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2013 MAAC Basketball Tournament Preview

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.
Continue reading 2013 MAAC Basketball Tournament Preview

MAAC Basketball Tournament 2011: Semifinals

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The semifinal games were played at the Arena at Harbor Yard on Sunday. Iona and St. Peter’s will play for the MAAC title on Monday night on 7:00 on ESPN2.

No. 4 Saint Peter’s 62, No. 1 Fairfield 48

It was a tale of two halves, if ever there was one. The numbers tell the story: St. Peter’s led 40-15 at the end of the first half. Fairfield got off to a rocky start, but was down just eight, 22-14, with six minutes left in the half. That’s when the craziness began. The Peacocks went on an 18-1 run to close out the half.

Fairfield finished the half converting just four field goals in 18 attempts (22 percent) while committing an astounding 13 turnovers. Colin Nickerson alone had six turnovers. For the Stags, the passes that weren’t sailing out of bounds were slipping through their hands. St. Peter’s, on the other hand, shot 57 percent (15-of-26) and only turned it over four times. Wesley Jenkins had 10 for the Peacocks at the break. There were a number of defensive lapses very uncharacteristic of Fairfield, the league’s best defensive team.

“The first 20 minutes, we just weren’t ready to play,” Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley said. “We were listless; we didn’t play with a lot of emotion. We were really out of character as a group.”

The Stags looked more like themselves in the second half. They fed off the home crowd and ratcheted up the defensive pressure to start the half on a 13-0 run. St. Pete’s did not get its first basket until the 13:39 mark. Fairfield scored eight consecutive points after that to extend the run to 21-2 and cut the deficit to just six with 8:05 left.

“Even as coaches, how do you handle going in and talking to your guys [when you have such a big lead]?” St. Peter’s head coach John Dunne said. “Do you stay fired up? Do you yell and scream and then maybe they go out and shoot it too quick? But at the same time you don’t want to be passive and hold the ball too long.”

At the start of the second half, whatever the Peacocks were doing wasn’t working. “We just weren’t being aggressive looking up the court against their pressure,” Dunne said. “And then we pulled it out too much when we should have attacked. I think emotionally we had a little bit of a letdown and we just weren’t focused enough. [Assistant coach] Bruce Hamburger kept saying to me, ‘Once we get our first basket or two we’ll be OK.’ It took a little too long to get there.”

I’d say so. St. Pete’s second basket did not come until the 7:56 mark. However, Hamburger was right, because although Fairfield was able to trim the margin to six for a second time on the ensuing possession, the Peacocks responded with consecutive baskets and never let their lead get to single digits again.

St. Peter’s players celebrate as senior Warren Edney leaves the court.

The numbers for the second half were pretty similar to the first, except the teams were reversed: St. Pete’s made just 7-of-26 shots (26 percent) and committed 10 turnovers, while Fairfield shot 40 percent. The Stags finished with 22 turnovers.

“I thought what has hurt us the entire year [hurt us again today],” Cooley said. “Our team habits really caught us in the end. Our team’s habit is we continuously turn the ball over. We just didn’t make smart decisions with the ball and that was really the turning point in today’s game, even when we cut it back to six…But then the devil got us again. And our devil is turning the ball over.”

All-MAAC First-Team point guard Derek Needham had perhaps his worst game in a Fairfield uniform. The sophomore shot just 1-of-12 from the field, including 1-for-8 from three, and committed seven turnovers. “He played really well yesterday and he played with a lot of emotion,” Dunne said of Needham’s 22-point performance against Marist. “He was single-handedly carrying them, I thought. We weren’t going to let him beat us. We put a little more length on him than we normally do with Steve Samuels and Yvon Raymond. If we went down today, it wasn’t going to be because he was going to kill us. That being said, he did get some open looks, he just missed a couple of them that he normally does make.”

They say basketball is a game of runs and in this game there were two really big ones. St. Peter’s was simply too big to overcome. “We didn’t have a good night shooting, so we tried to speed the game up,” Cooley said. “We think our team speed is fantastic, but we needed all the things to fall when you’re down 25.”

In the end, St. Peter’s was able to beat Fairfield for the first time in 13 tries. And Fairfield, the regular season champ, will have to settle for the NIT. Fairfield students wore t-shirts that read, “Our House, Our Time,” and indeed they thought it was, after finally wrestling away the regular season league crown and hosting rights for the tourney from Siena. But such is life in a one-bid league: one loss and dreams of the Dance go up in smoke.

“It hurts,” Cooley said. “I hurt for my seniors, I hurt for our university, I hurt for our community, because we feel we built a championship team with our recruiting, and it just didn’t happen.”

No. 2 Iona 83, No. 3 Rider 59

On Sunday morning, before the MAAC Tournament semifinals, Saint Peter’s leading scorer, Wesley Jenkins, sent a text message to his cousin, Iona starter Rashon Dwight. “See you in the championship,” it read. Dwight texted back: “Take care of Fairfield first and then we’ll take care of Rider.”

Jenkins (who scored 14 points) and St. Pete’s did just that, eliminating the top seed by a score of 62-48. Dwight held up his end of the bargain, draining five threes and scoring 19 to help Iona crush the Broncs, 83-59.

The seniors have gone head to head in this family rivalry for four years at the college level, but never have the stakes been this high. The winner of Monday night’s game will win the MAAC title and earn a trip to the Big Dance.

“[The St. Peter’s players are] on the same floor as us in the hotel,” Iona’s Scott Machado said after the semifinal victory. “When we came back from the win [on Saturday night], they were all cheering for us. So now it’s a coincidence that we’re both in the championship against each other.”

Head coach Tim Cluess continued: “Can I finish that story? Because Scott left a part out. Last night, one end of the hall was Saint Peter’s, one end was us. They were having a dance off in the hall. We had two loose teams there last night.”

So who won the dance competition? “We did,” the four Iona players said in unison.

If the Gaels can beat St. Pete’s on the basketball court for the third time this season, they’ll be doing much more meaningful dancing next week.

Rider Beats St. Peters; Siena Tops Manhattan

ALBANY, NY. — Manhattan did something not too many teams have been able to do this season: make the Times Union Center crowd nervous. The Jaspers led Siena by four at the half of tonight’s MAAC Tournament quarterfinal matchup. But then the Saints did what No. 1 seeds typically do to No. 9 seeds, and doubled up Manhattan in the second half en route to a 78-61 victory.

But can Rider, which beat St. Peter’s earlier today, do what Manhattan failed to do and put together a complete game effort to topple the Saints? Well, if recent history is any indication, Siena should have no problem advancing to its third straight title game. Rider lost its two meetings with the Saints by 26 and 22 points this season.

“Siena’s embarrassed us twice,” Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey said when asked about a potential rematch with Siena. “We’re going to have to call a better game plan this time. Our kids will be up to the challenge. The fact that they slapped us around a little bit should be in the back of our minds as well.”

But Rider found an easy way to get 31 of its points in today’s game. The Broncs attempted 46 free throws (no, that’s not a typo). Thirty-one of those were in the second half when St. Pete’s was trying to extend the game, but 46 free throws is an eye-popping number, no matter how you analyze it. “We’re hard to guard,” Dempsey said. “Overall, we did what we wanted to do — we threw the ball inside, we drove the ball into the paint — and that normally gets you to the free throw line.”

If Rider does have its way with Siena early in the game, don’t expect the Saints to panic. This is a veteran team with a lot of big game experience. As they say, they’re No. 1 for a reason. Senior forward and recently-named MAAC Player of the Year Alex Franklin put it best. “We always keep our composure. That’s the great thing about this team,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of different situations together. We try not to get rattled. If things aren’t going for us early, we know we’re always in the game and good things are going to start coming our way.”

It’s that mindset that allowed Siena to weather Manhattan’s hot start. The Jaspers came out with a ton of energy, claiming a 16-6 lead. There was a palpable nervousness among the Siena fans. But when Manhattan’s shots stopped falling at one point in the second half, Siena was right there, ready to strike. The Saints took the lead 50-49 with 13:29 to play and never trailed again.

“We have a lot of respect for Siena; they’ve been the class of the league,” Dempsey said. “But to have an opportunity to play Siena tomorrow in front of 10,000 people is not something that our kids will run from. That’s what they’re here for.”

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!