- 'Defense Drives the Bus': While Robert Morris' 9-9 conference record doesn't look all that appealing on paper, Andy Toole deserves a ton of credit for molding 10 new faces into a cohesive defense - the Colonials surrendered just 98.6 points per 100 possessions to NEC opponents, which ranked 2nd in the NEC by a rather substantial margin, 5 PPP ahead of St. Francis in 3rd. But it was Bashir Mason's smothering defensive unit that propelled Wagner to it's 2nd league crown in three seasons. In one of the few nationally televised NEC showdowns this season, the Seahawks stifled St. Francis' high-octane offense in a convincing 79-61 route of the Red Flash, just one of many instances in which NEC foes found themselves flustered by Wagner's in-your-face perimeter pressure this year.
- 'Junior's Senior Farewell Tour': Not even the well-respected defensive guru Mason could stop Junior Robinson, the hands down the best player in the NEC from start to finish this season. After Elijah Long - Robinson's former backcourt partner in crime and reigning 1st team all NEC performer - opted to transfer to Texas and test his talents against Big 12 competition, there was zero doubt as to who would take the keys to the ignition. 'The Mount's Maestro' basically dragged the 'Neers to a 12-6 league record thanks to an ultra efficient and equally high usage season offensively in which Robinson shouldered the bulk of the scoring and playmaking responsibilities.
- 'Tim O'Shea Says Goodbye': A decade long era has come to a close in Smithfield, RI as Tim O'Shea will finally hang up the clipboard at Bryant. It was a tough year for the Bulldogs, but it's fair to say that not much was expected of O'Shea entering the 2017-18 campaign - Bryant became yet another victim of the transfer tide flowing out of the NEC, which continues to flush out the league's top-talent. Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettaway both chose to pack up their bags and leave town last summer, leaving the cupboard rather bare for O'Shea to work with.
Per the handy dandy description at the top of the graphic, all games will be held at the campus sites of the higher seed. Do note that reseeding will occur after each round, so the bracket in the current format is a bit misleading - for example, there's a zero percent chance Mount St. Mary's and Wagner will square off in the 2nd round if they each win their opener. Also, please pour one out for Bryant and Sacred Heart who will get a head start on their offseason workout programs after finishing a combined 7-29 in conference play.
What to Watch:
- Bad news alert for NEC schools not named Wagner - the Seahawks haven't lost at home on Staten Island in almost a year and with a 'higher seed hosts' tournament bracket format, the path has already been paved for Bashir Mason to put the exclamation mark on an already impressive 2018 season. But if there is one blemish to be found on Mason's decorated resume since he took over as leading man back in 2012, it's been the head scratching letdowns in the conference tournament at home. The Seahawks have been bounced from the NEC championship in each of the past two seasons in their building, none of which was more gut wrenching than the nightmarish circus shot (courtesy of St. Francis' Keith Braxton) that abruptly ended Wagner's season last year.
- No Blackmon, No Problem? As one of the key cogs in St. Francis' promising young backcourt oozing with potential, Isaiah Blackmon's junior season barely got off the runaway - a season ending injury in the 4th game of the reason left head coach Rob Krimmel without his leading scorer from the year prior, which somewhat dampened the lofty expectations many had slapped on the Red Flash entering this season. Little did Krimmel know, he had a sleeping giant in one of his lesser known reserves - junior Andre Wolford turned into a walking inferno, setting the nets all across the NEC ablaze as he connected on 85 of his 174 attempts from downtown (49%). Wolford has fit seamlessly in the deadly 4-guard offensive attack alongside Jamaal King and Keith Braxton, which has been slowly heating up over the past few weeks. St. Francis enters the NEC championship as the hottest team in the field, having won 5 in a row and fresh off 1.18 points per possessions offensive clinic against a stout Robert Morris defense.
Who will win:
- Wagner: Perhaps I'm overly influenced by the 40-minute beatdown the Seahawks laid on the Red Flash earlier this year, but I know what I saw from that defense when they're fully engaged. Wagner is clearly the most balanced team in the league, led by a formidable perimeter trio of JoJo Cooper, Blake Francis and Romone Saunders. Other than the haunted ghosts of the Seahawks' recent NEC tournament past, it's tough to find an achilles heel that another contender could exploit... well, for the exception of...
If not them, then...
- Mount St. Mary's: There's no fancy Xs and Os rationale behind this dark horse pick - Justin Robinson just has that special star power and he happens to play for Mount St. Mary's (and an excellent coach in Jamion Christian I might add). Those who follow this league closely know all too way that Robinsons' ability far exceeds the typical talent standards of the NEC. The 5'5 dynamo was THE reason the Mountaineers took down the Seahawks on the final game of the regular season (a frigid Wagner shooting display also helped), as he routinely found open shooters scattered around the 3-point line. Only 9 teams in the country jack up more treys than the Mount, so look for Junior Robinson to go down gunnin' as he takes his last crack at the NCAA's most coveted postseason stage.