By Kevin Sweeney
The final year of the MAAC Tournament being housed in Albany (for now) is upon us, with plans to move the event to Atlantic City following its 2019 iteration. It has been one of the strangest conference tournaments over the past several years, with an ongoing debate of money (Albany offered the greatest earning potential for the league) vs neutrality (playing on Siena’s home floor seemed unfair) heating up almost every year. On the floor, the top seed hasn’t won the tournament since Siena’s dynasty of the late 2000’s, but Iona has 3-peated despite not getting the top seed once. Expect more wackiness in Albany this March in a league with some really interesting teams.
Few mid-majors came more out of nowhere last season than Rider, which came into the season projected by most to be stuck in the league’s play-in round (bottom 6 seeds) but wound up winning the league’s regular season title and finishing with an RPI in the 70s. Kevin Baggett quietly assembled a mid-major wrecking crew of versatile athletes who can play 2-4 to pair with a high-level floor general in Stevie Jordan, though it’s hard to imagine he saw the season Dimencio Vaughn had coming last offseason. Vaughn exploded as a redshirt freshman and immediately established himself as one of the MAAC’s best, averaging over 16 points and 6 rebounds from the wing.
All that Baggett and the Broncs have to do now is break their unbelievable streak of losing in the MAAC Tournament quarterfinals. Under Baggett, Rider is 0-6 in quarterfinal games, with 3 of those games coming as a #1 or #2 seed.
This is probably as bullish a ranking as you’ll see of the Bobcats, but I’m all-in on the Bobcats under Baker Dunleavy after a promising year one. Dunleavy laid the groundwork during his first season in Hamden, landing an elite 2018 recruiting class with the guard talent necessary to win at the MAAC level, while also developing freshman point guard Rich Kelly into an outstanding young floor general and turning wing Cameron Young from benchwarmer to first-team all-MAAC. Kelly and Young will the be nucleus of this team, with Tulsa transfer Travis Atson and the freshmen rounding out an absolutely loaded backcourt rotation. The Bobcats are a bit small, but George Washington import Kevin Marfo figures to make an impact at the 5 right away. It’s going to be fun to see what Dunleavy can do at QU before he inevitably moves up the coaching ladder.
This isn’t your typical Iona roster built on tons of scoring combo guards and a talented big. For the first time in my memory of Tim Cluess’s teams, spacing may actually be a bit of a concern, as Cluess has recruited more size than in years past. A trio of transfers in Isaiah Still (Robert Morris), Asante Gist (Eastern Kentucky), and Ben Perez (South Plains College by way of San Diego State) will be critical in making sure the Gaels have enough spacing next to versatile 4-man Roland Griffin and a center rotation with a trio of intriguing JUCO options. Still is perhaps the most exciting newcomer, a high-level athlete who put up huge numbers in the NEC. Stalwarts Rickey McGill and EJ Crawford are known commodities, with McGill a competitive floor-general and Crawford a slashing wing with a smooth stroke from outside. It may take some time for Cluess to adjust to a new-look roster and not having his right-hand-man Jared Grasso (HC at Bryant) next to him on the bench, but the Gaels will almost certainly be in the mix when the MAAC Tournament comes around.
The last in a clear top tier, Canisius shared the league title with Rider last season and brings back its entire starting backcourt, one that features a legit NBA prospect in Isaiah Reese. Reese is a rare talent at the mid-major level, with the ability to operate in pick-and-roll at 6-5, shoot the ball at an extremely high level both off the bounce and the catch, and defend multiple positions. He’s flanked by a pair of good MAAC guards in their own right in Takal Molson and Malik Johnson, both of whom should be in for strong seasons. The frontcourt is the clear area of concern with Jermaine Crumpton and Selvedin Planicic both having graduated. The Griffs can ill afford to slip on the glass without that duo, and they’ll have to continue to defend the 3-point line well to make up for their flimsy interior defense.
We now enter the “significantly more questions than answers” stage of our MAAC preview, and Monmouth is my reluctant pick for best of the rest. In years past in the MAAC, strong new coaching hires found a way to win more games than they should have in year one, so it’s possible that this 5th spot winds up in the hands of Marist, Siena, or Saint Peter’s, all of whom made excellent hires this offseason. But for the preseason, I’ll roll with a Monmouth team that enters a critical season as they try to regain some of the momentum of the Justin Robinson era. Last season was an abject disaster, with Micah Seaborn hurt most of the season and the rest of the team very young. Those young players, like Ray Salnave and Deion Hammond, have a chance to claim this team as their own now, but FAU transfer Nick Rutherford must replicate the dogged work of the graduated Austin Tilghman to keep the offense running smoothly.
Save an exciting run to the MAAC title game last season that brought us one of the most special moments of March, Sydney Johnson has failed to fully jump-start this Fairfield program.
This is what it’s all about.
As he checks out, Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer Tyler Nelson shared an emotional moment with his head coach Sydney Johnson. pic.twitter.com/O6nCOuUv4P
— ESPN (@espn) March 6, 2018
Johnson has recruited well and plays an up-tempo style with a heavy emphasis on the 3-ball. The problem? The Stags haven’t been a good 3-point shooting team by percentage the last two seasons despite shooting more triples than anyone in the conference, making that offense inefficient. Losing lead guard Tyler Nelson is a massive blow, though Johnson and staff have an excellent replacement lined up in highly-regarded freshman Neftali Alvarez, who the Stags coaching staff coaxed up to Fairfield thanks in no small part to a visit with Alvarez’s parents in Puerto Rico.
The Stags also have an incredibly talented but flawed frontcourt, one with outstanding individuals but that still got outrebounded and scored on at will last season.
Bottom line: it’s another somewhat confounding Fairfield club, and I expect they hover around .500 once again.
In desperate need of a coaching hire that just wouldn’t fall flat on its face, Marist turned to long-time Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne to bring his culture of grind-it-out basketball to Poughkeepsie. Dunne inherits a significant challenge in taking over a program coming off a 10-year run in which the Red Foxes didn’t win more than 14 games in a season and lost 23 or more 7 times. Somehow, given Marist’s beautiful campus and bigger administrative commitment to winning, that job is an upgrade over the Saint Peter’s job that very few could win at, yet Dunne did. He actually inherits a somewhat talented offensive core headlined by bulldog lead guard Brian Parker and shooter Ryan Funk. If he can instill any semblance of a defense (which is what his SPU teams were all about) to a team that largely ignored that end of the floor under Mike Maker, the Red Foxes could be in position to surprise.
The up-and-down Jimmy Patsos era in Loudonville came to an ugly close in April, when allegations of misconduct including verbally abusing a manager came to light after an 8-24 season. Patsos never really endeared himself to a Siena fanbase with extremely high expectations despite enjoying some modest success, including a CBI title in year 1 and a trip to the MAAC title in 2016-17. In comes Jamion Christian, who comes with a sterling reputation from Mount Saint Mary’s, where he brought the Mountaineers to a pair of NCAA Tournaments in 6 years. Thanks to lackluster recruiting towards the end of the Patsos era and the departure of a solid young core in the aftermath of the April scandal, Christian is left with a bit of a rag-tag bunch to try to play his “Mayhem” style. Diminutive combo guard Khalil Richard is expected to do big things with more offensive freedom and spacing in Christian’s offensive system, while there’s also excitement about a late-signing freshman class that features a pair of in-state products in Jalen Pickett and Sloan Seymour along with Romanian point guard Georges Darwiche. The x-factor could be big man Sammy Friday, who had 15 seconds of fame when he posted 15 points and 15 rebounds against Louisville last season but struggled to stay in shape. Friday is down about 30 pounds from last season and looks ready to run in the up-and-down system.
Chris Casey finally had some roster continuity going into the 2017-18 season, and took advantage of having 2 of the MAAC’s best players in Khalil Dukes and Matt Scott. That duo was literally everything for the Purple Eagles, averaging over 40 points per game and making big play after big play down the stretch of games. Both are gone, leaving behind a solid stable of role players but no clear high-level players. Marvin Prochet impressed at the 4 spot last season and seems like the clearest breakout candidate with his inside-out game and sneaky athleticism. Much will be dependent on James Towns in a backcourt with few proven commodities. Towns proved reliable in the bench scoring guard role last season, but will have to step into a role with much more responsibility this season.
The entire consistent playing rotation other than big man Pauly Paulicap and scrappy combo guard Thomas Capuano departs for a Manhattan team that disappointed last season. Those departures open the door for a massive junior season from Paulicap, an uber-athletic big with great shot-blocking instincts. The question with him is whether he can handle a high-usage offensive role, or if he’s better in putback and lob situations. Steve Masiello brings in a freshman class that looks good on paper, one whose success or lack thereof will likely determine Masiello’s long-term fate as head coach. The Jaspers add some much-needed athleticism in Tykei Greene, Elijah Buchanan, and Christian Hinckson. If that group lives up to its billing, Manhattan is a good bet to surprise.
#11. Saint Peter’s
Shaheen Holloway gets his first head coaching gig in the state where he made his name in coaching, taking over the Peacocks after John Dunne left for Marist. He immediately demonstrated his prowess as a recruiter, bringing in talent from the fertile NY/NJ/PA recruiting area. The headliners of that group don’t figure to make too big an impact in year one, with Penn State transfer Nazeer Bostick required to sit this year and 7-1 freshman Majur Majak an incredibly raw prospect not strong enough to significantly impact the college game yet. Holloway figures to play a more exciting brand of basketball than Dunne, but may struggle to win early with Dunne’s players, who were all recruited as grinders to develop over time. Especially with the graduation of Nick Griffin, I’m just not sure who puts the ball in the basket for the Peacocks.
All-Conference First Team:
- Rickey McGill– Iona (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.6 apg, .449/.383/.702)
- Isaiah Reese– Canisius (16.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, .463/.359/.881)
- Dimencio Vaughn– Rider (16.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, .508/.351/.764)
- Cameron Young– Quinnipiac (18.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, .422/.303/.754)
- Roland Griffin– Iona (11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, .531/.222/.669)
Player of the Year: Isaiah Reese (Canisius)
Reese not winning this award last season was a classic example of counting-stat bias (and lifetime achievement awards). In my book, he was clearly the best player in the MAAC last season. Reese’s breakout season was the main reason Canisius found itself in title contention last season, and his ability to impact games in so many ways makes him mid-major basketball’s most exciting talents. After working out for 3 different NBA teams this spring before returning to Canisius, it seems possible that Reese may head to the pro ranks sooner rather than later. The Golden Griffins had better capitalize while they can.
Breakout Player: Wassef Methnani (Fairfield)
A native of Tunisia, Methnani showed quite a few impressive flashes as a freshman, playing incredibly productive minutes down the stretch. In the season’s final 11 games, Methnani averaged 8.7 points in only 13.7 minutes while showing the ability to stretch the floor. He’ll certainly wind up platooning center minutes with Jonathan Kasibabu, but he also could steal some minutes at the 4 if Sydney Johnson just can’t keep him off the floor.
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Still (Iona)
Freshmen likely to have an opportunity for big minutes like Neftali Alvarez (Fairfield), Jalen Pickett (Siena), and Matt Balanc (Quinnipiac) deserve a look here, but Still has to be the preseason pick. At 6-6 with lots of athleticism, Still has a high-major frame and saw big-time success at Robert Morris. He’ll have to be more efficient this season, though playing with more talent and spacing should help in that regard– transfers to Iona tend to up their shooting percentages from their previous destinations thanks to the excellent spacing and emphasis on good shots.