Saturday, March 8, 2014

MAAC Quarterfinals: An In-Depth Preview

Newly crowned MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron leads Canisius into conference tournament quarterfinal matchup against resurgent Siena. (Photo courtesy of NBC Sports)

And then there were eight.

Following Thursday's opening round games, the field for the MAAC quarterfinals takes the court at the MassMutual Center for four games today as we move one step closer to crowning a league champion and distributing another automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

While most eyes will be fixated on top seeds Iona and Manhattan, Quinnipiac will be looking to extend their run, as will Canisius and a suddenly resurgent Siena team. On the other side of the bracket, Saint Peter's and Niagara enter tonight's matchups hoping to continue an improbable run and further complicate the prognosticators' picks, many of whom include either Iona or Manhattan cutting down the nets Monday night.

Without any further ado:

#1 Iona (20-9) vs. #8 Rider, (14-16) 12 p.m.

Storylines: The reigning champions take the court in Springfield for the first time since cutting down the nets a year ago, and despite their lackluster start, are better and deeper this season, going 17-3 and setting a record for most conference wins. Their opponent already has a game under their belts, as Rider defeated Monmouth 71-60 to start the proceedings on Thursday, and nearly stole a game from the Gaels in the regular season. The winner moves on to face either Canisius or Siena.

Players to Watch: A.J. English will be front and center for Iona. The hub of the wheel after Scott Machado and Momo Jones redefined the point guard spot in New Rochelle, English carved out his own legacy en route to first team all-conference honors, and will be the facilitator for Sean Armand and Tre Bowman in the opening minutes. Isaiah Williams can change the game from beyond the arc as well. On the Rider side, Daniel Stewart is playing like he does not want his career to end, and rightfully so. His 25 points and nine rebounds turned a close game against Monmouth into a decisive victory Thursday night.

Iona will win if: The Gaels simply defend. Iona is a much more offensively gifted team than Rider, and as long as they are making shots, they have the edge. It all comes down to what the Broncs do on that side of the ball.

Rider will win if: Kevin Baggett can slow down Iona's offense just enough to give Stewart and Jimmie Taylor enough time to keep the game close, and also if David Laury misses more than he makes at the free throw line.

The Pick: Iona handled business easily against the Broncs on Sunday after nearly blowing a 14-point lead in the final four minutes of their first meeting two weeks ago, and know what it takes to get to the big stage. Give us the Gaels in convincing fashion.

#4 Canisius (20-11) vs. #5 Siena, (15-16) 2:30 p.m.

Storylines: Still a dark horse pick to win it all this weekend, Canisius brings their dynamic offense into a deceptively strong matchup with Siena, who comes in on a four-game winning streak, a surge that vaulted Jimmy Patsos and the Saints into the fifth seed this weekend, allowing them to get a first-round bye before drawing Jim Baron and the Golden Griffins before the winner faces either Iona or Rider tomorrow.

Players to Watch: Naturally, Baron is at the top of the list. The runaway choice for MAAC Player of the Year, the coach's son will be expected to carry the load similar to how he has all season as the Griffs try to win their first conference tournament since the John Beilein era. For Siena, Rob Poole and Evan Hymes will lead the charge in Patsos' flex offense, and Marquis Wright will be entrusted with the greatest task to date in his freshman career, that of having to defend Baron.

Canisius will win if: Baron replicates his 40-point performance from the triple overtime game three weeks ago, and also if Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath can impose their will on a Siena front line that is prone to excessive fouling.

Siena will win if: Patsos' game plan against Baron is executed to perfection, not to mention Poole and Hymes showing up on both sides of the ball, as well as Brett Bisping and Imoh Silas avoiding foul trouble.

The Pick: No one expects Siena to win this one, but by the same token, too many people are doubting Jimmy Patsos here. The Saints are peaking at the right time, whereas Canisius has struggled to a 4-4 record in their last eight games. Give us the upset and Siena to face Iona.

#2 Manhattan (22-7) vs. #7 Saint Peter's, (14-16) 6:30 p.m.

Storylines: Winners of two in a row after a humbling loss to Siena, Steve Masiello's Jaspers enter focused and determined to validate the preseason hype that saw Manhattan selected as the favorites to win the conference, while Saint Peter's comes in off a dramatic overtime victory that saw Desi Washington sink Fairfield with a three-pointer in the final seconds for the third time this season. The winner of this game takes on either Quinnipiac or Niagara in tomorrow's semifinal.

Players to Watch: George Beamon and Rhamel Brown will be the first two names to pay attention to, but keep a closer eye on Michael Alvarado. The senior guard did not play in Sunday's regular season finale against Canisius due to an ankle injury suffered last week against Iona, but has been practicing in full all week and is expected to go. For Saint Peter's, Washington will be the center of Masiello's game plan after his Thursday night heroics, and Marvin Dominique will be more valuable than ever before as Manhattan keys in on Washington.

Manhattan will win if: The Jaspers play their style of basketball and limit their mistakes against a Peacock team that takes advantage of even the slightest deviation from the norm. If the Jaspers control the ball and get the right shot on most possessions, this one is theirs for the taking.

Saint Peter's will win if: They can successfully dictate the tempo and slow Manhattan down, not an easy thing to do against a team that pushes the ball up faster than most teams and then comes back and presses the life out of its opponents. Regardless, the Peacocks will have their opportunities.

The Pick: Saint Peter's can never be counted out of any matchup, and John Dunne will have the Peacocks in contention throughout the night. However, Manhattan has the edge in personnel and experience, and the Jaspers will exploit this hole on the way to victory.

#3 Quinnipiac (19-10) vs. #11 Niagara, (7-25) 9 p.m.

Storylines: Quinnipiac prepares for its first MAAC tournament experience after a humbling 103-72 defeat at the hands of Marist on Sunday, and does so without Umar Shannon, who is lost for the season. Either way, the Bobcats got a huge break when Marist was eliminated Thursday night by Niagara, who got off to a hot start against Jeff Bower and the Red Foxes, but were life and death to hold on in the second half after leading by 21 at one point. Looking ahead, both teams played Manhattan and Saint Peter's hard, with Quinnipiac sweeping the Jaspers in the regular season.

Players to Watch: Ike Azotam and Ousmane Drame will instantly command most of the attention for the Bobcats, but no player is arguably more important to Tom Moore's group than Zaid Hearst. The junior guard can score and rebound in bunches, and should draw the assignment on Mason, who will be the main source of support for the Purple Eagles once again. 

Quinnipiac will win if: The Bobcats can take advantage of Niagara's undersized front line. Expect heavy doses of Azotam and Drame early and often, especially under the rim.

Niagara will win if: Chris Casey can get his team to hold everything together down the stretch, and also if players other than Antoine Mason step up to make shots. On paper, it looks difficult, but it can easily be achieved.

The Pick: Even without Shannon, Quinnipiac should be able to advance against a Niagara team whose late-game strategy will likely be scrutinized heavier in the wake of Marist's near-comeback. Give us the Bobcats to set up a third meeting with Manhattan.

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