In what was originally thought of as an unpredictable conference, the Northeast Conference turned out to be … well, predictable! When I submitted my NEC preview to ESPN Insider back in September, I came up with the following standings:
- St. Francis Brooklyn
- Robert Morris
- Central Connecticut
- Saint Francis U
- Mount St. Mary’s
- Sacred Heart
- LIU Brooklyn
- Fairleigh Dickinson
I guess this exercise wasn’t as difficult as I originally made it out to be – I was correct on four of the top five, while nailing the exact order of the next four in Sacred Heart, Wagner, LIU Brooklyn and Fairleigh Dickinson. Minus a slight whiff on Mount St. Mary’s and a major, albeit unforeseen miss on Central Connecticut (in my defense, no one had the Blue Devils lower than third/fourth in their predictions before the unfortunate Kyle Vinales news broke in late October), the regular season was the most predictable it had been (at least to me) in several seasons.
But enough with my self-congratulatory spiel. It’s time to break down the NEC playoffs and while it surely won’t be as easy to predict, I’ll attempt to unlock some nuggets that could determine several each team’s fate.
Favorite – St. Francis Brooklyn: Duh. After living up to the preseason hype, Glenn Braica’s crew has earned the right to play every tournament game at the tiny, albeit loud Pope Center. The Terriers are surely grateful to host at the 348th smallest Division I venue in the country – they are 20-6 at home the past two seasons, including a 7-1 mark versus NEC competition in 2015. The home cooking will come in handy with history not exactly on St. Francis’ side. After last season’s disastrous defeat in the NEC quarterfinals to Mount St. Mary’s — a game they led by 19 with 10 minutes remaining — the Terriers have now dropped nine straight postseason games. That is old news however, as a sold out crowds will do their best to push the home team to their first ever NCAA tournament berth. It will be interesting to see how the players handle the atmosphere – one head coach recently warned that the pressure could become too much to handle for a squad expected to win.
Also Merits Consideration: Mount St. Mary’s: At this point, you’re an idiot if you bet against a Jamion Christian coached team not having a chance at back-to-back titles. The Mountaineers are 5-1 in the NEC tournament since Christian arrived for the 2012-13 season and have a group of players in Byron Ashe, Greg Graves, Taylor Danaher, Will Miller and Kristijan Krajina who have acquired invaluable experience playing in these highly competitive contests. On a team that features eight players who are scoring at least 10 points per 40 minutes, the aforementioned Ashe has recently risen to the top of the rotation by averaging 17.3 ppg, 2.3 three-pointers and a paltry 1.7 turnovers per contest in his last nine games. His emergence, along with Christian’s league leading defense (allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions in NEC play) makes the defending champions rather dangerous.
Robert Morris: Let’s be honest here – a NEC championship and subsequent NCAA tournament berth is the only thing left for Andy Toole to accomplish on the Moon Township campus. He’s done everything else: win a conference regular season title, win a postseason game on the national stage, coach a NEC Player (Karval Anderson) and Rookie (Marcquise Reed) of the Year and collect an outstanding 106 victories in five seasons. But can he finally hoist the trophy at the conclusion of the NEC tournament?
That’s the million dollar question, and this time, two newcomers in Reed and Rodney Pryor are averaging more than 30 ppg while freshman Elijah Minnie has played well, anchoring the back of the 2-3 zone. They’ve yet to break though, but any Toole coached team should never be counted out.
Darkhorse: Sacred Heart: It seems odd to highlight a program that has missed four of the last five NEC tournaments before this season, but given how well the senior trio of Phil Gaetano, Evan Kelley and Steve Glowiak have played down the stretch, it’s plausible to believe the Pioneers can string together two or three quality efforts. Throw in a signature Tevin Falzon double double and the wonderful playmaking ability of freshman Cane Broome, who’s been on fire lately, and you have a team no one wants to play in the quarterfinals. You can bet Glenn Braica was relieved that Sacred Heart isn’t heading to Brooklyn tonight.
(Take a look at this clever production done by College Insider recently on Cane Broome.)
On the other hand, Anthony Latina must be concerned about the Pioneers’ free throw shooting, especially late in games. The team shot a conference worst 61.6% at the charity stripe in league play and free throw shooting was solely responsible for backbreaking losses at Central Connecticut and LIU Brooklyn this season.
Numbers to Care About
A Recent History: A quick glance at each playoff’s team last eight games provides a snapshot as to who’s playing well coming in. The modified standings would go like this:
- St. Francis Brooklyn, 7-1 (+73 point differential)
- Sacred Heart, 6-2 (+35)
- Mount St. Mary’s, 5-3 (+50)
- Robert Morris, 5-3 (+42)
- Bryant, 5-3 (+2)
- LIU Brooklyn, 4-4 (-27)
- Saint Francis U, 3-5 (-9)
- Wagner, 2-6 (-69)
After starting the conference season with a 1-5 mark and being a Darian Anderson finger tip away from starting 1-6, Sacred Heart is playing their best basketball of late. Ditto for Mount St. Mary’s, minus a puzzling, offensively challenged setback recently at SFU. Bryant, who has endured a ton of close games during the second half of the season, seems to be within a possession or two of winning or losing every game. Their 5-5 mark (in their last 12) in NEC games decided by single digits illustrates the luck they may need (or any team for that matter) to string together three straight nail-biting victories.
The bottom three of this group — LIU, SFU and Wagner — have stumbled as of late and therefore don’t inspire a ton of confidence heading into their respective quarterfinal showdowns. Of the three, the Red Flash have the best chance to surprise, given their experience and previous success. They were, after all, in the top spot of our NEC Power Rankings once upon a time. But can they get any production out of Malik Harmon and Ronnie Drinnon to support their star, Earl Brown?
29.1% 3PT Shooting – This is SFC’s three-point shooting percentage for the season, which warrants mentioning given the Terriers propensity to play in close games. If there is a gaping weakness that could be exposed in a one-and-done format, it’s surely the Terriers ability, or inability, to generate offense from the perimeter. Also intriguing: SFC has allowed conference opponents to make 36.6% of their long-range attempts, which is a league worst mark. A team of sharpshooters like Bryant, Mount St. Mary’s or Sacred Heart could quiet the Pope crowd really quick if they get hot from downtown.
15 – This is the number of postseason games, both inside and outside the NEC, Lucky Jones has played in his Robert Morris career. His nine victories leads all active players. In comparison, the Bryant veteran crew of Dyami Starks, Joe O’Shea and Shane McLaughlin have yet to win a game, each registering a postseason record of 0-3. Ditto for Cannon, Jones and company and the Sacred Heart senior trio as well. Postseason victories are so hard to come by.
Players to Watch:
Dyami Starks, Bryant – If the Bryant Bulldogs are to reverse the trend and win their first ever NEC playoff game, Starks will need to direct the ship. The senior guard is coming off a much deserved All-NEC first team selection, yet he’s had some inconsistent performances shooting the basketball. He’s averaged a whopping 15.7 shots per game this season and you can expect more of the same tonight. In Bryant’s last meeting with Sacred Heart, Starks exploded for 21 first half points, only to be corralled by Evan Kelley’s defensive tenacity in the second half, which allowed the Pioneers to engineer a fantastic comeback (not playing Hunter Ware in the face of Sacred Heart’s second half pressure also didn’t help).
Tim O’Shea has some talented players, but his team will only go as far as Starks allows them. Case in point: Bryant is 5-1 in league play when Starks scores at least 20 points. When he doesn’t crack that threshold, the record slips to an average 7-5. Keep Starks in check and off the free throw line – the Bulldogs are 5-1 when he attempts at least eight free throws in a game – and the Pioneers have a respectable shot to pull off the road upset.
Brent Jones, St. Francis Brooklyn – With all due respect to Jones, Jalen Cannon is always the best player on the court in any NEC game. But Jones could have the most influence in his team’s outcome thanks to his position. Despite the Terriers’ 9-1 record to conclude the regular season, Jones has struggled some, averaging close to four turnovers per game while shooting a pedestrian 31.5% from the field in those 10. His mediocre at times play hasn’t cost St. Francis any victories, but as the games tighten up in the playoffs and come down to several valuable possessions, the onus will be on Jones to find his team good shots or get to the charity stripe for manufactured offense. Cannon can only do so much without deferring to his ball-handling teammate in the waning minutes.
Lucky Jones, Robert Morris – As well as Pryor and Reed have played this season for Robert Morris, Lucky Jones is the backbone of this team. He was slumping/pressing/injured during the non-conference schedule, but since the calendar turned to 2015, Jones has reverted back to his old productive self. Without the senior, Robert Morris scored just 0.96 points per possession (ppp) in three conference games. In those other 15 games with Jones, Robert Morris netted a league leading 1.11 ppp and went 11-4. He’ll need to be at his very best. Especially if the Mount rolls into town for a semifinal showdown.
The Fearless Predictions
And the drum roll please…
- #1 St. Francis Brooklyn over #8 LIU Brooklyn
- #2 Robert Morris over #7 Wagner
- #6 Sacred Heart over #3 Bryant
- #4 Mount St. Mary’s over #5 Saint Francis U
Thanks to Ron Ratner’s collection of awesome tidbits, we know that the #1, #2 and #3 seeds the past nine seasons are a remarkable 26-1 in the NEC quarterfinals, with the one loss happening last year when Saint Francis stunned Bryant in Smithfield, RI. I’m expecting a similar upset to occur this year, in a game I consider as close to a coin flip compared to the other three. Ken Pomeroy gives Bryant a 65% chance at victory, the lowest odds for a favorite in this round. Hence I’ll roll the dice on a Pioneer squad that matches up well with Bryant and now has an opportunity to beat them for a third time in less than two months. Onto the semifinals…
- #1 St. Francis Brooklyn over #6 Sacred Heart
- #2 Robert Morris over #4 Mount St. Mary’s
Colonial fans will shudder at this possible semifinal matchup – the Mountaineers have won the last two playoff games at The Chuck by nine and 17 points, respectively, with the latter resulting in an on-the-floor celebration. This time around, I believe the trio of Jones, Pryor and Reed will be enough to outlast the Mount’s depth. But it certainly won’t be easy. And finally…
- #1 St. Francis Brooklyn over #2 Robert Morris
Hey, I’ve ridden my selection of St. Francis Brooklyn this far. There’s no reason to stop now. If this does occur, it would be the fourth NEC title game dropped by a Toole coached team. That would be so cruel.
Enjoy the quarterfinals tonight!