The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.

 
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These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Here’s our look at the Northeast Conference.

Recap:

Last season was a chaotic one in the Northeast Conference. Mount St. Mary’s, the preseason favorite, finished fifth in the conference with a 14-19 (10-8, NEC) record. Bryant, which had finished No. 3 or better for the past three years, recorded an 8-23 (5-13, NEC) season. And Fairleigh Dickinson, predicted to finish No. 9 in the conference, captured the NEC tournament title after an 18-15 (11-7) campaign.

It was Fairleigh Dickinson’s first tournament win since the 2004-05 season and just its fifth in program history. Though the Knights would be blown out by Florida Gulf Coast in the First Four of the NCAA tournament, their unprecedented run in 2016 set the table for another unpredictable year in the NEC.

Best Player:

The lone returner from the 2015-16 All-NEC First Team, LIU’s Jerome Frink is poised for another standout season.

Jerome Frink
Evan Habeeb | USA Today
LIU's Jerome Frink is the returning player from the 2015-16 All-NEC First Team.

The Florida International transfer had to sit out during the 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but made himself known in his first year in the NEC. Last season, the 6-7, 230-pound forward finished third in the NEC with 16.6 points per game and fourth in the conference in rebounding, averaging 9.0 per contest.

LIU took a big hit late in the offseason when second-leading scorer Martin Hermannsson chose to sign a professional contract to play in France, forgoing his final two years of eligibility. It was an unexpected loss for a team that made an impressive run to the NEC semifinals after a 16-15 (9-9, NEC) season. If LIU is going to build on its success these past few years, it will have to count on the versatile skillset of Frink to shine through once again.

Best Team:

Last season, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights had a goal: get to the NCAA tournament. They didn’t have too many believers outside the program. But the Knights defied odds and became the lowest picked team in league history to capture the NEC tournament title. This year, Fairleigh Dickinson has a new goal: win an NCAA tournament game, something the program has never done. But these Knights are in the business of breaking records.

It was hard to blame preseason critics of Fairleigh Dickinson last season. The Knights had 11 underclassmen on their roster and didn’t have a single senior on the team. This year, all but one of those players will be back in the burgundy and blue.

Two of those players landed on the NEC All-Conference Team in Darian Anderson and Earl Potts Jr. — the duo that combined for a staggering 55 points in the NEC tournament final. Anderson, the 6-1, 170-pound junior guard, averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists per game, both good for fifth in the conference. Potts, a 6-6, 200-pound junior guard/forward, was named the NEC’s Most Improved Player after he tallied 14.7 points per game (up from 6.6 ppg as a freshman), 6.3 boards per contest, and shooting .400 from the arc.

This year, the Knights don’t have the benefit of other teams underestimating them anymore. But they do have a huge upside in their roster — a team of young, but experienced, players who have tasted NEC glory. The Knights are no longer underdogs.

Sleeper Team:

The last time Bryant failed to notch double-digit wins — a 2-28 (1-17, NEC) campaign in 2011-12 — the Bulldogs followed it up with two 19-win years and a 16-win season. The lesson? Don’t worry about one off year.

Last year, Bryant finished 8-23 (5-13, NEC) on the year, but it wasn’t a season without promise. Sophomore big man Marcel Pettway averaged 11.4 points (on 59.7 percent shooting from the field), 7.0 rebounds while winning five NEC Rookie of the Week awards and finishing the season as the league’s Rookie of the Year.

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Pettway’s partner in the backcourt, Nisre Zouzoua, also had a stellar season. The 6-2, 190-pound guard averaged 12.8 points per game and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in his freshman campaign.

That duo is one of the main reasons the Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the NEC preseason coaches’ poll. The others include upperclassmen Dan Garvin and Hunter Ware, who each averaged double figures on the season. That should give Bryant plenty of weapons with which to bounce back from last season’s disappointing campaign.

Freshman to Watch:

If any team in the Northeast Conference has proven it can develop young athletes, it's Fairleigh Dickinson. The Knights’ expectation-shattering run last season was led by a team that included 11 underclassmen — six of whom were freshmen.

This year, the Knights boast a much more experienced squad, but it’s one that includes only one freshman — Kaleb Bishop.

Bishop, a 6-8, 195-pound freshman out of New Jersey, has impressive length and plenty of room to grow under coach Greg Herenda. In two exhibition games during an international tour this preseason, Bishop scored 12 and 5 points for the Knights, something preseason favorite Fairleigh Dickinson hopes is just a sign of greater things to come.

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