Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Northeast Conference Preview


The Northeast Conference regular season championship came down to the final day of the season, when Fairleigh Dickinson defeated Monmouth to win the title by a game. FDU had a three-game lead with three games left, but lost two in a row to make it interesting. Central Connecticut State finished in second. The league was very balanced, but FDU began pulling away once they came together. Several teams went into the conference tournament with a chance to win it, but Monmouth avenged their loss in the season finale to FDU with a one-point win over the Knights to get the automatic bid. In the NCAA Tournament, the Hawks deafeated Hampton in the play-in game and then played Villanova closely for the majority of the game before falling. This season, the NEC will be wide-open again.

Favorites: With all of the personnel losses at the top of the conference, the team best equipped to become the favorite in the NEC is Robert Morris. The Colonials finished fifth last season in the conference, but return four double-figure scorers, including the Preseason Player of the Year in A.J. Jackson. Jackson is a 20-10 threat every time he steps on the court. He can dominate a game at both ends of the floor. Joining him up front are role players Freddie Harris and Colson Senat. On the perimeter, Jeremy Chappell leads the way. Last season's Rookie of the Year is a big-time scorer. The team's best all-around player might be six-foot guard Tony Lee. He is a solid scorer and a very good rebounder for his size. Derek Coleman returns at the point. He can find the open man and can also score if necessary. Monmouth may have lost their starting backcourt, but they return one of the best frontcourts in the conference and will still be an oustanding defensive team. Marques Alston and Dejan Delic form a very good forward tandem, as both are solid scorers and rebounders. Moreover, they have a weapon no one in the conference can match in 7-2 John Bunch. He can score on putbacks, is a tough rebounder, and is an excellent shot-blocker. Corey Hallett provides depth. Guards Whitney Coleman and Michael Shipman need to improve their production if the Hawks want to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Contenders: If they stay healthy, Long Island University could be a team to look out for. They return all five starters as well as several of their top bench players. All-Conference guard James Williams leads the way. He is an excellent scorer who can also distribute the ball. Wing Aubin Scott is an underrated player across the league who could have a breakout season, while returning starter Tyrone Mattison and senior Evan Meekins are solid. Up front, Kellen Allen and Esa Maki-Tulokas return as the starters, and Paska Morkeliunas and Eugene Kotorabai also contribute off the bench. Wagner disappointed last season, finishing in tenth place, but the Seahawks could make a run at the title this season. Durell Vinson is one of the top players in the conference, and averaged over 15 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game last season. Jamal Smith and James Ulrich complement Vinson on the interior, while Matt Vitale is a hard-nosed player who sees minutes off the bench. Guard Mark Porter is a good all-around player who provides balance on the perimeter. Joey Mundweiler will step into the starting lineup this season. Their lack of size could be a shortcoming.

Sleepers: Quinnipiac loses their leading scorer from last season in John Winchester, but the addition of Central Connecticut State transfer DeMario Anderson will mean that the Bobcats don't miss a beat offensively. Anderson was CCSU's leading scorer two seasons ago. However, defense remains the main weakness for this team. Joining Anderson in the backcourt will be double-figure scorer Adam Gonzalez and point guard Job Casimir. A good frontcourt duo returns in Chris Wehye, a solid scorer and rebounder, and Karl Anderson, who could have a big season. Victor Akinyanju could see an expanded role this season. Central Connecticut State finished second a season ago, but the Blue Devils will take a tumble in the standings with the loss of three starters. However, CCSU returns one of the better inside-outside combos in the league in all-conference candidates Tristan Blackwood and Obie Nwadike. Blackwood is an excellent all-around player who can fill it up as well as rebound and distribute. Nwadike averaged a double-double last season and can dominate the glass despite standing at only 6-4. Guard Javier Mojica, who came off the bench last year, should increase his numbers this season.

Rounding Out the Pack: Defending regular season champion Fairleigh Dickinson will take a step back this season with the loss of three starters, including Conference Player of the Year Chad Timberlake and all-conference forward Gordon Klaiber. However, they do return several quality role players who were key members of the league champion teams of the past two seasons. Mike Peeples and Andre Harris will form a solid forward combo, while returning starter Bernell Murphy will anchor the backcourt. Cameron Tyler and John Blackgrove will see more minutes this season after coming off the bench a season ago. Mount St. Mary's will need big-time years from several players in order to repeat their fourth-place finish of last season. Mychal Kearse is the returning NEC Defensive Player of the Year and is also a solid scorer and very good rebounder. Joey Butler and Chris Vann, as well as newcomer Jeremy Goode will form a decent guard group. Up front, Sam Atupem and potential breakout player Sam Durr anchor the forward positions. A go-to inside player needs to emerge. Sacred Heart could end up being a sleeper by the time the conference tournament rolls around. All-Conference wing Jarrid Frye returns after becoming a well-rounded offensive player who can take over a game. Forward Joey Henley also returns after redshirting last year due to injury. He will help ease the loss of center Kibwe Trim, who averaged 19 points and nearly 9 boards a season ago. Wings Drew Shubik and Luke Granato also return, as does point guard Tavio Hobson, a very good passer. Brice Books is a solid role player up front. St. Francis (NY) returns only one double-figure scorer from one of the conference's worst offenses. Allan Sheppard was the NEC Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, but took a step back last year. The other two returning starters are guard Jamaal Womack and forward James St. Robert. Point guard Ruandy Melo will have to step in at point guard, while John Gooden will see an expanded role up front. The Terriers will bank heavily on newcomers, mainly forward Robert Hines. While they will likely do better than last season (2-16 in the conference), St. Francis (PA) will not move far from the NEC cellar. They do return a good frontcourt duo, though. Big man J.R. Enright should be recovered from an injury that forced him to miss 17 games last season, while Jelani Lawrence is a solid scorer and rebounder. Grant Surprenant and Marquis Ford will start in the backcourt once again. Surprenant needs to increase his offensive numbers.

Prediction: The Northeast Conference will be wide-open this season. There are teams at the top that could easily finish in the lower half, while there are also teams in the bottom tier who could end up in the top three or four. With that said, though, I'm going with Robert Morris to win the conference. They have the league's most dominant inside player in A.J. Jackson, as well as the best perimeter group in the conference. Long Island will give them a run for the NEC title, though. The league should feature one of the best championship races in the country.

Player of the Year: A.J. Jackson, PF, Robert Morris

All-Conference Team:
G- James Williams, Long Island
F- Jarrid Frye, Sacred Heart
F- Durell Vinson, Wagner
F- A.J. Jackson, Robert Morris
F- Obie Nwadike, Central Connecticut State

Second Team:
G- Tristan Blackwood, Central Connecticut State
G- Mychal Kearse, Mount St. Mary's
G- Tony Lee, Robert Morris
G- Jeremy Chappell, Robert Morris
F- Marques Alston, Monmouth

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