Thursday, March 6, 2014

MAAC Tournament Opening Round: An In-Depth Preview

Desi Washington hopes to keep Saint Peter's hot streak alive as Peacocks open MAAC tournament against Fairfield, whom they swept regular season series against. (Photo courtesy of Saint Peter's University)

For the third and final time, "MAACachusetts" will open its doors to the eleven members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, who enters the ultimate year of its agreement with the MassMutual Center to host its annual postseason tournament.

Reigning champions Iona (men) and Marist (women) are considerable favorites to defend their titles, but a repeat; or in the case of Brian Giorgis and the Red Fox ladies, a ninth straight postseason crown and tenth in eleven years, is a much bigger question mark thanks to the threats on the women's side from Iona, Fairfield and Quinnipiac, while Manhattan, Quinnipiac and Canisius have kept Tim Cluess and the Gaels firmly in their sights since the calendar shifted into league play.

Six games open the slate later this morning, with Kendra Faustin and Niagara contesting the opening tip of the tournament on the women's side against MAAC rookies Monmouth, but we'll focus more on the men on this day with our previews of the three opening round games that will complete the quarterfinal field. Without any further ado:

#8 Rider (13-16, 9-11) vs. #9 Monmouth, (11-20, 5-15) 5 p.m.
Storylines: Something has to give in this matchup of two teams who take the court seeking to end losing streaks that concluded the regular season on a sour note. For Rider, it is a chance to regain momentum after the Broncs dropped from the No. 5 seed into the No. 8 spot in just one week, while Monmouth will come away having gained critical experience regardless of the final outcome, a must for King Rice's young roster. The winner of this game will move on to face Iona in the quarterfinals, a team that nearly blew a 14-point lead in the final four minutes of their first meeting with Rider before handily defeating Kevin Baggett's team to end the regular season, and swept the Hawks with a pair of convincing victories that saw the Gaels score 89 points in each one.

Players to Watch: For Rider, it's the scoring tandem of Anthony Myles and Daniel Stewart. As they go, so too does the team, which also gets a boost from freshman Jimmie Taylor, especially when he is in a groove from beyond the arc. On the other side of the court, Monmouth will lean heavily on Deon Jones and Andrew Nicholas just as they have all season, but the freshman frontcourt duo of Zac Tillman and Chris Brady possesses a pair of 6-10 twin towers that no team in the conference can match.

Rider will win if: The Broncs can score consistently, something that has plagued them in recent games. If the baskets come few and far between, it will be a long night for the boys from Lawrenceville.

Monmouth will win if: King Rice can get his team to play a full 40 minutes of fundamentally sound basketball, an aspect the third-year coach has been brutally honest about when addressing its erratic results. If the Hawks can limit their mistakes on both ends, they can walk away with a victory, which was within their reach in both of their regular season meetings with Rider.

The Pick: We're feeling a little confident here. Monmouth has shown signs of life despite losing nine of their last ten coming into Springfield, but Rider's struggles have proven to be rooted deeper than those of the Hawks, who are going through a trial by fire. Give us Monmouth in a mild upset.

#7 Saint Peter's (13-16, 9-11) vs. #10 Fairfield, (7-24, 4-16) 7 p.m.
Storylines: John Dunne and the Peacocks have posted their best regular season result since 2011, when Saint Peter's came into Bridgeport as the No. 4 seed in the tournament before proceeding to knock off regular season champion Fairfield and runner-up Iona on consecutive nights to waltz away with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they eventually fell to Purdue. The Peacocks have proven they can compete with everyone this season, a campaign that includes a resounding win against Quinnipiac and close losses against Iona and Canisius, and will look for their third win of the season against Sydney Johnson and the Stags, who have faced a long road attempting to replace the heart and soul of their program in former point guard Derek Needham. Amadou Sidibe still anchors the interior while Maurice Barrow provides a spark off the bench that is unrivaled by anyone else in the MAAC, and each will need to be at the top of their respective games should Fairfield move into the quarterfinals, where Steve Masiello and Manhattan await.

Players to Watch: Saint Peter's has a pair, with Desi Washington leading the charge out of the backcourt with a deceptively strong three-point shot and dangerous mid-range jumper, while Fordham expatriate Marvin Dominique mans the paint for the Peacocks in the midst of a career resurgence after being cast aside by Tom Pecora at Rose Hill. On the Fairfield side, Barrow and Sidibe are the name brands that make the Stags' motor run, but watch out for swingman Marcus Gilbert. When the 6-6 wing is making shots, he is as good as anyone in the conference, and that includes the likes of George Beamon and Sean Armand, both of whom were first team all-MAAC honorees.

Saint Peter's will win if: The Peacocks keep doing what they've been doing throughout February, which is rotate fresh bodies consistently while patiently setting up smart and efficient shots. John Dunne's style may not always be pretty, but no one said you had to be a supermodel when winning basketball games.

Fairfield will win if: The Stags are able to follow up a score with a stop and an effective transition game. Of Fairfield's four league wins, none were more impressive than the Stags' January 18th home victory against Manhattan, a matchup in which the Jaspers had one of their worst shooting efforts of the season against an upset-minded Fairfield squad that had lost their first seven conference games; including an 83-57 thrashing at Draddy Gym two weeks prior, before scoring the win and holding serve on their home floor at WebsterBank Arena.

The Pick: The last time we saw this kind of run from Saint Peter's, they used it to their advantage by cutting down the nets when all was said and done three years ago. It still remains to be seen whether or not they can get that far this time around, but the Peacocks are definitely more than capable of getting out of the first round in good order.

#6 Marist (12-18, 9-11) vs. #11 Niagara, (6-25, 3-17) 9 p.m.
Storylines: Jeff Bower and the Red Foxes completely rebounded from an 0-9 start, heating up near the middle of MAAC play to salvage what looked for all intents and purposes to be a lost season before guards Chavaughn Lewis and potential Rookie of the Year Khallid Hart took their games to a higher level. In Chris Casey's first year on Monteagle Ridge, the Purple Eagles have struggled in their initial experience of life without program legend Joe Mihalich, who is now resurrecting the basketball program at Hofstra, but that's not to say that Niagara has not been competitive, because they have. Unfortunately for fans in Western New York, the Purple Eagles just haven't had the right bounces this season, losing heartbreaking contests against both Iona and Manhattan that could very well have been placed in the win column through most of those two days.

Players to Watch: For Marist, it is Khallid Hart. Only a redshirt freshman, Hart sees the floor and plays the game like a fifth-year senior, and will create opportunities for Chavaughn Lewis and Adam Kemp early and often. Kemp, who has battled back injuries through each of the last two years, will also be a factor as long as he stays healthy. For those that don't know him, remember this name for Niagara: Antoine Mason. The second son of former Knick Anthony Mason and younger brother of former St. John's star Anthony Mason Jr., Antoine led the nation in scoring for most of the season until he was passed late in the year by Doug McDermott of Creighton. If the junior can exploit Marist just enough, Niagara can come away with the upset.

Marist will win if: They are careful to avoid letting Sunday's 31-point win over a depleted Quinnipiac team go to their heads. A game such as this one already has the potential to be a trap game, and that variable becomes magnified even greater after the 103-72 rout of Tom Moore's Bobcats at McCann Arena. The onus is on Bower and his coaching staff to instill confidence in the Marist roster.

Niagara will win if: Mason has his typical 20-plus-point outing, and takes efficient shots in the process. Niagara's biggest flaw this season has been getting a consistent second scoring option to step up when Mason is not able to pace the offense, and if that happens again, this one could be over rather quickly.

The Pick: Marist should have more than enough to survive Niagara in their first game of the weekend, earning a second date with Quinnipiac in the span of a week should they be successful.

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