Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Marist attempts to take advantage of new life in MAAC tourney opener vs. Canisius

Mike Maker and Marist may not have the record they desire, but Red Foxes are trending upward as they begin MAAC Tournament Thursday. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

With only eight wins to their credit, it is easy to see how Marist can be taken lightly by those who judge a team on the simple criterion of the numbers that populate the columns of their record.

But if you read between the lines, you will see the Red Foxes have played better than their 8-23 mark may indicate, having competed in many games throughout the season, even winning a few recently to offset losses in which a complete 40-minute effort was not in the cards.

"It's just who we were playing well against," head coach Mike Maker recounted as Marist faced a cadre of upper-echelon teams who, as he succinctly put it, made more plays than his roster. "You're talking Iona at home, Monmouth at home, Siena at home. We played very well in those games and well enough to win, but we didn't. We have a young roster and we didn't make enough winning plays down the stretch against really good teams that have a surplus of veteran players and really good programs."

Fortunately for Marist, the MAAC Tournament gives everyone a clean slate, and it begins Thursday at Albany's Times Union Center. Even more promising for the Red Foxes is their opponent, Canisius, is mired in a slump going into the tournament as Maker and his team enters their 7:30 p.m. contest eager to prove that their 76-74 win over the Golden Griffins at McCann Arena on February 19 was no aberration.

"Just winning in its own right doesn't give you confidence, it's playing well," said Maker of Marist's recent stretch, one in which the Red Foxes validated their victory over Canisius with a more decisive handling of Quinnipiac four days later. "We played well down the stretch, minus a couple of games. With the exception of that, I've been really proud of how our guys have responded to where we sit in the league."

A big reason behind that is senior Khallid Hart, the second team all-MAAC guard who leads Marist in scoring and is entering the final moments of a four-year career that includes a Rookie of the Year recognition and an overall body of work that is truly underappreciated.

"He's meant the world to our program," said Maker of Hart and his impact in Poughkeepsie. "He and Chavaughn Lewis (Marist's all-time leading scorer) have a lot of parallels because both of them are two of the better players ever to play here, but our teams haven't had that type of success and I think the lack of impact players in the supporting class around them have been some of the reasons why they may not have gotten that kind of attention."

"We feel fortunate to have Khallid in our program," Maker proudly stated. "I think he's as good as any guard in our league, and the numbers that he's put up indicate that."

It will take more than just Hart to stop a dynamic Canisius offense featuring four double-figure scorers and a talented freshman point guard in Malik Johnson to join them, but sophomore Ryan Funk will go a long way in supplementing his senior teammate.

"Ryan has really developed," said Maker of his burgeoning backcourt talent. "People know him as a shooter, but I think he's much more than that. He's a very good vertical athlete and he continues to work on his game, but he's surfaced as an impact player playing the wing forward."

And while the Red Foxes are not getting too far ahead, they are relishing the opportunity for a much-needed pick-me-up, one that this tournament possesses.

"We're looking forward to the opportunity to play in the conference tournament," Maker proclaimed. "It gives you new life. We've been playing pretty good basketball the last couple of weeks, had a couple of nice wins at home that gave our kids some confidence and made them feel pretty good about themselves. Hopefully we'll be able to play our best basketball Thursday night."

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