NEC Tournament Preview: Championship Game
As an objective observer of the Northeast Conference Tournament, this is what I wanted.
By any measure, Robert Morris and Saint Francis were the two best postseason-eligible teams, and by a wide margin (if you're new here, Merrimack won the regular season in its first year transition to Division 1). They finished tied for 2nd with identical 13-5 league records and finished with the highest efficiency margins (RMU +9.3, SFU +9.0) in the conference.
But getting the clear top two teams in the league isn't the only reason why Tuesday night should be all kinds of fun. We get to see the league's best offensive team (Saint Francis, by a wide margin) up against the 2nd best defense in the NEC (Robert Morris, only behind Merrimack). Plus, they split the season series, and the schools are only separated by 95 miles.
Let's do this.
#2 Saint Francis at #1 Robert Morris
Kenpom Projection: RMU 73, SFU 72
Season Series: Split
Things to Watch:
1. As I mentioned above, the Red Flash led the league in offensive efficiency this season, and it was because they were good at pretty much everything. They didn't turn it over (17.4%, 2nd), they got after it on the offensive boards (35.3%, 2nd), they shot it well from three (36.8%, 4th) and from two (50.9%, 3rd), and they got the foul line a good amount (31.6 FTA/FGA, 5th). However, what's interesting is that, at times their shot selection leaves a bit to be desired. According to Dribble Handoff, SFU ranks 155th nationally in "shot quality", which isn't terrible, but isn't what you'd expect from a team that had the 115th best eFG% in the country. Simply put- head coach Rob Krimmel has bucket-getters; Keith Braxton can get it done at all three levels, as can Isaiah Blackmon. But there are times when players like Tyler Stewart (43% of his shots), Randall Gaskins (37%), and Myles Thompson (32%) can fall in love with the mid-range. Against a defense like Bobby Mo, settling for low percentage jumpers could play right into their hands. However, it's worth noting that the Red Flash had little trouble scoring against RMU in their two previous matchups, scoring 1.14 PPP and committing just 23 turnovers (17%).
2. In Robert Morris' 78-68 win over SFU on February 29th, RMU held the Red Flash to just 5 of 21 from three. However, what could be concerning was the 16 offensive rebounds (40% of misses) they allowed. The Colonials' defense was nails all season, but they were middle of the road in defensive rebounding (allowing opponents to grab 27.8% of misses). SFU's Mark Flagg (13.4% OR%) was the only Red Flash player in the top 12 in the league in offensive rebounding, but Rob Krimmel has a ton of guys who have shown the ability to get it done there (Myles Thompson, Tyler Stewart, and even Isaiah Blackmon), and they have made the commitment to hammer the offensive glass. Robert Morris' A.J. Bramah is the only Colonial in the top 19 in defensive rebounding (he was 2nd at 25.6%), and Andy Toole will need him to stay on the floor and clean up any Red Flash misses.
3. The 2019 NEC Player of the Year has been the best player in the NEC Tournament for the Red Flash (and, probably, the league). Keith Braxton is averaging 21 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.5 turnovers in SFU's two blowout wins, with a 51.9% eFG% and a 129.2 O-Rating (25.6% usage). What's interesting is that Braxton hasn't settled for jumpers, attempting just five three-pointers (1 for 5) and six mid-range jumpers (3 for 6). Using his 6'5" 210 lb. frame to get to the rim has been Braxton's bread-and-butter, and that's what he's done in the NEC Tournament to date (9 for 15 at the rim). If Braxton is settling for jumpers early, Andy Toole will consider it a win.
4. I think we all thought that Josh Williams would be Robert Morris' best player this season, and while he's had a fantastic senior season, it's A.J. Bramah who has become Andy Toole's go-to-guy. In the Colonials' two NECT wins, Bramah has been on fire; a 69.6% FG% and 119.8 O-Rating (24.3% usage). He's averaged 20 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, and has really gotten it done at the rim (12 for 17). SFU had the league's 10th highest block rate (7.5%), and allowed teams to shoot 51.9% on twos (last in the NEC). In two games against the Flash, Bramah shot 14 for 16 at the rim, and could be in line for a big game on Tuesday.
5. Could depth come into play on Tuesday? Rob Krimmel generally goes nine deep, while Andy Toole has a rotation of eight guys. However, Krimmel utilizes his bench much more; 31.4% of minutes, compared to Toole's 27.6% of minutes (D1 average is 30.4%). If SFU can push the tempo like they want (they were 2nd in the NEC at 70.2 possessions per 40 minutes, while Robert Morris was one of the slower teams in the league at 66.3), Toole may have to lean more heavily on his backups, especially guys like Jalen Hawkins (50.3% of minutes) and Sayveion McEwen (29.3%).
6. Dante Treacy was one of the league's most improved players this season, as the 6'0" sophomore came out of nowhere to put up a 29% assist rate (4th in the NEC), shoot 40% from deep, and play some of the best perimeter defense in the NEC. In RMU's 86-66 win over LIU on Saturday, Treacy scored 12 points on 4-5 shooting, and added 8 assists and 4 boards in 29 minutes. Treacy will have his hands full defensively, as he'll likely be asked to guard either Keith Braxton or Isaiah Blackmon (or both). But SFU will struggle to defend Treacy's quickness and ability to get into the lane.
7. The Colonials have a ton of shooters; Josh Williams (41.3%), Dante Treacy (40%), and Jon Williams (39.8%) are three of the best shooters in the NEC, while Sayveon McEwen (31.8%), Jalen Hawkins (31.2%), and Charles Bain (24.6%) can all beat you from deep at times. The Red Flash did a nice job of defending the perimeter this season (opponents made just 32.5% of their three-point attempts, and only attempted 38.9% of their shots from deep, which was 9th highest in the league). Rob Krimmel has a nice combination of size and quickness in the backcourt between Braxton, Blackmon, Randall Gaskins, and Ramiir Dixon-Conover, and getting good looks against them isn't easy. However, RMU was able to get it done back on 2/29, when they made 10 of 23 from three, including 4 of 9 from Josh Williams.
8. The spotlight will likely be on the coaches Tuesday night, and rightfully so. It's difficult to believe that Andy Toole is already in his 10th season as the head coach of Robert Morris. The 39-year old has had a ton of success in Moon Township, however he's got just one NCAA Tournament appearance on his resume (2015), and getting there this year would probably cement his status has a great up-and-coming young coach who will undoubtedly get plenty of calls from ADs on the East Coach. Meanwhile, Rob Krimmel is just 42-years young and in his 8th season as the head coach of Saint Francis (he's been in Loretto a bit longer than that), though he's yet to break through and get to the Big Dance. Both guys are young, really good, and have a lot on the line Tuesday night. No pressure, fellas.