By Brandon Scalea
It’s officially March, and for college basketball fans, it’s the start of the best time of the year.
The first step of March Madness is conference tournament play. Year after year, the MAAC Tournament proves to be one of the most competitive postseason brackets in college hoops, as 11 evenly-matched teams duke it out for one automatic bid to the NCAAs.
Above is a graphic representing The Rider News’ predictions for the men’s and women’s conference tournaments.
The Rider women finished MAAC play 16-4 in arguably its best season in program history. Head Coach Lynn Milligan will likely be a unaminous choice for Coach of the Year. Her team finished a game behind Quinnipiac for a regular-season title and will be the No. 2 seed, earning a first-round bye.
The women’s first game in Albany will be in the quarterfinals on March 3. They will play the winner of seventh-seeded Monmouth and tenth-seeded Manhattan. We think Rider’s opponent will be Monmouth, whom the Broncs swept this season.
Milligan’s squad should be able to grind out a win in that game, despite the Hawks being a pretty tough team. Rider would then move onto the semifinal, where it would face Brian Giorgis’ Marist squad. This game will be a very good test of what kind of team the Broncs really are, as Marist has been a perennial team in the conference for the last decade.
If they can get the ball inside to senior forward Julia Duggan, they should beat the Red Foxes for the third time this season. Junior guard Kamila Hoskova will also be instrumental to Rider’s success.
With a win over Marist, Rider would make it to Championship Monday for the first time in program history. The Broncs would likely face top-seeded Quinnipiac, who was the runner up in 2016.
The Bobcats swept the regular season series with Rider, and they are too good of a team to not come out victorious in the MAAC final. The Broncs will battle hard and the game will be close until the very end, when Quinnipiac pulls away for a 72-62 victory.
On the men’s side, Rider will head to Albany as hot as a team could be after three straight wins, putting up over 90 points in each. The Broncs will be the No. 6 seed.
The Rider men have been the Jekyll and Hyde of the MAAC this year. With road wins over Monmouth and Iona, the team proved it can beat anyone. With ugly losses to Niagara and Canisius, the Broncs showed they can just as easily lose to anyone.
Rider is fortunate to be in the position where it faces the No. 11 seed in the first round game, Manhattan. But tournament time is when the Jaspers shine under Steve Masiello; after all, they’ve won the MAAC Tournament in 2014 and 2015. This game will be a dog fight, but the Broncs will escape with a close win.
Iona awaits the Broncs in the quarterfinals, which Head Coach Kevin Baggett has never advanced past in his career. The Gaels won by 19 in Alumni Gym, while the Broncs beat them by 18 in New Rochelle. We think Rider’s momentum and its leadership, particularly by senior Jimmie Taylor, will guide the team to an impressive win. Taylor was recently named MAAC Player of the Week and is coming off arguably the best three-game stint of his career.
Unfortunately for Rider, the journey will likely end in the semifinal. John Dunne’s St. Peter’s squad, which swept the regular season series against the Broncs, is the best overall team on that side of the bracket. The Broncs just can’t seem to find an answer for the stifling Peacock defense. Their only hope in the game is to keep it low scoring and defend the three-point line, but Rider has struggled with that as of late.
The men’s champion will be Monmouth, a team that has won 16 straight and finished with the best record in conference history (18-2). After last year’s disappointing snub from the NCAA Tournament, the Hawks aren’t interested in letting the selection committee decide their fate. They will steamroll to the title game and beat the Peacocks, 90-75.
Don’t be surprised if this Monmouth team also makes some noise in the NCAA Tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lundardi projects them to be a No. 11 or 12 seed.