by Jake Zimmer

Two months are in the books in the 2019-20 season. Here are the top 5 things we’ve learned about the Northeast Conference through November and December.

1. Bryant is good. We’ve talked a lot about the Bulldogs’ successes so far this year, and there’s significant evidence that Jared Grasso’s plan to make Bryant a respectable program is well-ahead of schedule. Their current 219 KenPom ranking is the highest mark they’ve achieved since January 2015.  Junior college transfer Hall Elisias is the most efficient blocker in the nation – while on the floor, he’s knocked away 18% of his opponents’ shots. He’s also only 6-foot-7, which makes him the shortest on the list of the top-10 most efficient blockers…while still retaining the #1 title.  If the Bulldogs win on Sunday against #13 Maryland, they will have a five-game winning streak for only the second time in program history. That’s not enough? Their 8 non-conference wins are tied for most in their D1 program history, and the most of any school in Rhode Island – sorry, Providence and URI. 

2. Merrimack is better than we thought. The Warriors were picked to finish last in their inaugural year in Division I, but we quickly realized that fourth-year head coach Joe Gallo – who was an assistant coach at Robert Morris prior – had bigger plans for his team.  All we really knew was that senior Juvaris Hayes would be expected to carry the load of the team’s offensive production – he led the team with over 19 points-per-game in his final DII campaign last year. But the Warriors are also enjoying great contributions from freshman Jordan Minor, whose utilization is the most on the team (essentially, Minor is involved in some way in more than 25% of the team’s possessions). Minor’s offensive rebounding percentage (19.1%) is also 5th in the nation.

 3. We expected more from the preseason favorites. As of December 23, only two of the teams that received votes to finish in the top-4 of the league actually reside there.  The LIU Sharks (formerly LIU-Brooklyn, also formerly repped the Blackbirds logo) were the favorites to win the league – well, at least 5 of the 11 coaches in the NEC thought so. Instead, they only snatched up 4 wins; two of them came against teams that were ranked 300+ in KenPom standings.  Their tough schedule finally gets a break against D3 Centenary College, then Mount. St. Mary’s and Central Connecticut, who find themselves in the bottom-three of the NEC standings so far. We also were surprised by the start of the reigning champions Fairleigh Dickinson, who will exit non-conference play at a dismal 2-9.  The Knights graduated their two best players in true-point guard Darnell Edge and tough-as-nails power forward Mike Holloway; their void is simply too much to be filled by junior Xzavier Malone-Key (6’4” guard) and senior Kaleb Bishop (6’8” forward). We’ll have to see if junior guard Jahlil Jenkins, who many thought was the number-two to Darnell Edge last year, can adjust to conference play and be the player that crowd-favorite head coach Greg Herenda needs him to be.

4. Central Connecticut has seen much better days. If you don’t win, you can’t make the playoffs. That’s not a concept that’s quite familiar for second-year head coach Donyell Marshall, who played in five NCAA Tournament games during his record-breaking stint at UConn in the early 1990s.  His 2019-20 Central Connecticut team now is quite far from the 90’s Huskies. Their winless 0-12 record puts them dangerously close to being the worst team in the nation. Games haven’t even been close – with the exception of two consecutive 2-point games in early December, CCSU hasn’t lost to a team by less than 14 points. This past offseason, the Blue Devils lost Tyler Kohl to graduation and junior Joe Hugley to the transfer portal; the two best players on the team accounted for a good chunk of the offensive output in 2018-19.  Now, it’s up to a lineup that is almost entirely freshmen, with the exception of senior center Jamir Coleman. With a schedule that doesn’t get any easier, we’ll have to see what positives Donyell Marshall can squeeze out of his young crew.

 5. It’s anyone’s conference. The biggest takeaway from the first two months of non-conference play is that nearly any team has a legitimate chance to make a run at the NEC title. While Bryant currently sits atop the conference, many teams below them are realistic options to become the NEC frontrunners in the weeks to come. Namely, the Sacred Heart Pioneers look like the team they’ve been aiming to be for years past. With their only flukes coming at the hands of dispatches from UConn & Providence and a freak loss at Binghamton, the Pioneers have some impressive wins against Brown and Quinnipiac.  Koreem Ozier (14.9 points-per-game) is only boosting his resume with every game, and sophomore Cameron Parker recently dropped a program-high 24 assists against Pine Manor – both are nice complements to junior forward E.J. Anosike, who leads the team with 16.6 points per game.  Similarly, Saint Francis (PA), who has finished the NEC runner-up 2 of the last 3 years, is off to a 7-4 start, good enough to place second behind Bryant. Senior Keith Braxton initially declared for the NBA draft during his junior campaign, but decided to return to St. Francis this year – he remains the top contributor for the Red Flash so far. Look for senior point guard Isaiah Blackmon and sophomore forward Tyler Stewart to play key roles next to Braxton this winter.

 But most importantly? Each team’s record starts fresh at 0-0.  It’s time for hearts to be broken, glory to be had, and under-the-radar student athletes to make a name for themselves.

This is NEC basketball.