The ten member Northeast Conference allows its top eight teams to participate in the conference tournament for a shot at the automatic bid, with all games being played at the home court of the higher seed. Last season, Mount St. Mary’s turned a fourth place regular season finish into an appearance in the First Four by winning the tournament. While the Mountaineers fell to Albany in their First Four game, they certainly earned their spot in the NCAAs by picking up NEC Tournament semifinal and championship game victories on the road at #2 seed Wagner and at #1 seed Robert Morris.
The Mount loses their top three scorers from last season and looks like they may struggle to even finish in the top eight this year. However, the conference race appears to be wide open, with at least five different teams having a legitimate chance to dance. Central Connecticut State is our current pick to win the bid (assuming leading returning scorer Kyle Vinales plays), but Bryant (led by perhaps the conference’s best player in Dyami Starks), Robert Morris (defending regular season champions who played in the NIT last season), St. Francis-PA (with defending NEC Rookie of the Year Malik Harmon) and St. Francis-Brooklyn (led by the dangerous Jalen Cannon) all have legitimate title hopes. The wide open nature of this conference race should lead to an exciting regular season and perhaps an even more exciting conference tournament this season.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Central Connecticut State: The Blue Devils return their top six players from last season, including Vinales and shot blocking specialist Brandon Peel. Vinales, however, is currently facing a possible suspension after being arrested this past week. Assuming he plays, at least during the conference season, this team has all the tools to win the conference title.
2. Bryant: Starks together with a solid cast of returning players should be enough to compensate for the loss of their second and third best scorers from last season.
3. Robert Morris: When your team’s best player is named Lucky Jones, you know that luck has to be on your side. The Colonials should be right back in the mix for a third straight regular season crown.
4. St. Francis-PA: Earl Brown averaged over 14 points per game last season, and with Harmon in his sophomore year and two other returning starters, a major improvement over last season’s 10-21 record is expected.
5. St. Francis-Brooklyn: JC transfer Tyreek Jewell should be a huge addition this year, and with players such as Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones returning, the Terriers could have a shot at finally getting their first ever NCAA tournament bid.
6. Fairleigh Dickinson: Mustafaa Jones is the only senior of note on this team, but if the young talent comes together around him, the Knights could surprise.
7. Wagner: The Seahawks only return one starter from last season’s second place team, making a return to the upper division very difficult. Expect Marcus Burton to lead the team as he moves into the starting lineup.
8. Sacred Heart: Evan Kelly and De’von Barnett will be the best two players on this team, but just qualifying for the NEC tournament may be the ceiling this year.
9. Mount St. Mary’s: With their top three players all gone, this team (which was only 13-16 before the NEC tournament) will most likely slide down even further in the standings and could struggle to just finish in the top eight.
10. Long Island University-Brooklyn: Gerrell Martin and Landon Atterberry will help keep the Blackbirds in games, but two of their top three scorers from last season are gone off of a team that lost 20 games.