MAAC Basketball: Midseason Questions

MAAC basketball starts up again on Thursday night with four games on the slate. The marquee match-up has to be Siena at St. Peter’s; I’ll be covering the Iona-Marist game. As I noted yesterday, the Saints and Gaels are two teams I’ll be discussing as I answer some questions heading into the second half of conference play…

Will Siena go undefeated in conference play?
The Saints certainly have the talent to do so. They’ll be favored in every MAAC game this season, and rightfully so. But math tells us that even if a team has a 90% chance of winning each game, that team is still unlikely to run the table in an 18-game schedule (or even in an eight-game schedule).

Siena still has the aforementioned road game at St. Peter’s, as well as trips to Niagara, and Rider, two games that resulted in Siena’s only two conference losses last season. The Saints also have tough home contests against top-tier MAAC teams Iona and Fairfield. If the Saints have a weakness, it’s their lack of depth. I think a weak bench will sting them in a high-energy late-season game.

The Verdict: Siena will be upset at least once (and probably only once) in the regular season.

Can Iona and Fairfield stay hot?
Let’s start with the Stags. As I wrote in yesterday’s article, Fairfield is overachieving without Greg Nero. Freshman point guard Derek Needham is playing better than most expected, leading his team in points, assists, steals, and minutes played. If the freshman can hold up for the second half of the season, the Stags can remain near the top of the MAAC standings.

However, Fairfield’s schedule is no walk in the park. Having already played last-place Marist twice, the Stags still have to travel to Siena, Rider, and Loyola, as well as host St. Peter’s, Iona, and Niagara. None of those games will be easy. Relying so heavily on a freshman point guard is usually not a formula for late-season success, so I can see Fairfield’s season going either way.

Iona doesn’t rely on a freshman point guard, but Kevin Willard’s starting lineup often consists of three or four underclassmen. There are 10 Gaels averaging at least 11.5 minutes per game — six of them are freshmen or sophomores. Unlike other MAAC teams though, Iona has no player averaging more than 29 minutes a game (four of Siena’s starters are averaging 30 mpg).

The deep bench has allowed Willard to play an up-tempo, full-court press style of attack that has often worn down opponents this year. Offensively, it’s been a “different guy every night” type of season. I know Willard would prefer to be scoring in the 80’s, which Iona hasn’t done since Dec. 23rd, but he’ll take the wins any way they come.

And I think those wins will continue to come for this young squad. Look at Iona’s next six games: Marist, Canisius, at Siena, at Marist, Manhattan, Loyola. The Gaels will be favored in five of those games and I expect them to win all except Siena.

The Verdicts: Fairfield holds serve at home, but loses three of four on the road, which would put them at 12-6 in conference, a mark that should leave them no worse than third place. Iona, as I just mentioned, should win five of their next six. If they do that, even if they do lose their three road games (Siena, Fairfield, and St. Peter’s), they’ll be 12-6 just like Fairfield. Both of these teams are the real deal.

Which team, if any, will rise up?
Sorry, Marist. Loyola? Not this year. Manhattan, despite its proven ability to hang with anyone, has dug itself too deep a hole.

My team to watch in the second half is Rider. At only 4-6 in the MAAC and 11-11 overall, the Broncs certainly qualify. Remember, this is the team picked to finish third in the preseason poll. The schedule sets up favorably for a strong finish: of their final eight games, six of them are at home, including a Feb. 26th nationally-televised match-up with Siena.

Given that Rider has the preseason player of the year, senior Ryan Thompson, it can’t be counted out just yet. Are the Broncs going to win the regular season title? Of course not. But don’t be surprised if they get hot down the stretch and carry a bunch of momentum into the conference tournament.

The Verdict: Rider finishes strong, winning six of eight to put them at 10-8 in the conference. Come tournament time, watch out.

I welcome your thoughts and predictions in the comments section!

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