By Jordan Hall
In recent years, the MAAC has made a name for itself on the college basketball landscape. The conference continued to develop, turning into one of the more formidable mid-major leagues in the land.
Siena’s three-year run from 2008-10 helped gain the MAAC recognition. The Saints won two first-round games in the NCAA Tournament, teetered on the brink of the top 25 poll multiple times and went from being a small school in upstate New York to becoming nationally known.
Manhattan won a March Madness contest against Florida in the first round of 2004.
And Rider’s Jason Thompson represented the MAAC as a lottery pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.
But this season, the MAAC has a chance to reach unprecedented territory. This year, the conference looks better than good; it looks scary good. For quite some time, the words “MAAC” and “at-large bid” simply didn’t fit in the same sentence, but in 2011-12, it’s not outlandish to believe that the MAAC can send two teams to the Big Dance.
“We’re poised to have an at-large this year,” MAAC Commissioner Richard Ensor said at media day on Tuesday. “We think we can move the league up to the next level.”
Looking at Iona and Fairfield on paper, it certainly seems feasible as the Gaels and Stags make up the frontline with talented Rider and experienced Loyola (Md.), rounding out a terrific top-four for a mid-major conference.
With loaded squads in Iona and Fairfield, the MAAC hasn’t seen two teams of their caliber in quite some time.
“The top of the league is probably as good as it’s been since I’ve been around,” Rider Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said. “I don’t know if we’ve had two teams get this much attention on a national level to start the season.”
As Rider prepares for its season opener on Nov. 11 at Robert Morris, the MAAC has received an immense and uncommon amount of national attention, specifically Iona and Fairfield, two teams with high-major talent who happen to play in a mid-major setting.
If the Broncs want to go dancing, they must trip up these two teams, and when breaking down both the Gaels and Stags, that seems like a difficult task.
Iona is coming off a 25-win season with all its major pieces returning and the addition of some PAC-12 punch. Lamont “Momo” Jones, a guard who was the second-leading scorer on an Arizona team that went to the Elite Eight last season, transferred to Iona to live closer to his ailing grandmother. He was granted a hardship waiver and, therefore, is eligible to play this season on an Iona squad that was picked to win the conference by MAAC coaches before Jones was even granted eligibility.
The former Wildcat joins an already lethal, up-and-down offensive attack. Senior Michael Glover, the once Big East recruit and now Preseason Player of the Year, returns as the league’s top scorer (18.4 ppg.) and rebounder (10.1 rpg). Alongside him will be senior point guard Scott Machado, America’s second-ranked assist man last season (7.5 apg.) and three-point snipers Jermel Jenkins, a senior, and Kyle Smyth, a junior.
A message from college basketball experts: Look out.
“If Jones can buy into the team concept, Iona could be one of the top mid-major teams in the country,” wrote Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com.
Speaking of transfers and touted mid-majors, Fairfield is neck-and-neck with Iona as tipoff nears. The Stags captured the MAAC regular season title last year, but were stunned by Saint Peter’s in the semifinals of the league tournament. Last season’s 25-win crew is leaps-and-bounds better entering ’11-’12.
Fairfield owned one of the peskiest defenses in all of Division I last year, and this season, it added two big-time transfers to bolster the offense. The Stags welcome former Boston College starter, 6’5” senior Rakim Sanders, an offensively gifted forward, as well as 5’8” junior guard Desmond Wade, a transfer from Houston.
The star newcomers join a star cast led by junior Derek Needham, a top-25 point guard in the country, according to CBS experts, and 7’0” senior center Ryan Olander, who holds down the paint.
Combine the lockdown defense with the improved offense, and first-year Head Coach Sydney Johnson could have a special season.
“If Sanders is great, the Stags could, like Iona, advance in March provided they earn a bid to the field of 68,” wrote Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com.
In previous years, Rider has typically flown under the radar because it was overshadowed by conference favorites. Once again, this proves true. The Broncs were picked fourth in the MAAC Coaches poll, but are legitimate sleepers to the two-team monster earning all the hype.
The Broncs, as in years past, have an athletic, fast and exciting group. Senior swingman and preseason First Team All-MAAC selection Novar Gadson leads the way with sharpshooting Virginia transfer Jeff Jones, a senior, and an exceptionally deep roster joining him.
If Rider can buckle down on the defensive end, there’s no reason why it can’t hang with the big boys because offensively, they can run with the best of them.
“There’s going to be a real fight to the finish,” Dempsey said. “There’s some teams that can have special seasons and I’m hoping that we can be one of them.”
This year, the MAAC could experience a season of historical proportion. Why? Because Iona and Fairfield are that good. Will Rider or another league foe have a different say? We’ll see.
“Iona and Fairfield have the mix of high-level transfers and four-year players who have blossomed into high-level college players,” wrote Andy Katz, senior college basketball writer for ESPN.com. “Each team could win a NCAA tournament game or two in the right scenario.”
In other words: good luck to the rest of the MAAC.