2020-21 Northeast Conference Preview: FDU shines, Bryant surprises, Sacred Heart rebuilds

Originally written for College Hoops Digest

Co-Authored by Jake Zimmer and Dan Gardella

PICTURE CREDITS: FDU Athletics


As #PreviewSzn is in full-swing, College Hoops Digest proudly presents its 2020-21 NEC Season Preview. We ranked each team in the conference and made our selections for the Preseason All-First Team.


OUR RANKINGS:

  1. Fairleigh Dickinson

  2. Bryant

  3. LIU

  4. Mount St. Mary’s

  5. St. Francis (PA)

  6. Merrimack

  7. St. Francis Brooklyn

  8. Sacred Heart

  9. Wagner

  10. Central Connecticut


OUR PRESEASON ALL-FIRST TEAM:

Jahlil Jenkins (FDU)

Damian Chong Qui (MOUNT)

Chauncey Hawkins (SFBK)

Peter Kiss (BRY)

Ty Flowers (LIU)


TEAM PREVIEWS

#1, Fairleigh Dickinson: Who doesn’t love Greg Herenda? After a rather disappointing season for FDU after their conference title in 2018-19, the fun-loving eighth-year head coach should once again be well-positioned to compete for more hardware this year. Despite having some of the best offensive weapons in the NEC last year, the Knights’ defense proved yet again to be their kryptonite. FDU’s three best players – all seniors – will return after each averaged double-digit scoring performances in 2019-20. Herenda will not surprisingly look to Jahlil Jenkins (16 ppg in 2019-20), who is widely regarded as a potential Player of the Year candidate, to do the bulk of the scoring once more in 2020-21. Xzavier Malone-Key (12.4 ppg in 2019-20) stepped up bigtime last year, and will more than likely attempt to groom sophomore Devon Dunn into proving his worth as an everyday starting point/shooting guard once Jenkins’ time is up. FDU’s weakness will once again be its frontcourt; six-foot-seven Elyjah Williams will have to lead a youthful group of forwards in wake of Kaleb Bishop’s departure. The seven-footer Oscar Okeke is virtually a non-threat offensively, so look for Herenda to rely on redshirt-sophomore Marc Dadika to try to fill some of the paint minutes. Rookies Pier-Olivier Racine and John Square Jr. will compete for frontcourt minutes as well.


Here’s the skinny: if Fairleigh Dickinson’s big men can play halfway-decent defense and not have a total meltdown in the scoring department, they are the clear favorites to win the title this year. We just hope they don’t get scraped by Gonzaga in the first round of the Big Dance again.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Jahlil Jenkins, Devon Dunn, Brandon Powell

G/F: Xzavier Malone-Key

F: Elyjah Williams


#2, Bryant: The Bulldogs, bar none, are the sexiest team to love in the NEC. We know 3rd year head coach Jared Grasso’s story – his “hard work beats raw talent” style, his preference for New York City guards that will hit a 3-pointer in your face and smack-talk a defender on his way back to the other end of the court, and his ability to find diamonds in the rough from the most random junior colleges across the nation. If you don’t believe us, check out who the players voted as their captains. That’s right – a second-year JUCO transfer and two sophomores, one of them the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year. Pure grit.


Although the program revamp hasn’t directly translated into postseason success just yet, what can this Bryant team accomplish in 2020-21? One thing is for sure – Grasso and the ‘Dawgs will lean heavily on Michael Green III – who epitomizes the “smashmouth” New York City-style basketball – and JUCO transfer Chris Childs, who we wrote a feature on a few months ago. Green (the playmaker) and Childs (the sharpshooter) will be tasked with making up the points that irreplaceable graduate Adam Grant – one of the highest scorers in program history – leaves in his wake. With all the newcomers expected play major roles for the Bulldogs this year, it’s hard to list them all; but Rutgers transfer Peter Kiss seems to be the most prolific of them all. Expect for him and former Arkansas State guard/forward Melo Eggleston to be key parts of the Bulldogs’ success this year.


PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Mike Green, Chris Childs

G/F: Peter Kiss

F: Melo Eggleston, Hall Elisas


#3, LIU: The Sharks, recently rebranded from the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds, are out for vengeance after getting throttled in the NEC Semifinal by reigning champion Robert Morris, who won its last game ever in the conference before exiting for the Horizon League. While LIU loses one of the program’s best players in Raiquan Clark, they also lose two above-average scorers in Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts – so, Derek Kellogg has his work cut out for him this year. Ty Flowers is the clear-cut favorite to take a share of Clark’s offensive output; the redshirt-senior averaged 14.3 points per game last season, and is one of the conference’s most versatile forwards in recent history. Juniors Virshon Cotton and Jermaine Jackson, Jr. will look to fill the holes left by Agosto & Batts, while Eral Penn – who redshirted last year – is presumed to be the heir to Rai Clark’s spot in the frontcourt. The Sharks will also add Tre Wood from UMass, who is widely believed to be more of a threat from the wing than anything. If the rest of the guys on this roster can play defense like Ty Flowers can, LIU should once again be a lethal threat this year.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Virshon Cotton, Jermaine Jackson Jr., Tre Wood

F: Ty Flowers, Eral Penn


#4, Mount St. Mary’s: Even though they’ve failed to live up to their expectations over the past two seasons, it’s hard to deny the potential of Mount’s roster this year. We’ll learn a lot about third-year coach Dan Englestad and how he manages a roster that has clearly made leaps and bounds from year one of his tenure. Although Mount loses former NEC Rookie of the Year Vado Morse to the transfer market, it should be able to weaponize its returning backcourt talent with freshmen contributors. Five-foot-eight junior Damian Chong Qui will be the clear favorite to run point this year. Chong Qui’s versatility and quickness should be complemented nicely by the sharpshooting and physical senior Jalen Gibbs. We saw incoming freshman Josh Reaves play on a few occasions at Notre Dame High School in Connecticut – let’s just say Dan Englestad needs a reality check if Reaves is not routinely on the court this season. There’s also a legitimate argument that forwards Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson were two of the most improved sophomores in the conference last season. Look for Englestad’s group to be a tough out this year.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Damian Chong Qui, Jalen Gibbs, Josh Reaves

F: Nana Opoku, Malik Jefferson


#5, St. Francis (PA): The Red Flash never fail to fascinate us every single year. Although the era of one of the best players in program history, Keith Braxton, has concluded, Rob Krimmel will yet again boast one of the elite offenses in the conference. The holes left by Braxton and his high-octane counterpart Isaiah Blackmon (last season’s NEC Player of the Year) will certainly be tough to replace, but Krimmel can’t really be unoptimistic about the team he’s putting out on the floor in 2020-21. The six-foot-six junior Myles Thompson, who tallied 10.2 points per game a season ago, will undertake a lethal role for the Red Flash; a physical yet athletic swing guard that can unapologetically score in the paint & rebound. Look for senior forward Mark Flagg and redshirt-junior forward Tyler Stewart to step into the biggest roles they’ve had in their time at St. Francis – they’ll be tasked with shutting down opposing frontcourts in the same manner that they did all of last year. Despite what will most assuredly be a transformational shift in its offense, St. Francis stock should be a cheap buy with potential for big rewards.


PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Ramir Dixon-Conover, Maxwell Land

G/F: Myles Thompson

F: Tyler Stewart, Mark Flagg


#6, Merrimack: What if we told you that the Warriors, who were one of the nation’s most fun and uplifting stories last year, have a problem? Merrimack took the league by storm last year, and squeaked out a regular-season conference championship with their 14-4 record against NEC foes. Unfortunately, being their first year in Division I, they were ineligible for postseason play, so their 69-58 win against CCSU on February 27th became their final game of 2020. Picked to finish dead last in the NEC preseason poll, Merrimack surprised us all with their lethal defense; according to KenPom, a whopping 14.5% of their opponents’ possessions ended with a Merrimack steal; that’s one of the highest percentages in the nation.


But pundits believe the reason for the defensive prowess exhibited by the Warriors last year was in large part to the nation’s steals leader, Juvaris Hayes, who graduated this past year. While head coach Joe Gallo – who recently signed a multi-year extension according to CBS Sports – certainly has mastered the “two-guard offense” coupled with a defense-first system, he’ll need to sharpen up the tools to compete without Hayes and the other 3 starters that Merrimack loses into 2020-21. We should see the Warriors look to junior Mikey Watkins to bolster the scoring this year; he played most of his minutes off-the-ball while Hayes marshaled the floor, but Gallo’s confidence in Watkins this year seems to be quite high. The rest of the backcourt looks shaky for Merrimack this year, but expect three-point threat Devin Jensen (141 attempts from downtown last year) and Mykel Derring to pick up some of the slack. Six-foot-eight sophomore Jordan Minor should see solid minutes in the frontcourt, along with Ziggy Reid.


PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Mikey Watkins, Devin Jansen, Mykel Derring

G/F: Ziggy Reid

F: Jordan Minor


#7, St. Francis Brooklyn: Brooklyn is one of the more interesting teams in the NEC, year in and year out. In large part, 11th-year head coach Glenn Braica’s old-school New York-style attitude is believed to be the most contributing factor as to why the Terriers can even compete in the first place. A group that played faster than the average national pace last year will look to reprise their quickness in 2020-21, anchored by its leading scorer and quickest player: the scrappy five-foot-eight senior, Chauncey Hawkins. An All-NEC Third Team selection last year, Hawkins shoots the ball a lot – he doesn’t have a great field goal percentage (especially his dismal 27% from downtown over his career), but he shot well enough to score north of 15 points per game. All-NEC Rookie selection Rob Higgins and redshirt-senior Unique McLean (yes, that’s his first name) look to round out a pretty decent backcourt – both averaged double-digits last year. Realistically, unless we see significant defensive changes, a massive improvement from forward Yaya Evans, and JUCO transfer Rheaquone Taylor surprises in his first year with the program, this could be another tough season for St. Francis Brooklyn.


PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Chauncey Hawkins, Rob Higgins, Unique McLean

F: Yaya Evans, Rheaquone Taylor


#8, Sacred Heart: Just when you thought Sacred Heart was returning to its glory days, the signs of promise vanish as quickly as they arrived. Give Anthony Latina the credit he deserves; he led the Pioneers to its first 20-win season in program history, something that his predecessor Dave Bike never was able to accomplish at the Division I level. The Pioneers were ready to make a big splash in 2020-21 – elite passer Cam Parker was set to return after an injury, sharpshooter Koreem Ozier had settled his off-the-court troubles, and EJ Anosike had a legitimate case for the conference’s best power forward. With the blink of an eye, all 3 of them transferred (for the record, Anosike may start at Tennessee!), and Latina was left to start at square one. Sacred Heart will lean heavily on junior guard Aaron Clarke, who was third on the team in scoring in 2019-20; he proved himself as both a reliable point guard & off-ball option. Look for freshman Quest Harris to make an impact in year one when Latina wants Clarke in an off-ball role. Height will most certainly be the issue for the Pios this year – forward Zach Pfaffenberger will miss the season with an Achilles tear, and there’s really no clear option for his replacement. JUCO transfer Cantavio Dutreil, who played for the iconic Trinity Catholic (Stamford, CT) coach Mike Walsh, could prove to be the solution in the paint if he can eat up minutes.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Aaron Clarke, Zach Radz, Quest Harris

F: Nico Galette, Cantavio Dutreil


#9, Wagner: Fresh off its worst season since 2010, Bashir Mason seems to be in a Groundhog Day-like loop of gutting & restacking the Wagner Seahawks. Last season, in particular, is one that Wagner would like to forget; it finished second-to-last in the NEC, only ahead of a dismal Central Connecticut team. The good news? Wagner only loses out on one or two starters (depending on how you viewed last year’s team) in combo guards Curtis Cobb and Tyrone Nesby; neither of them had statistically significant seasons to the point that their presence will be missed. Look for redshirt senior Alex Morales (13.6 ppg last year) to anchor the team this year, rounded out by senior Nigel Jackson and redshirt-junior Chattanooga transfer Justin Brown. The bad news? Four of Wagner’s five projected starters will graduate after this year; so, if the Seahawks can’t squeeze any life out of this season’s crew, there most assuredly will be dark days ahead for this program.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Chase Freeman, Alex Morales, Elijah Ford

F: Nigel Jackson, Justin Brown


#10, Central Connecticut: When does the clock run out on former UConn standout-turned-coach Donyell Marshall? What originally was viewed as a big opportunity for the Blue Devils to climb their way out of the bottom of the bucket in the post-Howie Dickenman days has soured with four more seasons of below-average basketball. Last year was the Blue Devils’ worst season in program history; their 4-27 record featured a single non-conference win (mind you, against a Division 3 school). The silver lining? Hard Hittin’ New Britain has a very young core, and brings back virtually every starter they had in 2020-21. Look for sophomores Greg Outlaw and Myles Baker to break out if Central Connecticut has a prayer of not stumbling through the year.


PROJECTED STARTERS:

G: Greg Outlaw, Myles Baker, Ian Krishnan

F: Xavier Wilson, Karrington Wallace

​© 2020 by House Enterprise.

A Jake Zimmer and Will Tondo creation.

Based in Providence, Rhode Island

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