It still may be cold in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania, but the temperature will begin to heat up with the Northeast Conference Tournament commencing tonight.
The NEC, the conference that many ignore but shouldn't, utilizes the model that many other one-bid leagues should follow. Instead of rendering the conference season meaningless by playing the tournament at a neutral site, the NEC Tournament includes just eight of its 12 teams, and the games are played at the home sites of the highest seeds.
Quinnipiac, Robert Morris, and Mount St. Mary's are the only teams in the NEC currently having winning seasons. Another nugget to consider when deciding who will win the tournament is that the top four seeds are 32-4 combined in conference home games this season.
Participating Teams and Projected Starting Lineups
No. 1 Quinnipiac: 21-8 overall, 15-3 in NEC; Coached by Tom Moore
PG James Johnson (12.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.6 APG), G James Feldeine (17.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.5 APG), G Jeremy Baker (9.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 APG), F Jonathan Cruz (5.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.7 APG), Justin Rutty (15.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 0.8 APG)
No. 2 Robert Morris : 20-11 overall, 15-3 in NEC; Coached by Mike Rice
PG Velton Jones (8.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.9 APG), G Karon Abraham (12.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.6 APG), G Mezie Nwigwe (8.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG), F Dallas Green (6.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 0.8 APG), F Ron Robinson (10.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.5 APG)
No. 3 Mount St. Mary's: 15-14 overall, 12-6 in NEC; Coached by Milan Brown
PG Jeremy Goode (14.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 4.4 APG), G Jean Cajou (9.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.7 APG), F Kelly Beidler (10.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.5 APG), F Shawn Atupem (10.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.4 APG), F Raven Barber (5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.1 APG)
No. 4 Long Island: 13-16 overall, 11-7 in NEC; Coached by Jim Ferry
PG Jaytornah Wisseh (17.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 5.7 APG), G David Hicks (9.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.1 APG), G Kyle Johnson (12.1 PPG, 6.6 APG, 1.1 APG), F Kenny Onyechi (8.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.2 APG), F Jamal Olaseware (8.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 0.7 APG)
No. 5 Fairleigh Dickinson: 11-20 overall, 10-8 in NEC; Coached by Greg Vetrone
PG Mike Scott (12.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.4 APG), G Sean Baptiste (16.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.1 APG), G Terrence Grier (10.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.6 APG), F Alvin Mufunanya (11.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.2 APG), F John Galvin (5.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.3 APG)
No. 6 Saint Francis (PA): 11-18 overall, 9-9 in NEC; Coached by Don Friday
PG Chris Johnson (3.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 3.0 APG), G Sorena Orandi (8.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.0 APG), F Devin Sweetney (16.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.2 APG), F Will Felder (9.3, 5.2 RPG, 2.2 APG), F Kurt Hoffman (4.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.9 APG)
No. 7 Central Connecticut State: 12-17 overall, 9-9 in NEC; Coached by Howie Dickenman
PG Devan Bailey (2.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 2.5 APG), G Shemik Thompson (13.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG), G Robby Ptacek (11.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.7 APG), F Joe Efese (5.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG. 0.4 APG), F Markeys Deans (8.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.0 APG)
No. 8 Monmouth: 12-18 overall, 8-10 in NEC; Coached by Dave Calloway
PG James Hett (4.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.6 APG), G Whitney Coleman (10.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.1 APG), G Justin Sofman (7.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.8 APG), F Travis Taylor (18.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.5 APG), F Ed Waite (8.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.3 APG)
Quinnipiac Versus Monmouth
Quinnipiac leads the conference in scoring and is paced by Feldeine, who possesses the greatest looking jump shot in the NEC. While Feldeine is the outside scoring threat, the Bobcats also posess an inside presence in Rutty, the NEC Player of the Year. Rutty leads the NEC in rebounding and is ranked 13th in Division I.
Monmouth's Taylor is the leading scorer among the players involved in the tournament. Point guard Hett ranks first in the NEC in assist/turnover ratio and third in assists.
Monmouth has lost three games in a row and looks to have peaked back in January. In the two previous matchups this season, Quinnipiac won both games by a total of 31 points. In the Atlantic Sun Tournament, the eight seed defeated the one seed. However, that event is not occurring in the NEC—Quinnipiac wins.
Robert Morris Versus Central Connecticut State
Robert Morris is the defending NEC Tournament champion. This year's version of the Colonials is paced by Abraham, the NEC Freshman of the Year. The combination of Abraham and point guard Jones have more than made up for the season-ending injury to spunky guard Jimmy Langhurst.
With star scorer Ken Horton missing the entire season with a hip injury, Central Connecticut State has only averaged 61.1 points per game this year, the lowest of any tournament team. Although most of the offensive numbers look dismal, the Blue Devils are a strong free throw shooting team.
Central Connecticut State has won three games in a row, but Robert Morris will play composed with three senior starters. At times, Robert Morris struggles to score points, but not nearly as badly as the Blue Devils—Robert Morris wins.
Mount St. Mary's Versus St. Francis (PA)
Having won 10 games in a row, Mount St. Mary's is the hottest team in the tournament. Point guard Goode is the fastest player in the NEC and a master of the pick-and-roll. His teammate at guard, Cajou, was surprisingly passed over as the NEC Defensive Player of the Year despite guarding the opponent's best player every game. Beidler and Will Holland are scoring threats from the outside, and the mid-season arrival of Barber gave the assistance inside that Atupem needed.
Sweetney has recently become the seventh Saint Francis player to reach the 1,500- point plateau. This fifth-year senior is the only double-digit scorer on the Red Flash, but he is surrounded by up-and-coming freshmen Felder, Johnson, and Anthony Ervin.
Having not reached the NEC Tournament since the 2004-05 season, the Red Flash is the feel-good story of the conference. However, the players may not be feeling well going up against an experienced team that has only lost one conference game at home all season long. It is hard to find a reason to pick an underdog that lost to Wagner in its last game—the Mount wins.
Long Island Versus Fairleigh Dickinson
Do-everything senior guard Wisseh has kept Long Island afloat while promising sophomore Julian Boyd was out for the season with a heart ailment. Freshmen Onyechi and Olaseware give the Blackbirds an strong inside game to build around in the tournament and in the future.
It is amazing that Fairleigh Dickinson has made it this far after starting the season 1-12. This is the Knights first appearance in the tournament in three years. Baptiste leads a guard-oriented offense that often struggles with defensive rebounding.
Baptiste missed the last two games for Fairleigh Dickinson but is expected to start today for the Knights. That fact alone will probably not be enough for the Knights to defeat the Blackbirds at home—Long Island prevails.
Semifinal And Championship Predictions
The semifinals will take place Mar. 7, and the championship game is set for Mar. 10 at 7:00 pm on ESPN2.
In the NEC, the lowest remaining seed plays at the highest remaining seed. Under my scenario, Long Island faces Quinnipiac, and Mount St. Mary's plays at Robert Morris.
An advantage of being the No. 1 seed in this tournament is that there is a drop-off in quality behind the top three teams. Quinnipiac will probably not be tested until the finals.
Robert Morris has lost two of its last three games, including defeats to both Quinnipiac and Mount St. Mary's. This fact either shows that the Colonials cannot defeat the best teams in the NEC right now or that Robert Morris will use those games as motivation to win the championship.
I am going with the former. The Mountaineers have the momentum, and the Colonials are too dependent on a freshman for key baskets.
If Mount St. Mary's faces Quinnipiac in the championship game, I will choose the Mountaineers. The Bobcats may have the two best players in the league in Rutty and Feldeine, but I have more confidence in Goode performing the best in clutch situations.
The Mount may have only defeated mediocre teams on the road during its current winning streak, but right now, it doesn't seem to matter where the Mountaineers play. Mount St. Mary's will be dancing because Goode is just too good when it matters most.
Photo Credit: Rushthecourt.net