(SportsNetwork.com) - The 33rd annual Northeast Conference Tournament is set to begin with Wednesday's quarterfinal round action and will wind through the championship game on Tuesday, March 11.
All games are played at the home of the higher seed. Following the quarterfinals, the teams will be re-seeded so that the highest remaining seed plays the lowest remaining seed in Saturday's semifinal round.
The top seed belongs to the Robert Morris Colonials, who will have homecourt advantage throughout the tourney after clinching their fifth NEC regular- season title in seven years and 11th overall. Should they get bounced early from the tourney, the Colonials have already earned the league's automatic bid to the Postseason NIT.
Last year was the first time in five years that RMU failed to make it to the title game, but the Colonials hope to begin a new streak and reserve their place in Tuesday's championship game. Their 34 all-time victories and seven titles in this tournament are both tops among current league members.
It truly is anybody's event to win as Long Island, which had won this tournament each of the last three years, failed to make the cut in this year's field after finishing just 9-20 overall and 4-12 in NEC play.
Headlining Wednesday's quarterfinal round is top-seed Robert Morris (19-12, 14-2 NEC) against eighth-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson (10-20, 6-10). RMU claimed a 69-64 road victory over the Knights when these teams met up this past Thursday.
The Colonials ended the regular season with a 59-48 setback to Wagner, although they had already clinched the top spot for this tournament as they entered that contest with a two-game cushion in the league standings. Still, the Seahawks ran away with that matchup thanks to a 17-0 run to end the first half, and they hung on to snap RMU's seven-game win streak and deal the Colonials only their second loss dating back to the first week of January. Leading the way for the Colonials is sharpshooter Karvel Anderson (19.6 ppg), the league's top scorer and one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the nation (.464; 103-of-222). Lucky Jones is also averaging double figures with 13.3 points to go along with 6.7 rebounds per tilt. But can RMU make a deep postseason push without standout forward Jeremiah Worthem, who was averaging 12.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in conference play before getting suspended from the team in late-January?
Standing in the Colonials' way in the quarterfinals is No. 8 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, which has made 27 NEC Tournament appearances all-time but none since 2010. The Knights made some tangible progress this season under first- year head coach Greg Herenda as they improved their league total from two to six. However, no eighth seed has ever knocked off the top seed in this event. Guard Sidney Sanders Jr. will need a big game if the Knights hope to end that trend. Sanders is the league's No. 2 scorer at 19.2 ppg to go along with an average of 5.9 apg. However, he is the only player averaging double figures in the scoring column for a Fairleigh Dickinson team that has a -6.5 rebounding margin on the season.
Continuing with Wednesday's quarterfinal-round action, No. 2 seed Wagner (18-11, 12-4) will host the seventh-seeded Central Connecticut State Blue Devils (11-18, 7-9). These teams split the regular-season series, with each team winning on the other's home floor. They are also meeting in the quarterfinals for the third straight year.
Wagner finds itself as the No. 2 seed for the third straight season and no team is hotter entering the postseason, as the Seahawks bring an eight-game win streak into the tournament. After advancing to the NEC semifinals in each of the last two years, they are hoping to go a bit further this time around, particularly after dismissing top seed Robert Morris in the regular-season finale. Latif Rivers leads the team in scoring with 13.7 ppg, while Kenneth Ortiz (13.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Marcus Burton (10.9 ppg) are also averaging double figures. Jay Harris (10.3 ppg), who was averaging 14.5 points over a four-game span last month, was suspended for the remainder of the year for violating school policy.
On the other side of the floor, Central Connecticut State qualified for the NEC Tournament for the 16th straight season, the longest active stretch in the league. But the Blue Devils have not won the NEC title since 2007, and they face a tough test right off the bat against the No. 2 seed. However, they did end the regular season on a bit of an upswing with wins in five of their last seven games. Three players are averaging double figures, led by Kyle Vinales, a 40-percent shooter from beyond the arc, who is scoring 17.1 ppg. He is complemented by Faronte Drakeford (13.6 ppg) and Malcolm McMillan (11.0 ppg).
In other quarterfinal-round play, the third-seeded Bryant Bulldogs (18-13, 10-6) host the No. 6 seed Saint Francis-PA Red Flash (9-20, 7-9). Bryant claimed a 77-67 win on its home floor when these teams faced each other on Jan. 9.
Bryant is back in the postseason after qualifying for the NEC Tournament last year, its first year of Division I eligibility. The Bulldogs will now host their first-ever game in this tourney, having won a combined 37 games over the past two seasons. They sputtered down the stretch with four losses in a span of five games before posting a 19-point win at LIU Brooklyn in the regular- season finale. Dyami Starks is shooting at a 37-percent clip from the perimeter (83-of-225) and shares team-high scoring honors with Alex Francis (19.1 ppg). Corey Maynard also averages double figures with 13.3 ppg.
Saint Francis is back in the league tourney after a two-year hiatus, but the Red Flash have not won a NEC Tournament game since 1995. They also lost three of their last four regular-season games. They are -6.3 in rebounding margin on the season and are -8.0 in the scoring column. The only player averaging double figures is forward Earl Brown, a 54-percent shooter from the floor who is averaging 14.5 ppg to go along with a team-best 8.1 rebounds. Put simply, if the Red Flash have any hopes of advancing, they'll need bigger contributions from the rest of the team.
The final game of the quarterfinals pits fourth-seeded Mount St. Mary's (13-16, 9-7) against the No. 5 seed St. Francis-NY (18-13, 9-7) Terriers. Mount St. Mary's was an 88-82 winner at home against the Terriers on Jan. 11.
The Mountaineers have won the NEC crown three times and advanced to the title game last year as the No. 5 seed. Guard Julian Norfleet is scoring 17.6 ppg. He is a 36-percent 3-point shooter and also averages 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per tilt. Rashad Whack (17.1 ppg) and Sam Prescott (10.8 ppg) also like to take their shots from outside, as MSM is sinking just over nine 3-pointers per game as a team. However, they have been out-rebounded by an average margin of nearly five boards per contest. If the outside shots are not falling for the Mountaineers, they'll need to find a way to corral the rebounds.
Meanwhile, St. Francis-NY is looking to make some noise in postseason play after notching its highest win total (18) since 2001-02. However, they have not won a game in this tournament since 2003 and are looking to change that. The Terriers certainly have some momentum on their side considering they've won three of their last four outings, the lone exception a one-point road loss to top-seed Robert Morris. Jalen Cannon is the headliner, having started every game this season while averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Ben Mockford is next in line with 12.0 ppg and has been productive from the perimeter, where he is shooting 41 percent on the season.