As his long 3-pointer ripped through the net at the first-half buzzer, Tamien Trent turned to the crowd at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and popped his jersey, briefly implanting "Fairleigh Dickinson" into the nation's collective consciousness.
In the wake of Illinois' stirring run to the NCAA title game, it's easy to forget that the Illini limped into the locker room at halftime in the first round with a one-point lead over the Northeast Conference tournament champs. Although Illinois edged away to eventually win by 12, Trent's shot and the Knights' performance earned the mostly unknown league a measure of respect.
Now the conference wants more.
Although Trent (graduation) and St. Francis (Pa.) scoring sensation Darshan Luckey (early entry) head a list of quality players no longer in the league, the general sense around the NEC is that this year, like just about any other, the league will be competitive from top to bottom. The bigger issue: how to get more credit nationally for its accomplishments.
"The ADs just got back from meetings in May, where they discussed what we have to do to raise our league's RPI," Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tom Green said. "Everyone's concerned about the stature of our league and the lack of respect we get nationally. Whatever we do nonleague, when we get into league play, our RPI drops, no matter what."
St. Francis (Pa.) head coach Bobby Jones is less concerned about RPI growth than about the overall growth in quality of the league.
"We're not as concerned about the RPI as maybe the administrators," he said. "It's proven when FDU goes in as a 16-seed and goes against arguably the best team in the country and is down one at the half, it proves whether you are a 16-seed or 13-seed ... what's the difference? We have to continue to work on making the league more competitive. We have to start winning more road games [outside the league]. The thing that will help the most is to have better overall records. I think there were only three or four teams last season with winning [overall] records."
To earn better records and better RPI, the NEC teams basically need to beat better teams in nonleague play, something the league struggled with last season. The NEC went a combined 2-27 against teams in the RPI Top 100, with St. Francis (Pa.) notching the only two W's (over Bucknell, which stunned Kansas in the NCAAs, and Ohio, which just missed upsetting Florida).
In reality, a better RPI will help only the conference tournament champion's seeding, as an at-large team from the conference is all but an impossibility. As in many one-bid leagues, that's what makes league play so competitive. Neither Green nor Jones has the luxury to lament the loss of his respective stars, but both feel good about their teams' chances this season.
"[Darshan] put up a tremendous amount of points, has been a tremendous player for us," Green said. "We would have welcomed him back with open arms ... but he wanted to pursue his dream, which was to play professional basketball.
"We're going to have a whole new team. We have signed some talented players who will give us an immediate impact. When you lose a player like Darshan, who scored all those points, sometimes other guys step up, you play better defense and you could [overall] be a better team."
Likewise, Green -- who is entering his 23rd season in at FDU -- has Fordham transfer John Blackgrove ready to fill Trent's void at the two, and he feels good about his options at point guard to replace Mensah Peterson.
While the overall caliber of talent is lower than in many conferences, the NEC generally plays an appealing style of basketball, with most teams in the league favoring a full-court attack.
"It's a very athletic league," Green said. "We don't have a lot of dominant 6-foot-10-inch players, but we have a lot of 6-7, 6-8 post players who are very athletic. Teams [in our league] like to run. Monmouth is the only team that plays regularly in [the] halfcourt, and even [the Hawks] will get out and run if they have a clear outlet pass. Everyone else definitely likes to push the ball."
Once again, both FDU and in-state rival Monmouth, last year's regular-season champs, should be in the hunt, with Green also mentioning LIU-Brooklyn and St. Francis (N.Y.) as teams that could cause trouble. Wagner, a very young team that went on a late-season run that ended in the conference tournament title game, and traditional power Central Connecticut State also should be in the mix.
Green knows the Illinois game was, even in a losing effort, big for the program and possibly bigger for the league's credibility, but knows there is a long way to go for the NEC to get consistent recognition.
"Until we win some of these nonleague games, we're not going to get the respect we want," he said.
Winning more nonleague games might make a difference this season.
Although FDU escaped a trip to Dayton last season, our resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi is not sure the league will repeat that feat this year.
In his early look at the 2006 bracket, Joe currently has Central Connecticut State as the league's automatic bid winner but has the Blue Devils as participants in the "opening-round" game between the 64th and 65th seeds.
After a rough nonleague campaign, Monmouth recovered to take a closely fought regular-season title race. The Hawks couldn't replicate that success in the postseason, though, falling at home in the tournament semifinals to Wagner after escaping No. 8 seed Central Connecticut at the buzzer in the opening round.
* -- NCAA Tournament
The league's top three scorers (and seven of its top 11) are gone, but the defending tournament champion Knights still have a couple of potent sources of offense returning.
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.