Monday, September 5, 2016

MAAC schedule analysis: Opportunities, nuggets and must-see games

After near-miss in MAAC championship, Justin Robinson and Monmouth hope to finish the job this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Labor Day weekend got off to an early start Friday afternoon, when the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference released its schedule, doing so ahead of such conferences as the Atlantic 10 and Big East, for instance.

Among the highlights of each team's 20-game league slate were, as expected, the longstanding rivalry between reigning champion Iona and their bitter adversary, Manhattan; as well as the burgeoning feud between the Gaels and the team against whom they earned a conference-record ninth tournament crown, the Hawks of Monmouth University, who won 28 games last season en route to an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.

There are many other significant contests within the ledger, including Monmouth's two meetings with fellow contender Siena, as well as the exploits of overachievers such as Fairfield and Saint Peter's. Also of note will be how some of the teams who finished near the bottom of the standings last season attempt to rebuild in 2016-17 as we go through the fall and winter before converging upon the Times Union Center in Albany once again next March. Here's a look at some of the things that caught our attention at first blush.

Biggest opportunity to start MAAC play on a high note: Marist.
The Red Foxes will probably be picked among the last four in the preseason coaches' poll, but that shouldn't stop Mike Maker from reaching for the stars with an ever-improving core led by senior guard Khallid Hart and a pair of promising sophomores in Brian Parker and Isaiah Lamb. Marist opens with a pair of winnable games in December, first hosting Niagara before traveling to Quinnipiac, and a 2-0 start to league play will no doubt serve as a much-needed pick-me-up going into the new year, when Maker's team will be tested instantly with three of their next four league games coming against Iona, Manhattan and Monmouth.

Who has most to prove in opening stages of MAAC play? Saint Peter's.
John Dunne's Peacocks were picked ninth at the start of last season, yet managed to finish fourth for the first time since 2011 after the steady hand of Trevis Wyche and explosive scoring ability of Antwon Portley gave rise to a potent backcourt duo to team up with an underrated Quadir Welton. This year will see more attention diverted to Jersey City than in seasons past, a product of the breakout season that Saint Peter's was fortunate to enjoy ahead of even Dunne's most optimistic schedule. One other side effect of the increased expectations is that there is literally no margin for error on opening weekend, with both Iona and Manhattan coming to the Yanitelli Center in December. As if that wasn't enough of an acid test, Monmouth comes to Jersey City for the first game after conference play starts up again, with a trip to Siena being the Peacocks' road opener in the MAAC. Saint Peter's 6-1 start to the league schedule last season was certainly not an aberration, and their baptism by fire this season is a show of respect for what this program has become.

First on the Buffalo trip: Siena and Quinnipiac.
The Bobcats will be the first to embark on the journey to the home of the Bills and Sabres for the second straight season, having faced Canisius and Niagara in December one year ago. An advantage this time around, though, is that the first Western New York dates come after the new year as opposed to the true opening weekend setup experienced by Quinnipiac and Monmouth last season.

Of particular interest: Manhattan's three-game road trip at the end of January.
When Steve Masiello won his first of two MAAC championships in the 2013-14 season, he did so with a Jasper team that was among the nation's leaders in road and neutral site wins. During last year's quest for a three-peat amid the numerous bouts of adversity, it took a little longer to recapture that magic, but at the end of the season, Manhattan resembled their past selves even if a trophy did not await them at the final buzzer. Following a six-day stretch where the Jaspers face Iona, Monmouth and Siena, Manhattan gets three days off after their January 22 tilt at Draddy Gymnasium against the Saints, and then proceeds to hit the road for Niagara and Canisius before concluding the first month of 2017 at Fairfield. It's worth noting that Masiello has not won at Webster Bank Arena since arriving in Riverdale in 2011, as his sole road victory against the Stags came on Fairfield's campus at Alumni Hall in a game that was rescheduled and moved in the wake of a blizzard in 2013. The Jaspers are always at their peak when the calendar turns to February and March, but it is the conclusion to January that will be most critical in their quest for redemption.

Home court advantage?
Iona's dominance at the Hynes Athletics Center has been well documented since Tim Cluess took the reins in 2010, and the Gaels will be in their familiar confines to end the regular season. Despite two stretches where four out of five games will tip off away from New Rochelle, coupled with an ambitious non-conference schedule featuring cross-country travel and just two home games, Iona gets their final three regular season contests on the floor in which it has clinched regular season championships in three of the last five seasons. Rider begins the season-ending homestand on February 19, followed by two titanic collisions against Manhattan (February 24) and Monmouth (February 26) that will almost assuredly be loaded with championship implications for better or worse.

On the contrary...
Five of Monmouth's final seven games will take place away from West Long Branch. The Hawks had no problem navigating visiting environments last season in their historic wins against UCLA and Georgetown, as well as their emphatic takedown of Iona at the Hynes Center, but this season is a different animal. Beginning with in-state rival Rider on February 6 in what may very well end up being a nationally televised affair, Monmouth goes on to face fellow MAAC heavyweights Manhattan, Siena, Fairfield and Iona in February, and will see all of them in their respective gyms, a stark contrast from last February, when the Hawks had a friendly and raucous crowd willing them to a regular season championship.

Games worth watching live, in chronological order:
Fairfield at Rider, December 1. The first game of the conference season is a deceptively strong affair, with the Stags building on last season's unlikely success story by heading to the bandbox of Alumni Gym to meet the Broncs, who will be retooled and refocused after last year's eighth-place finish and quarterfinal exit in the MAAC tournament. Life without Marcus Gilbert commences in what will surely be a grind-it-out battle, one where Rider will be intent on taking Fairfield out of their uptempo element early and often.

Iona at Saint Peter's, December 2. The Gaels and Peacocks end up taking each other down to the wire more often than not, and face each other to begin league play in Jersey City this season. The last time these two squared off in their MAAC opener, Momo Jones missed a game-winning shot at the buzzer to give Saint Peter's an upset win in a season that ended with the Gaels reigning supreme and punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

Iona at Fairfield, January 2. Two of the league's most potent offenses last season will entertain one another on the first Monday of 2017, when the Gaels head to Bridgeport hoping to avenge a loss to Sydney Johnson and the Stags. Fairfield took advantage of an Iona squad that got 33 points and 12 rebounds from Jordan Washington when they last matched wits, earning some measure of revenge for a December rout by the Gaels on a night where A.J. English scored a conference-high 46 points in a 101-77 victory.

Iona at Monmouth, January 6. The Gaels made perhaps their biggest and most resounding statement in West Long Branch last season, giving rise to a defense that proved more and more suffocating down the stretch and opening the eyes of those who criticized Tim Cluess' efforts on that side of the ball. Iona later built upon that lockdown with an equally stellar performance against the Hawks in the MAAC championship game to win the season series against King Rice's program. Monmouth will come into this one with a need to reassert themselves once more, hoping to exorcise their late-season demons in this Friday night soiree.

Iona at Manhattan, January 17. The Gaels and Jaspers meet before the last weekend in January for the first time since the 2012-13 season, and much like every other clash between the MAAC's two preeminent rivals, all records should be thrown out the window. Manhattan will come into this game looking to establish themselves further as they begin a three-game stretch that will see Monmouth and Siena next up on the schedule after hoping to end a four-game regular season losing streak to reigning MAAC champion Iona.

Siena at Saint Peter's, January 19. The Saints have not walked out of Jersey City victorious since 2010, when Fran McCaffery ended the year with a third straight MAAC championship. The Yanitelli Center has been a house of horrors for Jimmy Patsos, who was unceremoniously ejected in a loss two years ago, and the Peacocks have seemed to gradually have Siena's number more and more each season. Both teams returning senior-laden squads to the floor this year make this intriguing battle more of a pivotal encounter this time around.

Manhattan at Monmouth, January 20. Three days after their first battle with Iona, the Jaspers head down the shore in search of retribution against the Hawks, who set a new school record for wins in a regular season at Manhattan's expense last season. In that February 15 contest, Monmouth was able to get Shane Richards in foul trouble early in the first half, providing all the edge they would need in fending off the then-two-time reigning champions just three weeks after the Jaspers stole a win from their reach at Draddy Gymnasium by scoring the game's final nine points. Justin Robinson will have his hands full with Ball State transfer Zavier Turner, and junior college transfers Ahmed Ismail and Zavier Peart will be tasked with the challenge of limiting 6-foot-10 big men Zac Tillman and Chris Brady.

Iona at Siena, January 27/Siena at Iona, February 7. The Saints seemed as though they had the inside track to a second-place finish when they scored a big road win in New Rochelle on February 13, but a convincing road win by the Gaels turned the tables before Iona won going away again to advance to the MAAC championship game. Expect the rematch at the Hynes Center to be just as juicy as the first encounter, with a potential third meeting possibly in the offing when we head to Albany.

Monmouth at Manhattan, February 10. The ESPN schedule has yet to be released, and nothing will be etched in stone until the week leading up to the game, but don't be surprised if this second meeting between the Hawks and Jaspers is televised in some capacity, possibly in the 10 p.m. slot that has bore witness to Iona-Manhattan and Iona-Monmouth over the past two seasons. Either way, one of the showcase rivalries in the MAAC will be deserving of the stage it commands.

Monmouth at Siena, February 13/Siena at Monmouth, February 24. Many pundits are already hyping this as the championship matchup in March, with the Hawks and Saints both returning nearly everyone from last season's postseason rosters. Their last collision on February 1 saw Justin Robinson put together perhaps his most lasting impression en route to Player of the Year honors, erupting for 36 points at the Times Union Center as Monmouth held off a valiant Siena squad determined to prove that they were championship-caliber.

Manhattan at Iona, February 24. For the fourth consecutive year, the last Friday of the conference season is earmarked for the league's most notorious rivalry. Draddy Gymnasium was the site of the second game between the Gaels and Jaspers last year, one in which Rich Williams torched the nets for 24 first-half points before A.J. English willed Iona to victory with one clutch shot after another in the second stanza. Iona has the benefit of their home floor for this contest, and the Gaels have not lost to Manhattan in New Rochelle since January 12, 2012, when Emmy Andujar banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to cap off a Jasper upset and erase what had been a 17-point Iona lead with 7:58 remaining in regulation.

Monmouth at Iona, February 26. A.J. English scored 45 points in a losing effort to the Hawks last January in a game marred by a postgame altercation involving Chris Brady and Jordan Washington, not to mention alleged taunting by Monmouth head coach King Rice toward the sellout Iona crowd. The two teams went on to have two more epic encounters after that, but it was the 110-102 Hawks win on the Hynes Center court that planted the seeds for this budding rivalry.

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