Saturday, March 3, 2012

The In-Depth Northeast Conference Semifinal Game Previews!

On Thursday night, with all due respect to St. Francis, there weren’t any upsets in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament.  In fact, it’s now clear that the 4 best teams in the conference are left in the semifinals, which should make for some terrific competitive basketball.  Below, I offer game previews for each of the semifinal match-ups.  I wish I wasn’t stuck here in Maryland for the weekend, but I will be present at the NEC finals on Wednesday night, which I absolutely can’t wait for!

NEC Semifinals - #5 seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats (18-12, 11-8 NEC) at #1 seeded Long Island Blackbirds (23-8, 17-2 NEC)

Background:  LIU swept the season series, despite getting badly out-rebounded in both contests, 98-62.  In their first meeting, Quinnipiac grabbed a staggering 60 rebounds, which was their season high.  Nevertheless, the Blackbirds overcame the wide rebounding margin with more efficient shooting and by sinking an average of 6 more free throws per game than the Bobcats.  As is usually the case against NEC competition, Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd averaged a combined 36 points and 18 rebounds in both contests. 

Keys to the Game:

1) Control the Pace of the Game
For LIU, the pace of the game doesn’t matter much.  Their offense will succeed either way, as they possess players like Jason Brickman, Olasewere, and Boyd that can either push the tempo or run an efficient half-court set.  In Quinnipiac’s case however, playing a game at a faster tempo doesn’t usually translate into success.  When Quinnipiac averages less than 68 possessions per game, they are 10-1 this season and 7-1 versus the NEC.  These numbers certainly make sense, since Quinnipiac’s big forwards prefer a more physical brand of basketball in the half court set.

2) Defend the Perimeter
This was a key of the game from LIU’s first round match-up against Sacred Heart, and for good reason.  With their first round victory, LIU now has a 17-1 record when shooting better than 36% from behind the three-point line.  James Johnson, Dave Johnson, and Zaid Hearst need to focus their attention on guarding Michael Culpo and Brickman, or they’ll be victimized by the three-point shot much like they were in the previous two meetings.  On the flip side, it would be prudent for Jim Ferry to find a way to stop Quinnipiac’s team leader and leading scorer James Johnson.  A quick start from Johnson could go a long way to helping the Bobcats believe they can pull off the upset.  So, how big of a key is Johnson’s performance this Sunday?  Well in 8 conference losses this season, Johnson is averaging 12.5 points (4.1 ppg under his season average) on an unproductive 39 for 121 (32%) shooting.

3) Get to the Free Throw Line
Quinnipiac needs to match LIU’s production at the free throw line.  They can do so by simply being more aggressive, slashing to the hole and doing their best not to settle for contested jump shots.  A more aggressive style could put LIU’s big men in foul trouble as well, which would obviously benefit the Bobcats.  If you’re the Blackbirds, getting to the line 25 times should be the goal.

Prediction:  Quinnipiac will come ready to play in Brooklyn, however LIU has been on this stage before, and I believe their previous experiences will guide them to a close victory and a return trip to the NEC finals.  Jim Ferry sweats this one out, but in the end, LIU’s success at the free throw line late gets them the win.  Long Island 82, Quinnipiac 78.

NEC Semifinals - #3 Robert Morris Colonials (23-9, 14-5 NEC) at #2 Wagner Seahawks (25-5, 16-3 NEC)

Background:  In their lone meeting this past February, the hosting Seahawks used a quick start in the first half to coast to a 80-69 victory over the Colonials.  In the game, Wagner made an incredible 34 free throws on only 40 attempts and held Robert Morris to 43% shooting and 0.93 points per possession.

Keys to the Game:

1) Defend, Defend, and Defend for All 40 Minutes
This key of the game is mainly directed to Andy Toole’s team, since the Colonials sometimes fell into the ugly habit of suffering from defensive lapses in certain games.  In their last meeting with Wagner, Robert Morris failed to defend early on, which inevitably cost them the game.  It’s a tall order, but if the Colonials can hold Wagner to less than 0.94 points per possession, then their chances of success exponentially go up.  How much so?  Robert Morris is 16-0 this season when they defend to that level.  Conversely, the magic number for Wagner’s defense should be 69 points.  When they hold opponents to that number, they have yet to lose this season (19-0).

2) Take Away the Long Range Jumper
What do you know, another key to the game is centered around defense!  This isn’t a mistake – defensive pressure and creating turnovers is what makes each of these teams tick.  Specifically, when opponents have limited Wagner’s production from behind the arc, they’ve had a fighting chance for victory.  Sure, five losses is a small sample size, but in those games, Wagner hasn’t shot better than 32% from three-point range.  With those stats, you can bet that Velton Jones, Lucky Jones and company will do their best to make life difficult for sharpshooters Tyler Murray and Latif Rivers.  For Wagner, you can expect NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz to pester Velton Jones all afternoon.

3) Get to the Free Throw Line As Much As Possible
One of the better ways to attack the Wagner defense is to make them foul you at a high rate.  One of the Seahawk’s few weaknesses this season, is avoiding the foul.  With the NEC leading free-throw producer on the other team in Velton Jones, it would certainly behoove Jones, and others, to drive to the bucket more often than not.  That way, free points at the line could help spell those offensive droughts Robert Morris has a tendency to fall into.  For Wagner, they stand in the top 3 of the NEC in free throw production, mainly because guards like Rivers and Tyler Murray, and Chris Martin are virtually automatic at the charity stripe.  Winning the free throw battle can go a long way toward playing for the championship next Wednesday night.

Prediction:  This game could go either way, but I’m sticking to my prediction at the beginning of the season of Wagner making the NEC finals  In an ugly, defensive-minded battle at the Spiro Center, I believe the Seahwak's pressure defense and home crowd will be the difference.  Just please be prepared for the media coverage of the Hurley brothers leading up to the NEC Championship game.  The coverage may get nauseating for you Wagner haters.  Wagner 64, Robert Morris 61.

It should be a fantastic duo of games.  Enjoy NEC Semifinal Sunday!

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