The 2023 NEC Championship will mark a return to an eight-team field for the conference, with 12-4 Merrimack winning its way to a regular-season crown and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
With the Warriors in year four of the reclassifying period, Joe Gallo’s men will have to wait for yet another chance at an NCAA Tournament berth (lame transition rules are lame). However, unlike last season, they’ll at least get the program’s first postseason opportunity in this year’s rendition of the NEC Championship.
Despite the NCAA’s reclassification rules, highly coveted silverware is still on the line in a conference that bolstered eight team’s with double-digit wins during the 2022-23 season.
Note: All times listed are Eastern.
Quarterfinals (Wednesday, March 1), NEC Front Row
Game 1: No. 1 Merrimack vs. No. 8 Long Island, 7 p.m.
Game 2: No. 4 Sacred Heart vs. No. 5 Wagner, 7 p.m.
Game 3: No. 3 Saint Francis (PA) vs. No. 6 Central Connecticut State, 7 p.m.
Game 4: No. 2 Fairleigh Dickinson vs. No. 7 St. Francis Brooklyn, 7 p.m.
Semifinals (Saturday, March 4), ESPN 3
Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner, 8 p.m.
Championship (Tuesday, March 7), ESPN 2
Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 7 p.m.
Merrimack (15-16, 12-4): The Warriors finished the year on an eight-game win streak to earn the program’s second NEC regular-season championship in just four seasons at the Division I level.
Easily the hottest team in the conference heading into tournament week, Merrimack hasn’t lost since late January despite picking up 11 consecutive DI losses to end the non-conference slate.
The team’s turnaround has been led by some inspired play from Co-NEC Player of the Year Jordan Minor who’s averaging 17.4 PPG and 9.5 APG, ending the season with five double-doubles in his final six games.
However, Merrimack’s success has also been aided by the addition of two freshmen in Javon Bennett and Jordan Derkack, as well as veteran guard Ziggy Reed. The Warriors will need continued contributions from all four if they want to keep riding this win streak to the Championship.
But, someone will need to rep the NEC at the NCAA Tournament. Who wil it be?
Fairleigh Dickinson (17-14, 10-6): Really the only team that consistently gave Merrimack trouble throughout conference play were the Knights, who defeated the Warriors twice. In addition to that, Tobin Anderson has possibly the NEC’s best offense behind a quartet of scoring threats.
Leading the way has been former Division II guard Demetre Roberts averaging 16.8 PPG but he’s followed closely by Grant Singleton with 14.6 PPG, Ansley Almonor managing 13.9 PPG, and Joe Munden scoring 10.9 PPG. The Knights certainly aren’t a team that’s going to dominate with size and physicality but they’ve got the scrappy offensive play to compete with and beat anybody in this conference.
Saint Francis PA (12-17, 9-7): The Red Flash don’t bolster the most squad depth or the flashiest resume but what they do have is one of the nation’s most efficient scorers in Co-NEC Player of the Year Josh Cohen. He’s averaging the ninth most points per ga in the nation at 22 and when productive Cohen is almost impossible to stop from getting to the bucket.
Cohen’s got some other solid pieces behind him in Maxwell Land and Landon Moore but how far Saint Francis will go in this NEC Championship will depend on the play of Cohen. If he’s performing well, that could be all the way to the finals.
Sacred Heart (15-16, 8-8): Behind the eccentric play of junior Nico Galette, the Pioneers have been an upset machine in the NEC, managing wins over Merrimack, Saint Francis-PA, Wagner, and two over Fairleigh Dickinson. Look for Anthony Latina’s team to make some noise in a tightly knit conference.
Wagner (15-12, 8-8): Under first-year head coach Donald Copeland, the Seahawks found a lot of success in the non-conference, securing victories at Temple, vs. Fairfield, and against Stony Brook, but never quite hit their stride in NEC play. However, Wagner finished out with back-to-back wins and has a young squad that’s ready to avenge last season’s Championship defeat.
Players to Watch
Jordan Minor, Merrimack (17.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.4 BLKPG)
Ziggy Reed, Merrimack (13.3 PPG, 4 RPG, 42.2% FG%)
Demetre Roberts, Fairleigh Dickinson (16.8 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 STLPG)
Grant Singleton, Fairleigh Dickinson (14.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 46.3% FG%)
Ansley Almonor, Fairleigh Dickinson (13.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 43.4% FG%)
Josh Cohen, Saint Francis-PA (22 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 59.1% FG%)
Maxwell Land, Saint Francis-PA (12.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 42% FG%)
Nico Galette, Sacred Heart (15.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.7 STLPG)
Joey Reilly, Sacred Heart (11.7 PPG, 2.1 APG, 46.5% FG%)
Delonnie Hunt, Wagner (11.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.8 APG)
Kellen Amos, CCSU (14.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 45.4% FG%)
Nigel Scantlebury, CCSU (10.2 PPG, 3 RPG, 3.2 APG)
Tedrick Wilcox, St. Francis Brooklyn (11.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 34.7% 3P%)
Zion Bethea, St. Francis Brooklyn (10.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 42.9% FG%)
Marko Maletic, Long Island (15.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 43.2% FG%)
Jacob Johnson, Long Island (10.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.3 STLPG)
I think it’ll be the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds meeting in the Championship round here with Merrimack and Fairleigh Dickinson posing as the two most consistent teams in the conference. While the Warriors are getting hot at the right time, I think the Knights potent offense outscorers Minor and Co. to book Fairleigh Dickinson an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.