On to the MAAC! This is always a fun preview for me to write given how much MAAC basketball I watch – I grew up in Albany and have family ties at Siena, so I watch my fair share of Saints games. To me, the MAAC is what one-bid basketball is all about: everything from small gyms to downtown arenas, lots of personalities, and lots of close games. In fact, the MAAC was the most competitive conference in America last season per KenPom with a remarkable 28.2% of games decided by four points or less or overtime. It’s a lot of fun watching this league every year, and the addition of Rick Pitino at Iona just as the league’s biggest brand (Siena) gets back to its winning ways should make for plenty of fun storylines this season and beyond. Let’s dive into it:
- Siena – After a few bumps in December and January, Siena flourished late under first-year head coach Carmen Maciariello to win 10 straight before the season was shut down by COVID-19. While Maciariello was an internal hire, the Saints changed stylistically quite a bit from the brief Jamion Christian era and it took time to for this team to define its identity and buy in on the defensive end. After giving up 70 or more points in 12 of the team’s first 16 games, Siena conceded 70 just twice in that 10-game streak, and that defensive spirit really keyed the turnaround. While last year’s group was built around a ‘Core 4’ of sorts featuring superstar point guard Jalen Pickett, scoring guard Don Carey, do-it-all forward Manny Camper, and elite post player Elijah Burns, this year’s team will be defined by its versatility and depth. Carey (Georgetown) and Burns (graduation) both depart, but there’s enough star power with Pickett and Camper at the top and Maciariello’s strong recruiting efforts since taking the job give this group a ton of upside. Folks in Loudonville have been buzzing for awhile about freshman Aidan Carpenter, a lightning-quick combo guard who’ll be great in Maciariello’s “Attack & Finish” style, and there’s also plenty of excitmenet about URI transfer Data Tate, a versatile forward who the Saints staff thinks can play anywhere but point guard. But the word to define this group is ‘options’ – going small with 3-4 guards around a small-ball big in Camper is possible, but so are big lineups with a true center like Kyle Young and multiple jumbo wing/forwards like Camper, Tate, Gary Harris, and freshman Colin Golson. An offense captained by Pickett will always be tough to stop: he’s a wizard in ball screens who sets up big men for easy buckets as well as anyone in the country. Finding the right combinations may take a bit of time, but the Saints are talented, deep, and have the star power necessary to be a dangerous mid-major in March.
- Iona – It’s Pitino time in New Rochelle. Following Tim Cluess stepping away due to a medical condition, Iona higher-ups made a bold move several have pondered but no one had previously been willing to pull the trigger on: hiring Rick Pitino. It’s the type of gamble made by a program with big aspirations – the Gaels had been a consistent presence in the NCAA Tournament under Cluess, but going further (see Dickie V’s “Gonzaga of the East” comments) requires gambling, and gamble the Iona administration did. Morals aside, Pitino is a legendary basketball coach who without a doubt will win wherever he is. He’ll try to do so with a new roster full of late signees who committed sight-unseen, but bring upside not often seen in the MAAC. Returners Asante Gist, Isaiah Ross, and Dylan Van Eyck provide experience, and all three should play a role this season. But let’s look at the newcomers: JUCO 7-footer Osborn Shema OOZES potential as a potential unicorn who can block shots and space the floor, but not spending a summer in a weight room and college cafeteria may stunt his development a year. Pitino adds two other JUCO pieces in uber-athletic wing Berrick JeanLouis and high-level shooter Tahlik Chavez – Chavez in particular feels like a critical piece as an experienced shot-maker and ballhandler to help the Gaels run efficient offense in year one. Of the five freshmen Pitino brings in, I’m most excited about Berlin native Dwayne Koroma, a smooth 6-7 wing who should be able to defend multiple positions and hit shots. He received high-major interest late before choosing the Gaels. With Pitino essentially getting just 90 days to implement a new system with nine newcomers to D1 basketball will be a challenge, this may be the best time to try to knock the Gaels off in the Pitino era.
- Saint Peter’s – Shaheen Holloway was a deserving winner for the MAAC COY award last season no matter how good a job Carm Maciariello and Greg Paulus did. I’m not sure the non-diehard MAAC fans understand how difficult a place to win SPU is, and Holloway having the Peacocks in MAAC title contention until the very end last season is an incredible testament to the work he has done in Jersey City. The Peacocks soared last season thanks to a terrific defense that made it incredibly difficult to score at the rim. Keying that unit is KC Ndefo, one of the best defensive players in the country who ranked in the top 10 nationally in block rate and top 40 nationally in steal rate. Ndefo’s impact on the game is massive, and while I understand Holloway’s desire to cycle through bodies I think I’d ride Ndefo for a bit more than the 22 minutes a game they used him last season. We’ll likely see more of Ndefo at the 5 this season with the graduation of Derrick Woods and transfer of Majur Majak, which will lead to bigger roles for long, athletic wings Fousseyni and Hassan Drame. The Drame twins were rough offensively last season but bring upside on the defensive end and aren’t finished products yet. And while much of the buzz around the newcomers surrounds athletic wing Zarique Nutter, I’m actually higher on prep point guard Marty Silvera, a bulldog-type ballhandler who fills a need with the departure of Aaron Estrada. Silvera isn’t on the roster right now, but SPU currently only has eight guys on its roster, so I’m not sure what to make of that. SPU needs just enough offensive pop from shooters Doug Edert and Matthew Lee and ballhandlers Darryl Banks and Silvera to let this elite defense win them games.
- Monmouth – The Hawks’ title hopes likely evaporated with the departure of veteran guard Ray Salnave to DePaul this spring, the Hawks have enough here to be competitive again after a key bounceback season in 2019-20. Despite the loss of Salnave, King Rice’s club will be defined by its backcourt: gifted shot-making wing Deion Hammond leads the way, with senior George Papas and Chattanooga transfer Donovann Toatley in key supporting roles. Toatley was a high school teammate of Hammond’s at Riverdale Baptist in Maryland, and while undersized he brings a scorer’s mentality this this MU club. Jitterbug combo guards like Toatley have had success in the MAAC in the past, though he does need to do a better job taking care of the ball and not weaken a defense that will full of playmakers last season. MU won a season ago by winning the turnover battle: the Hawks were +4.7 per game in that department last year thanks to a physical defense full of ballhawks. Salnave and Mustapha Traore were keys to that unit though, so we’ll see if they can maintain those turnover-forcing ways this season. This group feels like it’s one or two pieces away from cracking the conference’s upper echelon.
- Manhattan – I’ve been critical of Steve Masiello in recent years, and I still don’t love the contract extension he received in February considering he has now had five straight sub-.500 seasons. Despite that, I do love what Masiello did on the transfer market this spring, adding three talented local products who should give the Jaspers a major, major boost this season. The headliner of that trio is Seton Hall transfer Anthony Nelson, a gifted distributor with great size at the point guard position. Nelson gives Masiello his first true point guard in several seasons and allows scoring guard Samir Stewart to move off the ball, which could be a huge boost for the team’s turnover margin. Masiello teams win games by taking the ball away, but they’ve given the ball away so much in recent years that it weakens the impact of that swarming defense. George Mason transfer Jason Douglas-Stanley brings scoring, and UMass transfer Samba Diallo is a versatile, energetic forward who should help on the boards. Diallo’s game is somewhat similar to that of Siena’s Manny Camper, who’ll be a first team All-MAAC guy this season. My big concern is the loss of Pauly Paulicap, a great rim protector who is off to DePaul – Warren Williams may be a more skilled back-to-basket scorer, but he doesn’t bring the same pop defensively that Paulicap did. Nelson should buoy an offense that was one of the nation’s worst last season, but will it be enough to climb the MAAC ladder significantly?
- Niagara – As I mentioned earlier, Greg Paulus deserves loads of credit for the work he did at Niagara this past season, and I’m excited to see how he builds this program moving forward. After taking over deep into the fall after scandal led to Pat Beilein’s resignation before ever coaching a game, Paulus took a roster that would be considered undersized by a lot of D2 coaches and won 9 MAAC games. With the dearth of size, the Purple Eagles went super small and relied heavily on ball control and outside shooting to steal games. In doing so, Paulus found a superstar in Marcus Hammond, a gifted shooter capable of playing with or without the ball who is fearless going to the rim despite his slender frame. While I expect the Purple Eagles to continue to lean into pace-and-space offense, a few key additions give help give them a group that may no longer be the 2nd-worst rebounding team in America. Le Moyne transfer Kobi Nwandu won’t be a huge rebounder, but he has great size at 6-6 and averaged 16.6 points per game on a Le Moyne team that was as good as a lot of low-majors in 2018-19. There has also been buzz about freshman Touba Traore, a physical 6-10 post player who is still very raw but should have an impact on the glass and at the rim in year one. A waiver for Longwood transfer Jordan Cintron would also be a boost: Cintron is a versatile defender who can play either frontcourt spot and would definitely give this defense a boost.
- Rider – A roster blowup seemed somewhat inevitable after a second consecutive disappointing season for the Broncs with a once-promising core, but that still doesn’t soften the blow of losing arguably your two best players a year early to the grad transfer market in Dimencio Vaughn (Ole Miss) and Frederick Scott (Boston College). With those losses, Kevin Baggett is now in charge of replacing his five largest minutes-earners from a season ago, a herculean challenge especially without being able to get players on campus over the summer. Baggett has recruited better than much of the league, and that should serve him well in a rebuilding year for the program. I’m very high on sophomore guard Christian Ings, who started 18 games as a freshman and is a big-time athlete at the guard spot. Big man Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson was productive in limited minutes during his first two seasons behind Tyere Marshall and should step into a bigger role in 2020-21. JUCO wing Jeremiah Pope brings high-level shot-making ability, while freshman Nehemiah Benson comes in with high regard. The Broncs are far less experienced than some of the teams I’m picking below them, but this just doesn’t look the part of a true bottom-feeder. I expect they’ll steal some games and be better than expected in 2020-21.
- Quinnipiac – A disappointing year three of the Baker Dunleavy era starts to bring some long-term questions over whether QU’s large investment in a big-name coach will pay off. Those questions only grow louder when you lose your two best players a year early in the offseason, and that’s what Dunleavy did with the departures of elite rebounder Kevin Marfo (Texas A&M) and high-level point guard Rich Kelly (Boston College). Kelly and Marfo were the two main ingredients of a dynamite PnR duo that was hard to guard: Marfo was a capable lob threat who got to the line at a ridiculously high rate and Kelly was a smart passer and great shooter who burned you if you went under the screen. Losing that duo will make it hard for this offense to flourish, and defense hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of the Dunleavy era to date (3 straight 300+ finishes in KenPom’s defensive efficiency). The defense could improve without Kelly and Marfo: Kelly was a liability at times at the point of attack, and 7-foot sophomore Seth Pinkney was VERY impressive as a rim protector (and flashed high upside overall) behind Marfo a season ago. There’s still plenty of talent in the backcourt, but fitting together the pieces with unproven and inconsistent guys may be a challenge. Tyrese Williams regressed somewhat last season and enters a critical third year of his development, while youngsters Matt Balanc and Savion Lewis were inconsistent and will need to step up. Watch out for freshman PG Bol Akot, a gifted ballhandler who I could see emerging in a major way from this backcourt pack. A big first season from him would go a long way in this team competing for a bye come MAAC Tournament time.
- Fairfield – In year one of Jay Young’s tenure at Fairfield, the Stags attempted to win by muddying the waters similar to how Young’s mentor Steve Pikiell built Rutgers. Not armed with much in the way of offensive talent, Young’s group grinded games to a halt, held the ball for over 20 seconds on average on offense, and tried to win close games late with good defense and timely shot-making. It worked to an extent: while the Stags did lose 20 games, they finished 8-12 in the league and lost a pair of home games late in the year by one possession that could have potentially led them to a bye in the MAAC Tournament. A pair of transfers in point guard Caleb Green (Holy Cross) and Tshiefu Ngalakulondi (St Bonaventure) should give this group a lift offensively, and a waiver for Richmond transfer shooter Jake Wojcik would also help. Meanwhile, the continued development of young players like high-upside forward Chris Maidoh and freshman Jason Edokpayi will be critical for the long-term vitality of this program. Green’s addition feels like the biggest one given the Stags really struggled without a true point guard to run the show last season. But it still feels to me like FU is going to be in a position where they need to win a lot of rock fights to climb the ladder… and I’m not sure how sustainable it is to go an entire season without scoring 70 points in regulation (which the Stags did last season).
- Marist – The Red Foxes took a big late-summer blow when gifted rising sophomore wing Tyler Sagl elected to transfer home to Canada and play at perennial power Ryerson. Still, I expect John Dunne’s club to be feisty in 2020-21, and they’ve made a couple of key adds that should mitigate some of the struggles they dealt with last season. Dunne teams are never explosive offensively, but this group struggled even more than usual at putting the ball in the basket. Here to help in that regard are a pair of newcomers at the point guard position who should make life easier for the likes of Michael Cubbage, Matthew Herasme, and Tyler Saint-Furcy. Raheim Sullivan comes in from McCook CC with pedigree as a good decision-maker who can hit shots, while undersized PG Hakim Byrd is a tough Philly kid who should fit in with Dunne’s ethos immediately. The Red Foxes also beef up the frontcourt with Memphis transfer Victor Enoh getting eligible: a bruising big man who’ll be worked in at the 4 and the 5. The main problem for the Red Foxes is the league’s middle is getting better around them, so climbing the ladder may be a challenge.
- Canisius – It doesn’t feel like there’s a traditional last-place team in the MAAC this season, and just like last season I expect you’ll see a bottom tier that competes and causes problems for even the league’s championship contenders. But I have the Griffs coming in at the bottom as they prepare to replace do-it-all point guard Malik Johnson and come off a season in which they clearly underachieved relative to their talent level. Losing Johnson is a major blow: he almost never left the floor and while he didn’t shoot the ball great, he made life easy for teammates and was one of the hardest-playing guys in the league. Johnson was also good at taking care of the ball, which was a problem for Canisius a season ago. Having a creative ballhandler at the point guard position is critical in Reggie Witherspoon’s continuity ball screen offense, and those duties will likely fall to JUCO import Ahamadou Fofana (Erie CC). Fofana averaged 20 points, 5 assists, and shot 41% from 3 this season, and Witherspoon likely hopes that a combination of Fofana and scoring guard Majesty Brandon can provide enough ballhandling to keep this offense flowing. Up front, Witherspoon will continue to cycle through bodies down low, though growth from sophomore Jacco Fritz would be big after a solid freshman season. There are enough pieces here to make this last-place pick look foolish in retrospect, but Witherspoon’s groups have been seriously underwhelming in back-to-back years and in a league where close games are the norm, I need a bounce-back year before I trust the Griffs again.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jalen Pickett (Siena)
- Marcus Hammond (Niagara)
- Deion Hammond (Monmouth)
- Manny Camper (Siena)
- KC Ndefo (Saint Peter’s)
Player of the Year: Jalen Pickett (Siena) – The clear choice here, Pickett built on an incredible freshman campaign with an even better sophomore season, and Saints fans hope the show is only at halftime. While Pickett didn’t have a Ja Morant-esque breakout campaign cementing his draft status in 2019-20, he did make strides in his overall game: his shot was far more consistent, he improved his handle to take care of the ball better, and he also stepped up as a leader late in the season after some struggles early on. He’s a terrific pure point guard who will hurt you however you guard him: if you want to make others beat you, he’ll gladly sit back and dish out 12 assists. If you want to make him a scorer, he’ll drop 25 on your head hitting jumpers from all over the floor. He’s a fun player to watch, and a major reason the Saints deserve the label of preseason MAAC favorites despite all the Pitino buzz in New Rochelle.
Breakout Player: Dylan Van Eyck (Iona) – While much of the conversation about Iona is this quality recruiting class, I think a senior in Van Eyck has the chance to really be an unsung hero for the Gaels this season. Rick Pitino brought in multiple upside-laden choices in the frontcourt, but the lack of summer workouts could really slow their impact on this season. Van Eyck is a veteran who plays really hard, rebounds the ball well, and had some bright moments last season despite dealing with injuries. If Iona has the type of season Pitino hopes for, I think Van Eyck will be a key reason why.
Newcomer of the Year: Tahlik Chavez (Iona) – For as many intangibles and hustle stats that Van Eyck brings, the Gaels also needed to add some firepower. They got plenty of Chavez, one of many impressive newcomers for Iona this spring who should be a much-needed shot-creator for this offense. A JUCO import with three years to play, Chavez averaged 20 points and shot a blistering 44% from 3 for Garden City CC last season. He’s a dynamite shooter who should make a significant impact in his first season with the Gaels.