Better Know a Conference: Northeast Conference

Joe Camporeale-US PRESSWIRE

If you don't live in the Northeast, you might not even know the NEC exists. That changes now.

The Northeast Conference is usually represented in the NCAA Tournament by that one team in the field you've never heard of. That team is usually a No. 15 or 16 seed that hangs tough with a national power for a while before eventually fading into the abyss of forgotten auto-bid teams.

The league owns just three NCAA Tournament wins and no NEC team has ever advanced to the second round (those three wins came in play-in games).

But while mid-March is often forgettable for the Northeast Conference, the league is balanced, making January and February a ton of fun for those who care to follow.

The Best Team: Right now, it's Robert Morris. The Colonials sit at 9-1 in the conference, with their lone loss a one-point heartbreaker at home to Central Connecticut State. They're also the defending NEC regular season champion, and you may recall how they knocked off Kentucky in the first round of the NIT last year. This year, Robert Morris has already swept second-place Bryant. The Colonials are led by guard Karvel Anderson and his 18.8 points per game and 48 percent shooting from three.

The Contenders: Bryant is within one game of the Colonials, while St. Francis (N.Y.), Wagner and Mount St. Mary's are all within three games. Bryant has only been in Division I for a few years and has never made an NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs shoot 47.8 percent from the field, and have a pair of players -- Dyami Starks and Alex Francis -- averaging around 20 points per game.

Mount St. Mary's lost by three at Bryant on Saturday and hosts Bryant on Thursday. The Mountaineers finish their regular season slate with road games at Robert Morris, Central Connecticut State and Wagner, before closing out with consecutive home games against Sacred Heart and St. Francis U.

St. Francis (N.Y.), meanwhile, is in the middle of a five-game homestand. The Terriers were defeated by 22 points against Robert Morris on Saturday and face them again on the road Feb. 22. They're a tough rebounding team, led by junior Jalen Cannon. He has recorded 10 or more rebounds nine times this season with seven double-doubles.

The Best Players: Jason Brickman is one of my favorite players in all of college basketball. I've gone out of my way to go to LIU games so I could see him play. He has more assists than anyone else in the country and it's not even close. The NEC's all-time assist man averages more than two more per game than Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Smith, who is second in the country.

Also watch Starks and Francis from Bryant, as well as Sidney Sanders from Fairleigh Dickinson. Oh, and St. Francis (Pa.)'s Earl Brown is nearly averaging a double-double. Plenty of talent in the NEC if you're willing to look.

The Best Upcoming Games:

Feb. 13: Bryant at Mount St. Mary's
Feb. 15: Mount St. Mary's at Robert Morris
Feb. 20: Fairleigh Dickinson at Bryant
Feb. 27: Robert Morris at Fairleigh Dickinson
Feb. 27: St. Francis (NY) at Bryant

The Mascots:

Bryant Bulldogs: The Bulldog is a pretty standard mascot, but Tupper does it right. I don't want to read too much into this, but his Twitter page has 10 times more followers than the Bryant men's basketball Twitter. Just saying. Oh, and look how freaking adorable he is on that motorcycle:

Central Connecticut State Blue Devils: I grew up going to Central games, so I've gotten to know the Blue Devil pretty well. He's a lot more friendly than I'd imagine the Duke mascot being, so that has to count for something. I'd still pick Duke to beat Central though, if they were to meet down the road. Probably.

Fairleigh Dickinson Knights: Knights are fine. More of a "nothing to see here" mascot. But hey, at least FDU didn't do with its court what the UCF Knights did with theirs.

LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds: I'm a fan of this one. Birds are pretty scary in general. Blackbirds are horrifying. They also represent death or bad luck or bad hair or something. This is why I'm not a literary scholar.

Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers: This is just a no-effort nickname. You have mount in your school name, so you make yourself the Mountaineers. Yeah, I know you're located in the Catoctin Mountains. Still, too easy. Also see: Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Texans.

Robert Morris Colonials: There are a few Colonials in college athletics and I don't quite understand it. What is a Colonial and how is that something that's supposed to instill fear in the competition? Then again, I'm an NYU grad. An NYU Violet. #VioletNation

Sacred Heart Pioneers: This one is unique, so it's kinda cool. Like Colonials, it's not the toughest name in the world, but at least you get the feeling that a Pioneer is a leader, the first to do something, etc. Now if only their basketball team reflected that.

St. Francis (N.Y.) Terriers: I had a Boston Terrier when I was really little and I don't really remember him. But I've heard good things. This makes me like the SFNY mascot.

St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash: The name comes from the speed on the 1927 St. Francis football team and the red jerseys they wore. I like that this nickname came from, well, an actual nickname. Read more about it here.

Wagner Seahawks: Maybe I just love bird mascots. "Seahawks" is great. Wagner is located on Staten Island, which, as its name indicates, is surrounded by water, so the name is appropriate. The sea hawk is more commonly known as an osprey, which Wikipedia classifies as a raptor. Yup. A raptor. Don't mess with these guys. There's also the Seattle Seahawks, and I hear they're pretty good. Sorry, Peyton.

How have NEC teams fared in the NCAA Tournament?

In short, not well.

In long, really really not well.

The NEC has won a grand total of three NCAA Tournament games since its inception in 1981, and all three of those wins have come in play-in games. Most recently, Mount St. Mary's beat Coppin State in Dayton before having the pleasure of getting trounced by North Carolina in 2008.

There have been a few instances, however, of NEC teams playing 1, 2 or 3 seeds tough before ultimately falling. Long Island hung with North Carolina in 2011, Robert Morris took Villanova to overtime in 2010 and in 1985, Fairleigh Dickinson lost to Michigan by just four.

Current NBA players from the NEC:

NONE.

Othyus Jeffers of the Spurs played for Robert Morris, the NAIA school, which is kinda close, though.

NEC schools do have some notable alumni. Fans in New York might remember legendary Knicks general manager Scott Layden. After graduating from St. Francis (Pa.), he took a 50-win Knicks team in 1999-00 and turned them into a perennial disaster before being fired in December 2003.

Former Hornets GM and current Marist head coach Jeff Bower had a little more success in the Association. The St. Francis (Pa.) grad led the Hornets through the mid-2000s and held the GM position when the franchise drafted Chris Paul in 2005. Paul went to Wake Forest, which is not in the NEC.

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