With the NEC regular season ending Saturday and with the conference tournament beginning Wednesday, it's come time to pick the men of distinction in the league. The conference is announcing the winners of the major awards on Tuesday, but before those are given out, I figured I'd share my thoughts on the possible winners (but only in categories in which it looks like a Robert Morris player has a solid chance of winning).
For the sake of suspense and making sure y'all at least read until the end, I'll start with some of the smaller awards and work my way down.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
RMU contenders: Lucky Jones
Other contenders: Kenneth Ortiz (Wagner), Naofall Folahan (Wagner), Rashad Whack (Mount St. Mary's)
Jones' improvement as a defender has been pretty remarkable to watch this season. In non-conference play, much like the rest of his team, Jones struggled a bit on the defensive end. But in NEC play, particularly in the span in which the Colonials have had just eight guys, Jones has shined under difficult circumstances. As a long and athletic player who can play anything as small as a 2 or anything as large as a 4, Jones has been tasked with guarding every position imaginable in Robert Morris' past 12 games.
That alone is impressive and the fact that he's done so with notable success makes the feat even more remarkable.
With that being said, though, I think this is Folahan's award to lose. Ortiz is the reigning DPOY and as good/pesky as he can be on the ball, he can afford to take some of those risks because he knows that Folahan is waiting in the lane to clean up any possible mess. This season, he has blocked 14.2 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts, the 14th-best mark of any Division I player. To me, a great rim protector is the single most important piece of an elite defense and Wagner has been just that, giving up only 93.1 points per 100 possessions in conference play. The next-closest team in the NEC (RMU) gives up 99.5.
The pick: Folahan
RMU contenders: Karvel Anderson, Lucky Jones
Other contenders: Alex Francis (Bryant), Sidney Sanders Jr. (Fairleigh Dickinson), Dyami Starks (Bryant), Julian Norfleet (Mount St. Mary's), Kenneth Ortiz (Wagner), Jason Brickman (LIU Brooklyn), Jalen Cannon (St. Francis Brooklyn), Earl Brown (St. Francis PA)
As the league's leading scorer, you can pretty much write Anderson in pen for this one, so much of the remaining debate surrounds Jones. I'd also say that Francis and Sanders seem like good bets, so he's basically fighting for one of two spots.
Jones ranks 12th in the NEC in points per game (13.3) and, as we've discussed, has been one of the league's top defenders, so he's proven to be a strong two-way player. Starks has been strong this season, but would two first-team spots be given to the league's third-place team as opposed to its champion? I doubt it, whether that's fair or not. Norfleet's a strong contender, as he has strong per-game numbers and is nationally-ranked in effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and assist rate.
Like Norfleet, Brickman is nationally-ranked in all of those categories (he's actually higher in all three and is No. 1 in assist rate) and he's the DI leader in assists per game. Plus, even though LIU struggled this season, he could always be in line to get a nod based on his career accomplishments, sort of like how it was with Velton Jones last season. It's also incredibly hard to ignore Cannon and Brown, perhaps the two best rebounders in the conference.
I try not to force all-conference teams based on position, so my predicted team may look a little unorthodox.
The pick: Anderson, Francis, Sanders, Norfleet, Brickman (with Jones and Cannon the first ones off the bench)
COACH OF THE YEAR
RMU contender: Andy Toole
Other contenders: Greg Herenda (Fairleigh Dickinson)
This is effectively a two-man race at this point and each candidate has a good amount of supporters touting his cause. They both certainly have the resumes befitting the title, albeit in different ways. Toole helped guide an eight-man team to a conference regular season championship while Herenda was responsible for a four-win improvement for the Knights in NEC play (from two wins to six).
The turnaround that Herenda has led at Fairleigh Dickinson has been remarkable. I remembered seeing them play at Robert Morris last year near the end of the season and they flat-out looked like a team that had quit. For Herenda to not only improve that program's win total but also make it competitive in just a year is commendable, to say the least.
Some may try to boil this award down to the coach of the first-place team against the coach of the most overachieving squad. That's not totally accurate. I think it's an absolute cop-out to give someone coach of the year just because his team finished in first (hell, even Gene Chizik did that in college football), but that isn't all Toole did. Most anyone reading this is aware of everything Toole guided the Colonials through this season and to be able to win 14 of their last 16 games under those circumstances is pretty damn incredible.
The pick: Toole
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
RMU contender: Karvel Anderson
Other contenders: Alex Francis (Bryant), Sidney Sanders Jr. (Fairleigh Dickinson)
Everyone has a different philosophy on what constitutes a player of the year and for the sake of brevity, I won't go too far into mine other than to say that unless an award is dubbed a 'Most Valuable Player' I always pick the most outstanding player in a league or sport as opposed to the one that is maybe the most valuable.
To make this discussion easier, I've put some of the more pertinent season stats in a table:
Choosing between these three is especially difficult considering they each play different positions and fulfill different roles on their teams. Each is a go-to-scorer, but each also excels in particular areas. Anderson's a two-guard who is the conference's most lethal scorer and shooter. A point guard, Sanders has been more responsible than perhaps even Herenda for Fairleigh Dickinson's improvement this season. Francis has been strong on the low post for the NEC's best offensive team.
It's a tough decision -- one I think ultimately comes down to Anderson and Sanders -- but considering all three are relatively even defensively, to me, it comes down to which one has been the most prolific offensive player. And though he doesn't have the assist numbers that Sanders does or the rebounding numbers Francis does, no player in the NEC has been quite as good on the offensive end as Anderson. Not only does he lead the conference in scoring, but he's one of the top 25 players in Division I in three important offensive categories -- offensive rating, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
I've said before that I'm admittedly biased since I cover Anderson and have seen him do some absurd things throughout the season. With that being said, though, this is a call I feel confident making.
The pick: Anderson
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