By Kevin Sweeney
After years of poor recruiting and less-than-stellar coaching hires throughout the league, the MAAC finally bottomed out in 2018-19. Ranked 28th in KenPom’s conference rankings after never having ranked worse than 23rd in the KenPom era, the conference didn’t have a top 150 team and generally lacked talent. Even Iona, who has dominated the conference for the last several years, wasn’t its usual self and were a couple Devauhnte Turner free throws away from an exit in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament.
Recent coaching hires have me optimistic that the league I grew up watching most will turn things around, but it may still be a multi-year process to get things back where they need to be.
#1. Iona– At this point, we have to give the Gaels the benefit of the doubt. Any Tim Cluess team will face roster turnover, and they might even have a few moments where you say “this might actually be the year they lose”. That moment came on February 13 last year, when the Gaels trailed by double digits with eight minutes to an upstart Siena team on the road. Iona rallied late in that one with a strong defensive effort, and didn’t lose another MAAC game the rest of the year. The primary question mark entering the season is replacing Rickey McGill– not only was McGill an elite point guard who could really defend, he was also the consummate winner and an extension of Cluess on the floor. In an ideal world, “JellyFam” star Isaiah Washington gets his waiver and can run the show and bring plenty of fans in the process, though Washington was a highly inefficient offensive player for two years at Minnesota. If not, some combo of JUCO import Colton Cashaw and returning combo guard Asante Gist will run the show. Regardless, the Gaels have plenty of shooting, and a pair of legit stars in EJ Crawford and Tajuan Agee. The x-factor in all this is New Mexico State transfer Mo Thiam, who struggled to crack a loaded NMSU rotation last season but was highly regarded out of JUCO and has earned rave reviews so far in New Rochelle. He could give Tim Cluess the option to go to some bigger, more athletic lineups.
#2. Siena— Jamion Christian abandoned his plans of bringing “Mayhem” to Loudonville after just one season in favor of a return to the DMV to coach at George Washington, but I think a poll of Siena fans would indicate they are just as happy with local product Carmen Maciariello taking over. While shooter extraordinaire Sloan Seymour eventually elected to follow Christian to “The World’s Most Powerful City”, the roster remained mostly in tact for Maciariello in his first head coaching stop, most importantly holding onto Jalen Pickett. Pickett, the best freshman the league has seen since Lionel Simmons, almost single-handedly lifted the Saints from the basement of the MAAC into contention a season ago– an elite pick-and-roll passer and defender who earned NBA looks as a result. The big difference in how this team will look is how they surround Pickett– Christian trotted a trio of 6-9 slow-footed bigs who can stretch the floor and the Saints were happy to grind out halfcourt sets. Maciariello has looked to fill out his roster with pieces to “attack and finish”– with lots of athletes who can get out in transition. To do that, he’ll need big seasons from impact transfers Donald Carey (Mount St. Mary’s) and Elijah Burns (Notre Dame) as well as highly-regarded freshman wing Gary Harris.
#3. Rider— Nothing went right in what was supposed to be a special 2018-19 for what was clearly the league’s most talented roster. Kevin Baggett has proven to be an excellent recruiter, and has loaded up on versatile athletes that allow the Broncs to play fast, force turnovers, and pound the glass. Shooting was the main on-court problem that doomed Rider, as regression by Jordan Allen and Dimencio Vaughn left the offense without much spacing. Those shooting struggles also manifested themselves at the free throw line– despite taking far more free throws than anyone else in the conference, they shot just 63% from the stripe in conference play. Impressive freshman guard Chris Ings should help Baggett’s team continue to win the possession battle, but someone will have to step up and hit some threes: perhaps RS sophomore Tyrei Randall can provide some spacing after sitting last season?
#4. Quinnipiac– The Bobcats were mostly able to account for having one of the worst defenses in the country last season by having one of the most efficient scorers in the country on its team in Cameron Young. To average 24 points per game on a 64% true shooting percentage is pretty much unheard of, and quite frankly, I’m surprised Young didn’t get more of a crack at an NBA roster spot this offseason. Baker Dunleavy’s bunch will still be able to hit plenty of threes– Rich Kelly and Jacob Rigoni are terrific shooters, and Northwestern grad transfer Aaron Falzon is one heck of a floor spacer when healthy. A lot rides on three youngsters: sophomore Tyrese Williams and RS freshmen Savion Lewis and Matt Balanc. Much of this team’s upside lies in this trio’s ability not only to bring some athleticism and shot-creating ability to the table, but also in their ability to help the Bobcats on the defensive end. If they can’t help fix this defense, it’s hard to see QU catching up with the top of the league.
#5. Manhattan– This could be Steve Masiello’s last stand in the Bronx (yep, despite the name, the Jaspers’ campus is NOT in Manhattan). His contract is up at the end of the season, and the Jaspers haven’t finished above .500 since the 2014-15 season. A top-5 finish seems like a reasonable target to keep his job, and to get there, he’ll have to fix one of the nation’s worst offenses from 2018-19. Those struggles have started at the point guard position: the Jaspers haven’t had a true point guard to run the show through since RaShawn Stores (now the team’s associate head coach). Sophomore Samir Stewart showed signed that he might be able to fill that role during his freshman campaign, but he is still definitely on the score-first, turnover-prone side. Meanwhile, look for Masiello to do what he has done his entire career– sell out for turnovers at all costs. Getting Pauly Paulicap back is huge– he’s an amazing defensive anchor as a rim protector.
#6. Monmouth– After building his program at Monmouth (including a pair of MAAC title teams) by playing tons of 4-out basketball with guards who could absolutely light it up from outside, King Rice has seemingly switched up his strategy to engaging in rock fights every night in MAAC play. No one embodies that more than Ray Salnave, a big, physical guard who struggles as a shooter but can effectively lock down smaller guards on the defensive end. Rice will miss Nick Rutherford (St John’s) more than most will realize– he was perhaps the best defender on this team and a big reason for the Hawks’ resurgence from an 0-12 start to a MAAC Championship Game appearance. Also to be missed will be Diago Quinn, who was the team’s most efficient scorer and a consistent presence on the inside. That said, I do think Mustapha Traore is underrated as an athletic frontcourt piece, and I’ve heard positive things early on about Jarvis Vaughan.
#7. Saint Peter’s– I was prepared to be much higher on the Peacocks for this year, but a lot of that luster left with the late-breaking news of KC Ndefo’s indefinite suspension from the program. Ndefo was snubbed from the league’s all-rookie team last year, but was an incredibly promising piece: a high-level rim protector with tons of athletic upside. He also fit in perfectly with the other pieces Shaheen Holloway is building with– Penn State transfer Nazeer Bostick and impressive freshmen Fousseyni and Hassan Drame all fit the mold of long, athletic wings with high defensive upside. The Drame twins are pieces to build around for Holloway for the long term– both of whom starred for Mali in the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer. They both have room to grow on offense, but are already strong defenders and have better ball skills than I expected. The main question is whether the Peacocks can get steady point guard play from the freshman duo of Aaron Estrada and Daryl Banks. If they can, this team can be dangerous– and if Ndefo comes back, watch out.
#8. Fairfield— It’s hard to envision a bigger flip in coaching philosophy than going from Sydney Johnson to Jay Young. Johnson, known for his uber-positivity and for giving free reign to his players to run and shoot threes on offense, was let go after bottoming out in 2018-19 in favor of Young, a gritty, defensive-minded coach from the Steve Pikiell tree who was long deserving of his own program. Getting the returners to buy in on the defensive end may be the biggest challenge Young faces in 2019-20, but if he can, the cupboard isn’t bare. The Stags are guard-poor, which doesn’t bode well in what has traditionally been a guards league. Still, I think Young will get a breakout year from Wassef Methnani and will have his team competing every night. That should be enough to steal a few games.
#9. Canisius– Somehow, Reggie Witherspoon went from having perhaps the best duo in the conference and a pair of MAAC POY candidates to having none. After wowing as a sophomore, Isaiah Reese couldn’t replicate the magic as a junior, struggling with his outside shot and seemingly dealing with chemistry issues with co-star Takal Molson. Eventually, Reese was suspended from the team and turned pro this offseason, while Molson departed for Seton Hall following the season. That leaves the Golden Griffins lacking guard talent– Malik Johnson is underrated among the conference’s best guards, but major growth is needed from Jordan Henderson into a second key cog after showing flashes as a freshman. High-scoring JUCO guard Majesty Brandon could help out there as well.
#10. Marist— It’s year two for John Dunne in Poughkeepsie, but in many ways it feels like year one: The Red Foxes lose their top five scorers from 2018-19 and feel very much in rebuild mode. Darius Hines showed promise playing either guard spot for Dunne, and should get more responsibilities tossed onto his plate in his sophomore campaign. A pair of transfers in Matt Turner (Santa Clara) and Jordan Jones (Charleston Southern) should soften the blow– Turner was well-regarded out of high school as a shooter, but struggled big-time as a freshman, while Jones flashed major potential towards the end of his sophomore year, averaging 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks while shooting 74% from the field in his final six games. Also worth watching is freshman guard Jack Cavanaugh, who comes in with high acclaim as a do-it-all guard.
#11. Niagara– Bloodlines aside, Pat Beilein has long been seen as a future D1 head coach, and gets his shot in the MAAC a year later than many expected. The rumor mill a year ago surrounded Beilein as a shoe-in for the Siena job after Jimmy Patsos’ departure, but those fell apart. Niagara is certainly happy they did, and gladly took in the Le Moyne head coach as their next head man. This is a definite multi-year build for a guy who has been known for flipping jobs quickly, but I’m confident Beilein will get the Purple Eagles rolling in due time. For year one, George Washington transfer Shandon Brown will have to assume a big role from the start, as will potential breakout guy Raheem Solomon.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jalen Pickett (Siena)
- Rich Kelly (Quinnipiac)
- EJ Crawford (Iona)
- Frederick Scott (Rider)
- Tajuan Agee (Iona)
Player of the Year: Jalen Pickett (Siena)
I’ve seen some previews give the nod to EJ Crawford here, and while he’s an excellent player, that’s nothing more than first-place bias. Pickett is clearly the conference’s best player– you could easily argue his overall impact on winning made him deserving of this award last season over Cameron Young. There isn’t an area of the game that Pickett doesn’t make an impact– he’s one of the best passers in the country, an elite defender (especially in off-ball situations), and can create his own shot off the bounce despite lacking speed. In terms of improving his NBA stock, Pickett has three main areas to improve– his handle, becoming a more consistent shooter, and improving his quickness/athleticism. We’ll see if he becomes an NBA player, but one thing is for certain– he’s one heck of a college star.
Breakout Player: Samir Stewart (Manhattan)
Stewart can really shoot– hitting 40% from three as a freshman is not something to scoff at. Where he has to improve is as a point guard– making better decisions and taking care of the ball. I believe he’ll make strides in the right direction in those areas, but Steve Masiello’s job may depend on it.
Newcomer of the Year: Savion Lewis (Quinnipiac)
Lewis came to Hamden highly regarded, and after redshirting for academic purposes as a freshman, the former NY Mr. Basketball is ready to impact things. During the team’s trip to Canada, Lewis averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. While not a shooter, Lewis impacts things in a multitude of ways when on the floor and frees up Rich Kelly to shoot more off the ball.