Monday, October 10, 2016

MAAC Monday: Previewing the 2016-17 season

Iona has retooled in wake of MAAC championship win, placing Tim Cluess' Gaels firmly in conference title mix once again heading into 2016-17. (Photo by Brian Beyrer/Iona College Athletics)

Although last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship provided a slight departure from what had come to be the norm over the three prior seasons, the promise of added chapters to a budding rivalry was still prevalent in the Times Union Center air well after Iona finished cutting down the net on a record ninth MAAC title.

The Gaels, who punched their latest NCAA Tournament ticket at Monmouth's expense after three epic championship encounters with Manhattan preceded last March's instant classic, will still be a force to be reckoned with even without the presence of warrior point guard A.J. English and the multifaceted attack of Isaiah Williams to stretch the floor. Iona still returns expected first team all-MAAC forward Jordan Washington, and should get a breakout junior season from sharpshooter Deyshonee Much as head coach Tim Cluess seeks a seventh postseason berth in as many seasons in New Rochelle. Incoming transfers Jon Severe and Sam Cassell Jr., coupled with the return of former MAAC Rookie of the Year Schadrac Casimir, make the Gaels as potent as ever before in the latest example of retooling at the Hynes Athletics Center.

Not to be outdone, their championship game foe, Monmouth, returns everyone except Deon Jones from last season's school-record 28-win campaign that ended with disappointment at the hands of George Washington in the National Invitation Tournament. Senior point guard Justin Robinson, the reigning MAAC Player of the Year; and last season's Rookie of the Year, Micah Seaborn, anchor a backcourt that features stalwarts Josh James and Je'lon Hornbeak in its stable as well, with the imposing presence of Zac Tillman and Chris Brady looming large in the paint. The Hawks' abundance of wings gives King Rice a multitude of options to employ in his front line as last year's breakout mid-major seeks an encore to their national headline-grabbing upsets and bench celebrations.

Siena rebounded from a down year to win 20 games and reach the postseason for the second time under head coach Jimmy Patsos. The Saints will miss the leadership of Ryan Oliver, but are well positioned for success with the bulk of their team back this season. Seniors Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi, the latter of whom racked up Defensive Player of the Year honors in the MAAC last season, anchor perhaps the most experienced frontcourt in the conference, with Swiss Army knife Lavon Long in what Patsos has billed as a sixth man role. In the backcourt, sophomore Nico Clareth should be ready to go by opening night after undergoing offseason knee surgery, and will join point guard Marquis Wright to form an exciting guard tandem that can facilitate the offense just as well as they can dictate it.

Manhattan's quest for a third straight conference title was a valiant effort that, for the first half of the year, was embarked upon in the face of injuries that compromised the Jaspers' depth, a longtime calling card in Riverdale since Steve Masiello assumed the reins of the program. Shane Richards and RaShawn Stores are no longer in uniform, but the "next man up" mentality lives on as senior wing Rich Williams becomes the face of the Jaspers, with juniors Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford next in line. Zavier Turner, who sat out last season after transferring from Ball State, takes over the point guard duties from Stores to a fair share of hype from his coaching staff.

A pair of programs who overachieved last season round out what shapes up to be one of the deepest top halves of the MAAC in recent years, as Fairfield and its exciting young core adjusts to life without Marcus Gilbert, while Saint Peter's returns all but two players from a team that finished fourth in the regular season after being picked ninth in the preseason poll. The Stags have a potential Player of the Year in Tyler Nelson leading the way for Sydney Johnson, with the lethal shooting of Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson Jr. forming two of the most deceptive ancillary options in any coach's arsenal this year. Having the most underrated passer in the league in the form of point guard Jerome Segura does not hurt either, and the duo of Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin will only improve in their sophomore campaigns. For the Peacocks, this season is one of great expectations in Jersey City. Head coach John Dunne has raved about the improvement of Quadir Welton, who fought his way to a revelatory junior season after playing through a torn meniscus the previous year. Trevis Wyche has emerged as both an efficient shot taker and adept passer, while Chazz Patterson's lockdown perimeter defense fits right in with Saint Peter's suffocating mindset on that side of the ball. All eyes will be on Antwon Portley in his second season, as the All-Rookie selection of a year ago now has three incoming transfers to provide him with additional opportunities to build on his already rich scoring prowess.

When they are picked toward the bottom of the league, Rider usually proves all their critics wrong, and there is no reason to think the Broncs cannot do the same again this year. Teddy Okereafor and Zedric Sadler have graduated, but Kahlil Thomas and Jimmie Taylor still have one more year to return the Broncs into the league's elite. Sophomore Kealen Ives now assumes the point guard role, and Southern Mississippi transfer Norville Carey will be counted on early and often to shoulder the load down low. Quinnipiac suffered through an uncharacteristic 9-21 season last year, but the future seems to be bright for Tom Moore and the Bobcats. Chaise Daniels, Abdulai Bundu and Donovan Smith give Moore a trio of big men that will serve to add to the longstanding rebounding reputation in Hamden, but the backcourt will be a cause for concern just due to the transition that unit will undergo. Giovanni McLean has transferred and James Ford has graduated, and promising young talent Ayron Hutton has left as well, but Daniel Harris and twins Aaron and Andrew Robinson provide much-needed continuity among the guards in what could be a make-or-break season for the former Northeast Conference power.

Marist has a light at the end of the tunnel even in the midst of some trying times in the past several seasons. Now in his third year at the helm, Mike Maker is beginning to mold the Red Foxes into the image he has cultivated. Brian Parker, an All-Rookie selection last season, should be a key contributor as a sophomore, and senior point guard Khallid Hart is a likely preseason first team all-MAAC honoree. Isaiah Lamb should improve off a solid freshman season, with Ryan Funk and Kristinn Palsson also on their way to additional improvement.

Canisius welcomes a new coach in Reggie Witherspoon, who takes over following the retirement of Jim Baron after four seasons in Buffalo. The Golden Griffins retain senior forward Phil Valenti alongside juniors Kassius Robertson and Jermaine Crumpton, but a bevy of new faces will need to make their mark early and often in league play. Finally, Niagara returns junior Matt Scott and sophomore Marvin Prochet to their backcourt, but much like their crosstown rival Canisius, will be dependent upon their many newcomers to expedite the process for Chris Casey, whose first three years on Monteagle Ridge have not gone according to plan.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Monmouth - The Hawks handled their first test well last season, responding to a target on their collective backs with their impressive non-conference takedowns of UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown en route to winning 28 games. King Rice will undoubtedly have his team playing with a chip on its shoulders early and often this season, and the ability to finish the job should not be a concern if all goes according to plan. Hawks fans may not see as many victories this year, but they will surely trade the decrease in wins if an NCAA Tournament appearance, the first for Monmouth since 2006 should they procure one, is on the other end of the exchange.

2) Siena - This is the deepest Saints team the MAAC has seen since the days of Ronald Moore, Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles raised three consecutive championship banners in the late 2000s. Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi should both be first team all-MAAC selections by the time all is said and done, and Nico Clareth will further solidify his status as the player everyone else in the MAAC loves to hate. Marquis Wright's passing skills will be something to watch this year, as he no longer has to take it upon himself to score first.

3) Iona - The reigning champions earn a spot near the top just as much on merit as they do their roster. Expect a big year from Deyshonee Much, who will position himself as the latest Tim Cluess backcourt success story. If Jordan Washington can stay out of foul trouble, the Gaels will certainly be closer to the top spot.

4) Saint Peter's - Last season's success was a precursor to what should be expected out of the Peacocks this time around. Quadir Welton and Trevis Wyche could very well be the best inside/outside scoring pair that nobody talks enough about in this conference, and that does not even account for the potential of Antwon Portley to explode on any given night. Of great importance for John Dunne's team will be their start to league play. Saint Peter's won six out of their first seven contests in the MAAC one year ago, but must run the gauntlet right out of the gate this season with contests against Iona, Manhattan, Monmouth and Siena comprising their first four conference skirmishes.

5) Manhattan - The wise MAAC fan knows not to bet against Steve Masiello, especially as the season goes on. Replacing Shane Richards and RaShawn Stores may seem daunting at the start of the year, but when January and February roll around, the process will have gone according to plan as it usually does. Depth is no longer an issue in Riverdale, as the Jaspers can once again play ten or eleven men on any given night, especially with junior college arrivals Ahmed Ismail and Zavier Peart serving as much-needed frontcourt reinforcements.

6) Fairfield - Sydney Johnson got much more out of the Stags than anyone may have imagined last year, relying on an uptempo style to catch opponents off-guard. With Marcus Gilbert now playing professionally, Tyler Nelson assumes the role of alpha dog in a backcourt that might just be the deepest in the conference. The key for Fairfield will be how well Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin adjust as sophomores, as well as fifth-year senior Amadou Sidibe staying healthy for a full season.

7) Rider - Kevin Baggett and the Broncs will not change much from their defense-oriented ways, but Kahlil Thomas and Jimmie Taylor need to assume more of an offensive mindset in the absence of Teddy Okereafor. Xavier Lundy and fifth-year senior Norville Carey will need to hold their own against some of the taller front lines in the league to keep Rider afloat. Kealen Ives handling the point guard duties could be a question mark at the start of the year, but he showed enough potential as a freshman to dispel any fears.

8) Quinnipiac - As the Bobcat forwards go, so too will the team. Three-point shooting, which was an Achilles' heel for Quinnipiac last season, will need to improve in an evolving backcourt for this team to crack the top half of the standings. What could be a pivotal year for Tom Moore should certainly end much better than last season.

9) Marist - The talent is there, and the flashes of brilliance were greater in occurrence last season. It really is a shame that Mike Maker doesn't get enough credit for his in-game coaching acumen, but the Red Foxes should fix that to some degree this year. Khallid Hart will contend for the MAAC scoring title, and Brian Parker will be heard from even more than he was last year in a truly impressive rookie campaign.

10) Canisius - The Reggie Witherspoon era gets baptized by fire with a trip to Kentucky in the season opener. Phil Valenti may need to channel his inner Billy Baron for the Griffs to stay out of the cellar if their new arrivals are unable to contribute as hoped.

11) Niagara - This is without question a make-or-break year for Chris Casey and the Purple Eagles. Losing Emile Blackman, who transferred to Duquesne, will hurt, but Matt Scott's ability to fill up the box score is still a vital asset to a Niagara team that needs contributions from everyone involved.

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