Wednesday, March 4, 2009

MAAC Tournament Preview

Last night, in the three conferences that started tournaments; Ohio Valley, Big South and Horizon, there were no real upsets. Loyola Chicago beat Youngstown State on the Penguins home court, but considering it was the seven seed beating the six seed, not really an upset. I was surprised that VMI blew out Coastal Carolina considering the Keydets and Chanticleers split their season series (and both games were very close). But when you have 25 turnovers as the Chanticleers did, chances are the game will not be close.

So along with the three aforementioned conference tournaments, there are another four big mid major conference tournaments coming up later this week; the MAAC, the Missouri Valley, the West Coast Conference, and of course, the CAA. The MAAC and Missouri Valley start on Thursday...well I should clarify that. The MAAC Women's coincides with the MAAC Men's tournament in Albany and the women, including Tony Bozzella's Lady Gaels start Thursday. The Men start Friday. The Missouri Valley lower seeds start Thursday. The West Coast and CAA starts Friday.

So I will start previewing these conferences in this order. The MAAC Men's and Women's, since Bozzella's Lady Gaels' conference tourney in Albany starts tomorrow, then the Missouri Valley, then the WCC, and then finally the CAA. This should all be done by Friday morning.

The MAAC Men's and Women's top six teams get a bye in the first round. The MAAC Women's conference slate starts tomorrow with the lower seeds playing each other tomorrow afternoon - #7 Rider vs. #10 Niagara and #8 Manhattan vs. #9 Loyola. Then the women's quarterfinal round on Friday starts playing, get this, at 9:30 am in the morning! Talk about lack of sleep! #2 Canisius plays the winner of the #7-#10 game at that dreaded 9:30 am time. Then it’s #3 Fairfield vs. #6 Siena at 11:30 am. Then at 1:30 pm, its Marist vs. the #8-#9 winner, then #4 Iona finishes the day session vs. #5 St Peter's. Ok, breather. Then the Men's sessions start Friday night at 7:30 with the lower seeds; #8 Loyola vs. #9 Canisius, then followed by #7 Iona vs. #10 Marist. So you have six games you can gorge yourself on the first day.

But wait, there's more, on Saturday, the semifinals for the women again start at 9:30 am. Then after the two women's games, the afternoon men's quarterfinals sessions start at 2:30 pm as #4 Manhattan plays #5 Fairfield (two teams Hofstra beat this year) then followed by #1 Siena vs. the #8-#9 winner. Then the evening session starts with #2 Niagara vs. the #7-#10 winner followed by #3 Rider vs. #6 Saint Peter's. Again, another six games to watch.

Another breath. Sunday brings us the final of the Women's tournament at noon. Then at 6:00 pm, the Men's semifinals take place, with the finals Monday at 9:00 PM on ESPN2 (right after the glorious CAA tournament final at 7:00 pm). So, you have FIVE days and SEVENTEEN games of college basketball. It's a basketball glutton's delight. This might have been the year I would have considered partaking in some of it in person, but alas, due to Jonathan's surgery, I will not be.

So what do I think happens. Well, as for Tony Bozzella's Lady Gaels, a team we follow a lot here at Mid Major Hoops, I think they will win their first round game vs. Saint Peter's. They split the season series with the Peahens. But if the twenty-one point win at New Rochelle on Sunday was any indication, the Lady Gaels should be able to work the ball inside on the much smaller peahens. This should free up first team MAAC all conference Thazina Cook and All Rookie Team member Kristina Ford for open threes.

If they win, the Lady Gaels then get an extremely tough opponent in the semis in Marist. The Red Foxes have won three games in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, one last season vs. DePaul and they reached the Sweet 16 in the previous season. Marist again won the MAAC regular season with a 16-2 record. However, it was their first losses in conference the past several seasons. They had won 35 consecutive games in conference prior to a loss at home to Fairfield. I was at New Rochelle when Marist defeated Iona 69-60 in a game where Iona played actually even closer than the score indicates. Still, it will be a tough assignment for the Lady Gaels. They will have to play a near perfect game against the Red Foxes to win. We'll see.

Now, onto the men's tournament. Siena has been the team that has drawn the most attention. The Saints, who went 23-7 on the season, have a RPI 0f 28 and boast one of the strongest non-conference strength of schedules in the country. The problem is that their best non-conference win is over Northern Iowa (they lost to Pitt, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Tennessee), which was at home. That game was much more of a blowout than the final score indicates.

The Saints with their 16-2 conference record, their strong SOS and their high RPI have people talking about them as a possible at large, albeit a slim chance there. They are a veteran team having won a first round NCAA game over Vandy last season. The funny thing about this "veteran team" is that they only have one senior, Kenny Hasbrouck. The rest of the starters are all back next season including Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore and Ryan Rossiter.

The team that gets the second most publicity but may be just as good is Niagara, who went 24-7 in the regular season and 14-4 in conference. The Purple Eagles have a RPI of 60, which is better than Davidson, Providence, Kentucky, and Penn State, teams that are being seriously considered for an at large bid.

Niagara is also one of the nation's leading teams in road wins with 10. The Purple Eagles are two years removed from their NCAA tournament experience, a win in the play in game vs. Florida A&M, then a loss to #1 seeded Kansas (only Tyrone Lewis and Benson Egemonye were on that team). They feature four scorers in double digits including Lewis, Egemonye and leading scorer Bilal Benn. Benn and Lewis are juniors, so they will be back next season to create more havoc for opposing MAAC teams.

So you have those two teams that have combined for 30 conference wins, Rider that won 12, then a significant drop off. How does that play out in this tournament? Well Siena should win their second round game handily. Niagara though may have problems with Iona (if the Gaels win against Marist). The Purple Eagles split their season series vs. the Gaels losing at home and winning on the road. Still, I think Niagara's underrated defense will create too many turnovers for Iona to overcome.

That should setup a Siena -Fairfield/Manhattan semi while Niagara has another tough game with Rider. The Purple Eagles split their games with the Broncs, who feature another all MAAC first team player in Ryan Thompson. Hasbrouck, Ubiles, Lewis, Benn and Thompson are the All MAAC first team. Again, Niagara' defense should overcome Rider for the final that everyone wants to see.

So the final should be Siena-Niagara, a game that will be for the ages. Both teams love to play transition basketball and love to go up and down the court. Expect a high scoring track meet of a close game with the Saints using their tournament experience to win out at the end. Don't be surprised though if Niagara wins. They are quite good as Illinois State found out.

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