After falling three points short of MAAC championship repeat, Iona seeks redemption this season behind three returning starters as competition is significantly younger following Manhattan's celebration in March. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
The seven-month wait is over.
Following a season that ended with Manhattan celebrating its first conference championship in a decade after the Jaspers' 71-68 victory at the MassMutual Center, the MAAC opens its doors to yet another campaign of entertaining mid-major basketball, and one in which the parity and competitive balance of the league may be even stronger than it was a year ago.
The field of eleven remains the same, and although the conference tournament shifts to Albany, the unexpected should be expected on the road to crowning a champion.
1) Iona - Tim Cluess has reached the postseason in each of his four seasons at the helm in New Rochelle, and even after losing Sean Armand to graduation, he returns a perennial contender as the Gaels see three incumbent starters reprise their roles at the Hynes Center this season. Point guard A.J. English is a surefire MAAC Player of the Year contender, while Isaiah Williams has a perimeter shot unlike any other to complement the bruising physical play of David Laury. Marshall castoff Kelvin Amayo is eligible after sitting out last season, and will step into the role vacated by Mike Poole, with freshman Schadrac Casimir also earning rave reviews this offseason. Swingman Grant Ellis and graduate transfer Jeylani Dublin, who arrives from Longwood, will anchor the second unit as a second MAAC championship in three years is firmly in the cards for the maroon and gold.
2) Siena - When we spoke to Jimmy Patsos shortly after he guided the Saints to a finish that saw them win nine of their final eleven games en route to the CBI championship, he admitted his team may be a little overrated going into the new season despite returning all five starters and every reserve with the exception of senior walk-on Steven Cruz. Nonetheless, the experiemce in a younger MAAC will serve Siena well, especially in all-conference-caliber players Rob Poole and Brett Bisping as they anchor a group of emerging stars that include Marquis Wright and newly minted starting center Javion Ogunyemi, who has unseated Imoh Silas. Ryan Oliver, a cult hero among Saints fans for his clutch shooting, is back as well to join Maurice White and newcomer Jimmy Paige in a deceptively strong backcourt that gets a boost from Coppin State transfer Patrick Cole, who regains his eligibility. Sophomore Lavon Long could very well be the third starter up front once again as Michael Wolfe and freshman Willem Brandwijk battle for minutes in the paint.
3) Manhattan - Many other prognostications have the reigning champions lower than this, something that will no doubt fuel Steve Masiello and his already masterful motivational tactics. However, what some of the pundits are overlooking with the Jaspers is the presence of a solid core even without their trio of George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Michael Alvarado. For instance, Emmy Andujar is capable of being a first-team all-MAAC player, as is his frontcourt partner Ashton Pankey. RaShawn Stores and Tyler Wilson will resume the point guard duties in Riverdale, while Rich Williams and sharpshooter Shane Richards will see increased playing time. In addition, Jermaine Lawrence arrives from Cincinnati to boost the front line, as does 6-9 freshman Calvin Crawford, whom Masiello is already high on. Senior swingman Donovan Kates will serve as a valuable mentor on the bench for the likes of newcomers Samson Akilo, Samson Usilo and Zane Waterman.
4) Quinnipiac - The Bobcats lose Ike Azotam, but that doesn't change the philosophy around Hamden as Tom Moore returns for an encore with no surprises up his sleeve now that the MAAC and Quinnipiac have become intimately acquainted. Ousmane Drame returns for his final season at the TD Bank Sports Center, and can be a first team all-league player if healthy, as can combo guard Zaid Hearst. Expect newcomer Samuel Dingba to fill in right away for Azotam, becoming the latest piece to a rebounding puzzle that has confounded many teams. Kasim Chandler should see increased minutes as a sophomore, while junior college transfer Gio McLean; who took advantage of a technicality that would have kept him on the sidelines had he gone to Oklahoma as planned, should make an impact early and often in a guard-friendly league.
5) Saint Peter's - Following a three-year rebuild, John Dunne has his most talented group of players since he shepherded the Peacocks to the MAAC championship in 2011. Led by seniors Marvin Dominique and Desi Washington, Saint Peter's has a bevy of production both inside and outside the paint, and if Dunne's offseason assessment of Quadir Welton is any indication, the Peacocks will have a stable front line in every sense of the word. Expect Trevis Wyche to make a significant jump from freshman to sophomore at the point guard position, with unsung MAAC tournament hero Kris Rolle leading the charge off the bench. A quartet of newcomers led by Lincoln High School product Elisha Boone will only augment the depth in Jersey City, something that will loom large in March.
6) Monmouth - While King Rice has gotten younger in some respects with the arrivals of highly touted freshmen Micah Seaborn and Austin Tilghman, the fourth-year coach has added more experience to fortify his two-headed monster of senior guard Andrew "Red" Nicholas and junior wing Deon Jones. Graduate transfer Brice Kofane arrives from Providence as a deceptive shot blocker, and could easily be a poor man's Rhamel Brown for the Hawks. In the backcourt, Josh James and Justin Robinson will again platoon at the point for Monmouth while Je'lon Hornbeak waits in the wings following his transfer from Oklahoma. The key this season will be keeping twin towers Chris Brady and Zac Tillman out of foul trouble. If the Hawks can do that, their potential to crack the top three increases.
7) Rider - Kevin Baggett and the Broncs will have to figure out how to replace their top two scorers in Daniel Stewart and Anthony Myles, but the backcourt in Lawrenceville, a unit poised to see breakout performances from Zedric Sadler and Jimmie Taylor, will be the firm anchor of the team, especially considering it gets a boost from graduate transfer Anthony D'Orazio; formerly of Lehigh, and VCU expatriate Teddy Okereafor. Utah State castoff Matt Lopez adds a burst of height to the front line with his seven-foot frame, and will combine with Junior Fortunat and Kahlil Thomas to form a solid interior. Look for junior swingman Shawn Valentine to become an even bigger X-factor this season than he was a year ago, an asset that could propel Rider into the top half of the conference.
8) Canisius - Life after Billy Baron begins now for the Golden Griffins, who also lose underrated big man Chris Manhertz up front. Nonetheless, All-Rookie selection Zach Lewis becomes the face of Jim Baron's Griffs, and will have a senior in Josiah Heath anchoring the front line. Seven freshmen, led by homegrown talent Jermaine Crumpton, will see mounds of minutes early and often for a team that could surprise a lot of people.
9) Fairfield - Sydney Johnson turns the page from a long year by welcoming back both Gilbert brothers, Malcolm and Marcus, to lead the Stags back up the ladder. Amadou Sidibe, who had a disappointing sophomore season, should bounce back as a junior, while Coleman Johnson and sophomore marksman Steve Smith will try to replace Maurice Barrow. Sophomore KJ Rose is entrenched at the point guard spot, with senior Steve Johnston an experienced face alongside him in the backcourt.
10) Marist - Mike Maker, the Red Foxes' third head coach in as many years, inherits two budding stars from his predecessor Jeff Bower, namely senior swingman Chavaughn Lewis and reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Khallid Hart, both of whom should be all-conference honorees in March. Seniors T.J. Curry and Manny Thomas will be integral parts to a rotation featuring six freshmen as Marist hopes to get back on track.
11) Niagara - Seven freshmen will attempt to help Chris Casey build a foundation in his second year on Monteagle Ridge, a year that will not feature scoring machine Antoine Mason, who transferred to Auburn in the offseason. Forwards Rayvon Harris and Ramone Snowden will be the main sources of production for the Purple Eagles, who also welcome back sophomore guards Wesley Myers and Cameron Fowler.