On a Tuesday night last March, Monmouth showed America where it didn't belong: the NCAA Tournament opening-round game in Dayton, Ohio. The Hawks were too good.
"It was what it was and we took advantage of the opportunity," Monmouth coach Dave Calloway said. "I don't think [the so-called play-in game] is something we want to be in every year, and hopefully our league won't be. If anything, we proved we didn't belong in the play-in game by how we performed on the court."
The Hawks' blowout victory over Hampton, the first victory by an NEC team in the NCAA Tournament since 1983, earned them the right to join the main bracket and take on No. 1 seed Villanova.
Against the Big East's Wildcats, Monmouth was able to control the tempo of the game, and with four minutes remaining, the Hawks were still within striking distance of becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1. Down the stretch, though, the Wildcats' guards were too quick and the Hawks had to settle for a 13-point defeat.
"I am still disappointed," Calloway said. "We had a chance and we were right there."
Monmouth's loss marked the second time in as many years that an NEC team gave a No. 1 seed all it could handle (Fairleigh Dickinson played Illinois tough in 2005). Still, despite the fact that they play in a conference consistently in the bottom five of Division I, NEC teams don't keep tabs on moral victories.
"When we played a couple times in the NCAA, we [didn't] take the attitude that we [were] just happy to be here," Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman said. "We came to win." In 2000, Central Connecticut was a No. 15 seed and gave second-seeded Iowa State a scare.
The NEC hasn't won a first-round game since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Notching that elusive victory would be a gigantic step for a conference that hasn't produced an NBA mainstay since Rik Smits, who played for a team (Marist) that no longer is in the conference.
"[Winning a game] would be a tremendous coup for the league," Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tom Green said. "If you're a 16 and you beat a 1-seed, it would raise the profile of the league tremendously."
In 23 seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson, Green has qualified for the tournament four times. In addition to the close call against Illinois, the Knights came within single digits of No. 2-seeded UConn in 1998.
"You are playing one of the top eight or 12 teams in the country, so the talent gap is definitely distinctive," Green said. "Your team has to bring [its] A-plus game and you hope your opponent is looking past you. They probably just played in a big-time league tournament and they are in an arena right now that isn't totally sold out for them and they are not as fired up for you."
In the 2006 NCAA Tournament, the gap between college basketball's elite and the rest of the field proved to be narrowing at a rapid pace. Three teams from non-power conferences advanced to the Sweet 16, including George Mason (which made it to the Final Four), and the margins of victory in the 1 vs. 16 games were the second-lowest ever.
"I think you're seeing parity in college basketball in general," Calloway said. "You see George Mason making it to the Final Four. Every year, you see more mid-majors winning games."
However, the NEC's best chance of reaching the weekend is avoiding No. 1 seeds all together, a feat which has been difficult in recent years. NEC teams have been seeded 16th in three of the past six tournaments. The most favorable draw in that time span was the 2002 Central Connecticut squad, which finished with the best record in league history and earned a No. 14 seed.
"I would say it's a challenge," Calloway said. "For the most part, leagues at our level are going to have difficulty playing teams that are in the top-10 in the country and beating them."
Dickenman said it's tough for NEC teams to get respect from the selection committee, but the league may be getting a little more respect from the computers. Last season, the league's RPI was 26th, an improvement from 29th in 2005. Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson both cracked the RPI top 150 in 2005-06, something no team in the league did the previous season.
In order to bolster their tourney résumés, NEC teams will have to play tougher teams out of conference and win. Last season, Monmouth defeated Southern Illinois (RPI 29), but also lost to Rider (RPI 243), cancelling out what was a very good win.
"You do what you gotta do, you play tough teams out of the league," Calloway said. "We have had some success out of league, but we have had some bad losses out of league [too]."
Dickenman said it would be difficult for a team from the NEC to get any better than a No. 14 seed. Although he compares the NEC to the America East, he calls the 2004-05 Vermont squad an aberration. That year, the A-East's Catamounts finished with an RPI of 29 and earned a No. 13 seed.
"For a team in our league to do that, they are gonna have to beat some Big East or Big Ten schools," Dickenman said. "They are gonna have to be a very good team to do that."
Looking ahead, Monmouth and Robert Morris appear to be the early favorites to be the league's representative in the 2007 tournament. The Hawks return three starters, including 7-foot-3 center John Bunch, who will need to improve upon last year's numbers of eight points and five rebounds per game for Monmouth to be the conference's first repeat champion in a decade.
"I felt he was one of the best players in the league last year," Calloway said. "He just didn't do it on a consistent basis."
Robert Morris returns bruiser A.J. Jackson (17 points and nine rebounds per game) and standout guard Jeremy Chappell (14 points, six rebounds). The later was named NEC Rookie of the Year.
"[Chappell] does everything, he scores inside and out," Dickenman said. "There isn't anything he can't do. He reminds me of a Jim Calhoun-type player, a long, lengthy runner."
Calloway said there is only so much the league can do. In the end, the NEC's draw will be handed down from a conference room in Indianapolis.
"In reality, I don't know how much control we really have," Calloway said. "People are gonna think what they think and they are gonna make the seedings and do what they do. We have to go out there and play the team we play.
"If you're the 16-seed, then you gotta be the first team to pull off the upset."
Good sign: Last season was the first time since 2001-02 that the NEC had two teams finish in the top 150 of the RPI, signaling a possible increase in quality at the top of the league -- the first step toward conferencewide improvement.
Safe bet: Aside from the New Jersey regulars, expect to see teams like Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's once again in the title hunt. Seven different schools have won the NEC's regular-season crown since 1996.
Red Flag: Last season, FDU was invited to participate in BracketBusters and won at Wisconsin-Green Bay of the Horizon League. Despite that performance, the NEC will not be represented in the event this season. Being passed over for a national event designed to bolster mid-majors' nonconference schedules won't help the NEC's prestige or its league RPI.
Worth watching: In a somewhat rare intra-league transfer, former CCSU standout DeMario Anderson is now eligible for Quinnipiac and is poised to be one of the Bobcats' main threats. Given the heated rivalry that already exists between the two Connecticut schools, how ironic would it be if Anderson could beat his former mates with a late bucket?
Things to watch
Central Connecticut: CCSU returns the league's leading rebounder in Obie Nwadike, who averaged 10.3 boards per game last season. At 6-4, Nwadike isn't the tallest player, but he plays with the most heart.
Fairleigh Dickinson: FDU suffered an unexpected blow this spring when 7-footer Andrea Crosariol signed a contract to play overseas. Crosariol had one year of eligibility remaining and probably would have been the team's top scoring threat.
LIU-Brooklyn: After spending 42 years in the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center, formerly the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, LIU-Brooklyn opened its brand-new Athletic Recreation and Wellness Center last season. In order to compete for an NEC title, the Blackbirds will need to build on their success at the new arena, where they posted an 8-5 record last year.
Monmouth: Monmouth has led the NEC in team defense in 12 of the past 16 years. With Bunch, who averaged three blocks per game last season, gaining confidence on a daily basis, look for that trend to continue in 2006-07.
Mount St. Mary's: After starting last season 2-10, the Mount won 11 of its final 18 contests and finished fourth in the NEC -- the team's best finish in a decade. The Mountaineers' late-season surge can be credited to a more defensive-minded style of play. The return of guard Mychal Kearse, the reigning NEC Defensive Player of the Year, means the Mount will once again be stingy on D.
Quinnipiac: The Q is better than last year's 12 wins indicate. Injuries to the frontcourt tandem of Karl Anderson and Victor Akinyanju caused the team to slump midyear. When the bigs got healthy, they jump-started a late-season run that allowed the Bobcats to qualify for the conference tournament.
Robert Morris: With decorated freshman Jeremy Chappell and powerful big man A.J. Jackson leading the way, point guard Derek Coleman often gets overlooked. However, opposing coaches feel Coleman is the key to the Colonials' success.
Sacred Heart: Jeff "Big Deli" Salovski, a 6-11, 285-pound center, will provide a much-needed boost to the Pioneers' interior play. Salovski transferred to Sacred Heart from UMass, where he averaged 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in limited playing time as a freshman.
St. Francis (NY): One of the league's most interesting newcomers is St. Francis (N.Y.) F/C Bass Yessoufou, who originally came to the United States as an exchange student from the Ivory Coast. Yessoufou has said that after he graduates, he plans to return home and fight poverty. He averaged around eight points and eight boards per game playing at Palm Beach (Fla.) Junior College the past two seasons.
St. Francis (PA): The Red Flash signed six recruits for the upcoming year, which should help bolster a team that was decimated by injuries and off-the-court problems last year. There was a stretch in January when they played with a three-man bench.
Wagner: Look for guard Mark Porter to rebound from a disappointing 2005-06 campaign. Porter, a junior, was a member of the NEC's all-rookie team in 2004-05. During his sophomore season, though, both his assist and rebound averages dropped.
Another year, another champ. In his early look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Joe Lunardi has Robert Morris as the NEC's lone rep. The Colonials are slotted as a No. 16 seed, but not in the play-in game.
* -- NCAA Tournament
Brendan Murphy is a college sports intern at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy.-ND@espn3.com.