2020-21 NEC Basketball Preview

LWOS continues its conference previews with the 2020-21 NEC Basketball Preview. The Northeast Conference was taken by storm by Merrimack last season. The Warriors were brand new to Division I, and all they did was capture the regular-season title outright. Birmingham-Southern is the only other program to win a league title in their first D-I season. However, Merrimack will not surprise anyone this season. The Warriors will still be competitive, but there are a few other programs who should finish ahead of them this season.

2020-21 NEC Basketball Preview

10. Sacred Heart Pioneers

Key Returners: Aaron Clarke

Key Losses: E.J. Anosike, Koreem Ozier, Cam Parker

Key Newcomers: Quest Harris, Bryce Johnson, Matas Spokas

Sacred Heart enters 2020-21 without the bulk of its production from last season. That is a tough pill to swallow for a team that was competing for a league title just a year ago. The Pioneers are left with a roster full of youth and inexperience. The incoming talent has promise, but the freshmen will take their growing pains as they adjust to the college game. Sacred Heart is in rebuild mode and will look to try and stay out of last place.

9. Central Connecticut State Blue Devils

Key Returners: Ian Krishnan, Greg Outlaw, Myles Baker

Key Losses: Jamir Coleman

Key Newcomers: Wassef Methnani (Fairfield), Tre Mitchell (JUCO), Nigel Scantlebury (JUCO)

Central Connecticut State was one of the worst teams in Division I last season. However, they were also one of the youngest. Blue Devil fans are hoping that experience leads to some noticeable improvement for the 2020-21 season. Baker looks the most promising, making the all-freshman team after averaging 8.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game last season. CCSU still will not compete for a title this season, but they should be somewhat more competitive and could find their way out of a last-place finish.

8. Wagner Seahawks

Key Returners: Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Nigel Jackson

Key Losses: Curtis Cobb, Tyrone Nesby

Key Newcomers: Justin Brown (Chattanooga)

Wagner was another poor team out of the NEC last season. Most of last season’s group is returning, meaning they should be able to improve and learn from last season’s mistakes. Morales is Wagner’s best player, averaging 13.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game in 2019-20. While the Seahawks should see some improvement, they will still rely heavily on younger guys with a bulk of their minutes. Wagner continues to build for the future.

7. Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers

Key Returners: Damian Chong-Qui, Jalen Gibbs, Malik Jefferson

Key Losses: Vado Morse

Key Newcomers: Chimezie Offurum (George Washington), Josh Reaves, Quinton Mincey

Mount St. Mary’s had a lot of youth on its roster last season, leading to a seventh-place finish. A chunk of that talent returns this season, including Chong-Qui. He improved his scoring average by 5.4 points last season on his way to being named the league’s most improved player. This upcoming season will be his third as a starter, making him the unquestioned leader for the Mountaineers. This team still needs to develop bench depth, but should be improved overall and could move up the standings a few spots.

6. Merrimack Warriors

Key Returners: Devin Jensen, Mikey Watkins

Key Losses: Jaleel Lord, Juvaris Hayes, Idris Joyner

Key Newcomers: None

Merrimack was the feel-good story of the 2019-20 season. The Warriors captured the NEC regular-season title outright in their first year at the D-I level. Unfortunately, due to transitional team rules, that is as good as it would have gotten for them, being ineligible for the conference, NCAA, and NIT Tournaments. Now, the program has to deal with having a target on its back in year two. Last season’s team was senior-heavy, meaning they will be regrouping a bit here. There is still plenty of talent left, but they should crash back down to Earth a bit in 2020-21.

5. Bryant Bulldogs

Key Returners: Michael Green III, Charles Pride, Hall Elisias

Key Losses: Adam Grant, Benson Lin, Patrick Harding

Key Newcomers: Melo Eggleston (Arkansas State), Luis Hurtado (UAB), Peter Kiss (Rutgers), Luke Sutherland (Siena)

Bryant shifted towards a younger lineup last season as they looked towards the next few seasons to develop. Most of those players return, and the program has added some quality transfers as well. Green was named the top rookie in the NEC last season after averaging 9.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. Once Bryant finds the rotation that it likes, they should make a push towards the top half of the league.

4. Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash

Key Returners: Myles Thompson, Tyler Stewart, Mark Flagg

Key Losses: Isaiah Blackmon, Keith Braxton

Key Newcomers: None

The Red Flash were one of the favorites heading into last season and mostly lived up to that hype. A lot of that was due to the duo of Blackmon and Braxton, both ending up as first-teamers. Blackmon was also the NEC Player of the Year. Both of those outstanding players have moved on, leaving St. Francis to find players to step into starting roles. Key role players return and will be expected to shoulder more of a load. However, depth will be an issue, meaning this team will most likely take a small step back this season.

3. Saint Francis (NY) Terriers

Key Returners: Chauncey Hawkins, Unique McLean, Rob Higgins

Key Losses: Deniz Celen

Key Newcomers: Travis Atson (Quinnipiac), Vuk Stevanic (JUCO), Rheaquone Taylor (JUCO)

The New York-located St. Francis in this league is looking to make a big jump this season. The Terriers are bringing back a lot of experience, but also boost themselves with some junior college transfers and Atson. Hawkins is the team’s playmaker, averaging 15.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on his way to a third-team recognition. He is a candidate for the player of the year award this season. St. Francis should be the most improved team in the NEC and a sleeper for a league title.

2. Long Island Sharks

Key Returners: Tyrn Flowers, Jermaine Jackson Jr., Virshon Cotton

Key Losses: Raiquan Clark, Jashaun Agosto, Julian Batts

Key Newcomers: Tre Wood (Massachusetts), Alex Rivera (UMass-Lowell), Jake Cook

Long Island enters the season with a bunch of experience in the frontcourt and backcourt. They are also very deep, with a chance to have an eight-man rotation at a minimum. Flowers will throw his name into the mix for the player of the year honor after nearly averaging a double-double in points and rebounds last season. The Sharks were solid last season and will be even more improved this season. They are a contender for the NEC title.

1. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights

Key Returners: Jahlil Jenkins, Xzavier Malone, Elyjah Williams

Key Losses: Kaleb Bishop

Key Newcomers: None

Fairleigh Dickinson returns almost everyone from a team that finished in the middle of the league last season. Jenkins is the leader of the Knights. He can do a little bit of everything on both the offensive and defensive end of the court. Meanwhile, Williams will have to pick up the production that is lost from Bishop’s departure. However, there is a nice mix of experience and talented young guys to make FDU dangerous, making them LWOS’ preseason favorite in the NEC.

2020-21 NEC Basketball Preview Award Projections

Player of the Year: Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson

An argument can be made that Jenkins is the best player on the best team in the league. He averaged 16 points, three rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game last season, earning second-team honors. Jenkins also shot close to 40 percent from beyond the arc. In short, he can practically do it all. Do not be surprised if he wins games on his own at times for the Knights as they push for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Defensive Player of the Year: Tyrn Flowers, Long Island

Flowers is a force on the defensive end of the court. He averaged close to two blocks per game last season, daring opponents to drive into the lane. Flowers also crashes the defensive glass, averaging 7.7 defensive rebounds per game a season ago. He can make plays that fire the crowd up and allow the Sharks to go on runs by shutting down opposing teams. He should have a great shot at taking this award home.

Rookie of the Year: Dakota Leffew, Mount St. Mary’s

Leffew should get some playing time off the bench for the Mountaineers this season. He spent a prep year at Middle Georgia Prep where he averaged 21 points, six rebounds, six assists, and two steals per game. Those skills should translate well into the NEC, but he will take his lumps like most freshmen. Leffew should be able to make an impact and push for the rookie of the year honor.

Most Improved Player: Ziggy Reid, Merrimack

Ziggy Reid is one of the players that will be expected to step up with the losses the Warriors took on. He averaged 5.2 points and 2.2 rebounds over 19 minutes per game last season. Reid should take the next step, becoming a starter. Sophomore seasons are when players really break out, and he is a candidate for that kind of improvement.

Coach of the Year: Greg Herenda, Fairleigh Dickinson

Herenda is entering his eighth season at the helm for the Knights. He is looking to take FDU to their third NCAA appearance under his tutelage, and he certainly has the team to do it. The Knights should be able to improve upon their win total of 11 from last season. Heading up a conference championship squad should earn him this award.

All-Conference First-Team Projection: Jahlil Jenkins (Fairleigh Dickinson), Chauncey Hawkins (St. Francis NY), Damian Chong-Qui (Mount St. Mary’s), Tyrn Flowers (Long Island), Elyjah Williams (Fairleigh Dickinson)

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