NEC Preview: Three-way battle at the top could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Jeff Eisenberg

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 23 league, the NEC.

For the past 10 years, the Northeast Conference's NCAA tournament representative has always received either a No. 15 or No. 16 seed.

Next March may be the league's best chance to escape those dreaded seed lines.

Not only will the league return seven of the 10 players who earned first- or second-team honors last season, the top three teams in the conference will also stay mostly intact.

LIU Brooklyn will be the favorite to reach the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season if a fight at an on-campus party last month doesn't derail the Blackbirds' season before it begins. Reigning NEC player of the year Julian Boyd and fellow starters C.J. Garner and Jamal Olasewere were among the four players charged with third-degree assault and suspended indefinitely from the program as a result of the skirmish.

Assuming those players are cleared to return, LIU Brooklyn would return five of its six leading scorers from last year's 25-win team. Boyd receives the most attention because of his efficiency as a scorer and his formidable rebounding, but Olasewere is an ultra-athletic forward and point guard Jason Brickman is the rare player happier setting up teammates than shooting himself.

The two teams most capable of overtaking LIU Brooklyn are Wagner and Robert Morris, both of whom won at least 25 games a year ago and finished second and third in the league, respectively.

Wagner's strength is a backcourt featuring high-scoring Latif Rivers and Jonathon Williams, defensive stopper Kenneth Ortiz and athletic newcomer Dwaun Anderson, a former Michigan State signee. Robert Morris adds maybe the league's best recruiting class to a roster that already boasts first-team all-league guard Velton Jones and promising sophomore Lucky Jones.

One advantage Robert Morris will have is that its coaching staff returns intact. Whereas Andrew Toole will be back on the sidelines for the Colonials, Wagner hired 28-year-old assistant Bashir Mason after Danny Hurley went to Rhode Island and LIU Brookyln promoted Jack Perri after Jim Ferry left for Duquesne.

Best shooter: Shane Gibson, G, Sr., Sacred Heart
Best playmaker: Jason Brickman, G, Jr., LIU Brooklyn
Best defender: Kenneth Ortiz, G, Jr., Wagner
Coach on the rise: Bashir Mason, Wagner
Coach on the hot seat: Greg Vetrone, Fairleigh Dickinson
Three must-see games: 1. LIU Brooklyn vs. Seton Hall, Dec. 22 (Blackbirds' best chance at marquee win); 2. Robert Morris vs. Pittsburgh, TBD (Battle of Pittsburgh will be intriguing this year) 3. LIU Brooklyn at Wagner, Feb. 23 (Could the league title be on the line?)

New coaches: Jamion Christian, Mount Saint Mary's (Had been an assistant at VCU); Bashir Mason, Wagner (Had been an assistant at Wagner); Rob Krimmel, St. Francis (Pa.) (Had been an assistant at St. Francis); Jack Perri, LIU Brooklyn (Had been an assistant at LIU Brooklyn)
Regular-season winner last season: LIU Brooklyn
Tourney winner last season: LIU Brooklyn
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 24th; 2010-11: 18th, 2009-10: 29th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2008, Mount St. Mary's in the play-in game over Coppin State

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard; Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury