Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 2011-12 Northeast Conference End of Season Recap - Part 1

For decades now, the Northeast Conference (NEC) has served as the doormat of men’s college basketball.  Never in the NEC’s 30 year history has there been one NCAA at-large bid, nor has there been a single NCAA victory for a NEC team in the round of 64.  Not one.  This season wasn’t any different and to the casual fan, a glance at the conference RPI ratings showed a mild at best improvement for the NEC when compared to the other conferences (NEC was rated 24th out of 31 conferences in RPI).

Long Island University qualified for the NCAA tournament as a #16 seed, yet proved to be no match against the bigger and more athletic Michigan State Spartans.  The NIT committee felt no other NEC team deserved inclusion into their tournament, and notably shut out the Wagner Seahawks, despite winning a school record 25 games.  And only two other teams, Quinnipiac and Robert Morris, played in the lesser known and least cared about CTI and CBI postseason tournaments.  It appeared to be just another ho-hum year for the NEC.

But take a closer look.  For the first time since the 1995-96 season, three NEC teams finished their season with more than 20 wins.  Robert Morris and Wagner each had impressively (at least at the time) defeated some quality non-conference opponents, with the most notable being NCAA Sweet 16 participant Ohio University and traditional Big East power (although not this year) Pittsburgh.  In addition, the NEC’s top three programs, LIU, Robert Morris, and Wagner, will graduate only one starter from each of their rosters. Other teams, such as Quinnipiac, Monmouth, and St. Francis (NY), took a sizable step forward and should reek of optimism heading into next season.

All in all, the 2011-12 season may serve as the year it started to turn around for the NEC.  Next season may be the first time in 16 years that the NEC gets three teams into the NCAA and NIT.  And make no mistake, the NEC will someday get that elusive NCAA round of 64 win, and I would say it’s coming sooner than later.

With that, I give you my two part Northeast Conference men's basketball season recap.  Rather than bombard you with 2,200+ words in one monster post, I decided to break it up.  I'll first go over the bottom half of the league and then recap the upper half in a couple of days.

12. Bryant Bulldogs, 2-28 (1-17 NEC)
We begin with the last place Bryant Bulldogs, who at least have the excuse of transitioning their program into Division 1.  Next season, the Bulldogs will be eligible to play in the NEC postseason tournament, although getting there will certainly be a long shot.  Bryant wasn’t supposed to end their 2011-12 season with one conference win however, especially after winning 7 NEC games in the season prior.  But despite returning Alex Francis and Frankie Dobbs, the Bulldogs finished dead last in both offense efficiency (0.90 points per possession) and defensive efficiency (1.10 points allowed per possession).  The nadir has been reached, and at least Bryant will have the optimism of participating as a fully integrated Division 1 school for the 2012-13 season.  Hopefully that will produce some decent recruits and a couple of more wins in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

11. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, 3-26 (2-16 NEC)
Barely higher on the totem pole were the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, who have officially hit rock bottom this season.  That’s saying a lot, since the Knights have averaged a measly 7 wins per season since their 20 win campaign in 2006.  The team, mostly comprised of upperclassmen, at the very least will usher in five freshmen onto next season’s roster.  Melquin Boldin will return next season as the Knight's leading scorer, but his 15.1 points per game was clearly compiled through heavy shot volume, as evident by his 35% effective field goal percentage.  It’s tough to see this team winning more than 4 or 5 games in conference next season, but stranger things have certainly happened.

10. St. Francis (PA) Red Flash, 6-23 (5-13 NEC)
Don Friday’s fourth season as the Red Flash’s coach didn’t bring the marked improvement the St. Francis (PA) faithful could have expected.  To be fair, the season got off to a dreadful start when junior Umar Shannon injured his ACL in the second game of the season, only to be lost for the year.  Then to make matters worse, junior Chris Johnson was dismissed by Coach Friday for violating team rules.  Well so much for that. What ensued was another hapless season for the Red Flash, who found themselves giving up an average of 1.06 points per possession on defense.  The lone bright spot was the NEC Most Improved Player, Scott Eatherton, who averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game, despite only logging 10 minutes per game as a freshman the previous season.  Pair him with Shannon and a trio of sophomores who played significant minutes this season, and St. Francis has a respectable chance to qualify for next season's NEC tournament.

9. Mount St. Mary’s, 8-21 (6-12 NEC)
It was an apathetic season at the Knott Arena, which surely captured the now departed head coach Robert Burke’s temperament.  Of course, there was never anything to get excited about, since the Mountaineers failed to defeat a team all season with a winning record.  Of the four freshmen inserted into this season’s roster, only Kelvin Parker made a real contribution and he was a walk-on from the football team.  With Burke’s failure however, comes reason for optimism. Former Mount St. Mary’s player and captain Jamion Christian has been brought in to right the ship, fresh off assisting one of the best young coaches in the league in Shaka Smart.  Christian certainly has a lot of work ahead of him - especially with the departure of Danny Thompson and Lamar Trice - but there is now hope that the program can someday be restored back to the productive days under Milan Brown.

8. Sacred Heart Pioneers, 14-18 (8-10 NEC)
If you read my blog regularly this season, you surely understood the heartbreak my beloved Sacred Heart Pioneers endured for the 2011-12 season.  8 games in the conference were lost in the final 3 minutes of the game, with 5 of those coming against Robert Morris, LIU, and St. Francis.  A remarkable season from Shane Gibson ended up being wasted on late game disappointments and chronic inconsistency from everyone playing behind Gibson.  Add to that an evident lack of depth in the front-court, and you have the recipe of a team that underachieved to 8 conference wins.  Despite this, the Pioneers go into the 2012-13 season with more front-court help and a final season from Shane Gibson and 6-foot-9 big man Justin Swidowski, who now has a Division 1 season under his belt.  It’s certainly reasonable to expect a progression, if and only if the roster matures and learns from their late game failure.

7. Central Connecticut Blue Devils, 13-16 (10-8 NEC)
Howie Dickerman had the talent to compete for a NEC Championship this season, however a complete lack of depth apparently doomed the team.  After the big three of Ken Horton, Robby Ptacek, and Kyle Vinales, the next highest scorer on the roster was junior Joe Efase, who (get this) averaged 3.9 points per game!  The result was star studded team up front that failed to score the basketball with any type of consistency.  Therefore, when the defense gave up more than 0.97 points per possession in a game, Central Connecticut went 0-13.  Now with Horton and Ptacek gone, Dickerman will probably need a year to fully rebuild with Vinales and Malcolm McMillan serving as the foundation.

For Part 2 of the NEC End of Season Recap, go here.

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