Two days removed from starting conference preview season with an in-depth profile of the Missouri Valley, next up is a league I am honored to cover, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The MAAC opens its doors for the 2012-13 season on the heels of arguably the most successful season in conference history, one that brought two NCAA Tournament bids in conference champion Loyola and regular season winner Iona, who received an at-large bid. Which of the ten teams will have the best shot to cut down the nets in Springfield this March, you might ask? Here's a look at each team and what they bring to the table.
1) Manhattan - Just eighteen months ago, Steve Masiello made a bold statement at his introductory press conference:
"As far as Manhattan basketball, everybody better watch out. We're going to create a new brand, and it's going to be the best in the city." - Steve Masiello, April 22, 2011Now in his second season at the helm of the Jaspers, Masiello has gone from six wins in Barry Rohrssen's final season to a 21-13 campaign featuring a trip to the CIT last year, and the 35-year-old now has the favorites to win the conference in Riverdale. Masiello also has the man who will likely be the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year in senior swingman George Beamon, who could very well average 20 points per game this season. Joining Beamon in the backcourt will be junior Michael Alvarado, one of the better ball handlers in the MAAC; as well as Chicago freshman C.J. Jones, who already has several analysts raving about his defense. Former reserves Emmy Andujar and Rhamel Brown, the latter of whom was named the MAAC's Defensive Player of the Year last season, will move into the starting lineup alongside sixth-year senior Roberto Colonette, one of the more underrated defensive forwards in the conference. Still undecided is the future of Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey, who will give the Jaspers a size advantage and inside presence that has not been seen in the MAAC since the days of Rider's Jason Thompson, now of the Sacramento Kings.
2) Iona - It does not sound possible on paper, but Tim Cluess and the Gaels really do look better this year after last year's NCAA Tournament appearance and without Scott Machado and Mike Glover, both of whom graduated this past May. Machado, the MAAC Player of the Year who is now playing for the Houston Rockets, will be replaced by Momo Jones as the former Arizona transfer moves to the point after playing off the ball last season. With Kyle Smyth also having graduated and moved on to use his final year of eligibility at Seton Hall, it opens the door for sharpshooter Sean Armand to become a full-time starter. A mid-major version of former UConn guard Rashad Anderson, Armand turned heads in January with his virtuoso 32-point performance against Siena in Madison Square Garden where the Brooklyn native set a conference record with ten three-pointers. Cluess will have the flexibility of playing smaller with four guards, as Toledo transfer Curtis Dennis arrives as a fifth-year senior who can play immediately, as does junior college expatriate Tre Bowman. Several other members of Cluess' eight-man recruiting class will make impacts early and often, including 6-9 big man Shawn Jackson, who could push incumbent starter Taaj Ridley for playing time inside until David Laury; another highly touted Gaels prospect, becomes eligible in December.
3) Loyola - Jimmy Patsos and the Greyhounds will be leaving for the Patriot League following this season, but the reigning MAAC champions will be able to defend their crown thanks to conference bylaws that allow outgoing teams to participate in conference tournaments, unlike other conferences. The Greyhounds return four starters this season, led by senior Erik Etherly, a first-team all-MAAC selection last year. Loyola's backcourt also returns intact, with sophomore R.J. Williams and junior Dylon Cormier joining senior Robert Olson to give the Greyhounds a formidable trio of guards that can stand up to any team in the conference. Forwards Anthony Winbush and Jordan Latham also come back to lead the bench, which includes a human interest story in Sean "S.J." Tuohy Jr.; a freshman guard who you may recognize for being the son of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the legal guardians of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher and real-life inspiration behind the Academy Award-winning film "The Blind Side."
4) Niagara - Joe Mihalich's Purple Eagles are clearly the most talented group to hit Monteagle Ridge since Charron Fisher took the court five years ago, and this young bunch could ultimately be MAAC championship contenders within the next year. Led by reigning conference Rookie of the Year Juan'Ya Green and Antoine Mason, son of former Knick Anthony, Niagara will also have Malcolm Lemmons back for the full season to complete their backcourt trio. Up front, Philadelphia native Ameen Tanksley has the luxury of playing off the ball to give the Purple Eagles a four-quick look with fellow Philly product Scooter Gillette up front, or Tanksley could move inside and give Niagara a longer and more athletic front line. Marvin Jordan and Joe Thomas return as well for the Purple Eagles, who also get a boost inside with the arrival of La Salle transfer Devon White.
5) Fairfield - The Stags lose the services of big men Ryan Olander and Rakim Sanders, the latter of whom showed at times the potential to be the best player in the MAAC, but Sydney Johnson retains both of his backcourt stars in Derek Needham and Desmond Wade, both of whom enter their senior seasons. Colin Nickerson, whose performance in the MAAC Tournament helped the Stags upset Iona, comes back for his final campaign as well. Forwards Maurice Barrow and Keith Matthews will have a more important role for Fairfield this season as well, but the Stags' biggest key will be getting their young big men to develop on an undersized team. Seven-footers Vincent Van Nes and incoming freshman Josip Mikulic will be critical to Fairfield's inside game with every minute they play.
6) Canisius - The enthusiasm around Buffalo is higher than in years past now that former Rhode Island boss Jim Baron has replaced Tom Parrotta at the helm of the Golden Griffins, and Baron brings with him the services of his son Billy, who may be able to get a waiver to play immediately. Without the junior Baron, however, Canisius is still more competitive than they were a year ago; thanks in large part to a backcourt led by guards Harold Washington and Alshwan Hymes, who welcome Central Florida transfer Isaac Sosa into the fold of guards as well. Reggie Groves is the third incumbent Canisius guard, and the junior gives the Griffs an underrated yet strong backcourt in a guard-dominated MAAC. Up front, Chris Manhertz and Josiah Heath will find that their jobs have become a little easier now that Kansas State transfer Freddy Asprilla is eligible. The 6-10 Colombian only played in sixteen games during his last season for Frank Martin and the Wildcats two years ago, but his size brings credibility and an instant advantage to the Griffs just by playing in a smaller conference.
7) Marist - This is a make-or-break year for Chuck Martin and the Red Foxes given Marist's showing in MAAC play since the departure of former coach Matt Brady. Fortunately, Marist returns the services of all five starters from last season, which automatically helps their cause. In the backcourt, Devin Price and Isaiah Morton will have plenty of opportunities to improve their productivity alongside swingman Jay Bowie, and fellow wing Dorvell Carter as well now that he received a medical redshirt following a season in which a knee injury claimed his season a year ago after just three games. Manny Thomas could even get significant minutes in a deep and talented Red Foxes backcourt that will augment the inside game of 6-10 forward Adam Kemp and Chavaughn Lewis, the 6-5 wing who led Marist in scoring last year and could play up front more often. The Red Foxes also retain the services of Anell Alexis, who started eighteen games for them last season.
8) Siena - Mitch Buonaguro's Saints have the potential to finish higher than this ranking just on the merits of senior forward O.D. Anosike alone. The Staten Islander was only the nation's leading rebounder last season, averaging 12.5 boards to go with his fifteen points per contest. Siena's most intriguing presence is that of 5-8 point guard Evan Hymes, now in his sophomore season after averaging over thirteen points per night and shooting 36 percent from three-point range. Sixth man Rob Poole will move into the starting five to join Hymes and the returning Rakeem Brookins in the backcourt, with 6-9 forward Davis Martens returning from injury to help carry the Saints up front.
9) Rider - The Broncs are a lot like Canisius before them in that they welcome a new coach to the program, as Kevin Baggett was promoted from associate head coach to replace Tommy Dempsey, who left for Binghamton. Rider also gets the services of an impact transfer in the form of former St. John's point guard Nurideen Lindsey, who will be eligible in December after leaving the Red Storm midway through last season. Lindsey's unconventional (for a point guard) ability to slash inside and attack the basket will help a Rider team that is transitioning following the losses of Jeff Jones, Brandon Penn and Novar Gadson. Lindsey's fellow Philadelphian Daniel Stewart returns for his junior season, and brings younger brother Derrick with him as well now that the latter has signed with the Broncs. Anthony Myles and Jonathon Thompson will see greater minutes in the backcourt alongside Lindsey, and Thompson's ability to run the point could push the newcomer off the ball in certain situations as well. Junior Fortunat, a 6-9 Canadian who only played an average of fourteen minutes per contest last year, is expected to be the big man up front alongside Stewart for the bulk of Rider's minutes.
10) Saint Peter's - John Dunne had arguably his toughest season with the Peacocks a year ago after beginning to rebuild in the wake of Saint Peter's Cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament. This time around, Dunne gets help up front from Pat Jackson; who New Jersey fans will recognize immediately from his time at Rutgers under Fred Hill and Mike Rice, and Jackson will bring experience at a high level to the Peacock front line, where he will team with senior Darius Conley, Saint Peter's leading scorer and rebounder last season. Seniors Chris Prescott and Blaise Ffrench anchor the Peacock backcourt, with Yvon Raymond coming back as well into a season where the former prep star should see increased minutes as a starter. New Jerseyans Markese Tucker and Karee Ferguson will lead the Peacock bench while also competing for a starter's share of playing time alongside Jackson and Conley in a season that should be a little easier for Dunne to navigate.