Game: #2 Sacred Heart vs. #1 Central Connecticut State
The Road to the Championship: Sacred Hart defeated Wagner 100-68 in the quarterfinals and Quinnipiac 83-6 in the semis. Central defeated St. Francis (NY) 79-61 and Mount St. Mary’s 74-68 to reach this point.
Previous Appearances: CCSU is 2-2 all-time in NEC title games with wins in 2000 (Robert Morris) and 2002 (Quinnipiac), and losses in 1999 (Mount St. Mary’s) and 2004 (Monmouth). Tonight is Sacred Heart’s first appearance in the NEC title game.
Team Leaders: Sacred Heart: Points (Sr. G Jarrid Frye-13.2 ppg); Rebounds (Jr. F Brice Brooks-6.2 rpg); Assists (Drew Shubik-4.0 apg). CCSU: Points (Jr. G Tristan Blackwood-17.2 ppg); Rebounds (Sr. F Obie Nwadike-10.9 rpg); Assists (Blackwood-4.1 apg).
SHU is the deeper of the two teams, going with a rotation of nine or ten players as opposed to CCSU, who goes seven deep. With a league-high average of 78.8 points per game (81.2 in conference games), the Pioneers will look to get out and run at any opportunity in order to take advantage of their number of contributors. While CCSU has guys more than capable of putting the ball in the basket in Blackwood, Nwadike and senior guard Javier Mojica (NEC Player of the Year), they would much rather play this game in the half court and rely on their tough defense. Blackwood was also name Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the NEC, and the aforementioned Blue Devil trio made CCSU the first team ever to place three players on the league’s first team all-conference squad.
Tonight’s game will be a classic matchup between the league’s best offensive and defensive teams, but the game may hinge on what Sacred Heart can do defensively to slow down Central. The Pioneers had the worst scoring defense in the NEC in conference games, giving up an average of 77.4 points per game. But since this number is just as much a product of their up and down style, the more important number to look at would be the 46.7% that they allowed opponents to shoot in conference games. These are also the two best three-point shooting teams in the NEC in terms of percentage. This should be an exciting affair, but in the end I like Central’s defense and the home court advantage to carry the day. Blue Devils by 7.
Big East First Round: #11 St. John’s vs. #6 Marquette
Time: Approx. 9 PM EST (ESPN)
Team Leaders: St. John’s: Points (Lamont Hamilton-13.4 ppg); Rebounds (Hamilton-6.5 rpg); Assists (Eugene Lawrence-5.4 apg). Marquette: Points (Dominic James-14.9 ppg); Rebounds (Ousmane Barro-7.0 rpg); Assists (James-4.9 apg).
Two teams who did not meet in the regular season get together in the final opening round game of the day at the Big East Tournament in New York. Both come off home wins in their season finale, with Marquette getting twenty from reserve guard David Cubillan in their 75-71 win over Pitt, and St. John’s dealing a significant blow to Providence’s NCAA hopes with a 77-64 win on Sunday. When senior guard Daryll Hill was lost to a knee injury a month ago, it was thought that the Red Storm would have a tough time scoring sixty points on a consistent basis. But players like Avery Patterson and Qa’rraan Calhoun have stepped up for head coach Norm Roberts of late. Calhoun, a freshman from Hazlet, NJ scored twenty-one in the regular season finale. This team still has offensive issues, but how they defend the Marquette guards will be the story of this game.
Marquette counters with one of the deeper backcourts in the nation, led by a banged-up Dominic James. But in their win over Pitt last Saturday night, it was David Cubillan who came in and stole the show. Cubillan dropped twenty off the bench to supplement the twenty of Wesley Matthews, but it’s the health of Jerel McNeal that’s of the utmost importance to Tom Crean’s Golden Eagles. Due to a thumb injury in practice last Friday, McNeal missed the Pitt game and will most likely be out for the first round matchup tonight. Getting James untracked to go along with contributions from other players will have a major impact on how far Marquette can go in this tournament as well as their seeding for the NCAA Tournament.
Turnovers and rebounding will tell the story in this one. Marquette is second in the Big East in steals (9.3 spg); while St. John’s ranks thirteenth in the league in assist to turnover ratio (0.94). And despite their overall lack of height, the Golden Eagles rank second in the conference in offensive rebounds, pulling down 14.5 per game. With St. John’s ranking fourteenth in rebound margin, the Red Storm must control the defensive glass if they want to move on to Thursday. The winner will face the three seed Pittsburgh on Thursday. I like Marquette by 8.
Atlantic 10 First Round: #12 Richmond vs. #5 Fordham
Time: Approx. 2:30 PM EST
Team Leaders: Richmond: Points (Dan Geriot-11.3 ppg); Rebounds (Gaston Moliva-4.0 rpg); Assists (Brian Morris-2.8 apg). Fordham: Points (Marcus Stout-15.5 ppg); Rebounds (Bryant Dunston-7.4 rpg); Assists (Kevin Anderson-4.0 apg).
Fordham looks to avoid a letdown in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Atlantic City, taking on a young Richmond club that gave the Rams all they wanted in a 58-55 Fordham win back on January 6th. Both teams are relatively young, but the difference for Fordham is that the guys they’ve relied on all year are primarily juniors, while the top four scorers for the Spiders are freshmen. Leading scorer Dan Geriot was named to the league’s All-Rookie Team. Knowing this, it would be easy o count this as a win for the Rams, but keep in mind that over the last month Richmond has knocked off Duquesne, St. Joseph’s and Rhode Island. But all those games were at home, so it remains to be seen what a young team that’s gone 2-11 away from home this year can do in a tournament setting.
Fordham arrives in Atlantic City with the school’s highest seed ever for the Atlantic 10 Tournament, getting the five seed. Neither team is very proficient when it comes to rebounding, but while the Rams finished 12th in that category (32.4 rpg), the Spiders were dead last with their 24.0 boards per game. If Fordham can take advantage of Bryant Dunston on the block, they should move on to face Rhode Island on Thursday. But then again, you never know what can happen this time of the year. I like Fordham by 12.