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February 16, 2011
Two Teams, One Bid:
The NEC

by Asher Fusco

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No team from the Northeast Conference has ever won an NCAA tournament game in the round of 64. (Yet another reason why Robert Morris beating Villanova last year would have been kind of a big deal). If that's going to change in 2011 it will likely be either Long Island or Central Connecticut State that achieves the breakthrough.

Two leaders separated by 0.01 and Long Island Sound
Through games of February 15, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Long Island      12-2   73.3    1.10    0.97    +0.13
2.  CCSU             10-4   68.4    1.03    0.91    +0.12
3.  Robert Morris     8-6   65.1    1.06    1.02    +0.04
4.  Mount St. Mary's  8-6   65.3    0.98    0.95    +0.03
5.  Quinnipiac        9-5   67.6    1.02    0.99    +0.03
6.  Wagner            9-5   70.0    1.01    1.01     0.00
7.  St. Francis (NY)  6-8   66.9    0.97    0.98    -0.01
8.  St. Francis (PA)  5-9   67.9    1.00    1.04    -0.04
9.  Monmouth         4-10   65.6    0.94    0.98    -0.04
10. Sacred Heart     4-10   67.8    0.97    1.04    -0.07
11. Bryant            7-7   66.9    0.99    1.07    -0.08
12. F. Dickinson     4-10   65.4    0.96    1.08    -0.12

AVG.                        67.5    1.00

Long Island played well enough in the non-conference portion of the season to warrant quite a few fawning words in this space back in December. The past two months haven't treated the Blackbirds too badly, either, as the team currently sits atop the NEC in terms of both victories and efficiency margin. With four games remaining in the regular season, one of which will be at home against second-place Central Connecticut State, Long Island has a good shot at taking the regular season title into the NEC tournament next month.

If Long Island pushes past its NEC competition into the NCAA field, the team could be a decent bet to pull an early-round upset. The Blackbirds prefer a relentless pace (fifth fastest adjusted tempo in the nation), play solid if unspectacular perimeter defense, and can do some serious scoring. Far and away the NEC's best offensive team, LIU counts on a stable of powerful big men with 10-percent or better offensive rebounding rates (Julian Boyd, Kenny Onyechi, Jamal Olasewere) to scrape up rebounds when sharpshooters Kyle Johnson (44 percent on threes) and Michael Culpo (40 percent) don't convert off a pass from ultra-athletic lead guard C.J. Garner.

After a victory last week against extreme geographic rival St. Francis (NY) -- the two teams walk to "away" games against each other -- Long Island coach Jim Ferry attributed his team's offensive success to balance and unselfishness. All five starters take between 20 and 25 percent of the squad's shots during their minutes. In fact Long Island grades out well in a lot of categories that usually point to flat out solid offensive execution, including two-point accuracy (first in the NEC), turnover rate (second-lowest) and free throw rate (first). Funny what happens when the former NEC freshman of the year returns from a doctor-mandated season away from hoops and a game-changing transfer gains eligibility.

If not Long Island, who?

Thanks to a stifling defense, Central Connecticut State is the second-best bet to emerge from the NEC. Led by do-it-all 6-6 forward Ken Horton, the Blue Devils went on a five-game winning streak toward the end of non-conference play and strung together seven straight conference victories in January and early February. On the other hand CCSU has displayed a disturbing tendency to play down to the level of its competition, losing close games to Bryant and Fairleigh Dickinson this season, neither of which are in Ken Pomeroy's top 300. Conference title or no, it's been quite the season for the Blue Devils, who finished the 2010 season 9-9 in league play and just a hair better than even in terms of efficiency. CCSU doesn't match up well against the thick LIU frontcourt, as its top rebounder and shot-blocker is the 195-pound Horton.

The quality of competition in the NEC really drops off after the top two, leaving a pool of decent teams to battle each other for the conference tourney's third seed. Tiny guard Karon Abraham has propelled the Robert Morris offense into high gear of late as the team has scored 1.10 points per possession or better in four of its past five games. Even so, the Colonials don't have much of a front court to speak of under new head coach Andrew Toole. Mount St. Mary's has shown fight on the defensive end after losing a host of contributors and its head coach in the offseason following a stellar 2010 campaign. Quinnipiac, Basketball Prospectus' preseason pick to win the conference (my bad!), has an attractive record but poor underlying numbers, as it has dealt with the injury woes of star forward Justin Rutty.

The conference's biggest surprise has to be the ascension of Wagner and Bryant. One season ago Wagner posted a -0.14 efficiency margin while Bryant languished at -0.23. This year both are in the middle of the conference standings, having picked up +0.14 and +0.15 total points per possession, respectively. Wagner fans have genuine reason for excitement looking beyond this season: Eight of coach Dan Hurley's top nine minutes-earners are slated to return next year. The Seahawks have a big weekend in front of them as they host inter-borough foes St. Francis (NY) and Long Island.

The bottom rung of the conference isn't all that bad. It's populated by teams in mediocre holding patterns such as the St. Francis's (of NY and PA), Sacred Heart and Monmouth, along with a Fairleigh Dickinson program that saw the bottom drop out after the offseason departure of several high-volume offensive contributors. All in all there's reason to believe the NEC's NCAA streak can end someday.

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at AsherFusco.

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