The final has been set for Tuesday night. It will be the two-seeded Robert Morris Colonials, in their sixth appearance in a NEC final in the last seven years, against the one-seeded St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers, making their first NEC final appearance since 2003.
In a year in which there was as much parody and unpredictability in the conference, it is ironic the conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament comes down to #1 vs #2.
Robert Morris arrives at their second straight NEC tournament by virtue of defeating Wagner in NEC quarterfinals 91-68 and then defeating Bryant on Saturday in the NEC semifinals 66-53. It is crazy to think this same RMU team were in midst of losing three out of four and were about to lose to CCSU at home before this Aaron Tate tip-in pretty much saved their season.
After a loss to Sacred Heart in the next game, RMU has rattled off five straight wins to get to this point.
Meanwhile back here in Brooklyn, St. Francis Brooklyn has gone about the NEC tournament business of usual. The Terriers got a game from a young LIU Brooklyn squad but defeated them 79-70 and on Saturday they took down Saint Francis U. 62-48 at home.
The Terriers have now won 11 of their last 12 games coming into the NEC final. They are making their first NEC final appearance since 2003 when they lost to top-seeded Wagner.
It is well chronicled that the Terriers have never made it to the NCAA tournament in their long program history. The Colonials with all their successes of the last seven years, has lost three straight NEC finals and has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010. Although RMU head coach has guided his teams to the NEC finals in four of the last five years, he has yet to win an NEC tournament championship. RMU head coach Andy Toole knows that by just getting there and having the experience of playing in that remarkable atmosphere and under that immense pressure, it doesn’t guarantee his team anything.
“We’ve played in a couple (of championship games) and it hasn’t necessarily worked in our favor yet. Maybe this will be the year that it does.” said Toole. “Maybe some of the new blood that is a part of the team this year has a different kind of outlook and mindset but it’s got to be two great days of preparation regardless of opponent and it’s got to be maximum energy and effort when we step on the floor on Tuesday.”
Robert Morris and St. Francis Brooklyn both split their regular season meetings against one another, both winning on the road. In fact, RMU is the only team in conference play this season to beat St. Francis Brooklyn at the Pope Physical Education Center.
St. Francis Brooklyn’s head coach Glenn Braica knows that RMU is going to come with a different style of play defensively that they are going to need to get themselves prepared for.
“It is a different game. It is a totally different game.” Braica said. “Saint Francis (PA) is man-to-man, we are man-to-man. Robert Morris is going to play zone. I can’t you everything and I don’t know if it’s going to matter anyway, it’s going to be a different game. But we are still going to have to stick to who we are and what we do and try to do the things that we do well.”
Robert Morris has has several players step up for them in the first two NEC tournament games. First, it was senior Lucky Jones (27 points) and freshman Marcquise Reed (22 points) that provided the scoring punch to get by Wagner. On Saturday, it was sophomore Kavon Stewart with his 19 points, eight assists and seven steals that helped do in Bryant. With Stewart, Reed, Jones and Rodney Pryor, the Colonials have some offensive weapons that the Terriers will need to focus on.
“(Robert Morris) is a great team. They are really talented. They are a tremendous offensive firepower on the perimeter. They have some decent bigs. They have some matchup guys that are tough matchups. It’s going to be a war.” said Braica. “We are just going to do our best and if it is going enough, that’s fine and if it is not then it is what it is. But I know my guys are going to come to play and how well we play we will see. They are going to be ready.”
St. Francis Brooklyn big two in seniors Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones have a look of determination in their eyes in trying to go out as champions and be the first in their school’s history to make to the big dance. Jones was the man against LIU in a career-high 31-point performance while Cannon was the one who came up huge against Saint Francis U. With their great supporting cast of Amdy Fall, Chris Hooper, Tyreek Jewell, and Glenn Sanabria amongst others plus the game being played in what will be a loud, wild and practically in-your-face sold out crowd at the Pope Center Tuesday night, it is going to make for a great NEC championship game.
Kenpom is going with St. Francis Brooklyn by six. I like St. Francis Brooklyn to hoist the NEC championship trophy at home Tuesday night and get their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. It should be lots of fun to watch. I’m looking forward to it.