It seems like the season just started in many ways, so it is hard to believe March Madness has arrived.On the men’s side, the regular season champion has been crowned and the postseason goodies have been handed out.
But before we head on to the playoffs, it seems a good time to reflect on what has been an outstanding year of NEC hoops. Prior to the start of the season, there was some cause for concern. There were four new head coaches in place, all taking over collegiate programs for the first time. Of the league’s 10 all-conference players, eight were lost to graduation or attrition, along with the top six scorers in the conference. Youth, for better or for worse, would be the league’s calling card in 2010-11.And boy did the young guns deliver. Just one glance at the NEC All-Rookie team – along with a host of talented freshman who were also deserving of the honor, but didn’t quite make the cut – and it is easy to see why the future of the conference is in good hands. From NEC Rookie of the Year Alex Francis (Bryant) and his 43-point explosion, to the late-game heroics of Wagner’s Latif Rivers to the Pistol Pete-like court vision of LIU’s Jason Brickman, first year players more than just filled roles…they played like veterans. And lets not forget the sophomore class with names like Shane Gibson (Sacred Heart), Julian Boyd (Long Island), Umar Shannon (Saint Francis (PA)) and Karon Abraham (Robert Morris) that have already become synonymous with the conference. The end result of the youth movement was the NEC climbing 11 spots in the conference RPI rankings, by far the biggest jump in the nation. The #18 ranking is the best for the league since the landmark 1995-96 campaign that saw three NEC teams reach the postseason. (By the way, its not just the men. The women are also at a high-water mark at #18 in the ratings, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed.) With that said, the madness begins on Thursday with eight men’s teams entering the postseason with their eye on the prize.
Predictions? Well, there are two schools of thought that have been bounced around here at Overtime!The history book tells us that the seeding has held up for the most part as quarterfinal round play has been a rather predictable affair in recent years. The #1, #2 and #3 seeds are a perfect 15-0 in the quarterfinals over the last five seasons. Likewise, home teams have posted an 11-1 record in the quarters the last three years and a 20-4 mark since the switch to campus sites in 2005. On the other hand, if there was ever a year for a rollercoaster ride, this may be the one for a simple reason: the four lower seeded teams each posted victories over their higher seeded quarterfinal opponents during the regular season. In any event, the spotlight shines squarely on the NEC over the next seven days, and many questions will be answered. – Can high scoring Long Island put a stamp on one of the best seasons in school history with its first tournament crown since 1997?
– Will two-time defending men’s champion Robert Morris become the first program to ever win three consecutive NEC Tournament titles?
– Can Quinnipiac take the next step and capture the program’s first-ever NEC championship after reaching the title game a year ago?
– Can NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton carry the Blue Devils to their fourth conference title since 2000?
– Will first year head coaches Glenn Braica (SFNY), Robert Burke (MSM), Dan Hurley (WC) and Andrew Toole (RMU) find success in their initial foray into the postseason?
– Can Saint Francis (PA) end its long winless drought in NEC postseason play by scoring the first-ever #8 over #1 upset in tourney history? The action all begins on Thursday, so be sure to visit NEC Tournament Headquarters and check out a special 30th anniversary series entitled “This Date in NEC Tournament History” presented by TD Bank. As a reminder, both NEC semifinal games will air on Sunday at noon (MSG Network) and 2:00 pm (Fox College Sports, ESPN3 and ESPN Full Court). Next Wednesday, a champion will be crowned before a nationwide audience on the Worldwide Leader at 7:00 pm. Feel free to leave any comments or join the conversation on Twitter. See you at the games! (Posted on March 2, 2011)