Thursday , Nov , 03 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Northeast Conference

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

The Sports Network

By Ralph Lauro, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The Northeast Conference sent just one representative to the NCAA
Tournament last year and that was Fairleigh Dickinson, which won the league’s
tournament after finishing second in the conference standings. With a bevy of
talent returning from last year’s club, the Knights could be the first team in
12 years to repeat as NEC champion. They will certainly be pushed by Monmouth,
which claimed the regular season title last year. Wagner won 12 of its last 14
games a year ago and earned a berth in the conference championship game
following a 2-15 start to the season. They are certainly on the rise, as is
Long Island, which won its first NEC Tournament game in seven years last
season. The Blackbirds moved into a state-of-the-art athletic center this year
and with all five starters back in the fold they could make some noise. St.
Francis-NY also returns nearly every player from a year ago and should contend
for a league title. Central Connecticut State should contend for a winning
record in league play and may surprise a few teams along the way. Quinnipiac,
St. Francis-PA and Robert Morris must reload after suffering several key
departures, while St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart may have enough to slip out of
the bottom half of the league standings.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Fairleigh Dickinson

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Fairleigh Dickinson; 2. Monmouth; 3. Wagner; 4. Long Island; 5. St.
Francis-NY; 6. Central Connecticut State 7. Mount St. Mary’s; 8. Sacred
Heart; 9. Quinnipiac; 10. Robert Morris; 11. St. Francis-PA.

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON – The Knights peaked at the right time last season and
claimed their record fourth conference championship with a 58-52 victory over
Wagner in the NEC Tournament title game. With that came their first appearance
in the NCAA Tournament since the 1998 season. Although FDU was ousted in the
first round of the Big Dance, the season was deemed a success. The Knights
posted a 20-13 overall mark a year ago and with three starters back from that
team, FDU could be the first school to repeat as league champions since Rider
pulled off the trick in 1993 and 1994. Leading the way is Gordon Klaiber, who
is an all-around force. The 6-9 forward led the team in both scoring (16.0
ppg) and rebounding (7.9 rpg) last season and showed his range by also
knocking down 46 three-pointers. Joining him in the frontcourt is Andrea
Crosariol, who really came on late in the year and in the postseason. The 7-0
center has tremendous size and was more effective than his 7.7 ppg and 5.2 rpg
averages would indicate. Chad Timberlake is the lone returning starter in the
backcourt and is coming off a solid 2004-05 campaign in which he averaged 13.1
ppg and 3.8 rpg. Sophomore Bernell Murray (2.1 ppg) and Fordham transfer John
Blackgrove will share time at the point as well.

MONMOUTH – The Hawks have been one of the most successful teams in the league
the last several years and last season was no exception. Although the team
fell short of winning the NEC Tournament championship, Monmouth was still able
to earn its second regular season title in as many years. The team posted a
14-4 league mark and a 16-13 overall record last season, and with three
starters back in the fold the Hawks should contend for another league title.
Although the Hawks will sorely miss NEC Player of the Year Blake Hamilton, who
averaged 16.2 ppg last season, the team does welcome back the solid backcourt
duo of Tyler Azzarelli and Chris Kenny. Azzarelli turned in 8.3 ppg a year
ago, while Kenny did even better with 9.6 ppg. Marques Alston is the lone
returning starter in the frontcourt after contributing 8.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg
last season. He will be joined by Dejan Delic, who turned in 8.4 ppg off the
bench a year ago. The team should also benefit from newcomer John Bunch. The
7-2 center should give Monmouth a legit presence in the paint after leading
Division III in blocked shots two years ago.

WAGNER – The Seahawks could have easily packed it in after winning just twice
in their first 17 games, but instead the team rallied and reeled off 11 of 13
wins down the stretch en route to their second NEC Tournament title game
appearance in three years. Although Wagner lost a close battle to FDU in the
championship game, it gained some valuable experience and that should only aid
its four returning starters. Leading the charge is guard Mark Porter, who is
the team’s top returning scorer (11.2 ppg) from a year ago. Fellow returning
starter DeEarnest McLemore (9.1 ppg) will join Porter at the perimeter, giving
Wagner an experienced backcourt. Durell Vinson (7.9 ppg) and James Ulrich (4.9
rpg) return as starters to the frontcourt, but it is sixth-man Matt Vitale
(9.1 ppg) who has the most potential. A 6-6 forward, Vitale not only has the
skills to get to the basket, but he is also deadly from long range (.420
percent).

LONG ISLAND – After finishing in dead last of the NEC standings in 2003-04,
the Blackbirds completely turned things around last season, earning a tie for
fourth place with a 10-8 league ledger. All five starters are back from last
year’s bunch, making Long Island a sleeper to claim its first league title
since 1998. James Williams is without a doubt the key to the team’s success,
as he returns after leading the Blackbirds in scoring (16.3 ppg) as a
sophomore. Randy Jones (9.4 ppg) provided a nice complement to Williams last
season and there is no reason that he won’t do the same this time around. In
the frontcourt, Long Island lacks some size, but still boasts of talent in
the trio of Esa Maki-Tulokas, Aubin Scott and Kellen Allen. Maki-Tulokas
averaged 7.9 ppg and 6.0 rpg last season, while Scott turned in 6.6 ppg and
6.0 rpg. As for Allen, he netted 6.9 ppg, but needs to be much better than the
mere 3.4 rpg he pulled down.

ST. FRANCIS (NY) – The Terriers seem to be always near the top half of the NEC
standings, although the team is still searching for its first-ever NCAA
Tournament appearance. Former Seton Hall assistant Brian Nash takes over the
head coach duties from Ron Ganulin and inherits four returning starters from a
team that went 13-15 overall last season and 9-9 in league play. Allan
Sheppard (11.4 ppg) earned the NEC Rookie of the Year award last year and if
the 6-7 forward can elevate his play to another level there is no telling how
successful the Terriers could be in 2005-06. He isn’t the only weapon, as the
Terriers also welcome back a pair of solid reserves in Tristan Smith and
Christian Brown. Smith performed well after transferring from St. John’s and
averaged 11.3 ppg, while Brown did even better with 11.4 ppg. Juco transfer
Lex James at 6-9 should give St. Francis some much needed size in the low
post. Overall, the Terriers are deep and talented and should be one of the
more improved teams this season.

CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE – The Blue Devils have made five NEC Tournament
final appearance in the past nine years, but needed to win their final game of
the 2004-05 season just to reach the league tournament. The team’s 8-10 finish
was a complete disappointment for the Blue Devils, who return four starters
from a year ago. However, much like last season, the team is loaded with
backcourt talent but no real threat in the paint. Forward Obie Nwadike
averaged a healthy 11.2 ppg and 7.5 rpg last season, but at just 6-4 he was
one of the tallest players on the team. Redshirt freshman Jermaine Middleton
has tremendous size at 7-3, but he is still considered a project. With no
other real threat in the frontcourt the Blue Devils will need to rely on a
strong perimeter game led by the duo of DeMario Anderson and Lenny Jefferson.
Anderson has good size at 6-2 and is the team’s most explosive player,
averaging a solid 14.1 ppg. As for Jefferson, he is the team’s top three-point
threat and is coming off a solid campaign in which he averaged 10.2 ppg. If
the duo can produce again this year, the team’s lack of size may not be a
factor after all.

MOUNT ST. MARY’S – The Mountaineers were one of the worst defensive teams in
the league last season and because of that they finished second to last in the
NEC standings at 5-13. The team didn’t have much success out of conference
either, going just 2-7 again non-NEC members. On a positive note, the
Mountaineers do return four starters from last year’s club, although they
still lack size and depth. The team really needs Landy Thompson to return to
form if they hope to improve. The 6-1 guard led the team in scoring (14.4 ppg)
last season, but his average dropped by over 3.0 ppg from the previous
season. Joining Thompson at the perimeter will be Mychal Kearse, who is primed
for a breakout year after averaging 9.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg last season. Charles
Cook (12.2 ppg) and Kiel Butler (8.8 ppg) are both sound all-around players,
but neither has the height or moves to dominate in the low post. The
Mountaineers will need to count on their newcomers for size and depth, and
that could spell trouble.

SACRED HEART – After nearly posting their first-ever winning campaign at the
Division I level in 2003-04, the Pioneers completely fell off last season and
finished a dismal 4-23 overall. The team had next to no success in league play
and placed last in the conference with a 3-15 ledger. With five starters back
in the fold from last year’s team there is hope for a turnaround in 2005-06.
Heading the group of returning starters is Joey Henley, who is also a wide
receiver for the school’s football team. The 6-4 forward (12.3 ppg) came on
strong late last season and averaged 16.9 ppg over the final 14 games. Another
player that has a lot of talent is often-injured Kibwe Trim. The 6-10 center
has the size and skill to dominate a game, as he averaged 10.5 ppg and 5.4 rpg
last season, while shooting 53.8 percent from the field. If Trim can stay
healthy and become more consistent he could carry the Pioneers to the
postseason. Boston College transfer Tavio Hobson should give the team more
stability at the perimeter and will be paired up with Mike Parker, who
averaged 9.0 ppg and 4.3 apg as a junior last year.

QUINNIPIAC – The Bobcats have disappointed in each of the last two seasons and
finished their 2004-05 campaign in ninth place in the NEC standings at 6-12.
The team went just 10-17 overall and although it welcomes back three starters
from that club, it must find a way to replace Rob Monroe and his 22.7 ppg
average. Trying to fill his shoes will be John Winchester, who averaged 5.4
ppg, while playing at Tennessee last season. Craig Benson (12.3 ppg) should
help ease Winchester’s transition and give the team a legit scorer at the
perimeter. Up front the team is paced by the duo of Kevin Jolley and Karl
Anderson, who combined to average 19.0 ppg and 14.7 rpg a year ago. Several
newcomers will need to step up if the Bobcats hope to finish in the middle
of the NEC standings this season.

ROBERT MORRIS – The Colonials put forth another good season last year and
finished with their best league record (11-7) since 1999-00. However, there
will most likely be a big drop off this season, as Robert Morris welcomes back
just two starters and no reserves with any significant experience. Guards
Derek Coleman (8.2 ppg) and Tony Lee (7.9 ppg) are the two returning starters,
but must find a way to produce more points. A bevy of freshmen and transfers
will comprise the rest of the roster for Robert Morris. The most heralded of
the newcomers are A.J. Jackson and Steve Lancaster. Jackson transferred from
East Tennessee State and should remedy the board problems the team had last
season, while Lancaster, a juco transfer, will add a legit three-point threat.

ST. FRANCIS (PA) – The Red Flash finally got over the hump last season and
posted their first winning campaign since 1997-98 with a 15-13 mark. St.
Francis however, will have to rebuild this season after the departure of three
starters, including one of the program’s all-time greats in Darshan Luckey
(1,699 points). On a positive note, the Red Flash do return their backcourt in
Rahsaan Benton and Garrett Farha. Benton ranked third on the team in scoring
(11.4 ppg) last season, while Farha simply led the NEC in assists (6.9 apg).
J.R. Enright, a Nebraska transfer, has great size at 6-10, but averaged just
3.7 ppg in his first season with the Red Flash in 2004-05. His improvement
will go a long way for St. Francis, which lacks any real frontcourt presence.