Northeast Conference Tournament 2013: Defense optional for the nation's fastest league

Joe Camporeale-US PRESSWIRE

The NEC might be the most entertaining conference tournament that you weren't planning on watching.

For fans who like fast-paced, high-scoring basketball, there may not be a better event this week than the 2013 Northeast Conference Tournament . The collection of 12 schools played at the highest average tempo of any conference in the nation, averaging 68 possessions per game. NEC offenses don't waste those possessions, as they are second among leagues in offensive efficiency.

The top eight teams in the conference gained entry into the tournament, meaning Sacred Heart, Monmouth, St. Francis (PA), and Fairleigh Dickinson won't be participating in March Madness. The remaining eight teams will be playing on campus sites at the highest remaining seeds. The games will then be reseeded after each round, so second-round matchup possibilities are more difficult to ascertain.

Defending champion LIU Brooklyn won't have the benefit of guaranteed homecourt advantage this season as it enters the tournament seeded No. 3. That honor goes to regular-season champion Robert Morris.

Dates

Mar. 6 (quarterfinals), Mar. 9 (semifinals), Mar. 12 (championship)

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Robert Morris didn't luck its way to the league title, as it was easily the best team in conference play. The Colonials held an advantage of nearly 0.14 points per possession and were the only squad to hold opponents under 1.0 PPP on defense. They did that by forcing opponents into turnovers on 24 percent of their trips down the court. It appears RMU frustrated the uptempo league by being the second-slowest team overall.

Ken Pomeroy's log5 predictions have the Colonials as favorites with a 47 percent chance to grab the automatic bid. As Pomeroy points out, RMU's chances are diminished a bit because they will likely have to face the best of the three-team tie for second, Bryant, in the quarterfinals.

Wagner grabbed the second seed, and that means they can have homecourt until at least the finals if they keep winning. That gives them the second-best shot at the title. Facing the No. 7 Central Connecticut is also a blessing. They are likely weaker than No. 8 St. Francis Brooklyn.

Quinnipiac is likely the team seeded in the lower half with a decent chance at winning. The Bobcats had the fourth-best offense in conference play and was the best defensive rebounding team. The sixth-seed comes in at No. 199 overall on kenpom.com, higher than tournament No. 3 LIU Brooklyn and No. 5 Mount St. Mary's.

It would take a miracle

Leaving the bottom four teams out of the running diminishes the "miracle" possibility, but Central Connecticut was fortunate to make the field and has the lowest probability of emerging victorious. The Blue Devils were 3-0 in games decided by three points or fewer. They had some success early in the conference schedule by taking down Robert Morris, but finished up the season with a 20-point loss to the Colonials at home.

Despite so many defensively deficient teams in the NEC, CCSU's most voluminous shooter was just average offensively. Kyle Vinales played 94 percent of the minutes and took 32 percent of the shots while he was on the floor. He might do well to pass some responsibility to his teammates if the Blue Devils are to stand any chance.

Players to watch

Velton Jones, Robert Morris:

The Colonial point guard is one of the best distributors in the nation. Jones assists on 45 percent of the baskets while he is on the floor, third-best in the country. He makes up for his struggles on two-pointers (39 percent) by getting to the free throw line frequently. Once at the line, he converts 78 percent. Jones is the best at creating for others in the conference, and he should be fun to watch guiding RMU.

Jamal Olasewere, LIU Brooklyn:

If the Blackbirds are going to get to the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year, it will be on Olasewere's back. The 6'7 forward dominated the inside for Long Island, hitting on 55 percent of his two-pointers. Olasewere also posted a free throw rate of 67.8 and a defensive rebounding percentage of 24.4. He can control the game on both ends, and that gives his team a fighting chance.

Dyami Starks, Bryant:

A hot hand from the outside can make a big difference in a tournament setting, and Starks may be the man most likely to fill it up from the outside. The 6'2 off-guard has hit 41 percent of his 217 three-point attempts. While he prefers the outside, he isn't limited to just long-range shots. Starks also boasts a 51 two-point field goal percentage. There is no question that he will be shooting, as he takes 30 percent of Bryant's shots while he is in the game.

Jonathon Williams, Wagner:

At 6'6, 225, Williams is a typical undersized small-conference forward. He built his 109.1 offensive rating by making 56 percent of his twos and 79 percent of his free throws. He's also good at getting opponents into foul trouble, drawing 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes and taking 44 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts.

Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac:

Azotam is a tenacious offensive rebounder who also avoids turnovers well, which compensates for making just half of his interior shots. He'll attack the rim relentlessly, as evidenced by his 40.3 free throw rate and 5.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Azotam could have some excellent battles on the inside with the likes of Olasewere and Williams.

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