2006 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament Preview
The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer
FACTS & STATS: Site: Pepsi Arena (15,500) — Albany, New York.
Dates: March 3-6. Television: MAAC-TV, FSN-New York, MSG, ESPN2 (Championship
game). Annual: 25th. Defending Champion: Niagara.
OUTLOOK: It went right down to the wire, with the final minutes in the final
game of the regular season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference deciding
just which school would make the jump all the way to the semifinal round of
the MAAC Tournament and avoid some of the possible pitfalls of the earlier
rounds. On Sunday, February 26th, it was Iona versus Manhattan on the road,
with the Jaspers gently breezing past the Gaels in a 78-74 decision at Draddy
Gym. With the win, the Jaspers, who have won this tournament three times, went
from being just 4-5 against non-conference competition this year to taking the
top seed in the 25th Annual MAAC Tournament which begins on March 3rd at Pepsi
Arena in Albany.
At the beginning of the season it didn’t look like it was going to be all that
successful for Manhattan, with the Jaspers falling in four straight to the
likes of Seton Hall, George Mason, Syracuse and Rhode Island. But down the
stretch, Manhattan (19-8, 14-4) regained its balance and now finds itself
waiting a couple of rounds before even having to step foot on the court. The
Jaspers are not the only squads getting a free pass early on because the same
courtesy is being extended to Iona (20-7, 13-5), Marist (18-9, 12-6) and Siena
(15-12, 10-8) as they won’t see action until the second round on Saturday.
So to kick things off in Albany on Friday, the very first game of the
tournament pits fifth-seeded Saint Peter’s (14-14, 9-9) against 10th-seeded
Rider (8-19, 4-14). The Peacocks, who finished the regular season with the top
three-point field goal defense in the conference (.331), had an aggressive
nature on the defensive side of the ball all-around, placing second in the
MAAC with just over eight steals per game, and yet even with the league’s top
scorer in Keydren Clark (26.6 ppg), the squad still just broke even.
As for the Broncs, they were ninth in the conference in scoring at 71.5 ppg
and next-to-last in scoring margin (-5.3 ppg). Combine those numbers with the
fact that Rider was second from the bottom in turnover ratio with a -2.19
margin, and it was easy to see how the squad fell apart. The Broncs did hand
Manhattan one of its losses this season in league play, but closing out the
year with six consecutive setbacks is not the way to convince the fans that
there is reason for hope in the postseason.
Last year’s conference tournament champions, the Niagara Purple Eagles (10-17,
7-11), wrapped up the seventh seed and will be seeking to lasso the eighth-
seeded Stags of Fairfield (9-18, 7-11) in the second game. Like Rider, the
Eagles also beat the Jaspers at one point this season, but finished with a
rough four-game slide, with three of those games being decided by six points
or fewer. Niagara was last in the league in overall shooting (.416) and beyond
the arc (.325), but did manage to make more free throws (471-of-628) than any
other program. The Stags were another group that struggled down the stretch,
with their only win in the last six contests being a wild 109-108 shootout
versus Saint Peter’s at home on Valentine’s Day.
Game number three features sixth-seeded Loyola-Maryland (15-12, 8-10) and
ninth-seeded Canisius (8-19, 6-12). Granted, the Greyhounds had a bit of an
easy schedule in the early going, but five straight wins out of the gate sent
a message to the rest of the MAAC that they’d better be ready for the new and
improved Greyhounds. Over the last few years, Loyola has been the doormat of
the MAAC, two years ago finishing with a record of just 1-27, but now the
Maryland faithful have something to cheer about, especially with the team
closing out the season with three straight victories. While this might not be
the time for Loyola to get its first MAAC title since 1994, it is nice to see
that fire back in the program. Clearly much of that spark has been brought on
by Andre Collins who placed second in the conference and among the best in the
nation in scoring with an average of 26.2 ppg.
As for the Golden Griffins, the team that lost to Loyola-Maryland in the
regular season finale on Sunday by five points, eight losses through the first
nine games this season set a bad precedent, and the squad never recovered.
Canisius was last in the league in scoring (70.9 ppg) and was second to last
in rebounding with only 33.2 rpg, even though it had three players grabbing an
average of at least five boards per contest.
A quick look at the three teams that fell in behind Manhattan shows an Iona
group that had two separate seven-game win streaks to be proud of, but also
cracked under the pressure of playing for the regular season title on Sunday,
which meant two of the team’s conference losses came against the Jaspers. But
if history is any indication, one cannot count out the Gaels because they have
the most tournament titles (six) of any other program, although the most
recent came in 2001. With a record of 31-18 in the event over the years, Iona
has certainly stood in the way of other teams who were worthy of wearing the
Heading into this week, the Red Foxes of Marist were perhaps the most well-
rounded team in the MAACm, for no other reason than Jared Jordan is on the
floor to lead the way with his 8.7 apg, which lead the nation. The top scoring
defense in the league (71.8 ppg) doesn’t exactly help when Marist is also
second-to-last in the conference in free-throw shooting at a mere 68 percent.
However, you might as well throw that last stat out the window because
Manhattan was last in the MAAC in that area at 67.8 percent. Unfortunately for
the Red Foxes, history in this tournament has not been kind as they are one of
two teams (Rider) that has yet to win a title, and the squad is just 4-8 as a
Winning five straight MAAC games to close out the regular season really had to
raise the spirits of the Siena Saints, not to mention getting their offense
back on track as they scored no less than 82 points in four of those five
victories. Siena leads the league in free-throw shooting (.757), but as
previously mentioned it doesn’t always follow that accuracy with success on
the scoreboard. However, the Saints, who have two MAAC Tournament titles to
their credit but haven’t won since 2002, are the second-best three-point
shooting team in the conference (.381) and have two of the top six scorers in
Antoine Jordan (17.4 ppg) and Kojo Mensah (16.7 ppg), so they can feel safe in
spreading the wealth at the offensive end of the floor.
Getting the opportunity to sit and watch two full days of games, not only to
analyze the competition but also to see them wear down, the favorite to earn
the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament has to be Manhattan once again.
However, counting out the Iona Gaels right off the top would be a mistake,
because they need to avenge their two critical losses to the Jaspers in order
to justify having a successful season.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Manhattan