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Giger: NEC needs to do what’s right and expand tournament back to eight (or more) teams

One of Saint Francis coach Rob Krimmel’s favorite points of discussion is about doing the right thing. He talks about it frequently. He tells his players they should always do the right thing, even if they don’t see results immediately.

By doing the right thing, it eventually will pay off with a good result.

The Northeast Conference needs to listen to Rob Krimmel.

The NEC needs to do the right thing and reward all of its member basketball teams this year by letting them all play in the postseason conference tournament.

RELATED: NEC men’s basketball standings

College basketball players across the country have made so many personal sacrifices this season just so their schools could compete during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s true of players in every league, and certainly so in the NEC, which is made up of smaller, low-major programs that exist outside the limelight of bigger programs.

The NEC is a one-bid league. No at-large team will make the NCAA Tournament.

In this league, the entire season comes down to three games in the conference tournament. The team that wins three in a row goes dancing, and everybody else dreams of next year.

Well, it usually takes three wins. Because usually, the NEC Tournament is comprised of eight teams. There are 10 teams in the league, and the top eight make the postseason tournament.

But this year, the NEC decided to trim the field and only allow the top four teams to reach the tournament.

Which is incredibly unfair, again, during such a tumultuous year when all these players are giving so much of themselves and deserve for the NEC to give more back in the form of a larger tournament field.

I asked Krimmel this week if it’s fair for the NEC Tournament to only be four teams. Now, I’ve known Rob for 22 years having covered the Red Flash since his playing days, and I can tell you this: He doesn’t make wild, inflammatory comments or rock the boat; he usually just gives a reasonable answer that’s down the middle.

So, I was surprised when Krimmel did tackle my question by taking a clear stance.

“No,” he said of whether it’s fair to have only four teams in the tournament.

Krimmel paused for a moment, then continued:

“At the beginning of the year, I put a proposal together and sent it out that would include everybody, including Merrimack (which is ineligible as part of the league’s two-year waiting period after joining Division I). I think that, to go to four teams early, put us in a position without knowing what this pandemic was was gonna be like. I think to have four teams — when you look at the leagues that are around us going to everybody in the league — I was hoping that we’d be able to find a way to even just get back to eight teams, because of the uncertainty. As it is right now, there might be some teams that don’t even play all 18 games in the league. There are gonna be some teams that maybe don’t play the No. 1 team. There are just so many factors that were out of our control this year that, to try to change it, was certainly something that I didn’t like.

“What’s fair? Life isn’t fair. We haven’t gotten into that. What’s fair and what’s right sometimes aren’t always the same thing. For a lot of these schools too, basketball — men’s and women’s on both sides, so it’s not just about you know men’s basketball — a lot of times they’ve been the guinea pigs. And I mean that in the most sincere way, because we didn’t play sports in the fall. We didn’t have football and some of those fall sports like the big boys did, as we talked about, to be able to figure out how to maneuver through the pandemic — the testing and the protocols.”

As Krimmel mentioned, similar leagues to the NEC are allowing all or most of their members to play in their conference tournaments. All 11 teams in the MAAC are eligible for that tournament, while all 10 teams in the America East are eligible. The Patriot League has 10 teams, and eight are eligible for its tournament this year.

As far I can find, the NEC is the only league in the country limiting its tournament to four teams. I reached out to the league to find out why that decision was made. This is the response from NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris:

“We engaged in extensive discussions with the NEC Council and conference administrators on the most optimal tournament format to ensure the crowning of NEC men’s and women’s basketball champions in March. On the front end, there was consensus to extend the regular season and build in makeup dates in order to play as many regular season games as possible. There was also a strong desire to minimize the financial impact on schools, reduce postseason travel and remove one layer of potential exposure that may impact our ability to safely complete the tournament. Ultimately, the four-team format made the most sense in the short term as we anticipate a return to the normal NEC Tournament experience next season.”

Krimmel said there was unanimous agreement among the men’s basketball coaches to try and get at least eight teams into the tournament. But their collective voices did not lead to that decision being made.

“I do know as coaches we were unanimous, we were united to find a way to get a minimum eight teams,” Krimmel said.

Why?

“Because of all of the sacrifices that these kids have had to make going into the end of the year, certainly thought it was the right thing to do,” Krimmel said.

It is the right thing to do.

Hopefully the NEC leadership sees that and changes course. There is still time to do so. We’ve got a couple of weeks before the NEC Tournament begins, and if this crazy year has taught us anything about sports, it’s that schedules can change in a hurry and that finding creative ways to reschedule games can be done if teams and leagues truly want to do it.

The ball is in your court, NEC. Make the right decision and do what’s right by all of these players who deserve the reward of playing in a conference tournament after everything they’ve done to help you have a season in the first place.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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