Northeast Conference Tournament Preview & Season Review
Best call(s): My colleague Jimmy Root did the NEC season preview, and he was SPOT ON with Central Connecticut being terrible. Perhaps it was the double OT loss in the season opener to Hartford that cursed the Blue Devils season. Others may contend it was just a complete and utter lack of skill or talent anywhere on the roster. Jimmy was also nailed his 3rd place prediction for the New York-based St. Francis College.
Worst call(s): To say Robert Morris was a disappointment in 2016 would be an understatement. The epic home NIT win against Kentucky only a few years back feels like decades ago now, and the buzz around up-and-coming head coach Andrew Toole has surely subsided. The loss of Lucky Jones proved to have an even bigger impact than most anticipated, and Rodney Pryor struggled to maintain his past efficiency in a more featured role with Jones gone.
Tournament Bracket: While the NEC league was for the most part an abomination, their tournament format has a sneaky cool component to it. Out of the ten teams in the league, only the top 8 in the regular season standings qualify for the conference tournament. This means Bryant and Central Connecticut will get a head start on their offseason fishing program. Not to go on a major tangent, but I’ve always felt the Ivy League has the best postseason tournament system, which is essentially just not doing one, and giving the auto-bid to the regular season league champ. The NEC system is one step closer to achieving the Ivy League model, and is better than most leagues, who generally give all teams a shot at postseason glory.
Who I want to win: I’d like to see Robert Morris wake up from their season-long coma, specifically junior point guard Kavon Stewart. In his junior year, Stewart has now been the starter for over 2 years, playing significant minutes at the point guard slot in his freshman campaign in the Colonials “glory days” of NEC dominance. While Stewart’s regression is most glaring, preseason 3MW POTY and senior Rodney Pryor has also taken a step back in efficiency, which has been a major contributor to Bob Morris’s free-fall to the 338th best offensive team in the nation.
Who I think will win: I’m not sure how you can make a strong case for anyone other than Wagner to take the crown. The Seahawks enter the conference tourney hot, having won 6 of their last 7, and rank a 100 spots higher in Kenpom.com than the 2nd best school (St. Francis NY) in the league. Wagner did drop two of their 5 conference losses to LIU Brooklyn, who actually present a tough matchup for Wagner with their versatile frontcourt (Frink and Zanna) and lightning-fast pace. The Blackbirds also feature two guards, Aakim Saintil and Martin Hermannsonn, who each attempted 160 free throws AND each connected on over 80% of those attempts this year. Both are relentless attacking the rim in transition, which is a vast contrast to the half-court style Wagner tries to dictate.
Chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament: The mighty Terries of St. Francis are the only team that has a real shot to take down this tourney title, outside of Wager and their kryptonite LIU-B Blackbirds. While the smaller and weaker conference postseason tournaments tend to be more wide open by nature, Wagner still feels like the clear front runner. St. Francis played Wagner within 3 at Wagner, and finished 7-2 over their final 9 games, giving them some real momentum heading into their opening round game tonight against Mount St. Mary's.
How it plays out: I’ll stick with chalk here (Wagner), but LIU-B and the Brooklyn Heights Terriers would be make next two choices to cut down the nets.