The Northeast Conference has long made its mark as a highly competitive conference whose best teams fit the little-engine-that-could mold. While all of that held up this season, there is something else to add right now: the conference has a lot of good talent that will be returning to make it better.
While Wagner won the conference by two games, a three-way tie followed, and in all seven teams were separated by three games after the Seahawks. While Bryant and Central Connecticut didn’t make the conference tournament and were further back, the Bulldogs won road games at conference champion Fairleigh Dickinson as well as Mount St. Mary’s and LIU Brooklyn, and the Blue Devils won at Robert Morris – always a tough place to win even in a down year for the Colonials – and beat Mount St. Mary’s in New Britain.
Speaking of Bryant, while the Bulldogs were decidedly down this year after a nice run, there is every reason to see this season as an aberration. The Bulldogs have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Marcel Petway and another member of the All-Rookie team in guard Nisre Zouzoua, as well as an emerging star in Hunter Ware, plus steady forward Dan Garvin. That’s a solid group to start with entering next season, even as a number of other teams will return a lot.
The NEC was driven by underclassmen this season, with Player of the Year and scoring champion Cane Broome being a sophomore. The down side is that he transferred to Cincinnati after the season, but the conference still has plenty coming back. Three of the five first-team All-NEC selections were underclassmen, including Broome, while all five members of the second team and two more members of the third team were as well. To make things even better, six of those underclassmen were sophomores. The All-Rookie team was a solid group this year as well.
All of that points to a brighter future. The conference already had some good young coaches like Bashir Mason (Wagner), Jamion Christian (Mount St. Mary’s) and Andy Toole (Robert Morris), along with some who have been in the game longer and made their mark like Greg Herenda (Fairleigh Dickinson) and Tim O’Shea (Bryant). Now the conference has a lot of upside with the young talent that will return, even with Broome’s transfer.
After the season, one school saw a coaching change, and it wasn’t a shocker. Long-time Central Connecticut head coach Howie Dickenman retired after a long and successful 21-year run, though the program had trended downward the final few years of his tenure. Former UConn star Donyell Marshall, most recently an assistant coach at Buffalo, was hired to take over.
|St. Francis Brooklyn||11-7||15-17|
|Mount St. Mary’s||10-8||14-19|
|Saint Francis U||9-9||13-17|
One thing that makes the NEC Tournament different from most others is that they re-seed after each round, and that came into play again this season. It started with the quarterfinals, as two road teams won. The top two seeds took care of business at home, with No. 1 Wagner ousting No. 8 Robert Morris 59-50 and No. 2 Fairleigh Dickinson edging No. 7 Saint Francis U 74-72 in a back-and-forth game that featured a monster game from Saint Francis U forward Ronnie Drinnon, as he had 21 points and an NEC Tournament record 22 rebounds. No. 6 LIU Brooklyn went to No. 3 Sacred Heart and scored an 84-76 win, while No. 5 Mount St. Mary’s again showed their ability to win on the road in the tournament under Jamion Christian by winning at No. 4 St. Francis Brooklyn 60-51.
The semifinals included the only game in the tournament decided by double digits. Fairleigh Dickinson held off Mount St. Mary’s 80-75 and Wagner comfortably took care of LIU 81-65.
That set up a championship game between two rivals from across the Hudson. Darian Anderson scored 28 points and tournament MVP Earl Potts Jr. added 27 points to carry Fairleigh Dickinson to an 87-79 win over host Wagner to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years. It marked the second straight year that the top seed was defeated at home by the No. 2 seed in the championship game.
Player of the Year: Cane Broome, Sacred Heart
Rookie of the Year: Marcel Pettway, Bryant
Coach of the Year: Bashir Mason, Wagner
Defensive Player of the Year: Amdy Fall, St. Francis Brooklyn
Most Improved Player: Earl Potts Jr., Fairleigh Dickinson
Cane Broome, So. G, Sacred Heart
Ronnie Drinnon, Sr. F, Saint Francis U
Jerome Frink, Jr. F, LIU Brooklyn
Martin Hermannsson, So. G, LIU Brooklyn
Rodney Pryor, Sr. G, Robert Morris
- Scoring champion and Player of the Year Cane Broome was eighth in the country in scoring.
- Saint Francis U forward Ronnie Drinnon was the only player in the conference to average a double-double.
- Mount St. Mary’s was third in the country in both turnover margin and turnovers forced.
- Fairleigh Dickinson went 3-0 in overtime games, two coming on the road.
What we expected, and it happened: Central Connecticut struggled in what proved to be Howie Dickenman’s final season. Ever since 2011-12, when Ken Horton and Robbie Ptacek led a group that also had some young talent, they had trended downward, so it was just a matter of time.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Although there was hardly a clear favorite in the preseason, Mount St. Mary’s was picked to win and finished fifth. It’s not as if they flopped, but they were a bit below the preseason poll and a bit of a surprise. The positive is that they are playing the way Jamion Christian wants them to, so if you’re a Mount fan you have to like what you’re seeing in the aggregate.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Robert Morris finished eighth. The Colonials have been contenders for the top in most years, and they were perhaps due for a down year, though few probably expected this, especially since they were picked second in the preseason poll.
Team(s) on the rise: Bryant. The Bulldogs were down this year due to youth, but this experience should pay off as early as next year with the young talent they have. The big question will be if they can replace the leadership and toughness of Shane McLaughlin, who was a rock and then some this season.
Team(s) on the decline: Robert Morris. Long the standard bearer for the conference, the Colonials fell to eighth place this year, and next year doesn’t look much better at first glance. Let this serve as the latest example of how hard it is to keep the winning going, as well as how remarkable runs like the one this program was on for a while really are.
2016-17 Northeast Conference Outlook
For starters, you can count on the NEC being highly competitive, and there’s also reason to believe the conference will be better overall next year. There is too much talent and experience returning for that not to happen, even with Broome’s departure and that of a few other good players.
We can start with the reigning champions, as Greg Herenda has rebuilt Fairleigh Dickinson quickly. Darian Anderson and Earl Potts Jr. lead a solid cast that won big a year earlier than many expected, though Marques Townes’ transfer to Loyola (Ill.) doesn’t help. Wagner should be right on their heels with the backcourt of Corey Henson and Michael Carey, while LIU has their own dynamic duo. All three teams figure to contend for the top. Mount St. Mary’s may be the X-factor, as they lose two key seniors and B.K. Ashe transferred, but diminutive Junior Robinson returns to lead a team that will be more experienced and deeper.
The team that could make a jump in the standings is Bryant, with their young core noted earlier. Sacred Heart loses the reigning Player of the Year and St. Francis Brooklyn loses a couple of key starters, so at first glance they take hits. Robert Morris should look a little different after watching several players transfer out of the program. Central Connecticut will begin the long road to rebuilding under new head coach Donyell Marshall, and will probably be a year or two away from a talent standpoint as the new staff starts doing their work.
In all, the conference looks to be better, and should demonstrate that first in non-conference play before what should be an even more competitive conference race than we usually see.