Northeast Conference Tournament Preview

March 6th, 2008

Robert Morris the favorite to win automatic bid
By Raphielle Johnson

After a season in which the race for the regular season crown came down to the last week, the Northeast Conference Tournament gets underway on Thursday. Robert Morris, regular season champions, is the favorite on paper after defeating both Sacred Heart and Wagner over the last ten days to lay claim to their first title since 1992. That year also marks the last time the Colonials qualified for the NCAA Tournament, but they will have some serious challengers for the league’s automatic bid. Wagner earned the two seed, and has an experienced nucleus with all five starters tallying at least 700 points in their careers.

Sacred Heart caught fire from mid-January to early February, winning eight in a row during that period. Quinnipiac features the conference’s best scorer in DeMario Anderson, but the Bobcats will have their hands full with the conference’s best defense when they visit Mount St. Mary’s. And you can’t talk NEC Tournament without mentioning defending champion Central Connecticut State, led by senior guard Tristan Blackwood. Long Island has one of the hottest players in the league in guard Jaytornah Wisseh, and they also beat Wagner by twenty earlier in the season. Monmouth, who needed some help on the season’s last day, rounds out the eight-team field.

Unlike other tournaments that play straight through, the NEC reseeds its teams after the quarters to make sure that the team with the lowest seed takes on the highest remaining seed in the semifinals. The higher seeds have home court throughout, with the semifinals on Sunday and the championship game coming on Wednesday night. Here’s a preview of the upcoming Northeast Conference Tournament.

Conference computer numbers (courtesy of RPI: 23rd, Average non-conference SOS: 29th, Average non-conference RPI rank: 25th.

Tournament Schedule (all games played at higher seed)
Quarterfinals: #8 Monmouth @ #1 Robert Morris (Thursday March 6 7 PM)
#7 Long Island @ #2 Wagner (Thursday March 6 7:30 PM)
#6 CCSU @ #3 Sacred Heart (Thursday March 6 7 PM)
#5 Quinnipiac @ #4 Mount St. Mary’s (Thurs. March 6 7 PM)

Semifinals: Sunday March 9th at higher remaining seeds, times TBA

Final: Semifinal winners, Wednesday March 12 7 PM (ESPN2)

#8 Monmouth @ #1 Robert Morris

Category Monmouth Robert Morris
Points per game 59.5 (11th in NEC) 75.5 (1st)
PPG allowed 67.2 (2nd) 68.0 (4th)
Field goal % 40.2 (11th) 46.7 (1st)
FG % defense 43.9 (t-3rd) 43.9 (t-3rd)
3PT % 32.6 (9th) 38.4 (2nd)
3PT % defense 33.3 (3rd) 31.1 (1st)
Rebound margin - 8.8 (11th) + 2.8 (3rd)
Turnover margin + 0.57 (5th) + 1.94 (2nd)

Category Monmouth Robert Morris
Points per game Whitney Coleman (12.2) Jeremy Chappell (15.0)
Rebounds per game Coleman (4.1) Tony Lee (6.9)
Assists per game James Hett (3.27) Lee (6.42)
FG percentage Nick Deltufo (50.0) Chappell (51.3)
3PT percentage Alex Nunner (37.8) Jimmy Langhurst (42.1)
Assist/Turnover ratio Hett (1.56) Langhurst (1.86)

Regular season meetings: Robert Morris 99, Monmouth 44 (January 3rd at Robert Morris) and Robert Morris 61, Monmouth 60 (January 31st at Monmouth).

For Monmouth’s sake, let’s hope the third meeting this season ends up closer than the first. All signs seem to point towards a blowout, and the only shot the Hawks have at avoiding such a fate is to control the tempo for all forty minutes. That responsibility falls upon the shoulders of James Hett, who led the team in assists this season as was third in the NEC in assist-to-turnover ratio.

The best offensive option for Dave Calloway’s team is junior guard Whitney Coleman, who averaged nineteen points and seven boards in two games last week. But besides Coleman, this team has had serious trouble this season putting the ball in the basket, ranking dead last in both points per game and field goal percentage. And they haven’t been too good on the boards either, ranking last in rebounding margin as well.

On the other side is a hot Robert Morris squad that has won a school-record thirteen straight games for conference Coach of the Year Mike Rice. NEC Player of the Year Tony Lee leads the way, as he is the team’s best rebounder and assist man (he led the entire conference in assists per game). Besides Lee, two other Colonials average double figures in scoring: leading scorer Jeremy Chappell and A.J. Jackson (13.8 ppg).

Robert Morris is the antithesis of their quarterfinal opponent on offense, leading the NEC in both points per game and field goal percentage. With their twenty-five victories, the Colonials set a school record while making Coach Rice the most successful first-year head coach in league history. It’s been fifteen years since Robert Morris last appeared in the NCAA Tournament; this team has a very good shot at ending that drought.

#7 Long Island @ #2 Wagner

Category Long Island Wagner
Points per game 72.8 (3rd) 72.3 (5th)
PPG allowed 71.7 (6th) 71.8 (7th)
Field goal % 40.8 (9th) 44.7 (4th)
FG % defense 44.5 (5th) 41.5 (1st)
3PT % 33.1 (8th) 32.1 (10th)
3PT % defense 31.8 (2nd) 33.4 (5th)
Rebound margin + 2.6 (4th) + 5.3 (1st)
Turnover margin + 0.90 (3rd) - 1.31 (8th)

Category Long Island Wagner
Points per game Jaytornah Wisseh (15.6) Durell Vinson (13.7)
Rebounds per game Eugene Kotorobai (7.1) Vinson (11.3)
Assists per game Wisseh (5.14) Mark Porter (5.55)
FG percentage Kellen Allen (53.8) Vinson (55.6)
3PT percentage Kyle Johnson (38.9) Doug Elwell (37.1)
Assist/Turnover ratio Wisseh (1.55) Porter (1.34)

Regular season meetings: Long Island 85, Wagner 65 (January 17th at LIU) and Wagner 68, Long Island 65 (January 31st at Wagner).

This quarterfinal should be a hotly-contested affair, with the two teams splitting their regular season meetings. Wagner has the advantage in regards to experience, with three senior starters in the lineup. Durell Vinson has been the catalyst this season, helping lead the Seahawks to twenty-two wins after missing all of 2006-07. The conference’s leading rebounder averages a double-double, but his one glaring weakness is the charity stripe. Vinson shoots a frigid 33.6% from the line, so if the Blackbirds have some fouls to spare they’ll be better off making him earn his points from there.

Along with Vinson, Wagner’s other first-team all-conference selection was senior guard Mark Porter, who led the team in both scoring and assists this season. Mike Deane essentially employs a seven-man rotation, and their ability to hit the boards and limit the number of quality shots their opponent gets has resulted in a 22-7 mark.

Long Island has four players averaging double figures in scoring, led by second-team all-conference selection Jaytornah Wisseh. Wisseh led the Blackbirds in both scoring and assists on the season, and has been playing some good basketball of late. Kellen Allen has come off the bench in every game this year, but is second on the team with 13.8 points per contest.

Freshmen Kyle Johnson and David Hicks were both selected to the league’s all-rookie team, and Eugene Kotorobai led the Blackbirds in rebounding. In the twenty-point win over Wagner, LIU hit half of their shots from behind the arc (10-for-20), took 43 free throws and Eugene Kotorobai went for 24 and 11 in the win. This should be a close affair, but I like Wagner to advance to the semifinals.

#6 Central Connecticut State @ #3 Sacred Heart

Category CCSU Sacred Heart
Points per game 69.8 (7th) 72.3 (4th)
PPG allowed 67.9 (3rd) 72.4 (8th)
Field goal % 45.6 (3rd) 44.4 (6th)
FG % defense 44.5 (6th) 45.2 (8th)
3PT % 35.3 (5th) 34.7 (6th)
3PT % defense 36.5 (8th) 34.6 (6th)
Rebound margin + 2.0 (5th) - 4.2 (9th)
Turnover margin - 1.03 (7th) + 2.55 (1st)

Category CCSU Sacred Heart
Points per game Tristan Blackwood (16.4) Brice Brooks (12.5)
Rebounds per game Marcus Palmer (5.8) Drew Shubik (5.6)
Assists per game Blackwood (5.28) Shubik (5.48)
FG percentage Ken Horton (54.9) Ryon Howard (52.7)
3PT percentage Blackwood (37.1) Corey Hassan (39.8)
Assist/Turnover ratio Blackwood (1.49) Shubik (1.51)

Regular season meetings: Sacred Heart 68, CCSU 52 (December 6th at CCSU) and CCSU 100, Sacred Heart 87 (March 2nd at Sacred Heart).

Just four days after the Blue Devils spoiled Sacred Heart’s “Senior Day”, the two will meet again on the same court for the right to move one step closer to an NCAA berth. While Central was the NEC’s representative last season, Dave Bike’s Pioneers have never made an appearance in the Division I Basketball Tournament. Coming into postseason play with a two-game losing streak, the Pioneers were preseason favorites to win the conference.

Then they lost Joey Henley before the season even began due to a knee injury. But thanks to the trio of Brice Brooks, Drew Shubik (a second-team all-conference selection) and Chauncey Hardy, Sacred Heart was still in the thick of the conference race through the last week of the season. Ryan Litke and Corey Hassan supply some scoring off the bench.

After losing three key seniors from a championship team, CCSU finished right where the preseason predictions said they would. Howie Dickenman is considered by some to be the league’s best coach, and rightfully so. But this team gets nowhere without the play of senior guard Tristan Blackwood, the NEC’s Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection.

Blackwood led the Blue Devils in nearly every offensive statistic, but he did have some help from a couple of freshmen. Rookie of the Year Shemik Thompson averaged 8.8 points and 3.2 assists per game, and fellow all-rookie selection Ken Horton led the conference in blocks (2.1 per game). Horton also led the Blue Devils in field goal percentage. Joe Seymore and Marcus Palmer are the other two CCSU players averaging double figures in points.

The two rivals played in last season’s championship game, won by the Blue Devils. But that game was in New Britain, and I don’t think they’ll put together another performance like they did on Sunday at Sacred Heart’s floor.

#5 Quinnipiac @ #4 Mount St. Mary’s

Category Quinnipiac Mount St. Mary’s
Points per game 74.3 (2nd) 68.2 (8th)
PPG allowed 75.0 (10th) 66.8 (1st)
Field goal % 46.3 (2nd) 44.4 (5th)
FG % defense 44.7 (7th) 42.0 (2nd)
3PT % 39.2 (1st) 36.7 (3rd)
3PT % defense 36.6 (9th) 33.4 (4th)
Rebound margin + 5.0 (2nd) - 1.7 (8th)
Turnover margin - 2.55 (10th) + 0.79 (4th)

Category Quinnipiac Mount St. Mary’s
Points per game DeMario Anderson (21.7) Chris Vann (15.1)
Rebounds per game Anderson (6.4) Markus Mitchell (5.9)
Assists per game Anderson (3.19) Jeremy Goode (5.64)
FG percentage Justin Rutty (59.2) Sam Atupem (52.4)
3PT percentage Bryan Geffen (40.9) Vann (40.4)
Assist/Turnover ratio Casey Cosgrove (1.35) Goode (1.65)

Regular season meetings: Quinnipiac 70, Mount St. Mary’s 59 (January 10th at Quinnipiac) and Mount St. Mary’s 77, Quinnipiac 70 (February 16th at The Mount).

Defeating Quinnipiac usually boils down to one task: stop DeMario Anderson. Well, many have tried and failed in this mission, as the senior led the conference in scoring and the Bobcats in both rebounds and assists as well. His latest claim to fame was a half-court game-winner at Central Connecticut State, spoiling the “Senior Night” of his former school. The only other player to average double figures for Tom Moore was freshman Evann Baker (11.1), a member of the league’s all-rookie team.

But that doesn’t mean that these are the only two scorers for QU. Six players average between 6.5 and 8.2 points per game this season. Quinnipiac has the conference’s second-best offense, and they lead the league in three-point shooting. But they can sometimes show indifference on the defensive end, something that has gotten them in trouble at times this year.

Mount St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is the conference’s premier defensive team. The Mountaineers led the conference in points per game allowed and were second behind Wagner in field goal percentage defense. On offense, Milan Brown’s squad is led by the backcourt tandem of Chris Vann and Jeremy Goode. Goode, the team’s second leading scorer, was The Mount’s leading assist man as well. Will Holland is second on the team in three point attempts, and only 98 of his 258 shot attempts this season came from inside the arc.

The key in this game will be the offensive production of Vann. In the first meeting, Vann went 2-7 from the field as the Bobcats won at home. In the rematch, Vann scored twenty points on 6-13 shooting from the field. If he’s involved, The Mount can negate Anderson’s scoring (he averaged 22 points per game in the two meetings). If not, then QU can pull out the road win.

My pick to win the tournament: Robert Morris.