February is almost here, we’re past the halfway point in the conference season, and there have been enough games played for us to get a good look at all 10 MAAC teams. So it’s time for some midseason awards. Which team has been the biggest surprise? Who is the front-runner for player of the year? Which teams are heading towards the postseason? Here are my thoughts on the key story lines so far this season…
Siena’s non-conference slip-ups
The Saints are sitting pretty at 10-0 in the MAAC. They have looked fairly dominant this season and are certainly the favorites to repeat as conference champions. But should they fall in the conference tournament, they’re in big trouble.
Siena dropped the ball in the non-conference, losing to Temple, St. John’s, Georgia Tech, and Northern Iowa. The Saints did beat Northeastern, who sits atop the CAA. But the resume lacks that “signature win” the selection committee likes to see.
Iona’s impressive start
In just the third year under head coach Kevin Willard, the Gaels are in second place in the MAAC with a 7-3 record. They’ve won six straight and have become “road warriors,” winning seven of nine true road games this season, the biggest of which was a victory at Providence. “We played 18 road games last year,” Willard said after a win at Manhattan last week. “They understand what it takes to win on the road. You’ve got to play defense.”
After some early season inconsistency, Willard has Iona playing its best basketball of late. The Gaels have won six in a row and are 15-6 overall. In case you’re not impressed with all of this, consider: Iona was picked ninth in the conference preseason coaches’ poll.
Fairfield’s similar (and nearly as impressive) start
Hats off to Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, also in his third year. Like Iona, the Stags are 7-3 in conference. However, they did lose to the Gaels on Sunday. Even so, they are 14-6 overall, an impressive feat considering the injury bug that continues to bite this team.
After learning that star player Greg Nero’s season was over before it began after, of all things, off-season sinus surgery, it meant that Fairfield would be without four of its top five scorers from last season. The answer? Freshman point guard Derek Needham, sixth in the MAAC in scoring (averaging 15.7 points in MAAC games) and third in assists, who’s running away with the freshman of the year award.
The Stags were picked fourth in the preseason poll but that was before the coaches knew that Nero would be out. Fairfield lacks a big-time conference win but still has a few opportunities to get one.
Best Game: This was a tough one, but I’m going with the Jan. 16th contest between Canisius and Manhattan. Canisius won an overtime thriller on the road, 63-61, on a Julius Coles three with five seconds left. Manhattan’s shot as time expired hit the rim. Honorable mention goes to yesterday’s Rider-Niagara game, won by the Broncs on a tip in with five ticks left.
Best Individual Performance: Nick Leon vs. Niagara. The junior guard hit 11-of-12 free throws en route to 29 points, tied for the most in a MAAC game this season. The difference between Leon’s effort and Rico Pickett’s 29 against Fairfield was that Leon’s came in a win, a 90-86 overtime victory for the Purple Eagles.
Tough Luck Team: Manhattan — no doubt about it. The Jaspers are 2-8 in the MAAC, but consider: four of their losses were by three points or fewer. One more basket (or one more stop) in just a handful of games and Barry Rohrssen’s club could be at .500. “We’ve been fighting; we’ve been scrapping,” Rohrssen said after a three-point loss to Iona last week. “We are right there. And we’ve got to make some plays to put things away in our favor.”
All-MAAC Team: I went for some balance as far as positions and teams. Also keep in mind that because of Iona’s schedule so far I haven’t seen all these players in person yet. But here we go: Edwin Ubiles (f, Siena), Anthony Johnson (f, Fairfield), Ryan Rossiter (f, Siena), Frank Turner (g, Canisius), Tyrone Lews (g, Niagara). I’d give the player of the year to Ubiles, as he is the most talented player I’ve seen thus far.
Honorable Mention: A lot of guys are worthy, but I’ll mention some, such as Wesley Jenkins (St. Peter’s), Alex Franklin (Siena), Rico Pickett (Manhattan), Ronald Moore (Siena), Derek Needham (Fairfield), Bilal Benn (Niagara), and the underrated Scott Machado (Iona).
What does the second half of the MAAC season have in store? Will Siena run the table in conference? Will overachieving Iona remain near the top of the standings? Is one of the bottom-half teams capable of making a late-season run? Find out the answers to these questions tomorrow in my MAAC edition of “Who’s Real, Who’s Fake?”