NEC Thursday Preview: Debut of the Rivalry Week

February 4th, 2010

Thursday marks the beginning of "Rivalry Week" a concept the NEC has adopted this season with all six games matching familiar foes, and the games will be repeated at the opposite site on Saturday. While LIU/St. Francis (NY) and Monmouth/FDU could be the most competitive matchups (Quinnipiac/Sacred Heart shouldn't disappoint either) on paper, there's also the matter of the league's hottest team (Robert Morris) taking its seven-game win streak on the road. The Colonials visit Saint Francis (PA) tonight, where they'll have to deal with the reigning Choice Hotels Player of the Week in Devin Sweetney.

RMU head coach Mike Rice was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me on the phone this morning, crediting the NEC for "trying something new" in regards to Rivalry Week but also noted that it may be better for the games to have a wider split instead of back-to-back 48 hours apart. The reason: the team you may see tonight could be an entirely different outfit a month from now due to injuries or the way in which they're playing, but you don't get that opportunity to do much tinkering with just one day of preparation. Below is the rest of our conversation followed by a preview of tonight's games. 

RJ: What's been the difference defensively for your team in conference play (RMU leads the conference in both field goal and three-point percentage defense in league games)?

MR: Not an exorbitant amount to be honest with you. We've got four freshmen averaging eighteen minutes per game and they had some defensive lapses earlier in the year.

RJ: Even with the current win streak you've had some bouts with inconsistency due to that youth. How much of that could be attributed to the loss of Jimmy Langhurst (subsequent adjustment)?

MR: Because of what he did for us we had to reinvent ourselves, and once we found the formula we've hit our stride. It was tough for the seniors to adjust and it was a learning process for them.  

RJ: Speaking of the newcomers, what's one area that they've improved in as the season's progressed that most people won't notice?

MR: Having a sense of urgency in practice. At the beginning of the year they'd wonder why I was screaming at them in practice; they (their body language) looked disinterested. We sat them down and had them watch film because they had to see it to believe it. They've gotten a lot better in that area.

RJ: What's something that you'd like to see Rob Robinson and Dallas Green improve upon in the next month as you get closer to tournament play?

MR: They both need to be more aggressive rebounding. Robinson is one of the best help-side defenders I've seen but he's got to have more of a motor rebounding and the same goes for Dallas.

RJ: How important has the development of Mezi Newigwe been?

MR: He's finally confident with his role and allowing himself to play to his strengths.

7:30p Robert Morris (14-8, 9-1) at Saint Francis (PA) (7-14, 5-5)
The Red Flash come into this one boasting a win streak of their own, having taken care of SFNY and LIU last week. Devin Sweetney went 20-20 from the foul line in those two games, and given his versatility he's a tough matchup for anyone in the NEC. As for how the Colonials will look to slow the senior down, Coach Rice noted that they'll have to "follow their gameplan and have someone physical and athletic enough to slow him down. But we can't afford to send him to the foul line." Who would be the likely candidates? Either Robinson or Green, both of whom need to play at a higher level in regards to their effort on the boards.

The key for Saint Francis will be to slow down those RMU guards, especially Karon Abraham and Velton Jones, who was named Choice Hotels Rookie of the Week. SFPA ranks eighth in the NEC in field goal percentage defense (conference games), an area they're going to need to perform better in tonight. RMU has done a good job in regards to finding good looks in league play, making 44.5% of their shots in league play. They've also taken the third-fewest three pointers in the conference; their understanding of their strengths is one reason why they're 9-1. If Sweetney can receive ample scoring help from Umar Shannon the Red Flash have a shot, but they're fighting an uphill battle.

7:30p Quinnipiac (14-7, 8-2) at Sacred Heart (12-9, 5-5)
The Bobcats had their eight-game win streak ended by The Mount on Saturday and they're forced with another tough road game against a team in need of wins for its NEC Tournament hopes in the Pioneers. Corey Hassan is one of the players who should be up for NEC Player of the Year consideration, averaging a league-best 19.3 ppg in league games. He's also third in the conference in rebounding with an average of 7.5 rpg, and his perimeter shooting ability makes him a tough matchup for opponents to deal with.

But turnovers have been an issue for Dave Bike's team, and that can't be a problem against a team that leads the NEC in turnover margin and is also one of the league's best defensive teams. James Feldeine and Justin Rutty lead the way for the Bobcats while players such as James Johnson, Jeremy Baker and Deontay Twyman have all contributed to the success of Tom Moore's team. These are also the top two rebounding teams in conference games so the battle on the boards will also be important to the success of both teams. Should be a close affair in Fairfield. 

7:30p LIU (8-13, 6-4) at St. Francis (NY) (9-12, 6-4)
The battle of Brooklyn this weekend, and both teams need to keep themselves above the fight for those final NEC Tournament spots. Both were swept last week, going from possible title contenders to teams in the fight to at best host an NEC Tournament game and at worse being involved in the fight for the final slots. Three of the better guards in the NEC will be on display in LIU's Jaytornah Wisseh and Kyle Johnson and SFNY's Ricky Cadell. But the Terriers have played solid defense in conference play, ranking fourth in field goal percentage defense and second in three-point percentage defense in league games. And Akeem Bennett has the ability to be the difference-maker in this one, ranking ninth in the conference in scoring in league games. 

7:30p Wagner (4-19, 2-8) at Mount St. Mary's (7-14, 4-6)
The Seahawks have actually won more games on the road (two) than they have at Spiro (one) so maybe it's a good thing that they get Jeremy Goode and company in Emmitsburg tonight. But with the Mountaineers having won two straight at home that brand of thinking would be a stretch to say the least. And while The Mount has had its share of difficulties when it comes to scoring Wagner's been worse, averaging just over sixty points per game in conference play. Add to this their overall youth and it's tough to see them knocking off a veteran team that's in desperate need of victories as we approach March. Wagner is last in the NEC in scoring defense as well, and that's not the best recipe for being a consistent winner on the road. 

7:30p Monmouth (10-12, 6-4) at FDU (6-16, 5-5)
Bragging right are on the line in the Garden State as well, with these two having played a pair of wild contests last season with the Knights winning both. FDU is averaging more points per game and they're also the more efficient club when it comes to offense. However, Greg Vetrone's team has its fair share of issues when it comes to defending people, ranking tenth in defensive efficiency and scoring defense. Of course they tend to have more possessions in their games than the Hawks, who lead the conference in scoring defense (league games), but that's only a difference of three possessions per contest (67-64). If Sean Baptiste and Mike Scott can play well in the backcourt FDU has the ability to make Monmouth pay. But it isn't as if Dave Calloway's team is lacking for offensive threats themselves, with Will Campbell and Whitney Coleman both ranking in the Top 30 in scoring. This could very well be the most entertaining game of the night in the NEC. 

7:30p CCSU (7-14, 4-6) at Bryant (0-10, 0-22) 
This isn't a rivalry in the sense of history but since the two schools are relatively close that's the matchup we have. Tim O'Shea's Bulldogs are still without a win this season and their struggles offensively have put them behind the proverbial 8-ball early and often this season. Despite averaging the second-fewest possessions per game (64) the Bulldogs have the worst points per possession average (0.86) in the NEC and their defense has suffered as well, ranking last in the conference with a defensive efficiency of 107.4. Central has struggled offensively at times but they're a better team when it comes to defense and rebounding, which will likely be what prevents Bryant from pulling off the upset.