There’s a lot of talent coming back to the Northeast Conference this fall, likely resulting in an improved product on the floor. Opportunities for newcomers and previously underutilized players to shine however are abound, even for the rosters that return a vast majority of their scoring, rebounding and facilitating.
With the season merely a day away, I attempt to highlight the biggest wildcards whose performance could stand between a mediocre season and a championship season.
Virshon Cotton, Long Island University – Before I even had a chance to ask Derek Kellogg about Cotton’s potential impact, he offered this tidbit unprovoked: “Virshon is kind of in a good way a wildcard for us. I think he has the chance to breakout, be a really, really good player who could score the basketball. His athleticism allows him to really pressure the ball and cause some havoc on the defensive end of the floor.”
Of course, being a season removed from true competition on the hardwoods could lead to inconsistent play in the early going, but there’s no denying what Cotton brings to a Sharks roster that played Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts a sizable amount of minutes last season. Cotton can handle the ball, set up teammates (16.8% assist rate in 2017-18), stroke it from long range (career 37.4% 3PT) and seamlessly guard one through three.
That’s a heck of a weapon to deploy on a title contender that already brings back their top four players.
Koreem Ozier, Sacred Heart – The Pioneers are ready for contention. As Matt and John articulated in their superb NEC preview, Sacred Heart is loaded with depth, playmakers, sharpshooters, rim protectors and veterans. It’s clearly a win-now roster, and yet, the biggest key to their team is a sophomore who barely played half of the team’s minutes last season? It may be unfair to place the burden of Sacred Heart’s upcoming season on the shoulders of Ozier, yet the 6’1″ guard is the most equipped athletically to emerge as Anthony Latina’s go-to scorer. If there was anything the program missed last season, it was that clutch player – such as Raiquan Clark, Isaiah Blackmon, Vado Morse – who could manufacture a clean look late in the game.
While Anthony Latina hedged his bets to take pressure off of Ozier at NEC Social Media Day, he did infer his guard is a candidate to get the ball late. “Koreem does have a unique ability to get a shot at any time,” Latina said. “Some guys just have that, he can get himself a look, whether it’s a mid-range game, whether it’s off the dribble, whether it’s get to the free throw line, so there’s no question he’s a guy whose number you can call late in the game and he’s a gamer and he likes the big spot.”
If Ozier has a productive season worthy of a spot on a league’s all-conference team, then it’s very hard to see how Sacred Heart doesn’t finish in the NEC top 3.
Ikenna Ndugba, Bryant – It’s easy to forget the red-shirt junior averaged 13.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2 steals per game two seasons ago, but that’s the kind of production Grasso has coming back in his second season in Smithfield. And it’s far more than production that Ndugba provides. Despite his 6’0″ stature, the point guard’s insertion into Bryant’s rotation adds an element that makes the Bulldogs much more versatile. The Bulldogs struggled without a true facilitator last season, but with a healthy Ndugba occupying that role everyone else’s job should fall better into place.
Grasso agrees with that sentiment when discussing what Ndugba brings to his program after a lost year due to a shoulder injury. “I think offensively he’s another guy who can get someone a shot, can score the ball and has an IQ, and knows how to play so I think he just makes us a better offensive team because of that,” he said.
Defensively, Ndugba posted the 104th best steal rate in Division I basketball during the 2017-18 campaign with a steal on 3.1 percent of the opponent’s possessions. He can be a game changer on both ends of the floor, especially when paired with Juan Cardenas and freshman Charles Pride.
Curtis Cobb and Alex Morales, Wagner – With ten newcomers on Bashir Mason’s roster – the most turnover he’s experienced in his decorated Wagner career – the vast majority of pundits are putting the Seahawks in the bottom half of their preseason standings. It’s a simple concept- what you don’t know usually results in a modest prognostication, hence the program’s current standing in our minds. But Cobb and Morales can easily blow out those expectations given their exceptional talent.
“Alex and Curtis, the talent jumps out right away,” Mason said at NEC Social Media Day. “You don’t know how they are going to take to our culture, playing hard and defending and all that stuff, but they’ve been pretty bought in since day one.”
Most understand that Cobb’s move from the Atlantic 10 to the NEC could lead to a top 5 scoring type of season. His production at Fairfield, although inconsistent, provides a glimpse into his potential with seven games at 20 points or more as a sophomore. Morales, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown, yet those in the junior college circles will tell you Mason signed a game changer. He’s coming off a special season at Prince George’s Community College that earned him a Maryland JUCO Conference Player of the Year honor.
“There’s nothing he can’t really do on the basketball court and that he also has the IQ to go along with it, which is great,” Mason said about Morales back in August.
Wagner’s model of success relies on scoring balance, which they didn’t possess last season. For that trend to reverse, the duo of Cobb and Morales must take a leading role and allow others like Nigel Jackson, Chase Freeman and Will Martinez to slot in as complementary pieces. Wagner could surprise if such a scenario comes to fruition.
D.J. Russell and A.J. Bramah, Robert Morris – It’s not groundbreaking that I’m highlighting two more unknowns, both of whom emanating from the JUCO scene. Russell and Bramah have been raved about throughout the league, and it’s a poorly kept secret that if they provide Andy Toole with the kind of production he expects, the Colonials are back in the thick of the NEC title race.
Of Russell, he gives Robert Morris with a playmaker down low. “I think DJ is a really good rebounder, he’s good at scoring around the rim,” Toole said. “He has a good touch, he can use his right and left hands.” Bramah’s athleticism, meanwhile, gives Toole the ability to roll out versatile defensive lineups that could even include Bramah, Charles Bain and Yannis Mendy at the five.
Overall, quality play from those two should make up for the loss of Matty McConnell and Malik Petteway and, at the very least, improve Robert Morris’ 2-point efficiency. Over the past three seasons, the program has shot 43.8%, 45.9% and 47.3% from inside the arc, respectively. A return to the middle of Division I in that department (49 to 50%) paired with the 3-point prowess of the Williams brothers and Bain significantly improves Toole’s offense.
Others to Consider:
Karrington Wallace, Central Connecticut – After an inconsistent freshman campaign, which is typical for freshman bigs, Marshall awarded Wallace’s productive summer with a start in their exhibition contest versus Coast Guard. He produced with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks and certainly has the hops to become a notable rim protector. An improvement off of a 4.6% block rate and 14.6% defensive rebounding rate last season would anchor a Blue Devils defense that could surprise league counterparts.
Myles Thompson, Saint Francis University – As I illustrated last week, Krimmel’s stable of frontcourt players allows him to position reigning POY Keith Braxton as his true point guard. Clearly, if Krimmel didn’t have the confidence to give significant minutes to Thompson, a sophomore who last season showed glimpses in his first NEC rodeo, then Braxton’s move from the four to the one may not happen. As an undersized NEC big, Thompson has the skills and nose for the basketball to become one of the better rebounders in the league. Additionally, an improvement out on the perimeter would open up his scoring.
Malik Jefferson, Mount St. Mary’s – I love Jefferson’s game as a throwback – his post skills are somewhat unusual in an era where stretch fours and face up bigs dominate the scene. As a freshman, Jefferson posted an impressive 108.7 KenPom offensive rating, buoyed by a 59.4% conversion rate on 2s and a manageable 15.3% turnover rate. If Jefferson can improve his conditioning and footwork to avoid foul trouble, then the Mount should be sniffing the upper half of the league standings by season’s end with a promising frontcourt trio of Jefferson, Nana Opoku and Collin Nnamene.
Do you have a wildcard in mind? Feel free to share in the comments section!