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.