Thursday, January 5, 2012

First Annual Pioneer Pride Northeast Conference Predictions

With the non-conference schedule complete for all Northeast Conference teams, now is a perfect opportunity to post my NEC Season Predictions.  I bet you won’t find these anywhere else!  I rank all of the teams in tiers, provide a brief summary, and attempt to predict each team’s final record and playoff destination.  This is my first year in covering the NEC, so I’d love to read your comments if you agree or disagree with my predictions in any way.  And now, without further ado…

Get Your Shoes Ready, Because You May Be Going to the Big Dance!

1) Robert Morris (16-2 regular season, NEC Semifinalist, NIT bound)

Andy Toole’s Colonials, fresh off an unusual upset over Ohio University in which they committed 31 turnovers and 24 personal fouls, head back into conference play in very good shape.  The unbalanced schedule is kind to them, as they only play Wagner, LIU, and Central Connecticut once this season.  They can defend, rebound, and go nine deep, especially with the recent addition of 6-foot-8 forward Mike McFadden.  I think they’ll quietly snap up the number one seed, only to be upset in the conference semis.

2) Wagner (15-3 regular season, NEC Tournament Champion, NCAA 14 seed)

I’m not sure who has been more loved in the New York area lately – Dan Hurley or Victor Cruz.  Hurley and his Wagner Seahawks have been the talk of the town since their upset victories over Pitt and Santa Clara, even though their early loss to LIU may eventually prevent them from earning the NEC regular season title.  Nonetheless, Wagner’s guards Kenneth Ortiz, Latif Rivers, and Tyler Murray are very efficient and are complimented with a strong low-block presence in 6-foot-11 Neofall Folahan, who leads the NEC with 2 rejections per game.  I think they’ll represent the NEC in the NCAA tourney (as do most people), but at the very worst, they’ll be NIT bound should they fall to LIU or Robert Morris along the way.

Don’t Count Them Out, They Could Be Dangerous

3) Long Island University (13-5 regular season, NEC Semifinalist, CBI/CIT bound)

The high-flying Blackbirds are the most proficient offense in the NEC, averaging a staggering 77 points per game.  They have efficient players that can excel both in the half court and in transition, especially when point guard Jason Brickman dishes the rock without turning it over.  LIU’s big man, Julian Boyd, has been a beast of late, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds in the past 6 games.  So what is preventing them from going all the way?  They allow as many points as they score per game (77 ppg) and they turn the ball over way too much, with a turnover margin of minus-4.  If they can defend and protect the ball just a little, then perhaps they’ll successfully defend their NEC title and return to the dance.

4) Quinnipiac University (11-7 regular season, NEC First Round)

In their current 5 game winning streak, Tom Moore’s Bobcats have been playing inspired ball on the glass (what else is new) and on the defensive end.  Their young front court depth has been impressive and if Ousmane Drame continues to progress, he’ll be a force to reckon with in the paint.  Throw in leading NEC rebounder Ike Azotam, Jamee Jackson, and freshman Marquis Barnett, and the Bobcats have possibly the deepest front-court around.  For now though, Quinnipiac simply needs to shoot the ball better.  Senior James Johnson can’t do all of the scoring by himself.

5) Central Connecticut State (11-7 regular season, NEC Finalist)

The Blue Devils have slumped of late by losing five straight, but I’m not counting out their scoring trio of Ken Horton, Kyle Vinales, and Robby Ptacek.  Sure, Howie Dickerman’s club has absolutely no depth to speak of, but together the three stars are averaging a mind numbing 59.7 points per game and make up 77.2% of the team’s scoring.  If all three are healthy and firing on all cylinders come playoff time, the Miami Heat of the NEC (ok, maybe that’s a little stretch) will be a very tough out.

6) Sacred Heart University (10-8 regular season, NEC First Round)

I reluctantly placed my Pioneers at the bottom of this tier, even though I’m skeptical that Dave Bike’s roster can make a run at the conference.  They’ve got the star guard (Shane Gibson) and low-block scorer (Justin Swidowski), but as I explained before, they need contributions elsewhere to have a chance.  I can certainly see an upset win or two over a top tier team, but I’m not sure if they can sustain a high level over several games, due to the inconsistency of Evan Kelley, Chris Evans, and Louis Montes and the mostly nonathletic front-court.

Could Make a Little Noise, But Won’t Factor In the Postseason

7) St. Francis, NY (9-9 regular season, NEC First Round)

The Terriers, after a difficult start, have righted the ship to go 4-5 in their last 9 games.  You'll find them in the middle of the NEC statistically in most categories, as they have a balanced attacked with nine players registering double digits in points per 40 minutes.  They don't seem to have that one go-to-guy however, so it remains to be seen how they will succeed in close games.  One key to their success is freshman forward Jalen Cannon (averaging an impressive 7.2 rebounds per game), as his continued improvement should help determine the Terriers fate.

8) St. Francis, PA (7-11 regular season, NEC First Round)

The Red Flash back-court suffered two critical blows to their season within a month.  First of all, leading scorer Umar Shannon was lost for the year due to a ACL injury.  Then a month later, leading assist man Chris Johnson was kicked off the team for violating team rules.  That is worse luck than this poor sap! (FYI - skip ahead to the 0:40 second mark)  Don’t be fooled by the Red Flash’s 2-0 NEC record, since they beat Monmouth and FDU at home.  The schedule gets more difficult in a hurry with matchups against CCSU, Sacred Heart, and Quinnipiac in 3 of the next 4 games.

It’s Gonna Be a Really Long Season

9) Mount St. Marys (6-12 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

Mount St. Mary’s has defended well the past 5 games, yet only have one win to show for it, thanks to a woeful effort on the offensive side of the ball.  Currently, there are in the bottom 15% of the nation in scoring, rebounds and shooting percentage.  Despite these hideous stats, one fourth of the league is even more hideous, so the Mount’s respectable defense should give them a few conference wins to build on for next season.

10) Monmouth University (4-12 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

Since getting bashed by St. Francis (PA) and Robert Morris, Monmouth has played better basketball of late, which certainly isn’t saying much.  When your team is dead last in the NEC in scoring margin (minus-20), effective field goal percentage, and effective field goal percentage defense, bad things are going to happen.  5-foot-8 junior guard Jesse Steele and 6-foot-6 freshman guard Andrew Nicholas have been the lone bright spots for the Hawks.  (And now I’m done saying nice things about the bottom feeders of the NEC.  Moving along…)

11) Fairleigh Dickenson (3-15 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

What is there really to say?  Picked last in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll, the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson have played two games so far – yes two games – where they didn’t lose by double digits.  The roster, filled with mostly juniors and seniors, has quite frankly no future, both a year from now and three years from now.

12) Bryant University (3-15 regular season, ineligible for NEC tournament)

After flirting with conference respectability last season, Bryant University is back to their familiar  position as a cellar dweller.  They’ve been punished in their past 11 games, falling by an average of 17 points per game.  At this point, call it a moral victory if the Bulldogs can half their win total from last year.  Or win a game on the road.

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