NEC Tournament Preview: Can Wagner Break its Home Curse?
© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
The Northeast Conference tournament tips tonight with four quarterfinal matchups. The NEC has yet to record an actual NCAA tournament win (outside of the play-in-games), but that doesn’t mean you should ignore this conference come March. Just ask Villanova, which needed overtime to beat No. 15 seed Robert Morris in 2010.
2018 NEC Tournament Quick Overview
The top eight seeds of the ten team conference make the postseason tournament. Sorry, Sacred Heart and Bryant. Wagner is currently listed as the favorite to punch a ticket to the dance.
The higher seed will host each round on campus and the tournament gets reseeded after tonight’s quarterfinal games. The automatic NCAA bid will be determined in the Championship on Tuesday Mar. 6th.
Let’s first dive into the bracket and then finish up with predictions for tonight.
Who Should Win
Is this finally the year for Bashir Mason and Wagner? It will host every game it plays in as the top seed, but it has lost at home in the semifinals or finals in four of the last five years. The Seahawks did win every game they played at the Spiro Center this year, which is a good omen in terms of breaking their NEC tournament curse.
Mason’s teams are always known for their physical man to man pressure defense and this team is no different. Wagner led the NEC in defensive efficiency rating, allowing just .98 points per possession (ppp) in league play. Also, per hoop-math.com, Wagner held teams to a paltry 48.9% shooting mark at the rim (fourth best in the nation).
What’s different about this Wagner team from years past is it can score. This is easily the most efficient offense Mason has had during his six year tenure, as the Seahawks scored 1.10 ppp in NEC play. Senior PG JoJo Cooper (pictured above) led the NEC in assist rate, while tallying the league’s seventh highest free throw rate. Most importantly, Cooper added a jump shot, as he knocked down 43% of his triples in league play. A remarkable feat considering he shot under 30% coming into his final season. With two high scoring running mates in Blake Francis and Romone Saunders beside Cooper in the backcourt, Wagner no longer has to strictly rely on its defense.
Wagner will host No. 8 seed Central Connecticut State, which doesn’t have a player on the roster who has played in a postseason game. Wagner swept CCSU in the regular season and probably saw CCSU’s best shot when it hit 11-22 from three at home. I don’t expect a similar shooting performance, as CCSU shot below 30% from three during the NEC season Also, Wagner’s AJ Sumbry completely shut down CCSU big man Mustafa Jones, holding him to 8 total points in the two games.
If Not Wagner, Then…
Mount St. Mary’s +450
The defending champs are still extremely dangerous, led by the league’s best player in 5’5 senior spark plug Junior Robinson. Head coach Jamion Christian (former Shaka Smart assistant) runs the VCU “Mayhem” full court pressure. Per Synergy, Mount pressed on nearly 30% of its defensive possessions, holding teams to just .745 points per press possession. NEC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Wray leads the press with his massive wingspan and is also a menace in MSM’s halfcourt zone defense.
Offensively, Mount relies on the three point shot, as it hit a league high 41% from deep, while attempting them at the NEC’s highest rate. Thanks to Robinson, point-forward Wray, and freshman wing Donald Carey, the Mountaineers have three outstanding passers in Christian’s spread pick and roll offense. Per Synergy, no team in the country spent more time in pick and roll than the Mount (and it wasn’t close).
MSM will host No. 7 seed Robert Morris, which simply doesn’t matchup well with the Mount. RMU has extremely talented individual pieces in wing Dachon Burke and rising frosh Koby Thomas, but Andy Toole has one of the youngest teams in the country. Mount feasted on freshman ball-handler Jon Williams in two blowout wins that saw RMU turn the ball over on 30% of its possessions. Jamion Christian should make it eight straight wins against Toole.
The Third Option
Saint Francis U +270
The Red Flash are a dangerous offensive team that has won five straight, but they did go 0-4 against Wagner and Mt. St. Mary’s this year.
Point guard Jamaal King has dominated recently, scoring 20+ in four of his last five games. The Red Flash also feature Keith Braxton, a swiss army knife undersized 4, and Andre Wolford, who came out of nowhere to shoot 49% from deep in his junior season. They posted 1.17 ppp in two relatively easy wins against their first round opponent, No. 6 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
FDU’s promising season was derailed by an injury to star guard Darian Anderson, but head coach Greg Herenda did an excellent job resetting the offense into a paint touch-centric around forward Mike Holloway. FDU ended up taking the 18th highest percentage of shots at the rim in the country, per hoop-math.com. That high rim rate was also fueled by an excellent transition offense, led by freshman PG Jahlil Jenkins. Unfortunately, the Knights have severe defensive issues, especially at the 3 and 4. And that is exactly where Braxton operates for the Red Flash.
Most Intriguing Wednesday Matchup
LIU Brooklyn vs St. Francis Brooklyn
The 4/5 rubber match in the Battle of Brooklyn should be a third straight hard fought, entertaining contest. Derek Kellogg took over at LIU after being fired at UMass. His transition heavy offense and full court pressure defense should remind Blackbird fans of the halcyon days of Jim Ferry’s uptempo teams. LIU is led by high scoring wing Joel Hernandez and undersized power forward Raiquan Clark.
SFC also extends a lot of full court pressure (a common theme in the NEC) and actually led the league in defensive turnover rate. Rasheem Dunn, a gunner on the wing, had a tendency to shoot SFC out of games early in league play, but he ended the season with four straight outstanding offensive games. PG Glenn Sanabria is battling an ankle injury, but he has phenomenal handles and hit 48% from deep in NEC play.
Both LIU and SFC beat Wagner in the regular season. LIU in particular would have an excellent chance to upset the Seahawks, as it arguably matches up better than any NEC team. First, LIU grades out in the 95th percentile nationally in press offense, a major key against Wagner’s defense. Second, LIU attacks the rim relentlessly, owning the league’s highest free throw rate. That could cause issues for a Wagner team that fouls at the third highest rate in the entire country. (The Blackbirds shot 56 free throws in the regular season split.)
First Round ATS Predictions
Fairleigh Dickinson +10.5
Mt. St. Mary’s -6.5
St. Francis Brooklyn +5.5
NEC Final Prediction
Wagner over Mt. St. Mary’s
Top photo via © Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports