Top NEC storylines to watch in the 2017-18 season:

1. The NEC has been decimated by players "transferring up" (seven of the 15 All-NEC selections from last year transferred). Consequently, the talent level has taken a significant hit, but nevertheless, the conference continues to develop players year after year that get plucked by high-majors.

2. The traditional powers of this decade of NEC hoops (Robert Morris, Mt. St. Mary’s, LIU) were hit particularly hard by transfers and graduation. However, counting out the league’s two best coaches in Jamion Christian and Andy Toole isn’t wise, and LIU brought in Derek Kellogg from UMass.

3. CCSU hasn’t qualified for the NEC Tournament since the 2013-14 season. Donyell Marshall’s second season at the helm should see some improvement.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. St. Francis– In what should be another jumbled NEC season, the Red Flash backcourt should be enough to separate Rob Krimmel’s squad from the rest of the league. With Malik Harmon returning from an ACL injury, Krimmel will have the flexibility to throw out dual ball handler looks with him and Jamaal King, who was more than solid when handed the keys to the offense last year. Isaiah Blackmon returns off the ball as one of the premier shooters in the entire country. Blackmon hit 50 percent of his triples last season, the sixth-best rate in the nation and easily the best in the NEC. Blackmon is far from a one-way player, though, as his defensive ability allows Krimmel to throw him on positions 1-3, and he’s capable off the dribble offensively, not just a spot shooter. Throw in Randall Gaskins as Krimmel’s defensive stopper on the perimeter, and you have a deep, skilled, veteran backcourt that should carry the Red Flash to the NEC title after falling short in last year’s championship game to Mt. St. Mary’s. The junior duo of Andre Wolford and Scott Meredith return as solid contributing role players in the backcourt as well. Sophomore Keith Braxton returns as the 4 in Krimmel’s small ball, transition based offense (after four seasons of hovering in the low to mid 60s in terms of possessions, the Red Flash averaged 70 possessions last season while finishing in the top 60 in eFG percent in transition). Braxton is a dogged defender, a fearless penetrator and an outstanding rebounder for his 6-foot-4 frame. The biggest concern for Krimmel is clearly at the 5, where he has to replace Josh Nebo (who transfered to Texas A&M), the league’s best rim protector. Some combination of two veterans (Daniel Wallace and Deivydas Kuzavas) and a JUCO transfer (Luidgy Laporal) will have to work for Krimmel. However, without Nebo, I expect even more zone from the Red Flash and probably a few possession per game bump with the deep, two point guard backcourt.

2. Mount St. Mary’s– The Mount was hit harder than anyone by the NEC’s transfer plague, losing Elijah Long (Texas), Mawdo Sallah (Kansas State), and Miles Wilson (Miami), but I’m reluctant to drop the defending champs to far down the jumbled NEC pecking order despite the attrition. Jamion Christian has built The Mount into a brand in his five years at the helm and has proven his "Mount Mayhem" system is adaptable to the personnel. The Mountaineers will be led by 5-foot-5 spark plug Junior Robinson, one of the quickest players in the country. Robinson can race his way into the lane and shoots the three at a nearly 40 percent clip. His senior leadership will also be key in teaching Christian’s pressure defense and intricate motion offense to the new faces. Robinson will be surrounded in the backcourt by two key additions, redshirt freshman Jonah Antonio and true freshman Donald Carey. The Aussie Antonio is a pure shooter who had a season off to learn Christian’s system, and Carey is in the vein of the long, versatile combo guards that Christian loves. Greg Alexander returns on the wing as one of the three key seniors Christian will be relying on this year. Alexander’s a volume 3-point shooter whose versatility lends itself to Christian’s pressure schemes defensively. The third key senior is 6-foot-8 Chris Wray, who does everything for Christian except shoot the three. Wray’s versatility at the 4 is the key asset in "Mayhem." The rest of the frontcourt behind of Wray is a bit of a question mark, with Ryan Gomes the only other returnee to that unit. There’s a lot of inexperience on this roster for a team that utilizes complicated systems on both ends of the floor, but the three seniors should be able to buoy the new talent. In Christian we trust.

3. LIU Brooklyn– Former UMass head coach Derek Kellogg takes over at LIU after the somewhat shocking dismissal of Jack Perri. Kellogg was known for his transition reliant teams while at Amherst, and he actually inherits a roster loaded with guards who can play at his preferred pace. Perri’s LIU squads were typically among the most up-tempo teams in the country. (Last season was actually the slowest the Blackbirds played in Perri’s five years, however.) Kellogg has a burgeoning sophomore point guard in Jashaun Agosto to spearhead his transition attack. Agosto is a quick penetrator with a decent enough jump shot to keep defenses honest. He’ll be surrounded by two versatile off guards in Joel Hernandez and Raiquan Clark. Hernandez missed basically all of last season with a broken wrist, but it allowed for the surprising emergence of Clark, who ended up being one of the best offensive rebounding wings in the entire country (crashing the offensive glass was also a tenet of Kellogg’s better UMass teams). Hofstra grad transfer Jamall Robinson should be an immediate contributor on the wing as well, while Julian Batts should round out the backcourt as a more than capable backup to Agosto. The frontcourt has some major question marks, as NEC POY Jerome Frink graduated and Nura Zanna transfered to Houston. Kellogg brings oft-injured Zach Coleman with him from Amherst, and he should slot in at the 5 next to stretch 4 Julius van Sauers. With the lack of a proven frontcourt but a heavy dose of versatile guards, this is a roster built to play Kellogg’s style of basketball and should compete for a league title.

4. Fairleigh Dickinson– Last year was a bizarre follow up season to the Knights’ NEC title year. FDU looked to have hit their stride after Earl Potts rejoined the team, racing out to an 8-1 league mark, only to lose eight of their last nine NEC games (most in excruciating fashion). Potts is gone, as is point guard Stephan Jiggetts, but the return of high-scoring Darian Anderson, Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway inside gives Greg Herenda one of the league’s more complete teams. The biggest concern for Herenda has to be who will run the point in his up-tempo, rim-attacking offense. Anderson is likely to be on the ball early, as Herenda’s other option are two true freshmen, Tyler Jones and Jahlil Jenkins. However, Anderson is much more effective off the ball, and as league play approaches, I would fully expect Jenkins or Jones to be ensconced as the starting point guard. Edge, meanwhile, is an efficiency monster who has been a beneficiary of the talent around him. It will be interesting to see how he produces with an expanded role. The frontcourt is one of the better units in the league, led by Holloway, an efficient scorer near the rim. Holloway has to improve defensively, however, (while simultaneously reducing his foul rate), as the Knights had the lowest block rate in the league. A pair of pick-and-pop bigs in Kaleb Bishop and Malik Miller round out the frontline. Bishop’s athleticism for his size was evident even through the NEC FrontRow stream. If the point guard situation gets settled come league play, this is a team that I could very easily see returning to the top of the NEC standings.

5. Wagner– The Seahawks lost a lot of talent from last year’s 11-7 team, with Corey Henson transferring and the frontcourt moving on. Bashir Mason’s style is built on aggressive man to man to generate turnovers as well as crashing the offensive glass. Those extra possessions are invaluable to an offense that’s routinely middle of the pack in efficiency. In that regard, the losses of Mike Aaman and Mike Carey might actually be more crippling than the loss of Henson. Wagner will get a boost with the return of Romone Saunders, who played only one game last year. Saunders should be one of the league’s most potent scorers in 2017-18. His return should help improve the efficiency of incumbent, turnover-prone point guard JoJo Cooper, as will the addition of athletic freshman wing Tyler Plummer, a 6-foot-4 three-star recruit out of Tennessee. JUCO Elijah Davis should also contribute immediately on the wing. Replacing Aaman and Carey is Mason’s biggest coaching job this year, and the onus will fall on AJ Sumbry and well-traveled grad transfer Nick Madray. If those two can rebound and defend like a typical Mason frontcourt, Wagner should once again be contending for a league title. Hopefully they’ll avoid another devastating home loss in the NEC Tournament if they do.

6. Sacred Heart– For the second year in a row, Anthony Latina’s squad lost their star guard to the dreaded "up transfer." Last year it was Cane Broome leaving for Cincinnati, which was a devastating blow. This year Latina lost Quincy McKnight to Seton Hall, which won’t be nearly as devastating. To be sure, McKnight is a fine player – a volume scorer with outstanding off the dribble skills. But he was also incredibly inefficient while dominating the basketball. McKnight had the NEC’s highest usage rate, and only one player in the league took a higher percentage of his team’s shots than McKnight (Nisre Zouzoua of Bryant, who also transferred out of the league). The problem was that McKnight possessed just a 92.5 ORtg per KenPom. That’s the major reason why Sacred Heart was a bottom half offensive efficiency team last year, and it didn’t help of course that they had the league’s highest turnover rate as well. Interestingly, Latina might not have to worry about developing another guard that will be plucked by a high major, as his frontcourt is the best in the league, and it’s really not all that close. Joe Lopez turned in a monster year on the glass and in rim protection in his first year out of junior college, and by the end of the year he was a major force offensively. He’s joined by De’von Barnett (another solid rebounder) and Mario Matasovic (something of a stretch 5). It also wouldn’t surprise me if freshman EJ Anosike makes an immediate impact given his pedigree (his brother was a monster glass eater at Siena, finishing with the second-highest defensive rebounding rate in the country four years ago), and the fact that Barnett has had a litany of injuries throughout his career. In the backcourt, Cha Cha Tucker returns to run the point. Tucker had the third-highest assist rate in league play last year, but also turned in a whopping 34.5 percent turnover rate. That has to be reduced if the Pioneers are going to significantly improve upon their 1.00 point per possession offensive efficiency in NEC games. Off the ball, Sean Hoehn is a capable shooter and a vastly underrated perimeter defender. On the wing, Siena transfer Kinnon LaRose should make an immediate impact with his length defensively and shooting ability offensively. He’ll be joined by veteran Chris Robinson, another solid perimeter threat. Freshman Alex Watson adds some depth to the unit and should see meaningful minutes immediately. Overall, it should be a much different looking offense for Latina, as he no longer has a ball dominating guard that dictates basically any and all offense. Sacred Heart’s offensive efficiency will likely improve as a result, and the frontcourt (per hoop-math.com, the Pioneers took the highest percentage of shots at the rim in the country) should have them in contention to host a tournament game.

7. Robert Morris– Andy Toole’s squad has been routinely ravaged by transfers, and the effects have really started to show the last two years, which have been his only two non-winning years in seven seasons at RMU. This year looks to be another struggle, as Matty McConnell and Dachon Burke are the only two returnees who played meaningful minutes last year. To say I have a good idea of what Toole’s rotation will look like at this point, with 10 newcomers, would be a lie. What I do know is that RMU will likely be a top-20ish defense in terms of turnover rate (seventh last year), whether that comes in man to man like last season or Toole returns to his pressure zone. The goal is always the same – turn teams over and get in transition. The point guard position looks like it will be tag teamed by two freshmen, Jon Williams (whose brother, Josh, will be eligible as well after transferring from Akron) and Leondre Washington. How those two improve an offense that was the 10th worst in the country from an efficiency standpoint remains to be seen, but the bar is pretty low at this point. McConnell and Burke return off the ball; they had the highest and fourth highest steal rates in the NEC, respectively. Burke’s raw athleticism as a freshman should be more refined in his second season, and he’s likely going to be one of the biggest breakout players in the league (which means he’ll likely be leaving the conference after this season). In the frontcourt, Malik Petteway should be an immediate impact player out of junior college, while David Cole spent a year learning Toole’s system and getting in shape. 6-foot-9 JUCO product Xavier Williams should also factor heavily in the frontcourt rotation. Toole recruits length and versatility to fuel his defense, and the slew of newcomers fit that bill, but can they also retool one of the league’s worst offenses?

8. Bryant– Tim O’Shea looked like he might have a legit NEC contender on his hands this year until Nevada raided his roster, taking the league’s best scorer in Nisre Zouzoua and his top frontcourt option in Marcel Pettway. Even with those devastating losses, there’s still a fair amount of talent that should allow the Bulldogs to qualify for the NEC tournament. Bryant’s sophomore class should anchor the Bulldogs this year, led by Ikenna Ndugba at the point, Adam Grant off the ball and Bash Townes as a versatile 3/4. Ndugba’s an excellent distributor and perimeter defender who should see a reduction in his excessively high turnover rate with more experience as a D1 point guard. Grant is poised for a massive second season as one of the better all-around guards in the league, as is Townes, who is likely the biggest beneficiary of all the available shots left in Zouzoua’s wake. Townes looked like O’Shea’s best player for stretches that I saw last year, but he has to reduce the foul rate and stay on the floor. Hunter Ware should also be a bigger factor in the backcourt after seeing a massive role reduction from a solid sophomore year. The frontcourt is a major concern, and the lack of any sort of rim protector could mean that a porous interior defense is somehow even worse this year. Bosko Kostur is an efficiency monster as a stretch 4, but doesn’t defend. Athletic freshman Brandon Carroll will be relied upon heavily early. Bryant was on the path to a certain top half finish before the transfers, but the sophomore class should keep Bryant competitive in league play this year.

9. Central Connecticut State– Year two of the Donyell Marshall era should see a fair amount of improvement thanks to a deep recruiting class, and the goal this year is to qualify for the NEC tournament after missing the cut for three straight seasons, which would have been unthinkable in the prime Howie Dickenman era. First and foremost, Marshall had to bring in some offensive firepower, particularly from the perimeter. Only three teams took a higher percentage of their shots at the rim, and only six teams had a lower 3-point attempt rate than the Blue Devils. That’s a formula that can work if you’re efficient inside. CCSU wasn’t. If JUCO transfer Tyler Kohl-Ross is as good on the wing as Marshall thinks he’ll be, he’ll likely lead the team in scoring thanks to his versatility. Austin Nehls returns off the ball as the one proven shooter on the team, while Eric Bowles, Tyson Batiste and freshman Eduardo Camacho should all handle point guard duties. Mustafa Jones returns at the 4 and should be aided by JUCO Deion Bute, who likely immediately starts at the 5. With newfound depth and versatility from his recruiting class, I expect Marshall to open things up a bit and extend some pressure, which should eventually lead to a significantly higher tempo than the 64 possession pace the Blue Devils played at last year.

10. St. Francis Brooklyn– The Terriers suffered through a disastrous season last year and enter 2017-18 riding a 16-game losing streak. While Glenn Braica’s team should be improved from last year, a revolutionary jump doesn’t seem to be in the cards, especially if Cori Johnson still isn’t close to 100 percent (his injury last year was the first of many blows for the Terriers). You could make a case that the Terriers were the worst offensive team in all of college basketball last year. They were dead last in eFG percent, 2PT field goal percent and 349th in 3PT field goal percent. To make matters worse, the Terriers shot the three at the highest rate in league play while only hitting them at a beyond abysmal 26.5 percent clip. In a league that features constantly penetrating guards (seven of the 10 NEC teams finished in the top 35 nationally in terms of FG attempt rate at the rim), St. Francis Brooklyn was chucking up bricks at an absurd rate. The Terriers do have a healthier Glenn Sanabria returning at the point with Rasheem Dunn off the ball. Dunn was Braica’s only off the dribble threat, but 5-foot-8 scorer Chauncey Hawkins should help immediately in that regard. The frontcourt is desperate for a healthy Johnson to return, but Milija Cosic could be the stretch 4 that Braica didn’t have last season (6-foot-3 Gunnar Olafsson was often left to play the 4), and Josh Nurse proved to be a serviceable rim protector when he could stay on the floor. The backcourt is solid for the Terriers, but someone needs to hit some shots and the defense has to improve, especially in the paint, if there’s any hope of qualifying for the NEC tournament.

OVERALL OUTLOOK: The NEC should once again be a jumbled mess, with the winner most likely being sent to Dayton. No other team is likely to qualify for the postseason outside of an automatic NIT bid situation with an "upset" in the conference tournament, although St. Francis was a somewhat surprising inclusion in the CIT after a few rejected invitations.

NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

ALL NEC FIRST TEAM:
Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson
Keith Braxton, St. Francis
Isaiah Blackmon, St. Francis
Joe Lopez, Sacred Heart
Junior Robinson, Mt. St. Mary’s

ALL NEC SECOND TEAM:
Romone Saunders, Wagner
Joel Hernandez, LIU
Adam Grant, Bryant
Dachon Burke, Robert Morris
Chris Wray, Mt. St. Mary’s

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