(SportsNetwork.com) - Like so many conferences in college sports these days, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is one that has made some moves in terms of membership in the last year, adding Monmouth and Quinnipiac, while watching Loyola-Maryland defect to the Patriot League. But even with those changes, the team to watch in the 33rd annual MAAC Tournament remains the top- seeded Iona Gaels.
The Gaels (20-9, 17-3) had their problems during the non-conference portion of the 2013-14 schedule, at one point losing four in a row heading into the bulk of the MAAC slate, but once the competition became more familiar, Iona grew more confident and far more successful. The defending tournament champions and winners of this event a record eight times, the Gaels have a record of 40-24 in the tourney after finishing off the 2013 edition with a three-point victory against Manhattan, the only program to defeat Iona this year since Jan. 18.
The Gaels knew what they were getting in Sean Armand, an All-MAAC First-Team member, as he tallied 17.8 ppg, thanks to an impressive 44.0 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line, and also placed second on the unit with 116 assists. A more pleasant surprise was the emergence of A.J. English, a second-year player who is the only non-senior to be named to the All-MAAC First Team, as he dialed up 17.7 ppg and handed out 4.3 apg. English may not have been as accurate as Armand beyond the arc, but knocking down 77 triples still made it tough for opponents to figure out how to defend the youngster from Delaware.
Picking up All-MAAC Second-Team honors was David Laury (14.0 ppg), who stabilized the interior with his 7.7 rpg, while Tre Bowman (13.3 ppg) and Isaiah Williams (10.9 ppg) both had a hand in making Iona the fourth-highest scoring team in the country with a staggering 84.0 ppg.
The tournament gets underway on Thursday afternoon in Springfield, Massachusetts as eighth-seeded Rider goes up against one of the two new squads to the MAAC, ninth-seeded Monmouth.
The Broncs (13-16, 9-11) stumbled to the finish line in the regular season, dropping four in a row and seven of their last eight outings as they were crushed by Iona on Sunday in a 97-81 decision. The points allowed by Rider were the most given up by the program this season, the team finishing third from the bottom in the MAAC scoring defense (76.6 ppg). While the defense was certainly lax more often than not, the offense could count on Anthony Myles to come up with 16.2 ppg, followed by Daniel Stewart and Jimmie Taylor with 15.0 and 12.0 ppg, respectively.
Formerly of the Northeast Conference, the Monmouth Hawks (11-20, 5-15) didn't do that much to distinguish themselves as a key player in the MAAC this season. In fact, down the stretch the Hawks lost 10 of the last 11 decisions, the lone win coming against an overmatched Niagara squad at the end of last month. The team has a pair of scorers that carry much of the load in Deon Jones and Andrew Nicholas who put up 15.0 and 14.4 ppg, respectively, which means the rest of the roster combines for about 40 ppg. In addition to being the primary scoring option, Jones is also tops on the glass with seven boards per contest.
Game number two on the docket for Thursday pits the 10th-seeded Fairfield Stags versus the seventh-seeded Peacocks of Saint Peter's. Both programs have won this event three times, but while the Peacocks last hoisted the trophy just three years ago with a five-point victory over Iona, Fairfield has gone without accolades since 1997's win against Canisius. But make no mistake, the Stags are no strangers to success in this event recently, playing in the title tilt in both 2010 and 2012.
Fairfield (7-24, 4-16), which lost both regular-season meetings to the Peacocks, albeit by just one point each time, won a total of just two games in 17 tries away from home, which means playing in Springfield will be another difficult endeavor. The Stags finished next-to-last in scoring with only 63.5 ppg, but at the same time the program was second in scoring defense (70.2 ppg), even though it left the squad 10th in the league in scoring differential (-6.7). From an offensive standpoint, Marcus Gilbert was responsible for 14.1 ppg, followed by Maurice Barrow with 14.0 ppg.
Selected to the All-MAAC Third Team, Marvin Dominique was the best that the Peacocks (13-16, 9-11) had to offer when it came to offense this season. A native of New Jersey, Dominique led the program in both scoring (16.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg), starting all but one of the team's 29 contests. He shot a solid 47.5 percent from the field and 74.4 percent at the free-throw line for a squad that came in at 69.8 percent on the campaign, but he didn't always handle the ball cleanly. More specifically, while Dominique wasn't meant to be one of the passers on the unit, the fact that he had just 18 assists against 66 turnovers was an issue. Desi Washington, a mere 37.3 percent shooter from the floor, chipped in with another 13.6 ppg and Trevis Wyche (8.3 ppg) tried to keep the offense in motion with 114 assists over his 29 starts.
The late game on Thursday night finds 11th-seeded Niagara clashing with the sixth-seeded Marist Red Foxes for the right to take on Quinnipiac on Saturday night in the quarterfinals.
Niagara (6-25, 3-17) finished dead last in the conference with a mere three league victories in 20 opportunities, yet the team had not only the top scorer in the MAAC, Antoine Mason, who was also second in the nation coming into this week with his 25.2 ppg. But after Mason, who saw his scoring output dip to 22.8 ppg in league play, the Purple Eagles didn't have a single player in double figures. The squad managed to put up a decent 75.0 ppg on the season overall, but at the same time the defense was one of the weakest in the nation with 82.1 ppg allowed.
The Purple Eagles, who played in the tournament title game as recently as 2009 and won it all two years earlier, often made it easy for opponents to get the upper hand because they ended up averaging 13.6 turnovers per contest, not to mention allowing those foes to shoot 48.6 percent from the floor.
Marist (12-18, 9-11) one of two teams that has yet to win this event outside of the two newest additions to the league, closed out the regular season on Sunday on a positive note with a 103-72 thrashing of Quinnipiac at home, snapping a three-game slide as it registered a season high for points. Chavaughn Lewis leads a quartet of double-digit scorers with his 17.3 ppg, letting fly with 15.0 field goal attempts per contest, so it only figures that he would have the advantage in scoring among the Red Foxes. Khallid Hart checks in with 14.6 ppg, as both he and Lewis have picked up the pace in league bouts with averages of 16.3 and 18.0 ppg, respectively.
Adam Kemp (10.0 ppg) leads the way on the glass for Marist with 7.6 rpg, but the fact that he is just 55.9 percent accurate at the free-throw line might be one of the reasons why he is playing less than 28 minutes per contest.
While the bottom six teams in the league battle it out in the first round on Wednesday, the top five have earned themselves two extra days to rest and prepare for the potential run to the NCAA Tournament. One matchup is already set for Saturday afternoon, as the fifth-seeded Siena Saints clash with fourth-seeded Canisius.
It was not that long ago that Siena (15-16, 11-9) was the dominant program in the MAAC, capturing the tournament crown three straight years between 2008-10 and also playing in the championship game in 2007, which is why it is second in the league with five titles and 34 wins in the event over the years.
If nothing else, Siena closed out the regular season strong with four consecutive wins, all after battling this same Canisius (20-11, 14-6) squad to three overtimes before losing, 92-88, back on Feb. 16 and don't think for a moment that the Saints have forgotten that hard-fought setback. As the top 3- point threat for the program, Rob Poole led the offense with 14.6 ppg and was also one of the better rebounders on the unit with 5.2 rpg, which is why he was named to the All-MAAC Third Team. However, not to be overlooked is Brett Bisping who put together several strong efforts down the stretch as he went from 10.4 ppg on the season overall to 12.3 ppg in conference play, not to mention boosting his work on the glass to 6.5 rpg. Marquis Wright, a mere 19.4 percent shooter beyond the arc, accounted for 8.9 ppg, but was far more valued for his passing as he finished first in the league with 171 dishes in his 31 appearances.
Speaking of passing the ball with positive results, Canisius guard Billy Baron was no stranger to such success as he placed second in the league with 161 assists for the Golden Griffins. However, keeping his teammates involved in the action was not the only intention of Baron, the son of head coach Jim Baron, as he finished the regular season ranked second in the league and third in the nation in scoring with 24.4 ppg, not to mention pulling down 5.0 rpg and making 48 steals. A 43.2 percent shooter beyond the arc who is 88.8 percent accurate at the free-throw line Baron, who was named All-MAAC First Team, is the program's single-season record holder for 3-point field goals (98), and is also just the third player in school history to have 150-plus assists in consecutive campaigns.
Recipients of some of those assists were Chris Perez and Jordan Heath who contributed 12.4 and 10.5 ppg, respectively, to a Canisius offense that was third in the league with 78.0 ppg and led the MAAC with 74.0 percent accuracy at the charity stripe.
The top three teams in the conference include the defending tournament champion (Iona), the runner-up to the crown last season (Manhattan) and a newcomer that made a significant impact as it transitioned over from the Northeast Conference (Quinnipiac).
The Bobcats (19-10, 14-6), the third seed in this event, won seven straight games to begin the month of February, but then the squad suffered a couple of late defeats partly due to the fact that the roster looks more like a MASH unit at the moment. Since the fourth week of December, the program has lost a total of five players due to injury and personal reasons, the latest being one of the more influential performers in Umar Shannon who just had knee surgery.
Umar Shannon (14.3 ppg), not to be confused with Shaq Shannon (5.5 ppg), may have been just a 34.6 percent shooter from the floor, who was actually better behind the 3-point line at 36.1 percent, but he was often the one directing the offense for one of the more athletic teams in the conference. While there are not too many players out there averaging a double-double these days, Quinnipiac has the luxury of owning a pair of such performers in Ike Azotam (16.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and Ousmane Drame (13.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg), with the duo also combining to block 93 shots as well. Because of the efforts of Azotam, Drame and Zaid Hearst (15.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg), each of whom made an All-MAAC team this season, the Bobcats led the nation in rebounding margin with a +12.3 rpg as of Sunday. Unfortunately, as great as the Bobcats have been on the glass (46.0 ppg), it is their scoring defense (76.3 ppg) that continues to give them problems.
Obviously, Quinnipiac is in uncharted MAAC waters at the moment, but for the second-seeded Jaspers (22-7, 15-5), success in the tournament is nothing unusual. As mentioned previously, Manhattan lost in the title game last season, but by a mere three points (60-57) and has taken home the big prize a total of three times, most recently in 2004 when it repeated as tourney champ.
For one of the most successful road teams (12-4) in the country this season, George Beamon was the one to watch as the All-MAAC First Team selection dialed up 19.7 ppg, cranking out nearly one-third of all his points at the free-throw line. Not afraid of physical play, Beamon also stepped up to pace the program on the glass with 6.7 rpg as well, giving the Jaspers a slight advantage in that department over the competition.
Rhamel Brown (9.4 ppg) carved out a spot for himself on the All-MAAC Second Team as he accounted for another 5.8 rpg and was one of the nation's leaders with 110 blocked shots, which made it a little less painful to watch him shoot only 51.9 percent at the free-throw line overall, just 46.9 percent at the charity stripe in conference play. Michael Alvarado (12.4 ppg) had his own issues at the stripe (.645), but it was crucial to have him and his 118 assists on the floor as much as possible as the team generated 77.4 ppg and led the league in scoring margin (+6.9 ppg). Unfortunately, the latest news has Alvarado dealing with a sprained ankle and is currently listed as questionable just days before he is due to take the floor.