Thursday , Nov , 11 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Northeast Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Northeast Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Ralph Lauro, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Last season was the year of the Hawk, as Monmouth split the
regular season crown and won the Northeast Conference Tournament title for the
second time in the past four years. As a result of winning the NEC Tournament,
the Hawks earned an invite to the NCAA Tournament, where they were defeated by
SEC power Mississippi State (85-52). Monmouth is considered a favorite to
repeat as this year’s NEC champion, but will be pushed by a very talented
Fairleigh Dickinson squad, which finished third in the league standings last
season. Central Connecticut State, which lost to Monmouth in the league
tournament championship game, also has a shot of taking the crown this season,
despite the departure of the NEC Player of the Year Ron Robinson. St. Francis
(PA) and Robert Morris finished in the middle of the league standings last
season and with several key players returning they could do even better this
time around. Mount St. Mary’s fielded one of the youngest teams in the league
last season, and with a year of experience it should do better than its 8-10
finish in NEC play. St. Francis (NY) finished in a tie for first place with
Monmouth during the regular season, but with the departure of several key
players it may do no better than the middle of the pack in 2004-05. As for
Wagner and Sacred Heart, they both return just two starters from a year ago
and that may lead to another losing season. Quinnipiac and Long Island both
failed to qualify for the NEC Tournament last season and the same is expected
this year, as both teams lack the overall talent to change their fate.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Monmouth

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Monmouth; 2. Fairleigh Dickinson; 3. Central
Connecticut State; 4. St. Francis (PA); 5. Mount St. Mary’s; 6. Robert
Morris; 7. St. Francis (NY); 8. Wagner; 9. Sacred heart; 10. Quinnipiac; 11.
Long Island

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

MONMOUTH – The Hawks won a share of their first-ever NEC regular season crown
last year by finishing league play with a 12-6 ledger. The team went an
impressive 21-12 overall which includes a perfect 13-0 mark at home. Monmouth
has won a league-best 75 games over the past four seasons and with three
starters returning from a year ago it should have no trouble adding to that.
Forward Blake Hamilton’s health could determine just how successful the Hawks
are in 2004-05. Blake, who averaged 16.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg a year ago, suffered
a broken bone in his left leg in June, but is expected to be fully recovered.
Marques Alston (4.8 ppg) and Deki Delic (3.2 ppg) will fight for a starting
spot in the frontcourt, as will 6-10 Corey Hallett, who transferred from
Central Michigan. While the frontcourt may have some questions there is no
denying the strength of the team’s perimeter players in Dwayne Byfield and
Tyler Azzarelli. Byfield, who battled through several injuries last season,
averaged 12.3 ppg, while Azzarelli chipped in with 3.8 ppg and 2.0 apg.

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON – The Knights finished just one game back of Monmouth and
St. Francis (NY) in the NEC regular season standings at 11-7, but a loss in
the quarterfinal round of the league tournament ended their season on a sour
note. Still, FDU was just one of three NEC teams to finish with a winning
overall mark, as it posted a 17-12 ledger. With seven of their top nine
scorers back from a year ago, the Knights have a serious shot of winning their
first NEC Tournament since 1998. First-Team all-league forward Gordon Klaiber
leads a talented and deep group of players after averaging 16.5 ppg and 6.4
rpg in 2003-04. He will be joined in the frontcourt by fellow starter Gadi
Buch, who averaged 6.2 ppg a year ago. Three sophomore forwards in Andre
Harris (4.7 ppg), Michael Peeples (3.3 ppg) and Jordan Ingram were brought
along slowly last season, but will be counted on greatly this time around. The
backcourt is where the Knights’ should excel with the return of Chad
Timberlake and Tamien Trent. Timberlake averaged 11.5 ppg and 4.4 rpg last
season, while Trent produced 12.0 ppg and 3.1 rpg off the bench. The two
should give FDU one of the premier backcourts in the NEC this season.

CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE – The Blue Devils finished .500 overall (14-14) and
in league play (9-9) last season by winning nine of their last 12 games. The
team even reached the NEC Tournament final before bowing out to Monmouth. With
four starters returning from a year ago, the Blue Devils have the talent to
make a run at their fifth NEC Tournament final appearance in the past eight
seasons. The Blue Devils however, must replace NEC Player of the Year Ron
Robinson, who graduated after averaging 18.0 ppg and 9.7 rpg last season.
Forwards Rich Pittman and Obie Nwadike are coming off successful seasons and
will be the main focus of the frontcourt this year. Pittman averaged 10.3 ppg
and 5.6 rpg a year ago, while Nwadike added 7.5 ppg and 6.6 rpg. They will be
aided by the additions of 6-11 juco transfer Ingo Beaudet and 7-3 freshman
Jermaine Middleton. The trio of Lenny Jefferson, Javier Mojica and Justin
Chiera give Central Connecticut State a talented and deep backcourt. Jefferson
and Mojica were starters last season and combined for 14.6 ppg, while Chiera
added 10.2 ppg off the bench. DeMario Anderson will also see significant time
at the perimeter after averaging 7.7 ppg in a reserve role last season.

ST. FRANCIS (PA) – The Red Flash were so close to posting their first winning
season since 1997-98 last year, but finished two games under .500 at 13-15.
Still, the team finished with a winning record in league play at 10-8, which
was good enough for a tie for fourth place. With three starters and several
key reserves returning from last year’s club, St. Francis should finish in the
upper half of the league standings once again. The Red Flash will be led by
guard Darshan Luckey, who averaged 17.6 ppg and 4.5 rpg last season. Joey
Goodson will join Luckey at the perimeter after averaging 6.4 ppg and 2.8 rpg
in a starting roll last season. The backcourt should benefit greatly from a
much improved inside game which includes the likes of Jason Osborne and J.R.
Enright. As a starter last season, Osborne scored 12.1 ppg, while also pulling
down a team-best 6.6 rpg. As for Enright, he is a 6-9 250-pound Nebraska
transfer who should have an immediate impact in his first season at St.
Francis. Forwards Rodney Gibson (4.4 ppg) and Chris Jones (2.3 ppg) will also
see an increase in playing time after playing pivotal roles off the bench last
season.

MOUNT ST. MARY’S – After a 2-7 start in league play, the Mountaineers won six
of their last nine games, including three straight in the final week of the
regular season to complete an improbable charge and swipe the final NEC
Tournament berth, snapping a three-year postseason drought. Mount St. Mary’s
accomplished this feat while fielding one of the youngest teams in the
conference for the second straight year. With four starters returning from
last year’s club the Mountaineers should have no trouble doing better than
their 10-19 overall finish. The team is paced by guard Landy Thompson, who
averaged a team-best 17.7 ppg last season to ago along with 3.7 rpg. He will
be joined on the perimeter by Mychal Kearse, who added 6.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg a
year ago. In the frontcourt a pair of starting forwards return in Charles Cook
and Kiel Butler. Cook averaged 8.4 ppg and 2.3 rpg last season, while Butler
out did him with 11.1 ppg and 4.2 rpg. Jason Epps (6-8) and 6-11 freshman
Jason Loughry give Mount St. Mary’s much needed depth and size in the low
post.

ROBERT MORRIS – After a disappointing 2002-03 campaign, Robert Morris won 14
games (the program’s most since 1999-00) last season and advanced to the NEC
Tournament semifinals for the first time since losing in the 2000 title game.
With three starters back from last year’s team, which finished in a tie for
fourth place (10-8) in the NEC standings, Robert Morris may be primed for a
run towards the league title. Forward Chaz McCrommon and guard Maurice Carter
give the Colonials a one-two punch that is unmatched by any NEC team.
McCrommon averaged a team-best 17.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg last season, while Carter
added 14.9 ppg and 3.4 rpg. Derek Coleman will join Carter in the backcourt
after averaging 4.4 ppg and 2.1 apg as a starter last season. Forward Mark
Anderson will make the leap from a reserve roll to a starting one this season
after averaging 8.6 ppg and 4.6 rpg off the bench last year. JUCO transfer
Jakeel Gary, who is 6-7, should give the Colonials an added boost in the low
post.

ST. FRANCIS (NY) – The Terriers won a share of the NEC regular season title
for the second time since 1998 last season with a record of 12-6. St. Francis,
which have been averaging over 17 wins per season since 1998, also finished
over .500 overall at 15-13. The team however, had a disappointing finish to
the year, as it was upset by seventh-seeded Central Connecticut State in the
quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament. With the transfer of leading scorer John
Quintana and the graduation of number-two scorer Mike Wilson, it would appear
the Terriers would be in trouble this season. However, with St. John’s
transfer Tristan Smith and the return of guard Tori Cavalieri, St. Francis may
not be in that bad of shape after all. Smith saw limited time for the Red
Storm, but is expected to have a big impact in the Terriers’ lineup. As for
Cavalieri, he is as solid a distributor as there is in the NEC and averaged
9.8 ppg and 5.8 rpg a year ago. Sean Dantzler (7.0 ppg) and Christian Brown
(7.8 ppg) are tremendous three-point shooters and give the Terriers an
extremely deep backcourt. Up front is where St. Francis has a lot of question
marks with just one starter returning in Devon Neckles. Last season, Neckles
led the NEC in blocked shots (52), while also averaging 7.1 ppg and 5.5 rpg.

WAGNER – After winning the regular season crown and NEC Tournament title in
2002-03, the Seahawks fell off a bit last season finishing in a tie for fourth
place at 10-8. The team’s overall mark of 13-16 was also a step back from the
previous season when it went an impressive 21-10. With the loss of three
starters, who accounted for almost 50 percent of the scoring last season, the
Seahawks four-year run of NEC Tournament berths will surely be in danger this
year. Forward Sean Munson will be burdened with most of the load this year
after averaging 9.1 ppg and 8.6 rpg last season. Swingman Jamal Webb, the
team’s only other returning starter, will also have to do better than his 6.0
ppg average from 2003-04. Reserves DeEarnest McLemore (3.2 ppg), Durell Vinson
(2.6 ppg) and Jerome Day (2.1 ppg) will have expanded roles in 2004-05 and how
they react will surely determine how successful Wagner is.

SACRED HEART – Last season would have been a historical one for Sacred Heart
had it ended two weeks early. Instead, four consecutive defeats to close out
the year robbed the Pioneers of their first-ever winning campaign (12-15) at
the Division I level, and more importantly dropped them out of NEC playoff
contention. Sacred Heart led the NEC is scoring last season (73.6 ppg), but
cancelled that out with a last-place showing on the defensive end (77.6 ppg).
With just two starters back from a year ago, the Pioneers are looking at
another finish in the lower half of the NEC standings. The team will be strong
up front with the return of starting forwards Kibwe Trim and Joey Henley and
reserve center Mading Mading. Trim averaged 10.6 ppg and 4.8 rpg a year ago,
while Henley contributed 8.7 ppg and 5.4 rpg. As for Mading, he has tremendous
size at 7-2 and that allowed him to lead the club with 40 blocked shots last
season. Jarrid Frye is the club’s most experienced player in the backcourt
after averaging 6.6 ppg off the back in 2003-04. He will be joined by 6-4
freshman Drew Shubik, who will have to play above and beyond expectations if
Sacred Heart is to enjoy its first-ever winning season in the NEC.

QUINNIPIAC – The Bobcats were the most disappointing team in the NEC last
season, as they finished in 10th place after being tabbed the preseason
favorite by numerous publications to win the league title. The club finished
just 5-13 in league play and 9-20 overall, including losses in nine of its
last 10 games. With two of the team’s top scorers gone from a year ago, the
Bobcats may miss the NEC Tournament for the second straight season. The team
does welcome back Rob Monroe, who is a superior penetrator and averaged 15.5
ppg and 5.2 apg last season. Craig Benson will pair up with Monroe on the
perimeter after averaging 7.9 ppg as a starter in 2003-04. Van Crafton will
also see time in the backcourt and is the team’s top three-point threat,
making 42.0 percent of his attempts last season. Up front C.J. Vick is clearly
the team’s most experienced and successful player, as he contributed 9.8 ppg
and 6.6 rpg last season.

LONG ISLAND – The Blackbirds finished in last place in the NEC standings last
season with just four wins against 14 losses. However, two of those wins came
against league co-champions Monmouth and St. Francis (NY). Still the team
finished just 8-19 overall which included a league-worst 1-13 road mark. This
season three starters are welcomed back, including the 2003-04 NEC Rookie of
the Year James Williams. The 5-10 guard averaged 11.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg last
season and with a year of experience under his belt he should do even better
in 2004-05. Guard Aubin Scott also returns after a solid freshman campaign in
which he averaged 4.8 ppg and 2.5 rpg. Evan Meekins, yet another sophomore,
gives the Blackbirds some depth in the backcourt after contributing 6.6 ppg
off the bench a year ago. Up front the squad is paced by Esa Maki-Tulokas, who
averaged 8.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg. Derek Bell (6.9 ppg and 4.6 rpg) and Eugene
Kotorobia (6.6 ppg and 4.7 rpg) will move into starting roles in the
frontcourt after seeing time off the bench last season. With nine players
being either freshmen or sophomores, Long Island is another year away from
moving up in the NEC standings.