NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere leads LIU Brooklyn in quest to win unprecedented third straight conference championship. (Photo courtesy of Nelson Castillo via Blackbirds Hoops Journal)
Another day, another conference tournament to preview. After yesterday's detailed look at what to watch for in Springfield during the MAAC Tournament, the Northeast Conference gets its moment in the sun today, with seven teams attempting to take down two-time defending champion LIU Brooklyn, with Quinnipiac getting the first such shot tomorrow night at the Wellness Center. That game, and the other three quarterfinal matchups will take place tomorrow night at 7pm, with the two semifinals being played Saturday at either 12pm or 2:30; and the championship one week from tonight at 7pm, all at the home of the higher seed. In addition, the NEC reseeds after each round for those of you scoring at home, similar to the NHL and NFL playoffs. Here's a look at what lies ahead:
Those Who Missed The Tournament: (only the top eight make the cut) Sacred Heart, (9-20, 7-11) Monmouth, (10-21, 5-13) Saint Francis University, (5-24, 5-13) Fairleigh Dickinson (7-24, 2-16)
Quarterfinals: Wednesday, March 6th (all games at 7pm Eastern)
#1 Robert Morris (22-9, 14-4) vs. #8 St. Francis College (12-17, 8-10)
Andy Toole and the Colonials did a phenomenal job of proving me wrong when I picked against them on multiple occasions to win the league both at the start of the year and again in December after Julian Boyd tore his ACL for LIU Brooklyn. Led by warrior point guard and (questionable) first team all-NEC selection Velton Jones, Robert Morris' homecourt advantage will be of great benefit to them, as three-point specialists Coron Williams and Karvel Anderson will help Lucky Jones (no relation to Velton) and Russell Johnson keep the game in their favor while Anthony Myers and Mike McFadden have their usual quiet influence on the final outcome. For St. Francis, Glenn Braica's Terriers rose to the occasion in a de facto elimination game against Sacred Heart that was highlighted by forward Akeem Johnson getting his 1,000th career point. Ben Mockford will look to hit a couple of three-pointers to set the tone early while Jalen Cannon grinds his way to a double-double inside. The ability of Travis Nichols to heat up quickly off the bench, coupled with Kevin Douglas' gradual return to 100 percent and the ball handling of point guards Brent Jones and Dre Calloway will be of critical importance to the boys from Brooklyn. The Terriers defeated Robert Morris on January 31st and are more than capable of doing it again, but that was on their home court at the Pope Center and did not come just four days after scoring a season-high 92 points in a game that makes St. Francis prone to the proverbial "bounce" in their next time out. It will go down to the wire, but give me the Colonials here (begrudgingly) over my employer. The Pick: Robert Morris
#4 Bryant (19-10, 12-6) vs. #5 Mount St. Mary's (16-13, 11-7)
Arguably the two biggest success stories in the NEC face off against one another in what could very well be the best game of the quarterfinal round. In one corner, you have the Bulldogs; in their first season as a full Division I institution, and the work that NEC Coach of the Year Tim O'Shea has done in Rhode Island should definitely not be taken for granted. The inside-outside scoring duo of junior Alex Francis and senior point guard Frankie Dobbs finally has a third wheel to enhance their game, coming in the form of Columbia transfer and shooter in his own right Dyami Starks. O'Shea's nephew Joe also came over from Holy Cross, and is an underrated scoring option along with Australian import Corey Maynard. For the Mount, first-year head coach Jamion Christian's "Mayhem" system; influenced heavily by the "Havoc" defense he assisted Shaka Smart in preparing at VCU last season, has taken the NEC by storm, and the tendency to force turnovers while attempting to break the game open with an excessive amount of three-point shots could leave the Bulldogs calling for mercy in the first half. Led by one-time transfers Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott, the latter of whom scored a conference-high 44 points earlier in the year against this same Bryant team the Mountaineers will face tomorrow, Christian's team will try to take the Bulldogs out of their element. Bryant has the fourth-best three-point defense in the NEC, so guarding the line should not be a problem for a team whose success story and homecourt advantage is too good for it to end prematurely. Bryant wins by somewhere in the vicinity of eight to ten points, going away at the end. The Pick: Bryant
#3 LIU Brooklyn (17-13, 12-6) vs. #6 Quinnipiac (15-15, 11-7)
The two-time defending champions have undoubtedly the toughest assignment of the eight teams in the field this season, as first-year coach Jack Perri's Blackbirds have to face a Quinnipiac team that is not only once again getting hot at the right time for Tom Moore, but one who also took them to the limit in a 96-90 LIU win at the Wellness Center three days ago. Northeast Conference Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere and senior guard C.J. Garner, who scored 63 of the 96 Blackbird points Saturday, will attempt to recapture the magic while second team all-NEC selection Jason Brickman shows off the passing form that leads the nation in assists this season. Brandon Thompson and sensational freshman E.J. Reed have picked up the scoring vacated by Julian Boyd's injury, but the Blackbirds will need to keep Olasewere out of foul trouble in addition to matching the physicality and rebounding prowess of the Bobcats, who will be looking to pound it inside to Ike Azotam and Ousmane Drame any and every chance they get. Quinnipiac's guards are disciplined enough to let the game come to them, and senior Dave Johnson is one of the more efficient shooters at his position. If sophomore Zaid Hearst can come anywhere close to the 13-point, 12-rebound effort he put up last Thursday against St. Francis, the reigning champions have their work cut out for them. Don't be surprised if this game ends up going to overtime, with the Blackbirds fighting a war to get the victory. The Pick: LIU Brooklyn
#2 Wagner (18-11, 12-6) vs. #7 Central Connecticut State (13-16, 9-9)
The third team with a rookie coach in this year's tournament, Wagner has done a little bit of everything under 29-year-old head man Bashir Mason this season. From being one of the better defensive teams in the league early in the year to finding their offensive groove when everyone got healthy again midway through the season, the Seahawks enter the postseason as one of the more complete teams in the NEC. Point guard and now two-time defending NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenny Ortiz has now added a scoring punch to his already well-rounded game, while Latif Rivers continues to be a thorn in opponents' sides. The frontcourt has improved for the Verrazano Warriors as well, as Jonathon Williams and freshman Dwaun Anderson seemingly get better every night, with Orlando Parker, Mario Moody and even 6-11 big man Naofall Folahan not too far behind. Their opponent has come in with arguably the most underappreciated body of work in the conference this year, as several critics doubted Howie Dickenman's ability to bring the Blue Devils back to this level after losing Ken Horton and Robby Ptacek to graduation. In their absence, Kyle Vinales has done more than just assert himself this year, adding an NEC first team selection to his Rookie of the Year award from a season ago. Vinales is the anchor of this team, and as he goes, so too do the Blue Devils. His supporting cast can get the job done as well, with Matthew Hunter, Brandon Peel and Malcolm McMillan all stepping up in one way or another for a CCSU team that faces Wagner in the 2 vs. 7 matchup for the second consecutive year. The Blue Devils are good, but just a year away from really contending, and Wagner is just too skilled for them here. The Pick: Wagner
Semifinals: Saturday, March 9th (one game will tip off at noon, the other at 2:30 pm)
The Picks: Bryant over Robert Morris - The Bulldogs defeated the Colonials in Moon Township to start the NEC season, and will do it again on a stage where no one expects them to get the job done after Robert Morris will most likely still be recovering from a hard-fought battle against St. Francis.
Wagner over LIU Brooklyn - The Seahawks have had the Blackbirds' number this season, defeating them in January to end LIU's 31-game winning streak at the Wellness Center, and then again last week on Kenny Ortiz's last-second dramatics in Staten Island:
The third time might be a charm, but homecourt advantage; as it will be everywhere in the NEC this week, will be too much for LIU to overcome as Wagner will guarantee the crowning of a new champion.
Championship: Tuesday, March 12th (coverage on ESPN2 at 7pm)
The Pick: Wagner over Bryant - After Julian Boyd tore his ACL in December, I picked Wagner to take the Northeast Conference, and Bashir Mason's Seahawks haven't let me down other than an overtime loss to Robert Morris and sweep at the hands of St. Francis in one of the deepest NEC seasons ever from a parity perspective. Bryant will be coming into the Spiro Center looking to complete the fairy tale, but the story will unfortunately come to an end as the Verrazano Warriors win their second NEC title and first since 2003 by the final of 84-79, with Kenny Ortiz earning Most Valuable Player honors.