The 2018 NEC Tournament Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: NEC tournament time! With the field all set and the official awards and all-conference teams cast, allow John Templon, Nelson Castillo and I to preview the tournament and pull out some insightful nuggets that could help determine this year’s event.

Without further ado, let’s start with the favorite:

Favorite: Wagner: Many people felt Wagner would take a small step down this season after learning that guard Corey Henson wasn’t returning to Grymes Hill for his senior season. But head coach Bashir Mason and his squad had other ideas and finished non-conference play with the best record among all NEC teams, paving the way to a 14-4 record in NEC play and their second regular-season title in three years. A big reason why was the emergence of point guard JoJo Cooper who finally put everything together in his senior year and lead the NEC in assists. Sophomore guard Blake Francis elevated his game to another level to lead the Seahawks in scoring and Romone Saunders returned from injury to have a strong junior season.

A big reason for their 21-win regular season was their defensive play. They are tops in the NEC in defensive efficiency at 98.2 points per 100 possessions and tops in defensive effective field goal percentage. Wagner also was the only NEC team to finish with an unblemished record at home at the Spiro Center, winning all fourteen home games. They will carry some pressure on their shoulders going into the NEC Tournament as they have yet to win an NEC Tournament title under Bashir Mason and have lost at home in the semifinal or final round in four out of five seasons under Mason. Can they close out a perfect home season with an NEC Tournament title? It will remain to be seen, but this is probably Mason’s best chance at finally breaking through. -NC

Also Merits Consideration: Mount St. Mary’s: To borrow a tired cliché overused by Jon Rothstein: “Death, taxes and Mount St. Mary’s entering the NEC tournament as a threat to win it all.” In Jamion Christian’s six seasons at the helm, the Mountaineers have hosted the NEC quarterfinals four times, a significant achievement in a league regularly ravaged by turnover and, as a result, parity. The Mount has been notoriously difficult to defeat in their friendly confines of late, going a remarkable 31-9 at the Knott Arena over the past three seasons. Can anyone realistically knock out this battle tested Mount squad with the league’s best player in Junior Robinson at home?

Anything is possible, and the first thing is to keep Robinson in check, which obviously is easier said than done. Robinson’s numbers in the Mount’s six losses are fairly pedestrian: 35 of 96 shooting (36.5 percent) with 20 assists versus 21 turnovers. Contain him and you absolutely have a chance to pull off the upset. Another strategy? Just simply outscore them, as FDU has done in their two meetings by a grand total of two points. Ever since the Mount’s tough start of the NEC season in New York City where they were hammered by Wagner and LIU Brooklyn, they’ve scored at least 1.00 point per possession in every game except one. That’s remarkable consistency and it all starts and ends with Robinson who has the fifteenth highest possession rate (32.3 percent) in the country. Slow him down, score the basketball and you have a chance. -RP

Saint Francis U.: It’s hard to believe that two years ago The Altoona Mirror’s Cory Giger infamously called the Red Flash chokers. Even if you include that 2015-16 season where the Red Flash collapsed (not choked) late due to injuries and eroding depth, Rob Krimmel has gotten his team to the NEC semifinals in three of the past four seasons. That’s remarkable given the 2012-13 roster opened up Krimmel’s tenure with a 5-24 mark, a sign that the program was in the midst of a deep rebuild. Now, Saint Francis U is once again a legitimate contender to make it to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991. While doable, this would be a tall task after going 6-6 on the road this season versus mid-major competition and 0-2 against the two teams in front of them, Wagner and Mount St. Mary’s.

Nevertheless, the offense is back in high-octane mode, scoring 1.17 points per possession over their past five victories. They’ve shot 49.3 percent from the field and have gotten exceptional play out of their two stars, Jamaal King (23.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg) and Keith Braxton (19.4 ppg, 10 rpg, 3.4 apg) over that time frame. In fact, when the two players combine to score more than 40 points in a game, Saint Francis U is 7-0 in league play, compared to a 5-6 when the duo fails to meet that threshold. -RP

Sleepers: LIU Brooklyn: A late, final week charge by LIU Brooklyn along with some fortuitous help pulled the Blackbirds from a possible lower seed up to a four-seed and landing that coveted home quarterfinal spot. After a somewhat tumultuous offseason for the program, first-year head coach Derek Kellogg got the Blackbirds to finish over .500 in NEC play with a return of a league leading up-tempo style of play LIU fans had gotten used to during their championship runs. With the exception of Robert Morris who swept LIU this season, the Blackbirds split the season series with every other NEC tournament team. Joel Hernandez, as expected, turned in an All-NEC caliber season, while Raiquan Clark turned some heads with some his outstanding play in his full season in the starting lineup. The returns of Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts for their sophomore seasons gave Kellogg continuity in the backcourt that led to solid seasons for both.

If LIU is going to make a run to the NEC title, they’ll need their core guys to play a lot of minutes, stay away from foul trouble and be more efficient defensively. St. Francis Brooklyn awaits and will be the third showdown in two weeks after splitting the season series. The third meeting promises to be another intense battle. If LIU could get by the Terriers, they’ll likely get a rubber match against top-seeded Wagner, a team the Blackbirds actually match up well against. Such a scenario would be quite interesting for Kellogg and his squad. –NC

St. Francis Brooklyn: Picked 10th in the preseason, the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers surprised everyone thanks to some healthy veterans and a talented freshman class that added some much needed outside shooting to the lineup. Given where the Terriers started, it would be completely reasonable if Glenn Braica was able to garner some momentum for coach of the year. But a tough final weekend (losses at LIU and CCSU) has left the Terriers in the unenviable position of having to go to the Steinberg Wellness Center to take on Brooklyn rival LIU in their NEC Tournament opener. SFC just fell to the Blackbirds last Thursday, 81-76.

The defensive side of the ball has been the Terriers’ downfall in conference play. When SFC isn’t forcing turnovers (21.6% defensive turnover rate the best in conference play), the Terriers aren’t getting stops. Teams have dominated the shorter SFC lineup in NEC play, shooting 56.1% on two-point attempts and getting to the free throw line with ease (44.2 defensive free throw rate, the worst in the NEC). Braica just doesn’t have much size available to stop teams in the paint and he’s done a great job of mixing and matching lineups in order to get this far with a team that ranks 294th nationally in experience. If the freshmen have some hot shooting nights or a team buckles under SFC’s pressure the Terriers may advance further than people think. The future is bright on Remsen Street, but a rise halfway up the standings might be the end of the line for St. Francis Brooklyn this season. -JT

Darkhorses – Fairleigh Dickinson: Back in November when Darian Anderson was healthy and Fairleigh Dickinson was picked second everything looked bright for the Knights. But Anderson played just 13 games during his senior season due to injury and FDU had to find a new identity without its preseason NEC First Team star. The answer has been to go even younger. The Knights don’t have a single senior playing significant minutes. Instead junior Mike Holloway became the focal point of FDU’s attack and Greg Herenda surrounded him with some talented offensive contributors to design a functional offense. Holloway used 26.1% of FDU’s possessions during NEC play, 8th in the conference. He was flanked by classmate Darnell Edge, who was one of the most efficient players in the NEC thanks to shooting 36% from three and 97% from the free throw line during conference play. In addition, freshman Noah Morgan shot 44% from distance.

Herenda also relied on a new face to make the entire offense move. Jahlil Jenkins was supposed to have a season to learn beside Anderson, but the 5-foot-10 freshman from West Virginia was thrown right into the fire. After struggling during non-conference play, Jenkins raised his game in the NEC and was one of the best freshmen in the league. He showed a knack for getting to the line during conference play and also shot 55% on two-point attempts. FDU will need Jenkins to play well in order to keep up with Saint Francis U. in its quarterfinal matchup. The Knights were swept by the Red Flash and Jenkins really struggled in the road contest, shooting just 4-18 from the field. The freshman point guard is coming off of one of his best performances of the season in a victory over Bryant, but can he do something special away from the Rothman Center? FDU’s season may depend on it. -JT

Numbers And Players That Matter

A Recent History: A quick glance at each playoff’s team last eight games provides a snapshot as to who’s playing well coming in. The modified standings would go like this:

  1. Saint Francis University, 6-2 (+77 point differential)
  2. Mount St. Mary’s, 6-2 (+74)
  3. Wagner, 6-2 (+54)
  4. LIU Brooklyn, 5-3 (+31)
  5. Fairleigh Dickinson, 5-3 (-7)
  6. St. Francis Brooklyn, 4-4 (-17)
  7. Robert Morris, 2-6 (-52)
  8. Central Connecticut, 2-6 (-55)

The bottom two seeds in the NEC tournament are 1-25 over the past 13 events, which obviously doesn’t bode well for Robert Morris and Central Connecticut. Both are struggling in their own right coming into Wednesday’s showdown, so could either squad pull off the upset? KenPom is far more bullish on Robert Morris’ chances, giving them a 32 percent chance to win at the Mount, despite the fact that a) Robert Morris hasn’t matched up well against the Mountaineers this season and b) Jamion Christian has won his last seven meetings against Andy Toole. Of course, KenPom doesn’t care about the win streak, nor should he, but he should care that the Mount has forced a turnover on 29.9 percent of the Colonial possessions this season. And that the Robert Morris offense has cratered to the point where they are dead last in offensive efficiency at 97.9 points per 100 possessions.

Central Connecticut, on the other hand, has dropped five straight games at the Spiro Center, dating back to March of 2014. KenPom considers them a 12-point underdog (14 percent chance of winning), assigning this quarterfinal match-up as a difficult task for Donyell Marshall to obtain his first postseason victory. In order for the Blue Devils to pull off the historical upset, they’ll need a great game from …. Mustafa Jones?! Yes, Tyler Kohl and Austin Nehls need to be on their “A game” but it’s the play of Jones that has been the best indicator for CCSU’s success this season. In seven league victories, the senior is averaging 13.1 ppg on 65.6 percent shooting from inside the arc. Those numbers dip considerably (7.5 ppg, 46.8 percent 2PT FG) in the team’s 11 losses. Going after Wagner’s A.J. Sumbry down low and getting him and his nationally ranked block rate in early foul trouble could be a key to opening up the lane for Jones and Deion Bute, which would then make things a little easier on the perimeter for Nehls.

24-3: That’s the combined home record in conference play of the top three seeds – Wagner, Mount St. Mary’s and Saint Francis U – in this tournament. This doesn’t bode well for the other five squads and is likely a factor as to why the NEC championship probability dovetails from 14.5 percent for SFU to 4.8 percent for the number four seed, LIU Brooklyn. Those two Brooklyn teams will need a big time upset in the NEC quarterfinals to land them an unexpected home game and exponentially increase their tournament odds in the process.

Joel Hernandez, LIU Brooklyn – As is the case for any all-conference first teamer, Hernandez’s play will determine how far the Blackbirds advance in the tournament. In LIU’s losses, Hernandez saw his scoring dip from 23.7 ppg to 17.3 ppg and his shooting percentages decrease from 49.1 percent to 40.8 percent. That’s a large burden for the fifth year senior to shoulder – the Blackbirds are 1-3 in the NEC tournament since their last championship run in 2013 – but it’s my guess he won’t feel the pressure, much like former MVP Jerome Frink may have in prior NEC tournaments (11.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 40.0 percent FG).

JoJo Cooper, Wagner – The senior guard has been tremendous this season and should be soon earning a spot on the NEC’s all-conference first team. He’s been the keys to the Wagner offensive engine, as well as the perimeter defensive stopper, so anything less than a great effort will put Wagner in danger of experiencing more NEC tournament heartbreak.

The Fearless Predictions (From Ryan)

And the drum roll, please…

  • #1 Wagner over #8 Central Connecticut
  • #2 Mount St. Mary’s over #7 Robert Morris
  • #3 Saint Francis U. over #6 Fairleigh Dickinson
  • #4 LIU Brooklyn over #5 St. Francis Brooklyn

I know, it’s boring to go chalk, but that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Plus the 2017-18 season in only the third campaign over the past decade where at least 61% of the home teams won in league play.

According to KenPom, every home team in the quarterfinals is at least a 68 percent favorite to advance, so I’m playing the numbers. Additionally, the 6, 7 and 8 seeds don’t match up well against their opponents. Wagner has the tools to shut down Kohl and thwart the Blue Devils’ offensive attack. As expressed earlier, Robert Morris has been over matched in two previous losses to the Mount. And FDU, as talented as they are with their athletes in the backcourt, will have trouble keeping up with Saint Francis U on the scoreboard. The battle of Brooklyn is a little trickier to discern, but I believe the Terriers have no answer for containing Clark.

  • #1 Wagner over #4 LIU Brooklyn
  • #2 Mount St. Mary’s over #3 Saint Francis U

That Mount/Red Flash match-up will be incredibly tight, as the Mount won both meetings by a grand total of four points. This semifinal will surely go down to the wire, but I’m betting Chris Wray and company do well to temper Braxton’s production. Plus any close game late is an advantage for the Mount, with Junior Robinson commanding the ball. Finally, in a battle of terrific offenses, I’ll select the Mount offense that led the league in efficiency rating (112.0 points per 100 possessions) in league play.

  • #1 Wagner over #2 Mount St. Mary’s

As Ron Ratner illustrated in his awesome tournament notes, Wagner has a chance to become the fifth team in NEC history to win all of their home games and earn the NEC title. I’m betting on that, and on Bashir Mason becoming a household name in the coaching ranks soon thereafter. I believe it’s his time to break through and get to the Big Dance.

Enjoy the quarterfinals tomorrow and best of luck to your favorite team!

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