On Tuesday, the Northeast Conference held its Basketball Social Media Day for the second consecutive year at the Prudential Center. Coaches and players from all nine men's and women's teams converged in Newark as this was the official tip-off for the conference basketball season.
The event was overshadowed by the news on Monday that member schools Merrimack and Sacred Heart would be leaving the NEC and joining the MAAC beginning next summer. That created a somewhat awkward situation as the elephant in the room throughout the day would be the departures and how the NEC would react to the news. In her opening statements, NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris did not discuss the programs leaving or any possible realignment in the conference's future.
After last season's run to the NCAA Tournament and monumental upset win over Purdue, the FDU men's basketball team starts the 2023-24 campaign with a new coach after Tobin Anderson took the head job at Iona after just one season in Teaneck. Jack Castleberry, Anderson's assistant coach, was hired to lead FDU and attempt to return the Knights to the NCAA Tournament this season. Even with last season's success, the Knights were picked to finish fourth in the NEC in the conference's coach poll released during Media Day.
2023-24 NEC Men's Basketball Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Sacred Heart (7)
2. CCSU (1)
3. FDU (1)
8. Saint Francis U
9. Le Moyne
The Knights have returning starters in senior Joe Munden Jr. and junior Ansley Almonor but lost Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton to graduation. FDU must replace those points and production, especially that of Roberts. However, DeVante "Bullet" Jamison is a 5'8" transfer that Castleberry hopes can become a big part of FDU's success.
"We certainly have high expectations for him," said Castleberry. "Just his leadership, even though he's around a new group of guys. His transition has been smooth, and we have high expectations for him."
With all the success of FDU last season, it would have been natural for many players to leave the program, such as when Saint Peter's lost six players to transfer after their Elite Eight run. For Almonor, the NEC's Most Improved Player last season, it was a no-brainer that he would continue to play the Knights.
"He made it more than basketball. He made it about our relationship as a coach to a player," said Almonor. "He wants to have a relationship with me outside of basketball and that meant a lot to me. Basketball is going to end for me one day and he said he always wants to be there for me and that meant a lot to me."
FDU's women's basketball team came one short of winning the NEC Tournament and clinching a berth in the NCAA Tournament. They return this season with Stephanie Gaitley hired as the Knights' new head coach. Gaitley, born and raised in Ocean County, is no stranger to New Jersey collegiate basketball as she coached Monmouth for three years (2008-2011). The 12th winningest coach in Division I history, Gaitley understands the expectations for a team that has won the NEC regular season crown the last two seasons but has yet to finish the job in the NEC Tournament.
"When I took the job, there were no starters returning and just five points and four rebounds. I love that challenge," said Gaitley. "We had a couple of weeks to round up nine players and I'm excited by them. We open up with Iowa, so that will be a big challenge."
In the women's NEC preseason poll, FDU was picked to finish fourth as Sacred Heart, who returns eight players, was the unanimous selection to top the poll.
2023-24 NEC Women's Basketball Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Sacred Heart (unanimous)
7. Saint Francis U
8. Le Moyne
As FDU looks to get over the hump of making it to the NCAA Tournament, their success in the conference over the last two seasons has not gone unnoticed. Expectations for the Knights are high, but the team is focused on the job that they have to do day in and day out.
"The best is yet to come for us," said senior guard Abby Conklin. "It's gonna take a lot. Leadership, defense, those are our main principles. We take it day by day, practice by practice., scrimmage by scrimmage and game by game. No one can stop us but ourselves so to be personally motivated helps motivate our teammates, our coaches and we just carry it over."
FDU's women's team begins their regular season slate with a game against third-ranked Iowa on Nov. 6. The men's team opens up on the road against Buffalo, also on Nov. 6.
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