Conference realignment has officially reached the point where it is impacting the mid-major schools on the east coast and the main driver seems to be the Patriot League. Yes, the league better known for its academic and the excellent John Feinstein book “The Last Amateurs” is making waves with expansion.
The computer’s MAAC tourney predictions all revolve around one team: Iona. The Gaels dominate everything you’ll in the simulation results. Basically, if you slip past them, whatever round you come across the MAAC’s most talented team, you’ve got a shot at winning a title. That’s especially true for a team like Fairfield. According to the sim results the semifinal between the Gaels and Stags is the gateway to the title. Almost 60% of the time Fairfield got past Iona, Sydney Johnson’s team won the league title.
Last week I looked a few interesting trends in the NEC. Today I want to take a look at three MAAC trends that are currently shaping the conference race. One contender has stepped up its game lately on the defensive end while another is faltering. Then there’s is the interesting seasonal trend of dangerous underdog’s offense.
At the beginning of the season there was a four-horse race at the top of the MAAC standings according to most pundits. Well here we are with just a few weeks left in the regular season and we’re right back where we started. The MAAC is a four-horse race. All you have to do resolve things is change the name Rider with Manhattan and you’ve got pretty much what everyone expected. There’s a talented Iona team leading the pack and four teams in the Top 125 on KenPom that can beat each other on any given night.
That’s right, we’re officially welcoming Fairfield back into the fold after the Stags went to Baltimore and did what Iona couldn’t in a convincing 68-51 win in 62 possessions. That’s a dominating performance and it all comes down to match ups. That’s why even though the Gaels look like a heavy favorite right now and are still the top team in the conference according to efficiency margin, they’re certainly beatable.
1. Iona (12-3) — +0.204
2. Manhattan (11-4) — +0.132
3. Fairfield (10-4) — +0.100
4. Loyola (MD) (12-3) — +0.095
5. Rider (8-7) — +0.024
6. Niagara (6-9) — -0.047
7. Siena (6-9) — -0.056
8. Marist (4-10) — -0.116
9. St. Peter’s (4-11) — -0.163
10. Canisius (1-14) — -0.180
I’d like to note here that Iona’s efficiency margin in conference is pretty darn impressive. The Gaels though have been inconsistent and its cost them a couple wins and made things interesting at the top of the standings. Scott Machado triple-doubles are going to help this team make it through, but I think it’s telling that he grabbed 11 rebounds. Iona needs him to do it. Still, Fairfield won the league last season at a +0.13, that’s like Manhattan this season. The Gaels are on another level.
Best Offense: Iona at 1.18 points per possession
Best Defense: Manhattan (just barely) at 0.921 points allowed per possession (Fairfield is #2 at 0.922)
Worst Offense: St. Peter’s at 0.89 points per possession
Worst Defense: Canisius at 1.11 points allowed per possession
Luckiest: St. Peter’s at 2.1 wins above expected
Unluckiest: Iona at 1.5 wins below expected
Your highest variance contender (out of the top four) is Manhattan. The highest variance teams overall are Rider and Marist. The lowest variance team overall is still Loyola (MD) and then Fairfield and Canisius.
The Loyola (MD) Greyhounds now control their own destiny in the MAAC. All of Iona’s bad habits came back on Friday night on ESPNU and the Gaels find themselves looking for answers once again after last night’s 87-81 defeat.
The problem was the defense. There’s an established baseline of how bad Iona’s defense can be and still win games against good competition, this game exceeded that threshold. The Gaels have lost four of five games this season when they’ve allowed their opponent to score more than 1.13 points per possession. The one win was against Canisius. The four losses were to Purdue, Loyola (MD), Manhattan and Marshall – four of the best teams on Iona’s schedule.
It’s a pity that the defense hasn’t shown up in these big spots, because the Gaels have played alright offensively in each of those games. But even with all the talent Iona has on the offensive side of the ball, it’s not really prepared for a shootout. At the end of a shootout you have to get one or two key stops that help you get back into the game and win it. Iona can’t make those plays.
Like many of Iona’s losses this season the Gaels were forced to play from behind. Loyola (MD) led by 17 at halftime and by 25 with 13:42 remaining in the second half before the comeback started. It’s nearly impossible to come back from that type of deficit. While Iona did manage to make it a four-point game with 26 seconds remaining, that’s just too late.
According to the Win Probability graph on Ken Pomeroy’s site ($) Loyola had around a 60% chance of winning this game from about 12:39 remaining in the first half on and a greater than 75% chance of winning at every moment after the under four minute media timeout. By the time Iona started its comeback the Greyhounds had something like a 98% chance of winning the game. Nobody likes playing with 2% odds (especially when you started with around 50/50).
The more I think about it and the more I look at the stats Iona reminds me of fast-paced Northwestern. Both teams have elite offenses and suspect defenses. When they go up against good competition the cracks in the defense begin to show and the team struggles a bit. The fortunate thing for Iona is that the Gaels play in the MAAC. All that winning the regular season title will do for Jimmy Patsos is give his team a No. 1 seed in Springfield. From there it’s a race to the tournament title.
So that’s not worth too much. There’s four good teams in the MAAC, so unless someone gets upset you’re not avoiding them anyways in the semifinals. Fairfield, the current fourth place team, is a much harder matchup for Loyola than either Manhattan or Iona. Sydney Johnson’s team has the big men that can bang and run with Shane Walker (22 points, 10 boards) and the guards to track down Dylon Cormier (22 points) on defense. Fairfield and Manhattan are the two MAAC teams committed the most to playing defense. In a short tournament over a few days in Massachusetts that might be enough.
If that’s the case, Iona will just be left to wonder, “What if?”
I’d prefer to do a little more in depth investigation of each of these schedules, but the four MAAC contenders definitely have different levels of difficulty to climb over the final few weeks of the season. It obviously starts tonight with Iona at Loyola (MD). The Gaels are a slight favorite, somewhere between two points (KenPom, Sagarin) and just over a half point (Accuscore), and I can’t believe Vegas has it all the way up around 2.5 points.
After this game in Baltimore the schedule really breaks nicely for Iona. Here’s what the Gaels have remaining:
- Marist (H)
- Rider (A)
- Fairfield (H)
- St. Peter’s (H)
That’s a pretty easy schedule. There’s three home games and a tricky road game against a good Rider team. The Stags have been rolling lately, but it might come to and end here down the stretch. That’s because they probably have the hardest remaining schedule of any MAAC contender and it starts on Sunday against Loyola (MD). Here it is:
- Loyola (MD) (A)
- St. Peter’s (H)
- Iona (A)
- Rider (A)
There’s three tough games in there and they’re all on the road. Sydney Johnson’s club has a great chance to prove that the recent four-game winning streak is no fluke by going into some tough environments and getting the wins that would put them right back at or near the top of the conference standings.
For completeness here are the two middle schedules. First Manhattan:
- St. Peter’s (A)
- Siena (A)
- Canisius (H)
- Loyola (MD) (H)
The Jaspers have just one game against a MAAC contender remaining, but the rest of these aren’t givens either considering two are on the road. Manhattan will have to bring its offense to Jersey City and Albany in order to remain in the top four in the standings.
And here’s Loyola (MD)’s post tonight’s big game against Iona:
- Fairfield (H)
- Marist (A)
- Rider (A)
- Manhattan (A)
The toughest part about this schedule is that the Greyhounds have to go on the road for their three final games. That’s going to make things a bit more difficult, but only one is against a top contender – though another is against the very variable Broncs squad. In fact, with games against three of the four contenders remaining – and all of them at home – Rider is one of the most interesting teams to watch down the stretch. Tommy Dempsey’s team is just 8-6 in conference play right now, but after Saturday’s game at Niagara they will be the team outside of these four that has the biggest impact on the final MAAC results.
Then it’s off to Springfield and MAACachusetts.
There’s one team in the MAAC that has been fairly consistent this season. It’s not Iona. It’s not Manhattan. It’s Loyola (MD). The Greyhounds have played at about the same level all season as they’ve compiled a 10-2 record to tie the Gaels atop the conference standings. Jimmy Patsos has his team limiting the ups and down and thus limiting the ways they can lose games. Their variance is half of anyone else in the league. (Just don’t ask how the Niagara game happened.)
Welcome to February. We’re in the thick of conference play, so that means that the NCAA tournament bracket is becoming more clear, right? Wrong. Unbalanced schedules are a death knell to a bracket prognosticator right now. Teams of equal quality can play completely different schedules and ::poof:: no one knows what’s up anymore. Take for instance Northwestern, the reason I started tracking this darn stuff in the first place. Two respectable bubble watch guys, Eamonn Brennan over at ESPN and Andy Glockner at SI don’t even have the Wildcats in their respective watches. Jerry Palm, another respected bracketologist has Northwestern in the NCAA tournament in his latest bracket.
Let’s be honest, the top of the MAAC caught absolutely zero breaks in the ESPN BracketBusters. Iona is playing on TV, but its a no-win home game against Nevada. Also, if you looked at RPI and accomplishments before the pairings were announced it was quite logical to assume that either Loyola (MD) or Manhattan would get a marquee home game on television as well. Look at the schedule and you’ll find none of it.
Back on Friday afternoon I tried to project the BracketBusters as best I could. Well, now that we’re just a few hours away from the actual announcement and have some better data to work with according to RPI – and rumors – it’s time to make some final guesses about who will be on TV and who will be playing where.