By Kevin Sweeney
Last season, the MAAC was the focus of many of the headlines in mid-major basketball, thanks in part to the incredible story of Monmouth and their “Bench Mob”. First, it was their 4 wins over Power 5 teams in the first 2 months of the season. Then, Iona head coach Tim Cluess called Monmouth’s bench “cheerleaders”, leading to a postgame brawl after Monmouth knocked off Iona in one of the most-hyped MAAC games in recent memory. However, Monmouth faded down the stretch, and Iona took the next 2 meetings, including in the MAAC Championship game. Monmouth would then be snubbed of an NCAA at-large bid, forced to settle for an NIT bid. With a ton of talent returning to many of the top teams in the MAAC, we could see this conference produce a March Cinderella story.
- St. Peter’s
Champions: Monmouth: I could easily have make the case for either Siena or Monmouth as conference champs. Both teams are coming off outstanding seasons and return the vast majority of their production from those teams. However, I chose the Hawks because of their depth. While Siena has a lot of talent on their bench, Monmouth brings back players like Austin Tilghman, Je’lon Hornbeak, and Collin Stewart who can provide a huge boost off the bench. The depth for the Hawks allows them to keep their starters, chiefly Justin Robinson, well-rested for the end of the game and protects them when the Hawks get into foul trouble. Robinson, one of the most exciting players to watch in college basketball, plays with such great toughness and fire, and can be expected to build on a 2015-16 campaign in which he averaged over 19 points per game. The one thing that concerns me about the Hawks is the graduation of Deon Jones. Jones was the one true post presence for the Hawks last season, and Monmouth really struggled on offense without him, averaging almost 7 points per game fewer than their season average during his 5 game absence with a broken hand. If they can’t replace his production, the Hawks could be exploited in the post.
Dark Horse: Fairfield- The Stags return 6 out of their top 7 scorers from a season ago, in which they surprised the MAAC with a 4th place finish after being picked 10th in the preseason poll. Head Coach Sydney Johnson implemented an up-tempo offense that helped the Stags end their offensive woes from years past. The big loss is forward Marcus Gilbert, who finished his career as one of the most decorated scorers in Fairfield history, but the 6 major returning contributors were all sophomores or freshmen last season, and should be able to make up for the loss of Gilbert’s production. They also get a big lift in the frontcourt, as Amadou Sidibe, one of the best rebounders in the conference, returns from an injury that cost him his 2015-16 season. In the 12 games in 2014-15 that Sidibe played at least 20 minutes, he averaged 10.1 rebounds per game. Sidibe has a chance to provide a jolt of energy to the Stags off the bench.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Brett Bisping-Siena
- F: Jordan Washington-Iona
- G: Tyler Nelson-Fairfield
- G: Khallid Hart-Marist
- G: Justin Robinson-Monmouth
Player of the Year: Brett Bisping- Just as Robinson is for Monmouth, Bisping is the heart and soul of the Saints. He may not be a vocal leader in the same way that Robinson is, but Bisping’s toughness energizes his entire team. He is known for putting his body on the line for his team, diving on the ground for loose balls and frequently taking charges. Last season, Bisping had back spasms prior to a game against Quinnipiac, gave it a go in the first half and couldn’t play through it. However, with the Saints locked in a tight game at halftime, Bisping played nearly the entire second half, scoring 18 points and snatching 7 rebounds, leading the Saints to a 64-52 victory. However, Bisping brings more than just toughness to the Saints. He averaged a double-double for the Saints last season, averaging over 16 points and 10 rebounds per contest. He posted 18 rebounds in a single game 5 times last season, and has a versatile offensive game that can hurt defenses from anywhere on the court. He has begun to develop better ball-handling skills, which would make him an unstoppable force in the MAAC. If Siena wants to win the MAAC, they will need a huge year from Bisping.
Newcomer of the Year: Jon Severe (Iona)- Iona, looking to replace AJ English, one of the best players in program history, recruited graduate transfers Sam Cassell Jr. (UConn) and Severe (Fordham) to try and fill the void. Severe’s college career got off to an incredible start, averaging over 17 points per game as a freshman at Fordham. However, things went south quickly, as he had a falling-out with the coaching staff and averaged under 7 points per game in his sophomore campaign. As a junior, things didn’t go much better, as he averaged just 7.6 points per game. However, going to the Gaels could be a perfect fit, as Severe should thrive in the up-tempo system of Iona coach Tim Cluess. Severe’s play will be a huge key for Iona, as they will need strong production from him in order to remain one of the top teams in the conference.