UNIONDALE, NY -- A test run for a potential Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament site produced mixed results.
The MAAC's much-hyped Nassau Coliseum tripleheader took place Saturday, with a close affair between Quinnipiac and Fairfield preceding Monmouth's businesslike victory over Marist and Iona's latest win at the expense of rival Manhattan, but the bottom-line figure of just 2,545 in attendance did little to promote the former home of the New York Islanders as a feasible venue for the conference's postseason championship over the 2020-22 seasons once Albany's contract expires at the end of next season.
There were several bright spots, however, as noted by our handful of observations from the day's transpirings on Hempstead Turnpike:
1) Quinnipiac will win a MAAC championship before their current freshman class graduates.
This is a takeaway that does not need statistics or any kind of numbers to back up. Sometimes, when watching a team and a coach, one can tell whether or not a program has it together, and the Bobcats certainly do. Head coach Baker Dunleavy has acquitted himself very well through guiding Quinnipiac to a 6-4 MAAC record thus far, good enough for a No. 5 seed and first-round bye at the Times Union Center if the season ended today. The former Jay Wright assistant's in-game coaching has been as good as advertised, and associate head coach Tom Pecora's combination of battle-savvy experience and recruiting prowess has already translated into the Bobcats being able to fortify their positions while maintaining a young roster that has already overachieved in Hamden. A similar standing at this juncture would have been expected had Tom Moore remained at the helm, as Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss most likely would have stayed, but as long as Dunleavy is able to keep the uptick going, the current freshman class of Rich Kelly and Jacob Rigoni, along with seldom-used Matt Donahue, has both the intangibles and steady leadership necessary to cut down a net sooner rather than later.
2) Monmouth may finally be starting to reap the benefits of a challenging season.
The Hawks have won two straight to offset any negative feelings from a 1-5 start to MAAC play, and senior point guard Austin Tilghman had some resonating comments following Saturday's win over Marist.
"I think we made huge strides," he proposed following a take-charge stretch drive to cap a 24-point, 12-rebound, six-assist tour de force. "There's been lapses in games for four to six minutes where teams would go up, and I think we grew today, because we had a mental lapse when Micah (Seaborn) went down. We were up by 10 and they came back, but we were able to push through this time, and I think that's a statement to us growing up as a team and getting better."
Speaking of Seaborn, his latest setback, a hamstring injury suffered early in the second half, prompted his head coach to wonder if he rushed the junior guard back prematurely.
"How many times are we going to put him in when he's not 100 percent?" King Rice ruminated. "Everybody wants him back. That's where now I've gotta look at it and say, 'Did I bring him back too soon? Should I have brought him back for Iona?' He's not 100 percent, so he's compensating for all kinds of stuff, and then something else can happen. He's a competitor, but I feel tremendously bad for him just because little things. We need him on Monday (at Rider), and to throw him back out there after he got a new injury today, I don't think was the right thing. He's obviously one of the best basketball players in the MAAC, but I truly just hope that I can get the kid healthy so he can do all the things and shine the way he wants to."
In Seaborn's stead, freshman Deion Hammond, whose 24 points against Marist were a career-high in a promising rookie campaign, validated his coach's confidence.
"We were excited when we got Deion," Rice recalled. "We thought he would be good, and we felt that at some point during his freshman year, he had the ability to maybe be a starter. He made it happen faster than that. Deion has the greenest of green lights just to let it go on the break. He's been tremendous from the beginning."
3) Manhattan isn't hitting the panic button just yet.
For the second time in the conference season, the Jaspers followed up a pair of wins with back-to-back losses after falling to Iona Saturday night, the latest setback coming without Rich Williams being available after an injury suffered at Niagara.
"He's day-to-day," Steve Masiello revealed with regard to the fifth-year senior's status for Tuesday's game against Marist. "He has a cut on his shooting hand, and he tried to play in the game against Niagara. He went out there as the warrior he is, and couldn't play to his performance. It's a cut that he lacerated in a practice before we went up. He got some stitches, and we're just monitoring it. We want to make sure we have him for when it counts."
And in the face of an uncharacteristic inconsistency for a senior-laden team, at least in Manhattan's record, Masiello has remained his usual confident self, not looking to deploy the safety net for a team he feels is still lethal once the MAAC converges upon the Times Union Center in March.
"Not at all," he shot back when prompted to address a potential cause for concern. "I have great faith in myself, I have great faith in the kid next to me (Zane Waterman), I have great faith in Rich Williams, Z(avier) Turner, Calvin Crawford. I'll take those four any day of the week. I'll take those four in a MAAC tournament any day of the week, and good luck to anyone coming against us."
4) Tim Cluess isn't getting nearly enough credit for getting Iona to play team basketball.
Maybe it's being taken for granted that Iona just simply reloads every year and maintains its perch atop the MAAC, but Cluess is doing by far his best work in eight years in New Rochelle, keeping Iona near the top of the standings without a standout all-league talent, a luxury he has had in each of his first seven seasons; be it Mike Glover, Scott Machado, Momo Jones, Sean Armand, David Laury, A.J. English, or Jordan Washington. This incarnation of the Gaels is not as gaudy or flamboyant offensively in the vein that Cluess' past teams have been, but they do all the little things right, including defense, something that far too often gets lost in the shuffle of the maroon and gold championship elixir.
"Tonight, we did a great job, from the first man to the last man, to the guys that are on the bench," Cluess proclaimed. "It's a full team effort, and I was really proud of it."
5) Thoughts on a potential Long Island MAAC tournament?
For Cluess, a Floral Park native who talked up the positives of moving the postseason tournament to the Coliseum in last Wednesday's league-wide conference call, his heart remained partial to playing in familiar confines, but he gave an objective answer Saturday night.
"I don't make any of those decisions," he stated. "All I can say is it was a nice arena, it was a nice venue, it was fun playing here. It was kind of tournament-style, game after game after game. I thought it was great for our league and for exposure, and to get some fans that maybe normally don't see some of our teams play. The final decision's going to be a financial one, I'm sure, but whatever the league decides is what they decide. I'm sure they're going to make the best choice for us."
Masiello echoed the tournament atmosphere shortly after Cluess spoke, but acted as a voice of reason when offering a much more realistic state of affairs thereafter:
"I thought it had a real tournament-type feel to it," he admitted. "I was having flashbacks of different MAAC tournaments. It kind of brought me back to up in Springfield and up in Albany when we've played them before, and I kind of felt the game flowing that way."
"I think the MAAC needs change," he said when addressing a potential exodus from Albany. "I've been saying that not because it's Siena. It's just something we've done. I think Atlantic City's a phenomenal idea, I think Nassau's a great idea, I think Westchester -- I think there's a lot of great ideas. We've got to execute it, we have to have all eleven schools on board, we have to have all the presidents and ADs and coaches."
"There can be no sour grapes," he continued. "It has to be complete buy-in. We have to all stop being immature and understand there's going to be cycles. Some years it's going to benefit Manhattan, some years it's going to benefit Iona, some years it's going to benefit Siena. Whoever it is, let's all have ownership, invest in our conference, and then I think great things will happen for this conference. But if we're going to continue to be petty and secretly really not want things to be successful because, at the time, it's not advantageous to us as coaches, that's as immature and selfish as it gets, and that's as hypocritical as you can be in this business."