I’ve been lucky enough to attend two of these in person, both in Detrick Gym in 2002 and again 2007, and both were easily my favorite sporting events I’ve ever been to. I actually fell in love with mid major hoops because of the NEC, but it wasn’t Central Connecticut St. I can remember watching those Charles Jones’ led LIU-Brooklyn teams of the late-90s on TV, 1997 in particular, and the Schwartz Athletic Center was a mob scene as the Blackbirds knocked off Monmouth in the league title game. The fans storming the court- man what a special moment.
Back to this game. Not that anyone associated with the Northeast Conference would ever admit it, but Noreen Morris, Ron Ratner and company had to be elated to have Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Francis U. both win close games on Saturday afternoon to advance to the title games. Sure, everyone loves a Cinderella (as LIU-Brooklyn would have been), and having the league’s best coach in Andy Toole getting back to the title game would have been a great story. But make no mistake about it; these are the two best teams in the league, with the two best offenses, and 4 of the league’s 10 best players. This is the best product the NEC could put on national TV on Tuesday evening, and I. Can. Not. Wait.
#2 Fairleigh Dickinson at #1 St. Francis U.
Kenpom: SFU 77-76 (56%)
Torvik: SFU 79-76 (62%)
Season Series: Road Split
Things to Watch:
Points! As mentioned above, this has a good chance at being a fun, entertaining college basketball game with a packed house and a ton of points. From the Northeast Conference’s perspective, what could be better? There were just three teams this season that averaged more than 104 points per 100 possessions, and the Red Flash and Knights were #1 and #2 in the league with 110.4 points per 100/possessions and 109.9, respectively. But they go about it in different ways.
With FDU, it’s all about the shooting; playing a more deliberate offense, the Knights led the league in three-point FG% (42%) and were 2nd inside the arc (51.2%), adding up to a league leading 55.1% eFG%. Any issues they had scoring in the semifinal matchup against Robert Morris had more to do with turnovers (17 in just 60 possessions) than missing shots (57.1% eFG%).
SFU, on the flip side, is stingy with the basketball (league low 17.1% turnover rate) and despite playing a 4-guard lineup, can go and get it on the offensive class (led the NEC by grabbing 32.8% of their misses). But make no mistake about it; this team can knock it down from deep. The finished 2nd behind FDU in 3P shooting (37.9%), though they were just 1 for 6 in their semifinal win over LIU-Brooklyn.
Stars- Yes, we could try to delve deep and talk about how FDU’s size and length could give SFU’s smaller roster problems, or how that plays right into what the Red Flash like to do on offense, with their ability to spread out a bigger deep and use the dribble drive. But no…this is the biggest game of the season, and with that we have the best two teams with some serious star power. The #1 seeded Red Flash have the conference’s Player of the Year in Keith Braxton, a 6’5” swingman who averaged 16.7/9.5/4.2 and also hit a game-winner two season’s ago in the NEC semifinals. Jamaal King, the 5’10” PG, was also a 1st teamer, while 6’1” guard Isaiah Blackmon, a year removed from knee surgery and perhaps the league’s best leaper, could have easily found his name on one of the All-league teams. On the other side, there’s 1st teamer Darnell Edge, he of the 54% 3P% in conference play, 6’8” Mike Holloway Jr., who averaged 13.9 ppg en route to 2nd team honors, and of course Jahlil Jenkins, who was probably snubbed from all-league honors.
At this site, we’re very numbers oriented- but in a one-game setting, despite our dislike of clichés, throw the numbers out the window. These are the games where the stars step up (or don’t). Will it be Keith Braxton or Darnell Edge with a late dagger? Or a little-known freshman, say like Myles Thompson or Brandon Powell, who ball out and enter annals of NEC basketball history?
*By the way, how about that King vs. Jenkins matchup on the perimeter?!
Why you should root for the Red Flash: St. Francis U. hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1991, when Mike Iuzzulino led the Red Flash to a 97-82 win over this very same Fairleigh Dickinson program. SFU would go on to lose to Arizona 93-80 in the 1st round...NEC Player of the Year Keith Braxton deserves the big stage, as do guys like Jamaal King, Isaiah Blackmon, and former walk-on Andre Wolford...Head coach Rob Krimmel has built this program up from the depths of Division 1; they finished #330 in Kenpom after his first season in 2013, yet have been above #250 in each of the past two seasons.
Why you should root for the Knights: Despite sharing the regular season title, by most of the computer metrics it's Fairleigh Dickinson that is the better team this year (they are #214 in the NET, compared to SFU being ranked #250), which means a) a higher likelihood of avoiding the PIG or even ascending above a #16 seed (if there are some major upsets in other conferences) and b) theoretically a better chance to pull off a first round upset...Getting to see Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway on the big stage would be a great story...Seeing Jahlil Jenkins frustrate a Goliath with his quickness would be fun.