The Northeast Conference tournament begins on Wednesday with the regular season champions not participating. Merrimack won the NEC title in their first year as a Division I program with a 14-4 record, but because of the NCAA rule prohibiting teams reclassifying from a lower division to play in postseason, the 20-win Warriors will be sitting out.
That leaves Robert Morris and Saint Francis as the top two seeds with the Colonials topping the Red Flash in the regular season finale to earn the number one seed. With these circumstances, the NEC looks poised to be one of the more competitive conference tournaments we'll see all month long.
Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)
all games will be played at the campus of the higher seed.
#8 St. Francis Brooklyn at #1 Robert Morris, 7:00, NEC Front Row
#7 Bryant at #2 Saint Francis U, 7:00, NEC Front Row
The NEC re-seeds should any of the lower seeds win in the quarterfinals. Times for the games will be at Noon and 2:00.
lowest remaining seed at highest remaining seed, NEC Front Row/ESPN3
third-lowest remaining seed ta second-lowest remaining seed, NEC Front Row/ESPN3
lowest remaining seed at highest remaining seed, 7:00, ESPN2
Robert Morris is 7-2 in NEC play at home, but has lost three of their last five games coming into the conference tournament. AJ Bramah averaged 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game (fourth in the league) while Josh Williams is the Colonials' deep threat, second in the conference in three-pointers made (3.13) and fourth in three-point percentage (41.8).
Second seed Saint Francis U has the most talented team in the tournament with NEC Player of the Year Isaiah Blackmon, who has overcome two severe knee injuries to rank second in scoring (19.2 ppg), first in three-point percentage (42.8), fourth in three-pointers made (2.85) and steals (1.7). Joining Blackmon is Keith Braxton, one of the best players in NEC history. A four-time first team performer, the senior averaged 17.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Sacred Heart comes into the NEC Tournament riding a three-game winning streak and has the most dominant big man in the league in EJ Anosike. Sixth nationally in rebounds per game (11.6), seventh in double-doubles (17) as well as offensive rebounds (4.1) and 15th in defensive rebounds (7.6), the junior is poised to try and lead the Pioneers to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
Who will win the tournament?
Let's be honest: the tournament isn't the same without Merrimack. The Warriors are the victims of one of the silliest rules in the NCAA and are forced to settle for a likely berth in the CIT (because the NCAA runs the NIT, coach Joey Gallo's squad isn't eligible for that, either). They have the unanimous Defensive Player of the Year in Juvaris Hayes and are tops in scoring defense and three-point field goal defense.
The one saving grace for the NEC is St. Francis U. Simply put, the Red Flash NEED to win this tournament. They had the best overall and best home record in the conference. Blackmon and Braxton are the two best players in the league and the Red Flash lead the league in points per game, field goal percentage, scoring margin and free throw percentage (which may be the most important stat in a close game).
Robert Morris is the flagship program in the NEC, having won the most titles (13) and they won the game they needed to against St. Francis U in the regular-season finale, but they are at best the third best team in the conference. They may win the league, but they don't give the conference the best chance of winning a first-round game for the first time ever.
We've seen players as great as Braxton and Blackmon not get to the field of 68, but that won't be the case here. Keep in mind that five of the last six NEC champions have won the title game on the road, so that odd stat might play in the Red Flash's favor. In any case, St. Francis U will save the league in a season when perhaps the best story in college basketball can't.
Prediction: St. Francis U def. Robert Morris