moving Forward: Bryant loses a great point guard in Frankie Dobbs next season, but Tim O’Shea claims the incoming recruiting class is the best in Bryant’s history. Eventually, we think Shane McLaughlin and Jason Brickman’s brother will do just fine manning the point, so you’d be foolish to think the Bulldogs are simply a one hit wonder. They’re here to stay.
End of Season Projection: When it’s all said and done, Bryant will probably undergo the best NEC turnaround in the history of the conference, which is a fantastic accomplishment in itself. If Bryant can hold off RMU and others for the #1 seed, that could substantially improve Bryant’s chances of dancing come March.
1) Robert Morris Colonials, 15-8 (7-3 NEC)
High Point: RMU is cruising with a 7-1 NEC record in their last eight, punctuated of course with their thrilling win at the WRAC over the two time defending champions. The average margin of victory in those seven wins has been a comfortable 13.1 points.
Low Point: The chair drill! After shocking home losses to Bryant and CCSU, Andy Toole brought out the quotes and the good ‘ole chair drill for practice. It must have been difficult for a bunch of “prima donnas” to shuffle back and forth with a chair in-between their legs!
Team MVP: Velton Jones. The bulldog is nationally ranked in KenPom’s assist rate, free throw rate, and steal rate. Still, it’s been a bit of a down year for oft-injured Jones, so consider this a lifetime achievement award. Then again, if Jones’ game winner at LIU didn’t convince you he’s the team MVP, then I don’t know what will.
Moving Forward: It’s a more dynamic offense with the long range shooting of Coron Williams and JUCO Karvel Anderson, as the Colonials are second only to Bryant in KenPom’s offensive efficiency. Still, a return to the defensive mindset could benefit Toole’s squad in the long run, given that a majority of the NEC teams fail to play even a modicum of defense.
End of Season Projection: They may be trailing by a game to Bryant and still have a trip to Smithfield, RI ahead of them, but we think the Colonials are the slight favorite to represent the NEC in the NCAA tournament. Home court could play a huge role in deciding the eventual champion – eight of last 11 NEC postseason tournament champions won on their home court – so it would behoove RMU to take care of business in the regular season and make teams travel all the way across the state of Pennsylvania.