Every year, in practically every conference, you’ll hear the phrase “wide open” in reference to the league tournament. Coaches say it out of respect to other teams; the media uses it as a hedge against their predictions; P.R. folks spit it out to generate hype. So bear with me when I tell you that this weekend’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament is wide open.
But if it’s not true this season in this conference, it never will be. “The charm of our team is that we know we can lose to any team,” Joe Mihalich said during Monday’s conference call with the media. Mihalich is the coach of Niagara, the league’s No. 1 seed. Held at the MassMutualCenter, a neutral site in Springfield, Mass., nearly every team has a reasonable shot at the title.
Take Fairfield, the 7 seed in this 10-team league. The Stags are relegated to the play-in round, meaning they’ll need to win four games in four days to get to the NCAA Tournament. Coach Sydney Johnson talked about the importance of matchups in tournament play, and it looks like Fairfield has a good draw: they swept the season series against tomorrow’s opponent, St. Peter’s; a win there would match them with Rider, another team Fairfield swept. Johnson took Princeton to the NCAA Tournament two years ago and got the Stags to the MAAC title game last season. But getting from Friday night to Monday night is tough—since 1998, when the MAAC expanded to 10 teams and its current tournament format, only once has a play-in team reached the final (Siena, playing on its home court in 2002, won it all).
On the other side of the bracket, Marist is as dangerous an 8 seed as you’ll find. Injuries held back the Red Foxes for much of the regular season, but Jay Bowie and Devin Price travel to Springfield in good health. Marist, just 6-12 in the league, finished the season 5-2, with wins over Loyola and Iona and close losses to Niagara and Rider. Those are the top four seeds, and Marist proved it could hang with them.
Iona plays Canisius in what should be an exciting 4/5 game. These teams are very similar: they are the only two teams in the MAAC that have beaten every team in the league this season; they are the best three-point shooting teams in the conference; and both teams are loaded with transfers. Every player who will see the floor for Iona in Springfield started his college career at a different school except one (Sean Armand, who pairs with former Arizona star MoMo Jones to form the country’s highest-scoring duo). Four of Canisius’ starters are transfers, three of whom are in their first year with the program (one is the coach’s son, Billy Baron, the team’s leader in points and assists, who followed his dad, Jim, from Rhode Island).
These two squads split their regular season games. Iona’s loss came by just three on the road, nothing new for them. The Gaels’ seven MAAC losses have come by (most recent first) 2, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, and 2 points; three went to overtime, two of which required double-OT. That’s an average of 2.4 points per loss; in fact, if you tally all of Iona’s 13 losses the average margin is still just 3.5. There is certainly concern about a team that struggles at the end of so many close games, but if the Gaels play to their potential for three straight games they could be champs.
Loyola, the No. 3 seed, faces Manhattan, the 6, less than a week after their regular season finale. As for how Loyola will approach the rematch, coach Jimmy Patsos referenced the movie Ali, which his team recently watched. Like the boxer, who varied his strategy when he faced a fighter for the second or third time, Loyola will show Manhattan some different things on Saturday. Then again, whatever they’ve done so far has worked: Loyola is the only MAAC school Manhattan hasn’t beaten in Steve Masiello’s two seasons. This is Masiello’s last chance—Loyola, the defending champion, will be playing in the Patriot League next season, which is sad news for any MAAC fan who’s listened to a Jimmy Patsos press conference.
*Thanks to my pal Griffin for filling me in on Ali’s boxing career. He faced Ken Norton and Joe Frazier three times each, losing the first and then winning the next two. So perhaps Masiello and the Jaspers should watch the movie.
The winner of that game might face Rider in the semifinals. The Broncs, picked by the coaches to finish seventh, overachieved this season and earned the 2 seed. Their first-year head coach, Kevin Baggett, has done an excellent job. It helps that his leading scorer, senior guard Jonathon Thompson, is also the team’s best defender. Thompson is capable of shutting down his man.
But the winner of this tournament will likely have to go through the top seed, Niagara. Mihalich just picked up his third MAAC Coach of the Year award and is looking for his third MAAC title. During his 15 years at Niagara, the other nine MAAC schools have gone through a total of 30 coaches. This year, Mihalich has won starting a freshman, three sophomores, and a junior, the least experienced team in the league and one of the least experienced in the country. Like Iona, Niagara has a high-scoring backcourt with Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason, the latter being a New Rochelle graduate who heads to the tourney inspired by his high school’s miraculous buzzer beater last weekend.
I will use the same inspiration for my coverage of what should be a great tournament in Springfield, the birthplace of basketball and home of the sport’s Hall of Fame. As for my pick to cut down the nets and earn a trip to the Big Dance? Come on, I’m not touching that—this thing’s wide open.