Tag Archives: St. Francis Brooklyn

Summarizing the Best #NECMBB Players of the 2018-19 Season

With the 2019-20 college hoops season behind us, I wanted to get out one last post before we fully descend into baseball season. Most of you have already moved onto the offseason, scouring Verbal Commits daily for the latest transfer and commitment news. Nevertheless, I was hoping to put the final bow on the season even if it’s a little late. (Hey, I needed to finish my taxes on time!)

It’s been a terrific year of NEC hoops from my vantage point, one that culminated with the tandem of Darnell Edge, Romone Saunders, Sean Hoehn and Mike Holloway making the league extremely proud. The senior foursome reached the semifinals of the 3 on 3 national championship in Minneapolis, finishing with 4 victories and earning a collective $2,000. To finish fourth overall among a 32-team crowd – defeating the Atlantic 10 and SEC in the process – was quite impressive given the roster’s effective height and stiff competition they were facing.

Watching the seniors make plays in the open floor and assume roles – Saunders as the playmaker, Hoehn and Edge as the heady shooters and Holloway as the paint presence keen on setting up his teammates – got me thinking about the NEC’s best from the past season. It made me want to hand out my unofficial awards throughout the league, because why not?

Most Difficult to Contain

Romone Saunders, Wagner – If you watched any of the 3 on 3 national tournament, you’d know Saunders was difficult to contain. In the NEC’s first two victories in Pool C over the Big West and Atlantic 10, the graduate senior made 9 of 19 (47.4%) from behind the arc. When he’s on a roll like that, good luck and God speed, as it’s going to be a long night. Throughout the real season, Saunders size, strength and offensive instincts made him one of the most difficult players to contain. His game winner at the Mount in February perfectly encapsulates his “bull in the china shop” type of game when he’s heading downhill toward the basket.

Raiquan Clark, LIU Brooklyn – Everyone knows Clark is driving to the basket, but the thing is, he’s still impossible to stop. His 201 free throw attempts led the league by a mile. He took 71% of his shots near the rim, according to Hoop Math, and still made 59.2% of those attempts. Currently, Clark is petitioning the NCAA for a fifth year as he only played one game as a walk-on freshman under Jack Perri. If he’s granted the extra season of eligibility, NEC coaches will be groaning at the thought of containing Clark once again.

Most Gritty/Competitive

Matty McConnell, Robert Morris – This was easy, as no one exhibited the fire and drive that McConnell showcased for 30+ games in a Colonials uniform. There are some who believe he was most deserving of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and yet, it was McConnell’s maturation on the offensive end that help mold him into one of the most respected players the league has seen in recent memory. As a senior he posted career highs in KenPom offensive rating (105.5), free throw rate (35.6% FTA/FGA) and 3-point percentage (34.0%), while anchoring a Colonial defense that led the league in efficiency. He’ll be missed in Moon Township.

Jamaal King, Saint Francis – King’s competitiveness was a sight to behold, even if Rob Krimmel at times tried to rein in his talented guard’s on-the-court fire. From a fan’s perspective, however, King cared deeply about his program and how the Red Flash performed by wearing his emotions on his sleeve.

Best Stat-Stuffers

Keith Braxton, Saint Francis University – There really isn’t much else to say about Braxton, because it’s already been said on numerous occasions (I especially like Ron Ratner’s write-up here), now that the junior has a NEC Player of the Year trophy to flaunt. His innate ability to impact the game without dominating the ball it is a special trait that few possess.

Tyler Kohl, Central Connecticut – In Kohl’s first game as a junior at Hartford, then ESPN broadcaster referred to Kohl as “the old man at the YMCA.” Trust me, that’s a complement, as Kohl’s ability create opportunities for himself and his teammates, grab rebounds, and effectively freelance on defense made him a complete player.

Best Leader

Sean Hoehn, Sacred Heart – Hoehn’s assortment of stutter steps, pump fakes and hesitation dribbles also peg him as a future champ at the Y, when a 55-year-old version of himself is schooling high school and college players in rec leagues. In all seriousness though, the senior guard had a wonderful final season, improving exponentially from Cane Broome/Quincy McKnight sidekick to a full-fledged top 5 NEC player and demonstrated leader. Only a player who has worked extremely hard evolving his game could exhibit that kind of improvement. It’s been a great template for the Sacred Heart freshmen guards to follow in their future seasons.

Best Sharpshooter

Darnell Edge, Fairleigh Dickinson – There wasn’t anyone better from long distance than Edge, who shot an obscene 54.2% in the final season against NEC competition. A former free throw percentage champion who’s made 91.8% of his freebies on 268 career attempts (just stop and think about that for a second), Edge led all NEC guards with an effective field goal percentage of 58.1%. He’ll go down as one of the most accurate shooters in league history.

Best Teammate

Mike Holloway, Fairleigh Dickinson – I know, I’m heavy on the seniors from the 3 on 3 national tournament team, but you simply can’t overlook the fact that Holloway lead the ENTIRE tournament field with 14 assists. For the big man to embrace his role as a facilitator surrounded by long distance savants speaks to Holloway’s unselfishness. Also telling is the fact that Holloway consistently deferred to his teammates over the course of FDU’s season, posting very good numbers (12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 51.0% FG), but statistics that he easily could have beefed up if he was more selfish with the ball.

Best Athlete

Jalen Jordan, St. Francis Brooklyn – With all due respect to the Red Flash’s Isaiah Blackmon, Jordan is a site to behold, a fluid athlete standing at 6-foot-3 who can drain triples as well as create shots for himself. His athleticism translates up to a higher level and his size makes him a difficult match-up, particularly when Glenn Braica trotted out a 3-guard lineup of Jordan, Glenn Sanabria and Chauncey Hawkins 21% of the time over the Terriers’ final five contests. I’ll leave you with this Ron Ratner tweet below. Good luck to the rest of league containing Jordan as an upperclassman…

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Best Rookie

Vado Morse, Mount St. Mary’s – It’s obvious Morse was the best rookie in the league. He won the league’s rookie of the week honor six times and posted double figures in scoring in 16 of 18 NEC games. But to really drive home the type of year Morse had, I put his advance statistics up against some of the best freshman guards the conference has seen in recent memory:

  • Morse, 2018-19: 101 ORtg, 49.4% eFG%, 21.7% assist rate, 38.4% FTA/FGA, 8.0% def rebounding rate
  • Cane Broome, 2014-15: 102 ORtg, 49.7% eFG%, 15.0% assist rate, 31.3% FTA/FGA, 11.6% def rebounding rate
  • Marcquise Reed, 2014-15: 104 ORtg, 53.1% eFG%, 18.6% assist rate, 32.6% FTA/FGA, 7.9% def rebounding rate
  • Kyle Vinales, 2011-12: 100 ORtg, 47.0% eFG%, 24.1% assist rate, 23.7% FTA/FGA, 5.6% def rebounding rate
  • Shivaughn Wiggins, 2012-13: 115 ORtg, 51.0% eFG%, 17.1% assist rate, 60.6% FTA/FGA, 6.0% def rebounding rate

More or less, Morse stacks up against some fantastic guards, considering that the other players mentioned above had far more experience around them compared to Morse. Case in point: Wiggins had a pair of NEC top 10 players in Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack flanking him, Reed was next to Lucky Jones and Rodney Pryor and Broome had an elite facilitator in Phil Gaetano setting him up. This makes Morse’s past season accomplishments all the more exceptional surrounded by one of the youngest teams in the nation. He’s easily a NEC top 10 playing entering his sophomore season.

A Quick Look Into the Future

I’ll leave you with a little prognostication into what the NEC Preseason First Team might look like come October. I think 3 of these names are locks to appear on the list with the final spot or two up for grabs. We’ll see!

  • Jahlil Jenkins, FDU – If the coaches leave Jenkins off the preseason first team after his omission from an all-conference team for the 2018-19 season, then I give up.
  • Keith Braxton, SFU – Well, of course.
  • E.J. Anosike, Sacred Heart – For those of you who didn’t follow the league five years ago, Anosike has a similar game to NEC great Jalen Cannon. That tells you the path Anosike is heading toward: greatness.
  • Raiquan Clark, LIU Brooklyn – I’m assuming he’s granted another year of eligibility and therefore making Derek Kellogg’s third year a lot less stressful.
  • Jalen Jordan, St. Francis Brooklyn – This was a tough call between Jordan and Isaiah Blackmon. Also Adam Grant and Bash Townes may be deserving.

Enjoy the offseason and I’ll talk to you along the way!

Thoughts and Reflections on the NEC Tournament Quarterfinals

March Madness has officially begun! For me, it honestly doesn’t get any better than watching four NEC tournament quarterfinals games on a weekday evening. The chaos that ensues for three hours is something to behold.

I did my best to absorb all of the Wednesday night action and wanted to record my thoughts of each contest. Even if it was with a heavy heart after my Pioneers lost a tough one to a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad. In fact, let’s start with the game in Fairfield…

Three-Point Shooting Carries LIU Brooklyn in NECT Upset

In one of my first years as a “glorious” blogger for NYC Buckets, I went to a game in Maryland. The road team lost that December matchup, mainly because they couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn. Afterwards, I sought out the head coach, but he wasn’t in much of a mood to talk to me. (And I don’t blame him.) His money quote to me that night ending up being something like, “If you don’t make shots on the road, you aren’t going to win.”

Ok, then.

As simplistic as that is – obviously the coach wasn’t about to share any of the hairy details for why his team shot so poorly – Anthony Latina likely felt the same way after the game last night. The Pioneers were hosting a NEC tournament quarterfinal for only the second time in nine seasons, and what unfortunately transpired was one of their worst shooting performances of the season. They converted a meager two triples out of 20 attempts after making 36.9% in 18 regular season games. Many of those misses were open looks, not necessary a product of LIU’s defense.

The charity stripe was unkind to the Pioneers as well – they left eight points off the scoreboard after shooting 63.6% in the contest, a far cry from their league leading 79.3% mark versus NEC competition. There may be no explanation other than the moment was possibly a little too big for the second least experienced team in the NEC.

On the flip side, a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad made the most of their opportunities from behind the arc, draining 11 of 24 (45.8%).

These two programs share some recent history in the NEC tournament, as each were exactly in the same position three years ago, at least with respect to their seeding. Back then in the 3-seed/6-seed matchup, the hosting Pioneers watched role player Iverson Fleming torch them in the first half, finishing the playoff contest with 18 points on 7 shots. Fleming had as many 3s (3 for 3) in the game as Sacred Heart had combined (3 for 20). This time around was almost like deja vu for Latina.

After making just two triples all season, Eral Penn made 3 of 5 from long distance. Jashaun Agosto, known far more for his ability to go downhill and attack the rim, made all three of his 3-point attempts. One of those buckets came at a critical time. With the shot clock winding down and the Blackbirds up three late, Agosto’s attempt at the top of the key found nothing but nylon, giving LIU a 2-possession cushion. As the old saying goes, guard play wins championships.

In all, six of Derek Kellogg’s players hit a 3-pointer and their free throw shooting down the stretch was just enough to keep the charging Pioneers at bay. When you hold a 27-point advantage from 3 and shoot 14 percentage points better from the charity stripe, you’re winning most of the time. You can afford to lose the battle on the backboards (-6), score less points in the paint (-12) and commit more turnovers (-5) as long as you do one thing significantly better than your opponent. The Blackbirds made shots on the road, and they won. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

A Highlight Reel in Hackensack

The Knights came into the NEC tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 11 of their last 13. They won those 11 by an average of 10 points per victory. They shot a blistering 51.1% (214 of 418) on their 2s, 47.3% on their 3s (88 of 186) and dished out 165 assists against 131 turnovers for a splendid 1.26 A/TO on those victorious nights. Their offense had basically matched the program’s incredible level three years prior, when a core of Darian Anderson, Stephon Jiggetts, Marques Townes and Earl Potts lead the league in offensive efficiency. The high flying, shot-making, crisp passing Knights under Greg Herenda were back and seniors Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge were a part of it for the second time.

Wagner was up against an offensive juggernaut, but if anyone could quell FDU’s attack it would be defensive mistro Bashir Mason, right? The start of the game were promising enough for Mason’s Seahawks. Two triples by Romone Saunders and Elijah Davis and two empty possessions by FDU spotted Wagner a 6-0 lead more than 3:30 in. And then the fireworks started in Hackensack. What transpired was an offensive masterpiece – the Knights closed the first half out with 43 points on their next 23 possession for an absurd 1.87 points per possession. In those 23 possessions, the Knights came up empty just four times, while scoring in their final seven times down the court.

When the dust settled, Wagner didn’t know what hit them, trailing 43-14. Five Knights scored in double figures led by NEC all-conference second teamer Holloway and his 18 points on 7 shots. The ever versatile Elyjah Williams had 17, while sharpshooter Darnell Edge “only” contributed with 15. Jahlil Jenkins was his heady floor general self, dishing out six assists versus just one turnover. How he didn’t make an all-conference team is beyond me, but I digress.

Greg Herenda now possesses a career record of 5-3 in the NEC tournament, including a perfect 3-0 mark at home. That flawless record at the Rothman Center will be tested with Andy Toole and the defensive minded Colonials coming to town. Does Matty McConnell guard Darnell Edge? Who do you match up on the suddenly resurgent Holloway? What is Toole’s game plan for keeping Jenkins in front of his defenders?

It’ll be a fascinating chess match on Saturday, but for now, let’s sit back and admire the beautiful team basketball Herenda’s group has exhibited over the past six weeks. It sure is fun to watch them in transition…

On the offensive glass…

And in the half court with the sick stepback…

This is a special offensive unit.

Robert Morris Finds a Way

Coming into tonight, the Terriers haven’t been good on the road (3-6 in NEC play) whereas the Colonials have taken well to the cozy NAC gym with a 7-2 mark against conference foes. Andy Toole had bested Glenn Braica twice this season, and has gone 7-2 at home in the NEC tournament. Conversely, Braica is 2-7 in the conference playoffs with his only two victories coming during the Terriers magical 23-win season in 2014-15.

Want more kindling on the fire? The best defense in the NEC is a perfect 11-0 in league play when they hold their opponents to under 65 points or less. St. Francis Brooklyn could only muster 0.88 points per possession in their two losses (49 and 62 points, respectively) to their Pennsylvania rival. Throw in a 400 mile trip from Brooklyn to Moon Township and all signs point toward an easy victory for the hosting Colonials. Right?

Not so fast.

(Image of KenPom Chart)

At that point in the contest, the Terriers held a 55-47 lead with 4 minutes remaining. KenPom gave them a 95% chance to pull out it out and would have given the program their first NEC tournament victory since their memorable 2014-15 campaign.

But then, Matty McConnell happened.

McConnell was awesome in what could’ve been his final game as a Colonial – he finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks (!) in what turned out to be an overtime victory. But it was also the Colonials defense that kept them alive in regulation, holding the Terriers to one point in their final 7 possessions in regulation. Malik Petteway, the modern day Chris Wray, put his stamp on the defensive effort.

The defense continued the momentum into the overtime, holding the shellshocked Terriers to one 3-pointer in five possessions. By then, the Colonials had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It was a phenomenal comeback led by McConnell and, surprise suprise, an Andy Toole coached defense. The victory was Toole’s 13th NEC tournament win against seven defeats.

Survive and Advance

It’s not easy having a bullseye on your back. Saint Francis University learned that lesson the hard way in last season’s NEC tournament when the 7-seeded FDU Knights upset the 2-seeded Red Flash in Loretto. In a similar situation yesterday, Rob Krimmel’s team jumped out to a comfortable 18-point lead at the half on the visiting Bryant Bulldogs.

One sluggish second half later and the Red Flash survived with a 4-point victory. It wasn’t pretty in that second stanza, but like Mount St. Mary’s (over Sacred Heart by 3 points in 2017 NECT QF) and Fairfield Dickinson (over SFU by 2 points in the 2016 NEC QF) before them, all you have to do is survive and advance. And that’s exactly what the kids from Loretto did. They may have only scored 1.03 ppp against the league’s worst defense from an efficiency standpoint, but the name of the game is to win.

The big four of SFU – Keith Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon, Jamaal King and Andre Wolford – combined for 54 of the team’s 67 points. They’ll be tested on Saturday when the defending NECT champions come to town having won 5 of their last 6.

The road to a NEC tournament championship is never easy.

 

A Look at the NEC’s Most Improved

As someone with two young kids, I’ve really come to appreciate efficiency. Getting everyone out the door, in the car, safely to daycare, and then to work in time for a 9:00 AM meeting poses major challenges without efficiency. And it increases my disdain for those who schedule 9:00 AM meetings.

If I make my lunch the evening before, that buys me five extra minutes to invest in the morning routine. If I lay out my clothes for the next day, there’s another two minutes. Change our toddler into his day clothes right after he wakes up in the morning, another minute. Back the car into the driveway the evening before so I don’t have to backout into the street the next morning, there’s 10 extra seconds! OK, maybe I’m a little crazy with this time efficiency stuff.

My love for efficiency extends to NEC hoops. I’m visiting KenPom.com more times each day than I’m going to my Facebook page. (Trust me, it’s better this way.) For this latest Overtime! Blog post I’m scouring KenPom to find some players who’ve greatly improved their efficiency numbers from last year. Consider this a compilation of the unofficial All-NEC Most Improved Team.

Let’s start with the most notable improver.

E.J. Anosike, Sacred Heart (87 ORtg in 2017-18 to 118 ORtg this season)

At NEC Social Media Day, Anthony Latina specifically targeted Anosike as someone who should strive to win the NEC’s Most Improved Player award. This declaration is close to coming to fruition, as Anosike, who no longer sits on the bench behind Joe Lopez and Mario Matasovic, has illustrated a stark improvement. The sophomore has excelled as the team’s primary power forward, improving his effective field goal percentage by almost 17 points in conference play! And that’s with far more usage. He’s expanded his shooting range (39.5% 3PT on 43 attempts), developed a much improved touch (60.3% on shots near the rim) and continues to rebound at a high level. Anosike’s statistic profile (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg), size, position and bull-in-the-china shop game had me wondering how he stacks up next to a NEC all-time great when he was a sophomore:

  • Anosike, 2018-19: 118 ORtg, 22% possession rate, 55% eFG, 18% def rebound rate, 57% FTA/FGA
  • Jalen Cannon, 2013-14: 117 ORtg, 24% possession rate, 51% eFG, 20% def rebound rate, 55% FTA/FGA

Wow, that’s a heck of a comp for Anosike!

Adam Grant, Bryant (94 ORtg in 2017-18 to 104 ORtg this season)

On the surface Grant’s counting numbers over his 3-year career (13.4 ppg as freshman, 15.6 ppg as sophomore, 15.4 ppg as junior) doesn’t illustrate improvement, but a look under the efficiency hood depicts a different tale. We have always respected his ability to drain clutch perimeter shots, a skill that makes him one of the more talented guards in the conference. His quick release that requires very little separation is impressive to watch. Case in point:

 

 

Honestly, you can fall into a Twitter wormhole watching clips of Adam Grant clutch 3s (trust me, there’s plenty of them)! He’s always been a shotmaker from day one, but the addition of freshman Joe Kasperzyk and grad transfer Byron Hawkins into the backcourt has helped reduce Grant’s burden, putting him in better spots to succeed. The talent infusion has led to Grant shooting a career best 37.4% from behind the arc (41.2% in league play), while sporting a career low turnover rate (14.1%). He basically isn’t sacrificing scoring despite fewer shot attempts. Efficiency!

Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Jenkins is the lifeblood of the Knights, handling the point guard duties while playing nearly 92% of the team’s minutes this season. That’s A LOT of playing time, and yet Jenkins has managed to take a page out of the uber-efficient Glenn Sanabria book – post an assist rate north of 20%, turn the ball over infrequently with respect to a floor general and offer consistent production from behind the arc (37.8% in NEC play) and at the free throw line (88.6%, 37th nationally). It comes as no surprise that FDU is one of the most efficient offenses in league play, with the multi-faceted Jenkins playing a vital role.

Raul Frias, LIU Brooklyn (107 ORtg in 2017-18 to 120 ORtg this season)

The senior guard from Miami is the epitome of instant offense off the bench. With his long-range moxie as the focal point, Frias is posting the third highest efficiency rating in league play while also registering a solid 2.7% steal rate. He’s made a three-pointer in 17 of his last 18 games, a remarkable sign of consistency for someone who plays just 48% of the LIU Brooklyn’s minutes. Compared to last season, Frias has improved his scoring production by 290% (3.0 ppg to 8.7 ppg) and his rebounding numbers by 231% (1.3 rpg to 3.0 rpg), while improving his defensive profile as well. On a Blackbirds squad that prides itself on getting out in transition, Frias has emerged as the reliable scoring threat camped out behind the three-point line.


Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart
(112 ORtg in 2017-18 to 135 ORtg this season)

This tweet was probably what spurred the idea for me to write this post in the first place:

 

LaRose has always been an efficient player – competent three-point shooters who don’t turn the ball over usually are – but this year has been exceptional. He’s clearly the beneficiary of more talent around him, compared to last season when he and Sean Hoehn were forced to do much of the heavy lifting in the backcourt. Now with Cam Parker, Koreem Ozier and Aaron Clarke in the mix, LaRose has slotted into an off-the-bench, stretch-four role which has enhanced his strengths. There’s more space for him to make outside shots, he’s able to finish near the rim by blowing by bigger defenders and his savvy positioning has made him a sneaky good offensive rebounder (8.2% offensive rebound rate).

And now for an unconventional bonus selection…

 

Vado Morse, Mount St. Mary’s (111 ORtg this season)

Yes, the probable NEC Rookie of the Year obviously didn’t play for the Mount last season, yet his improved efficiency has been noteworthy from an intra-season standpoint. The Mount played a difficult non-conference schedule full of bigger, physical defenses which surely impacted Morse’s play from the start. Mount coach Dan Engelstad agrees, but he also believes there are other factors at play besides the non-conference schedule.

“Yeah I think that’s part of it, but I also think the game’s starting to slow down for him,” he said with respect to Morse’s improvement against NEC competition. “I think he’s done a lot of film study, I think he’s really become a student of the game, finding out where he can best put himself and our team in good situations and I think that’s showing up lately.”

In league play, Morse has been unguardable at times, showcasing a lethal quick release on the perimeter while flying by defenders when he puts the ball on the floor. Truth be told, he’s one of the toughest players to guard one-on-one, a scary predicament down the road for opposing NEC coaches. He’s posted a KenPom offensive rating of 100 or higher in 10 of 16 league games, compared to 4 of 10 in non-conference play. Any player who’s showing his productivity by shooting 56% from 2, 37% from 3 and 76% from the free throw line in league play, should be viewed as a serious candidate for an all-conference team.

And now for some honorable mention guys:

Deion Bute, Central Connecticut (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 111 ORtg this season)
Joe Hugley, Central Connecticut (105 ORtg in 2017-18 to 109 ORtg this season)

Both junior college transfers have seen a steady growth the second year in Donyell Marshall’s system, although for Bute, it could be argued that he would’ve been more efficient in 2017-18 had he not injured his knee halfway through league play.

Elijah Davis, Wagner (95 ORtg in 2017-18 to 101 ORtg this season)

As awesome as Romone Saunders is, Davis may be just as critical to Bashir Mason from an offensive standpoint. In games where Davis has posted an offensive rating north of 100, Wagner is 10-3.

Chris Coalman, Robert Morris (93 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Coalman may have a limited role in Andy Toole’s rotation, yet something is going right when you’ve made 61% of your shot attempts, some of which came from downtown.

Randall Gaskins, Saint Francis U (intra-season improvement)

Gaskins struggled with his offense during the non-conference campaign, but has since rebounded big time to post a 64.3% effective field goal rate against conference foes.

Loyalty the Name of the Game for Many #NECMBB Stars, Past and Present

The thought weighed on Glenn Sanabria’s mind for quite some time. With a difficult decision looming, he wanted to speak with his coach, Glenn Braica, sooner rather than later. Theoretically, the point guard could’ve waited until the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign to air his concerns, one that pitted academics and his love for Terrier hoops against each other. But he believed initiating the discussion was prudent.

“His mom wanted him to take grad classes for his fifth year and at the time we talked about it, (St. Francis Brooklyn) didn’t have the grad program that he wanted,” Braica recalled of his past conversation with Sanabria. “And I said ‘look we’ll support you either way.’”

Then entering his fourth year at St. Francis Brooklyn – and third year of eligibility – Sanabria didn’t know if the college situated on Remsen Street would be a fit for him at a graduate level. St. Francis wasn’t offering the Organizational Management program that he desired, and it put him in an awkward position.

Would he stay loyal to Braica, the first coach to offer him a Division I scholarship, or would he become a graduate transfer after the season? Given the Staten Island native’s reputation as a heady, tenacious floor general, the prospect of transferring to a bigger Division I program that offered a graduate degree in Organizational Management seemed inviting.

While some players would’ve left Brooklyn under this scenario, Sanabria is wired differently compared to the average student-athlete. It’s loyalty that reigns supreme for him, even as the allure of competing on a bigger stage would’ve enticed another player in his position in this day and age. He chose to remain a Terrier.

“In my mind I’m confident I can play in any type of situation, but it wasn’t really about that,” Sanabria, who was 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, said. “And then even more after the season, I still feel like there’s more to prove here with the team.”

It worked out in the end, as St. Francis ended up adding Organizational Management to its list of graduate programs in time for the 2018 fall semester.

A myriad of factors ultimately aided Sanabria’s decision to stay, but first and foremost, loyalty stood out. That certainly wasn’t a surprise to Sanabria’s former teammate, Jalen Cannon, who lauded Sanabria for his maturity, poise and dedication as a freshman starter, when Cannon was a senior, on a 23-win Terrier squad that won the NEC regular season championship.

A few years prior, Cannon himself had an opportunity to leverage a successful two-year stint – 11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 55.6% FG as an underclassman – at St. Francis into something bigger. Like Sanabria though, Cannon’s devotion to the first and only Division I coach to offer him a scholarship took precedence over anything else.

“I never even thought about transferring after my freshman or sophomore year,” Cannon, the 2014-15 NEC Player of the Year and all-time leading rebounder in league history, revealed via email while in Italy, as he plays professionally for Fortitudo Agrigento in Sicily. “There were always people back home who tried to convince me to see what bigger schools were out there. I felt I owed Coach Braica everything.”

Junior Robinson, another fellow NEC Player of the Year who was a point guard adversary of Sanabria several times, is grateful he decided to stick it out at the Mount for the entirety of his college career. The multi-faceted 5-foot-5 guard certainly had the athleticism and playmaking skills to call a Power 5 program his home during the latter half of his college career.

Again, it was about staying true to the coach that believed in you first before anyone else did. “He’s helped me really mature, as a player and a person,” Robinson said of Jamion Christian, then the coach of Mount St. Mary’s. “There are times where I would make immature choices on and off the court and he would just pull me to his office and sit and talk with me for hours.”

The tough-love bond Robinson shared with Christian was paramount in helping him decide that staying in Emmitsburg, Maryland was the right decision. And that’s even when the star guard saw a number of his teammates voluntarily defect, for various reasons, over the course of his Mountaineers tenure.

Robinson’s devotion paid off, starting with a trip to the NCAA tournament as a junior, followed by an exceptional senior season – 22.0 ppg, 4.8 apg, 1.2 spg on an 18-win Mountaineers team. To top it off, the North Carolina native is playing professionally for Saenz Horeca Araberri in Spain and delighted fans with a scintillating 20-point performance in his NBA summer league finale last August for the Atlanta Hawks.

While the personal and team accolades are noteworthy in their own right, Robinson’s decision to remain a Mountaineer helped him grow as a leader on a team that had 13 freshmen in his final season.

Speaking via WhatsApp from Spain after practice, Robinson realizes now how much those leadership lessons helped him in becoming the player he is now. Had he moved onto a bigger program and became more of a role player instead of “the man”, it’s likely that leadership training wouldn’t have presented itself.

“He basically forced me to lead that group of 13 freshmen,” Robinson said of Christian. “He made me be the one to always talk to them, to call up group meetings, I had to do all that stuff. It was really out of my comfort zone, because I wasn’t used to that.”

———-

The loyalty of the college basketball student-athlete is becoming more of a rarity these days. With better resources, more television exposure and more opportunities to fine tune your game and body before a professional basketball endeavor, some players are understandably taking their careers into their own hands.

While those positives do exist for the past Northeast Conference stars such as Matt Mobley (St. Bonaventure), Marcquise Reed (Clemson), Cane Broome (Cincinnati) and Josh Nebo (Texas A&M), it’s the other transfers that aren’t necessarily looking to move up; instead, they opt to leave a situation that hasn’t materialized to their liking. In some cases, they’re leaving in the face of adversity.

According to Verbal Commits, there were 877 transfers in Division I after the 2017-18 season. More specifically, less than half of those transfers went back to a Division I program, with the remainder either going to Division 2, NAIA, or 2-year colleges. The data illustrates that while the up-transfers have generated much of the attention at the mid-major level, it’s the players who leave after a lack of playing time as underclassmen, and subsequently transfer down, that’s become more prevalent.

This player movement is all fine with Greg Herenda, even though he’s seen his fair share of transfers – up-transfers and the like – over the course of his six-year run as Fairleigh Dickinson’s head coach. He understands the mentality of a player’s decision to transfer, and the positives that decision may provide. But he’s also indebtedly thankful that his current seniors, Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway, are around as 4-year players when either could have left as underclassmen, for different reasons.

“I think it goes way beyond basketball,” Herenda explained at NEC Social Media Day this past October. “It shows them in life – and our mantra is C.P.A., commitment, persevere and achieve – it goes way beyond basketball, that these young men, instead of looking at the grass being greener or just things don’t go well and they jump ship, that in life they’re going to stick with and commit to something. And then when things aren’t perfect, like the end of (last season) right here in Brooklyn was very hard [Fairleigh Dickinson lost to LIU Brooklyn in the NEC tournament semifinals, 78-77], but guess what? You have to persevere through it.”

Herenda then went on to discuss a couple of his players, past and present. “And I applaud Marques Townes (who transferred to Loyola Chicago), I’m a big Marques Townes fan, but guess what, that was his path. And in this day and age, everyone’s paths in life and in basketball vary, but I just think Darnell Edge punching the clock and putting that (NCAA free throw shooting statistical champion) plaque on our locker room and putting (up) an NCAA appearance and now being the face of our program just shows so much about the individual.”

Edge didn’t see much of floor as a freshman, blocked by a talented backcourt that featured Darian Anderson, Stephan Jiggetts and the aforementioned Townes. His playing time as a result wasn’t consistent and fell to a little more than 9 minutes per game over the team’s final seven games. Nevertheless, Edge trusted that if he put the work in, the playing time would eventually come.

And it did. As a junior, Edge earned a spot on the All-NEC third team after leading all NCAA Division I players in free throw percentage (94.4%). He averaged 14.5 ppg and led his team in 3-pointers made (60), steals (40) and minutes played (34.1 mpg) en route to a well deserved team MVP award. At NEC Social Media Day, Herenda called Edge “an incredible leader on and off the floor.”

Holloway, like Cannon before him, likely had the chance to up-transfer after two successful seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson. With his 6-foot-11 brother Rashaan playing in the Atlantic 10 at UMass, Holloway was certainly cognizant of the brighter lights he could be exposed to, so to speak.  

“Honestly my brother would tell me all the time, you belong at a bigger school,” Holloway said when asked about the influences he encountered after his sophomore year. “Sometimes he’d say you belong bigger than where I’m at.”

Rashaan was, of course, looking out for his brother’s best interest, but in the long run the younger Mike wanted to be at the place where he was most comfortable. “I still decided to stick it out because I believe I belong in a FDU Knights uniform,” he said.

Holloway also has forged a critical partnership with his head coach, even if getting there has been, well, bumpy at times. “Honestly, the guy, he’s crazy,” Holloway said with a smile when asked why he remained loyal to Herenda. “He gets on my nerves, but he’ll push you to play harder and to push his team to win and that’s honestly the two best things I love about him.”

Comfort, paired with staunch loyalty, can be credited as a driving force much of the time when NEC players want to be a part of their respective program’s history. Holloway is very much aware of that, as is his cousin and fellow All-NEC preseason first team recipient, Keith Braxton.

When Braxton explains his reasoning for not transferring from Saint Francis University after a stupendous start to his collegiate career, he always goes back to loyalty, comfort and community. It’s the least he could do after Rob Krimmel and the Red Flash emerged as one of the only Division I destinations for Braxton to consider after his preparatory season at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

“I just wanted a chance and that was it and they gave me more than that,” Braxton said when asked about his noteworthy loyalty. “You know they helped develop me, they made me a better person here.”

In the midst of his tough decision last offseason on whether to stay the course at Saint Francis, one thing became obviously apparent to Braxton: “I was talking to a lot of guys and the culture that they build up here in Loretto, everybody up here is family, everyone is close, the coaching staff, the players and you know it’s just a community around here. You just always have someone to talk to, whether it’s alumni, current players and coaches. That’s the kind of bond I wanted when I was looking for a school.”

Braxton is positioning himself as one of the all time greats, not just at Saint Francis, but also within the NEC. The junior currently stands with 1,323 points, 792 rebounds, 284 assists and 139 steals and has the opportunity to become the first conference player to score 2,000 points and corral 1,000 rebounds in league history.

Former LIU Brooklyn great and three-time NEC champion Jamal Olasewere appreciates where someone like Braxton is coming from. He understands what it means to build your entire career at one institution. He stands as LIU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,871 points and, perhaps more importantly, was a significant part of the Blackbirds unprecedented three-year dynasty as NEC tournament champions and NCAA tournament participants from 2011-13. Even if one player – Olasewere, Kyle Johnson, Julian Boyd, Jason Brickman, CJ Garner – from that spectacular core decided to test the transfer waters, then the dynasty likely never happens and history is never made.

For Olasewere, he’ll never forget about being part of LIU Brooklyn and NEC lore, but building those relationships that last a lifetime takes the cake. Especially when he goes back to the LIU Brooklyn campus every summer during the offseason of his professional career.

“I was able to cement myself as a legend in that school, not just with basketball, but off the court,” Olasewere confirmed from Italy, where he is a professional player for Remer TVG. “You make so many friends with professors, faculty, staff, you know you go there and they just remember you. You’ve been there for the four years, I’m not even just talking about the basketball, I’m just talking about the relationships you’re able to garner from staying in that school. And those kind of things are the things that go on for a lifetime.”

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The NEC is fully aware that loyalty, comfort and community serve as the main reasons for past and present players staying within the league. The conference’s recent All In, Ball Out campaign has focused on bringing out these core values by enhancing the overall experience for student-athletes, primarily in men’s and women’s basketball. While these initiatives were specifically rolled out at the latest NEC Social Media Day, this was actually the second part of a multi-year process the league has undertaken. In truth, this has been a priority long before transfers were a major storyline of the college basketball offseason.

With basketball officially at the forefront of the league’s attention over the past two years, NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris and her colleagues have made a concerted effort in retaining their student athletes. “There was a plan and we attacked it from all different perspectives, but all with the intention of elevating the level of play and also elevating the atmosphere around our games so that our student-athletes are getting a better experience,” Morris said.

Initiatives that revolve around optimizing non-conference scheduling, improving game promotions and activities, and requiring programs to add on-campus fueling stations for their players are just some of the examples the league’s programs have willingly implemented of late.

The All In, Ball In rollout comes at an ideal time, with eight of the league’s top 11 scorers in their third, fourth or fifth season at their respective school. This is a departure from recent seasons, when the leaderboard would be littered with upstart underclassmen or former transfers.

This year, those top scorers populating the list such as Raiquan Clark, Romone Saunders, Sean Hoehn, Edge, Braxton, Adam Grant, SaBastian Townes and Jamaal King illustrate what hard work and perseverance will bring the NEC student-athlete if they’re fully committed to their basketball program. A few of them were even part of the All In, Ball Out media campaign that began this preseason.

While it’s difficult to determine how much this campaign has helped in retaining talent, Morris is optimistic that the opportunities presented for upperclassmen will work to the league’s benefit. “I think we’ve built up a nice community of student-athletes and they feel like a part of something, so we’re trying to build on that,” she said.

Clark was a former walk-on who easily could’ve jumped ship until Jack Perri offered him a scholarship as a sophomore. Saunders has seen several teammates over his five-year tenure transfer, yet he decided to stay with Bashir Mason and Wagner even though his bruising, 6-foot-3 body would’ve been an asset in a bigger program’s backcourt. Through a work ethic that’s second to none, Hoehn has progressed from a role player to an efficient volume scorer. Edge and King could’ve determined their programs weren’t a fit after one season of light playing time and opted for a change of scenery as sophomores. Grant and Townes could’ve used the recent coaching change at Bryant as an excuse to explore what else was out there on the Division I landscape.

For each of them, loyalty, comfort and community likely played a role in their decision. And while student-athletes are putting their own collegiate careers into their own hands, and sometimes rightfully so, it’s refreshing to know that these core values aren’t lost on all of them. The Northeast Conference has had their fair share of recent successes of four and five-year players and will continue to do so moving forward. And the league is hopeful their efforts from a school and conference level will be fruitful from a competitive standpoint.

As the former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence.” The NEC has plenty of college basketball student-athletes who are living by this mantra everyday.

We’re Excited About the Battle of Brooklyn ’15…Here’s Why You Should Be Too

The Battle of Brooklyn not only spotlights the NEC’s fiercest rivalry, but almost without fail delivers some of the most compelling television when it is airs annually as part of the conference package.

When the LIU Brooklyn – St. Francis Brooklyn rivalry is renewed on Saturday at the Pope Center (TV: MSG, FCS at 4 pm), there will be plenty of hype, and deservedly so.  But can the game top these recent LIU-SFBK TV thrillers?

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