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Northeast Conference Tournament preview: St. Francis PA looks to dance for the first time since 1991

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Fairleigh Dickinson may be the best team in its way.

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NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

If Northeast Conference tournament history has taught us anything, it’s that the 1 seed will win its quarterfinal game and... and that’s it. Nothing else can be safely predicted in this tournament. Last year, the 6 and 7 seeds both won their quarterfinal games, causing immediate Jerome anguish. No. 4 seed LIU Brooklyn cut down the nets. The year before, 7 seed Robert Morris pulled off a first-round upset.

So, yeah, Saint Francis is probably beating Bryant, but nobody else is safe in this tournament.

Rob Krimmel has slowly turned the Saint Francis program around, and this might be his finest job yet. The Red Flash sputtered out of the gate in conference play and were 7-11 overall, 3-4 in the league on Jan. 24. That’s when Saint Francis unreeled eight wins in a row en route to a 12-6 finish in a balanced conference.

Assuming Saint Francis get by the Bulldogs, who return to the tournament after missing it last year (shout Jared Grasso), the Red Flash could then face Robert Morris or NMTC darling St. Francis Brooklyn. The Red Flash swept the Colonials in the regular season but won those games by a total of six points and split with the Terriers.

Elsewhere, Sacred Heart earned the 3 seed after missing the tournament last year (shoutout to Anthony Latina) and will host LIU Brooklyn. The Blackbirds always just seem to play their best in March, but they’ll have to do it against a Pioneers team that has gotten better as the season has gone on.

The quarterfinals play out Wednesday night on NEC Front Row. The field will then be re-seeded prior to the semifinals.

Bracket:

NEC Sports

Schedule:

Quarterfinals (Wed., March 6)

NEC Front Row will stream all four games

Game 1: Bryant Bulldogs at St. Francis PA Red Flash
Game 2: Wagner Seahawks at Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
Game 3: LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds at Sacred Heart Pioneers
Game 4: St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers at Robert Morris Colonials

Semifinals (Sat., March 9)

ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.

Teams are reseeded.

Game 5: Lowest-remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed
Game 6: No. 3 at No. 2,

Championship (Tue., March 12)

Game 7: Lowest-remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed, 7 p.m. (ESPN/2)

The favorites:

Saint Francis PA (16-13, 12-6): It helps that the Red Flash have the best player in the conference. Keith Braxton was named league player of the year on Tuesday after nearly averaging a double-double (16.4 points, 9.7 rebounds). As a guy who can play multiple positions, shoot, get to the basket, and rebound, there seems to be no one effective way to guard him. And he’s not the only one who can get buckets for Saint Francis. Jamaal King averages 15.3 himself and shoots 36 percent from three.

Fairleigh Dickinson (17-13, 12-6): For what it’s worth (nothing), FDU seems to like being the 2 seed. The co-regular season champions have had that seed each of the last three times it advanced to the NCAA Tournament. This year, they’ll lean on all-conference guard Darnell Edge and all-conference forward Mike Holloway Jr. Edge was the best three-point shooter in the conference this year, shooting 54 percent from beyond the arc in league games. You read that right. As for Holloway, he struggled last time out against Central Connecticut in the season finale, but has averaged 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in the Knights’ season-ending streak of 11 wins in 13 games.

The Dark horses:

Sacred Heart (15-16, 11-7): OK, who here expected Sacred Heart to finish third in the conference? [looks around, sees several hands raised] Put your hands down. You’re lying. The Pioneers were picked to finish ninth, but went 11-7 in the NEC thanks to senior guard Sean Hoehn (17.9 ppg) and the conference’s most improved player, EJ Anosike. After averaging 4.2 points and 3.9 rebound per game last year, Anosike broke out in 2018-19, putting up 14.3 per game and pulling down 8.1.

Robert Morris (16-15, 11-7): Bobby Mo won three of its final four games to earn a first-round home game, and that’s significant. The Colonials went 11-3 at home this year and beat St. Francis Brooklyn, their first round opponent, in Moon Township, 67-62 just a couple weeks ago. Josh Williams scored 22 points and hit five threes in that one. Andy Toole has brought the Colonials to the dance before and he has his team playing its best basketball at the right time.

St. Francis Brooklyn (17-14, 9-9): Will this be the year that the Terriers FINALLY break through and reach their first NCAA Tournament? Probably not. Then again, SFC split with both Saint Francis U. and Sacred Heart, and its two losses to Fairleigh Dickinson were by a combined 13 points. Stranger things have happened. This team, however, is probably a year away. Two of its top three scorers, Jalen Jordan and Chauncey Hawkins, are both sophomores, and they only use two seniors in their regular rotation.

LIU Brooklyn (15-15, 9-9): Derek Kellogg, who proudly owns the title of “guy who most looks like he would coach a school called LIU Brooklyn,” is looking to lead the Blackbirds to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. This year, LIU has done it as perhaps the best defensive team in the NEC. Per KenPom, LIU ranks second in the NEC in defensive efficiency, first in effective field goal percentage defense, first in two-point percentage defense, and first in block percentage. On the other end, learn the name Raiquan Clark. He regularly scores 20 a game and shoots just over 50 percent from the field.

Prediction:

You know what? I’m gonna go out on a limb here. It’s boring to take the favorites, so give me the Fightin’ Bobby Valentines. The Sacred Heart Pioneers are going to beat LIU Brooklyn at home, then win a pair of road games to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their Division I history. Congrats to the NMTC.