Monday, September 14, 2015

MAAC schedule release: Takeaways, nuggets, must-see conference games

In search of third consecutive conference championship, Manhattan rekindles rivalry with Iona on January 29 in New Rochelle, and again in Riverdale on February 26. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)

Three months of anticipation later, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule was released Monday morning, with the conference's broadcast schedule to follow soon.

Two-time reigning MAAC champion Manhattan opens their conference slate on the road, and does so inside the Times Union Center on December 4 when Steve Masiello brings the Jaspers to Albany for a battle with Siena, marking Manhattan's first appearance in the capital of New York since cutting down the net in that same building six months ago.

The league season, which opened in November last year due to a scheduling quirk that saw Saint Peter's get an early home game, returns to its December roots this time around, as Iona christens the 2015-16 MAAC campaign on December 1 when the Gaels welcome Fairfield into the Hynes Athletics Center.

Links to each MAAC team's full schedule can be found at the bottom of the page, but before that, we shed some light on the schedule as a whole and preview some games that are worth the price of admission:

  • Monmouth and Quinnipiac take the first trip to Buffalo of the MAAC season, with the Hawks and Bobcats opening against Canisius and Niagara, while Marist and Fairfield are the last schools to travel to Western New York, doing so in the next-to-last weekend of February. For King Rice's Hawks, some fans may bemoan the fact that they will only have one home game before January, but getting the longest road trip of the season out of the way in December will only help Monmouth along in a year where all but two players from an 18-win team return to a program with higher expectations after a semifinal loss to Iona last March.
  • Undefeated at home in the regular season one year ago, Iona has several early chances to reassert their dominance at the Hynes Athletics Center. Seven of the Gaels' first ten league contests will be held in New Rochelle, including four straight against Niagara, Rider, Marist, and Monmouth to open January. Although the obvious reverse side of the coin means Tim Cluess will be coaching on the road more often than not down the stretch, having an early home slate could be beneficial to a talent-laden Gaels roster securing their fourth regular season MAAC championship in five years.
  • In preparation for the league's broadcast contract with ESPN, most of the marquee matchups in the MAAC will be prime candidates for the Friday night spots on ESPN2 and ESPNU. For example, both Iona-Manhattan games, as well as both Iona-Monmouth affairs, are scheduled for Fridays.
  • On paper, there does not appear to be a gauntlet of sorts for any one team to start the conference season, but if you believe in easy stretches of the schedule, Canisius benefits from such a hypothetical advantage toward the end of the regular season. Before closing the year at Iona on February 28, the Golden Griffins meet Saint Peter's, Fairfield, Marist, and Niagara; all of whom have been projected toward the bottom of the league standings, with the latter three coming to the Koessler Athletic Center as Jim Baron's team seeks its fourth top five finish in as many years since the dismissal of Tom Parrotta in 2012.
10 Must-See conference games: (listed in chronological order where possible)

1) Manhattan at Siena, December 4: The Jaspers' conference opener takes place on the road for the fourth time in Steve Masiello's five years at the helm, and will be a strong test for the champions as they meet a Siena team who is considered a contender to dethrone Manhattan, with Jimmy Patsos' Saints returning junior point guard Marquis Wright to a team that welcomes forwards Brett Bisping and Imoh Silas back from injuries.

2) Rider at Iona, January 7: The clash in styles between the defense-oriented Broncs and uptempo Gaels attack has usually gone the way of Iona, but this season could provide different results for Rider, whose backcourt of Teddy Okereafor, Jimmie Taylor and Zedric Sadler should overcome an inexperienced front line and force Iona into playing smaller and tighter on the defensive end.

3-4) Monmouth at Iona, January 15; Iona at Monmouth, February 19: When these two teams met in the MAAC semifinals last March, Iona rained down a tournament-record 19 three-pointers to bury the Hawks in a matchup that could have easily passed for a championship showdown. With these two teams likely entering the year as the projected top two in the conference, the home-and-home in New Rochelle and West Long Branch could be the first two acts in a trilogy that culminates on the first Monday of March in Albany.

5) Monmouth at Manhattan, January 21: Although King Rice has not beaten the Jaspers since Monmouth joined the MAAC, he has come much closer on the road than he has on his home floor, with both contests at Draddy Gymnasium being decided by single digits as opposed to the double-figure margins of victory Manhattan has taken out of the Multipurpose Activity Center. If the Hawks can bring the fight into the "6th Borough" for 40 minutes, it may be the first of many signature moments for the up-and-comers from the Jersey Shore.

6-7) Saint Peter's at Iona, January 22; Iona at Saint Peter's, February 1: The Peacocks and Gaels always seem to take part in some of the most underrated MAAC epics every season. In 2013, a missed buzzer-beater by Momo Jones gave Saint Peter's an upset victory at the Yanitelli Center, while Iona has prevailed by the skin of their teeth in each of the last two years on their home floor, needing an A.J. English three-pointer in the final seconds to survive in 2014 before winning a rock fight in overtime last January. Saint Peter's might not have the name cache that Iona's roster possesses, but very few coaches squeeze the most out of their resources the way John Dunne does, and the Peacocks' scrappy group will almost certainly give the Gaels all they can handle once again.

8-9) Manhattan at Iona, January 29; Iona at Manhattan, February 26: It's considered one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Enough said.

10) Siena at Marist, February 7: When Fran McCaffery patrolled the sidelines for the Saints and Jared Jordan led the Red Foxes to their first regular season MAAC title, the I-87 rivalry was as heated as it had ever been. Some years later, Jimmy Patsos' firebrand style has reinvigorated the Siena fan base while Mike Maker is slowly rebuilding Marist for the climb back into the MAAC's upper echelon. Jay Bowie's 2014 heroics at McCann Arena snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat in a 65-64 Red Fox win, proving that the fireworks along the New York State Thruway are still alive and well.

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