As far as Northeast Conference basketball games go, this is the biggest one of the year. The nationally televised conference championship game for the right to participate in the NCAA tournament.
Who plays: #4 seed Mt. St. Mary's (17-14, 11-7) at #3 seed Sacred Heart (18-13, 13-5)
What's at Stake: Ultimately the big prize is those dancing shoes. The winner gets to play in the NCAA tournament. Quite possibly as a sacrificial lamb (or tune-up game for one of the #1 seeds) or maybe even first in the Play-In game a week from Wednesday.
But its more than that. Mt. St. Mary's tries to keep its perfect NEC Championship game record (2-0) alive while the Pioneers try to win the conference for the first time.
Furthermore, the Mount might be considered a year away. This is a very young Mountaineer team that is led by a lot of underclassmen. For Sacred Heart, five seniors know that a loss and their college careers might very well over.
When is tipoff: Wednesday night at 7:00.
Where are the proceedings: The game will be played in Fairfield, Connecticut at Sacred Heart's gymnasium, commonly referred to by the Pioneer Nation as the Pitt. If you can't score a ticket or are having transportation issues, the game will be televised via ESPN2 with Eric Collins and Mark Adams on the call.
How did we get here: Both teams have won two games in the conference tournament, first at home and then on the road. The Mount drilled Quinnipiac at home before destroying regular season champ Robert Morris on the road Sunday. SHU avenged a loss to Central Connecticut State in the opener, before defeating Wagner on Staten Island on Sunday evening.
The analysis: Truly, I think these teams are very evenly matched. SHU obviously won the regular season matchup and fared better in conference play, hence the home court advantage. But the Mount had the better early season and has played very well down the stretch winning seven of eight.
Advantages for the Mount: The team that Sacred Heart faces on Wednesday isn't the same team it faced on January 19th in Emmitsburg. Personnel wise, the Mount has changed a little with the emergence of Jean Cajou and Kelly Beidler. But schematically, the Mount has changed dramatically since than. That was the last of the Mount's walk it up the floor gameplans. Since then they have pressured the defense. The results have been astounding. The Mount has scored better than a point per possession in nine of thirteen games and has won all nine of those games. Point guard Jeremy Goode has been the catalyst.
Usually when teams face each other in the conference final they face a team they've seen countless times this year, so there are no surprises. With the win in Emmitsburg the only meeting, SHU hasn't been on the floor with this Mount team.
Advantages for Sacred Heart: This is a senior laden team that has beaten the Mount already this year. Furthermore, it is playing at home before what we can expect to be a charged up crowd.
Also, the Pioneers have the experience from last year's championship loss to Central Connecticut State to call upon. None of the Mount players has ever played in the championship game.
What to Expect: I expect a pretty offensive game. I expect the ball to go up the floor quickly. I expect Sacred Heart to move the ball well and offensively, and I expect the Pioneers to work for open looks against the very good Mount defense.
Brice Brooks was a huge factor the last time these teams played and if the Mount limits him inside, it will help the perimeter defense against shooters like all-conference performer Drew Shubik, Ryan Litke and Ryon Howard.
Ultimately, I think the Mount is the hotter team at the moment with the better athletes and the better upside. Both teams have balanced attacks and neither relies on one player too much, so I think you can expect to see some good performances. In the Mount's two previous championship appearances, an outside shooter who wasn't a key component has stepped up to make some key baskets (Silas Cheung against Rider and Eric Bethel against CCSU). I think the Mount may need some trifectas from guys who haven't contributed as much down the stretch. Still, and I maybe a little bit of a homer, I'm picking the Mount. Let's say 78-69 pulling away down the stretch.
Most Importantly: I don't know Dustin Bauer, the Mount senior who was injured in a campus accident over the weekend. I don't know if he ever saw the basketball team play or was a Mount Maniac or just another Mountaineer. But I know he needs our prayers. So I offer mine to his friends and family and hope that you will do the same.