Forecasting the MAAC Tournament

Today marks the start of the MAAC tournament, and we at Big Apple Buckets thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at each team in their quest to represent the MAAC in the NCAA Tournament.  Each team makes the trip to Springfield with a different set of pros and cons, and dealing with different sets of highs and lows that go beyond simple numbers.  We note any potential troubles each team may face entering the tournament and give a brief look into the first-round match ups and potential Saturday match ups.

1,) Iona

The Gaels roll into Springfield as the top seed in the MAAC tournament for the second time in three years with a remarkable 17-3 record through the conference schedule.  Iona’s only three losses all came against teams who earned byes to Saturday (Manhattan, Quinnipiac and Canisius) so it’s a pretty safe bet to say the Gaels will still be playing on Sunday with a good chance to make the Championship Game.

Iona’s advantage is of course their potent offense, which has them ranked fourth in the nation in points per game (84.0) this season.  The Gaels were the most efficient offense in the MAAC this year, scoring at at clip of 1.19 points per possession, and according to Ken Pomeroy were the second most efficient Division I offense during conference play behind only Davidson.  Much of the Gaels’ offensive success can be attributed to the outstanding play of leading scorer Sean Armand, who averages 17.8 PPG this year with a 49% FG%.

“I think Sean had a great year,” head coach Tim Cluess said.  “I think he was more diverse in his game and wasn’t just a catch and shoot guy.  He’s put it on the floor well, has learned to pass the ball well, and has taken advantage of teams that are double-teaming him to get his teammates open shots.  He’s been a great leader, a terrific young man to have in your program and we’re just really blessed to have him there.”

Iona outscored their potential Saturday opponents Rider and Monmouth by a combined 56 points in four victories this season.  The only challenge they faced was a three point victory at Rider on Feb. 21 in which the Gaels nearly let a 13 point lead with just three minutes to play slip through their fingers.  Perhaps the Broncs could give Iona a run for their money on Saturday, but they haven’t been able to muster enough offense to get the job done yet.

2.) Manhattan

The Jaspers enter the MAAC tournament as confident as any squad in the conference.  Winners in eight of their last nine, Manhattan finished the season with key victories over Iona and Canisius to secure the second seed in the tournament.

The status of Michael Alvarado will be a key factor to determining how far the Jaspers will advance this weekend.  Alvarado turned his ankle in the team’s overtime win against Iona and missed the remainder of that game as well as the season finale against Canisius.  The senior guard is the team’s second-leading scorer behind George Beamon and the only other player to average in double figures.  However, head coach Steve Masiello is confident Alvarado can return to form in time for Springfield.

“He [Alvarado] rolled his ankle early in the game against Iona, so he basically didn’t play against Iona, didn’t play against Canisius,” Masiello said.  “He’s walking on it now, and will probably do some light jogging Tuesday and practice Wednesday.”

Manhattan’s potential opponents for Saturday are St. Peter’s and Fairfield.  The Jaspers swept the Peacocks, but split with the Stags (though that loss did come during the three-game stretch Beamon missed due to injury).  No matter which team advances to the Saturday showdown with Manhattan, expect a defensive battle.  The Peacocks, Stags, and Jaspers allow the fewest points per game amongst all MAAC teams.

3.) Quinnipiac

The Bobcats enter the MAAC tournament reeling from back-to-back losses to Siena and Marist.  After losing guard Umar Shannon for the season to a torn meniscus during the loss to Siena, Tom Moore will look to replace his production from a number of sources.  Zaid Hearst, Evan Conti, James Ford, and Kasim Chandler (if he returns from his broken toe) should all see their workloads increase this weekend to make up for Shannon’s 14.3 PPG.

Both potential Saturday opponents present intriguing match ups.  Quinnipiac will face the winner of Thursday’s game between Marist and Niagara.  The Bobcats barely escaped their game at Niagara on Feb. 22 thanks to a buzzer-beater from Shannon and went on to get walloped by Marist 103-72 in their season finale.  No matter which team advances to Saturday, they will each come in with the confidence to pull off the upset against the injury-riddled Bobcats.

“I think we’ll be a little bit more used to playing without Umar by Saturday,” Moore said.  “Either team will pose a good challenge.  No one is going to feel sorry for us because of our injuries, so we just have to do the best we can with what we have in preparing for this weekend.”

4.) Canisius

The last time Canisius and Siena met, they ended up playing a triple-overtime thriller.  In that game, Billy Baron had perhaps his most impressive game of the year, scoring a career-high 40 points while playing all 55 minutes of game time without picking up a single foul.  Canisius played that game without the services of forward Chris Manhertz, who will suit up against the Saints on Saturday.

“For us, having Manhertz back has been really important just because he’s got a physical presence inside,” head coach Jim Baron said.  “I think it’s good to have a go-to scorer, but you need other guys to step up as well.”

Baron, the frontrunner for MAAC Player of the Year, ranks as the nation’s third-leading scorer this season at 24.4 PPG.  With this being his senior season, expect Baron to do all he can to keep the Griff’s chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament alive.  Perhaps Manhertz’s addition to the lineup puts the Golden Griffins over the edge against the Saints, but if Baron is forced to be a one-man wrecking crew the whole weekend, Canisius’ time in this tournament could be limited.

5,) Siena

On February 19 Siena had just a 2.3% chance of earning the fifth seed in the MAAC Tournament.  Thanks to crucial victories over Manhattan, Rider and Quinnipiac, the Saints were able to get the job done with a game to spare.  The Saints boast one of the youngest lineups in the conference, and it shows.  They play fast, aggressive defense, but have oftentimes fallen victim to foul trouble.  Siena gives up the third most fouls of any Division I squad, so they will have to learn to keep their players on the floor in order to find success in Springfield.

First year head coach Jimmy Patsos has his team well ahead of schedule.  The Saints were picked to finish 10th in the preseason poll, and have exceeded all expectations in earning a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.

“People wonder how we came in fifth.  I wonder myself,” joked Patsos.

The Saints will have the challenge of dealing with Billy Baron and the Golden Griffins in the quarterfinals.  Baron is averaging 30.1 PPG against Siena this year, so the Saints will have to find a way to turn the tables in Springfield.

“Billy Baron is the player of the year, if not one of the top players on the east coast in my mind and we have to play against him,” said Patsos. “We can’t let him have 40 again, I know that.”

6.) Marist

After a pulling out a miraculous win over Siena in the final seconds on February 14, it seemed as though the Red Foxes would make a run for the fifth seed in the MAAC Tournament.  However, they needed double overtime to get past Monmouth in their next game and followed that up with three losses before going berserk against Quinnipiac in the season finale.

Despite their up and down stretch run, Marist has the luxury of facing bottom seed Niagara in the first round.  The bad news? One of the Purple Eagles’ three conference wins came against the Red Foxes.  Marist has a realistic path to the semifinals, but their offense will have to find a way to be more consistent if they want to advance that far.  Their seniors will need to pave the way, and Rookie of the Year favorite Khallid Hart will be the team’s X-factor.

“Any time you play a team with a scorer that has the potential of Antoine Mason, it makes it difficult,” head coach Jeff Bower said.  “In close games down the stretch he can always make the big play that gives them a chance, so you have to worry about that.”

Stopping Mason is the number one priority for any team facing Niagara, but the Red Foxes will need to limit his supporting cast as well if they want to advance.  In their victory over the Purple Eagles on February 1, Marist allowed just 45 points to players not named Antoine Mason.  However, in their loss to Niagara on January 24, the Red Foxes allowed 58 points to Mason’s supporting cast.

7.) Saint Peter’s

While no one was looking, Saint Peter’s rattled off four in a row to end the season and finish in a sixth-place tie with Marist and Rider.  The Peacocks don’t score a ton of points, but they do have the second most efficient defense in the MAAC (1.02 points allowed per possession), behind only Manhattan.

The good news for Saint Peter’s? Their first-round opponent Fairfield has its own offensive struggles and plays a similar, defensive-minded game to the Peacocks.  The bad news? Saint Peter’s needed two buzzer-beating 3-pointers from Desi Washington to get past the Stags in their regular season match ups.  Head coach John Dunne will need to find a way to get his team a comfortable lead with more than three seconds to play or else hope lightning strikes three times.

“Early on, we didn’t know how to win, I don’t even know if we knew what it took to win,” said Dunne.  “Now we know what it takes, we know how to game plan, we know how to focus, we know how to compete for 40 [minutes].  I think our offensive execution has gotten better throughout the season.  It’s just about whether or not we make enough plays on offense.”

If the Peacocks are able to get past Fairfield once again, they will meet up with Manhattan on Saturday.  Although Saint Peter’s hasn’t fared well against the Jaspers this season, they have shown the ability to play tough games against the league’s best teams.  The Peacocks upended Quinnipiac early in the year and lost on an A.J. English buzzer-beater when they visited Iona.  Dunne’s squad would certainly welcome another opportunity to challenge one of the league’s heavyweights.

8.) Rider

The Broncs stumble into the MAAC tournament losers of four straight and seven of their last eight.  On February 11 Rider seemed to have a stranglehold on fifth place with an 82.1% chance to earn the first-round bye, but thanks to their losing streak, they came out on the wrong end of the three-way tiebreaker with Marist and St. Peter’s, falling all the way to eighth place.

“I think a lot of guys are lacking confidence right now,” head coach Kevin Baggett said.  “We’ve just got to understand that it’s one game at a time and this is a single-game elimination so you can’t have the ‘woe is me’ attitude, you can’t drop your head when things aren’t going your way.  You’ve just got to continue to compete and battle and find a way to try to win.”

The good news is Rider draws in-state rival Monmouth in their first round matchup.  The Hawks have had their own struggles adapting to the MAAC this year and don’t look like they have the firepower to make it to the weekend.  Rider swept the season series, but needed overtime to get past the Hawks in their second matchup, so this game could end up closer than expected.

Like many of the teams in the middle of the pack, Rider’s offense will have to be more consistent if the Broncs want to extend their tournament into Saturday.  Anthony Myles, Daniel Stewart and Jimmie Taylor will all need to come to play.  Coming off four straight losses, the Broncs are trending downwards, but a win over a struggling Monmouth team might be just the spark they need.

9.) Monmouth

To say King Rice’s squad has had trouble in its first year in the MAAC would be an understatement.  The Hawks ended the season losers in 10 of their last 11, but held on to ninth place ahead of Fairfield and Niagara.  Like Siena, Monmouth is full of youth and has simply played closer to expectations than the Saints.  Led by the scoring duo of Deon Jones (15.0 PPG) and Andrew Nicholas (14.4 PPG), the Hawks will look to muster enough offense to get past the Broncs.

Despite losing both matchups against Rider this season, Monmouth has largely been the architect of its own demise in those games.  Two areas the Hawks must improve upon if they hope to reach the weekend are free throw shooting and turnovers.  Monmouth was dismal from the charity stripe in both meetings, going 10-20 in the first game and 5-14 in the second meeting.  The Hawks also allowed a combined 41 points off turnovers in the two meetings.

“Down the stretch their seniors made big plays for them and we just didn’t make the plays down the stretch,” Rice said of his team’s meetings with Rider in the regular season.

With just three players on the roster who have any conference playoff experience and none with any experience in the MAAC tournament, Monmouth will once again have their hands full with their in-state rival.  The bright side is every castle starts with a single brick, and a playoff victory over a reeling Rider team would be a tremendous building block for Rice and his young team in the years to come.

10.) Fairfield

After a nightmare 7-24 season with a 4-16 conference record,  Fairfield enters the conference tournament with an immediate shot at redemption.  The Stags lost both meetings with St. Peter’s by a combined two points in heartbreaking fashion.

In the first meeting on January 8, a Justin Jenkins free throw put Fairfield up by two with seven seconds left, but Desi Washington hit a three-pointer as time expired to give the Peacocks the victory.  When the teams met a second time on February 25, it was déjà vu all over again as Washington got the ball in the final seconds and knocked down yet another game-winning shot from behind the arc.

“That’s been the deal with us, just being sure we can close out games in the last four minutes,” head coach Sydney Johnson said.

If both teams stick to their defensive mindsets, we’re sure to see yet another low-scoring battle between these two.  If they are able to get past the Peacocks on Thursday, an intriguing showdown with Manhattan looms for Saturday.  One of Fairfield’s few highlights this season was a victory over the Jaspers.  That win did come during the time George Beamon missed, so it remains to be seen whether or not the Stags can challenge a full strength Manhattan team if they are indeed able to advance past Thursday.

11.) Niagara

Perhaps the most “hard luck” team in the MAAC, Niagara has played better than their record despite losing their last 10 games to end the season.  The Purple Eagles will always be a threat so long as they have Antoine Mason, the nation’s second-leading scorer, but the team’s major weakness has been their defense.

The Purple Eagles not only rank at the bottom of the MAAC in defensive efficiency (1.13 points allowed per possession), but their porous defense has them ranked nearly at the bottom of all of Division I.  The bright spot is one of Niagara’s three conference victories came over Marist, so the Purple Eagles will certainly go into their Thursday meeting with the confidence to pull off the upset.

“I think it gives us a level of confidence knowing that we’ve played them and have been able to win,” head coach Chris Casey said.  “It gives you an idea that you can compete in the game and have a chance to come out on top.”

The other positive to take out of Niagara’s regular season is the fact that they lost three games to the top three seeds in the conference by a combined four points.  Those games did all come in the friendly confines of the Gallagher Center, so the Purple Eagles will have to show they can compete outside of Western New York, but don’t expect them to go down without a fight.

Vincent Simone will be helping to cover the MAAC this season for Big Apple Buckets and will have continual updates from this weekend’s games in Springfield.  You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.

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