Sports

Rothstein Files: NEC Notebook: Braica Doing Big Things At St. Francis, Plus Other Notes

(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

By Jon Rothstein
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Glenn Braica must have felt like it was a perfect storm.

Or maybe it was Murphy’s Law?

Anyway the second year coach at St. Francis dissected his situation in the preseason, he knew the prospects of having a good year was going to be a major challenge.

“We lost our two best players from last year which was our starting back court and had nine road games to start the season,” Braica said on Tuesday. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

And it got even harder when senior guard Dre Calloway, the Terriers’ most experienced guard went with an injury after just five games.

Bad luck? Absolutely. Panic? Not Braica — he’s from Brooklyn.

Instead, the coach got his players together and assembled a new lineup that’s responsible for one of the better stories this year in New York City college basketball. St. Francis is now 15-12 overall and has an impressive 12-4 mark in conference play which puts them in third place behind LIU and Wagner.

“It hasn’t been easy but it’s been good because our guys have battled through tough times,” Braica said. “The league is tough. There’s more teams than there’s been in a long time. No game is easy.”

And neither is facing the Terriers.

St. Francis doesn’t have one dominant star but has a nice semblance of parts that have put together an impressive run where they’ve won 11 out of their last 14 games.

“Brent Jones and Justin Newton have both done a tremendous job stepping in since Calloway got hurt,” Braica said. “Our wings, Ben Mockford and Stefan Perunicic have also had good years and Akeem Johnson has been tough inside. Jalen Cannon has also been real steady for a freshman and got 19 rebounds last week at Quinnipiac. We’ve got a good group of guys and a lot of youth. Most of the team will be back next year.”

NEC AT A GLANCE

FAVORITE

LIU

COACH: Jim Ferry
RECORD: 21-7
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, Jason Brickman
X-FACTOR: Mike Culpo
THE SKINNY: The defending champions have been brilliant in conference play and Ferry has done a masterful job getting his team to maintain focus despite the fact they’re dealing with heightened expectations. The combination of Boyd and Olasewere is an unguardable tandem in the NEC and the emergence of junior guard C.J. Garner has given the Blackbirds a perimeter threat they didn’t have early in the season. If Culpo can make shots from deep and Brickman continues to exude brilliance as a floor general, there’s no reason to think why LIU couldn’t reach the NCAA Tournament again.

CHALLENGERS

WAGNER

COACH: Dan Hurley
RECORD: 23-4
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Latif Rivers, Tyler Murray, Jonathon Williams
X-FACTOR: Kenny Ortiz
THE SKINNY: The Seahawks’ resurgence has been one of the great stories in the metropolitan area this season and with Hurley in only his second season at the helm in Staten Island, there’s no telling where this program could be in a few years. Wagner has all the necessary attributes that make up a champion led by Ortiz — a bulldog of a point guard that seems to always have an impact on the game no matter the circumstance. The hidden strength of Wagner is a rarity for teams in the NEC — size. Sophomore center Naofall Folahan is a legitimate 6-foot-11 presence whose best days are ahead of him and freshman power forward Mario Moody is a burgeoning player that could explode on any given night. This team is a major threat to win the conference.

ROBERT MORRIS

COACH: Andy Toole
RECORD: 21-8
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Velton Jones, Coron Williams
X-FACTOR: Lijah Thompson
THE SKINNY: The Colonials are the only team in the NEC this season to beat LIU and have continued their lineage of terrific guards with two stalwarts in Jones and Williams. A fullback masquerading as a combo guard, Jones might be the one back court in this league that can single handedly put a team on his back and carry them to victory one night after the next. The key for Robert Morris will be Thompson’s consistency in the middle and whether or not 6-foot-6 junior wing Russell Johnson lives up the ability that oozes from his body each time he takes the floor.

ST. FRANCIS

COACH: Glenn Braica
RECORD: 15-12
BEST PLAYER: Akeem Johnson, Stefan Perunicic, Ben Mockford
X-FACTOR: Brent Jones
THE SKINNY: Braica has performed a minor miracle with the Terriers after losing senior guard Dre Calloway early in the season. St. Francis has a balanced offensive attack highlighted by the interior game of Johnson, a crafty lefty with an accurate touch around the rim. Freshman power forward Jalen Cannon has been a monster in the paint, grabbing 19 rebounds last week at Quinnipiac and if Jones run the Terriers offense with the focus of a surgeon while Perunicic and Mockford continue to make people pay from distance, Braica could have a team capable of winning multiple games in the postseason.

SLEEPER

QUINNIPIAC

COACH: Tom Moore
RECORD: 15-12
PLAYERS TO WATCH: James Johnson, Iko Azotam
X-FACTOR: Garvey Young
THE SKINNY: Moore has had the Bobcats knocking on the door for a few years now and while they aren’t the favorite in 2012, there’s no reason to discount them from having the ammo to make a run. Quinnipiac’s greatest strength is the ability to lean on a senior point guard in Johnson, a terrific floor general that desperately wants to see his career end on a high note. A big key for this team could be what kind of production it gets off the bench from Young, a transfer from Vermont whose had two of his best games of this season against conference leader LIU.

Which team do you expect to take the NEC title? Sound off below…