MAAC Tournament begins with Iona as clear frontrunners

By Jordan Hall

halljo@theridernews.com

The calendar has turned to March, and this weekend, the madness officially begins. College basketball’s conference tournaments kick off as league favorites try to solidify their spots in the Big Dance and contenders vie for late-season upsets to squeak into the field of 68.

“A lot of times, in March Madness, it’s about teams that get hot,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said.

Rider hopes it’s one of those teams. In Springfield, Mass., the Broncs start their MAAC Tournament journey this weekend with the rest of their conference brethren.

As seen in years past, anything can happen when the postseason unfolds. This time of year is truly unpredictable, so with that being said, I’ll do my best to provide you with the MAAC rundown.

(10) Canisius – (Tournament schedule: plays (7) Niagara tonight at 9:30 p.m. in first round)

Canisius (5-24, 1-17 MAAC) is not as bad as its record indicates. The Golden Griffins lost many close contests, but they have an alarming weakness: defense. Canisius is an inept defensive team who surrenders the most points in the MAAC, giving up 75.6 points per game, while only scoring 65.3.

The Golden Griffins have enough offense to give Niagara trouble. Their matchup with the Purple Eagles will be much tighter than what people may expect.

Prediction: First round loss to seven-seeded Niagara

(9) Saint Peter’s – (Tournament schedule: plays (8) Marist tonight at 7:30 p.m. in first round)

Saint Peter’s enters as the defending tournament champs, but this year’s squad resembles nothing of the 2010-2011 Peacocks who upended Fairfield and Iona to represent the MAAC in the NCAA Tournament.

Saint Peter’s (5-25, 4-14 MAAC) lost its top five scorers from last season, and it showed. The Peacocks are the 331st-ranked scoring team in the nation (58.1 ppg.) out of 344 Division I schools.

Saint Peter’s does not shoot the ball well, rebounds poorly and comes in with a 1-11 record in its last 12 games.

Prediction: First round loss to eight-seeded Marist

(8) Marist – (Tournament schedule: plays (9) Saint Peter’s tonight at 7:30 p.m. in first round)

Marist (13-17, 7-11 MAAC) is playing solid basketball. The Red Foxes have won six of their last eight games, one of those coming in an 18-point blowout of second-seeded Loyola (MD).

Marist converts at the free throw line (73 percent) and has a promising freshman in 6’5” swingman, Chavaughn Lewis, and a veteran guard in junior Devin Price.

The Red Foxes should win their second straight first round MAAC Tournament game, but will once again run into the number-one seed in the quarterfinals — and it won’t be close.

Prediction: Quarterfinal loss to one-seeded Iona

(7) Niagara – (Tournament schedule: plays (10) Canisius tonight at 9:30 p.m. in first round)

Youth is never a plus when it comes to the MAAC Tournament, but Niagara’s inexperienced team plays with confidence and fearless shooting. The Purple Eagles (13-18, 8-10 MAAC) aren’t shy to firing from deep, and when they connect, they can be tough. Freshmen Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason and sophomore Marvin Jordan combined for 166 three-pointers.

However, the combination of Niagara’s youngsters and its tendency to play in streaks does not translate into multiple wins.

Prediction: Quarterfinal loss to two-seeded Loyola

(6) Siena – (Tournament schedule: plays (3) Manhattan on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

Siena’s junior forward O.D. Anosike was nothing short of a monster this season, but he can only do so much, and at the MAAC Tournament, he’ll most likely have to do much more for the Saints (13-16, 8-10 MAAC).

Anosike led the nation in rebounding with 12.9 boards a contest, while averaging a team-best 15.1 points per game, but freshman standout Evan Hymes’ status is uncertain because of a badly bruised left knee.

The tiny 5’8” point guard was off crutches on Wednesday, but his availability remains in the air. Hymes exploded on the scene from the start of the season and is Siena’s top assist man and three-point shooter, while ranking second in scoring.

Without Hymes, Anosike and company will have a hard time advancing.

Prediction: Quarterfinal loss to three-seeded Manhattan

(5) Rider – (Tournament schedule: plays (4) Fairfield on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

Rider’s (13-18, 10-8 MAAC) overall record is terribly misleading. The Broncs have battled injuries, sickness and eligibility issues the entire season, and have rarely been at full strength.

“I don’t know how many games we’ve played with everybody — very few,” Dempsey said.

A new core of players and role changes had Rider limping to a 1-10 start, but the Broncs came on strong in the second half. Rider owns wins against Loyola, Manhattan and Fairfield — two of those wins (Loyola, Fairfield) coming in the final weekend.

“Hopefully our confidence carries over this weekend,” senior Brandon Penn said.

Rider possesses one of the most balanced and deepest rosters in the conference, and has a multitude of three-point threats including Penn, seniors Jeff Jones and Novar Gadson and junior Jonathon Thompson.Losing sophomore Anthony Myles hurts (broken hand), but the Broncs may be peaking at the right time.

A fifth consecutive trip to the semifinals seems within reach, but meeting Iona doesn’t help going further.

Prediction: Semifinal loss to one-seeded Iona

(4) Fairfield – (Tournament schedule: plays (5) Rider on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

The only place you’ll find Derek Needham this weekend will be on the sidelines encouraging his Fairfield teammates. The junior point guard broke his left foot last weekend against Iona, and is shutdown for the remainder of the season — a major blow to the Stags (17-13, 12-6 MAAC).

Despite a surprising down year for Needham, he was a critical part of the Fairfield engine by changing the game on both sides of the ball. Not only was Needham the team’s assist leader (3.4 apg.) and second scorer (11.8 ppg.), but he was one of the league’s better on-ball defenders.

Senior Rakim Sanders, a Boston College transfer and First Team All-MAAC selection, will look to carry the defensive-minded Stags, but without Needham, Fairfield is a different team.

Prediction: Quarterfinal loss to five-seeded Rider

(3) Manhattan – (Tournament schedule: plays (6) Siena on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

Last season, Manhattan only won six games. This year, the Jaspers compiled 20 victories in Head Coach Steve Masiello’s first season at the helm.

It has been quite the turnaround for Manhattan (20-11, 12-6 MAAC), and the story would only be sweeter with a deep run in the MAAC Tournament.

Talented junior wing George Beamon leads the  Manhattan charge. The First Team All-MAAC selection is the conference’s top scorer with 18.4 points per game and also leads the team in rebounding (5.6 rpg.).

Sophomore point guard Michael Alvarado is questionable for Saturday with a fractured orbital bone under his left eye, but if he can return at some point, his presence would be a significant boost.

The Jaspers are well-rounded and score, rebound and defend with the best in the league. They have a go-to scorer in Beamon and can play 10 deep.

Manhattan upset Iona on its home floor and the difference between itself and Loyola: two losses by a combined three points.

Prediction: Championship loss to one-seeded Iona

(2) Loyola – (Tournament schedule: plays winner of (7) Niagara versus (10) Canisius on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

Heading into the 2011-12 season, Loyola (21-8, 13-5 MAAC) was expected to be a contender, and it lived up to the hype. The Greyhounds jumped out to an 8-1 start and in late January and early February, they won seven MAAC games in a row.

But as of late, Loyola has struggled. Following a pivotal victory over Iona, which gave them sole possession of first place, the Greyhounds dropped three of their last four conference games to close the regular season.

Loyola doesn’t “wow” you offensively, but it does what it needs to by cleaning the glass and grinding out wins by execution on both ends.

Junior forward Erik Etherly is a big-time athlete and sophomore Dylon Cormier and junior Robert Olson anchor the backcourt.

Prediction: Semifinal loss to three-seeded Manhattan

(1) Iona – (Tournament schedule: plays winner of (8) Marist versus (9) Saint Peter’s on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in quarterfinals)

Iona — the cream of the crop — seems poised and prepared for not only a MAAC title, but to make noise in the NCAA Tournament.

The Gaels (24-6, 15-3 MAAC) are a complete team with a high-octane offense and a multi-dimensional defense.

Iona leads all of college basketball in points per game (83.4) and assists per game (19.5), and ranks second in field goal percentage (50 percent).

It all starts with senior Scott Machado. The point guard is regarded as one of America’s best at his position, leading the country in assists (10.1), while his backcourt mate and Arizona transfer, junior Lamont “MoMo” Jones (16.2 ppg.) and senior power forward Michael Glover (18.1 ppg.), help make up a high-level trio that you don’t often see in the MAAC.

“Right now, we have one team (Iona) that might end up with three guys in the NBA,” Dempsey said. “It’s unique. It’s hands down the most talented team in the league.”

On top of it, the “Big Three” have a dangerous supporting cast as well.

If Iona falters, an at-large bid to the Big Dance is not out of the picture, but its safest bet: win like expected.

The Gaels enter with an ultra-high ceiling, and it would be shocking if they didn’t reach it.

Prediction: Tournament champion.

 

 

 

 

 

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