#NEC17: RMU-LIU matchup breakdowns, predictions and more

NEC standings

  1. Sacred Heart (13-18, 8-10)
  1. Robert Morris (13-18, 9-9)
  1. Fairleigh Dickinson (11-18, 9-9)
  1. Bryant (12-19, 9-9)
  1. St. Francis (PA) (14-15, 11-7)
  1. Wagner (15-13, 11-7)
  1. LIU-Brooklyn (20-11, 13-5)
  1. Mount St. Mary’s (16-15, 14-4)

By @C_Cappella and @Kunkel5

Chris: Lee, a week ago we discussed who we wanted to see in the NEC tournament. We both agreed that LIU-Brooklyn was the team. I thought you brought up a good point about avoiding the Mount for as long as possible… it just makes sense. Why play the best when you can avoid it for a round? Even with the recent news that Wagner big man Mike Aaman is done for the year, I still don’t think RMU matches up great with Wagner.

So…. we got our wish. No. 7 Robert Morris vs. No. 2 LIU, Wednesday, tip-off at 9 p.m. Here we go. We’ve waited a long time to send the Blackbirds packing.

Lee: Chris I am ready man. LIU sent RMU home two straight seasons in the championship game a few years back. They haven’t met in the NEC tournament since. Time for a little revenge!

In all seriousness, RMU should be very confident coming into the game. They’ve won three games in a row. Isaiah Still and Dachon Burke are playing really well. In fact both had the best game of their respective careers this past Saturday. Head coach Andy Toole seems to have found a nice formula with the small ball. The Colonials went 6-2 in the month of February, their best month of the season (by a mile). We know the team is feeling good, but how are you feeling?

Chris: I feel… decent. Probably better than any other fan in the history of the 2-7 matchup. Like I said last week, I do think this team can pull an upset. I don’t think they can pull out three in a row to win a championship, but I think a win Wednesday night is attainable.

Like you said, it feels like things are clicking as well as they have all year. That’s a good thing. You want your team to be on the incline by this time of the year. Still has played really well recently, averaging 19.6 points per game in his last eight on high shooting percentages. Dachon Burke is as good as a defensive guard I’ve seen in an RMU uniform in awhile. I think he could win a matchup with Iverson Flemming. We should also mention the play of Aaron Tate, who has been a steady ox all season but has really taken his play to another level of late. Kavon Stewart is Kavon Stewart… who really knows what he’s going to bring every game? But I trust him in crunch time.

I want to talk a little bit more about Tate, because that’s where the game will likely be won or lost: in the paint. LIU has a nice frontcourt duo of Jerome Frink and Nura Zanna. How do you see that matchup shaking out?

Lee: Frink is a beast. He dropped 22 vs. RMU in the Colonials win back on February 2nd. He had 19 in the first game (an LIU win, but Stewart did not play for RMU). He’ll probably get close to that number, but that’s the thing…. If RMU can prevent an explosion from him, they have a good chance. Aaron is a seasoned vet. He’ll make life tough on Frink and battle on the boards. If LIU looks to go big, I think it’s advantage RMU. Run run run. Get those big’s out of their comfort zone.

LIU has won six games in a row, but they’ve only won big in one of those matchups (SF-Brooklyn). I think RMU will look to pack the paint, and make LIU hit some shots. The Blackbirds only shoot 34 percent from three and don’t really like to let it fly (24 percent of their points have come from three, 315th in all of college basketball).

I absolutely think Robert Morris will do enough on that end to win. The question –as it’s been most of the season– will be, can Robert Morris score enough? Lately, that answer has been a firm “yes.”

Chris: I thought you brought up some interesting points — we focus so much on RMU’s nice month, but LIU is hot too. Any way you dice it, a six game winning streak is a six game winning streak. The Blackbirds are riding into the NEC tournament with momentum.

LIU is a weird team in a sense that their bigs, Frink and Zanna, are really big. Their guards are really undersized. Flemming is a 6-foot-1 small forward. It makes them pretty diverse. Not to mention, Frink and Zanna are pretty damn athletic. Naturally, I don’t think they can run the floor with a four-guard set, but that team will be able to run. It’s going to be fun to see which coach flinches first. I mean, is Still really going to guard Frink and Tate on Zanna early? That might not be a good idea. Still is the lifeblood of this team. When he’s bad or in foul trouble, RMU really struggles to win. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a lot of Braden Burke against Zanna early. Heck, this might even be a good game for Roberto Mantovani to use five fouls. Yeah, I said it.

I’d like to add that if we are just playing the percentages, Billy Giles would be a better use of a body for rebounding. I’m not sure what’s going on with Billy. I don’t know if he fell out of favor or is hurt, but he hasn’t seen the floor too often. He might not be the best defender, but he does have an offensive game and is a better rebounder than any forward not named Tate. Just a thought.

Lee: Chris, I think Toole will show a ton of 2-3 zone early if LIU goes big. It’s something he’s mixed in this season, and I could see him going with that rather than going two bigs, which just hasn’t had much success. If RMU goes man, I think you’ll see Still start him. I personally would like Dachon Burke’s defensive pressure on a guard like Flemming.

Offensively, RMU will look to push the ball and get some good looks for their shooters. When Matty McConnell and Lorenzen Wright Jr. knock shots down, it changes the whole offense. Wright went 3-6 from downtown Thursday night against FDU and scored 10 points. Those 10 points and three 3s feel like 20 points and seven or eight made threes. At the end of the day though, it’s going to be on the shoulders of Isaiah Still to carry a heavy scoring load, and Kavon Stewart to make smart decisions with the ball. Stewart plays well in big games, and he is now playing for his career. That makes me both very confident and terrified.

Chris: I’ll tell you what, I’m going to miss the hell out of that queasy feeling I get when I look at Kavon Stewart before games. He’s been, arguably, the most important player on this team for three years now. This team has always gone as he does.

It’ll be fun to watch, I know that. You went to the 2010 title game at LIU that saw the Colonials fall in overtime. The next year, my freshman season, we went to LIU and watched Robert Morris get their asses kicked. That game sucked. Velton Jones got hurt early and Julian Boyd threw down the nastiest in-game alley oop I’ve ever seen. I did an in-game free throw shooting contest and bricked so many shots I built a new house. Ironically, that’s what I expect when RMU plays there on Wednesdays. Boys, You Gotta Make Your Free Throws. I’m begging you. Please. Make your free throws.

Sticking to the homer I am, I’ll go RMU 77, LIU 74. Did anyone really think I was picking against my alma mater against the worst college of all time?

Lee: Well it would be impossible for RMU to win the NCAA championship if they lose Wednesday night, so I’ll go RMU 68-61. Still bully ball will be on full effect. Before I let you go Chris, there are three other NEC quarterfinal games Wednesday. All three look like good matchups on paper, though I think Mount will handle Sacred Heart. What are you going to keep your eye on?

Chris: The game of the day might be the 3-6 matchup of FDU and Wagner. Fairleigh Dickinson underachieved a little this year, but they’re still the defending NEC champions. I LOVE this Wagner team. I feel so cheated that they lost Romone Saunders and Mike Aaman. Top to bottom, I thought they were the best team in the NEC. It’ll be tough to overcome the losses of arguably their two best players, but they still have Michael Carey, Corey Henson and JoJo Cooper. They still might win an NEC tournament game. Or two. Or three.

I’m with you on Mount St. Mary’s. I think they handle Sacred Heart. The 4-5 matchup is kind of ‘bleh’ to me. I still don’t understand how Bryant finished as a five seed. I don’t get how they beat RMU twice. I just don’t see it! But good for them. St. Francis PA is 3-3 in their last six but did go a perfect 2-0 last weekend. We’ll see. I’m afraid the Red Flash peaked a little too early (again) this year, but I think they’re talented enough to win a game in the tournament. Prediction: Josh Nebo scores the most points out of anyone on Wednesday.

Lee: Chris, I think you hit the nail on the head. I’ll really enjoy that NEC ’16 title game rematch. That’s a real juicy first round game. A final question. Who wins #NEC17? I do think Robert Morris makes a run, but if I had to pick with my life on the line I think I would go with Wagner, despite the injuries.

Chris: Not to tease too much, but I’m going to save that for a piece Wednesday morning. Let’s get it!

Notes, via Lee: The one seed has not won the championship since 2011. No eight seed have ever beaten the one seed (good luck SHU), and I do not think any team has ever won three straight road games to win the title, though MSM made it all the way to the title game in 2012 without playing at home. The NEC re-seeds after every round.

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