After a wild and fun NEC Quarterfinal round, the Northeast Conference's version of the Final Four is set for Saturday. As most people expected back in October, the semifinals will be played in Loretto and Teaneck, as St. Francis U. and Fairleigh Dickinson have separated from the rest of the pack as the clear two best teams in the league. But as we all know, things often get weird here in the NEC.
If you're new to these parts and want to read more about these four teams, I'll refer you to my Quarterfinal preview, and if you have no idea what happened on Wednesday night, read Ryan Peters' recap. It's good stuff.
Let's get it.
#6 LIU Brooklyn at #1 St. Francis University
Kenpom: SFU 78-74 (69%)
Torvik: SFU 80-75 (67%)
Season Series: Road split
What to Watch For
The Blackbirds Inside Game: It’s no secret that the Red Flash’s biggest struggles come in defending the paint. They play with 4-guards the majority of the time, and lack a true rim protector; they ranked 8th in block %, last in opponents 2P% (53.7%), and had no single player in the top 15 in the NEC in blocked shots. And here comes LIU, with Raiquan Clark’s ability to get the rim almost seemingly at will and 6’7” Eral Penn’s emerging inside-outside game (dude knocked down three triples on Wednesday). Plus there’s 6’9” Ty Flowers, who causes match-up problems no matter who is on him. In the Blackbirds’ win over the Red Flash in Loretto less than three weeks ago, LIU was 13 for 23 at the rim, with Raiquan Clark going off for 18 points on 14 shots. SFU may be forced to go “big” more than they like, so look for freshman Myles Thompson to make his presence felt. One thing worth noting: Sacred Heart used guards to defend Flowers for the majority of Wednesday night’s game, and he scored just 7 points on 6 shots. Krimmel will probably follow a similar strategy.
SFU Making Shots: LIU-Brooklyn allowed opponents to shoot 35.7% from three in NEC play, which placed them 8th in the league. However, on Wednesday night you never would have known it; Sacred Heart shot just 2 of 19 from deep en route to scoring just 0.86 PPP. Sure, you can credit the Blackbirds with closing out on shooters if you’d like, but many of the Pioneers missed shots were good looks that just wouldn’t fall. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that SFU will shoot better than 10.5% from three on Saturday afternoon, and they’re going to have to. While not over-reliant on three-pointers (just 36.4% of their shots came from three, which was 8th highest in the NEC), they excel from the perimeter, knocking down almost 38% of their attempts, which opens up lanes for guys like Jamaal King, Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton to get into the paint. But LIU-Brooklyn led the league in blocks thanks to Flowers (3rd in the NEC with 32 blocks) and Eral Penn (5th with 29 blocks). They may find limited opportunities down low.
#4 Robert Morris at #2 Fairleigh Dickinson
Kenpom: FDU 71-65 (71%)
Torvik: FDU 72-66 (75%)
Season Series: Home split
Offense vs. Defense: Who doesn't love a match-up of two contrasting styles? Fairleigh Dickinson finished second in offensive efficiency, just behind the Red Flash, scoring 109.9 points per 100 possessions. However, as they usually do, Robert Morris had the best defensive ball-club in the Northeast Conference, letting up just 98.6 points per 100 possessions. FDU led the NEC in 3P% at 42%, while the Colonials limited opponents to below 33%. The Knights like to spread you out then use the dribble drive to get into the paint, especially with point guard Jahlil Jenkins, while RMU has perhaps the best perimeter defender in Matty McConnell and a rim protector in Malik Petteway. This battle will be fun to watch.
Turnovers: The Colonial defense forced 14.9 turnovers per game this season, easily the highest in the Northeast Conference. Yet, they finished with just a +0.2 turnover margin on the season thanks to a general inability to take care of the ball on offense. Fairleigh Dickinson's defense isn't great (they finished 6th in defensive efficiency), but they did force turnovers on 20% of their defensive possessions while coughing it up less than 19% of their possessions. The turnover margin could be critical Saturday.