The stretch run is upon us in the Northeast Conference. Three teams are battling for the regular season crown. Several others are fighting for inclusion in the conference tournament which takes only 8 of the league's 11 teams.
Sacred Heart currently leads the league with an 11-2 record, while Robert Morris and Wagner are each 1/2 game behind at 10-2. The Pioneers do have a Thursday night matchup at Wagner and then play later in the month versus Robert Morris. Robert Morris does host Wagner on the 23rd. If one of the teams is to sweep its two games, it is likely to win the regular season crown and secure the top seed in the conference tournament. If the team that wins the regular season crown fails to win the conference tournament, they do earn an NIT bid.
All of these teams could have a chance to win an opening round NIT game. Robert Morris already owns a win over Boston College, and lost in overtime at Seton Hall, two potential NIT teams. Sacred Heart struggled mightily in the preseason, but did lose at BC and Providence by 5, and beat perennial postseason participant Holy Cross. Meanwhile, Wagner is under the tutelage of Mike Deane who has taken four teams to the NIT.
With all teams possessing RPI's above 100, it doesn't seem likely they'd get a very good seed if advancing to the NCAA tournament. Therefore, getting the NEC its first win outside of a play-in game is unlikely, but the teams could be a difficult out in the NIT.
Team of the Week (or since we last wrote): Robert Morris has won four games in a row in the last two weeks, three by double figures including a 95-45 pasting of Fairleigh Dickinson last week. AJ Jackson and Jeremy Chappell have been key components to the Colonials late season charge. Jackson has been in double figures 8 straight times and has only scored in single digits twice. Chappell, who seems to make all the big shots, has an average efficiency of 18 a game and is a factor on both ends of the floor. His 2.5 steals per game is tied for third in the league with Mt. St. Mary's Jeremy Goode.
No longer a threat: We could have easily talked about Quinnipiac among the top teams in the conference, if the Bobcats hadn't lost their last two games to fall to 8-4. Now the Bobcats must hold off Central Connecticut and Mt. St. Mary's for the fourth slot in the conference standings just to secure a first round home game, and the Bobcats play four of their last six on the road, after losing twice by double figures at home last week.
Hot at the right time: Wagner's Mark Porter is playing as well as everyone in the league right now. He helped the Seahawks win three times in four games over the last two weeks by averaging 21.3 points during the stretch, including a 25-point overtime performance in Emmitsburg last week. He followed that up with an 18-point 8-assist night in the overtime win over Quinnipiac last night. He played 89 of the 90 minutes in those games as he is the true leader for the Seahawks.