- Jim Root
3MW’s All Conference Team:
I’m not super proud of including Tyler Kohl after he sort of torpedoed CCSU’s season with extracurricular misdeeds, but he was clearly one of the five best players in the league. His penalty is being bumped to the second team.
Player of the Year: Keith Braxton, Jr., St. Francis (PA)
Coach of the Year: Anthony Latina, Sacred Heart
Newcomer of the Year: Koreem Ozier, Fr., Sacred Heart
Freshman of the Year: Koreem Ozier, Sacred Heart
1. Bless Your (Sacred) Heart!
I feel pretty good about how I tiered this league in the preseason, with one flagrant exception: the Pioneers of Sacred Heart. Sean Hoehn blossomed into an all-league player, and coach Anthony Latina pulled all of the correct strings with a young supporting cast (and a superb freshman class). Hoehn will graduate, but freshman Koreem Ozier is already a star himself, and the Pioneers should remain in contention for years to come.
2. Can the Terriers Snap the Streak?
We’ll likely bring it up in every NEC tournament preview until it happens, but in case you weren’t aware, St. Francis Brooklyn is one of four remaining original Division I programs to never make the NCAA Tournament (for you trivia heads, the other 3 are Army, William & Mary, and The Citadel). Led by the Glenns (Coach Glenn Braica and PG Glenn Sanabria), the Terriers at least have a chance to make a program-defining run and join 2017 Northwestern in getting the monkey off their back.
3. The Other Francis
On January 24th, the Red Flash of St. Francis (PA) sat at 7-11 overall, 3-4 in the NEC, and the consensus preseason title pick looked like a bust. But the talented offensive unit found its stride, ripping off 8 straight wins en route to a share of the league title. Versatile wing/forward Keith Braxton and point guard Jamaal King are a sublime offensive duo, Isaiah Blackmon and Andre Wolford can pour in threes in a hurry, and the rotating big man trio of Mark Flagg, Luidgy Laporal, and Myles Thompson are offensive glass eaters. They just have to figure out how to get enough stops…
Like most small-conference leagues should be, the NEC is held at conference sites throughout (#WACVegas is the primary exception to this rule). This helps preserve an excellent atmosphere in nearly every game. Another formatting nuance I’m a fan of: re-seeding the semi-finals. It’s another small thing that leagues can do to help their best team qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Oh, and the league’s bottom two teams don’t qualify, so everyone wave goodbye to Mount St. Mary’s and Central Connecticut State!
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
The Red Flash of St. Francis (PA) has been my pick from the outset of the year, and although there were some dicey moments early on in the NEC campaign, they remain the choice. As mentioned, they’re guaranteed to play all games in Loretto, PA, as long as they’re alive, which should keep the prolific offense comfortable. Barring several upsets across other conferences, the NEC’s winner is nearly a lock for a 16-seed, with St. Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson probably the only two that even have a prayer of avoiding a trip to Dayton for the First Four. Even those two would need some help across the rest of the hoops landscape, though.
Dark Horse Team
FDU and Sacred Heart are both ranked higher in KenPom than the #1 seed Red Flash, so you have to take them seriously. All three top teams are offense-heavy, though, so I’ll throw a curveball with a defensive squad like Andy Toole’s Robert Morris. The Colonials started league play hot (7-1), but lost 5 of 6 during the February doldrums to fall to the #4 seed. The defense remains stout, though, with Matty McConnell as a pesky on-ball defender and Malik Petteway as an intimidating beast off the bench. In the grind-it-out style of tournament play, Robert Morris’s ability to force turnovers (and subsequently generate easy transition baskets) could be a difference-maker.
(1) St. Francis (PA) over (8) Bryant
(2) Fairleigh Dickinson over (7) Wagner
(6) LIU Brooklyn over (3) Sacred Heart
(4) Robert Morris over (5) St. Francis Brooklyn
(1) St. Francis (PA) over (6) LIU Brooklyn - they reseed, remember
(4) Robert Morris over (2) Fairleigh Dickinson
(4) Robert Morris over (1) St. Francis (PA)
The Flash fall short again after disappointingly bowing out in the quarterfinals last year, and the Colonials ride some hot shooting from the Williams brothers to back-to-back road wins. Welcome to Dayton, Andy Toole!