BROOKLYN -- For the past decade New York City has served as the center of the Northeast Conference in terms of latitude and longitude only. Victories, conference tournament glory and NCAA tournament bids have come largely from the satellite towns scattered across the northeast: Moon Township, PA (Robert Morris), Emmitsburg, MD (Mount Saint Mary's), New Britain, CT (Central Connecticut State), and West Long Branch (Monmouth), and Hackensack, NJ (Fairleigh Dickinson), have all sent teams to the tournament since Staten Island's own Wagner earned a berth in 2003. The NEC's other two city dwellers, Long Island and St. Francis (NY) haven't finished in the upper half of the standings in the same season since 2001.
The 2010-2011 season is young -- although actually it has begun in earnest in the NEC -- but early returns suggest the big city, Brooklyn specifically, is primed to impact the conference race. Long Island is 1-1 in conference play and 6-4 overall, with wide-margin victories at Fordham and Texas State and three losses to teams in the kenpom.com top 150. St. Francis (NY) is 2-0 in the NEC and 6-3 in all, with a home victory against defending conference champion Robert Morris and a three point loss at South Florida to its credit. Even Wagner, which finished 5-26 (3-15) last season, has a conference victory and a 4-5 overall record.
Long Island improved over the past few seasons under ninth-year coach Jim Ferry, but the team suffered two close-but-not-quite fourth-place finishes in the past two seasons. Last year's team finished a solid 11-7 in NEC play but too often tethered its fortunes to one player, point guard Jaytornah Wisseh.
Well, a lot changed in the offseason. All-NEC first teamer Wisseh graduated after a senior season in which he ranked seventh in the nation in assist rate and used 30 percent of the team's possessions. Reserve point guard Corey Wright transferred out of the program, leaving the reins in the hands of C.J. Garner, a newly eligible transfer from South Alabama. The team regained the services of Julian Boyd, a 6-7 forward who sat out the 2010 season because of health issues after winning the conference's freshman of the year award in 2009.
Boyd has made some strides from his productive freshman season, as he currently leads all NEC players in offensive rebound rate (15.6 percent) and has posted a 109.5 offensive rating while using 24.1 percent of LIU's possessions during his minutes. His wide but athletic frame allows him to play inside and outside in half-court sets while keeping up when the Blackbirds run (the team plays at a blistering 73-possession pace). Quinnipiac senior Justin Rutty entered the season with a reputation as the NEC's best big man, but Boyd could provide some competition.
"For our league, Julian is Mike Glover," said LIU coach Jim Ferry, comparing Boyd to Iona star Michael Glover. "(Boyd) can drive it, he can shoot it. He can even shoot it better than Glover."
Garner came to Long Island after a freshman season at South Alabama in which he started 16 games but struggled to take care of the rock. As a Blackbird, he's carved his turnover rate nearly in half while upping his usage rate by about seven percent. The diminutive Garner isn't a great or willing outside shooter (1-for-2 from three on the season), but he's fearless in the half court (76.3 free throw rate) and plays at a relentless pace. LIU trailed Iona by 13 at halftime of a home game last Wednesday, and the Glover-led Gaels were in complete control at the break. But Garner pushed the pace in the second half as LIU forced turnovers and created scoring opportunities in transition.
Adding Boyd and Garner to an experienced roster sans Wisseh has resulted in improvements nearly across the board. The Blackbirds have leapfrogged nearly 100 teams in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. Similarly the team's offense has gone from below- to above-average, as LIU has taken a free throw for every two field goal attempts and converted just less than 50 percent of its two-point field goals. The Blackbirds are also logging more than four possessions more per game than they did last year, a testament to Garner's game-changing athleticism.
If Long Island's primed to jump into the conference's top two or three spots, St. Francis (NY) might sit one tier lower. The Terriers, who finished in a tie for eighth place last season and have not placed in the league's top half since 2004, brought in a new coach, Glenn Braica, from his post as a top assistant at St. John's. Braica has turned what was a brutally ugly team into a more lovable mess.
St. Francis has made improvements in most areas of its offensive game, from shooting (their effective FG percentage is up 1.3 points) to turnovers (down nearly one percent) to free throw rate (up 6.1 percent). Braica's biggest helpers have been JC transfer point guard Dre Calloway and blossoming sophomore post Akeem Johnson. Calloway has taken much of the ball-handling burden off the shoulders of natural off-guard Akeem Bennett, while Johnson has given the Terriers their first legitimate post presence in two-plus seasons.
Calloway hasn't shown much of a shooting touch so far, but he's a smooth guard who handles and distributes the ball with confidence. On Tuesday night against Dartmouth, Calloway and Johnson picked up the slack for Bennett and fellow senior guard Ricky Cadell, who usually carry the offensive load. Cadell went 2-for-7, Bennett committed eight turnovers, and St. Francis still won, thanks to Calloway's five-point, five-rebound, eight-assist effort and Johnson's 22-10 double-double.
"(Johnson) brings rebounding, toughness, tenacity, everything," said Bennett of his teammate. "He does what he has to do, whether that's making layups or setting screens. He's a tough player."
Johnson, who does most of his scoring on the offensive glass and in transition, isn't as polished as Boyd or as well-known as Rutty, but he could be the centerpiece of a much-improved St. Francis (NY) team. Still, as they did last season, the Terriers could live and die by the turnover. Last year, St. Francis committed turnovers on nearly 24 percent of offensive possessions while forcing a TO on 25 percent of defensive possessions. They've improved on those marks this season, cutting their turnover rate to 23 percent and upping their takeaways to nearly 27 percent. In the 69-61 home victory against Dartmouth, the Terriers shot well but only managed 1.02 points per possession thanks to a staggering 34 percent turnover rate. "We need to turn the ball over less and be much more consistent in our play," Braica said after the game.
Improvement from the two Brooklyn programs, which sit nestled a half-mile apart on opposite sides of the borough's downtown area, might be a welcome development, even if the league stays near the bottom of the national pecking order. St. Francis boasts one of the best possible campus locations and a cozy (New York for tiny) gym while Long Island claims a quality on-campus facility that isn't short on vocal Blackbird supporters.
For now Robert Morris and Quinnipiac remain the favorites to win the conference on the shoulders of Karon Abraham (recently back from a four-game suspension) and Rutty, respectively, but Long Island is right with the two leaders in terms of talent, and St. Francis (NY) isn't far behind.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.