The Path To An NEC Crown For All 10 Women’s Hoops Teams

After navigating through last season and crowing a champion, much of last season’s talent is back, creating yet another opportunity for a chaotic season within Northeast Conference women’s basketball. Even with a unanimous selection on the preseason favorite, there are plenty of teams that have a recipe to dethrone Mount St. Mary’s from the top spot and make a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

As the return of college basketball marches back into town, here’s what it will take for each team within the conference to be the ones cutting down the nets in March.

Mount St. Mary’s 

Just by looking at the weapons that the Mount brings back from last season’s championship team, it doesn’t take much for people to be convinced that they can repeat as champions. Even with a change at head coach over the summer, there is plenty of familiarity with associate head coach Antoine White rising to the helm. White says that he is the “luckiest coach alive” by landing his first coaching job at a place that was unanimously chosen to repeat as conference champion.

Like many teams, the Mount returns its nucleus from last season as a result of athletes earning an extra season due to last season’s COVID year. On top of having most of its team back, the Mount has a pair of fifth-year leaders in reigning conference Player of the Year Kendall Bresee and Kayla Agentowicz. Even when those two have their off nights, senior Michaela Harrison has the capability to go out and score 20 on any given night (and she did a pair of times last season). What also makes the Mount dangerous are the complementary players that roll behind the two fifth year players. Sophomores Isabella Hunt and Jessica Tomasetti will continue to progress. Huntis a forward who played behind one of the better bigs in the league last season in Rebecca Lee and will see more minutes with her departure, and Tomassetti will be another threat on the perimeter for the Mount.

Wagner

The Seahawks made a run to the NEC title game for the first time in 20 seasons before falling just a game short of upending the mighty Mount and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The expectations are much of the same in Staten Island. Wagner also went through a coaching change as Heather Jacobs departed for UMass Boston, and replaced her with assistant Terrell Coburn. If Wagner wants to climb the mountain and take the title, their defense will have to continue to be suffocating opponents. Last season, the Seahawks forced nearly 20 turnovers per game and averaged 17 of their 60 points a night off of turnovers. Coburn alluded to the fact he’s aiming to keep the same philosophy defensively which will be a big factor in terms of how much Wagner lights up the scoreboard on a nightly basis.

Offensively, I don’t think there is a better scorer in the league than Emilija Krista Grava, who finished in the top five in in the conference in scoring last season. She has also said she is looking to expand her shooting to behind the three-point line after a season in which she shot just 20 three-pointers. Finding consistency behind the arc along with her continued volume makes her a candidate to be a top point producer in the conference, if not the leader.

Saint Francis U

Last season, the Red Flash improved upon Keila Whittington’s first year as head coach in Loretto and returned to the top level of the Northeast Conference, finishing third and appearing in the condensed conference tournament. They will, however, have to find a way to replace the scoring of Carson Swogger, who graduated last season after scoring almost 16 points a night. The gap will likely be filled by committee, but the opening presents opportunities for sophomores Kaitlyn Maxwell and Diajah Allen to step into more important roles this season. SFU also returns seniors Lili Benzel, who was one of the top three-point shooters last season, and Jada Dapaa, who was one of the top rebounders in the league. Even when its stars depart, the Red Flash find ways to replace them with ease, making them a contender in the conference once again. Not to mention, Loretto has always been a tough place to play as an opponent.

Sacred Heart:

While it was a just a four-team conference tournament and plenty of outside factors played a role, the Pioneers missing the NEC Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons was a strange sight. The Pioneers missing out on the postseason is something that is consistently brought up by Jessica Mannetti to ensure this season’s team doesn’t fall into the same fate as last year. The Pioneers do bring back a pair of fifth years in Adrianne Hagood and Nikki Johnson. Hagood, now a three-time Preseason All-Conference selection, will have one more opportunity to cap her career with a conference title. While Hagood has battled shoulder troubles throughout her career, her consistency will be a huge indicator on how far Sacred Heart can go.

One thing that the Pioneers found last season was consistent post play, which had been missing from Mannetti’s offense in recent years. The 1-2 punch of Carly Stroemel and Kelsey Wood brings a variety of skill sets down low. While many people within the team believe Stroemel could have been in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player last season had she stayed healthy, that thought remains true for the upcoming season. Sacred Heart’s kryptonite was holding onto the basketball and having stretches where the team struggled offensively. While the Pioneers lost some senior leaders from last season, Sacred Heart should be in the running to host a playoff game once March arrives.

Fairleigh Dickinson

In the first two seasons that Angelika Szumilo has been the head coach, the Knights increased their win total in conference play from five prior to her arrival to nine wins to 12 wins last year. FDU rattled off seven straights wins to close out the 2020-21 regular season, and there’s no reason to doubt that they can take the next leap forward and find themselves back in a conference title game. They bring back All-Conference first-teamer Madison Stanley, who scored in double figures in all but four games last season, but will have to find some scoring options behind her. Szumilo will have to figure those things out as the season goes, but based on her first two seasons in Teaneck, there is little doubt that we will be talking about the Knights making a run in March.

St. Francis Brooklyn

The Terriers have arguably the most decorated roster in all of the conference, featuring former NEC Rookie of the Years, all-conference selections and more. St. Francis Brooklyn is certainly a team that comes in with a lot to prove and plenty of weapons to turn some heads within the conference. The dynamic duo of Nevena Dimitrijevic and Ally Lassen is one of the best pairs in the conference. They also welcome back reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Fruzsina Horvath who will seemingly continue to progress into one of the younger stars in the league. Last season’s 4-10 mark overall before having to cancel its final four games of the season left the team with plenty of motivation as the Terriers enter the season sixth in the preseason poll. If that trio can put things together while adding in experienced players such as Khaleah Edwards, SFBK has what it takes to not only return to the conference tournament, but be in position to host a game or two. 

Bryant

The Bulldogs enter the season as one of the youngest teams in the league, but a lot of those underclassmen saw important minutes for Bryant last season. It does help that Mary Burke brings back her first team selection in Brooke Bjelko, who led the conference in rebounding a season ago, and junior Nicole Gallagher, who looks ready to take the next step after averaging 11 points a night in her sophomore season. While Bryant has one of the best forwards in the league, sharpshooter Alana Perkins will look to maintain her top five standing across the conference in three-point shooting percentage (34%) and made three-pointers per game (2.1).

Merrimack

It’s hard enough to begin your coaching tenure in college basketball by itself, but to have your first season navigating your team through a pandemic is another challenge onto itself. Luckily, Kelly Morrone gets to look past a difficult 2020-21 season in which her team did not have a chance to play a non-conference game before being thrown into the thick of conference play, resulting in a 5-10 finish. With most aspects of a normal college basketball season returning, the Warriors will look for a repeat of their 2019-20 season, where they finished 13-5 in conference play. Merrimack brings back its leading scorer from last season in Mayson Kimball, who returned from an injury filled 2019-20 season and played her way onto the All-NEC second team. Kate Mager remains a threat on the perimeter as she shot 41% from three-point range last season, and Roberts Wesleyan transfer Paige McCormick will bring another interior presence to the team. While Merrimack is still a couple of years away from completing its reclassification process, there’s no reason why the Warriors can’t once again play spoiler across the league.

LIU

Year three of the Rene Haynes era presents an interesting dynamic on her roster, having a senior heavy core with newcomers sprinkled into the mix. The Sharks ended last season winning its last four games to boost them to sixth place finish in the conference. LIU’s senior trio of Brandy Thomas, Erykah Russell and Kiara Bell will be the go-to options for Haynes. Thomas brings a scorer’s mentality that gives her the potential to be one of the best bucket-getters across the league. Outside of the trio, some interesting first-year standouts in Emaia O’Brien and Tayra Eke could be players we talk about at season’s end on the All-Rookie team. Through Haynes’ first two seasons at LIU, there has been a clear culture built. Around seasons three and four is when most new coaches begin to see great improvement within their teams and begin to make a push to the top of the league. This could be the beginning of that stretch for the Sharks.

Central Connecticut State

Central Connecticut dealt with some injuries and bad breaks last season which led to a tough 2020-21 season. They did however have the conference’s Most Improved Player in Forever Toppin, who will look to be more of a facilitator for her team this season rather than rely on her scoring. The Blue Devils also bring back Ashley Berube, who had a pair of double-doubles in four games last season before being lost for the season. Outside of that duo, CCSU brings in graduate transfer Eden Nibbelink,who comes to New Britain from Fairfield, where she will get an opportunity to succeed within the Blue Devil system under Kerri Reaves.

Making the Case for All 10 NEC Teams to Win a Championship

With so much returning talent, the Northeast Conference has a prime opportunity to move up the conference ranks with respect to its mid-major rivals. Nine of the fifteen all-conference performers and all five of the all-rookie team recipients from last season are back. Six teams are returning at least four starters with three of those squads – Sacred Heart, Merrimack and Saint Francis – bringing back their top six scorers at the very least. And there are plenty of transfer portal reinforcements coming to several squads.

Analytical sites KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com appear bullish on the NEC’s outcome as well with Pomeroy assigning the 192nd spot in his 2021-22 preseason rankings to Wagner, with two others (Bryant and Merrimack) sniffing the top 200. 

(Matt at The Mid-Range Jumper had a nice writeup on the Pomeroy and Torvik projections here)

But does every team in the league have a realistic outcome of winning the Northeast Conference? There’s plenty of quality preview content out there, so allow me to channel my inner Bill Barnwell by attempting to lay out the path to a championship for each school, listed in the order where I picked them for my Blue Ribbon preseason standings.

10. Central Connecticut State

While the Blue Devils are looking to rebound off a 5-13 conference season, you only have to go back to 2015-16 to find a last-to-champion example within the Northeast Conference. Coming off a 3-15 league record, Fairleigh Dickinson stunned the league the following season by winning their last five league games – three in the NEC tournament – to go dancing in the NCAA tournament.

That Greg Herenda coached team had terrific, clutch guard play from Darian Anderson, Stephen Jiggetts and Marques Townes, which is something the Blue Devils could boast going into Pat Sellers’ first season in New Britain.

Central Connecticut may have seven scholarship newcomers, but the backcourt veterans possess upside: Ian Krishnan with his shotmaking ability, Tre Mitchell with his scoring versatility and Nigel Scantlebury with his comfort in running the show and creating off the bounce. Throw in an experienced, albeit under-the-radar Division 2 grad transfer in Hegel Augustin (21.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg at Glenville College last season), who Sellers currently calls his best rebounder, and defensive stalwart Zach Newkirk, and there could be something brewing to the tune of four double-digit scorers and a go-to perimeter stopper.

If that backcourt projection seems optimistic, I have some analytics to back up my glass half full approach. ShotQuality considered Krishnan and Mitchell two of the most efficient shot takers in the NEC last season, so I’m confident in saying Krishnan will shoot closer to his sophomore percentages (44.6% 3PT) than his junior percentages (30.5%), whereas Mitchell will let the game come to him with Scantlebury or Newkirk initiating offense. Sellers appears to have versatility, facilitating, scoring and defense one through three (maybe four too, if he’s so inclined to play small ball) and should present an entirely different look to the league with their new “space and pace” system.

If the guard play emerges as a strength and players like Andre Snoddy and Stephane Ayangma (14 ppg, 8 rpg in CCSU’s last 5 games) solidify the frontcourt, it’s conceivable that the proud CCSU fanbase would make Detrick Gymnasium rock again, rendering the blue and white a difficult out in New Britain. Home court could go a long way in getting Sellers off to a fast start.

9. Fairfield Dickinson

On paper it feels like a Garden State rebuild, but in reality Herenda has a solid core to build around. Guard Brandon Rush is a budding star capable of leading the league in scoring (a semi bold prediction of mine) with his efficient shoot-it-deep-or-attack-the-rim mentality. Sophomore Devon Dunn, fresh off an opt-out year, has the sharpshooting chops to become the program’s next Darnell Edge as merely a sophomore. And the sophomore trio who played important minutes last season, led by fluid athlete and all-rookie team recipient Joe Munden, skilled five-man P.O. Racine and the possibly forgotten Mikey Square, give the Knights some promise in the immediate future. That’s a very good young core to build around and an imposing starting five if Dunn and Rush can facilitate enough. (Rush reportedly had 6 assists in FDU’s latest scrimmage)

But could FDU rekindle its past magic with seven true freshmen on the roster? Have you met Herenda and his staff? If anyone can recruit and coach up two or three of those newcomers to make them all-rookie team candidates, it’s Herenda and company. One of FDU’s instant impact freshmen from that 2016 champion, Mike Holloway, even sits on the bench now as a graduate assistant coach. Holloway joins past examples of Kaleb Bishop, Jahlil Jenkins, Elyjah Williams, Darian Anderson and the aforementioned Dunn as rookies who were instant contributors at FDU.

The team likely won’t be in top half of defensive efficiency, but if a freshman point guard such as Antoine Jacks or Sebastien Lamaute gives Herenda the defensive minded, selfless facilitator he desires on day one and others such as Anquan Hill and Ibrahim Wattara step up as integral role players, the Knights could morph into a versatile, cohesive offensive unit that makes 37% of its threes and 50% of its twos in an up-tempo scheme. And that would be a dangerous offense to play against in February and March, especially when Herenda already harbors a reputation of getting his teams to play their best basketball late in the conference season.

8. St. Francis Brooklyn

Before Michael Cubbage got hurt in Marist’s fourth contest last season, it appeared the swiss army knife guard had turned the corner. His efficiency was up as well as his production (14 ppg, 6 rpg in 3 full games), but then a broken foot against Canisius in the second game of a back-to-back ended his 2020-21 campaign. Nevertheless, the super senior is looking for redemption in Brooklyn, and all signs point toward Cubbage getting the keys to Glenn Braica’s offense and becoming a key contributor for the Terriers.

The high-motored junior Rob Higgins has struggled with his outside shot in his career, but a moderate improvement over SFBK’s final five games last season (8 of 21, 38.1%) could illustrate his new floor if his shot selection improves. Larry Moreno is more than two years removed from hip surgery, and Braica remains bullish on the junior becoming a lethal playmaker if he exhibits good health for the entirety of the season. 40 points per game from the Cubbage/Higgins/Moreno trio would establish a solid floor where the Terriers are firmly in the middle of the pack – and in contention – by February.

In addition to Cubbage, the Terriers have several other transfers poised for substantial roles. Senior Jack Hemphill from Boston University is a stretch-five who may be lanky at 6-foot-9, 230 pounds, yet his defensive rebounding rates have been above 18% in each of his three collegiate seasons. Western Michigan transfer Patrick Emilien is another student-athlete who could thrive in the NEC, perhaps becoming a double-digit scorer as a Terrier.

Those two and other transfers should fit in well with senior center Vuk Stevanic (112.3 ORtg), who boosts the offense with his polished post up game and ability to pass out of the low and high post. There’s a chance this unit meshes well offensively, and returns St. Francis to its defensive roots of toughness, rebounding and containment that Glenn Braica covets. This roster could be quite similar to the 2015-16 Terriers, who finished tied for second in the regular sesaon.

7. Saint Francis

This is Ramiir Dixon-Conover’s team, as the 2020-21 numbers clearly demonstrate. 

SituationOffense – Adjusted Points/100 PossOffensive PossessionsDefense – Adjusted Points/100 PossDefensive Possessions
Dixon-Conover ON97.01065105.91053
Dixon-Conover OFF89.5474112.4489
Data thanks to Hoop Explorer

That’s quite an impact. Dixon-Conover’s footprint on both sides of the ball isn’t surprising when you consider the Red Flash’s 0-4 mark when he was out of the lineup last season. And while the fifth-year senior is critically important to Rob Krimmel, it would surely help if Maxwell Land and Ronnel Giles make the sophomoric jump they are capable of and provide Krimmel with a three-way scoring punch that most league contenders possess.

Last season Dixon-Conover led the team in scoring (and a bunch of other categories) with 15.5 points per game, and then there was a deluge of players huddled in the 7.5 to 10.1 ppg range. That scoring balance can be a positive, but in this case an ascension from one or two players into the mid teens would be a welcome development for a team that finished sixth in offensive efficiency last season. 

This is all to say that if Dixon-Conover stays healthy all year, Maxwell Land and Ronnel Giles step up, and a deep frontcourt gives Krimmel ample options on a game-in-game-out basis, then it surely isn’t a stretch to see a NEC quarterfinal game in Loretto. KenPom is bullish, projecting the Red Flash as the fourth best offense based on a roster that returns 12 scholarship players and boasts a ton of experience. Remember, don’t fall victim to recency bias as Krimmel has a history of running great offenses.

6. Merrimack

I’m a little more bearish on Merrimack than KenPom (#3) and BartTorvik (#1), and I don’t really feel good about that. In reality, Merrimack firmly stands in my second tier, meaning that projecting any of the remaining teams as a regular season conference champion is no longer a stretch. With a Warriors defense all but guaranteed to reside near the top of NEC in terms of defensive efficiency – they finished one and two in Joe Gallo’s first two seasons in Division I, respectively – a climb to the middle of the pack in offense would undoubtedly soar the Warriors prospects.

The team certainly isn’t devoid of playmakers. Jordan Minor enters his junior campaign following an impressive season where he posted 12 points and 8.1 rebounds per contest, and that was despite converting just 50.1% of his takes near the rim, per Hoop Math. A realistic progression toward 60% probably gets the bruising big in the 14 to 15 points per game category. His battery mate at the forward position, Ziggy Reid, has already illustrated his potential to reach that scoring level – if he continues the momentum from his last six games (15.7 ppg, 50.7% FG) then the sky’s the limit. 

And then there’s sophomore Malik Edmead, in my opinion one of the most dynamic playmakers that NEC has to offer. If he takes the floor at least 60% of the time as Merrimack’s main floor general (he was at 34.9% in 2020-21), the duo of Edmead and Mikey Watkins presents Gallo with backcourt that’s lethal attacking off the bounce to finish or kick it out to sharpshooters Devin Jensen and Mykel Derring. Both of those veterans easily have the skill to convert at least 40% of their long-range jumpers.

Furthermore, Gallo has the athletes to excel in transition, as the Warriors posted a splendid 61.5% eFG in such opportunities, per Hoop Math. While that number may naturally regress, players such as Minor, Watkins and Edmead have the skillset to thrive in the open floor and the aforementioned shooters certainly don’t hurt on those 3 on 2 fast breaks. A few more opportunities in transition could go a long way in elevating Merrimack’s point total on a game-by-game basis. 

This Warrior offense could be a sleeping giant relative to their tenth place finish in offensive efficiency just a season ago. Where they land scoring the basketball will determine how high they shoot up the regular season standings, thanks to the 2-3 attacking zone that establishes a solid base to work off of.

5. Sacred Heart

The range of outcomes for Sacred Heart may be the widest among the NEC teams this season, at least of those teams residing in my true contender tiers. The Pioneers finished tied for third in the regular season, YET they avoided two games at Bryant because of a COVID-19 cancellation. Sacred Heart bounced back and won the backend of five back-to-back series, YET they were blown out in some of those first games due to frustrating offensive droughts. They did some things very well on offense – free throw rate/conversion and turnover rate, for example – YET the Pios landed eighth among league mates with a 48.7 eFG%. For 2021-22, will the real Sacred Heart please stand up?

While optimism isn’t abound in 3MW’s Sacred Heart outlook, I’m here for the rosy projection: While Tyler Thomas is the team’s best player, Aaron Clarke’s is the program’s most important player. In nine SHU wins last season, Clarke averaged 17.8 ppg and frequently got paint touches and free throw line appearances. A full healthy season out of a trim Clarke already sets a high floor, especially if he and Thomas end the 2021-22 campaign as top 10 players with Thomas eliciting POY discussion. Their consistent production would likely elevate the play of their teammates around them.

Alex Watson continues to serve as a steady role player, Mike Sixsmith will drain shots from deep (maybe not at a 54% clip, but 40% plus is probable), and sophomore Bryce Johnson solidifies the frontcourt alongside rebound gobbler Cantavio Dutreil. The fourth spot last year was a problem for Anthony Latina, but if Johnson (114.7 ORtg as a freshman) makes the second year jump he’s capable of and Zach Pfaffenberger is healthy (to add critical depth at the five behind Dutreil), the Pioneers’ effective height will improve considerably from last season (351st per KenPom). As a bonus, 6-foot-6 athletic sophomore Nico Galette has reportedly impressed this preseason alongside Johnson, further improving the Pioneers’ prospects down low.

The multitude of enhanced options would allow Latina the flexibility to no longer rely primarily on 4-guard sets (Thomas played 40% of his minutes as the 4 in the Pioneers last five games, per KenPom) that limited their defense and rebounding upside. That’s paramount in trying to neutralize the stout frontcourts such as Mount St. Mary’s, LIU and Saint Francis, and could get them back into the NEC tournament semifinals, if the highly touted backcourt comes as advertised. 

4. Mount St. Mary’s

Jalen Benjamin becomes a top 10 NEC player. That’s it. That’s what gets the Mount to a higher probability of earning its first NEC regular season crown since Jamion Christian’s Mountaineers achieved the feat in 2017.

That’s kind of unfair to the transfer who averaged 10.6 ppg in two seasons at UAB, but if Benjamin fills in admirably for the departed Damian Chong Qui, then it’s simple to view the Mountaineers as a bona fide championship contender given the continuity of the remaining roster. As a pick-and-roll machine, Chong Qui was infinitely valuable to the Mountaineers last season, hence Benjamin’s importance. Let’s put it this way: there was a reason why Dan Engelstad slowed the Mount’s pace down to a crawl (356th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom) in order to keep Chong Qui on the floor approximately 90% of the time in 2020-21.

SituationOffense – Adjusted Points/100 PossOffensive PossessionsDefense – Adjusted Points/100 PossDefensive Possessions
Chong Qui ON96.5132097.91324
Chong Qui OFF82.8150111.9155
Data thanks to Hoop Explorer

We already know the ceiling for the Mount’s defense after they lead the league in defensive efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), block rate (10.6%), defensive rebounding rate (75.4%) and eFG defense (44.3%) in 2020-21. As long as Nana Opoku, Malik Jefferson and Mezie Offurum occupy the floor to make opposing 2-point attempts a treacherous endeavor – opponents shot a frigid 43.8% from 2 and 49.8% at the rim when all three played together last season – the Mount defense suppressing offense relative to league average is as sure of a bet as they come. 

Furthermore, there’s also a likely improvement in DeAndre Thomas, Dakota Laffew and Josh Reaves, each of whom Engelstad is imploring to attack the rim more so than they did in year one. Even a modest jump in paint touches for the trio is an improvement, as long as Benjamin delivers as an explosive guard who can kick it out to those shooters when camped out behind the 3-point line. Thomas and Reaves have demonstrated their ability to make 3s in rhythm – in 2020-21 they were a combined 39% from 3 with 91% of those makes requiring an assist.

3. LIU

The Sharks frontcourt of Eral Penn, Ty Flowers and Hofstra transfer and double double extraordinaire Isaac Kante gives Derek Kellogg’s group arguably the NEC’s most imposing frontcourt north of Emmitsburg, Maryland. Bart Torvik agrees, projecting the three among the NEC’s top 10 players (Penn 2, Flowers 9, Kante 10) in the upcoming campaign. With a high floor there, the LIU guards such as Alex Rivera, Kyndall Davis, Tre Wood and freshman Andre Washington will be asked to provide the following: shooting, shooting and more shooting.

Ok, obviously Kellogg needs more than that from his backcourt, but it’s easy to see how a 28.7% conversion rate from deep and an inability to space the floor last season hurt LIU’s offensive efficiency – they were 7th in league play at 99.3 points per 100 possessions. A modest improvement in shotmaking could catapult the Shark’s scoring to a top 4 level and is easily to envision with Flowers moving to a permanent perimeter role as the Shark’s 3-man and others such as Rivera improving.

The LIU defense has already flashed its upside as the fourth ranked unit a season ago, and now adding an elite rebounder/space eater in Kante will only strengthen the squad’s defensive advantage by holding opponents to just one shot per possession. And that’s only if Penn hasn’t already forced a turnover out on the perimeter or near the rim!

Even if only a modest shooting improvement is realized, LIU could conceivably take on the identity of the Jalen Cannon led 2014-15 St. Francis Brooklyn squad that went 15-3 in the conference regular season. The Terriers, despite struggling to make perimeter shots, were third in offensive efficiency that year thanks to a supreme offensive rebounding rate (39.7%!!) and a penchant for getting to the charity stripe frequently. LIU could get zoned to death once again in their offensive sets, but will it matter if no one can contain Kellogg’s squad on the glass? That’s why the late recruiting coop of Kante increases the margin of error for a relatively unproven Sharks backcourt.

2. Bryant

I don’t need to give out Jared Grasso’s secret sauce for how Bryant can win a championship – they already proved they belonged last season with a splendid non-conference tilt followed by a 11-5 mark in league play. Of course, there is some question as to how the Bulldogs move on after Michael Green’s transfer to former NEC stalwart Robert Morris, but the 2021-22 blueprint may already have been witnessed, albeit in an unproven 1-game sample.

In the postgame press conference after Bryant’s 30-point victory in the NEC tournament semifinals, Anthony Latina quipped in the middle of an answer “I don’t know, could Bryant have played any better?” The answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’ The Bulldogs may have been sans Green and Chris Childs because of COVID-19 protocols that afternoon, yet the six scholarship players allowed to suit up still put forth a wonderful display of offensive basketball – 1.44 points per possession, 28 of 38 from 2 and 15 assists to 11 turnovers. The facilitator by committee template has therefore already been in practice, and should continue into 2021-22 with Peter Kiss, Luis Hurtado and a collection of guards (I’m looking at you Tyler Brelsford and Erickson Bans) sharing the ball handling responsibilities. Kiss (18.1%) and Hurtado (19.4%) actually had similar assist rates to Green (18.3%) last season.

Given the versatility of this roster, the abundant shooters and the Bulldogs willingness to fly up and down the floor, I think Grasso will be perfectly fine employing this scheme. It surely helps when you return the best veteran core (besides maybe the number one team on my list) of Kiss, Charles Pride, Hall Elisias and Childs. Bryant should be right back in the thick of the regular season championship hunt, but you already knew that.

1. Wagner

Even if we’ve already seen the best out of super seniors Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez – and it was pretty awesome in 2020-21 – 90% of that production for the upcoming tilt still puts the Seahawks at number one for me. Why? A couple of reasons:

  1. DeLonnie Hunt should build off a terrific freshman performance where he solidified Bashir Mason’s point guard position with a 10/4/3 line after playing more than 80% of Wagner’s minutes
  2. Wagner’s depth should be much improved

Let’s start with number one. Hunt was impressively efficient (10.7.5 ORtg) in a moderate role (17.9% possession rate) while seeing the floor a ton. Per Bart Torvik’s ratings, Hunt was the second most valuable freshman in the league (behind SHU’s Mike Sixsmith), thanks mainly due his excellence at protecting the ball (11.5% turnover, 5th best in league play) and solidness in other facets. Based on his experience and profile, it’s reasonable to expect a jump in Hunt’s second year to the point where 13 ppg or greater is the goal. And at some point, Mason has to groom Hunt for the future when all of Wagner’s 5th year players move on. Expect a tick up in Hunt’s usage.

On Wagner’s depth, Mason has three newcomers pegged for the rotation that would complement the established super seniors and Hunt: Ashton Miller (previously at Duquesne), Raekwon Rogers (Division II Henderson College) and Jahbril Price Noel (Pacific). Miller has gotten rave reviews this offseason for his defensive acumen (always a Mason favorite), plus he exhibits great size at 6-foot-5. His insertion as a two-man would allow Mason to roll out four perimeter players such as Hunt, Miller, Morales and Martinez without really sacrificing size and physicality. Rogers projects a presence at the five as a 6-foot-8 power forward; a timeshare between he and Nigel Jackson could squeeze the most efficiency out of that position. And Price Noel instills versatility and floor spacing as a stretch four man. He gives Wagner a different look and very well could make 38% of his long distance attempts as opposing bigs worry about the sensational slashing ability of Martinez, Morales and Ford.

Fresher legs would undoubtedly help Wagner to their quest to get to their first NCAA tournament since 2003.

#NECFB Teams Duquesne, Merrimack Secure Historic Road Wins

Impactful defense and effective quarterback play resulted in two historic victories for Northeast Conference football teams on Saturday afternoon.

With all-NEC starting quarterback Joe Mischler sidelined by injury, Duquesne’s Darius Perrantes accounted for a 66.7 completion percentage and two touchdowns in a 28-26 victory over MAC member Ohio.

After Brian Bruzdewicz’s fourth field goal of the day bumped the lead to 28-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Dukes needed one final defensive impact play to secure the program’s first-ever victory over a FBS opponent.

Ohio found the end zone with 00:09 remaining, but Duquesne denied the game-tying two-point conversion attempt.

Merrimack starting quarterback Westin Elliott completed 68.6 percent of his passes and threw a pair of touchdowns to spoil Patriot League preseason favorite Holy Cross’ home opener.

The Warriors’ defense limited the Crusaders to six first downs passing and Anthony Witherstone’s second-quarter 30-yard interception return touchdown gave Merrimack a lead that it never relinquished.

The 35-21 triumph is Merrimack’s first-ever win over a FCS top-25 team and it happened only one week after Holy Cross posted a 10-point victory at FBS member UConn. The Warriors also ran the ball effectively with Victor Dawson gaining 111 yards on 19 carries.

TWEET SHEET

Can’t Stop Kuntz! Duquesne alumnus joins NEC Brethren in NFL

Former two-time #NECFB DPOTY Christian Kuntz (PHOTO: @steelers)

Christian Kuntz never accepted “No” for an answer.

First, there was the ACL tear following his All-American sophomore season at Duquesne.

Following a year-long rehabilitation, Kuntz responded with two more All-American seasons in a Dukes’ uniform.

Kuntz, the 2015 FCS ADA National Linebacker of the Year, became one of the most-feared edge rushers in the entire Football Championship Subdivision. He possessed great football instincts and twice won the NEC Defensive Player of the Year award. Surely, the NFL was in his future?

While his collegiate resume pushed him onto the NFL radar, he went undrafted in 2017 despite boasting an immensely productive body of work.

Kuntz’s detractors in the scouting community pointed to his “lack of size” for a NFL edge rusher and his “lack of speed” for a pass-defending linebacker.

Surprisingly, Kuntz did not receive an opportunity until late in the 2017 NFL Preseason when the New England Patriots signed him to a UDFA contract, only to waive him later that week.

Jobless during the 2017 season, Kuntz embarked on a position change and began grooming himself to become a reliable long snapper.

With long snapping being a talent unto itself, not many pro snappers possess the same eye-popping instincts that are synonymous with elite defenders. Kuntz’s roots, however, make him better suited than most to get down the field in punt coverage and make tackles.

Having added a new skill to his arsenal, he signed with the Denver Broncos in March 2018. After a few months in their offseason program, Kuntz was released and on the move again.

Unsigned until December of that year, Kuntz landed on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad for the final two weeks of the regular season and was signed to a reserve/futures deal.

After working through the Jaguars’ 2019 offseason program, Kuntz found himself on the waiver wire again in June prior to the start of training camp.

Still, the best was yet to come for the Western Pennsylvania product.

Midway through August 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kuntz and the Duquesne alumnus proceeded to log five tackles and a sack in the team’s preseason finale.

Despite the strong showing, the roster bubble burst on him.

Kuntz was without a 53-man roster spot for the 2019 NFL regular season, but he was far from finished.

The linebacker-turned-long snapper landed in the XFL with the Dallas Renegades in early 2020 and impressed enough to earn another chance with the Steelers.

Kuntz was signed by Pittsburgh on March 30, 2020 and worked through another NFL offseason program before being waived on August 2.

The relentless kid from the Pittsburgh suburbs kept at it though.

Late in the 2020 regular season, Kuntz served two short stints on the Steelers’ practice squad before signing a futures/reserve contract on January 14, 2021.

Now all he had to do was beat out an incumbent starter at a position where turnover happens less than regularly.

To no Duquesne fan’s surprise, Kuntz did just that.

Living a remarkable story of commitment and triumph, Christian Kuntz is on a NFL 53-man Opening Day roster.

TK!

He spent much of the last two seasons on the practice squad, but Tom Kennedy has earned a promotion in Detroit. Bryant’s former all-NEC receiver performed well enough during the 2021 NFL Preseason to earn a spot on the Lions’ initial 53-man roster. He has played in one NFL regular season game, becoming the first-ever Bryant alumnus to do so when he suited up for Detroit against

SEAHAWKS, STAND UP

Wagner alumnus Chris Williams (PHOTO: Michael Conroy | Associated Press)

Three Wagner Seahawks made the cut when initial NFL 53-man rosters were published.

Julian Stanford, a former all-NEC linebacker, will spend his ninth NFL season as a special teams ace with the Carolina Panthers.

Despite battling injury during the preseason, former two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year Cam Gill earned a spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster for the second straight year.

Former Wagner defensive tackle Chris Williams secured a spot on the Indianapolis Colts’ 53-man roster after spending the 2020 NFL season on the team’s practice squad.

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#NECinNFL: Late-Summer 2021 Update

Christian Kuntz (PHOTO: Chaz Palla – TribLive.com)

It’s Preseason Week 3 in the National Football League.

Teams have one last chance to evaluate their talent during game action prior to finalizing their 53-man regular season rosters.

There are plenty of Northeast Conference alumni in the mix, hoping to land on active NFL rosters for the 2021 campaign.

Here are the #NECinNFL names you need to know…

Cam Gill, LB (Wagner) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year made the Bucs’ 53-man roster as a rookie UDFA in 2020. He saw on-field action during Tampa’s victory in Super Bowl 55, but Gill has missed numerous reps this preseason due to injury. Normally, his roster status would not be in question, but his lack of preseason availability is something to monitor. Whether or not he fits into the Bucs’ plans for Opening Day, the organization clearly liked Gill enough to award him defensive snaps in the Super Bowl.

Christian Kuntz, LS (Duquesne) – Pittsburgh Steelers

Kuntz made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks as a collegiate linebacker, but he has transitioned to a long snapper at the professional level. The former three-time DI FCS All-American has bounced around the NFL training camp circuit and spent time in both the AAF and XFL. Kuntz’s tireless efforts could pay off in the form of a 53-man roster spot this time around. He spent time on the Steelers’ practice squad late in the 2020 season and signed a futures/reserve contract in January. Kuntz has seen a healthy number of reps at long snapper throughout Steelers’ camp and appears to be in a position battle with incumbent Kameron Canaday.

Tom Kennedy, WR (Bryant) – Detroit Lions

Kennedy, who has spent each of the past two seasons on the Lions’ Practice Squad and was active for one regular season game in 2019, has led his team in receiving yards during each of the first two preseason games. The former dual-sport college star may be playing his way into the Lions’ regular season receivers rotation. Kennedy made a 29-yard reception to set up a late, go-ahead field against Buffalo in Preseason Week 1. The following week, the Bryant alumnus produced gainers of 31 and 25 yards at Pittsburgh.

Jake Dolegala, QB (Central Connecticut) – Green Bay Packers

The all-time leading passer in CCSU history enters his third NFL season after spending much on the 2020 campaign on the New England Patriots’ practice squad. Dolegala, who spent the entire 2019 season on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-man roster after signing as a rookie UDFA, has bounced in between Green Bay and New England this offseason/preseason. The Packers resigned prior to Preseason Game 2, adding an arm in the wake of Jordan Love’s injury. Dolegala entered the game in the waning minutes of the Packers’ 23-14 loss to the New York Jets. He has NFL measurables and big-league arm strength that will continue to intrigue the Packers and others in the months ahead.

Greg Senat, OT (Wagner) – Cleveland Browns

Initially landing at Wagner on a basketball scholarship, Senat made a successful transition to the gridiron where he started two seasons for the Seahawks. Senat, a former Baltimore Ravens’ sixth-round draft pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad during their Super Bowl 54 championship season. In 2020, Senat signed with Dallas and saw action in 10 regular season games. Having since moved onto Cleveland, the 6-foot-6 Empire State product is battling for a spot on the Browns’ 53-man roster as a swing tackle.

Julian Stanford, LB (Wagner) – Carolina Panthers

Since landing with Jacksonville as a rookie in 2012, Stanford has established himself as a special teams ace. He earned six regular season starts at linebacker during his first year with the Jaguars, but has spent much his 104-game career as a contributor on special teams. After playing the 2018 and 2019 campaigns with the Buffalo Bills, Stanford continued his NFL career in Carolina last year. The Panthers used him heavily on special teams, where he logged seven tackles. This past offseason, Carolina signed Stanford to another one-year deal. He has been banged up during the preseason, but appears back at full strength now according to reports.

Chris Williams, DT (Wagner) – Indianapolis Colts

Williams developed into a NFL prospect during his time at Wagner, benefitting from the tutelage of position coach (and NFL veteran) Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton. The Empire State product signed a UDFA deal with the Colts following the 2020 NFL Draft and spent the ensuing season on the team’s practice squad. Listed on Indianapolis’ depth chart as a nose tackles, Williams has been battling for an active roster spot all summer long. He was credited with a tackle in the Colts’ recent 12-10 win over the Vikings. Pro Football Focus tracked Williams on a team-high 27 pass-rushing snaps in the Preseason Week 2 contest. Williams made two stops in the Colts’ preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers. After the game, he caught up with the aforementioned Terrance Knighton who is in his first season on the Carolina coaching staff.

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