On Thursday evening, the Sacred Heart Pioneers return to the Northeast Conference postseason for the first time since losing to Mount St. Mary’s in the semifinals of the 2009 NEC tournament. Their qualification into the postseason isn’t due to a major improvement from last year, in fact this season marks the third straight year of Sacred Heart having a losing conference record. As a result, the Pioneers will find themselves in Brooklyn on Thursday night, taking on the defending NEC champions, the Long Island Blackbirds. The same Long Island Blackbirds that have won 24 home games in a row at the WRAC. Yay…
Before the playoff match-up, I decided to preview the elimination game, since Thursday may be the last time we get to witness Sacred Heart basketball before November (sorry but I don't think the NIT is calling Dave Bike). I also briefly previewed and predicted the outcome of the other three NEC first round games.
NEC 1st Round – #8 seeded Sacred Heart Pioneers (14-17, 8-10 NEC) at #1 seeded Long Island Blackbirds (22-8, 16-2 NEC)
Background: The Blackbirds swept the season series, but had to earn each victory, with the latter game going to overtime after Shane Gibson hit back-to-back three-pointers late in regulation. The NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd and his front-court mate Jamal Olasewere have been dominant against the thin Pioneer front-court, combining for an average of 44 points and 22 rebounds per game. The Sacred Heart duo of Shane Gibson and Justin Swidowski has been nearly as impressive in defeat, tallying an average of 49 points per game. Swidowski has easily enjoyed his two best games of the season against LIU.
Keys to the Game:
1) Frontcourt Players Must Stay Out of Foul Trouble
Boyd, Olasewere, and Swidowski have all occasionally had issues staying on the court, due to foul trouble. It would certainly behoove Sacred Heart to attack Boyd and Olasewere on the defensive end early, in the hope of putting either guy in foul trouble and forcing Jim Ferry to give valuable minutes to LIU back-up forward Kenny Onyechi. Swidowski, on the other hand, has to log more than 28 minutes for the Pioneers to have a shot at pulling off the upset. A couple of early fouls from Swidowski could place the Pioneers in a first half hole they’d have no chance to get out of, especially against a LIU team that scores an extraordinary 1.10 points per possession.
2) Get Significant Contributions from Secondary Players
Gibson, Olasewere, and Boyd should undoubtedly get their points. How much production comes from each team’s supporting cast however, may very well swing the outcome of the game. For Sacred Heart this season, a well-balanced scoring attack has been practically nonexistent, with no one from the Swidowski, Louis Montes, Evan Kelley, and Chris Evans group providing a consistent effort from game to game. Someone from that group needs to produce to give Sacred Heart a fighting chance. On the defensive end, the Pioneers need to contain the guards of LIU, specifically Michael Culpo and CJ Garner. This season, the slashing Garner has torched the Pioneers for 38 points, to go along with 8 assists in both games.
3) Defend the Perimeter
When Michael Culpo and Jason Brickman are hitting their three-point shots, LIU is damn near impossible to beat. The statistics frankly don’t lie – LIU is 16-1 on the season when they shoot 36% or better from beyond the arc. The guard heavy Pioneers also enjoy success when they’re efficient from long range, as they’re 12-6 when hitting more than 35% of their threes (and 2-11 when they don’t). Perimeter defense should play a major role, but quite simply, the Pioneers probably need to make a bunch of long range bombs to stay competitive.
4) Protect the Basketball
Against NEC competition, the Blackbirds have done a much better job protecting the basketball. Early in the season, they were plagued by turnovers. Since then, Jason Brickman and company have taken care of the ball and it’s no coincidence that LIU is 15-1 when their turnover rate is less than 22% (the national average is approximately 20%). Why do you think Monmouth was so successful in the season finale against LIU? King Rice’s feisty bunch took the ball away from the Blackbirds 23 times in the game. As for the Pioneers, it will be difficult to keep up with the highly efficient LIU attack if they turn over the ball more than 12 times on Thursday.
Prediction: The loss to Monmouth in the season finale was just what the doctor ordered for Jim Ferry, as it gives his team a wake up call before they embark on their quest for a second straight NEC championship. I think Sacred Heart hangs with LIU early, but by the middle of the second half, the Blackbirds will have a comfortable lead. Gibson will leave Brooklyn firing, but it won’t be nearly enough. Long Island 90, Sacred Heart 75.
NEC 1st Round - #6 seeded Monmouth Hawks (12-19, 10-8 NEC) at #3 seeded Robert Morris Colonials (22-9, 13-5 NEC)
King Rice’s Monmouth Hawks were considered by some as the team no one wants to play in the tournament, but my guess is that Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole breathed a sign of relief when he learned his team would avoid Quinnipiac in the first round. It was recently noted in John Templon’s NEC Tempo Free Primer that Monmouth has been a tad fortunate with their record, but I think their luck stops in Moon Township, PA. Velton Jones and company grind out a hard fought victory in round one to give Andy Toole his 6th career NEC playoff victory in 7 tries. Robert Morris 64, Monmouth 58.
NEC 1st Round - #7 seeded Central Connecticut Blue Devils (13-15, 10-8 NEC) at #2 seeded Wagner Seahawks (24-5, 15-3 NEC)
Now that Ken Horton is back to playing like, well Ken Horton, the Blue Devils are a dangerous first round opponent. Horton was held to a season low 7 points against Wagner in their first meeting, but he exploded for 22 points, 5 blocks, and 4 steals in their second contest. The question is, how much was Wagner really trying in the meaningless season finale? Whatever the answer, if Dan Hurley’s Seahawks play their patented pressure defensive, the offensively challenged Blue Devils will struggle mightily. In fact, CCSU is 1-8 against NEC competition when scoring less than 1 point per possession. My guess is NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz and company will give the Blue Devils fits. Horton will get his points, but Vinales and Ptacek will each have bad shooting nights. Wagner 71, Central Connecticut 62.
NEC 1st Round - #5 seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats (17-12, 10-8 NEC) at #4 seeded St. Francis Terriers (15-14, 12-6 NEC)
These are two teams heading in different directions come tourney time. Unfortunately for Glenn Braica’s Terriers, Stefan Perunicic and Travis Nichols are banged up and will be game-time decisions. Even if they play, how much can they produce against a physical Quinnipiac team that has won 7 of their last 10 games? The two things to focus on for the game is how well can St. Francis shoot it from behind the arc and will the Bobcats have their way on the boards. My guess is that Tom Moore will have his guys focused solely on keeping rookie sensation Jalen Cannon away from the offensive glass. Expect big games from NEC 2nd Teamers Ike Azotam and James Johnson in this down to the wire battle. Quinnipiac 67, St. Francis 64.
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride