MAAC Player of the Year Scott Machado looks to finish job this weekend for Iona and send Gaels to first NCAA Tournament since 2006. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)
A team with high expectations given their high-major talent, two others that have been at the top of the conference all year, and a team responsible for the greatest turnaround in the nation after more than tripling their win total from the previous season. Those programs make up the top four seeds in this year's MAAC tournament, held for the first of three consecutive years at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
Ten teams, nine games, one winner. Who will have the honor of representing one of the nation's best mid-major conferences in the NCAA Tournament? The following analysis will help you figure that out just a little more.
Friday, March 2nd (all times Eastern)
#8 Marist (13-17, 7-11) vs. #9 St. Peter's, (5-25, 4-14) 7:30 pm: This is the year in which the bright future has finally started to shine for fourth-year coach Chuck Martin, as the Red Foxes are playing their best basketball since the days of former coach Matt Brady and one-time MAAC Player of the Year Jared Jordan. Led by Adam Kemp and Jay Bowie, the Red Foxes have also received valuable contributions from point guard Devin Price down the stretch. Marist nearly beat Iona three weeks ago, and their win over Loyola three days later shows their ability to beat some of the best in the conference. Speaking of Iona; the Gaels were the last opponent St. Peter's faced in the regular season, and the Peacocks will be looking to take out their frustrations after being victimized to the tune of a 31-0 Iona run. Led by forward Darius Conley; John Dunne's team may be young and still trying to find themselves, but if they can control the tempo and play the game at their pace, they will be hard to stop. Ultimately, that ability to change the game will play into the hands of the Peacocks, who get the upset and a rematch with Iona tomorrow. The Pick: Saint Peter's
#7 Niagara (13-18, 8-10) vs. #10 Canisius, (5-24, 1-17) 9:30 pm: Just as young as St. Peter's, the Purple Eagles have talented freshmen that will give Joe Mihalich one of his best teams a year or two down the road. The duo of Antoine Mason (Anthony's son and Anthony Jr.'s brother) and newly crowned MAAC Rookie of the Year Juan'ya Green are a high-scoring tandem that could very easily account for half the offense for Niagara in this game. On the other side of the court, their crosstown rivals come in with a solid team despite just one conference victory. Guards Gaby Belardo and second team all-MAAC selection Harold Washington can match up well with Mason and Green for the first part of the game, but Tom Parrotta's Golden Griffins come up just a little short here. The Pick: Niagara
Saturday, March 3rd
#4 Fairfield (17-13, 12-6) vs. #5 Rider, (13-18, 10-8) 2:30 pm: Sydney Johnson has done a respectable job in his first year at the helm of the Stags, and now faces the biggest challenge of the year as he tries to guide Fairfield to a conference championship without the services of point guard Derek Needham, who is out with a broken bone in his foot. In his absence, however, the Stags still have multiple scoring options in guard Desmond Wade and seven-foot center Ryan Olander. Then there is Rakim Sanders, the Stags' senior forward who just gets better every night and has mounds of potential. The former Boston College transfer is a solid NBA prospect that can change a game on his own, as noted by his double-double in the first half alone against Iona last Friday. Tommy Dempsey has done a great job guiding the Broncs back to respectability after a 3-10 nonconference schedule; and has five players averaging double figures per game, including Virginia transfer Jeff Jones and Novar Gadson. This will be one of the more evenly matched pairings this weekend; and while it wouldn't shock me to see Rider get the upset, Sanders will be the difference for the Stags as Fairfield will advance. The Pick: Fairfield
#1 Iona (24-6, 15-3) vs. Marist/St. Peter's winner, 4:30 pm: Anything short of a victory in the championship game Monday night would be a letdown for Tim Cluess and the Gaels based on their lofty expectations since the start of the season. Iona did not celebrate their regular season title at the Hynes Center last week, and for good reason. Led by conference Player of the Year Scott Machado; arguably the best point guard in the nation, and fellow first team all-MAAC choice Mike Glover, the Gaels have the collegiate version of "Lob City," and Machado and Glover are (to this writer) better than Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Iona also has a third scorer in Momo Jones that no other team in the conference possesses other than Loyola. The X-factor will be sophomore sharpshooter Sean Armand. When he gets on a roll, (and he probably will at some point) the Gaels will be playing with enough house money that will enable them to defeat whoever they face. The Pick: Iona
#2 Loyola (21-8, 13-5) vs. Niagara/Canisius winner, 7:30 pm: The Greyhounds have had arguably their best season in program history under newly minted Coach of the Year Jimmy Patsos; who won the award in a bit of an upset, (more on that later) but have the talent to back it up. Led by Erik Etherly and Shane Walker, Loyola also gets contributions from sharpshooter Dylon Cormier and deceptive scoring threats Robert Olson and Justin Drummond to give the Greyhounds a six-man rotation that is hard to stop on any given night. If Niagara wins, the Purple Eagles; who beat Loyola earlier in the year, might have enough to pull off the upset, but a neutral court tips the scales back in Loyola's favor. The Pick: Loyola
#3 Manhattan (20-11, 12-6) vs. #6 Siena, (13-16, 8-10) 9:30 pm: I'm going to put this out there and say that it is a shame that Steve Masiello did not win MAAC Coach of the Year honors. Nothing against the aforementioned Jimmy Patsos; but there is something to be said about what the former assistant to Bobby Gonzalez has done, and that is taking a team that won just six games and finished last in the conference a year ago to a third-place finish this season and winning twenty games with them in a fashion similar to how Gonzalez transformed the Jaspers after taking over for John Leonard. All grievances aside, the Jaspers can credit swingman George Beamon and super sub Rhamel Brown as the main reasons why they more than tripled their win total from last season. The health of point guard Michael Alvarado is still in question as he is recovering from a concussion, but Manhattan still has the pieces to get it done in his absence. The key will be stopping O.D. Anosike, the Saints' junior forward who leads the nation in rebounding with an average of nearly thirteen boards per game. Guards Kyle Downey and Evan Hymes should have their fair share of shooting opportunities, but Masiello's Louisville-inspired defense gets the job done for Manhattan. The Pick: Manhattan
Sunday, March 4th
Iona/Marist-St. Peter's winner vs. Fairfield/Rider winner, 2pm: The Pick: Iona over Fairfield
Loyola/Niagara-Canisius winner vs. Manhattan/Siena winner, 4:30 pm: The Pick: Manhattan over Loyola
Monday, March 5th
Metro Atlantic Conference Championship, 7pm on ESPN2: The Pick: Iona over Manhattan