Sunday, March 9, 2014

MAAC Semifinals: An In-Depth Preview

Sean Armand hopes to lead Iona to third MAAC championship game in four years as Gaels face Canisius in semifinals. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)

Sean Armand hopes to lead Iona to third MAAC championship game in four years as Gaels face Canisius in semifinals today. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)

The "Final Four" of the MAAC tournament gets underway later this afternoon, and it features a quartet of teams that nearly everyone expected to make this stage.

In the first semifinal, Iona and Canisius will square off for a third time, with the Golden Griffins seeking to avenge a home loss to the Gaels after defeating them at the Hynes Center when Sean Armand's three-point attempt for the win rimmed out at the buzzer. Jim Baron's team saw all five starters end the day in double figures yesterday when the Griffs defeated Siena, and MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron will have his share of opportunities to put on a show.

In the other matchup, No. 2 seed Manhattan faces perhaps their stiffest test, as the Jaspers will get a third crack at MAAC newcomer Quinnipiac, who swept both regular season meetings with the preseason conference favorites, the last of which came without forward Ousmane Drame, who went for 15 points and 16 rebounds in the Bobcats' quarterfinal win over Niagara last night.

Will we see the dream matchup between Iona and Manhattan, or will Canisius and/or Quinnipiac troll the critics and move one step closer to an unlikely championship game appearance? Here's how we see each matchup playing out?

#1 Iona (21-9) vs. #4 Canisius, (21-11) 4:30 p.m.
Storylines: Iona comes into today's matchup looking for their third championship game in four years under Tim Cluess, who also celebrates his 55th birthday this afternoon. Canisius enters off one of their more impressive and resilient victories, and will undoubtedly try to find the same scoring balance against a Gaels roster that ranks among the top ten in the nation in points per game.

Players to Watch: Armand and Baron will of course steal the spotlight, but pay close attention to Tre Bowman. The senior swingman seems to take his game to another level at the MassMutual Center, going for 28 points in yesterday's demolition of Rider after chipping in for 20 off the bench a year ago as Iona punched their NCAA Tournament ticket. What's more than that is that Canisius has no true answer for him in matchups, so look for Zach Lewis and Chris Perez to alternate on and off. If those two can match Baron on the offensive end while limiting Bowman, they have just as much of a chance as anyone.

Iona will win if: The defensive effort that was there yesterday against Rider reprises itself. The last thing the Gaels want is for Canisius to turn this game into a shootout, because Iona's defense is more of a lockdown unit than that of the Griffs.

Canisius will win if: The second and third options that asserted themselves behind Baron yesterday reappear to counteract the duo of Armand and David Laury, not to mention Bowman and fellow X-factor Isaiah Williams.

The Pick: Either team can win what will be an affair where the first team to 85 will likely win, but our money is on the Gaels, especially after their defensive efforts have improved at just the right time for Tim Cluess as Iona continues their championship defense.

#2 Manhattan (23-7) vs. #3 Quinnipiac, (20-10) 7 p.m.
Storylines: The preseason MAAC favorite Jaspers get one more shot to slay the remaining giant they have yet to take down, as Quinnipiac swept Manhattan in both regular season meetings. Also, each of the three will have been contested without a major player, as George Beamon suffered a shoulder injury in the opening minutes of the first matchup, while Ousmane Drame missed the second with a sprained knee, with Umar Shannon out today due to a torn meniscus.

Players to Watch: Manhattan's imposing physical presence known as Rhamel Brown. The senior, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds last night against Saint Peter's, will have his hands full with both Drame and Ike Azotam, who will try to establish their interior presence immediately after the opening tip. The battle between George Beamon and Zaid Hearst also looms large, as the guard who amasses the most rebounds will likely lead his team to victory.

Manhattan will win if: Brown stays out of foul trouble and Beamon overcomes the 1-of-8 effort he was held to against Saint Peter's. Also, Michael Alvarado will need to do his part as well.

Quinnipiac will win if: Azotam and Drame can draw fouls as well as they can score and rebound. If the Bobcats can also get contributions from Shaq Shannon and Evan Conti to match Hearst, Tom Moore's group may have the advantage.

The Pick: This is uncharted territory for the most part from a Quinnipiac perspective, plus it is not easy to beat the same team three times in a season. Moreover, Manhattan just looks like a completely different team since their setback on the road at Siena, showing much more discipline and playing fundamentally sound basketball, two factors that will be beneficial to their matchup tonight. With that said, give us the Jaspers and a rematch with Iona.

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