In what many believed was a rebuilding year for the Northeast Conference as a whole, the season played out along those lines. Graduations, transfers and unexpected defections led to a youth movement throughout the conference – a movement that was necessary for the league to move up the conference RPI charts in the near future.
Just think of it this way: Of the 15 NEC all-conference recipients announced yesterday afternoon, only 3 of those players were seniors. Six of the league’s top 10 scorers were underclassmen, while 14 of the top 15 assist leaders and 14 of the top 20 rebounders will return to their respective programs next season. You get the idea. That’s extraordinary youth and if the league can retain most of it, the days of automatically slotting a NEC program into the First Four play-in game will be numbered.
Until then, we have an exciting and unpredictable single elimination tournament to look forward to. John and I will try our best to dissect it, but in the end, these games usually come down to a possession or two. Nevertheless, let’s begin with a breakdown of the teams we are keeping our eye on.
Favorite – Mount St. Mary’s: The Mount started the season 1-11, but have since rebounded to post a winning record (16-15), including a 14-4 mark during the NEC regular season that clinched home court advantage throughout the tournament. Jamion Christian’s team has gotten huge contributions from Elijah Long—a bonafide Player of the Year candidate as just a sophomore—Junior Robinson, and the under-appreciated, all-league-less Chris Wray. While two of the Mount’s four conference losses did come at home, including last Thursday’s close setback to No. 2 seed LIU Brooklyn, Knott Arena is one of, if not the, best home crowd in the NEC. Can the Mount take advantage after going 13-5 against league foes over the last two seasons in their friendly confines?
Balance is the Mount’s friend, and it starts with the “Mayhem” system that’s forced NEC opponents to turn it over on nearly 23% of possessions. Prior versions of Mayhem have excelled behind the arc, but this version thrives at getting to the rim, as evident from a league best effective field goal percentage of 53%. That’s impressive considering how much their attack relies on guards to make plays in the paint. A team that can body the Mount up near the rim (Wagner, LIU as examples) appears to have the best chance of pulling the upset. -JT
Also Merits Consideration: LIU Brooklyn: There’s a reason that Jack Perri was our choice for NEC Coach of the Year; the Blackbirds just weren’t supposed to be this good. But Jerome Frink turned in a superstar season, Iverson Fleming was clutch in key moments, and freshmen Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts solidified the backcourt enough to make a run. This isn’t the offensive juggernalt that won three straight NEC tournament titles from 2011-2013, including the final one under Perri in 2013. This team plays much slower and relies on a defense that finished third in the league in defensive efficiency, just as much as an explosive offense. LIU’s run to a 13-5 NEC campaign also included a little luck. The Blackbirds were 5-2 in “close” games during conference play (4 points or fewer and/or in overtime). At the beginning of this month the Blackbirds’ first round opponent, Robert Morris, went into Brooklyn and came away with a 4-point victory. RMU held Frink and Fleming to a combined 7-23 on two-point attempts on that day. The defense will have to be just as stout if the Colonials want to pull the upset again. -JT
Saint Francis U.: Thursday night will mark the first time that SFU has hosted an NEC tournament game since 1991, and (obviously) the first time since the NEC went to its current ‘better seed hosts’ format in 2002. The Red Flash have missed the tournament entirely six times in that same time span, so this is an incredible achievement for Rob Krimmel and his program. SFU got here thanks to the NEC’s best offense (1.07 points per possession). The Red Flash don’t get to the free throw line often, but they take (and make) a lot of shots. The team is super young though, ranking 346th in experience nationally, so it’ll be interesting to see how players like Isaiah Blackmon, Jamaal King and NEC Rookie of the Year Keith Braxton respond to playing in a do-or-die situation. The quarterfinal against Bryant should be a high-scoring affair, but if the Red Flash get by that one they have the offense to take down any team in the NEC. -JT
Wagner: Yes, we are listing every team in the top four as contenders, because of the league’s lack of predictability. When home teams have only won 55.6% of the league’s games, it’s completely plausible that a Wagner or Saint Francis U can string together two road wins to the NCAA Tournament. For the Seahawks to achieve this, however, they’ll likely need to survive without big man Mike Aaman, after he sustained a non-contact injury last Thursday. If there are two things Bashir Mason has at his arsenal, it’s Wagner’s revived defensive attack (0.91 ppp over the last eight contests) and depth that includes lesser known commodities such as A.J. Sumbry (9.2% block rate), Greg Senat (63.2% 2PT%) and Shack Scott (9.2% offensive rebound rate). Whether Mason can squeeze enough value out of this threesome in place of Aaman remains to be seen. -RP
Darkhorses – Bryant: After a brief hiatus from the NEC tournament, Bryant is back. This time they’re led by the league’s best pure scorer in sophomore Nisre Zouzoua, so the Bulldogs have the offense to keep up with any team in the conference. The problem is on the other end of the court. Bryant couldn’t stop anyone in the paint and didn’t force turnovers, which led to the conference’s eighth worst defense (1.03 ppp). Bryant was 6-2 when it allowed less than a point per possession in NEC play. Of course one of those two losses was in Loretto, PA, when the Bulldogs scored just 61 points in 76 possessions, while suffering a 14-point loss back in mid-January. The Bulldogs were also quite unlucky during NEC play, four of their nine losses came in overtime and two others were by just three points. Much like their quarterfinal opponent, the Bulldogs are relying on a youth movement. Zouzoua is just a sophomore, but a seasoned veteran on a team that started a backcourt with two freshman (Ikenna Ndugba and Adam Grant). How they respond, and if the Bulldogs can get enough stops, will probably go a long way in determining Bryant’s NEC tournament fate. -JT
Robert Morris: I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect the Colonials would be filed in the darkhorse section. This was true especially after laying witness to a convincing victory on NEC opening day, when they dispatched the hosting Pioneers due to a tenacious defense. Since then though, the offense has struggled with inconsistency while the defensive numbers have held steady. Robert Morris is number one league wide in defensive efficiency (94.7 points allowed per 100 possession), turnover rate (24%) and 3-point field goal defense (29.4%). That’s a great foundation to build upon and with three players – Kavon Stewart, Matty McConnell and Dachon Burke – all possessing steal rates that rank in the top 100 nationally, you can bet the Colonials will generate points off opponent miscues. -RP
Numbers That Matter
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:
- LIU Brooklyn, 6-2 (+49 point differential)
- Wagner, 6-2 (+40)
- Robert Morris, 6-2 (+36)
- Mount St. Mary’s, 5-3 (+40)
- Sacred Heart, 5-3 (+20)
- Saint Francis University, 5-3 (+18)
- Bryant, 4-4 (+11)
- Fairleigh Dickinson, 1-7 (-24)
It’s rather stunning to witness FDU, the defending NEC tournament champions, in such a tailspin of late. Is this real or a fluke? Well, a quick examination shows how tight their last seven losses have been:
- Loss at Bryant: Game went to overtime
- Loss vs Sacred Heart: FDU led 68-67 with under 2 minutes remaining
- Loss at Wagner: Game was tied with 9 minutes left
- Loss at LIU Brooklyn: Game was tied with 1 minute left
- Loss vs Mount St. Mary’s: FDU led 71-69 with 2 minutes left
- Loss at Robert Morris: FDU trailed 75-74 with under 1 minute left
- Loss at Saint Francis U: Game was tied with 4 minutes left
That’s an incredible amount of losing for a veteran team that’s coming off an NCAA appearance! Why have the Knights struggled so much lately? Offensively, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence. Fairleigh Dickinson’s turnover rate is up slightly over the past eight games (21.1% turnover rate), yet they’ve excelled at the charity stripe (79.1% FT) and are efficient in their shooting (50.6% eFG%) in league play. If you take out a blowout victory over bottom feeder Central Connecticut, the offense has scored just 0.99 ppp in those seven losses, though, which as we all remember, isn’t the potent Knight offense we saw last March. Defensively they’re much improved compared to last year, so it’s not like this team is getting bludgeoned to death with offense. At this point it’s anyone’s guess if the Knights can flip a switch and revert back to the FDU of old, but considering this team is 3-6 in NEC games on the road, a repeat doesn’t seem like a solid bet. -RP
0-8: That’s Sacred Heart’s record against the top four teams in the NEC tournament, which isn’t a great omen when you’re the #8 seed. While the Pioneers have won five games in the month of February, they concluded the month on a three game losing streak. Now, possibly without the services of 6-foot-8 difference maker Mario Matasovic (he’s missed the past four games due to a sore calf), Anthony Latina must navigate a path to the NEC final that’ll require two roads win at Mount St. Mary’s and LIU, Wagner or Saint Francis U. Color me skeptical. Sure, Quincy McKnight can get hot and carry this roster for spurts, but you can expect the dynamic sophomore will see a steady in-your-face presence tonight from the Mount. They’ll make life very difficult for the second leading scorer (18.9 ppg) in the conference, who also leads the league in turnovers committed. -RP
The Officials: OK, that’s not a REAL number, but in a league that had the second highest rate of close games (30% were decided by 4 points or less and/or in overtime), the officials unfortunately could play a key role in determining who advances to the next round. We’ve seen coaches like Perri, Latina, Tim O’Shea and Greg Herenda wear their frustration on their sleeve late in these nail-biters and the tension will only escalate further. If a coach snaps and draws a technical, those free throws could be the difference in a game decided by a possession or two. -RP
Players to Watch
Isaiah Still, Robert Morris – On a program usually starved for offense, Still is the antidote for a team that struggles to score the basketball. When the 6-foot-6 sophomore has posted an offensive rating of 100.0 or above, the Colonials are 10-3 on the season. In fact, Robert Morris’ recent hot streak has been led, at least offensively, by Still. He’s averaging 19.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 8.4 FT attempts per game over the past eight contests. He, along with senior leader Kavon Stewart, need to come up big to get Andy Toole NEC tournament win number 11. -RP
Michael Carey, Wagner – As one of the preseason favorites to become the 2016-17 NEC player of the year, the senior’s struggles during the non-conference season were rather puzzling. Was he pressing? Was he hurt? Did he miss Dwaun Anderson? Perhaps it was all of the above, yet Carey has performed markedly better once league play resumed. His 113.9 offensive rating and rebounding rates all land in the NEC top 10 and he’s produced eight double doubles in 18 games. He’s been really good against Wagner’s first round opponent, Fairleigh Dickinson, averaging 18 ppg and 14.5 rpg while making 14 of 17 from the free throw line this season. That doesn’t bode well for the defending champs, but for Mason’s group to continue the run, Carey will need shine at an all-league level throughout the tournament. -RP
Jerome Frink, LIU Brooklyn – Well, yeah! Of course the reigning NEC player of the year needs to play well for the Blackbirds to return to the Big Dance. Every defense will focus fully on Frink, so it’ll be critical for him to find the open teammates when the double team heads his way. The star has been adept at moving the basketball, averaging an impressive 3.3 apg over the last six games, all LIU Brooklyn wins. For a skilled 6-foot-7 big to pass that well AND sport a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio over the same span illustrates his wonderful game. That must continue in order for Frink not to fall into a trap and put everything on himself. That may have happened last NEC tournament, when he underwhelmed by averaging 12.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg while shooting a mediocre 40.9% from the field. -RP
The Fearless Predictions (From Ryan)
And the drum roll, please…
- #1 Mount St. Mary’s over #8 Sacred Heart
- #7 Robert Morris over #2 LIU Brooklyn
- #3 Wagner over #6 Fairleigh Dickinson
- #4 Saint Francis U over #5 Bryant
Wait, what, HOLD ON A SECOND! I’m going against a LIU Brooklyn team that is the NEC darling of #TheJerome?! How can I bet against John and most of the Mid Major Madness group who’s betting on Jack Perri to succeed! KenPom considers Robert Morris a 6-point underdog, but given the Colonials’ recent play (1.10 ppp last three games), their coach and some senior leaders (Aaron Tate, Stewart) who’ve been through the postseason ringer plenty, I’ll take my chances in what I expect to be a tight game. Ron Ratner’s wonderful collection of tidbits (67 to be exact!) tells us that the #1 and #2 seeds have gone a perfect 24-0 in the last 12 NEC tournament quarterfinals. I’m taking a big swing at history here! Onto the semifinals:
- #1 Mount St. Mary’s over #7 Robert Morris
- #3 Wagner over #4 Saint Francis U
If it gets to this point, I just feel the youth of the Red Flash will be too much to overcome versus the experience of the Seahawks. And my final prediction…
- #1 Mount St. Mary’s over #3 Wagner
Jamion Christian, fresh off a deserving NEC coach of the year award, will punch his second ticket to, what appears to be, Dayton, Ohio. If they win on their home floor, that’ll be quite a scene for the NEC to publicize on national TV.
Enjoy the quarterfinals tonight and best of luck to your favorite team!