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NEC Quarterfinals Preview

The fun begins Wednesday night, as the Northeast Conference gets going with Quarterfinal action.

If you're new around here...welcome! Just because Central Connecticut St. failed to make the NECT doesn't mean we aren't psyched. Championship Fortnight is amazing no matter who is playing.

Before we get to the games, here's the odds of earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Kenpom style:

St. Francis U., Fairleigh Dickinson, and Sacred Heart are considered the favorites, but as we all know the NEC is known to get a little weird.

#8 Bryant (7-11) at #1 St. Francis U. (12-6)

Computer Projections

Kenpom: SFU 82-72 (80%)

Torvik: SFU 84-73 (82%)

Season Series: Home Split

About BU: After finishing just 2-16 in 2017-18, Tim O'Shea retired and Jared Grasso, previously an assistant at Iona, stepped in and has hit the ground running. There were some bumps early (blow-out losses to Seattle, Brown, Yale, Columbia and Hartford), but Grasso got this team to gradually improve as the season went on. While they struggled on the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs were 4th in offensive efficiency, and had some big offensive games. They scored 1.49 PPP in a loss to Sacred Heart, and scored more than 1.05 PPP ten times this season. When they are knocking down shots, they are tough to stop.

While Grasso's team is led by a guard-heavy lineup, perhaps no one is more important to his team than junior 4-man Bash Townes. Listed at 6'5" 250 lbs., Townes led the team in scoring at 16.7 ppg (5th in the NEC), and can score it at all three levels.

About SFU: After being the unanimous pick to win the league in the pre-season, the Red Flash had a slow start; they did nothing note-worthy in the non-conference, then were just 3-4 in conference play on 1/24. However, after some lineup adjustments by NEC Coach of the Year Rob Krimmel, SFU reeled off 8-straight to take a commanding lead in the standings. They did lose 2 out of 3 to finish the slate, but held the tie-breaker over Fairleigh Dickinson to earn the top seed in the tournament.

St. Francis U. led the league in offensive efficiency thanks to a 4-guard lineup that can score in a variety of ways. NEC Player of the Year Keith Braxton, who at just 6'4" plays the '4', led the league in rebounding at 9.5 per game, was 6th in the in scoring at 16.7 ppg, and oh he finished 7th in assists (4.2 per game).

Things to Watch:

SFU 3-Point Shooting: The Red Flash led the NEC with 8.1 made three-pointers per game, and while they don't take a ton, they make them at a high rate (37.9%). SFU has five guys who shot better than 36% from deep; Randall Gaskins (47%), Braxton (41%), Andre Wolford (41%), Isaiah Blackmon (38%), and Jamaal King (37%). In the 2nd match-up between these two teams, in Loretto, St. Francis U. made 10 of 21 from deep en route to an 84-75 win. However, in Smithfield, they made just 7 of 24 in a 76-67 Bryant win.

Inside Opportunities: For all the quickness that the Red Flash have on the perimeter, SFU doesn't have a ton of size inside, specifically when it comes to rim protection. They averaged just 3 blocks per game, 3rd lowest in the NEC, and allowed teams to shoot a league-worst 54% from inside the arc (61.4% "at the rim"). While Bryant isn't exactly known for its inside game, guys like Bash Townes and Juan Cardenas (63% FG% on two-pointers) could find a lot of opportunities Wednesday night. Townes averaged 16.5 ppg in two games against SFU, while Cardenas averaged 10.5 ppg.

#7 Wagner (8-10) at #2 Fairleigh Dickinson (12-6)

Computer Projections

Kenpom: FDU 70-63 (75%)

Torvik: 70-63 (78%)

Season Series: Home Split

WC: The Seahawks were perhaps the league’s most inconsistent team in 2018-19. At times they looked like a title contender, sweeping Sacred Heart and Fairleigh Dickinson at home back in January, knocking off SFU in Loretto, and winning three straight against LIU-Brooklyn, CCSU, and the Mount in mid-February. However, there were too many head-scratching losses (getting swept by Bryant, losing at home to Mount St. Mary’s, and closing the season on a 4-game losing streak). The primary reason for that was due to an offense that finished 9th in offensive efficiency (97.9 points per 100 possessions) thanks to an inability to knock down shots on a consistent basis (last in the NEC with a 44.1% eFG%). As usual Bashir Mason’s defense was stout…they allowed just 98 points per 100 possessions…but it wasn’t enough to overcome the shooting struggles.

Wagner is led by senior Romone Saunders, who at times put this team on his back on his way to averaging 16.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, and 4.1 apg. Those numbers are even better when you consider that Wagner played with the slowest tempo in the NEC, averaging under 65 possessions per 40 minutes. But he’s not the only senior on this team; in fact, this team is a veteran club with four seniors in the rotation. Eli Davis (12.4 ppg) has been solid on the wing, while Devin Liggeons is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NEC, and big 6’8” AJ Sumbry averaged 5.6 rpg and 1.5 blocks per game.

FDU: The Knights come into the post-season as the league’s hottest team; they’re winners of five in a row and 11 of 13, with their two losses coming at Sacred Heart and at home against St. Francis U. And five of those 11 wins came by double digits. They’ve done it by being uber-efficient offensively; FDU likes to get the ball inside- they led the league in dunks and took nearly 45% of their shots at the rim, converting at 58.2% (2nd best in the NEC). And lest you think you can just pack the interior, FDU led the league with a 42% 3P% in NEC play. All that adds up to 109.2 points per 100 possessions, 2nd only to the Red Flash.

FDU has perhaps the most talented and versatile top-6 players in the league, and that includes the Red Flash. NEC 1st-teamer Darnell Edge led the team in scoring at 15.9 ppg thanks to a blistering 54% from three (and 90% from the free throw line), while 6’8” big Mike Holloway (2nd team All-Conference) was a monster inside, scoring 13.9 ppg while adding 6 rpg and also blocking 21 shots. But perhaps the engine of this team is sophomore point guard Jahlil Jenkins. Lightning quick, Jenkins was 4th in the league with 5.1 apg while leading the NEC with a 3.1 A/TO ratio, and he also shot 40% from three en route to scoring 13.4 ppg. There are other good lead guards in this league, but in my opinion he’s the best there is in the Northeast Conference right now.

Things to Watch:

Seahawks from the Outside- It feels like a cop out putting three-point shooting in the “Things to Watch” for almost every game, but it’s a major part of the game! Plus, Wagner is your classic “live by the three, die by the three” squad. No team took a higher percentage of shots from behind the arc in NEC play (45.7% of their field goal attempts), and the Seahawks derived the highest percentage of their points from three-pointers (37%). Yet, as a team they shot just 30.6% on such shots, which placed them 9th in the NEC and their overall 3P% of 30.5% was 338th out of 353 D1 teams. But it’s not like they didn’t have their moments; they made 25 of their 61 attempts in two wins over Central Connecticut, and they went 13 for 26 in a home win over Sacred Heart. To keep up with the firepower that Fairleigh Dickinson has, the Seahawks will have to get hot from outside.

FDU’s Dribble Drive- One of the reasons why Greg Herenda has such a good offensive ballclub is their willingness to share the ball; they averaged 15.3 assists per game, which led the league, and they assisted on over 56% of their made field goals, also tops in the NEC. And it starts with their ability to get into the paint via the dribble drive, specifically Jahlil Jenkins, but also guys like Edge and Malone-Key. In order to slow down the Knights’ offense, defenders have to keep the ball handlers in front of them, though it’s easier said than done. Wagner does have the capability however; in their win over FDU back on 1/12, they held the Knights to just 0.97 PPP and a 49% eFG%.

#6 LIU-Brooklyn (9-9) at #3 Sacred Heart (11-7)

Computer Projections

Kenpom: SHU 82-76 (69%)

Torvik: SHU 83-78 (68%)

Season Series: Home Split

LIU: The defending NEC Tournament champions won their final three games, including on the road at St. Francis U., to avoid finishing below .500 for the first time since 2015. One of the most talented teams in the league (I had them third in my initial NEC Power Rankings), they struggled to put it all together offensively despite a bevy of options. Part of the problem were the struggles of backcourt-mates Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts, who both saw their shooting numbers fall across the board as juniors after really strong sophomore seasons.

All-NEC 1st teamer Raiquan Clark was a stud for the Blackbirds this season, to the tune of a league best 18.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 1.2 steals per game. But you already knew that…did you know that he led the entire nation in shots taken “at the rim”? That’s right, Clark makes a living bullying his 6’6” 195 lbs. body to the rim, and converting at a high level (58.4%). Only Zion Williamson has made more shots at the rim (186 to 170). He and 6’9” Ty Flowers, who was picked as a 3rd team All-NEC player, make a dangerous 1-2 punch out on the wing. Flowers scored 13.4 ppg thanks to shooting 37% from three, and also chipped in 6.7 rpg.

SHU: After finishing just 5-13 in the league a year ago and missing the NEC Tournament, Anthony Latina went out and brought in one of the most talented recruiting classes in recent memory. Point guard Cameron Parker led the league in assists (6.7 per game), breaking Jason Brickman's NEC freshman record in the process, while off-guard Kareem Ozier scored 12.8 ppg and Aaron Clarke led the league in free throw shooting at 90%. But make no mistake about it, it's a couple of returning players who lead this squad; senior Sean Hoehn and sophomore E.J. Anosike. Hoehn finished 3rd in the league in scoring at 17.4 ppg, while Anosike, who was named the NEC's Most Improved Player, was a walking double-double, averaging 15.3 ppg and 8.3 rpg (2nd in the league).

The Pioneers run a high-powered offense (3rd in the NEC with 109.1 points per 100 possessions), thanks to their quickness on the perimeter which allows them to use the dribble to get into the lane, and their ability to knock down open shots. Plus, they get to the free throw line a ton; Hoehn got to the charity stripe 104 times, Anosike 97, Parker 64 and Ozier 61. And as a team they led the league converting free throws at a 79.3% clip.

Things to Watch:

Block Party: No, we didn't forget about NEC Defensive Player of the Year Ja'rel Spellman. The transfer from Florida Southern was the definition of "rim protection" this season, easily leading the league in blocks with 61 (Mount's Nana Opoku finished 2nd with 32). Spellman is a true game changer down low.

The Lineup Mismatches: While most NEC teams prefer to play three (and sometimes four) guard lineups, the Blackbirds can throw a lot of size at you. Clark, who at 6'6" mans the '3' for the most part, is primarily an inside player, while 6'9" Ty Flowers is the proto-typical stretch 4 that you don't usually see in this league. Clark torched the Pios in the regular season, scoring 28 and 24 points respectively, while Flowers poured in 24 in the Blackbirds win in February.

#5 St. Francis-Brooklyn (9-9) at #4 Robert Morris (11-6)

Computer Projections

Kenpom: RMU 66-62 (64%)

Torvik: RMU 67-63 (64%)

Season Series: Robert Morris sweep

SFC: The Terriers are your classic average team; their defense finished 3rd in defensive efficiency, their offense was 6th, and the finished .500 in the league. Where they stand out, however, is with their perimeter quickness. The triumvirate of Glenn Sanabria, Jalen Jordan and Chauncey Hawkins caused issues for opponents on both sides of the ball, but especially in their ability to close out on three-point shooters; they limited teams in their ability to both take (just 31.1% of opponents field goal attempts were from behind the arc) and make (opponents shot 32% from three) shots from deep.

Offensively, those same three guards all scored in double figures, led by sophomore sharp-shooter Jalen Jordan, who averaged 15.1 ppg thanks to his 40% 3P%. But they also have plenty of size to throw at you in 6'8" Deniz Celen (6.3 rpg and 23 blocks), 6'9" Cori Johnson and 6'9" Christian Rohlehr.

RMU: Andy Toole always figures it out. After jumping out to a hot start (they were 7-1 in the NEC on 1/26), the Colonials lost 5 of 6 to fall out of the title race. Yet Toole righted the ship, winning three of their final four games to earn a quarterfinal home game.

Ho hum, the Colonials led the league in defensive efficiency, which has been an Andy Toole staple. They forced opponents to turn it over on a league high 22% of their possessions, and owned the defensive boards. Senior Malik Petteway, who dealt with blood clots a season ago, emerged as a legit offensive threat down-low (98.4 O-Rating on a team-high 28.4% usage), while Akron transfer Josh Williams led the team in scoring at 12.4 ppg. Senior leader Matty McConnell chipped in 10.3 ppg while being one of the better perimeter defenders in the NEC.

Things to Watch:

Forcing Turnovers: As mentioned above, no team did a better job forcing turnovers than the Colonials; their opponents had a league high 268 turnovers in conference play. However, the Terriers take are of the ball, only coughing it up on 17.7% of their possessions. On the flip side, RMU really struggled to take care of the ball, turning it over on a league high 21.7% of their possessions. The turnover battle will be huge Wednesday night.

Koby Thomas: The NEC's Rookie of the Year in 2017-18, Thomas missed Robert Morris' first 13 league games with an unspecified injury, returning on February 16th. He hasn't played a ton; he averaged just 10.5 mpg over the final two games, and hasn't played more than 21 minutes since his return. But his presence lengthens the rotation and gives Andy Toole more scoring punch.

3x: A bonus one; Robert Morris has already beaten the Terriers twice this season, so you are bound to hear someone say that it's difficult to beat a team three times in a season. It's one of those myths without any basis. Feel free to roll your eyes. Per Jordan Sperber:

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