Thursday , Nov , 03 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Last year was the first in quite some time that the Manhattan Jaspers
were not a lock to waltz through the regular season and into the postseason as
the prohibitive favorites to rule the roost. In fact, Manhattan finished in a
tie for fifth in the league standings in the Metro Atlantic Athletic
Conference with a mark of 9-9, giving programs such as Niagara and Iona their
moment in the spotlight. Instead of last year’s finish being an anomaly, it
seems as though the balance of power in the MAAC has shifted from downtown to
the outskirts of town. The Gaels appear to have the inside track at making it
to the NCAA Tournament, a huge jump for head coach Jeff Ruland and the program
after they were the ones tied with Manhattan in the league standings at 9-9.
Niagara, which won the conference title but was then ousted in the opening
round of the NCAA Tournament by the Oklahoma Sooners, will see their 20-10
record in 2004-05 as a high-water mark because the school won’t come close to
that in 2005-06. Rider, which finished 19-11 and tied the Purple Eagles at
13-5 in conference play, will also take a tumble this season as will the Stags
of Fairfield (11-7, 15-15). Of the programs that swept up after everyone else
a season ago, the biggest improvement will come from the Golden Griffins of
Canisius, while Loyola and Siena try not to duplicate last year’s inept
efforts that saw the schools record just six wins apiece overall. Regardless
of how it all turns out in the end, the 25th anniversary of the MAAC should
provide for some exciting basketball from beginning to end this year.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Iona; 2. Manhattan; 3. Canisius; 4. Niagara; 5.
Marist; 6. Rider; 7. Saint Peter’s; 8. Fairfield; 9. Siena; 10. Loyola-


IONA: Getting a chance to stay in shape and work on their skills over the
summer, both Steve Burtt and Kiril Wachsmann were selected to be part of the
2005 MAAC All-Star team that toured China for two weeks in July. Burtt, who
was a 2005 All-MAAC selection as he ranked fourth in the conference in scoring
with 19.3 ppg, is essential to the success of the Gaels in 2005-06. Not only
is Burtt a particularly strong shooter from behind the three-point line,
setting a school record with 80 triples last year, he also knows how and when
to turn up the intensity, just as he did in the conference tournament when he
rolled up 27.7 ppg while earning a spot on the all-conference tournament team.
Like Burtt, Wachsmann also had some of his best games in the 2005 tournament
when he averaged a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards over the three
games. Head coach Jeff Ruland, who is entering his eighth year in New
Rochelle, is finally reaping the benefits of all his hard work, but he knows
that the success this season for Iona hinges a great deal on how well Ricky
Soliver can maintain his statistical growth. Last year Soliver did a little
bit of everything for the Gaels with his 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5
assists per outing. A year after finished 9-9 in league play and 15-16
overall, Iona should be ready to make a serious run at postseason play,
despite early run-ins with Iowa State, Kentucky, Seton Hall and Fresno State
all on the road.

MANHATTAN: Last season Manhattan was on a quest for its third straight league
title, but the Jaspers found out all too quickly that winning on the road was
a thing of the past. Going 11-2 at home was one thing, beating league
opponents in eight of nine meetings, but the story was the exact opposite away
from Draddy Gym where Manhattan was just 1-8 in league play. The squad had a
couple of rough patches, one where they won just once in five games and
another that saw them drop five of six league games in late January and early
February. Peter Mulligan, the team’s leading scorer from a year ago has
departed, leaving C.J. Anderson as the only returning player of note, after
averaging 16.1 points 8.6 rebounds per game. Center Arturo Dubois is only a
sophomore this season, but hopefully the coaching staff has taught the banger
that fighting for 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game does not give him the
right to commit a team-high 113 fouls and get disqualified in 12 games. Devon
Austin, a freshman guard/forward who stands 6-6, will probably give some
opponents matchup problems, which is exactly why he is expected to fit nicely
into the starting rotation right off the bat. Head coach Bobby Gonzalez had
plenty of opportunities to abandon the program when it was winning titles but
since he stuck around into this his seventh season, we’ll really get a good
idea at how well he can rally his troops.

CANISIUS: Less than three weeks after Rider brought an end to the Golden
Griffins’ season, head coach Mike MacDonald was given more than just a vote of
confidence, despite starting the 2004-05 campaign with a mark of just 1-9. On
the strength of 10 wins in its last 19 outings, including the team’s first win
in MAAC Tournament play since 2002, MacDonald was rewarded with a contract
extension based mainly on the progress that the now ninth-year coach managed
in the second half of the season. MacDonald, who is one win shy of joining
just three other coaches as having at least 100 in their careers with
Canisius, brings back two-time second-team All-MAAC performer Kevin Downey
who, as the primary point guard with almost four assists per game last season,
was also one of the top scorers in the MAAC with 16.5 ppg. Not only that,
Downey is not afraid to take his 6-3 frame into the paint to wrestle for loose
balls, averaging more than five and a half rebounds per outing. With a total
of eight guards listed on the roster, its fairly common to see the Griffs run
with a three-guard offense and even try to slide a fourth man into the mix to
throw off defenses. Jon Popofski (10.2 ppg) joins Chuck Harris (5.9 rpg, 40.2
percent from three-point range) as likely running mates with Downey. Up front
you can expect to see Darrell Wilson (11.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) doing most of the
dirty work, while Lamar transfer Ola Matti works his way into the lineup as

NIAGARA: For 35 straight years the Purple Eagles were kept grounded when it
came to playing in the NCAA Tournament, but last year head coach Joe Mihalich
capped his seventh year with the program by pushing Niagara into the Austin
Region’s first round where the school was bounced by Oklahoma. However, the
run that saw the Eagles tie Rider for the regular season title at 13-5 and win
20 of 30 matchups overall, was spearheaded by the three-headed monster of Juan
Mendez, David Brooks and Alvin Cruz, all of whom are gone now. The 2005-06
campaign, the 100th in the school’s history, will be a trying time for
Mihalich and his bunch after leading the league and placing fourth in the
nation in scoring with 84.6 ppg. Where those points are going to come from
this season is anyone’s guess, with junior guard Lorenzo Miles the top
returning scorer for the unit with his 8.9 ppg. The one thing that kept the
Purple Eagles so solid last season was that they had the same starting lineup
for all 30 games, a fact that will work against them this time around as new
players need to fill the voids. Forward J.R. Duffy (8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds
per game) is the other returning starter for Niagara, while one of the other
forward positions will probably be filled by Kent State transfer Clif Brown as
they await the tallest player on the roster, freshman Michael Moberg, to work
his way into the system. One of only two seniors on the team, James Mathis
(6.3 rpg) brings some aggressiveness into the paint with him, something
Niagara will definitely need this season.

MARIST: Against non-conference opponents last season the Red Foxes had their
troubles, and later on down the line that may have contributed to the team
finishing just 8-10 in league play. Still, some say that first-year head coach
Matt Brady did pretty well in leading his Poughkeepsie squad to an 11-17 mark
overall. One highlight for the group was sophomore guard Will Whittington, who
became just the fourth player in NCAA history to finish a season ranked in the
top six in both three-point percentage (.492) and three-point baskets per game
(3.5). With that sort of accuracy, Marist were able to spread the offense and
thin out opposing defenses, which is why it always seemed like the Red Foxes
were on the verge of doing something great every night. Making the backcourt
of the Red Foxes one of the best in the conference is Jared Jordan, who did a
little bit of everything last season, scoring 11.7 points, clearing 4.4
rebounds and handing out almost six and a half assists per contest. The real
concern has to be with the frontcourt, which shows a pair of sophomores at
the forward positions and quite possibly a freshman stepping into the pivot.
Ben Farmer and Ryan Stilphen are still youngsters who are learning the college
game out on the wings, while the tallest player on the roster, Marko Vucajnk,
redshirted last season after making the trip to the states from Slovenia.
Needless to say, Marist will be tested in the paint this season from the word
go, but with their toughest non-conference opponents being Seton Hall and St.
John’s, it might not be until the new calendar year that we see all the real
flaws in the unit.

RIDER: Talk about changes to the program. Since last year when they finished
in a tie for the regular season title with Niagara at 13-5, the Broncs have
lost a 2,000-point scorer in Jerry Johnson, a solid big man in the paint in
Steve Castleberry and a head coach (Don Harnum) who was asked to step in as
the school’s interim athletic director. As a result of that change in the
coaching regime, Harnum has assistant Tommy Dempsey sitting in for him on the
bench. Despite never having lost a home game as a head coach, going 46-0,
Dempsey hasn’t exactly been fighting off the cream of the crop as a leader for
three years at the junior college level. Young, like the majority of his
roster, Dempsey is going to have a boat load of growing pains in Lawrenceville
as he tries to get as many as five freshmen up to speed. There’s still senior
forward Edwin Muniz who averaged 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last
season, but considering that defenses had other, more dangerous performers on
the Rider cast to focus on, it’s still unclear how well Muniz will be able to
function as the go-to guy. Fellow senior forward Paul Johnson was far from a
scoring threat in 2004-05 with his 5.8 ppg, but at least he gave the Broncs a
little more of a presence on the inside. Listed as the only true center on the
squad, Willie Dingle might actually get the starting spot in the pivot even
though he has a grand total of just 11 games under his belt over the last two
years. As the team’s tallest player at 6-10, a lot is being expected of
sophomore Jason Thompson, a local product from Mt. Laurel who posted 9.1
points and 7.4 rebounds per outing in 30 games as a freshman.

ST. PETER’S: There are just two words that describe St. Peter’s basketball
over the last few years, and that’s Keydren Clark. Most people outside the
MAAC don’t know the name, and many people who follow the conference probably
wouldn’t recognize the man if he brushed by them in the crowded room. But the
simple fact is, Clark could be ready to land in the NCAA record books this
season as one of the greatest scorers of all time. The defending NCAA scoring
champion who tallied 25.8 ppg last season, already has two scoring titles
under his belt at the little Jersey City school, and with a third this season
would become just the third player in college basketball history to lead the
country in scoring, joining the immortal Oscar Robertson and Pistol Pete
Maravich. And it’s not like Clark, who is being picked by many to be the
Player of the Year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, just fires the
ball up at will and lets it go at that. Last year he converted 36.7 percent
from three-point range, knocked down 83.5 percent at the charity stripe and
grabbed 4.1 rpg, all while leading the Peacocks in assists (115) and steals
(93). So to think that Clark focuses all his energies at the offensive end of
the floor is a misconception. However, this season he may have to turn up the
scoring machine to another level since the roster put together by sixth-year
head coach Bob Leckie has eight freshmen and sophomores. Penciled in at the
center position is 6-11 Kinzey Reeves, an Alaska native who had the second
lowest scoring average on the team last season with just 1.3 ppg. Clark will
once again have to carry the team on his shoulders.

FAIRFIELD: The Stags finished with the third-best conference record last
season at 11-7 and still the program gets little preseason respect. Perhaps
that has more to do with the fact that eighth-year head coach Tim O’Toole has
lost a considerable amount of punch that came ready to play every time out
last year. Gone are a pair of defensive stoppers in Tyquawn Goode and Deng Gai
who were mainly responsible for Fairfield having the top scoring defense in
the MAAC last season, allowing just 67 ppg. Because of Gai, who had 165
blocked shots all by himself, the Stags led the league in shot rejections as
well with more than six per game. Now O’Toole has to retool his unit at both
ends of the floor and that’s a tall order for anyone to carry out. Senior
guard Terrence Todd (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is now going to be the one looked to
for guidance in pressure situations, while senior forward DeWitt Maxwell (11.3
ppg, 3.5 rpg) heads up a small group on the interior with only four players
6-6 or taller. Michael Bell, who has three years of experience under his belt
in Connecticut and has played both guard and forward, is one of the most
experienced players on the roster for the Stags but has been little more than
a role player who shot just 37.8 percent from the field a year ago and has a
career scoring average of 6.3 ppg. Having so many guards to work into the
rotation is going to be a challenge for Fairfield, not to mention a hindrance
when it comes to defending bigger programs.

SIENA: Entering his first year as the head coach of the Saints, Fran McCaffery
has big plans for the little school from Loudonville, New York. As a graduate
of the University of Pennsylvania two and a half decades ago, McCaffery
thought it would be a great idea to have Siena, which finished 2004-05 with a
woeful 6-24 record, to suit up against the Quakers in the opener. Yes, that’s
taking the initiative to tell the players and the fans that the Saints are not
going to take the easy road and walk all over Division III programs, but
picking up Syracuse, UMass and Vermont as well probably wasn’t a good idea.
Last year Jack McClinton somehow won the most improved player award as a
freshman, but before the Siena faithful can get too excited about seeing him
earn All-MAAC honors again this season, they’ll have to deal with the fact
that McClinton didn’t waste any time jumping ship and transferring to the
University of Miami. At least that still left forward Michael Haddix as a
player to build around. Wrong again. During his trip to China as part of the
MAAC All-Stars over the summer, Haddix tore his left Achilles’ heel and is now
being forced to take a medical red-shirt for the upcoming campaign. Where does
that leave the Saints you ask? Pretty much in the middle of nowhere with
senior guard Antoine Mitchell the top returning scorer for the squad having
scored 7.6 ppg as a part-time starter in 2004-05.

LOYOLA-MARYLAND: Two seasons ago the Greyhounds flirted with immortality as
they nearly went winless during their 28-game schedule, finishing 1-27 thanks
to a six-point decision over Marist in league play. Entering the 2004-05
campaign, Loyola was riding a nine-game losing streak into the opener
following that win over the Red Foxes, and it wasn’t until the sixth game of
the season that the ‘Hounds managed to land back in the win column. Overall,
last season was not as bad as 2003-04 and there was actually a stretch where
Loyola defeated Manhattan, Siena and Iona in consecutive games, so there is
something to look forward to in Baltimore this season. Now in just his second
year with the program, head coach Jimmy Patsos, who worked for 13 seasons down
the road at Maryland and was part of a national title in 2002, is trying to
figure out where the wins are going to come from this year and who the players
are that will be the leading force in achieving some lofty goals. The
Greyhounds are heavy at the guard position, which is where both Charlie Bell
and Linton Hinds hang their respective hats. Bell, the top scorer for the team
with 10.3 ppg, has to improve his perimeter shooting (.321) and his aim from
the floor (.389) overall, while Hinds (9.7 ppg) should have a much better feel
at the free-throw line (.632). Patsos has also convinced a familiar face from
College Park to come join him with Loyola, as Andre Collins is now available
to play after sitting out a year following his transfer. Standing at 6-10,
another Maryland transfer, Hassan Fofana, will have to sit out until the
second semester, but already the Greyhounds are expecting big things from the