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Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Updated: August 10, 6:47 PM ET
NEC ShootAround: Can anyone knock off the Mount?

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AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen

Mount St. Mary's made legendary coach Jim Phelan proud with its NCAA tourney berth.

Revival of the Mount

In the locker room after the biggest win of his career, Mount St. Mary's head coach Milan Brown knew he needed to make a phone call.

Legendary former Mount coach Jim Phelan, he of the perpetual bow tie and the 830 wins in 49 seasons at the school, was at home, too nervous to actually watch the Mountaineers' 68-55 win at Sacred Heart that sent them to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. Phelan's son had been giving him periodic updates, but Brown wanted his mentor to know firsthand that the Mount was back in the Dance. Brown did two stints as an assistant under Phelan before taking over for him after the 2002-03 season, and he understands how influential Phelan has been on his own career.

"For us to win the championship, it was really the only way I could say thank you to him," Brown said. "It's the only thing I can give him to show the appreciation for what he's done for me as a young head coach."

What the win has done for Brown is help the program establish a post-Phelan identity, one built on a rugged defense and, from the halfway point of last season, a more dynamic, transition-oriented offense that saw the Mountaineers increase their scoring by 12.1 points a game over their final 16 games. Not even a first-round matchup with explosive North Carolina made Brown want to change his team's newfound ways. Ultimately, Carolina's depth and talent overwhelmed the NEC champs, but for the first 15 minutes of the game, the Mountaineers were finding all sorts of open looks.

"It wasn't fair to the kids or the staff to try to completely change the way we play in three days," Brown said, "so we just went with what brought us there. … That game helped us for this season. It gave our guys confidence in how we play."

In a bigger picture, Coach Phelan is not in the [Naismith Basketball] Hall of Fame. So anytime we can a chance to get [on TV] like that, I feel good because I know it's another opportunity for other people who may not know what he's done, to put it in a bigger spotlight.

--Milan Brown, Mount St. Mary's coach

They should be confident coming into this season. The Mountaineers return seven of their top eight rotation players, including talented lead guard Jeremy Goode, in a league where a majority of the teams were hit very hard by graduation and/or transfers. Still, Brown remains wary, as the one player not back in the fold is Chris Vann, a perimeter sharpshooter and emotional leader.

"We actually don't have anyone who can replace Chris," Brown said. "He was such a good shooter for us and a clutch shooter, and he was one of our toughest players, so we'll probably have to do it by committee to replace what he gave us."

On the plus side, Brown sees Vann's departure as a chance to play a bigger, more athletic lineup. The pairing of Vann, a 6-footer, with Goode, listed at 5-foot-9, gave the Mountaineers a small backcourt last season. The chance to play larger and quicker players for Vann's minutes could be bad news for the rest of a league where the Mount already was one of the most talented and physical squads.

"I thought they were the best team in the league pretty much all year," said Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore, whose team split with the Mountaineers in the regular season before losing to them by 10 in the NEC quarterfinals. "I was so impressed with their talent, how hard they played and what a good job Milan did coaching them."

Mount St. Mary's likely will be the preseason pick to win the league, which is the kind of attention Brown said he would welcome. If the season plays out as it looks on paper, the Mount has a solid chance to be the first NEC team to win back-to-back tournament titles since Rider (now in the MAAC) in 1993 and '94. And if the Mountaineers do return to the Dance, Brown knows it will be another chance to honor Phelan and his legacy.

"In a bigger picture, Coach Phelan is not in the [Naismith Basketball] Hall of Fame," Brown said. "So anytime we can a chance to get [on TV] like that, I feel good because I know it's another opportunity for other people who may not know what he's done, to put it in a bigger spotlight."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Changing of the guards (and forwards)
Eight of the 10 first- and second-team all-league performers last season were seniors, which means there are gaping holes all over the league as teams try to figure out how to replace their top scoring options. Defending tourney champ Mount St. Mary's loses second-leading scorer Chris Vann. Regular-season champ Robert Morris loses league player of the year Tony Lee and second-teamer A.J. Jackson. Wagner will be without first-teamers Mark Porter and Durell Vinson. Sacred Heart loses its top two scorers. Quinnipiac will badly miss DeMario Anderson's 21.7 ppg. Central Connecticut is without leading scorer Tristan Blackwood. Even last season's lower-division teams will feel the exodus, with players like Fairleigh Dickinson's Manny Ubilla (20.8 ppg) gone and Monmouth's Jhamar Youngblood transferring to Rider.

Will the Mount repeat?
The Mountaineers certainly should be favored to. Losing Vann hurts, but the Mountaineers have a lot more besides Jeremy Goode coming back from a team that surged down the stretch before pummeling Robert Morris and Sacred Heart on the road to capture the league's NCAA bid. Watch for league tournament MVP Jean Cajou, wing Will Holland and athletic forward Sam Atupem, who in a move Brown labeled as a last-ditch option, did a credible job slowing down NEC player of the year Lee in the tournament semifinals.

If not the Mount, then who?
That's a more difficult question, given all of the departures. Sacred Heart and Robert Morris still have pretty good nuclei of talent. Central Connecticut has two members of the league's all-rookie team last season to go with a couple of competent upperclassmen. Fairleigh Dickinson is reloading quickly with some talented transfers and the expected return of star guard Cameron Tyler after he sat out last season because of academic issues. Given the typical amount of competitive balance in the league, it wouldn't be surprising to see one of these teams (or someone else) step up to challenge Mount St. Mary's, even if the Mountaineers are deemed to be the strong preseason favorite.

Rice twice as nice?
It's hard to have a better debut season than coach Mike Rice did at Robert Morris, leading the Colonials a program-best 26 wins after taking the reins from Mark Schmidt when he left for Saint Bonaventure. The Colonials had won 18 of their last 19 games before the shocking 18-point home loss to Mount St. Mary's in the NEC semifinals. What can Rice do for an encore? Replacing two-thirds of RMU's dangerous offensive troika will be difficult, but leading scorer Jeremy Chappell (14.9 ppg) is back, as is backcourt mate Jimmy Langhurst (9.6 ppg). Another 26-win campaign is most unlikely, but having a shot at the league's auto bid at season's end might not be.

Bottom's up
Mount St. Mary's coach Milan Brown said he started talking to his team about being in the NCAA tournament's opening-round game in the locker room immediately after the NEC title game, to mentally prepare his players for the possibility. That's the reality of the situation when your league has received no better than a 16-seed in each of the past four seasons. That could change this season if Mount St. Mary's wins the league's bid. The Mountaineers loaded up their nonconference schedule with road games at Virginia Tech, George Mason and Georgetown, along with trips to American, Penn State and La Salle. If the Mount can pick a couple of name wins and make a strong run through the league, it could bump up to a 15-seed (or better) and give itself a more legitimate chance to win an NCAA tourney game.

If I were commish …

The commissioner must start to look at the criteria for membership and address the schism that has occurred from one spectrum to the other. Quinnipiac has a state-of-the art facility and pays its head coach more than $200,000 per year, but St. Francis (N.Y.) plays in what some say isn't even as good as a top high school gym.

Bryant University (R.I.) is entering the league, and Bryant plans on spending money. The league will increase to 12 teams, but there need to be some tougher standards -- with facilities, salaries and scheduling -- put forth as membership requirements to ensure the league maintains a high standard.

2008-09 Team Capsules

NEC
CCSUCentral Connecticut St.
The Blue Devils have a nice core of talent returning with two upperclassmen, forward Marcus Palmer and guard Joe Seymore, pairing with two all-rookie teamers in guard Shemik Thompson and forward Ken Horton. The loss of leading scorer Tristan Blackwood (16.4 ppg) is something CCSU will have to overcome, but the Blue Devils' real issues last season came on the defensive end. They allowed opponents an effective field goal percentage of 51.4 percent and were especially vulnerable from behind the arc, where opponents shot 36.2 percent. Finding a way to stop teams more often at the defensive end might be a more plausible way to make up for the scoring that went away with the loss of Blackwood.

FDUFairleigh Dickinson
FDU suffered through a rough 8-20 campaign last season and losing second-team all-NEC guard Manny Ubilla (20.8 ppg), along with solid contributors Eric Hazard and Bernell Murray, won't help. That said, the Knights have a huge influx of talent coming in that could rapidly improve their fortunes. Part of the Knights' problems last season came when academics kept Cameron Tyler (14.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.1 apg in 2006-07) off the court. Getting him back to go with impact transfers Eric Moore (from Buffalo), Alvin Mofunanya (Saint Joseph's) and Terence Grier (Rhode Island) suddenly gives FDU one of the most talented cores in the league and definite contender status.

LIULong Island
Things are looking up in Brooklyn after the Blackbirds' first winning season in 10 years. After a seventh-place NEC finish, LIU brings back second-team all-NEC guard Jaytornah Wisseh (15.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 5.1 apg) to go with all-rookie team guards Kyle Johnson (10.3 ppg) and David Hicks, although they'll need to make up for the losses of frontcourt mates Eugene Kotorobai and Kellen Allen, who combined for 23.9 ppg and 11.7 rpg.

MonmouthMonmouth
The Hawks were young last season and took their lumps. Then they got an added dose of unexpected bad news when sophomore guard Jhamar Youngblood, the team's leading scorer at 12.1 ppg, decided to transfer to Rider. They have some solid pieces back led by guard Whitney Coleman, who averaged 11.9 ppg last season, and 3-point specialist Yaniv Simpson (42.2 percent 3s), but Youngblood was definitely their most potent scorer. Even with him, the Hawks were terrible offensively last season. They were 309th in offensive efficiency at just 0.90 points per possession, in large part because they took a ton of 3s (42.5 percent of their shots) and made only 32.2 percent of them. Monmouth also was one of the nation's worst rebounding teams (bottom 20 in Division I on both ends), so head coach Dave Calloway still has his work cut out for him.

MSMMount St. Mary's
Imagine how tough the Mountaineers could be if they rebounded the ball better. For a team that plays a physical brand of solid defense and started to favor a transition offense attack, they were a poor team on the glass last season, finishing 268th in offensive rebounding and 194th on the defensive end. They do mostly everything else at a solid or better level for a smaller-conference program, so maybe coach Milan Brown is on to something when he talks about Chris Vann's graduation as a chance to play a bigger, more athletic team at times this season. If the Mountaineers can do a better job ending opponents' possessions after misses, they could be hard to beat in the NEC.

QuinnipiacQuinnipiac
Depth is the buzzword from head coach Tom Moore after the Bobcats faded badly down the stretch last season, in part because of a lack of healthy and talented bodies. The major concern in light of DeMario Anderson's (21.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) departure, though, is where the Bobcats will find scoring on a nightly basis. Their offense will take an even bigger hit if second-leading scorer Evann Baker doesn't make it back from postseason knee surgery and has to redshirt. That's a divergence from last season when the Bobcats were effective offensively but couldn't stop anyone on their defensive end. Moore expects his team to be able to get after it a little better this season. He'll have more bodies to throw at the problem.

Robert MorrisRobert Morris
With A.J. Jackson and Tony Lee moving on, how will the Colonials replace their combined 27.8 points a night? The stage seems set for Jeremy Chappell to have a big season. He already led the team in scoring last season at 14.9 ppg on 49.7 percent shooting from the field. Coach Mike Rice will need Lee's replacement, either Gary Wallace or Mezie Nwigwe, to be a competent distributor.

Sacred HeartSacred Heart
Joey Henley is back as a sixth-year senior after tearing up his knee a year ago playing tight end for the school's football team. Would his presence have been the difference last season? Rebounding was a season-long issue. The losses of Brice Brooks and Drew Shubik, the team's top two scorers, leave a hole at the top of the offensive pecking order, but the Pioneers do return a number of capable, experienced players, including guards Chauncey Hardy and Ryan Litke and forward Ryon Howard. With the NEC seemingly in a league-wide state of flux, expect the Pioneers to be one of the solid challengers to Mount St. Mary's.

St. Francis (N.Y.)St. Francis (N.Y.)
SFNY finished in the nation's bottom 50 in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage. Throw in a high turnover rate on offense, and you can understand why the Terriers struggled to score. Those struggles may be even more pronounced this season as they won't have leading scorer Robert Hines (15.2 ppg), guard Marcus Williams or forward Bassith Yessoufou, the tallest Terrier last season at 6-9.

St. Francis (PA)St. Francis (PA)
The Red Flash's 4-14 league mark belies how well they played the two best teams in the NEC last season. SFPA split with regular-season champ Robert Morris and lost by one and in OT in the home-and-home with Wagner, the No. 2 team in the regular season. The Flash did it with balance, with five players averaging between 10.0 and 11.2 ppg. The bad news is that, even without a senior last year, they still lost their two leading scorers. Chris Berry transferred to Texas Wesleyan, an NAIA school, to be closer to his family, and Bass Dieng, a redshirt senior who graduated in May, enrolled in Georgia Tech's International Relations graduate program and will suit up for the Yellow Jackets this season.

WagnerWagner
Seahawks coach Mike Deane got attention last season for wearing a seat belt on the bench to prevent himself from wandering out of the coaches' box and into a technical foul, but his team had a solid campaign, finishing a game behind Robert Morris at 15-3 in the NEC. Unfortunately, it may be hard to maintain that success as Wagner was one of the teams hit hard by graduation. The Seahawks lose two first-team all-NEC players in guard Mark Porter (16.3 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Durell Vinson (13.6 ppg, 11.5 rpg), as well as forward James Ulrich's 10.0 points and 6.7 boards a game.

2007-08 Northeast Conference Standings

Overall record NEC record
Robert Morris^ 26-8 16-2
Wagner 23-8 15-3
Sacred Heart 23-8 13-5
Mount St. Mary's* 19-15 11-7
Quinnipiac 15-15 11-7
Central Conn. St. 14-16 10-8
Long Island 15-15 7-11
Fairleigh Dickinson 8-20 4-14
St. Francis (N.Y.) 7-22 4-14
Monmouth 7-24 4-14
St. Francis (Pa.) 6-23 4-14
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the Northeast Conference news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Sean Baptiste, FDU, Jr. 18.5
Jaytornah Wisseh, LIU, Jr. 15.8
Jeremy Chappell, Robert Morris, Sr. 14.9
Jeremy Goode, Mount St. Mary's, Jr. 14.5
Ken Horton, CCSU, Soph. 12.7

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Sean Baptiste, FDU, Jr. 6.3
Markus Mitchell, Mt. Saint Mary's, Sr. 5.9
Marcus Palmer, CCSU, Sr. 5.8
Kayode Ayeni, SFNY, Jr. 5.7
Ron Manigault, Long Island, Sr. 5.6

Final Shot

Nearly of the NEC teams ranked from Nos. 100-200 in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings of all Division I programs since the 1984-85 season. Which half finished highest? Prestige Rankings

Mount St. Mary's stunned Robert Morris in the conference tournament. Can anyone stun the favored Mount this season? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.