The Northeast Conference has already trimmed their numbers from 12 to eight heading into the conference tournament, with seven more teams destined to fall before March Madness begins in two weeks. Three Connecticut teams made the cut for the tournament, but they will face steep odds to come away with even one victory. Over the past six years the top three seeds are 18-0 in the quarterfinal round, and the fourth seed is 3-1 over the past four years.
1. Long Island University Brooklyn BlackBirds (22-8, 16-2): Outside of two road losses to Robert Morris and Monmouth, the BlackBirds were perfect in NEC play and will look to defend their title from the safety of the Wellness Center. LIU Brooklyn was a perfect 12-0 at home this season and the BlackBirds current 24-game home winning streak is the second longest in the country, behind Kentucky's 21 game win streak. The BlackBirds success is predicated upon their offense, as the team is fourth in the nation, averaging 81.8 points per game. Northeast Conference Player of the Year Julian Boyd leads the conference in rebounding and double-doubles and also pours in 17.3 points per game.
2. Wagner Seahawks (24-5, 15-3): Wagner enters the tournament just as hot as LIU Brookyln, as both teams have won 17 of their past 19 games dating back to mid-December. While Wagner may not have won the regular season crown, the Seahawks did earn huge non-conference wins against the likes of Pittsburgh, UPenn and earned a program-record 24 wins. Senior guard Tyler Murray and sophomore guard Latif Rivers made the NEC Second Team; Murray leads the team with 14.4 points per game and Rivers is knocking down a conference-best 49.3 percent of his 3-point shots.
3. Robert Morris Colonials (22-9, 13-5): The 2009 and 2010 NEC Tournament Champions will look to reclaim their title behind junior guard Velton Jones. Jones was named to the NEC First Team after leading the Colonials with 16.5 points and 4.3 assists per game. Robert Morris owns the conference's best defense, as they held opponents to just 62.8 points per game, en route to their fourth 20 win season in the past five years. The Colonials aren't quite as hot as LIU Brooklyn or Wagner, but they have won 10 of their past 13 games entering Thursday's quarterfinals.
4. St. Francis (NY) Terriers (15-14, 12-6): After a rough non-conference where they won just 3 of 11 games, the other Terriers came alive with a fourth place showing in the NEC. It's certainly been a surprising ride for St. Francis, which will be hosting their first postseason game since 1997, after winning their most league games since the 2003-04 season. Junior forward Akeem Johnson leads the team with 11.6 points and is second in rebounding with 5.2 boards per game, he also leads the conference with a 57.7 field goal percentage.
5. Quinnipiac Bobcats (17-12, 10-8): Quinnipiac will look to make an improbable run to their first ever NEC Championship behind the strength of their rebounding. The Bobcats are second in the nation in rebounding margin (10.8) and rebounding per game (43.4) and will look to ride some late season momentum, that saw Quinnipiac win eight of their final 11 league games. Senior guard James Johnson leads the Bobcats with 16.3 points and adds 3.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Boston native Ike Azotam is one of many above average athletes on the squad, as the sophomore center averages 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
6. Monmouth Hawks (12-19, 10-8): No team had a more surprising finish to the season than the Hawks, who nearly doubled their win total with victories in five of their final six games to finish in a three-way tie for fifth. After only earning wins over Fordham and Rutgers in the non-conference (2-11), Monmouth finished the season with back-to-back victories over St. Francis (NY) and LIU Brookyln in a three-day span. Junior point guard Jesse Steele leads the team with 12.6 points and 4.2 assists per game, while knocking down two 3-pointers per game.
7. Central Connecticut Blue Devils (13-15, 10-8): After a 7-3 start to their NEC slate, the Blue Devils tailed off significantly, winning just three of their final eight conference games and losing all three games against the teams they finished tied with in the standings. The good news is that CCSU is used to postseason play, the Blue Devils are making their fourteenth straight appearance (longest active streak), and head coach Howie Dickenman has led the program to three NEC titles. Last season's NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton and this year's Rookie of the Year Kyle Vinales will look to lead CCSU to their first title since 2007.
8. Sacred Heart Pioneers (14-17, 8-10): Sacred Heart comes into the tournament as the least experienced team by far, after missing out on postseason play the past two years. Junior guard Shane Gibson, one of just two players with postseason experience, will be relied upon heavily to carry the load. The First Team Member is the nation's fourth leading scorer, as he's averaging 22 points per game behind 2.7 made 3-pointers per game and an 85.7 free throw percentage. The Pioneers lost three of their final four to close the regular season, but all three losses came by single digits to teams amongst the top four in the NEC standings.
March 1st Quarterfinal Round (Hosted By Higher Seed)
(1) LIU Brooklyn Over (8) Sacred Heart: Sacred Heart did manage to take the Blackbirds to overtime on LIU Brooklyn's home floor, but this is a BlackBirds team that has won 24 in a row at home and Sacred Heart's offense isn't good enough to keep up in a shootout.
(2) Wagner Over (7) Central Connecticut State: Yes CCSU beat Wagner 78-61 Saturday but that was in Connecticut and the Blue Devils are just 3-11 on the road, although a lot of those losses have been close. (Disclaimer I have little to no confidence in this prediction)
(3) Robert Morris Over (6) Monmouth: Monmouth wasn't even supposed to be in the NEC Tournament this season and despite a very nice run, I don't see them putting enough points against a veteran Robert Morris team.
(5) Quinnipiac Over (4) St. Francis (NY): Two of the best rebounding teams in the NEC will square off and the battle on the glass will likely be the difference. Quinnipiac is a tough, gritty team with plenty of talent and that should be enough to squeak by the Terriers.
Sunday March 4 Semifinal Round (Hosted By Higher Seed)
(1) LIU Brooklyn Over (5) Quinnipiac: LIU Brookyln already has one win over the Bobcats at home this season (99-89) and the team's strong rebounding and even better offense will be too much for Quinnipiac.
(3) Robert Morris Over (2) Wagner: Wagner earned an 80-69 win the first time these two teams met on Staten Island but the Colonials defense will slow down the Seahawks to a much lower total this time around.
Wednesday March 7 Final Round (Hosted By Higher Seed)
(3) Robert Morris Over (1) LIU Brooklyn: In the classic battle of offense versus defense, Robert Morris will move to 2-0 against the Regular Season champion BlackBirds. Robert Morris has been the most consistently successful program recently and become just the third three seed in 31 years to win the NEC Tournament Title.