Updated: May 10
This is March! It starts with the NEC Tournament, which had its play-in game on Monday. Now, the fixtures are set, and it's time for postseason basketball.
Here are my predictions on how the tournament will shake out.
Here's my take on each team's path to success.
Prediction - Win over CCSU in QF, Win over Mount in Semis, NEC Champions
There was not a single team in the conference that is on a better hot streak than the Bryant Bulldogs. They finished February 7-1. This is the best path the Bulldogs could've drawn, in my opinion; Bryant is a combined 6-0 this year between all of their projected opponents in the first two rounds (CCSU, Mount, and St. Francis Brooklyn). As long as the Bulldogs aren't looking ahead, the first round should be a cake walk. Mount should provide a good test given their history with Bryant, and if SFBK squeaks one out, it'll look pretty solid for a second-consecutive championship game appearance. Don't be fooled; LIU is the biggest test for the 'Dawgs - they played to some close tilts this year, and with a limping Wagner, don't be surprised if the Sharks come to Smithfield for a final time in 2022.
Prediction - Win over SFPA in Quarterfinal, Loss to LIU in Semifinal
Ah, the curious case of the Wagner Seahawks. How the mighty have fallen; they went from a 40% chance of finishing both the regular season & NEC tournament undefeated (KenPom) to losing 3 of their last 5 to Merrimack, FDU, and Bryant. Sure, you can blame Elijah "Boogie" Ford's injury, and the loss of a reliable point scorer in Nigel Jackson, but Wagner now seems to be visibly a step behind what they once were defensively. Alex Morales is one of the NEC's most complete players in recent history, and DeLonnie Hunt has some long-term potential to be an elite point scorer. I've grown more skeptical on just about every other facet of Wagner's lineup now. They should cruise over St. Francis U in the quarterfinal, but LIU is hungry for revenge after an OT loss to the Seahawks earlier this year. Ultimately, if LIU's frontcourt shows up in the semifinal, you shouldn't be surprised if Wagner is run out of town.
#3 LIU Prediction - Loss to Bryant in Championship Game
I said it once, and I'll say it again; LIU has the most formidable front court in the NEC. Eral Penn and Hofstra transfer Isaac Kante have contributed to most of the defensive success, while stretch-forward Ty Flowers has been yet again a threat from beyond the arc and in the paint. It's a matter of guard play for LIU, who has seen some solid production from former UMass prospect Tre Wood and junior Alex Rivera. LIU is slated to take on Sacred Heart, and at the right time - they're 7-1 in their last 8 contests, and they're executing well on all sides of the floor.
As it stands, I think LIU can match up well with Wagner in round 2. Wagner is bleeding with injuries, they're struggling with their late-season identity, and they're on a 2-game skid. If anyone can beat Wagner in the lower half of the bracket, it's LIU. That'll position them well to give Bryant some headaches if it comes down a Bulldogs-Sharks rubber match with hardware on the line.
#4 Mount St. Mary's
Prediction - Win over SFBK in Quarterfinal, Loss to Bryant in Semifinal
Mount is projected to beat St. Francis Brooklyn by 6 points in their home building. I think that may be too high, as this game might be a toss-up. Mount has had some shakeups in their locker room this year; Damian Chong Qui hit the transfer portal, and Jalen Benjamin replaced him without skipping a beat. The only thing that Mount is missing with Chong Qui is the scoring output, as Benjamin is proving his value primarily as a facilitator. If Mount plays their style, they should make quick work of St. Francis Brooklyn. I can't see them grabbing their first win over Bryant this year, especially in the semifinal, but it's March...anything can happen.
#5 St. Francis Brooklyn
Prediction - Loss to Mount in Quarterfinal
The Terriers were quite surprising this year. I was beyond impressed with Marist transfer Michael Cubbage, who has proven to be one of the better defensive players in the conference. Tedrick Wilcox and Patrick Emilien proved they belong in this circuit as well, and Jack Hemphill was the immediate impact player we'd seen him be at Boston U in the past. It's been a good season for SFBK, but I still don't think it's enough to beat Mount for a second time.
#6 Sacred Heart
Prediction - Loss to LIU in Quarterfinal
It's been a pretty middle-of-the-road year for the Pioneers. Aaron Clarke and Tyler Thomas anchored down the offensive efforts, while Nico Galette took a nice step forward in his sophomore year in the backcourt. While they played LIU to a couple of close games, I think the Sharks have more wind in their sail than SHU can handle. I hope I'm wrong, as I'd love to see the Pios make a sneaky run, but let's see what happens.
#7 St. Francis (PA)
Prediction - Loss to Wagner in Quarterfinal
It's been a tough year for Rob Krimmel's Red Flash. Sure, Josh Cohen took a sizable leap forward, but it's been tough for anyone else to get going. With Ramiir Dixon-Conover likely out for the year, it'll be up to Max Land and Myles Thompson to fill in the gaps if they want to even have a prayer against Wagner.
#9 Central Connecticut
Prediction - Loss to Bryant in Quarterfinal
A super-young team is now playing with nothing to lose. Pat Sellers got his first tournament win over FDU on Monday night, and now it's onto the Bulldogs. This will be a tough one for CCSU, but if they can fire up junior Nigel Scantlebury and ROY runner-up Andre Snoddy, they may be able to close the gap. They need to empty the tank (and then some) to advance on Wednesday night against the league favorites.