We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.
Thanks to 21 wins over the final 22 games of the season, Long Island won the Northeast Conference by a three-game margin, then won the NEC tournament final 85-82 in overtime over Robert Morris.
Returning to the NCAA tournament likely will be more difficult this season.
The NEC will be an experienced league in 2011-12, LIU included. Four of the five members of the all-league return, and seven of the top 10 scorers are back, too.
Those numbers should contribute to an interesting race in the NEC, where league teams have shared the spoils of the NCAA tournament. Long Island became the sixth team to represent the NEC in the NCAA tournament in the past seven seasons. It was the Blackbirds' first tournament trip since 1998.
Long Island will have company at the top, even with the return of All-NEC F Julian Boyd and conference assist leader Jason Brickman, both of whom are from Texas. Central Connecticut State returns the reigning player of the year in F Ken Horton. Robert Morris should be a top challenger, too, one season after handing the Blackbirds one of their two conference losses.
Robert Morris returns four starters and probably would be the league favorite if G Karon Abraham, the team's top player, hadn't been suspended for the season.
The most interesting part of the NEC race might be the continued development of two former also-rans. Wagner and Bryant won a combined four conference games and eight games overall two years ago. Now, they're vying for spots in the top half of the conference. Bryant, though, is ineligible for the NCAA tournament because it's still a transitional Division I member.
Coach Dan Hurley guided Wagner to a 13-17 overall mark and a 9-9 record in the NEC last season, his first after taking over a 5-26 team. Wagner returns its top seven scorers. Led by conference rookie of the year Alex Francis, Bryant went 7-11 in its first season in the NEC, then added a solid recruiting class.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Central Connecticut State F Ken Horton
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Fairleigh Dickinson G Melquan Bolding (6-3/195, Jr.; transfer from Duquesne)
ORDER OF FINISH 1. Long Island
2. Central Connecticut State
3. Robert Morris
6. Mount St. Mary's
8. Sacred Heart
9. St. Francis (N.Y.)
10. St. Francis (Pa.)
12. Fairleigh Dickinson
MAKING A LIST Best frontcourt: Long Island
Best backcourt: Wagner
Coach on the rise: Wagner's Dan Hurley Coach on the hot seat: St. Francis (Pa.)'s Don Friday
FACTS AND FIGURES New coach: King Rice at Monmouth (had been an assistant at Vanderbilt)
Regular-season winner last season: Long Island
Tourney winner last season: Long Island
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 18th in 2010-11, 29th in 2009-10, 28th in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2008, Mount St. Mary's in the play-in game over Coppin State
2012 conference tournament: March 1, 4, 7, campus sites