FAIRFIELD, CT (November 2, 2011) - The Northeast Conference announced the 2011-12 Men's Basketball Preseason Poll via teleconference on Wednesday with the Sacred Heart Pioneers slated to finish eighth in a vote taken of the league's head coaches. The defending NEC Champion Long Island Blackbirds were picked to repeat this season, receiving 10 first place votes.
Robert Morris, who fell to the Blackbirds in last season's title game, were tabbed second with the final two first-place votes, followed by Central Connecticut State in third. Wagner and Quinnipiac, last year's preseason favorite, rounded out the top-five. Mount St. Mary's, Bryant, Sacred Heart, Saint Francis (PA) and Monmouth occupied spots six through 10, while St. Francis (NY) and Fairleigh Dickinson rounded out the preseason predictions ranked 11th adn 12th, respectively.
The Pioneers are looking to improve on their 6-12 league mark a year ago and make a return to the NEC Tournament in 2011-12 after a two year absence. SHU will return some key weapons on offense but the key to their success this season very well could rest with improving on the defensive end. "We need to get our defense back in order this season," stated head coach Dave Bike, who's team ranked seventh in scoring defense (69.6) and 10th in field goal percent defense (44.9%). "We are playing more man-to-man this season than we ever have. It holds everyone more accountable. We need to take more pride in our defense as a team, which we have done a good job of this preseason."
R-Junior Shane Gibson (Killingly, CT) was one the NEC's top-scorers last season, finishing second among the league leaders averaging 17.2 points per game. Gibson played his way on to the All-Northeast Conference second team last year, leading the Pioneers in scoring in 22 of 29 games. Gibson was one of the conference top-threats from behind the arch, making 75 three's (38.9%).
"I believe Shane Gibson is one of the best offensive players in the Northeast Conference and I would go as far as saying, one of the best offensive players in New England," commented Bike who begins his 34th season on the SHU sidelines.
Sacred Heart also has a trio of sophomores returning who saw significant playing time as freshman last year. Evan Kelley (Norwalk, CT) will move over to the point guard position coming off a season where he averaged 7.3 points with 48 assists. Chris Evans (Stamford, CT) earned a spot on the NEC All-Rookie team with 9.1 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, playing major minutes down on the block. Forward Louis Montes (Brockton, MA) came on strong at the end of last season and finished the year averaging 7.2 points per game and was second on the team in rebounding (4.5 rpg). "They all have the potential for significant improvement and to have very successful seasons."
Conducted annually, NEC coaches have failed to correctly forecast the eventual league champion since selecting Mount St. Mary's to win it all in 1998-99, and have proven inaccurate in 22 of the last 24 years. After its 1999 tourney win, Mount St. Mary's was the choice to repeat the following season, but Central Connecticut State, tabbed third, captured the championship. CCSU was then installed as the favorite in 2000-01, but the title went to Monmouth, picked sixth in the preseason. Monmouth received the nod in 2001-02, but it was CCSU, predicted fourth, which went on to win its second title in three years. In 2002-03, NEC coaches continued their trend of selecting the previous year's champion as preseason favorite when they went with CCSU, only to hav e Wagner earn its first-ever NEC Tournament crown. Three years ago, it was Quinnipiac that was placed on the preseason perch, but the Bobcats struggled all season and finished in 10th place. Monmouth garnered its third league crown that year after being selected third in the preseason. In 2004-05, the Hawks were the logical choice to repeat, and even won the conference regular season title, but were eliminated in the NEC semifinals as Fairleigh Dickinson went on to claim the championship. Fairleigh Dickinson was then installed as the 2005-06 favorite, but dropped a one-point decision to Monmouth in the title contest. Monmouth was picked first in 2006-07, but became the first defending NEC champion to fail to qualify for the tournament the following year. It was Sacred Heart's turn in 2007-08, and the Pioneers made it all the way to the title game for the second straight season, but came up short in a setback to Mount St. Mary's. The Mount nearly broke the streak in 2008-09, but the preseason favorites dropped a two-point decision to Robert Morris. Similarly, the Mount was again picked to win the prize in 2009-10, but suffered another semifinal loss to eventual champion Robert Morris. Finally, Quinnipiac was the unanimous pick in 2010-11 only to have its season cut short in a last-second loss to Robert Morris in the NEC semifinals.