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Thoughts, news and notes from the sports staff of The Saratogian newspaper, located in historic Saratoga Springs, New York. The gang in the corner office on Lake Avenue give you the post-game wrap-ups, news and notes from the games we cover and opinions about the sports we read about every day.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

2012-13 College Basketball Preview: MAAC

It may seem early, but college basketball season is almost upon us. Teams were given the official go-ahead to start practicing this past week, and, inspired by the preseason chatter, I’ve decided to start breaking down conferences of note.

I’ll start this series locally, with a look at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). This league made waves last year by getting two teams into the NCAA Tournament, conference champ Loyola and at-large Iona. This year, it promises to be one of the most wide-open leagues in the entire country. Here’s a breakdown of my predictions as to how things will shake out.

1) Manhattan
Last year’s record: 21-13 (12-6 MAAC)

The scouting report: Manhattan had a 15-win turnaround in the 2011-12 campaign under first-year head coach Steve Masiello, who was formerly Rick Pitino’s top assistant at Louisville. 6’4” guard George Beamon has blossomed into one of the league’s top offensive threats, and he’s flanked by junior point guard Mike Alvarado and sophomore swingman Emmy Andujar, both of whom could conceivably be All-MAAC players at the end of the year.
The best-case scenario: Beamon averages over 20 points per game (up from his 19 PPG average last season), Andujar fills the stat sheet, and Alvarado evolves into a floor general. Transfer Ashton Pankey, formerly at Maryland, has his up-in-the-air eligibility dispute come down in Manhattan’s favor, and he forms a gritty frontcourt with shot-blocker Rhamel Brown. The Jaspers mix that talent with Masiello’s up-tempo game, and become the favorites for a conference championship.
The worst-case scenario: Alvarado and Andujar don’t fulfill their potential, and teams constantly double-team Beamon as a result. Pankey doesn’t become eligible, and as such Manhattan becomes much more guard-heavy, opening the door for a team tougher on the glass to overtake the Jaspers at the top of the league. Manhattan is still a solid team, but no threat to take home the title due to the lack of a true force inside.
The rational scenario: On paper, Manhattan is the favorite to win the league this year. Masiello has had a year to transform the program, and he has everyone back from last year’s team, which was a good one. The Jaspers pose a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams, and that’s why they get the nod despite Pankey’s uncertain status.

2) Loyola
Last year’s record: 24-9 (13-5 MAAC)

The scouting report: The Greyhounds snuck up on the league last year. A solid, but unspectacular, team across the board in 2011-12, Loyola’s steady demeanor led them to the MAAC Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament bid. Fiery head coach Jimmy Patsos did a fantastic job, and most of the pieces from that team return this year.
The best-case scenario: Forward Erik Etherly, an All-MAAC First Team selection last year, forms a dominant frontcourt with junior Jordan Latham. Unselfish guards R.J. Williams and Dylon Cormier run the offense, and glue guy Robert Olson continues to frustrate opponents by doing all the little things. Loyola repeats as the MAAC Champion, winning the conference in their last shot before going to the Patriot League.
The worst-case scenario: It turns out that the Greyhounds miss reigning MAAC Sixth Man of the Year Justin Drummond, who transferred to Toledo after averaging nearly 11 points per game off the bench last season. As such, depth becomes a much bigger issue. Teams that force Loyola into an uptempo style wear the Greyhounds down, and Williams, Cormier, and Olson don’t do enough statistically. Loyola still finishes in the top-four in the league, but doesn’t have the horses to make another title run in Springfield.
The rational scenario: Loyola wins around 20 games again in solid, consistent fashion. This year, though, the Greyhounds won’t sneak up on anyone, as they did last March. There’s not much flash with this team, but there is talent, and they’ll be a threat to finish near the top of the league once again.

3) Siena
Last year’s record: 14-17 (8-10 MAAC)

The scouting report: Siena somehow won 14 games last season despite a consistent rotation that included just six players. A combination of injuries (Rakeem Brookins, Trenity Burdine, Davis Martens), NCAA sanctions (Imoh Silas, Lionel Gomis), and transfers (Davonte Beard) left the Saints shorthanded, but the team still battled their way to a spot in the MAAC Tournament semifinals. Much of the nucleus from last year’s squad returns, including MAAC Player of the Year candidate O.D. Anosike, who led the country with 12.5 rebounds per game as a junior.
The best-case scenario: The lightning-quick backcourt of Brookins and Evan Hymes stretches defenses, making room for Anosike and other playmakers. A recruiting class brought in to bolster three-point shooting does, Burdine and Martens play key roles off the bench, and Silas and Gomis prove them sitting out was worth the year-long wait. The Saints may not be as strong as the years of Ronald Moore, Kenny Hasbrouck, Edwin Ubiles, and Alex Franklin, but they win 20-plus games and the MAAC Tournament after two rebuilding seasons.
The worst-case scenario: The team becomes too dependent on three-point shooting, and as such loses several games they shouldn’t. Anosike gets his points and rebounds, but has to fight through constant double-teams to do it. Gomis, Silas, and the returning players take time to get re-acclimated to the game after forced vacations, and the Saints take a while to establish a true identity. The Saints are still a threat to win the conference title, but must fight through a tougher bracket than they’d like in their attempt to do so.
The rational scenario: Siena wins 18-20 games, and peaks at the right time with a young group (Anosike’s the lone senior). Anosike will face plenty of pressure from opposing defenses, but if he can kick it out to an open teammate on the perimeter with confidence, something Siena couldn’t do much last season, the offense could be much more well-rounded. There are plenty of unknowns here, but it’s not unrealistic to think the Saints could contend for a conference title this season.

4) Iona
Last year’s record: 25-8 (15-3)

The scouting report: Toss everything you remember from last year straight into the trash can. All-MAAC First Teamers Scott Machado and Mike Glover are gone, putting much of the load on the back of senior guard Momo Jones. The Gaels have recruited an army of transfer students, a strategy that got them to the NCAA Tournament last season, but question marks linger with regard to several of them.
The best-case scenario: Momo Jones moves to the point and evolves into the player that originally went to Arizona. He becomes the MAAC Player of the Year while leading an explosive offense, one that also includes three-point sniper Sean Armond and New Mexico/Toledo transfer Curtis Dennis. Norvel Pelle, a power forward who originally committed to St. John’s, becomes eligible in January and immediately becomes one of the most dominant frontcourt players in the league. The team harnesses the pure talent on its roster, wins a MAAC Championship, and gets back to the NCAA Tournament, where they erase the memories of last year’s choke and knock off a higher seed.
The worst-case scenario: Jones becomes a ballhog. The offense doesn’t run nearly as smoothly without Machado, and Jones tries to do too much himself. Armond goes on streaks, including several cold ones that cost Iona games, and Dennis doesn’t get the ball enough to make as much of an impact as he could. Pelle doesn’t become eligible, and Iona’s weaknesses inside grow exponentially, to the point that they once again leave the MAAC Tournament before the title game.
The realistic scenario: I’m not as high on Iona as most are, not because of who’s there, but because of who isn’t. Having seen Machado (now a member of the Houston Rockets) and Glover several times, I can tell you they leave huge shoes to fill. The cupboard isn’t bare in New Rochelle, but there’s work to be done, for sure. They could still win the league, and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Gaels did just that, but the team could also be one without a true point guard or a frontcourt presence.

5) Fairfield
Last year’s record: 22-15 (12-6 MAAC)

The scouting report: It was a mixed bag of sorts for first-year head coach Sydney Johnson in 2011-12. At the outset of the season, the Stags struggled, but the team ultimately peaked at the right time, reaching the MAAC Championship game. However, they lose a lot from last year’s squad, most notably forwards Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander.
The best-case scenario: An experienced backcourt of seniors Derek Needham, Desmond Wade, and Colin Nickerson keeps turnovers down and energy up. Johnson’s Princeton-style offense masks Fairfield’s lack of inside depth and keeps the ball in the hands of their playmakers. The Stags win 18 games and capture the 3-seed in the MAAC Tournament, but are unable to advance past the tournament’s semifinals.
The worst-case scenario: Fairfield’s lack of inside depth kills them. Maurice Barrow returns for his junior season, but the other frontcourt returnee, Keith Matthews, averaged just 1.9 rebounds in 13 minutes per game, and the freshmen are unknowns. The guard play can’t compensate for consistent rebounding disadvantages, and Fairfield falls to the play-in game as the MAAC Tournament’s 7-seed.
The realistic scenario: Sydney Johnson is a very, very good coach, and the backcourt is one of the deepest in the MAAC. The question is, who gets an offensive rebound after a missed shot? There’s a bit of a drop from the top four teams to Fairfield and my next three teams, but ultimately, I think the Stags end the year slightly above .500.

6) Niagara
Last year’s record: 14-19 (8-10 MAAC)

The scouting report: Joe Mihalich’s team had several bright spots last year despite their sub-.500 record. Juanya Green averaged nearly 18 points per game as a freshman, while classmate Antoine Mason added over 15 per contest. A solid class of newcomers means some more improvement should be in the cards for the Purple Eagles.
The best-case scenario: Green and Mason become one of the top 1-2 punches in the league, with both improving their efficiency and providing nightmares for opposing defenses. The guard-heavy lineup keeps the tempo up and pulls teams into shootouts, while La Salle transfer Devon White adds a rebounding presence inside to a team that sorely needs one. The Purple Eagles may be a year away from contending for a MAAC title, but they make enough noise to put Mihalich into consideration for MAAC Coach of the Year honors.
The worst-case scenario: Green and Mason turn into volume scorers. Their points-per-game averages are high, but they force shots because no other playmakers emerge in their offensive system. White, while experienced, doesn’t add enough to a team whose leading rebounder a year ago averaged just over five boards a game, and the Purple Eagles go one-and-done in the MAAC Tournament.
The realistic scenario: A .500 season is certainly very possible for the Purple Eagles despite the team’s relative inexperience (just two seniors on the roster). Anything more rests on what Green and Mason’s supporting cast can do. They need to be better at rebounding the ball, something several teams above them in this poll will look to exploit. Still, there’s talent here, and in a year or two, the Purple Eagles may be one of the top teams in the league once again.

7) Rider
Last year’s record: 13-19 (10-8 MAAC)

The scouting report: There was plenty of offseason news here, as head coach Tommy Dempsey took the Binghamton job. Additionally, a rebuilding Rider team that lost three of its top four scorers from a year ago got a boost when Nurideen Lindsey, who started several games for St. John’s last year, transferred to play for the Broncs. Still, they’ve lost a lot.
The best-case scenario: Lindsey, Daniel Stewart, and Anthony Myles (all juniors) lead a solid offense into MAAC play. Rebounding, an issue last year, gets better, and the solid long-range shooting that salvaged last season after a horrid start (37.7%) continues. The Broncs once again get the 5-seed, and maybe even win a game in the MAAC Tournament, but simply don’t have the horses to contend with the top teams in the league.
The worst-case scenario: Daniel Stewart, Rider’s leading rebounder last year with 6.6 boards per game, gets no help thanks to the graduation of Novar Gadson. With the lack of depth inside, the Broncs are constantly forced to settle for outside shots. Because of it, a lot of possessions are of the one-and-done variety, and Rider stumbles into the play-in game of the MAAC Tournament.
The realistic scenario: Lindsey will swing a few MAAC games this season, and could conceivably be an All-MAAC player. Stewart and Myles are good complementary pieces, but the depth of this team is very much in question. With just two seniors, this team may not be ready to win this year.

8) Marist
Last season: 14-18 (7-11 MAAC)

The scouting report: Midway through last season, it looked like head coach Chuck Martin may be fired. However, the Red Foxes finished strong, winning seven of their last 10 games (with two losses coming to Iona). Marist was a young team last year, and returns their top seven scorers to this year’s group.
The best-case scenario: The young group, led by sophomore Chavaughn Lewis, continues to gel. The Red Foxes may still be outgunned by the top teams in the league, but late in 2011-12, they took care of business against teams they could beat. If this squad takes advantage of similar games, the Red Foxes could play their way into a 6-seed and avoid the play-in game.
The worst-case scenario: Marist needs another year, and is still outclassed by Manhattan, Loyola, etc. Without a win over a top-echelon team, it’ll be extremely tough for the Red Foxes to avoid the play-in game, and with it, Martin may face renewed scrutiny.
The rational scenario: Talent-wise, this looks like a 15-win team. The Red Foxes were a very strong 10-4 at home and just 2-12 on the road a year ago. Maybe with maturity, they get more comfortable playing away from home, but if they want to finish out of the bottom four, that may be a necessity.

9) Canisius
Last season: 5-25 (1-17)

The scouting report: An extremely disappointing season in 2011-12 resulted in a coaching change. The Golden Griffins are now led by former Rhode Island coach Jim Baron, and return six of their top seven scorers from last year. That includes Harold Washington and Alshwan Hymes, both of whom topped 15 points a game.
The best-case scenario: Baron makes an immediate impact, the players buy into the new system, and the veterans dig down for some surprising wins during MAAC play. Washington, an All-MAAC talent, emerges as a go-to scorer, Hymes plays Robin to Washington’s Batman, and the Griffs more than double their win total from a season ago. Maybe they don’t get out of the play-in game in the MAAC Tournament, but the improvement is clear.
The worst-case scenario: Nobody steps up alongside Washington and Hymes, and the team struggles to fill a void left by Gaby Belardo, a streaky scorer who transferred after the coaching change. The team’s top rebounder, Chris Manhertz, continues his struggles with foul trouble, and opposing teams keep pounding the ball inside against a young front line. Canisius shows promise, but stays near the bottom of the league and is bounced out of the MAAC Tournament in the play-in game.
The rational scenario: This is a rebuilding year for Canisius, one where Baron can lay the foundation for improvement in the years to come. Washington and Hymes are good scorers, but more help is needed, and as a result, this may be another down year for the Griffs.

10) Saint Peter’s
Last season: 5-26 (4-14)

The scouting report: John Dunne led the Peacocks to an NCAA Tournament bid in the 2010-11 season with one of the great coaching jobs in league history. However, that was with a senior-laden squad, and last year, the bottom fell out in Jersey City. Their offense should go through seniors Darius Conley and Chris Prescott, the team’s top two scorers from last season.
The best-case scenario: A year after pulling down more than seven rebounds a game, Conley emerges as one of the better rebounders in a conference that, save for Anosike, doesn’t have a dominant one. He and Prescott provide the lion’s share of the offense, and the grind-it-out style the Peacocks play keeps scores down and the team in most games they play. The physical nature of their games makes them a bad matchup for several teams, and they double their win total from 2011-12.
The worst-case scenario: The physical style comes back to bite them. Saint Peter’s was called for nearly 20 fouls per game a year ago. That doesn’t get better, and the Peacocks’ lack of depth comes back to bite them. They become the bottom-feeders of the league, and they exit the MAAC Tournament in the play-in game.
The rational scenario: Conley is a solid player, and Prescott is as well, but Saint Peter’s will need other players to make big improvements in order for the team to rise up in the standings. The league as a whole is better in 2012-13 than it was in 2011-12, and I’m not sure Saint Peter’s is.


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