Wagner will look to clinch its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003 Tuesday night when they host LIU-Brooklyn in the NEC Tournament Final.
While there won’t be many local teams in the field of 68 when the NCAA Tournament starts, one team will punch their ticket tonight in Staten Island, New York. It is the Northeast Conference (NEC) Tournament final as the Wagner Seahawks take on the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds at the Spiro Sports Center (7 p.m ET, ESPN2).
These two teams split the regular season meetings with each other and both games were pretty close. On Jan. 13, LIU-Brooklyn beat Wagner, 69-67, on a game-winning layup by Julian Batts with 1.8 seconds left. Then, in Staten Island, on Feb. 17, Wagner won a close game, 78-74.
Super finish in Brooklyn as @LIUAthletics went ahead on an acrobatic Julian Batts layup with 1.8 seconds to play, then survived a Romone Saunders 40-footer that was just off the mark at the buzzer for @WagnerAthletics. With the 69-67 win, LIU evened its #NECMBB record at 3-3. pic.twitter.com/bYE5xCX3YC
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) January 13, 2018
The pressure is clearly on the Seahawks in this game. They finished with the best record in the NEC (14-4) and they have not lost a home game all season long. This is the second time that Bashir Mason has led the Seahawks to the NEC final (2016 loss to Farleigh Dickinson).
When taking a look at this matchup, it’s going to come down to which unit is going to prevail. The LIU offense has averaged 78.2 points per game in NEC play (leads the conference) while the Wagner defense has allowed the fewest points (66.7 per game).
Looking at the Blackbirds offense, senior guard Joel Hernandez has been on an absolute scoring surge of late. Since the loss against Wagner, he has scored 23 or more points in four straight games and has 51 points in two NEC Tournament games. The Blackbirds, who finished fourth in the conference, have won all four of those games.
Joel Hernandez is en fuego ? pic.twitter.com/pCXKbyMJ8T
— Northeast Conference (@necbbt) March 3, 2018
In that backcourt with Hernandez is junior Raiquan Clark, who had 28 points (11-for-15 shooting) in the semifinal against Fairleigh Dickinson. His 7.1 rebounds per game were the fifth most in the conference and he had six games this season in which he had double-digit rebounds.
On the Wagner side of things, senior guard Jojo Cooper recently passed the 1,000 point mark for his career. He averages 14.2 points per game, but his value to the Seahawks is on the defensive end (1.5 steals per game) and his ability to distribute the basketball (6.2 assists per game).
Jojo ▶️ 'Mone ▶️ ? pic.twitter.com/1xTW3ZFwR3
— Wagner Men's Basketball (@Wagner_MBB) March 3, 2018
As for who he distributes the ball to, junior guard Romone Saunders shot 37 percent from downtown in the regular season, including a 30-point performance against St. Francis (PA) on January 26. Plus, sophomore guard Blake Francis averages a team-high 17.4 points per game and is shooting 41.6 percent on his trifectas for the season (5-for-12 in the NEC Tournament).
When you look at the coaching battle, Mason constantly has brought Wagner to this point in the season since he took the job in 2012. At 34 years old, he is one of those coaches you could see get a big time job in the coming years.
Meanwhile, at LIU-Brooklyn, Derek Kellogg is in his first year as the Blackbirds head coach after being the coach at UMass from 2008-2017. He only made the NCAA Tournament once during that time (2013-14), but he has the Blackbirds on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.
For both of these schools, it is an opportunity for them to have a big-time moment on a national stage and get their one shining moment into the big dance. True, both might end up as a 15 or 16 seed, but you only get one chance in these mid-major conferences to make the big dance.
With the way Wagner has played at home this season, it is hard not to pick the Seahawks to win this game because of their defense and their rebounding (+4.7 margin). However, if this game is close, they have not been a good free throw shooting team (70.9 percent) and that matters in March.
This should be an entertaining game that is worth watching on ESPN2 or heading out to the Spiro Sports Center to get a taste of what a mid-major championship game is like. You will not be disappointed.