MAAC Basketball Update: Iona, Siena, Fairfield

Last night’s Siena/Fairfield game was the last MAAC game until 2011, which makes this a good time to review what’s been happening in the conference. Which teams have exceeded preseason expectations? Which have been underwhelming? Who are the players to watch?

Let’s start with the team I know best and analyze the other two teams many prognosticators had in their preseason top three, before looking at the rest of the league.

Iona Gaels (7-3, 2-0 in MAAC)

I covered the Gaels last season and attended their first three home games this season before today. Although Iona was picked fourth in the only official preseason poll, all signs indicate this is one of the top two teams in the MAAC.

Most of the returning players have improved, some even more than expected. And no matter what logical criteria you used to make your vote, Mike Glover would be the MVP of the league if voting took place today.

As can be expected for a new head coach coming from outside the program, it was clear during Iona’s preseason practices that Tim Cluess was still getting familiar with his players. Losing to Bryant to cap an 0-3 trip to Cleveland is unacceptable, but the seven straight wins Iona has rattled off since make that a distant memory (for fans at least; Cluess still wears a t-shirt from that tournament to remind his players of how bad the Gaels can be if they don’t work hard).

Mike Glover throws it down with power. (Credit: Walt Middleton/ICGaels.com)

The revival has been led by Glover. After he hung 39 on Canisius, head coach Tom Parrotta said: “He asserted himself early and often. Glover was the difference in the game. Clearly we didn’t have an answer for him.” The 6’7, 215-pound forward scored 21 and pulled down 17 boards in an upset victory over Richmond. I am excited to see him matched up with the preseason Player of the Year (more on that later).

Glover’s dominating inside play has opened up things for Iona’s outside shooters as well. Jermel Jenkins and Kyle Smyth are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the conference in three-pointers made per game. Both are shooting at least 40 percent from downtown. Niagara coach Joe Mihalich was certainly impressed. “My goodness, Smyth doesn’t even look—great shooter, quick release. They have great balance; a guy that scores around the basket and guys that shoot the ball. You can’t cheat. You’ve got to play them honest. They’ve got a lot of ways to get you.”

Fairfield Stags (6-3, 2-0)

Fairfield didn’t pick up an impressive nonconference win, but last night’s 72-55 smackdown of Siena at the Times Union Center—where the Saints had won 28 straight MAAC games—is enough to validate its preseason No. 1 ranking.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year, point guard Derek Needham, is joined by forwards Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins, to make up Fairfield’s top three scorers. Due to injuries, Edney missed all of last season and Hawkins missed the last 10 games. Greg Nero is another upperclassman who was a top player two years ago but missed all of last season. He had been averaging 20 minutes per game this season but fatigue issues kept him from making the trip to Albany for last night’s contest.

This is clearly a top-tier MAAC team that has the advantage Siena held the last two seasons: The conference tournament will be at its home arena. The Stags’ early-season MAAC schedule is favorable, so it will be interesting to see how far Fairfield can make it without a conference loss.

Siena Saints (2-6, 1-1)

Some were alarmed immediately, after Siena saw its 39-game home winning streak snapped in the opener against Vermont. Most were concerned heading into yesterday’s showdown with Fairfield, but optimistic observers could point out that Minnesota and Butler are quality teams and the other two losses were in overtime. Perhaps it was just bad luck for the Saints.

But after the loss to Fairfield, in which Siena was outrebounded 32-19 and its star player, Ryan Rossiter, was held to seven points, it’s hard to find a confident Siena supporter. I, however, don’t think the sky is falling in Albany. I’m simply not sure why the expectations were so high for the Saints.

Let’s not forget that in addition to their coach, they lost All-MAAC performers Ronald Moore, Edwin Ubiles, and Alex Franklin, last year’s Player of the Year. Rossiter (the aforementioned preseason POY) and Clarence Jackson are returning players any coach in this league would love to have, but the supporting cast has not been good enough so far this season. But many of those guys are underclassmen and have the potential to develop into more valuable role players. How much they develop will determine whether or not Mitch Buonaguro’s first year as head coach is a success.

Elsewhere in the MAAC:

The Niagara Purple Eagles (2-7, 0-2) are off to a terrible start, but this is both a young and injury-depleted team. Mihalich says that is just an excuse for their poor play. After the loss to Iona last weekend, he said: “We knew we weren’t going to be good in December. Our goal is to get better all the time. We’ve got to hope that by the end of February, beginning of March, we can be a team that can win some games.” That’s what happened last season after Niagara’s ideal starters were all healthy at the same time. This team relies far more heavily on freshmen, but I expect this team to be much more competitive later in the year.

After seeing them in person, I’m not sure the Canisius Golden Griffins (3-3, 0-1) have the guard play to improve upon their preseason No. 7 ranking.

The St. Peter’s Peacocks (4-4, 2-2) were the interesting choice for third in the preseason poll, but star senior Wesley Jenkins is back after missing only four games. He scored 22 in St. Pete’s last game, against Manhattan.

The Marist Red Foxes (2-8, 2-0) have already exceeded their win total from last season. Let that sink in, especially since both victories have come in conference. Marist swept a weekend at home against Niagara and Canisius and doesn’t play another MAAC team until January 7.

The Manhattan Jaspers (2-8, 0-2) were picked just one spot ahead of Marist in the preseason poll, and they simply don’t have the offensive firepower to be a serious contender.

The Rider Broncs (6-4, 1-1) and the Loyola (MD) Greyounds (3-5, 0-2) were picked to finish in the middle of the pack. Rider’s top three leaders in minutes and points are all upperclassmen, so the loss of superstar Ryan Thompson might not be as critical as expected. Senior Jamal Barney has led the Greyhounds in scoring every year he’s been on campus.

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