Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
Trying to pick the champion in the NEC has turned into an inexact science over the years.
The Hawks of Monmouth fulfilled league predictions last season by winning the regular-season title for a second straight year (MU shared it with St. Francis, NY. in 2003-04).
However, the Hawks were unable to earn a return trip to the NCAA Tournament after being derailed by red-hot Wagner in the semifinals, marking the 12th straight year the league has not had a repeat tournament winner.
Even though the tournament champion has been inconsistent in the NEC, the Hawks have not been over the last five seasons.
"We are the only program to have five straight winning seasons," said coach David Calloway, whose program has gone 91-60 over that span, a school record for wins over a five-year run (87 was the old mark from 1987-92).
Not bad for a coach who lost 29 of his first 32 games at MU and went 20-47 in three seasons.
MU's run at the top figures to continue this season even without league player of the year Blake Hamilton, who averaged 16.2 points and 4.1 rebounds. Guard Dwayne Byfield (6.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is the other senior starter lost.
"We lose the player of the year and we will still be picked as one of the top teams and have a chance at our third straight title," Calloway said.
The Hawks will look to three returning starters to lead them this season in 6-1 senior Tyler Azzarelli (8.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.0 apg), 6-3 senior Chris Kenny (9.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.27 spg) and 6-4 junior Marques Alston (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Azzarelli finished second in the NEC in thefts, averaging 1.9 steals per game, and increased his offensive production by almost five points per night in the team's motion offense. He also played a large role in Monmouth being the top NEC scoring defense at 63.2 points per game.
Kenny also increased his offensive production while hitting 48 three-pointers and shooting a team-high 91.5 percent from the free-throw line. He provides a sound backcourt mate to Azzarelli.
Even though Hamilton was the team's top player, Alston was the guy to deliver some clutch shots last season. In the regular season, he hit buzzer-beating game-winners against St. Peter's and Quinnipiac, and then scored the winning basket against Central Connecticut on a layup in the NEC quarterfinals.
"He's the kind of guy who can do everything for us," Calloway said. "He hit three buzz beaters for us and can make a play when he needs to -- he has that knack."
Alston almost doubled his scoring and rebounding output (4.8 ppg and 2.6 rpg in 2003-04) after moving into the starting lineup.
In addition to the trio, Monmouth also returns key sixth man Deki Delic, a 6-6 junior guard who averaged 8.4 points and hit a club-high 56 three-pointers.
"He has a lot of experience and gives us some scoring off the bench," Calloway said.
There's also some returning size in the paint with 6-10 junior center Corey Hallett (2.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 12 blocks) and 6-8 senior forward Brent Wilson (2.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg).
However, both players have yet to establish themselves. Hallett, who sat out a season after transferring from Central Michigan, played well on the Hawks' trip to Spain last summer, but struggled during the season. Wilson also was up and down after arriving from Dodge City (Kansas) Community College.
"In my mind, they were both freshman in their first year [last season]," Calloway said.
The Hawks have some serious size arriving though in 7-2, 320-pound junior John Bunch, who sat out last year after transferring from Lincoln University, and 6-10, 240-pound freshman Shawn Barlow, but both might be a bit of a project.
Barlow (3.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) spent last season at St. Augustine's Prep.
"We'll wait and see with him," Calloway said of the freshman. "We are pretty deep up front."
Bunch had knee surgery while sitting out the year and was not expected to 100 percent until September. He'll also have to get into game shape after a long layoff.
"The one thing he has is a feel for the game," Calloway said. "He's a good passer and good presence on the court. ... He doesn't panic out there.
"He has the chance to be pretty good."
Four freshmen and red-shirt freshman Jon Ager, a 5-11 guard, will try to crack into the rotation.
Ager will back up Azzarelli at the point after spending last season practicing with the Hawks. He'll have competition for the job from 6-1 freshman Michael Shipman, who led Middletown High to two straight titles in Delaware.
Shipman scored 26 points and added 11 rebounds in the title game last season and is the type of point guard the Hawks look for to run their offense.
"He sees the floor as well as any high school guard I've seen in a long time," Calloway said.
In the freshman class, 6-6 forward Tyson Johnson could be the star of the group with his ability to play inside and out. Johnson averaged 15.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists at St. Mary's, where Ager also played high school ball.
"Tyson got an all-around game," Calloway said. "He's the whole package. [In this league] they are usually missing one or two things, but he's go it all."
Another freshman, guard Whitney Coleman, is a strong defensive player from St. Thomas More Prep.
"This is one of the most complete recruiting classes we've had," Calloway said. "We'll definitely miss Blake, but I still think we'll be pretty good."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Even without the league's top player, the Hawks will be one of the favorites in the NEC again this season.
Losing Hamilton will hurt, but the team looked to him too often in the motion offense last season instead of reading and reacting on the court. Calloway would like the Hawks to become a more balanced attack, and they should move toward that this year.
Besides, with their stingy defense they should be OK if they can get a group scoring effort each night.
After being the top pick in the league two years ago, Monmouth has some question marks again entering this year, which is how things were before Hamilton made his move in the 2003-04 season.
"I think we are back to where we were two years ago," Calloway said. "We are deep and pretty good."
"That's not going to win the league this year," Calloway said.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).