Wow, how fun was Wednesday night? Three games decided by two points or less, one buzzer beater, one almost buzzer-beater, the #1 seed holding on, and a monster dunk that made SportsCenter. It does not get much better than that.
Saturday has a chance to be just as fun; sure, we all love upsets, but there's something beautiful about a "natural semifinal" (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3). It's certainly the best case for the Northeast Conference, and should make for some really good games.
#4 Long Island at #1 Robert Morris
Kenpom Projection: RMU 74, LIU 68
Season Series: RMU 1-0
Things to Watch:
1. Can LIU defend the interior?- Derek Kellogg has struggled to find rim protection all season since he learned that Eral Penn, who had a 7.4% block rate next season, would miss the season due to injury. Ty Flowers had a 5.3% block rate (6th in the NEC), but at 6'9" 200 lbs. he's been more of a help defender than a true post defender, 7-foot sophomore Ousmane Ndim is still raw, and 6'8" Jack Ballantyne hasn't fully cracked the rotation. Because of a lack of size and experience, in NEC play LIU allowed teams to shoot 49.9% from two, which was 9th in the league. Robert Morris has two of the best at converting in the pain in 6'7" AJ Bramah and 6'8" Yannis Mendy, both of whom shot 56% on twos. Back on January 25th, a 71-66 Bobby Mo victory, Bramah scored 18 points on 7-13 shooting (6 of 9 at the rim), and chipped in 11 boards.
2. LIU Inside- Of course, it works the other way too; Robert Morris' 6.5% block rate ranked dead last in the Northeast Conference this season, as their best shot-blocker on a rate basis was 6'3" guard Jalen Hawkins (3.3%). In the first matchup between these two, All-NEC 1st Teamer Raiquan Clark scored 21 points on 9-15 shooting, including 9-13 at the rim, and also got to the line six times. This could be situation where guys on both teams are getting buckets at will in the paint.
3. The Colonials from Three- On Wednesday night, Robert Morris got more than they bargained for from St. Francis-Brooklyn thanks to shooting just 5 of 24 from behind the three-point line. Josh Williams, specifically, has really struggled at times this year; he was just 2 for 8 in the quarterfinals, and as I wrote the other day, has only shot 30% in Robert Morris' losses in league play (51.2% in wins). RMU will be hard-pressed to beat LIU on Saturday if they struggle from three like they did Wednesday.
4. All That Experience- According to Kenpom, both the Sharks (47th) and the Colonials (61st) are among the most experienced teams in the nation, and have a variety of upper-classmen. Derek Kellogg's rotation includes three seniors (Clark, Agosto, and Batts) and a junior (Flowers), while Andy Toole relies on three seniors (Josh Williams, Mendy and Sayveon McEwen), and three juniors (Bramah, Bain, Jon Williams).
#3 Sacred Heart at #2 Saint Francis
Kenpom Projection: SFU 78, SHU 73
Season Series: SFU 2-0
Things to Watch:
1. The Turnover Bug- Sacred Heart coughed the ball up on 20.8% of its possessions in league play, 2nd worst in the conference, and it increased to 24.4% in the Pios' two losses to St. Francis. The Red Flash struggled this season defensively (they allowed 101.8 points per 100 possessions, 7th in the conference), but they did finish 3rd in forcing turnovers (19.4%). It could be a tough matchup for a guy like Koreem Ozier (23.4% turnover rate), but it's worth remembering that Aaron Clarke has been as steady as they come at the point position; he's got a 17.6% TO rate, which is more than solid for a primary point guard.
2. The Pios on the Boards- As I discussed in the QF preview, Sacred Heart gets a high percentage of their offense via offensive boards (36.6% OR%, 1st in the conference), and against Mount St. Mary's they dominated; SHU grabbed 24 of their misses (57.1%!), 10 by E.J. Anosike and 6 for Jare'l Spellman, and they needed every single one of them in their 61-59 win. In SHU's two losses to the Red Flash, Saint Francis held them in check; they had an offensive rebounding rate of 29% in both contests. It could be tough sledding if the Pios can't hammer the offensive boards.
3. SFU Defending the Interior- Sacred Heart has the horses down low in Anosike and Spellman, as well as guards who can get to the rack in Ozier and Clarke (and LaRose can be sneaky as well). The Red Flash allowed a league-worst 51.9% FG% on two-pointers this season, and have just one true rim protector in 6'9" Mark Flagg (6.2% block rate). The bugaboo with Flash has been his propensity to pick up fouls; he's averaging 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes, and thus only plays about 50% of the game. Deivydas Kuzavas and Tyler Stewart, though they have plenty of length (6'10" and 6'8", respectively), have not been strong rim protectors this season and could be exploited by the Pioneers' offensive weapons.
4. The Coaches- Both Rob Krimmel and Anthony Latina strike me as two of the "good guys" in the coaching ranks, and while both have achieved quite a bit as head coaches, neither of made it to the Big Dance. Krimmel is in his 8th year at the helm of his alma mater, and while they've finished .500 or better in league play in six of those seasons, he's 0-2 in the league's Championship Game. Meanwhile, Latina has famously struggled in the NEC Tournament, finally picking up his first NECT win on Wednesday (he was previously 0-4) in this his 7th season as a head coach. I don't particularly believe that past failures in big games are a harbinger of the future; the whole "this guys is unable to win the big one" is a lazy narrative. Both Krimmel and Latina have the coaching chops to get it done on Saturday (and next Tuesday), and it will set up for a nice story line heading into the NEC Championship game.