By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS:
Site: Campus Sites: Wednesday, March 6th through Tuesday, March
12th. Television: None (First Round), ESPN3.com, MSG2, FCS (Semifinals), ESPN2
(Finals). Annual: 32nd. Defending Champion: Long Island.
On Wednesday, March 6, the Northeast Conference Tournament will get
underway with the top eight teams battling for the tournament crown and the
conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
With wins in five straight contests to end the season, Robert Morris secured
the No. 1 seed in the eight-team field. The Colonials have been one of the
best teams in the conference in the recent past as they have reached the title
game in the past two seasons, while earning back-to-back NEC crowns following
the 2009 and 2010 campaigns. At 22-9 overall the Colonials have now had 20-win
campaigns in five of the last six seasons, while going 85-23 in league action
during the span after going 14-4 this year.
The rest of the field is tightly grouped with just a single game separating
the second through sixth seeds. Wagner grabbed that second-spot despite being
tied with Long Island and Bryant with a 12-6 mark in league action, sweeping
the season series with Long Island and holding the tiebreaker against Bryant.
Long Island is coming off back-to-back conference tournament titles and will
be the third seed this time around. Bryant will be the final host team in the
first round as the fourth-seed.
Mount St. Mary's and Quinnipiac also finished deadlocked in league action at
11-5 but the Mount will be the fifth-seed thanks to a 77-73 win over the
Bobcats in the only meeting between them this season. Securing the final two
spots in the tournament are Central Connecticut (7) and St. Francis (NY) (8).
In the first pairing of the tournament the top seed Robert Morris will play
host to eighth-seeded St. Francis at the Charles L. Sewall Center. Robert
Morris rolled over St. Francis in each of the two regular season meetings
with a pair of double-digit victories. The Colonials have a ton of momentum
heading into the postseason with wins in five straight contests as they look
to make a trip back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. If
the Colonials are able to do so it would improve their conference-leading
Tournament Championship total to eight. They are a balanced group at Robert
Morris led by four players scoring in double figures. Karvel Anderson (12.7
ppg) is the leader on the roster while Velton Jones (11.3 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs
the point with his scoring and distributing. St. Francis won a do-or-die
contest with Sacred Heart on Saturday to slip into the tournament field. The
Terriers went 12-17 overall and 8-10 in league action and had lost three of
their previous four games before the season finale. St. Francis has never won
a conference title and hasn't made it past the first round since 2003. Jalen
Cannon (14.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) tied for the conference lead in rebounding for the
Terriers and leads three players averaging in double figures.
In another opening round bout the No. 2 seed Wagner Seahawks will take on the
No. 7 seed Central Connecticut Blue Devils at Spiro Sports Center. These two
squads split the season series with the home team victorious each time. It
wasn't until the last day of the regular season that the Seahawks secured the
No. 2 seed, as a 67-57 win over Monmouth did the job. Wagner finished up the
season 18-11 overall and won three straight and five of its final six games.
Wagner is playing for its second-ever NEC title with the first coming in 2003.
Since that campaign the Seahawks have made it out of the first round three
times but have not been to the title game. Despite the efforts of Jonathon
Williams (15.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) the Seahawks have been one of lower scoring teams
in the conference ranking ninth in points scored (68.3 pg). Central
Connecticut has been a mainstay in the NEC Tournament as this marks the 15th-
straight season the Blue Devils qualified. In that time the Blue Devils won
all three of their conference titles with the last in 2007. Central
Connecticut split its 18 league bouts this season, while winning three of
their last four, though most recently took an 81-61 setback against Robert
Morris. NEC-leading scorer Kyle Vinales (21.6 ppg) and Matt Hunter (16.0 ppg,
7.7 rpg) pack quite a wallop on the offensive end for the Blue Devils.
Two-time defending league champion and No. 3 seed Long Island will host
another opening round bout against No. 6 seed Quinnipiac at the Wellness,
Recreation and Athletic Center. These teams should be awfully familiar with
each other as they just met in the season finale at the WRA Center. That
contest ended in a 96-90 win for Long Island which split the season series.
Long Island is attempting to become the first team in conference history to
win three straight tourney crowns. If they can accomplish that feat the
Blackbirds would have their fifth overall title which would be the second most
among conference teams. After an 0-3 start in league play the Blackbirds
posted wins in 12 of their last 15, including two last week, to secure the
third seed. Long Island has won 44 of its lat 54 league bouts as well. The
Blackbirds are a high-octane offensive squad that scored the 10th most points
in the country (78.2 pg) during the regular season. However the Blackbirds
also surrendered more than 75 points per game. Jamal Olaswere (19.2 ppg, 8.4
rpg) is a dominant force on the inside and finishes up 51 percent of his shots
from the field, while Jason Brickman (9.6 ppg, 8.5 apg) is the best
distributor in the NEC. Quinnipiac (15-15, 11-7 NEC) could have earned a
higher seeding and possibly hosting duties in the first round but losses in
two of its final three games sank the Bobcats. Quinnipiac has been to at least
the semifinals in each of the last four years but has never earned a
conference title. The Bobcats' claim to fame is their rebounding prowess as
they topped the country on the boards (41.9 pg) led by Ike Azotam (13.6 ppg,
The final opening round battle pits the fourth-seeded Bryant Bulldogs against
the fifth-seeded Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers. These teams also split their
season series with the home team coming out on top each time. It has been
quite a year for Bryant which last year at this time had a record of just
2-28. This time around Bryant is 19-10 overall with 17-win turnaround coming
in the Bulldogs first season of NEC and NCAA Tournament eligibility. Bryant
just couldn't find a rhythm down the stretch as it traded wins and losses in
its last six games to give up hopes of a regular season title. Efficiency on
offense was the key for the Bulldogs who were the second-best scoring team in
the NEC (74.3 ppg), while ranking at the top in assists (15.3 pg) and
field-goal percentage (.481). Alex Francis (17.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Dyami
Starks (17.7 ppg) each finished in the top five in scoring in the NEC as the
second most productive scoring tandem in the league. First-year head coach
Jamion Christian and Mount St. Mary's picked the right time to turn it on as
it won seven straight games, by an average margin of 12.7 points, to climb to
16-13 overall and 11-7 in league action. The Mountaineers' second and most
recent tournament championship came in 2008. More often than not the
Mountaineers found themselves in shootouts as they had the worst field-goal
percentage defense in the country (.516). While on offense, the Mountaineers
live and die by the 3-point arc as they attempted the fifth most shots from
long distance (740) in the country this season.
Most of the teams in the NEC are in the same class, but Robert Morris was a
step above the rest. Though Long Island's incredible scoring ability and
postseason experience makes it a team that can't be ignored there's a reason
the Colonials were the only 20-win team in the league.