One of the eight teams in the Northeast Conference is just three wins away from earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with quarterfinal play kicking things off tonight. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris shared the regular season crown with matching 15-3 league records but Tom Moore's Bobcats get the top seed as a result of their head-to-head win in the lone meeting between the two. But it's Mike Rice's Colonials who go into the tournament as the defending champs, and while they don't have a Jeremy Chappell (graduation) or Jimmy Langhurst (injury) RMU is more than capable of the repeat. But the drop down to the second seed could be unfortunate in more than just one way for RMU. That's because if seeding holds they'd have to take on rival Mount St. Mary's in the semifinals, a team that's not only been on fire but also beat Robert Morris in the regular season finale last Saturday.
Jeremy Goode, Jean Cajou, Kelly Beidler and Shawn Atupem were all contributors on Milan Brown's NEC champion team from two seasons ago so they know what's required at this time of the year. And in the middle of the pack are LIU and FDU, two teams that won at least ten NEC games after struggling in the non-conference portion of their respective schedules. Two of the best guards in the conference will face off in Jaytornah Wisseh (LIU) and Sean Baptiste (FDU), but keep an eye on Knights' big man Alvin Mofunanya who has played extremely well over the last month. In the last decade the one or two-seed won the automatic bid eight times with Mount St. Mary's (2008- 4th seed) and Monmouth (2006- 3rd seed) being the only two champs falling outside of that range. Does that trend carry over? Thursday moves us one step closer to finding out the answer.
#8 Monmouth at #1 Quinnipiac (7 PM)
Regular season meetings: Monmouth 72-60 (January 2nd at Monmouth); Quinnipiac 82-63 (February 25th at Quinnipiac)
Neither game between these two was particularly close and the Bobcats have the definitive advantage tonight due in large part to their 12-0 record at home. James Feldeine is the leading scorer while NEC Player of the Year Justin Rutty both scores and rebounds inside for Quinnipiac, but those aren't the only two weapons at Tom Moore's disposal. James Johnson was second on the team in minutes played and leads QU regulars in three-point percentage (38.6%), averaging twelve points per contest. And in Jeremy Baker they've got the ultimate glue guy, a tough player willing to throw his body around the floor and play solid defense.
Will Campbell and Whitney Coleman are the primary scorers on the perimeter for Dave Calloway's squad and James Hett does a solid job at the point. But the three-pointers need to fall for Monmouth as 29.4% of their points come from beyond the arc. By comparison, Quinnipiac scored just 16.3% of their points off of three-pointers. The Hawks will need to keep QU on the perimeter tonight if they're to win. The other problem for Monmouth: Quinnipiac is an outstanding rebounding team, averaging just over forty-one boards per game. Travis Taylor and Ed Waite will have to lead the way on the glass if the Hawks are to have a shot at leaving Hamden with the upset.
#7 Central Connecticut State at #2 Robert Morris (7 PM)
Regular season meeting: Robert Morris 69-60 (February 11th at CCSU)
This could be a tougher matchup for the Colonials than anticipated if Rob Robinson and Dallas Green don't play with total focus, and that's due to the improved play of CCSU freshman forward Joe Efese. He's scored in double figures in three of the Blue Devils' last four games, averaging 12.5 ppg in wins over LIU and St. Francis (NY) last week to help push CCSU into the NEC Tournament field. But despite his improved offensive output and the presence of guards Shemik Thompson and Robbie Ptacek, Howie Dickenman's team will need to win on the defensive end. But that's easier said than done against the Colonials.
Karon Abraham, unanimous selection for NEC Rookie of the Year, leads the team in scoring at just under thirteen points per game and classmate Velton Jones has also played well on the perimeter. Add in veterans such as Mezie Newigwe (NEC Defensive Player of the Year), Russell Johnson and Gary Wallace and you've got a backcourt rotation that will give Central problems tonight. "Throughout the season I thought our freshmen have played older than they needed to," said Coach Rice earlier this week. But it bears repeating that how close the matchup ends up being will depend upon their two seniors up front; when Green and Robinson (especially Robinson) show up ready to go this is a very tough team to beat.
#6 Saint Francis (PA) at #3 Mount St. Mary's (7 PM)
Regular season meetings: SFPA 73-66 (December 5th at SFPA); Mount St. Mary's 67-51 (February 25th at The Mount)
Don Friday's Red Flash proved the naysayers wrong this season as they finished with a 9-9 league mark, not bad when considering that the coaches picked SFPA to finish dead last in the preseason (yes, even behind Bryant). The keys: senior forward Devin Sweetney and freshmen Umar Shannon and Will Felder. They did win the first meeting between the two but that was back in December, when the Mountaineers were nowhere near the team that they are now. One area that SFPA needs to shore up tonight: turnovers. They're averaging more than fifteen per game, and against a team with a stabilizing force at the point in Jeremy Goode those turnovers can turn into points on the other end in a hurry.
Milan Brown's team has been an entirely different animal since the NEC schedule hit it's halfway point, winning ten straight games to finish the regular season. Goode and Jean Cajou do a good job of scoring on the perimeter and Kelly Beidler can also step out and knock down jumpers when left open. Add in Shawn Atupem and Will Holland and you've got a veteran group that understands its' roles and what needs to get done. The two teams are close in regards to offensive efficiency but The Mount has been a much better defensive team in that regard; the Red Flash can ill-afford to settle for perimeter jumpers against the Mountaineers or this could get out of hand in a hurry.
#5 Fairleigh Dickinson at #4 Long Island (7:30 PM)
Regular season meeting: LIU 68-62 (February 18th at LIU)
These two have met just once and with the game being as close as it was on February 18th it wouldn't be a surprise if Greg Vetrone's squad picked up the win on the road. The Knights were actually 4-5 in NEC road games this season, an important fact to remember when looking at their overall road record of 4-11. Alvin Mofunanya has played like a man posessed over the last month of the season, posting seven double-doubles in his last eight games to give FDU a credible interior presence. Mike Scott has also been an important part of the attack at the point, doing whatever's needed for the Knights. He and Sean Baptiste will need to play well against Jaytornah Wisseh if FDU is to pick up the road win.
As for the Blackbirds, in addition to Wisseh Kyle Johnson has the ability to drop twenty points on an opponent. Johnson scored 16 points while also grabbing ten rebounds in the lone regular season meeting between these two. But the young frontcourt of Kenny Onyechi and Jamal Olasewere will be counted on to play well against Mofunanya tonight; Wisseh's 27 points relieved some of the pressure in that meeting but the two youngsters will need to play better in the NEC Tournament. LIU averages nearly fourteen offensive rebounds per game this season and if they can either match or get close to that number they've got a good shot at moving on to the semifinals.