When Fairleigh Dickinson enters Knott Arena tomorrow evening, the schedule will no longer have the big names on the schedule that the Mount has faced in the non-conference portion of the schedule, instead it brings 18 winnable games to close the season.

Because as those of us who have been following the Mount and the NEC closely for a number of years, we know that nothing in the NEC is ever for certain.

The season started in November with tremendously high hopes for the conference. There were three clear teams at the top, and there were several clear choices near the bottom. But how everyone would fall in between seemed to be open for debate.

Now with everyone finishing their non-conference schedules it seems as if there are more questions in the NEC then there ever were.

Long Island, the two-time favorite, and the preseason pick to win another struggled mightily at the start of the season and when It finally looked like they might have turned it around, reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd career was ended with a knee injury.

That leaves Robert Morris as the favorites, and the Colonials have performed amid mixed reviews early in the season. But I think it has become increasingly evident that they are the team to beat.

Wagner is still likely to give Robert Morris the biggest challenge, but both the Mount and Bryant have been exceeding expectations early on and how they fare in the conference portion of the schedule remains an unknown.

For me, the non-conference schedule did a lot for the Mount. It put them against some of the strongest teams in the country in Indiana, Pitt and Georgetown and at the same time put them in six close basketball games, where they managed to win five times. The Mounties are certainly hoping that the hottest iron makes the strongest steel.

But the Mount is going to have to be more consistent offensively – and it’s two-point defense, in the halfcourt set, is going to have to be better. I do believe that the Mount is going to force lots of turnovers in conference play, but its success will most likely be determined by how well they stop people when they don’t force turnovers.

The conference season starts with Fairleigh-Dickinson at home on Thursday night. Knott Arena has been the homecourt you want, as the Mount has won three times in as many games.  FDU has performed above expectations as well, winning five times in twelve games. It’s best win was a 66-61 win over St. Peter’s who has won its other three games against NEC competition (Central Connecticut twice & Long Island).

So the Mount can not let it’s guard down and expect FDU to back down. Instead they must be at their best. After gutting through a tough win Saturday against UMBC, I think they will do that. Look for a final somewhere around 80-71.