Iona is defending MAAC champion, but Kevin Baggett’s Rider team returns two all-conference players in Mervin James and Allen Powell. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Attempting to predict the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season is tantamount to the proverbial shot in the dark or throwing something at the wall and hoping it sticks.
Such is life for the MAAC this season after the league, much like many of its mid-major brethren, was ravaged by the transfer portal in the offseason, with no program hit harder than reigning conference champion Iona. The Gaels come into their latest title defense having had to replace literally everyone except 7-foot Osborn Shema, whose stature is only enhanced by his unique skill set. Even the leadership has changed hands in New Rochelle, with former head coach Rick Pitino now chasing his long-awaited high-major redemption at St. John’s. In his place stands Tobin Anderson, fresh off an historic upset of NCAA Tournament top seed Purdue with Fairleigh Dickinson, just the second No. 16 seed to advance to the second round of the Big Dance. Anderson reconstructed his roster in fairly short order, doing so in much the same vein as he did just 17 months prior when taking over at FDU, mixing incoming freshmen with veteran transfers to form a diverse unit that has taken well to his uptempo stylings thus far. The jury remains out with regard to just how well the whole will mesh together as one, but the consensus remains that Iona will be forwardly placed in the league standings once again.
Iona’s stiffest competition will likely come from Rider, who loses Dwight Murray, Jr., but still boasts a pair of likely first team preseason all-MAAC selections. Mervin James is back for his senior season at the forward spot, and could very well be the coaches’ pick for preseason player of the year on the heels of a junior campaign that saw him become more disciplined with regard to fouling and a more aggressive scorer in the process. In the backcourt, Allen Powell hopes to atone for a season that may be described as somewhat disappointing given the high hopes surrounding the Philadelphian a year ago. Powell leads a cast in the backcourt that includes veteran point guard Corey McKeithan and incoming freshmen D.J. Dudley and Ruben Rodriguez. Brothers T.J. and Tyriek Weeks will join forces with Tariq Ingraham to lead a supporting cast that could vault the Broncs into the role of preseason favorite with all the variables at Iona.
Elsewhere in New Jersey, Saint Peter’s is positioned for an uptick in year two under Bashir Mason, who continues to rebuild the Peacocks after their Cinderella run to the Elite 8 in 2022. Isiah Dasher has graduated and Juju Murray took his talents to Ole Miss, but Mason returns a core led by Latrell Reid and Corey Washington that he is counting on to make a jump while the seven new arrivals to Jersey City establish themselves in the rotation of a defense-oriented coach whose three regular season championships in the Northeast Conference were no accident. Speaking of former NEC coaches, Dan Engelstad was the MAAC rookie last year as he and his Mount St. Mary’s team went through the conference for the first time. The physical in-game experience The Mount gained last season was arguably the most instrumental piece of offseason preparation for Engelstad this year, as he no longer has to simulate what in-game situations will be like. What the Mountaineers do need to replace is the experience left by Jalen Benjamin, Malik Jefferson and Deandre Thomas. However, The Mount is in a favorable situation there, returning Dakota Leffew and George Tinsley to lead a group that will see role players the likes of Jedy Cordilia, Dola Adebayo, Josh Reaves and Franta Barton step up with a year of MAAC seasoning under their respective belts.
Experience was also a central theme for Niagara in its journey through the transfer portal this past offseason, with head coach Greg Paulus adamant about finding veterans who were also the right fit for his system after Noah Thomasson and Aaron Gray moved on to Georgia and Indiana State, respectively. Braxton Bayless returns to anchor the backcourt, with David Mitchell providing deceptive value as a wing and potential stretch four. Malik Edwards is a transfer from William Penn University, an NAIA program where he averaged 16 points per game last season, and could be the next in a line of successful transfers up such as Gray and Kobi Nwandu before him. The biggest boost for the Purple Eagles, however, could come from Chicago freshman Ahmad Henderson, who will be a favorite for rookie of the year honors if his hype is any indication.
Across town, Canisius brings back all but two members of its rotation from a season ago in what could be a pivotal year for Reggie Witherspoon on Main Street. Tahj Staveskie will likely be a preseason first team all-MAAC selection, and not so much by attrition than by his sheer scoring prowess. The Ohio native dazzled as a redshirt freshman last year in his first collegiate action, and will hear his name called early and often as a sophomore. One constant for the Golden Griffins is that Witherspoon has always overseen continued progression from his role players, which will come from the likes of Tre Dinkins, T.J. Gadsden and Xzavier Long this year. Canadian forward Frank Mitchell, who redshirted a season ago, blossomed during the Griffs’ overseas trip to his home country over the summer, and could be a pleasant revelation before conference play ramps up.
Elsewhere in New York, Siena readies for what shapes up to be an interesting season in the Capital Region after Javian McCollum and Jared Billups transferred, while Jackson Stormo graduated. The main question surrounding the Saints is whether or not Sean Durugordon will be able to play as the Austin Peay expatriate awaits a decision on his waiver as a two-time transfer, but even if he is not approved, Michael Eley leads a group of young upstarts into battle as head coach Carmen Maciariello begins his fifth year in charge of his alma mater. In his tenure, Siena has never finished lower than a tie for third in the MAAC standings. Marist must replace do-everything big man Patrick Gardner, but making the road smoother for John Dunne will be point guard Isaiah Brickner, who returns for his sophomore season. The Red Foxes will need to bring their retooled frontcourt along sooner rather than later to stay competitive, but the pieces are certainly in place to use last year’s championship game appearance as a springboard to the top half of the leaderboard. Manhattan welcomes a new head coach in John Gallagher, who has begun to reinvigorate a Jasper program from its administrative turmoil of the past 12 months. Former athletic director Marianne Reilly put the Jaspers behind the eight-ball twice in five months by dismissing Steve Masiello for no clear reason and then not taking the interim tag off RaShawn Stores, but Gallagher — no stranger to having the rug pulled out from under him from a similar predicament higher up at Hartford — has rebuilt the foundation quickly and put the past in the rearview mirror. If nothing else, look for Manhattan to surprise teams early in the conference season before gaining steam as the calendar flips closer to March, a trademark of some of Gallagher’s best teams at Hartford.
The third of the MAAC’s new head coaches is based in the Nutmeg State, with Tom Pecora now assuming the reins at Quinnipiac in the wake of Baker Dunleavy stepping down to take the newly-created general manager position at Villanova. Pecora, a head man for the first time since the 2014-15 season at Fordham, inherits one of the most talented teams in the conference and has a pair of fifth-year guards to work with in Matt Balanc and Savion Lewis. Junior college import Doug Young will also push the two in the backcourt while Paul Otieno headlines a front line that includes JJ Riggins, a healthy Elijah Taylor, and newcomer Amarri Tice. Finally, in-state rival Fairfield adds a major piece in Alexis Yetna as the Seton Hall transfer replaces Supreme Cook down low for the Stags. However, shooting and scoring will once again be crucial behind Caleb Fields, as Fairfield will need to improve its offense in what could be a make-or-break fifth season for Jay Young.
Projected Order of Finish
1) Rider — In a conference with so many unknowns, having Mervin James and Allen Powell back for another year not only gives Kevin Baggett peace of mind, it makes the Broncs the favorite just off their proven commodities.
2) Iona — Tobin Anderson overhauled the roster in New Rochelle, but the Gaels will resemble a Tim Cluess-coached outfit sooner rather than later if all goes well. Greg Gordon will be a household name in the MAAC and could be Iona's leading rebounder.
3) Quinnipiac — Tom Pecora’s return to the head coaching ranks comes with the majority of a 20-win team coming back, and no coach is more qualified to develop guards in a guard-oriented league. Matt Balanc and Savion Lewis should have no problem picking up where Dezi Jones and Luis Kortright left off.
4) Mount St. Mary’s — Dan Engelstad’s championship pedigree will manifest itself as the year goes on in Emmitsburg. Jalen Benjamin is gone, but Dakota Leffew and George Tinsley could be one of the best one-two scoring punches in the MAAC.
5) Niagara — In Greg Paulus’ first four years at the helm, the Purple Eagles have never finished outside the top half of the conference standings. Look for that streak to remain intact as the experienced Niagara roster will steal more games than it will lose.
6) Canisius — This will be Reggie Witherspoon’s best team in several seasons, as the Griffs bring back most of their rotation from last season. Tahj Staveskie is a player of the year contender, and his supporting cast is deceptively strong.
7) Siena — If Sean Durugordon is eligible, the Saints will get a first-round bye in Atlantic City. If not, Carmen Maciariello will need to press the right buttons to shepherd a young core along.
8) Fairfield — The majority of the Stags’ hopes hinge on the health of Alexis Yetna, who will miss at least the first week or two of the season, maybe more. Caleb Fields has help in the backcourt, but Jay Young needs to oversee significant offensive improvement.
9) Saint Peter’s — Bashir Mason's Peacocks will be improved from last season, but the role of alpha dog still needs to be solidified following the departures of Isiah Dasher and Juju Murray.
10) Marist — The Red Foxes played for a MAAC championship seven months ago, but life without Patrick Gardner will be daunting at first before Isaiah Brickner and Noah Harris help lead John Dunne’s unit through the adversity.
11) Manhattan — John Gallagher and the Jaspers are essentially playing with house money this season. The new coach has already attempted to heal the breach between the program and a fractured fan base, now he will need to produce on the court.
All-MAAC Preseason Predictions
Player of the Year: Mervin James, Rider
Rookie of the Year: Ahmad Henderson, Niagara
Matt Balanc, Quinnipiac
Michael Eley, Siena
Mervin James, Rider
Dakota Leffew, Mount St. Mary’s
Tahj Staveskie, Canisius
Paul Otieno, Quinnipiac
Allen Powell, Rider
Osborn Shema, Iona
George Tinsley, Mount St. Mary’s
Alexis Yetna, Fairfield
Isaiah Brickner, Marist
Caleb Fields, Fairfield
TJ Gadsden, Canisius
Savion Lewis, Quinnipiac
Latrell Reid, Saint Peter’s