by Joe Caputo
For the past 3 seasons, the status quo has remained the same in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference. Death, taxes, and Iona. But after dropping another home game on Friday, this time to Niagara, this is by far the most vulnerable the Gaels have looked in a long time. Could this be the end of the streak?
Rider – it’s been a long, long, long time since Rider made the NCAA Tournament. I was a mere year and a half old when the Broncs faced off against UConn in the 1994 2-15 matchup in the Miami region. Now, sitting at 21-7 overall, 14-2 in conference, riding high after a win on Sunday over Canisius, they can smell a tournament appearance in Lawrenceville. Head coach Kevin Baggett has had his ups and downs in his first five seasons, but has seemed to put the pieces together in his sixth. His team is currently riding a 10-game win streak, having not lost a game since mid-January. A relatively young team led by sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan, the Broncs are pretty well-balanced. They do a great job on the offensive glass and play at a fast pace defensively, forcing turnovers and bad shots. One Achilles heel? Free throws. Their 61.2% free-throw percentage ranks 3rd-worst in all of the nation.
Canisius – despite falling at Rider on Sunday, the Golden Griffins still are legitimate contenders to win this tournament. Probably a bit more balanced than Rider, the Griffins rank number 1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com since conference play began. They apply heavy pressure on the defensive end, turning opponents over on 22.7% of defensive possessions in conference, thus leading to many easy fast break buckets. Before losing to Rider in Lawrenceville, Reggie Witherspoon’s bunch also had not lost since January. On a neutral floor just 4 hours from the Canisius campus next week, Canisius is the team to beat in the MAAC.
Niagara – the Purple Eagles have no shortage of offense and experience on their roster, and for the most part, that has been enough to lead them to a mighty-impressive 11-5 season in the MAAC. Niagara has beaten both Canisius and Iona on the road this season, proving that they are able to be competitive even when not in front of their home crowd. The issue with this team, however, is defense. Although the defense has improved since MAAC play began, Niagara ranks 322nd nationally according to kenpom.com in defensive efficiency. That lack of ability to get stops, secure defensive rebounds, and force turnovers will be a major obstacle for them next week in the Times Union Center. Assuming Matt Scott will be back for the tournament, Chris Casey’s group will definitely be competitive in the tournament, and if they can get some stops, could very well win this thing.
Iona – it would be foolish and naiive to leave them out of this group. Although Iona has had both on and off-the-court issues this season, Tim Cluess always seems to get his teams right for the MAAC tournament. Deyshonee Much has been reinstated to the team after a 2-game suspension, and as the Gaels’ best 3-point shooter, will be vital to the team’s success in the tournament. Iona still is statistically one of the best in this conference, ranking in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but inconsistency has been more of a problem this year than in years past. They will have two games this weekend to get back on track before tournament play begins. Never sleep on Iona when March rolls around in the MAAC.
Monmouth – like a snake lying in the weeds, this Monmouth team has yet to pounce this season, but with Micah Seaborn’s return on Sunday, they could just be ready to do so. A victim of major roster turnover from a tournament-caliber team a season ago, the Hawks have definitely taken a little while to figure things out, but they have shown flashes of competence. King Rice has his team, like many other top MAAC teams, playing at a fast pace, drawing a lot of fouls and taking a lot of threes. This could be a recipe for an upset or two if those shots begin to fall. Seaborn’s return will definitely help, but it will be important for others to step up if Monmouth wants to return to the semifinals where they fell short a season ago. Watch out for sophomore sharp-shooter Louie Pillari, who has shown signs despite being a bit inconsistent all year. He could be the x-factor this team needs. Monmouth is down, but not out just yet.
Manhattan – inconsistency is a theme in this conference, and the Jaspers’ lack of any more than a 3-game winning or losing streak says all you need to know about their season. Manhattan has been unable to beat the big boys this year, with their only win against the top-4 teams coming Sunday over a Matt Scott-less Niagara squad at home. Steve Masiello’s team is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, but they are careless with the ball and do a bad job cleaning the glass on the defensive end. They will be a very matchup-sensitive team in this MAAC tournament. If they luck out, they could make a run, but with the wrong matchup they could be watching the rest of the tournament from their couch.
Quinnipiac – let’s not ignore what Baker Dunleavy has done in his first season as Quinnipiac head coach. Although the Bobcats aren’t much of a threat to win this tournament, they have been a nuisance to a lot of teams this season. They have without a doubt outperformed their statistics, which show them as the 326th best defensive team in the country, and have for the most part been competitive this year. However, it is that defensive number that will ultimately do them in.
Fairfield – after starting conference play losing 7 of 9, the Stags have made a push down the stretch. Fairfield has beaten teams like Niagara and Iona this season, making them a team that cannot be ignored come tournament time. They are a team that relies heavily on the 3-point shot, so it will be important for opponents not to sleep on them in a one-and-done setting. Defensively, the Stags have struggled, but their ability to force turnovers gives them hope of frustrating a team and pulling an upset. This team should not be good enough to win it all, but take them lightly and they will bite you.
Saint Peter’s – my favorite to win this conference a season ago, the Peacocks have been another extreme victim of roster turnover. John Dunne’s brilliant defensive mind can only take a team so far, as St. Peter’s just simply lacks the offensive ability to keep up with some of the big boys in this conference. They will try to play very slow, and if allowed to do so, will annoy the hell out of you. It will be up to the top seeds to force them out of their comfort zone, and if they are successful, the Peacocks will be an easy out.
Siena – head coach Jimmy Patsos made it clear in the middle of the season: this team isn’t good enough talent-wise to compete with the big boys. Following various injuries and Nico Clareth’s departure from the team, Patsos said the team would slow things down to a snail’s pace, and boy have they ever. This strategy was carried out to a tee in their 59-57 triple (YES TRIPLE) overtime win over St. Peter’s in late January. For the most part, I’d say it’s worked. The strategy has allowed Siena to hang around in games they were clearly out-manned vs. Iona, Manhattan, and Monmouth. While they will clearly be at a talent disadvantage next week, there is wild card here: the dubious MAAC tournament format that has given Siena home-court advantage for what will be the 4th consecutive season. While clearly unfair, Siena will look to take advantage and potentially end a top team’s season a bit early next week.
Marist – the Red Foxes are bad. Ranked 317 in the nation in overall efficiency according to kenpom.com, they have one-and-done written all over them. However, like the rest of the bottom-feeders in the conference, have been able to sneak up on some top teams from time to time. With everyone on high alert and the stakes as high as they can be, I cannot see that happening in a tournament setting. Look for Marist to be an early out in this year’s tournament as they have been pretty consistently over the past few seasons.