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College Basketball Preview - Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The 2013-14 season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference was one of change as the league lost Loyola-Maryland to the Patriot League, but brought in both Monmouth and Quinnipiac to fill the void and create an 11-team league. The Bobcats performed rather well in their new surroundings, but the same could not be said for the Hawks who managed to produce a mere five league victories against a new cast of combatants.

The Iona Gaels, who were an impressive 11-2 in their own building, finished with the best league mark at 17-3, yet struggled a bit in non-conference play which isn't unheard of for some of the teams in the MAAC that challenge themselves before conference play begins in earnest after the new year. The Gaels figure to be the team to beat again this time around, given the quality of players making their return, although the squad did lose some top-notch talent as well, which could open the door for the Siena Saints and Quinnipiac in 2014-15.

Not to be counted out, Manhattan finished last season strong with eight wins in 10 tries, the same as Siena, while Rider has the potential to shake things up even after losing two very key components. While one should never say never, the bottom half of the league appears to have a few too many holes to fill in order to challenge the upper crust of the MAAC.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Iona

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Iona, 2. Siena, 3. Quinnipiac, 4. Manhattan, 5. Rider, 6. Saint Peter's, 7. Monmouth, 8. Marist, 9. Canisius, 10. Fairfield, 11. Niagara

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

IONA: The Gaels improved their overall win total by just two games between 2012-13 and 2013-14, but in conference play the team added six wins to the ledger, making it that much easier to claim the league crown. Head coach Tim Cluess had five double-digit scorers on the roster a season ago, but has lost both Sean Armand (17.5 ppg, 135 assists) and Tre Bowman (13.9 ppg), two of the better 3-point shooters. But the cupboard is not bare for Cluess as A.J. English, David Laury and Isaiah Williams each have time left to star for the Gaels. English, second only to Armand in made 3-pointers with 84, not only poured in 17.2 ppg, he also handed out a team-high 142 assists and cleared close to four rebounds per outing. Laury, the only senior listed on the roster, will not only have to replicate his 14.0 ppg and team-best 8.3 rpg, but also take some of the youngsters under his wing so that when he leaves after this season there will still be some solid performers in the paint for Iona. Williams, a 53.4 percent shooter from the floor, should be able to boost his 11.3 ppg from a year ago since there will be more scoring opportunities open to him.

SIENA: The Saints got off to a rough start in 2013-14, losing three straight and seven of their first nine, but the team eventually leveled off and even played well over .500. The team was invited to take part in the College Basketball Invitational after losing to Canisius in the MAAC Tournament. Siena took down the likes of Stony Brook, Penn State and Illinois State before playing three straight versus Fresno State and taking the title with an 81-68 triumph in Loudonville, New York. With that lengthy run into the postseason, this group of Saints got a glimpse of what it might be like to take part in the NCAA Tournament, which is where the team is aiming in 2015. The good news is that both double-digit scorers (Rob Poole and Brett Bisping) from a season ago are back, as is interior enforcer (Lavon Long) and the top passer (Marquis Wright). Poole comes back after posting 14.6 ppg and 5.0 rpg, while Bisping is hoping to improve upon his 11.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg. Long (9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) could have had much better numbers if not for the fact that he fouled out of 13 contests, while Wright (8.7 ppg) would rather get teammates involved with 199 assists than take shots from 3-point range (.184).

QUINNIPIAC: Like Monmouth, the Bobcats also made the move to the MAAC last year from the NEC and there were times when the change made sense. A dominant team at home with a record of 10-3, but just 8-8 in true road dates, Quinnipiac made most foes think twice when they tried to compete with the squad in the paint. Not only were the Bobcats easily the MAAC's leader in rebounding with 45.4 boards per contest, they were also one of the most devastating rebounding squads in the nation, thanks to the efforts of Ousmane Drame (10.5 rpg) and Ike Azotam (10.2 rpg), helping the group to beat opponents by an average of almost 12 rebounds per contest. The good news here is that Drame is back for his senior season and should be able to add to his 13.7 ppg with Azotam no longer in the picture. Also a senior this season, guard Zaid Hearst (15.5 ppg) stands as one of the better 3-point shooters for the program after hitting 41.0 percent of his tries a season ago. However, as a unit, the Bobcats were only 35.7 percent accurate out on the perimeter as they generated 78.8 ppg.

MANHATTAN: It finished with the most wins of any team in the MAAC last season, sporting a record of 25-8 overall and finishing second in the league standings behind only Iona, but it was Manhattan that went on to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many teams that experience success when they are at their peak, the Jaspers are now on the road to rebuilding after losing all three double-digit scorers (George Beamon, Michael Alvarado and Rhamel Brown). One of only three seniors on the roster, Emmy Andujar is the top returning performer who was responsible for 8.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest in 2013-14. An All-MAAC Tournament selection from a season ago, Andujar started just five of the 33 games for the Jaspers, yet finished second on the team in assists with 74. Junior forward Shane Richards (8.3 ppg), another Empire State product, was also seldom in the starting lineup, yet led the program with 77 3-pointers which will make him a valuable piece of the puzzle moving forward.

RIDER: The Broncs were sporadic at best last season as they ended up three games under .500 (14-17) overall, and 9-11 in league action. The squad fell hard down the stretch with just one win in the final eight regular-season outings, although there was one moment of hope after that when they defeated Monmouth in the MAAC Tournament before falling hard to Iona (94-71). Last season, Rider had three double-digit scorers on the roster, but two of them (Anthony Myles and Daniel Stewart) are no longer around, which means the pressure will all fall on sophomore Jimmie Taylor who accounted for 12.1 ppg and was responsible for 72 assists. During his freshman campaign, Taylor also shot almost as well from 3-point range (.469) as he did from the floor overall (.470), something that will have to continue if the Broncs hope to have any measure of success this year. Zedric Sadler (8.3 ppg, 89 assists) should also settle in with more involvement, but the guards will need some bulk up front and on the wings if head coach Kevin Baggett expects to finish in the top half of the standings.

SAINT PETERS: Keeping the score down, the Peacocks tried to use their defense (65.9 ppg) to take care of opponents last season as they were the only team in the MAAC to hold foes to less than 70.0 ppg. While the focus might still be on the defense moving forward, it is important to note that both double-digit scorers from last season are back. Seniors Marvin Dominique and Desi Washington will be the focus at the offensive end yet again after they stepped up and produced 16.6 and 13.5 ppg, respectively. The former shot a solid 47.5 percent from the floor, the team hitting a mere 40.7 percent after being dragged down by Washington with his 37.7 percent accuracy. More good news for the Peacocks has guard Trevis Wyche returning as well, but what would you expect from someone who was just a freshman last season. Wyche accounted for 8.3 ppg and was tops in the passing department with close to four assists each outing. But as good as Wyche was at distributing the ball, he fell back with a mere 24.5 percent shooting beyond the arc as the team was a mere 31.6 percent accurate from long distance over the course of 31 games.

MONMOUTH: The Hawks made the jump to the MAAC last year, after playing in the NEC, and were tripped up quite a bit as they finished 10 games under .500 overall and a mere 5-15 in league play. The squad, which is led by King Rice who is entering his fourth season, made an early exit in the MAAC Tournament with a first-round loss to Rider (71-60). The team won just once in the final 12 games and put together back-to-back victories only one time once the new calendar year began. The good news for Monmouth is that four starters from a year ago are back, and a few of them were the more critical contributors, including Deon Jones (15.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Andrew Nicholas (14.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Josh James (8.4 ppg, 101 assists) and Justin Robinson (7.1 ppg, 83 assists). One area that needs more attention moving forward is the unit's efforts at the free-throw line, or simply getting there to being with. The team took close to 100 fewer free throws than the competition, and only Jones (156-of-202) had more than 64 tries at the charity stripe.

MARIST: A major change for the Red Foxes comes at the top as Mike Maker begins his tenure as head coach. Hired in the summer of 2014, Maker is the 11th head coach in program history and is coming off six years as the head man at Division III Williams College where he had a winning percentage of .821. The change at Marist comes after the team posted a 9-11 conference mark and was 12-19 overall, prompting the resignation of Jeff Bower after just a single season in Poughkeepsie. The 2013-14 version of the Red Foxes included four double-digit scorers, with two of those (Chavaughn Lewis and Khallid Hart) back for another go around. Although he shot just 39.8 percent from the floor, Lewis was the top scorer for the group with 17.5 ppg, his 88 assists also leading in that category, but at the same time he was responsible for 98 turnovers. Hart, one of the better 3-point threats (.381), should be able to expound upon his 14.7 ppg now that there will be more shot opportunities coming his way. Senior guard T.J. Curry (5.1 ppg) will hopefully work beyond his dismal 34.8 percent shooting from the floor last season as well.

CANISIUS: The biggest issue facing the Golden Griffins is finding a way to replace star guard Billy Baron. The son of the coach, Baron was an 2014 All- American and the MAAC Player of the Year as he averaged 24.1 ppg and 5.3 apg, numbers that won't be easy to make up even with several key players returning. In addition to losing Baron, Canisius also has holes to fill from the departures of Chris Perez (12.9 ppg), Jordan Heath (10.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Chris Manhertz (8.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Take all of those guys out of the equation and the Griffs don't have a single player back who averaged double digits in the scoring column. The best of the rest is Zach Lewis, a sophomore guard who was a member of the All-MAAC Rookie Team thanks to his 9.5 ppg and 2.2 rpg. Seniors Josiah Heath (2.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg) and Jeremiah Williams (2.1 ppg, 1.0 apg in 17 games) will have their work cut out as they try to incorporate as many as eight new players into the rotation in one way or another.

FAIRFIELD: Coming off a season in which they won a grand total of only seven games, failing to post back-to-back victories at any point, the Stags have a lot of work to do in order to become a more respected squad this time around. The team lost leading scorer Maurice Barrow (14.0 ppg), although he started just four of 32 games for the program. With that support spark now gone, the top threat returning for Fairfield is Marcus Gilbert, the only other double- digit scorer from a year ago with his 13.9 ppg. One of the better rebounders (5.1 rpg) for the Stags, Marcus Gilbert -- not to be confused with Malcolm Gilbert -- will again need guard KJ Rose to feed him the ball in scoring positions around the rim. Rose led the team with 112 assists and was also third in scoring (8.0 ppg) on a squad that generated only 63.4 ppg and shot 39.8 percent from the floor. Now a junior, forward Amadou Sidibe will again be a critical piece to the rebounding puzzle after pulling down a team-best 6.6 rpg, but hopefully he can refrain from getting too physical with the opposition this season.

NIAGARA: For a team that has such a strong history in the MAAC, the 2013-14 campaign for the Purple Eagles was downright brutal as the team won a total of just seven games and finished dead last in the league with a record of 3-17. Making this season seem even more bleak is the fact that leading scorer Antoine Mason (25.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) is one of the key losses for the program. Add to that Marvin Jordan and his 9.7 ppg and it would not be much of a stretch to see Niagara bring up the rear yet again this season. Head coach Chris Casey, who somehow moved his way up through the ranks despite having a record of just 27-46 in three seasons at the Division III level, brings back Ramone Snowden (8.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Wesley Myers (6.7 ppg) to a squad that will try to incorporate top newcomers Dominique Reid, Matt Scott and DayJar Dickson as best it can in order to at least get the youngsters ready for seasons to come. In all, the Purple Eagles have added a total of 10 new players to the nest, and it will not be easy finding playing time for all of them.