By Kevin Sweeney
The MAAC is one of the more difficult leagues for me to prognosticate as we enter the 2017-18 season, simply based on the number of unknowns so many of its teams face. 23 of the top 35 players in terms of win shares from a season ago depart, including stars such as Justin Robinson (Monmouth), Jordan Washington (Iona), and a quartet of 1,000 point scorers from Siena in Marquis Wright, Lavon Long, Brett Bisping, and Javion Ogunyemi. And while the league may see a down year as a result of these heavy departures, the incoming freshmen look strong and this season should be incredibly fun to watch.
- Iona- A fairly clear favorite, the Gaels will be loaded in the backcourt once again with the likes of Rickey McGill, Schadrac Casimir, Deyshonee Much, and EJ Crawford all returning. The only thing that could hold them back is a thin frontcourt that will be heavily reliant on a pair of newcomers in TK Edogi (Tulsa) and Roland Griffin (Illinois State via JUCO).
- Manhattan- This is where it gets tricky. With the return of Rich Williams (missed last season with a foot injury), this Jasper club has a lot of offensive firepower. Still, Steve Masiello’s club desperately needs to take care of the ball much better if they are going to produce one of the bigger turnarounds in college basketball after a last-place finish a season ago.
- Monmouth- The best player in program history and arguably the best class in program history departs, yet there is still reason for optimism in West Long Branch. After 2 seasons as the second option on offense, Micah Seaborn seems ready to step into a starring role, and highly-touted redshirt freshman Ray Salnave should make an impact. Combine that with a frontcourt that has the potential to be one of the better units in the league, and I could see this team being dangerous.
- Niagara- The Purple Eagles have 2 of the top 7 players in the conference in Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, along with some solid role players. Now that he finally has found (and kept) the pieces to contend, is this finally the year Chris Casey gets things done at Niagara?
- Siena- I had a chance to check out the Saints a couple times this summer, and they are a team that could surprise. They have perhaps the most talented player in the conference in Nico Clareth, a breakout candidate in Ahsante Shivers, and a strong freshman class that will be counted on to play minutes right away. Jimmy Patsos will have his team ready to compete.
- Fairfield- Probably the hardest team for me to place. The Stags have the favorite for Player of the Year in Tyler Nelson, as well as some intriguing newcomers who will add some length and athleticism for the Stags. However, their point guard play is suspect (senior Jerome Segura ranked worst in the MAAC among starting PG’s in PER & win shares a season ago) and their frontcourt isn’t very deep. Watch out for freshman wing Jesus Cruz, who shined for Puerto Rico in the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.
- Canisius- This is both a talented and flawed Canisius team. Similarly to Fairfield, they have a star in Jermaine Crumpton who should be able to carry the load for the Golden Griffins this season. Also, look for Isaiah Reese to see a huge jump in production with Kassius Robertson graduating. That said, they’ll likely struggle on the boards and will miss Phil Valenti’s distribution skills sa a stretch 4 more than some think.
- Rider- 4 starters graduate for the Broncs, but Kevin Baggett’s team has one of the most talented point guards in the conference in sophomore Stevie Jordan. The Broncs will also be one of the more athletic teams in the conference, with a pair of transfers in Fred Scott (DePaul) and Devine Eke (Maine) likely stepping into the rotation immediately.
- St. Peter’s- I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m wrong on this pick, simply because John Dunne is one of the best coaches at doing more with less in the country. That said, with the graduations of their best point guard (Trevis Wyche), big man (Quadir Welton), and defender (Chazz Patterson), things are an uphill battle on paper.
- Quinnipiac- This season will almost certainly be a rebuilding one for the Bobcats under first-year head coach Baker Dunleavy after the departures of Mikey Dixon (St. John’s) and Peter Kiss (Rutgers). Still, the future is bright, with Dunleavy hitting the ground running with a strong 2018 recruiting class developing.
- Marist- It’s been 9 seasons since the Red Foxes finished above .500, and they’ve won 8 or fewer games in 5 of those seasons. With leading scorer Khallid Hart graduating from last year’s 8-24 team, it appears that another ugly season is on the Horizon for the Red Foxes.
Under Tim Cluess, the Gaels have become one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the country, and that trend should continue this season. While this team lacks the low-post scoring threat that has been a staple of Cluess teams (Mike Glover, David Laury, Jordan Washington), they still will have an extremely efficient offense that will be hard to guard. Guys like EJ Crawford and Deyshonee Much can hit 3’s and slash to the rim, while Rickey McGill is an excellent distributor from the point guard position who is the engine that makes this team go. Tulsa grad transfer TK Edogi will have to play huge minutes as the only reliable center on the roster, and the Gaels may struggle a bit on the glass. Still, the combination of having lots of weapons and a veteran winning pedigree will be too much to stop in the MAAC this season.
Dark Horse: Niagara
The Purple Eagles definitely showed flashes a season ago, with wins at Iona, St. Peter’s, and Canisius as well as a home triumph over Siena. However, they could never consistently find their stride. Now, with a pair of senior stars in Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes entering their final season of eligibility, it’s now or never for Chris Casey’s club. Niagara has a solid rim protector in Dominic Robb, and some solid rotation pieces to compliment Scott and Dukes in the backcourt, but can they finally put it all together and make a legitimate push in the MAAC? That might be the biggest question to answer in the entire conference.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Rickey McGill (Iona)
- G: Tyler Nelson (Fairfield)
- G: Nico Clareth (Siena)
- G: Micah Seaborn (Monmouth)
- G/F: Matt Scott (Niagara)
Player of the Year: Tyler Nelson (Fairfield)- Nelson is everything you want in a star player at the mid-major level. A 4-year starter with a very real chance of eclipsing 2,000 career points at some point late in the season, Nelson is an efficient scorer at all 3 levels who makes big plays late in games. He’s also a willing distributor who makes winning plays for your basketball team. If Fairfield is to contend for a MAAC title this season, they’ll some people to step up around their senior star and lead them to the promised land.
Breakout Player of the Year: Ahsante Shivers (Siena)- There are a bunch of ways I could go on this one, but those who follow me on Twitter (if you don’t, do it @CBB_Central) know my love for Shivers. The physical 6-4 wing impressed as a freshman with his nose for the ball and timely buckets, and now with 4 1,000 point scorers graduating, Shivers will take on a bigger scoring load. He’s reportedly lost 10 pounds this offseason and has improved his perimeter game, making him the versatile player the Saints desperately need. Look for Shivers to do a bit of everything for the Saints this season, including playing the 4 as Siena looks to go smaller at times this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Prince Oduro (Siena)- Another one that had a bunch of good choices, but Oduro is definitely the most important newcomer in the MAAC this season. He’ll be looked to to play big minutes immediately for a Siena frontcourt that doesn’t have a ton of experience, but the highly-touted freshman seems up to the challenge. He’s incredibly strong for a freshman, and he works tireless on the glass and in the screen game. Jimmy Patsos has raved about his young Canadian big man, and the rest of the MAAC will see why soon enough.
By Siena freshman you mean Been Diamond?
Yes of course