Category Archives: MAAC basketball

ESPN BracketBuster Preview: MAAC Outlook

Siena vs. Butler. Old Dominion vs. Northern Iowa. Marist vs. Cal Irvine? OK, so the name of ESPN’s event — BracketBusters — might be misleading. After all, Marist and Cal Irvine are both last place teams and won’t be appearing in, yet alone busting, any brackets this postseason. But the purpose of the event — to match up schools from outside the power conferences — is fun and meaningful.

Mid-major schools like Siena and Butler that have proven they can beat power conference teams have trouble scheduling home games. The BracketBuster event allows these schools to get an extra home game to boost their resumes. Plus, 22 lucky schools get to play on national television. As I alluded to before, most of the 38 non-televised match-ups won’t live up to the event’s name, but it’s still fun to see the conference compete against each other.

All 10 MAAC schools will be competing in this year’s event; five at home and five on the road. It’s very difficult to project how these games will shake out since these conferences don’t often face each other. But after my success predicting the outcome of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, I will attempt to do just that for the MAAC’s BracketBuster games.

Friday, Feb.19
9:00 pm, ESPNU: William & Mary at Iona
This is clearly the second-best match-up involving a MAAC team and probably the third best of the entire event. William & Mary has already made noise in their non-conferenceschedule, beating top-tier ACC schools Wake Forest and Maryland on the road. The Tribe sit at third in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Iona, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise in the MAAC. The Gaels are also 11-5 in conference and will also be looking for their 20th win. Iona and W&M have three common opponents this season. Both beat Hampton. Both lost at Connecticut — W&M by nine and Iona by 19. The Tribe won by five at Manhattan, a team Iona beat by three on the road but lost to at home.

These results of those games don’t tell us much. One thing is for sure: W&M has proven it can win on the road, even in tough environments. The Hynes Athletic Center should be just that, as fans from smaller schools always get rowdy for televised games.

This is a tough one, and I’m admittedly biased, but playing at home gives the Gaels the slight edge in my book. Also, it’s Senior Night, and although I don’t have any numbers to back this up, I imagine teams have a pretty good winning percentage on Senior Night. Iona wins.

Saturday, Feb. 20
11:00 am, ESPN2: Siena at No. 13 Butler
This is the marquee match-up of the event. When the pairings were announced, it looked like we might have the two longest winning streaks in the nation going head-to-head. Siena’s 15-game winning streak was snapped last week, however. The Saints bounced back against Canisius though, and now head to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse to face Butler and its nation’s best 16-game win streak.

Both of these teams are dominating their respective conference. The Bulldogs are a perfect 17-0 in the Horizon and have lost only four games all season. While the Saints have stars in Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore, and Edwin Ubiles, Butler counters with Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward. The latter Bulldogs are sophomores, while the aforementioned Saints are all seniors. Siena has the edge in experience, but Butler is no stranger to big games.

Butler has lost its last two home BracketBuster games, but is 12-0 at Hinkle this season and is 41-3 at home over the past three seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t been seriously challenged in a while, but you could say the same thing about Siena. This is a great measuring-stick game for both teams. Once again, I’ll give the edge to the home team. Butler wins a very close game.

1:00 pm: New Hampshire at Loyola (MD)
These teams have some common opponents but that’s not going to help us here, as they both beat Vermont, Marist, and UMBC, all by similar amounts. Their records, both in conference and overall, are also very similar. Both have lost two in a row. So…who knows? I’m going with the home team. Loyola wins a low-scoring affair.

2:00 pm: Fairfield at Vermont
Another MAAC vs. America East match-up. Vermont lost by 13 at Loyola (MD), a team Fairfield beat twice. Vermont won at Marist by 10, while Fairfield won there by 20. So this is a small sample size of a formula that doesn’t tell you much to begin with, but the Stags have a slight edge here. The MAAC and the America East are similar, so I’m tempted to give the edge to the home team, but I like this Fairfield team. The Stags have overcome adversity this year, and I expect them to pull off the small upset in this one.

2:00 pm: Towson at Manhattan
Both teams are struggling, each winning only four games in conference so far and sitting well below .500. Towon was blown out by fellow CAA member Hofstra twice, while Manhattan only lost by five in a really ugly game. The Jaspers also hung with William & Mary; although the Tigers haven’t faced the Tribe yet, I imagine they’ll lose handily. Manhattan’s record is a bit misleading because of all the tough, close losses. I don’t think this will be that close. Manhattan wins by at least eight.

2:00 pm: Buffalo at Saint Peter’s
MAC vs. MAAC. Buffalo took on two MAAC schools this year, dropping a close game to Canisius and winning at Niagara. But Saint Peter’s has beaten both those teams twice. Again, it’s so hard to compare these seemingly equal teams from different conferences, but I saw St. Pete’s in person and liked what I saw. The Peacocks will prevail.

4:00 pm: Rider at Hofstra
Rider has been disappointing this season. I keep waiting for the Broncs to break out, and although Ryan Thompson is on fire in his last six games, Rider is only 8-8 in the MAAC. Thompson is handful, but Hofstra already beat a better MAAC team in Fairfield. I can’t pick every MAAC team. I’m going with Hofstra.

7:00 pm: James Madison at Canisius
Another CAA vs. MAAC contest, and like Manhattan, I’m going with the MAAC in this one. James Madison is 4-12 in conference and 2-12 overall on the road. Canisius, with its strong guard play, should win fairly easily.

7:00 pm: Marist at Cal Irvine
I’m sorry, Marist fans, but I won’t spend much time on this one. Both teams are pretty bad, so I’ll go with the home team — the one that doesn’t have to travel across the country. Cal Irvine wins.

7:00 pm: Niagara at Milwaukee
I don’t want to give excuses before the games are even played, but it’s hard to compare these teams. Like the Siena-Butler match-up, this is MAAC vs. Horizon. Niagara has been impressive lately, winning four of its last five, including a victory over Siena. Milwaukee played earlier tonight, which doesn’t help their chances on Saturday. However, I smell a minor upset here. When in doubt, go with the home team. Milwaukee wins a very close game.

To recap, I predict the MAAC to post an impressive 6-4 record in its BracketBuster games. I like Iona, Loyola, Fairfield, Manhattan, Saint Peter’s, and Canisius to earn victories for the MAAC, though I’m more confident in my overall record prediction being correct than in my game-by-game picks. We’ll find out how I did by the end of Saturday. Please feel free to post your predictions in the comments section.

Iona vs. Siena: MAAC Game of the Year

The Iona Gaels (17-6, 8-3) travel to Albany’s Times Union Center to face the Siena Saints (19-4, 12-0) tomorrow night in a showdown of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top two teams. Iona has won eight straight games, and Siena holds the nation’s longest streak at 13 games. The Saints won the first match-up on Dec. 7, 73-60.

Iona, like every other MAAC team this season, will be a big underdog against Siena. This is a different Iona team from when these two teams last met, however, so in anticipation of the game (which I’ll be covering) I’ll break down five keys for the Gaels to pull off the upset.

1. The Awe Factor
The Saints are the two-time MAAC champions and haven’t lost a conference game yet this season. They’ve won eight in a row against Iona, last losing in January of 2006. The Gaels can’t be intimidated by the Saints or their sold-out arena — a building, by the way, where Siena has won 32 straight. In fact, Iona, a full-court pressing team, can use the crowd energy to its advantage.

Jonathan Huffman, one of only two seniors on this Iona team, told me after the Gaels’ latest loss to Siena that, coming from the Big East (Huffman followed head coach Kevin Willard from Louisville), he looks at Siena like any other team. It’s reasonable to think that cool confidence has rubbed off on his teammates. After all, Iona won at Providence this year and took Florida State and Baylor down to the wire in Orlando.

2. Keep A-Rod on the Court
Willard said it himself after Iona’s most recent game: “He really is the backbone of our team.” He was speaking of junior Alejo Rodriguez. At 6’8,” 235 lbs., Rodriguez provides muscle for the Gaels’ thin frontcourt. Huffman is a seven footer, but he prefers to play on the perimeter, leaving freshman Mike McFadden as the only other Iona forward who logs substantial minutes.

Rodriguez enters the contest with Siena coming off two straight double-doubles. He leads the MAAC in field goal percentage by a fairly wide margin, but it’s on the defensive end that Rodriguez makes his mark, blocking and changing shots and pulling down boards. He can’t do any of these things, of course, if he’s not on the court. A-Rod fouled out of five of his first 14 games this season, but hasn’t fouled out in nine straight. He’ll go up against a Siena front line that includes three preseason first and second team All-Conference players.

3. Something’s Gotta Give
Siena is the highest-scoring team in the MAAC, averaging 75 points in conference games. Iona is the best defensive team, allowing only 56 points per game. After Monday’s game, Willard and his players spoke about how this Gaels squad is finally grasping the concept that defense wins games. But Siena’s starting five poses an entirely different challenge. Four starters score in double-digits, and the one who doesn’t, point guard Ronald Moore, leads the country in assists by a wide margin at a whopping 8.3 per game.

Edwin Ubiles is Siena’s most talented player, but “Ronald Moore is the key to that basketball team,” Willard said after Moore played 40 minutes against Iona in their last match-up. “If there’s a better point guard in the country, I’d like to find him. He makes everything go. He handles the ball, handles it against pressure, gets in the lane when he needs to, and makes all the right decisions…he is just terrific.”

Pretty high praise, huh? Well, Iona can counter with some great defensive guards, and if they can slow Moore down or force him into some turnovers, Iona’s chances at winning improve greatly.

4. Contain Ubiles
Easier said than done. The versatile small forward hit nine-of-16 shots for a game-high 19 points in the first match-up. When the game was still in single digits midway through the second half, he scored 10 points in a six-minute span to put the game away.

Ubiles is a match-up nightmare. At 6’6″ the senior can shoot over smaller guards, but he’s too quick for bigger forwards. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and, although he doesn’t take many threes, he’s over 40 percent from downtown. Ubiles has been hampered by a bad shoulder and has missed three of Siena’s past five games. But he played 23 minutes in Saturday’s win over Marist, scoring 15. He is expected to start tomorrow.

Not sure which player will draw Ubiles — whoever it is, he will have his hands full at the defensive end. Forcing Ubiles into some tough shots will help Iona limit the high-powered Saints offense.

5. Dig Deep
It’s often a key ingredient in any upset recipe: knock down some threes. Fortunately for the Gaels, they’re tops in the MAAC, shooting 37 percent from deep. They make an average of 7.6 threes per game, and I think 10 will be needed to beat Siena. Iona can spread the floor with as many as four shooters — Scott Machado, Kyle Smyth, Jermel Jenkins, Rashard McGill, Rashon Dwight, Milan Prodanovic, and Huffman can all hit from deep.

Stretching the defense by hitting outside shots will open the lane for Machado and others to penetrate. Deep bombs also tend to have the effect of quieting the crowd.

So there you have it. Pretty simple right? Five easy steps to victory. In all seriousness, Siena is going to be favored for a reason. This program has earned its position as the MAAC’s elite. But the Saints hear the footsteps of some of the other MAAC programs, with Iona’s likely being the loudest.

Willard has taken this team from a laughingstock (2-28 the year before he took over) to a legitimate conference force. Just hanging tough with the Saints would an improvement from years past, but a win would be perhaps Iona’s biggest in several seasons.

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!

MAAC Basketball Midseason Report

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…

The Surprises

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.

The Awards

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?”

MAAC Basketball Preview

Conference play in the MAAC began tonight with Marist visiting Fairfield. There are three more games tomorrow night. So I thought it would be worthwhile to review what the MAAC has done so far this young season. I’ll go in reverse order of preseason conference ranking which, along with the three preseason All-Conference teams, was voted on by the coaches.

Marist (10)
The Red Foxes are 0-4. Their average margin of defeat is 17.5 points. They’re probably not going to be all that competitive this year.

Iona (9)
The Gaels (4-2) have been a pleasant surprise, beating Boston University in their opener and playing three competitive games in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, losing by five to Florida State, falling in overtime to Baylor, and beating Creighton. Iona has reached the 80-point mark twice this season, and their deep bench allows them to employ the up-tempo, full-court press attack that coach Kevin Willard prefers. They may be a year away from being a serious competitor in the MAAC, but I think the Gaels have proven they are a dangerous team right now.

Manhattan (8)
The Jaspers are 4-2 but have no quality wins. We’ll know a lot more about Manhattan the next time they return home, which isn’t until Jan. 4 — Friday starts a tough stretch of seven straight road games (which includes four conference games and a trip to Vanderbilt.)

Canisius (7)
Much like Manhattan, Canisius has a winning record (3-2) but hasn’t beaten anyone of note. They open conference play tomorrow at home against Loyola. The Golden Griffins have three players averaging at least 14 points per game.

Loyola (t5)
It’s become a theme: Loyola is 4-2 but doesn’t have any impressive wins. Preseason second-teamer Jamal Barney is averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game for the Greyounds.

Saint Peter’s (t5)
St. Pete’s is the team that played the 6 a.m. game as part of ESPN’s 24 hours of college hoops. They won that game, shaking off a season-opening loss at the buzzer to Seton Hall. Since, they’ve had a couple of bad losses and now sit at 2-3. Second-teamer Wesley Jenkins leads the Peacocks in scoring with 14.4 per game.

Fairfield (4)
Unfortunately for the Stags, they’re probably not going to be as good as their preseason ranking suggests. Much like last year, injuries have taken a toll on Fairfield. Second-team preseason selection Greg Nero, who missed a lot of time last year due to back spasms, has not played yet this season and might miss the entire season after having offseason sinus surgery. Without Nero, the Stags are far less dangerous. They’re 4-2 but lost their only two real tests (against Maryland and Hofstra).

Rider (3)
The Broncs (5-3) got a huge win to start the season, winning at then-No. 19 Mississippi State. They have cooled off a bit since, suffering 30+ point losses at Virginia and Kentucky and then losing to Sam Houston State. They are coming off a win against St. Joe’s, though. Rider has three players on the three preseason teams, including preseason Player of the Year Ryan Thompson, and is considered to be one of the two teams with a chance to dethrone Siena.

Niagara (2)
The Purple Eagles (4-3) lost by four at Auburn to open the season and have been somewhat quiet since. But they certainly have the talent to win the MAAC, and with four straight conference home games to start MAAC play, it’s fair to assume they’ll likely be at the top of the conference standings when they visit Siena Jan. 9.

Siena (1)
The Saints have been a disappointment so far, losing to Temple, St. John’s, and Georgia Tech, essentially eliminating themselves from getting an at-large bid should they fail to repeat as MAAC Tournament champs. First-team selection Edwin Ubiles has been hampered by a knee injury, but Siena has plenty of talent to pick up the slack.