The Northeast Conference Tournament might be most notable, at least to start, because of one of the teams that isn’t there. The Merrimack Warriors took the league by storm, going 14-4 in the NEC and winning the regular season title in their first season transitioning from Division II. But because of that transition, Joey Gallo’s team is not eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, NIT, or NEC tournament. Instead, it appears that Merrimack’s season will likely continue in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, which isn’t affiliated with the NCAA.
That leaves eight other teams battling it out for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, including the two teams that tied for second place, Pennsylvania rivals Robert Morris and Saint Francis U. Wagner and Central Connecticut missed the tournament after finishing 10th and 11th in the league standings respectively. There’s a ton of parity among the remaining teams and it should make for a wide-open tournament.
Quarterfinals (Wed., March 4):
All on NEC Front Row at 7 p.m. ET
No. 8 St. Francis Brooklyn at No. 1 Robert Morris
No. 7 Bryant at No. 2 Saint Francis U.
No. 6 Mount St. Mary’s at No. 3 Sacred Heart
No. 5 Fairleigh Dickinson at No. 4 LIU Brooklyn
Semifinals (Sat., March 7):
Games at Noon a 2 p.m. ET
Lowest-remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed (NEC Front Row/ESPN3)
No. 3 at No. 2 (NEC Front Row/ESPN3)
Finals (Tues., March 10):
Lowest remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed (ESPN2, 7 pm)
Robert Morris (17-14, 13-5): The Colonials were picked fifth in the preseason, but the emergence of AJ Bramah (12.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG) led them to a second-place finish in the regular season standings. It means that Andy Toole’s team won’t have to leave the newly opened UPMC Events Center for the entire tournament. RMU went 7-2 at home during NEC play, with the losses coming to Merrimack and Fairleigh Dickinson. The question for this team will be if it can consistently guard the ball; the Colonials struggled with penetration at times this season. They lost three of their final five games down the stretch, including getting swept by FDU. They’ll need to fix those issues in order to take home the title.
Saint Francis U. (20-9, 13-5): A veteran team that won 20 games for the first time since the 1990-91 NCAA tournament team, the Red Flash are trying to take one more step forward. They’re led by last season’s NEC Player of the Year, Keith Braxton, and this season’s likely recipient, Isaiah Blackmon, who are both seniors. SFU had won their last eight conference games before stumbling at RMU in the regular season finale. One reason that Rob Krimmel’s team could be a tough out? They don’t rely on the three. SFU had one of the best offenses in the country this season despite attempting fewer than 30 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. They may be able to overcome a cold shooting night.
Sacred Heart (19-12, 12-6): The third-seeded Pioneers are going to be another tough out in the NEC tournament. EJ Anosike has become a dominant big man in his sophomore season. Anthony Latina has smartly surrounded Anosike with all the right pieces, including a defensive anchor in Jare’l Spellman, playmaking guards like Koreem Ozier and Aaron Clarke, and a clutch-shot making senior in Kinnon LaRose. The result was 19 regular season wins, the most in Sacred Heart’s Division I history. The problem for SHU? The Pioneers couldn’t beat the league’s top teams during NEC play. Sacred Heart was swept by Merrimack, Saint Francis U., and Robert Morris, but went 12-0 against the rest of the league. They’ll have to turn that around to make a run in the NEC tournament.
The Dark Horse
Fairleigh Dickinson (11-18, 9-9): Let’s start with the reason this might not work: FDU’s defense just hasn’t been very good this season, and that’s putting in generously. The Knights are one of the worst defenses in college basketball, according to KenPom. They’re also 7-3 since Jan. 30, have a core of talented upperclassmen, and are coached by Greg Herenda, who has won two NEC tournaments already. Jahlil Jenkins (16 PPG, 3 RPG, 3.7 APG) is one of the best players in the conference. He hasn’t had fewer than three assists in a game since a loss at Sacred Heart on Jan. 25. Jenkins’ ability to penetrate into the paint is also why FDU swept the NEC’s No. 1 seed RMU this season. He averaged 20.5 PPG and 4.0 APG in the two victories. FDU also has help, with athletic frontcourt players such as Kaleb Bishop, Elyjah Williams, and Xzavier Malone-Key. It might take winning three road games, but if any team can, it’s FDU.
Players to Watch
- Isaiah Blackmon, G, Saint Francis U.
- EJ Anosike, F, Sacred Heart
- Keith Braxton, G, Saint Francis U.
- Raiquan Clark, F, LIU Brooklyn
- Jahlil Jenkins, G, Fairleigh Dickinson
- Adam Grant, G, Bryant
- Chauncey Hawkins, G, St. Francis Brooklyn
- AJ Bramah, F, Robert Morris
Robert Morris falls in either the quarter or semifinals and Saint Francis U. claims the title on its home court to make its first NCAA Tournament since 1990-91, just a year later than most people expected.