Somerset, NJ -- With March Madness upon us, that means it’s time to honor the best-of-the-best in Northeast Conference (NEC) men’s hoops. On top of the list is LIU senior forward Jamal Olasewere (Silver Spring, MD/Springbrook), who was a near unanimous selection as NEC Player of the Year in a vote conducted by league head coaches.
NEC Rookie of the Year honors went to Mount St. Mary’s freshman guard Shivaughn Wiggins (Charlotte, NC/North Mecklenberg), while Wagner junior guard Kenneth Ortiz (Newark, NJ/Science Park (Southern Mississippi)) claimed the NEC Defensive Player of the Year award for the second straight season. Saint Francis University sophomore forward Earl Brown (Philadelphia, PA/Imhotep Charter) was tabbed the NEC’s Most Improved Player and Jim Phelan Coach of the Year honors went to Bryant’s Tim O’Shea.
The honorees were announced this morning as a prelude to the 2013 NEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, which begins on Wednesday with quarterfinal play at four campus sites.
For Olasewere, it marks the highest honor of a star-studded career in Brooklyn that includes two NEC Tournament titles and a pair of first team All-NEC accolades. He becomes LIU Brooklyn’s seventh NEC Player of the Year award winner and second straight, following in the footsteps of teammate Julian Boyd, the 2011-12 league MVP. Olasewere’s combination of strength, agility and lightening quick first step has made him a nightmare matchup for opposing coaches. Couple that with the 6’7” forward’s ability to draw contact - he’s gone to the line more than any other player in the nation this season - and you have a near unstoppable inside-outside force for the high-scoring Blackbirds. Olasewere currently ranks third in the conference in scoring (19.2), fourth in rebounding (8.4) and 10th in field goal percentage (.511). The Silver Spring, MD native has racked up 1,804 points and 925 rebounds over the course of his career to rank 13th and eighth, respectively, on the NEC’s all-time chart in each category. Olasewere was a three-time Choice Hotels NEC Player of the Week in 2012-13 and is a finalist for the Lou Henson Mid-Major Player of the Year award. Along with the aforementioned Boyd, Carey Scurry (1983-84, 1984-85), Joe Griffin (1994-95) and Charles Jones (1996-97, 1997-98) preceded Olasewere as NEC Player of the Year honorees for the Blackbirds, who will look to make history over the next week as the first NEC team to win three straight championships.
Loyal NEC hoops fans will remember Jeremy Goode, a Mount all-time great who played from 2006-10 and hailed from Charlotte, NC. When first year head coach Jamion Christian dipped into Charlotte recruiting ranks last spring to find Wiggins, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought his impact could match that of Goode, the centerpiece of the Mount program during its glory era in the latter half of the last decade. But after watching the 5’ 10” guard over the second half of the season, Wiggins could very well be on his way to leaving his own lasting legacy when all is said and done. After being inserted into the starting lineup in mid-January, the Mountaineers reeled off 10 wins in their next 14 outings, including seven straight to end the regular season. Wiggins averaged a team-high 14.6 ppg over that stretch, shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and a scorching 58.6 percent from three-point range. On the year, he leads all NEC freshman with 9.6 ppg and has made 47.7 percent of his attempts from long distance. A superb on-the-ball defender, the five-time Choice Hotels NEC Rookie of the Week is one of the ringleaders of the “Mayhem” style popularized by Christian. Chris McGuthrie (1992-93) is the only other Mount player to win NEC Rookie of the Year plaudits.
On a team that prides itself on its defensive intensity, the 6-foot Ortiz has earned a well-deserved reputation as a lockdown defender during his two years on Grymes Hill. While the Newark, NJ native ranks third in the NEC with 2.0 steals per outing, his defensive contributions cannot always be quantified. His ability to pressure opposing guards and take them out of their comfort zone has altered game plans and helped anchor a Wagner defense that ranks first in the league in field goal percentage defense (.408) and second in scoring defense (66.7). Former Seahawks Courtney Pritchard (2001-02), Nigel Wyatte (2003-04) and DeEarnest McLemore (2004-05) were also honored with this award.
Following a promising, if nondescript freshman campaign in 2011-12, Brown literally exploded onto the scene around the turn of the new year for the Red Flash. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Philly native posted seven consecutive double-doubles, averaging 13.6 points and 15.4 rebounds over the span to raise some eyebrows around the league. The highlight of that stretch was Brown’s 16-point, 25-rebound outing in a win over Central Connecticut on January 3. The 25 rebounds were one off the NEC single-game record and the most in the nation this season. Quick off his feet and strong in the air, Brown reinforced the fact that rebounding is all about desire, a fact NEC teams can attest to when competing against the 6’6” sophomore. He lifted his scoring average from 6.0 ppg to 10.1 ppg, and his rebounding numbers from 3.0 rpg to 8.1 rpg. He ranks fifth in the league in rebounding and his ten double-doubles tie him for first in the conference.
Now in his fifth season at the helm of the Bryant program, O’Shea has not only led the Bulldog program through the arduous NCAA reclassification process, but has also produced a one-year transformation that will go down in the history books. Following a 2-28 season a year ago, Bryant was picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, but served notice with breakthrough non-league wins over Boston College and Lehigh. Armed with two impact transfers and a number of talented veterans, once the Bulldogs jumped out to a 6-0 start in NEC play, fans at the Chace Center began to take notice and a contender was born. By season’s end, O’Shea and his troops had claimed the #4 seed in the NEC Tournament in its first year of postseason eligibility and finished with a 19-10 overall record. The Bulldogs can now boast of the best single-season turnaround in NCAA history entering Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup (17.5 games) and they also lead the nation in pure win improvement, earning 17 more victories in 2012-13 than a season ago. The 17-win jump is also the biggest in NEC history, eclipsing CCSU’s 15-win jump from 1997-98 to 1998-99, and the 11-win bump in NEC play is the most in league annals, one better than LIU Brooklyn’s 10-win improvement from 1995-96 to 1996-97.
In examining the composition of the All-Conference first, second and third teams, it should be noted that nine of the 15 honorees will be returning next season. Likewise, three of the four major award winners will be back competing in 2013-14. Both Bryant and LIU Brooklyn placed one player on each of the three teams.
Olasewere, the NEC Player of the Year, is joined on the All-NEC first team by Bryant junior forward Alex Francis (Harlem, NY/Holderness Prep (NH)), Sacred Heart senior guard Shane Gibson (Killingly, CT/Killingly), Robert Morris senior guard Velton Jones (Philadelphia, PA/Northeast Catholic) and CCSU sophomore guard Kyle Vinales (Detroit, MI/Phelps School).
Francis, a former NEC Rookie of the Year, has developed into a dominant interior force for the Bulldogs during his tenure, and also possesses elite-level athleticism. The 6’6” forward currently ranks in the NEC top-five in four categories: scoring (17.1, fifth), rebounding (8.7, third), field goal percentage (.574, third) and double-doubles (10, tied for first). Francis has accumulated 1,449 points and 713 rebounds in his three years, and with a big senior season could become the first player in league history to finish with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
With the game on the line, there are few players in the history of the NEC who have come through more than Gibson, now a two-time first team honoree and three-time all-star. An explosive scorer with unlimited range and an uncanny ability to hit contested shots, Gibson closed out his brilliant career for the Pioneers as one of just five players to crack the 2,000-point mark in league history, finishing up with 2,079 points. The Killingly, CT native is tied for the league lead in scoring with 21.6 ppg, and was also the NEC scoring champion in 2011-12 with 22.0 ppg. Gibson paces the conference in free throw percentage (.871), and ranks second in made three-pointers (3.0/game) and fifth in three-point accuracy (.416). The 6’2” shooting guard’s 286 career three-pointers rank him fifth all-time in the conference, and he racked up 53 games of 20+ points in his four years at Sacred Heart.
Perhaps no player is as synonymous with his team and NEC hoops in general as is Jones, who hopes to bookend his career with a second conference championship for the top-seeded Colonials. Despite being saddled with injuries throughout his senior campaign, Jones continued to will Robert Morris to victory after victory, most notably in early February when he unleashed one of his patented runners in the waning seconds to beat rival LIU Brooklyn before a national television audience. The Philly tough point guard averages 11.3 points and ranks third in the NEC with 5.2 assists per outing. His career scoring total has now reached 1,563 points, and his 534 assists rank 11th on the league’s all-time list. Jones, a two-time All-NEC first team pick, has competed in three NEC title games and played for a pair of regular season championship teams.
Vinales, the 2011-12 NEC Rookie of the Year, is the definition of a pure scorer. Every shot is a good one for the Detroit native, whose range has no limits. Just ask Quinnipiac, which fell victim to a Vinales 28-footer in the waning seconds last week that clinched a 15th straight NEC playoff appearance for CCSU. Or ask Wagner, which saw him light up the scoreboard for 42 points and eight three-pointers in a mid-February game. Vinales is currently tied for the NEC scoring lead at 21.6 ppg, and has recorded a conference-high five games of 30+ points on the year. His 2.6 three-pointers per game is the fourth-best mark on the circuit. Vinales became the quickest NEC player to hit the 1,000-point milestone in nearly a decade when he reached the plateau in just 52 games last month. And with 1,129 points in just two seasons, the 6’1” shooting guard is on track to finish as one of the leading scorers in NEC history.
The All-NEC second team is comprised of Quinnipiac junior forward Ike Azotam (Boston, MA/John D. O’Bryant (Marianapolis Prep)), LIU Brooklyn junior guard Jason Brickman (San Antonio, TX/Clark), St. Francis Brooklyn sophomore forward Jalen Cannon (Allentown, PA/William Allen), Bryant sophomore guard Dyami Starks (Duluth, MN/Duluth East (Columbia)) and Wagner senior forward Jonathon Williams (Richmond, CA/Kennedy (City College of San Francisco).
When you think of Quinnipiac, the team’s dominant front line and rebounding prowess are the first things that come to mind. Azotam is the best of the bunch in that regard, as he leads the Bobcats with 13.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. His ten double-doubles tie him for first in the league and he also sits sixth in rebounding. Over his three years, the burly 6’7” Boston native has amassed 1,065 points and 694 rebounds. He is a two-time All-NEC second team selection.
Brickman is well on his way to completely rewriting the NEC recordbook when it comes to his elite passing skills. Currently the nation’s assist leader with 8.5 per game, the two-time All-NEC second teamer needs just five more assists to establish a new NEC single-season mark. His 256 dimes is an NEC junior class record, as were his 249 as a sophomore and 180 as a freshman. Likewise, the San Antonio product’s 685 career assists is the LIU Brooklyn record and ranks him second in league history, just 119 behind former Marist great Drafton Davis, who established the standard 25 years ago. With two NEC championships under his belt, Brickman is more than just a visionary passer. He averages 9.6 points and leads the league in three-point shooting, converting 45.8 percent of his opportunities for the Blackbirds.
Cannon followed up on his NEC All-Rookie campaign for the Terriers by quickly developing into one of the conference’s top frontcourt talents. A superior glass sweeper and high flyer who finishes with authority, Cannon is the NEC’s second-leading rebounder with 8.9 per game. He improved his scoring average from 8.0 ppg as a freshman to 14.7 ppg this season to rank 10th in the league. He is also fifth in field goal percentage (.554) and is tied for first in double-doubles (10). In just two years, Cannon has already compiled 523 rebounds.
It’s no coincidence that Bryant’s historic turnaround coincided with the arrival of Starks on the scene in Smithfield. A dynamic scorer and terrific pull up jump shooter, Starks has put up a team-high 17.7 points per game for the Bulldogs. The fourth-leading scorer in the NEC also leads the circuit with 88 three-pointers, an average of 3.0 per contest, and is shooting at an efficient 40.6 percent rate from outside the arc.
With an arsenal of post moves that may be unrivaled in the conference, Williams is simply a load to stop in the paint area. Williams, who hails from San Francisco, leads Wagner and ranks seventh in the NEC with 15.2 ppg, but it doesn’t stop there. The 6’6” forward is also sixth in field goal percentage (.535), and ninth in rebounding (6.6) and free throw percentage (.789) for the second-seeded Seahawks.
This is the first year the NEC will be honoring a third team, and the five honorees all work out of the backcourt. They are Bryant senior guard Frankie Dobbs (Berea, OH/Saint Edward (Ohio U.)), LIU Brooklyn senior guard C.J. Garner (Silver Spring, MD/Springbrook (South Alabama)), CCSU junior guard Matt Hunter (Detroit, MI/Henry Ford (Odessa JC)), Robert Morris sophomore swingman Lucky Jones (Newark, NJ/St. Anthony) and Wagner junior guard Kenneth Ortiz (Newark, NJ/Science Park (Southern Mississippi)).
Dobbs is the straw that stirs the drink for Bryant. The senior floor general unleashed his full arsenal in 2012-13, and can beat you with his scoring (13.6 ppg), passing (5.1 apg ranks fifth in the NEC), free throw shooting (.789, seventh) and three-point marksmanship (48 on the year). Dobbs has left his mark in three years with the Bulldogs, having tallied 1,135 points and 432 assists.
Garner upped his game when LIU Brooklyn needed it most, averaging 19.5 points over the final eight games of the regular season, including a career-high 30 on Saturday as the Blackbirds clinched the #3 seed with a win over Quinnipiac. Garner is eighth in the conference in scoring with 14.8 ppg and has added a reliable three-point shot (currently shooting 45.1 percent) to his solid mid-range game. With 1,156 points, he is one of three 1,000-point scorers currently on the LIU roster.
Hunter’s arrival at CCSU has led to a formidable one-two combination with fellow Detroit native Kyle Vinales. One of the NEC’s most versatile talents, Hunter’s career took a memorable turn in December when he matched an Assembly Hall record with 40 points against top-ranked Indiana. He would go on to finish the regular season as the NEC leader in steals with 2.7 per game, a figure that ranks him ninth nationally. Hunter is also sixth in the league in scoring (17.1) and seventh in rebounding (7.7).
Jones built upon his NEC All-Rookie selection from a year ago, emerging as one of the most dangerous wing players in the conference for the regular season champion Colonials. A top-notch defender and superior athlete, Jones averages 11.7 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game. He has also shown off an improved jump shot, hitting at a 41.9 percent clip from long range.
Ortiz is more than just a stellar defender. His ability to come through in the clutch for the Seahawks - he recently beat the buzzer on a putback to polish off LIU in one of the best NEC games of the year - has been well documented, but he also ranks fourth in the conference with 5.2 assists per game and is Wagner’s third-leading scorer at 12.0 points per contest.
The next generation of NEC stars could come from the five freshman selected to the All-Rookie squad. Joining NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins of Mount St. Mary’s are Saint Francis U guard Ben Millaud-Meunier (Montreal, Quebec/Vanier), Saint Francis U forward Stephon Mosley (West Orange, NJ/Seton Hall Prep), CCSU forward Brandon Peel (Forestville, MD/Riverdale Baptist) and LIU Brooklyn forward E.J. Reed (Mesquite, TX/Mesquite).
Millaud-Meunier came on strong down the stretch for the Red Flash, averaging 13.0 points over the last seven games of the 2012-13 campaign. For the year, he contributed 9.3 ppg - second among NEC freshman - and shot 47.6 percent from three-point territory.
Mosley’s season came to an abrupt halt in early February due to an injury, but the Jersey native showed a world of promise in his initial 18-game stint for Saint Francis U, including two Choice Hotels NEC Rookie of the Week award to his credit. The versatile talent averaged 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 49.6 percent from the floor.
The 6’7” Peel provided the Blue Devils with a strong interior presence, and finished the year ranked second on CCSU with 5.6 rebounds per game and 52.3 percent shooting from the field. The two-time Choice Hotels NEC Rookie of the Week averaged 4.6 points and posted a pair of double-doubles on the year.
Reed’s ability to fill the void left when NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd went down with a season-ending knee injury in December cannot be underestimated. A three-time Choice Hotels NEC Rookie of the Week, Reed has been a valuable sixth man for the Blackbirds, averaging 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds, while converting 50.6 percent of his shot opportunities.