The Northeast conference tournament will begin play on Wednesday night as top seed Wagner, the regular-season champions, look to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Defending champion Mount St. Mary's, last year's finalists Saint Francis U and LIU-Brooklyn look to be the Seahawks' top competition in what could be a very entertaining tournament.
Wagner claims regular season championship
NEC Coach of the Year Bashir Mason has a wealth of talent to call upon in the form of NEC first-team selection Jojo Cooper, second-teamer Blake Francis and third-teamer Romone Saunders.
Cooper helped Wagner to a 14-4 league mark by averaging 14.2 points per game, 6.2 assists per game and 5.4 rebounds per game. Francis is the team's leading scorer at 17.5 points per game and has topped the 20-point mark nine times while Saunders is a terrific third option with averages of 14.1 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Mount St. Mary's, St. Francis U pose biggest threat
The second-seeded Mountaineers are the reigning conference champions and are led by star guard Junior Robinson, with averages of 22.2 points per game, 4.9 assists per game and nearly 90 percent from the free throw line in being named NEC Player of the Year.
He has help in the form of NEC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Wray, the senior forward posting 9.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest as well as all-NEC newcomer Jonah Antonio, the Aussie at 11.5 points per game and over 80 percent from the charity stripe as the Mount looks for back-to-back NCAA appearances.
Third seed St. Francis U reached the NEC Championship game last year for the first time since 1991 and after being picked as the preseason favorites, went 12-6 in conference, but boast perhaps the best player in the conference in guard Keith Braxton.
Braxton won last year's NEC semifinal against Wagner with a three-pointer at the buzzer and is averaging 17.1 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per contest while shooting 48.3 percent from the field in an outstanding sophomore season.
Joining Braxton on the NEC first team is Jamaal King. The junior guard is the perfect compliment with averages of 18.3 points and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 82.3 percent from the free-throw line to form perhaps the most lethal backcourt in the conference.
Who will win the tournament?
While there is no clear-cut favorite, Wagner are the best team. They have the luxury of playing the entire tournament at the Spiro Sports Center, where they are undefeated all year. They're also due after losing the NEC final two years ago to FDU and getting stunned by Braxton's shot in the semifinals last year.
Mount St. Mary's are used to winning this time of year, but have never won the NEC Tournament in back-to-back years. Robinson can certainly carry the Mountaineers on his back and erase that stat, but he may have to do it on the road should they face Wagner in the final.
King and Braxton led St. Francis U through an inconsistent year as the Red Flash tried to handle the expectations of being the preseason favorite. They closed strong, winning five in a row to end the regular season. With a dynamic backcourt, SFU may very well live up to their preseason billing.
A key is the fact that the NEC re-seeds the teams for the semifinals should one of the top three seeds lose. This gives the highest seed left the easier semifinal as the conference tournament is played at the higher seed in every game.
It's very difficult to predict who will reach the NCAA Tournament as any of the top three teams have a legitimate chance to walk away with the conference's automatic bid. Also don't count out LIU-Brooklyn and star Joel Hernandez. This pick is based solely on the fact that Wagner, as mentioned above is due and they will pay St. Francis U back for that heartbreaker in last year's semifinals to finally go dancing.
Prediction: Wagner defeats St. Francis U in the final
Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)
All games are at campus sites with the higher seed hosting each game. If necessary, the teams will be re-seeded after the quarterfinals.
Quarterfinals (February 28)
#8 Central Connecticut State at #1 Wagner, 7PM (NEC Front Row)
#5 Saint Francis-NY at #4 LIU-Brooklyn, 7PM (NEC Front Row)
#6 Fairleigh Dickinson at #3 Saint Francis U, 7PM (NEC Front Row)
#7 Robert Morris at #2 Mount St. Mary's, 7PM (NEC Front Row)
Semifinals (March 3)
lowest remaining seed at highest remaining seed, 12 or 2PM (NEC Front Row/ESPN3)
third-highest remaining seed at second-highest remaining seed, 12 or 2PM (NEC Front Row/ESPN3)
Final (March 6)
at highest remaining seed, 7PM (ESPN2)