By Alex Crow
The Northeast Conference (NEC) Tournament starts tonight, and one of the biggest storylines is
a team that is NOT playing: the Merrimack College Warriors. Because this is Merrimack’s first
year as a Division I basketball program, they are not eligible for postseason play. This is because
of two separate regulations, as the NCAA rules disallow Merrimack from postseason play
(namely the NCAA Tournament/NIT) during this transition period, which ends in 2024, and
because they are ineligible for the tournament, the NEC does not let them play in the NEC
conference tournament either. So, for the Warriors, they can take pride in the fact that they won
the NEC regular season and are the first team in Division I history to record 20 wins in their
inaugural D1 season, even though they will not be playing in the postseason. Merrimack beat
Northwestern in Evanston in November in its first game in the bigs.
Now enough about Merrimack, let’s talk about the tournament. Unlike many larger conference
tournaments, there is no set location for NEC tournament games. Instead, higher seeds are
rewarded for their regular-season performance with home-court advantage, which, based on the
fact that only two teams in the tournament have winning road-records, is a huge boost basically
across the boards. Because the games are on each teams campus, they are also spread out, with
the quarterfinals starting tonight, the Semifinals being played Saturday (March 7), culminating
with the NEC Championship on Tuesday (March 10). Because this league is small and not
overpowering on a national scale, this will undoubtably be a one-bid league to the NCAA
tournament, so every night is a team’s last chance to extend their season. Here’s a look at some
players and teams that could make some noise and shake up the NEC tournament.
Player to Watch: Raiquan Clark, Long Island
In a conference that is not in the limelight, Raiquan Clark has been one of the best players, which
should continue into the NEC tournament. Averaging 19.9 points (NEC leader) and 7.5 rebounds
per game, he leads the fourth-seeded Sharks into their round-one matchup tonight against the
five-seed Farleigh Dickinson. In the 18 NEC games LIU played this season, Clark led the way in
scoring in 11. In a conference that favors balanced teams, Clark has been the superstar for the
Sharks, and will have to be the catalyst for the 2 nd ranked offense in the NEC.
Sleeper: Long Island.
Based on the fact that the four-seed in the NEC Tournament happens to have one of the most
impactful players in Clark gives LIU the best chance to make a run in the tournament. Combine
his talents with those of forward Tyrn Flowers, who averages 14.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, as well
as 1.8 blocks per game, which ranks third in the NEC. With that tandem on offense and defense,
mixed with the fact that LIU is decent to very good in relation to other NEC squads offensively,
LIU’s biggest weakness may be their road to the championship. Because they sit as the four-seed
out of eight teams, they would have the toughest matchup in every round in the tournament, and
after their quarterfinal matchup vs. Farleigh Dickinson, they would have to play the final two
games on the road. Because of this, it is unlikely that LIU could win the tournament, but be
watching for big performances by the best player in the conference to potentially lift the Sharks
to the championship.
Tournament Champion: St. Francis (PA)
Owning the two-seed in the NEC tournament, St. Francis will have a tough road to the
tournament, but their offensive prowess could propel them to the automatic-bid to the NCAA
tournament given to the winner of the tournament. Ranking first in the NEC in points per game,
field goal percentage, and free throw percentage, while ranking second in three-point percentage.
This is a great recipe for success in a tournament, and the Red Flash are pretty hot coming in,
winners of 9 of their last 10, with their lone loss was at Robert Morris to end the regular season.
Because of that loss, St. Francis lost out on a share of the of the regular season title and the top
seed in the tournament. If they met up again with Robert Morris, it would be in the finals on
Tuesday at Robert Morris. While road wins have been scarce in the NEC, St. Francis has been
one of the better road teams in the NEC, with a record of 8-7. Should they knock off Sacred
Heart, the best road team in the conference at 10-7, in the semifinals the Red Flash would give
themselves a great chance to avenge their earlier loss and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.