- Matt Cox
3MW’s All Conference Teams:
1. 'The Mount' Outlasts Wagner, LIU-B & FDU to Claim NEC Crown: After a disappointing home loss to 2nd place LIU-Brooklyn last Thursday, the Mountaineers responded with a 15-point victory against St. Francis BK just two nights later, securing their first NEC regular season conference title in over a decade. Since arriving in Emmitsburg, MD back in 2012, head coach Jamion Christian has branded Mount St. Mary's basketball with a similar reputation as another close by Mountaineer program - West Virginia. Over the past four years, coaches and players around the NEC have become all t0o familiar with Christian's suffocating, in-your-face, full court pressure, which, similar to Bob Huggins' 'Press Virginia' has taken on a persona of its own: 'Mayhem’. Historically, Christian has relied on a never-ending bench of ball-hawking athletes that come at opposing ball handlers in waves, wreaking havoc all over the floor for 40 straight minutes. For two straight seasons heading into this year, the ‘Neers bench played 43% and 36% of all possible minutes, which ranked 8th and 78th in the country, respectively. This season, however, Christian had to adjust – as all good coaches do – to a roster that lacked the depth that his teams in prior years had, causing him to pull back some of the frantic pressure that generated TOs on 1 out of every 4 possessions last season (this 25% TO rate equated to 3rd best in the entire country). So what exactly came of this adjustment? A much improved offense that put even more of the onus on two of the most improved guards in the league: Junior Robinson and Elijah Long (the younger brother of 3MW favorite Nazareth-Mitrou Long).
2. Aaman’s Torn ACL Weakens Wagner’s Postseason Punch: As the defending regular season NEC champions from last year - who also brought back a special 1-2 frontcourt tandem in Michael Carey and Mike Aaman - Wagner had big aspirations for the 2016-17 season. The veteran duo of Carey and Aaman were surely on a mission to get another crack at the Big Dance after a young, scrappy FDU team stunned the Seahawks in the NEC tournament title game last season. And despite a rocky 4-5 start in conference play this season, Wagner rallied to win 6 of 7 before hosting Bryant for the first leg of a 2-game home stand last Thursday. The Seahawks would eventually escape with a 3-point win, but not before losing their redshirt senior center Aaman to a season - and career - ending ACL injury. The ex-Rhode Island transfer will have to watch from the sidelines as his teammates try to avoid another NEC conference tournament slipup, which abruptly ended the Seahawks season last year and in 2013-14, when they were the 1-seed and 2-seed, respectively.
3. Frink Eyes Final Run at NCAA Tournament Trip: After playing his first two collegiate seasons at FIU, Jerome Frink wasted no time taking the NEC by storm, as he snagged 1st team all conference honors in just his first NEC season - an award he will likely be receiving yet again this year. A double-double machine, Frink has been a model of consistency since arriving in Brooklyn, averaging 17 and 9 over his last two seasons, but has never made it to the big stage of the NCAA Tournament. That may all change this year as his Blackbirds have now racked up 6 consecutive wins, including two impressive road victories at Mount St. Mary's and at Wagner, giving them a full steam of momentum heading into the NEC tournament. If Frink's backcourt teammates Iverson Fleming and Jashaun Agosto continue to play a steady floor game - a big component of which involves getting Frink consistent touches - the Blackbirds and Frink are well-positioned to take down the tourney title.
Bracket Overview: The NEC re-seeds after the quarterfinals, which means the top-2 seeds LIU-Brooklyn and Mount St. Mary's won't have to face each other until the finals next Tuesday - assuming they both take care of business before then.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
Unlike last year when Wagner was a clear-cut tournament favorite, the NEC field is as wide open as ever this season. While Mount St. Mary's won the league and currently sits at 214th overall in kenpom.com, LIU-Brooklyn and Wager aren't far behind at 249th and 237th respectively. On paper, most experts slated Wagner to repeat as the regular season conference champions before the year began, but the Seahawks just haven't been able to replicate the defensive dominance that helped them run through the league last season. And now with Aaman out, their defensive rebounding and rim protection will be in even bigger jeopardy, which will be problematic if they run into Jerome Frink and the Blackbirds in the Semis. LIU-B swept the Seahawks in the regular season, in large part because of Frink's efficiency in both matchups and they almost doubled up the regular season champion Mountaineers as well. Regardless of who emerges from this group of 'frontrunners', the victor will likely end up receiving the dreaded 16 seed in the Big Dance, according to our bracketology experts here at 3MW. Currently, Mount St. Mary's is slated on the very last line on the 68 team S-curve, meaning one of the Tuesday night play-in games in Dayton will almost surely feature an NEC school.
Dark Horse Team(s):
The opening round 4/5 seed matchup pins together the two youngest and most improved teams in the league - the Bryant Bulldogs and the St. Francis PA Red Flash. The Red Flash were 'red hot' all year from downtown, connecting on 37% of their 3-pointers thanks to an army of perimeter marksmen - but it's the Bryant Bulldogs who are best equipped to make some serious noise in this tourney...
The 'baby Bulldogs' feature a balanced offensive attack, led by a pair of dynamic guards in Nisre Zouzoua and Ikenna Ndugba. While the freshman Ndugba has dealt with his share of growing pains (see 29% TO rate), he's shown flashes of why head coach Tim O'Shea had no problem handing him the starting PG job from day 1. In fact, on that very first day, he opened his collegiate career with a bang, dropping 19 on Notre Dame in South Bend. And despite some long range shooting inconsistencies, Ndugba is fresh off a 27 point outburst against Central Connecticut two nights ago, in which he rained in 7 of 14 from the land of plenty. There's no denying that Ndugba is a budding NEC star, and he's quickly developing chemistry with his backcourt mate Zouzoua, who appears to complement Ndugba perfectly. Zouzoua is a high-usage scorer that rarely loses the ball - a rare asset in the NEC, particularly at the guard position - and his ball security has helped mask some of Ndugba's turnover woes. This perimeter unit also has other weapons at their disposal, including two efficient 3-point shooters in Bosko Kotsur and Adam Grant, in addition to two bruising bodies who can finish down low (Sebastian Townes and Marcel Pettway). Don't let the 9-9 NEC record fool you - four of those losses came in overtime and the Bulldogs have already taken down 'the Mount' and Wagner during the regular season.
(1) Mount St. Mary's defeats (8) Sacred Heart
(5) Bryant defeats (4) St. Francis PA
(2) LIU-Brooklyn defeats (7) Robert Morris
(3) Wagner defeats (6) Fairleigh Dickinson
(5) Bryant defeats (1) Mount St. Mary's
(3) Wagner defeats (2) LIU-Brooklyn
(3) Wagner defeats (5) Bryant
Final Thoughts: Despite my affection for this up-and-coming Bryant squad, there is simply too much bulletin board material for a talented Wagner team not to make a run in this year's tournament. The Seahawks will be laser focused after their letdown last season against FDU in the conference tournament title game and should play inspired basketball with their redshirt senior Aaman watching from the bench. If they can sneak by Jerome Frink and LIU-Brooklyn early on, I foresee them riding a big wave of momentum all the way to an NCAA tournament berth.