New York City is sitting atop the NEC
New York City is the geographic midpoint of NEC, but now it is the place where the standings are concentrated as well. The top three teams in the league all hail from inside the five boroughs of the greatest city in the world.
As recently as a few seasons ago that would’ve seemed awfully strange. From 2004-05 through the 2009-10 season none of the New York schools finished in the top three of the NEC standings. That all changed when LIU Brooklyn (formerly Long Island) went 15-2 and won the conference title last season.
In 2011-12 conference play is two-thirds of the way complete and the trio of LIU, Wagner and St. Francis (NY) have lost just one game to a team outside the city limits. That would be LIU’s 75-66 loss at Robert Morris on January 26.
But it’s the Blackbirds that are currently atop the NEC standings at 11-1. That one blemish to the Colonials is their only defeat. Jim Ferry’s team also managed to hand Wagner its only two losses this season. Coincidentally, the Seahawks gave the Terriers their only two losses of the season as well.
And so the NYC-centric NEC standings spin. The Terriers might sit at 10-2, but they’ve certainly got a bit of the “nobody believes in us,” syndrome going still. Picked 11th (next to last) in the NEC preseason poll Glenn Braica’s young squad was supposed to be at least a year away after having to replace team leaders Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell. Instead a new cast of characters has flourished. Even when starting point guard Dre Calloway was lost for the season the team didn’t panic.
Instead Braica has embraced his youthful team. Young players like forward Jalen Cannon and point guard Brent Jones have assumed key roles earlier, and better, than expected. Sure, they’re prone to mistakes — the Terriers rank 11th in the conference in turnover percentage at 24.4% of their offensive possessions — but they’ve picked up a fast, fun style of play that has worn down most opponents. Just three times during conference play has St. Francis failed to score more than a point per possession (the two losses to Wagner and a win at Mount St. Mary’s).
Braica’s enjoying coaching them too.
“They’re good guys. They work, they listen, they focus for the most part,” he said after a win last Thursday over Central Connecticut. “No kids are perfect, but I look forward to seeing them every day, which is good.”
This week is rivalry week in the NEC and that means that St. Francis gets a chance to prove itself against LIU. The two teams will meet in the second half of a double-header at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night after St. John’s plays Cincinnati and then the Blackbirds and Terriers play the Battle of Brooklyn on Sunday at the Wellness Recreation and Athletic Center (WRAC) on LIU’s campus at 4:30 p.m. The game will also be broadcast on MSG, but if you can make it, there should be offense aplenty.
That’s because LIU, the current class of the NEC, only knows how to score. Behind 1,000-point junior forwards Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere the Blackbirds pack a lot of punch. The Blackbirds are the third fastest team in the country according to adjusted tempo at almost 75 possessions per game. They attack relentlessly, which shows up in their 48.5% free throw rate, fifth best in the nation. The Blackbirds are so talented that forward Kenny Onyechi can come off bench.
“You’re really bringing off someone that could be starting on other teams,” said Ferry about Onyechi. “It just makes us tremendously deep in the front court.”
It’s players like Boyd, Olasewere, Onyechi and point guard Jason Brickman that give LIU the best talent in the league right now.
The qualifier is required because of the work that Dan Hurley and his staff are doing on Staten Island. Wagner is getting a lot of attention, racking up wins (the Seahawks are 19-4 including a win over Pittsburgh) and waiting for another chance at LIU in the conference tournament. Two losses by a combined 12 points have left Hurley’s club with long shot odds for the all important home court advantage throughout the NEC tournament (March 1, 4, 7 at campus sites), but they continue to be a threat. Wagner has veteran leadership in Tyler Murray, plus an outstanding scorer in sophomore Latif Rivers. Rivers just won his second NEC Player of the Week award of the season on Monday after averaging 19 points per game in two victories.
Lots has been written about Hurley and the remarkable job he’s done on Staten Island, but the story isn’t finished. The Seahawks will need to figure out a way to get over the teams from Brooklyn in the NEC tournament in order to make the NCAAs. But at least they’ll get to stay in a New York state of mind.