[Editor’s Note: Post originally appeared on A Daly Dose of Hoops where I’m a staff writer.]
At the start of a new season, teams don’t necessarily forget the past’s accomplishments or failures, but they certainly do try to learn and grow from them. Depending on how they finished the year prior is how they will be fairly or unfairly judged.
As the 2016-17 season fades further away, the 2017-18 one fast approaches. Roster turnover through graduation and transfers, including the change of a coach, are what is on the minds of many who follow the Northeast Conference, and so also goes the predictions of where every team may or may not be positioned at season’s end.
Among the favorite responses to all this annual hoopla for this writer came from Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello, who tweeted the following in two weeks ago:
— Stephen Masiello (@steve_masiello) October 24, 2017
The yearly coaches’ poll is a way to sort out who could hoist the conference title at the end of it all, or be completely off and not see how good a team really is. Look no further than Saint Francis University. Rob Krimmel’s Red Flash went from being picked ninth, next-to-last in the conference last year to the predicted winner of the NEC this year, returning the bulk of a roster that reached the conference championship game last March.
NEC teams being focused on in this preview are Wagner, LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis Brooklyn.
SAUNDERS, COOPER WIND BENEATH SEAHAWKS’ WINGS
Bashir Mason had his Wagner team literally seconds away from reaching the NEC championship for a second straight year. On the improbable off-balance three-point make by Saint Francis University’s outstanding rookie, Keith Braxton, the Seahawks were precluded from redeeming themselves with the chance to win a championship ring.
Something that may be asked of Mason throughout the season, depending on how his team plays, are the huge losses of Corey Henson, Michael Carey, and Mike Aaman to either transfer or graduation. Those three core players were crucial to the team’s success the last couple years. However, it is a brand new season, so the outlook is a positive one right now and Mason thinks this new group he has is going to be “a really good one.”
“This is probably one of my favorite teams overall to coach,” Mason said. “In the past, we’ve always returned a good core group of the guys. So when we started out, you really couldn’t tell how good we were or if guys were getting better because we had so many guys who already knew what we were doing. But this group, having so many new faces, I’ve been actually able to see the growth in these guys, which is rewarding for me as a coach. We’ve also just got good guys on the team that I like being around, so it’s been fun for me.”
Part of the somewhat new-look Seahawks are three recruits Mason specifically referenced: Chase Freeman, Nigel Jackson and Tyler Plummer. As for the glaring question of how Mason replaces the seemingly irreplaceable Henson, Carey and Aaman? One player, according to Mason, could be the answer: Romone Saunders.
Remember him? He was the player who went down in the team’s first game of last
season at UConn with a broken bone in his left foot that later required surgery.
“I’ve said it to people in the past and I still believe it. Romone Saunders, a year ago, was our best player,” Mason said. “Being able to have him in the mix for us this year, you know, a lot of people say you lost Corey Henson, Mike Carey. But for us as a staff it’s not even a second thought that Romone in a bigger role is going to fill those voids probably more than people would imagine.”
Say Saunders fills in the basketball punch. What about the locker room voice? In comes JoJo Cooper. He, of course, will have the help of Saunders and AJ Sumbry, but Cooper has embraced his new role on the team.
“It’s a lot,” Cooper said. “It’s the final grind, I’m a senior, I got a bigger responsibility. It’s a lot on my plate, but I’m ready.”
Over the summer, Cooper took his teammates on a paintballing trip to have everyone be together and just simply hang out. Mason said a leadership move like that brings people of different backgrounds to look out for the best interests of others and grow genuine care off the court. He said he’s already seeing the bond carry over to the court.
KELLOGG ERA BEGINS FOR BLACKBIRDS
“We’re going to make noise immediately.”
Those above words were emphatically stated without hesitation by Derek Kellogg, the newly hired LIU Brooklyn head men’s basketball coach, at his introductory press conference in April. Since then, he signed two fifth-year players in Zach Coleman from his former program at UMass, and Jamall Robinson from Hofstra.
“My initial goal when I was able to get the job was to try to bring a couple of fifth-year guys just to alleviate the experience factor,” Kellogg said. He likens Coleman and Robinson to Joel Hernandez and Raiquan Clark in that they are older, mature and physical. Following in their lead are a handful of sophomores, most notably Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto. After those named players, Kellogg would hope to see someone else step up, even going so far as to mention Julius van Sauers and Raul Frias as two possibilities.
“The locker room has great energy,” Hernandez said when asked about how the team has been with each other so far. “We’re pretty much close already. The fifth-year guys came in and have done a really good job of gelling with us early, so there’s not any problems with chemistry. I feel like we’re going to have a really good year.”
TERRIERS COULD BE YANKEES OF NEC
Worst to first? Maybe not, better than a 2-16 record in conference? Most definitely.
We don’t mean to continue to drum to the beat of it being a new season, but to quote St. Francis Brooklyn guard Glenn Sanabria, “we have a new type of team.” Almost every team in the NEC has a ton of new faces save for preseason favorite Saint Francis University. The conference this year is extremely up for the taking.
“It’s more about how we’re going to build something this year instead of thinking about last year,” Sanabria said. “The people that were here last year, we obviously know what we did wrong, will try to assess that and now bring new guys in with a new attitude that we need to win some games. The new people that are on this team are willing to buy in and they have the right mindset, so we’ll be fine.”
Glenn Braica, the Terriers’ head coach, wants to see who can step up on what is going to be another young roster. It is one with experience, he said, but hard to tell how they’ll actually play. He said he’s going to look for things to teach them and work with them on and not worry so much about the outside noise.
“It’s New York,” he added. “The Yankees lost, people are down about that too. I don’t know why people are down on us. We’ll be a lot better than people think.”
In early August, Sanabria referenced the Terriers taking a team trip to practice to create chemistry, experience long bus rides, and face good competition. Overall, it was a test that he said has helped now in practice because each player has a better knowledge of the system. With that know-how, he said the locker room has a positive attitude and spirit.
“With the group from 2014-15 (NEC regular season champions) with what they did,” Braica said, “this group probably has as much or more basketball ability, but they’re not there yet because they don’t have any experience. Those guys weren’t great right off the bat and they had to go through some tough times to get to where they wanted to go. They were resilient, they kept fighting and they were tough kids. That’s what we need this group to be.”