The reason seven teams can qualify for the tournament instead of eight is that Merrimack, the regular-season champions, are in the final year of their four-year transition period from Division II and are ineligible for March Madness.
Despite that, the Warriors are the favorites to win the tournament with only Fairleigh Dickinson a serious threat to Joe Gallo's team.
All games will be played on the home court of the higher seed with the teams being re-seeded after the quarterfinals should one of the top three seeds lose.
Stonehill finished second in the conference, but are ineligible to participate in the tournament due to being in their first year of re-classification.
Quarterfinals - March 1 (NEC Front Row)
#8 Long Island University at #1 Merrimack, 7pm
#6 Central Connecticut State at #3 Saint Francis U, 7pm
#7 Saint Francis-Brooklyn at #2 Fairleigh Dickinson, 7pm
Semifinals - March 4 (SNY, ESPN3)
Quarterfinal winners, 6 and 8pm
Final - March 7 (ESPN2)
At the home court of the highest remaining seed.
Should Merrimack reach this stage, their opponent will receive the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA's.
Warriors look to close deal despite being ineligible for NCAA Tournament
Merrimack finished the season on an eight-game winning streak to earn the program's second NEC regular-season title in just four years at the Division I level.
The Warriors haven't lost since late January and are led by dominant big man Jordan Minor, whose 17.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game earned him Co-NEC Player of the Year honors.
A pair of freshman guards have also keyed Merrimack's success as Javon Bennett and Jordan Derkack have been able to help Minor on both ends of the floor.
FDU, St. Francis U biggest threats to Merrimack
Fairleigh Dickinson beat Merrimack twice during the regular season and have been the conference's most balanced offense.
The quartet of Demetre Roberts (16.8 ppg), Grant Singleton (14.6 ppg), Ainsley Almonor (13.9 ppg) and Joe Munden (10.9) make coach Tobin Anderson's squad extremely dangerous.
Although St. Francis U are a distant third behind Merrimack and FDU, the Red Flash can win this due to Co-NEC Player of the Year Josh Cohen, whose 22 points per game are ninth in the country.
Maxwell Land and Landon Moore provide solid support and if all three are on their games, a finals appearance is not out of the question.
I am going to indulge here and have a bit of fun due to the weirdness of this year's tournament.
Merrimack is the victim of the NCAA's stupid and archaic four-year "transition period" rule. The Warriors are the best team in the conference and give the NEC the best chance of winning a game in March Madness, even if that's in the First Four.
Worse yet, should they reach the final, giving the program the exposure of playing on their home floor in front of national TV audience on ESPN2, the game, while having a championship attached to it, doesn't reward them with the ultimate prize.
As mentioned above, Stonehill isn't even in the eight-team field despite finishing second in the conference. If this doesn't give the NCAA the impetus to change the rule immediately, then there is simply no hope at all.
Who will actually get the bid? I'll go with Saint Francis U because Cohen can take over a game at any time and those are the types of players you need this time of year, despite FDU's outstanding balance on offense.
I will conclude this article by stating that I am openly rooting for Merrimack to win this tournament to stick it to the NCAA's much the same way Bellarmine did in the Atlantic Sun last year and much like the Knights, I think the Warriors will get it done.