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Northeast Conference Tournament primer: The guards, the kids, and everything to watch this postseason

Mount St. Mary’s earned the top seed. Who are the Mountaineers’ biggest challengers?

NCAA Basketball: LIU Brooklyn vs St. John's Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

When the Northeast Conference announced its regular season award winners on Tuesday, there was a clear theme among the honorees. Between the first-, second-, and third-team winners, along with the all-rookie team, 17 of the 20 players are guards.

That includes the two leading scorers in the conference, Nisre Zouzoua (20.2 ppg) from Bryant and Quincy McKnight (18.9 ppg) from Sacred Heart. Both were the unquestioned leaders of their teams, ranking second and first respectively in the conference in percentage of shots taken.

They’ll join second-teamers Darian Anderson (Fairleigh Dickinson) and Isaiah Still (Robert Morris) as guards leading their teams on the road in the NEC Tournament quarterfinals Wednesday night. And it’ll be no easy task: those four teams are a combined 13-23 in road conference games this season and will have to go up against the league’s elite.

At the top of the standings, there’s Mount St. Mary’s, which went 14-4 in conference and hasn’t lost back-to-back games since mid-December. The Mountaineers swept their first opponent, Sacred Heart, in the regular season.

If you’re looking for someone to watch from the Mountaineers, keep an eye on Junior Robinson. The 5’5 guard is an easy pick for my favorite player in the conference. Us short people have to stick together.

LIU-Brooklyn, led by conference player of the year Jerome Frink, earned the 2 seed and draws Robert Morris, which shocked the Blackbirds in Brooklyn a month ago. Since then, LIU has won seven out of eight.

Wagner is the 3 seed, and despite a loss to the Blackbirds to close the regular season, the Seahawks have also been playing well, winning 10 out of 12 and frustrating opponents offensively.

This is set to be a typical toss-up of an NEC Tournament, with the winner likely going to Dayton; the conference champion has been sent to the First Four every year since 2013. But in order to get there, the winning team will have to navigate the following road first:

Tournament format

The top eight teams in the 10-team NEC qualify for the conference tournament. After the quarterfinal round, the remaining teams are re-seeded so that the highest remaining seed plays the lowest. As has been the case since 2005, every game in the NEC Tournament will be played on the home court of the higher seed.

How to watch

(all times Eastern)

March 1:

1 Mount St. Mary’s vs. 8 Sacred Heart, 7 p.m., NEC Front Row
2 LIU-Brooklyn vs. 7 Robert Morris, 9 p.m,. NEC Front Row, MSG+, FCS
3 Wagner vs. 6 Fairleigh Dickinson, 7 p.m., NEC Front Row, MSG+, FCS
4 Saint Francis PA vs. 5 Bryant, 7 p.m., NEC Front Row

March 4:

Highest seed vs. Lowest seed, Noon or 2 p.m., MSG, FCS, NEC Front Row
Second-highest seed vs. Third-highest seed, Noon or 2 p.m., MSG, FCS, NEC Front Row

March 7:

Championship game, 7 p.m., ESPN2

3 Things to watch

1. Home court advantage

Home court advantage means a lot, especially in smaller conferences where teams can pack their tiny gyms with a few thousand screaming students. But it means even more in the NEC. At least, that’s what history tells us. Over the last nine years, the home team is 29-7 in quarterfinal games. Yes, some of that has to do with the higher seeds getting to host, but this year, there isn’t much separation in the middle of the standings. Wagner and St. Francis PA both finished 11-7, and Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Bryant all went 9-9.

Only one team in this tournament, LIU-Brooklyn, has beaten No. 1 seed Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. The Mountaineers earned the right to play at home for however long they stay alive in the tournament.

2. The resilient Blackbirds’ backcourt

In the backcourt, LIU relies on the most improved player in the conference, Iverson Fleming. He’s scored in double figures his last eight games and is shooting 38 percent from three in that span. Alongside him, freshman and All-Rookie Jashaun Agosto has become one of the best guards in the league. He can score when needed, turning in the occasional 20-point game, and distribute, ranking 11th in the conference in assists per game.

Fleming and Agosto have been especially important because the Blackbirds have played this season without Joel Hernandez — the guard LIU expected to shoulder much of the scoring load. The senior suffered a thumb injury in the season-opener and has not played since. If Fleming hadn’t stepped up and Agosto had not emerged as an unexpected source of production, the season likely would have turned out much differently for the Blackbirds.

3. Rise of the underclassmen

Another consistent theme among the stars of the NEC? Most of them will be back next year and many the year after that. The First Team consisted of three sophomores, with Mount St. Mary’s guard Elijah Long joining McKnight and Zouzoua. The sophomore Still and freshman Keith Braxton from Saint Francis PA made the second team, while Braxton’s classmates Isaiah Blackmon and Josh Nebo made the third team.

It stands to reason that the Red Flash, as well as other teams that ended the season hot, are in a good position to compete in the NEC beyond 2016-17. Junior and senior leadership is sometimes the difference in close games, but by March, the kids have usually started to grow up.

Prediction

I went with LIU-Brooklyn in my Jerome, so I have to stick with them. LIU over Wagner in an NYC battle for the NCAA Tournament.