Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: Over the last decade or so, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has had a number of schools take control and be the toast of the town and now the time has come for the Greyhounds of Loyola-Maryland to enjoy the fruits of their recent labors. It has been quite a long time since the Greyhounds have been the hunted in the MAAC, but last year they proved worthy of that status when they captured the MAAC Tournament title and made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Teams from the league rarely make much of an impact in the Big Dance, but just getting there was certainly a feather in the cap of the Greyhounds who have been beaten and bruised for far too long. While the team is perhaps destined to again be one of the teams to chase in the league throughout 2012-13, it will be a bitter-sweet challenge for Loyola since this is the school's last year in the MAAC before moving on to the Patriot League.
Just a few years back a team like Manhattan was dangerously close to scraping the bottom of the barrel in the league standings, but now the squad is reborn and has a chance to take down the Greyhounds. And while they may not be the dominating force they were in 2009-10 when they won all but one game in conference play, the Siena Saints are not about to give up on a trip to the postseason without a real fight this year either.
As for the rest of the schools in the MAAC, sure they'll be some surprises, and upset wins here or there, but to think that one of those schools has better odds at surpassing one of the top three programs is a bit unrealistic.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Loyola-Maryland
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Loyola-Maryland; 2. Manhattan; 3. Siena; 4. Niagara; 5. Iona; 6. Canisius; 7. Marist; 8. Fairfield; 9. Rider; 10. Saint Peter's
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
LOYOLA-MARYLAND This is the final chance for the Greyhounds to put their stamp on the MAAC because next season they will be heading to Patriot League where they will form new alliances and rivalries. Head coach Jimmy Patsos has quite a bit to live up to this season as Loyola is the defending conference tournament champion after taking care of Fairfield in the championship game, not to mention advancing to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history. While many of the primary players are coming back for coach Patsos, that's not the case with guard Justin Drummond who elected to transfer to another school in April after averaging 10.7 ppg and 3.9 rpg while being named the MAAC Sixth Man of the Year and a member of the All-MAAC Third Team. Now a graduate, Erik Etherly comes back as the top scorer from a year ago when he generated 13.7 ppg as a 53.0 percent shooter from the floor. Etherly also paced the program with 7.5 rpg and 50 blocked shots, so his presence in the paint cannot be overstated. Dylon Cormier (13.4 ppg) and Robert Olson (11.1 ppg) combined to knocked down 100 three-point baskets for the Greyhounds, accounting for a huge chunk of the unit's mere 164 triples on the season. This version of the Greyhounds has as many as seven first-time performers, which means those with experience will be called upon to work just a bit harder during the team's MAAC swan song.
MANHATTAN Now entering his second season with the Jaspers, head coach Steve Masiello is coming off a decent performance in his opening campaign with 21 wins, the team putting up a 12-6 mark in conference play in order to finish in third place. Best of all, all five of his starters from a year ago are ready to make another go of it this year, which should make the Jaspers one of the favorites to win the conference title. A starter in all but two of the 33 games in which he appeared, George Beamon is clearly the player that everyone will look to for guidance again this season after he produced a team-best 19.0 ppg as a 42.7 percent shooter behind the three-point line. Not only was Beamon a threat out on the perimeter, but he also worked in the paint in order to bring down better than five and a half rebounds per game. His physical play earned him close to 200 trips to the free-throw line where he was 80.1 percent accurate, the team checking in at 72.8 percent to lead the conference. Emmy Andujar and Michael Alvarado helped carry the load in 2011-12 as well, as both averaged 8.5 ppg and the former contributing with a team-best 105 assists and 5.7 rpg to pace the group in that category. A couple of areas of concern, based on last year's numbers, the Jaspers were ranked 321st out of 338 Division I teams when it came to turnovers per game, averaging 16.1, and 20.4 fouls per outing had the group ranked 310th in the country.
SIENA Head coach Mitch Buonaguro knows he and the Saints were at a disadvantage last season, playing primarily six guys which meant they tended to get tired and opponents were able to beat them up physically without fear of bench players coming in and making their mark. In fact, beyond those six, only one other player scored more than a total of eight points, that being Davonte Beard who appeared in just 10 games and tallied 52 points. Instead, Siena put all of its hopes in OD Anosike who was a one-man wrecking crew in the paint as he led the team in scoring (15.0 ppg) and the nation in rebounding (12.5 rpg). Shooting an impressive 52.4 percent from the field, Anosike should have been on the floor all the time, but his mere 56.1 percent accuracy at the free-throw line was also cause for concern. A candidate for All-America honors this year, Anosike is also the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year after putting together a string of 17 straight games with a double- double, the second-longest run in the last 15 years at the Division I level. Evan Hymes (13.4 ppg) is the man to distribute the ball, after handing out a team-best 115 assists, which is good because his 38.2 percent shooting from the floor meant defenders could sag off him at times and focus on trying to double Anosike in the paint. Rob Poole (7.0 ppg) is another one who has to work on his shooting touch, not only from the floor overall (.341), but particularly behind the three-point line (.274).
NIAGARA The Purple Eagles are expecting a more favorable outcome to the 2012-12 campaign than they had last season when they were just 14-19 overall and finished in a tie for sixth in the MAAC standings at 8-10. The squad hasn't lost any significant talent and the youngsters who are still around should be getting even better for head coach Joe Mihalich as he enters his 14th season at Niagara. More than just a pleasant surprise a year ago, guard Juan'ya Green set the league on fire as he registered 17.7 ppg and 4.5 apg while being named the MAAC Rookie of the Year. Some might say Green took too many shots, as he hit on 40.4 percent of his attempts, but at least he didn't leave his teammates in the dark as he handed out a team-best 147 assists over 33 starts. Adding 3.2 rpg, Green also showed that he wasn't simply offensive- minded as he compiled a team-high 63 steals as well. Obviously it will be tough for someone like Green to improve on such a strong campaign, but one never knows and perhaps his teammates can push him along in a positive manner. Antoine Mason, who was named to the All-MAAC Rookie Team, is no slouch himself after putting up 15.1 ppg and 4.6 rpg. Throw in Marvin Jordan (10.4 ppg) and clearly this team has some of the finest guards in the league. This active group also helped Niagara rank 18th in the nation in turnover margin (plus-3.3 per game), something the staff hopes will continue this year.
IONA Despite opening the season with a one-point loss against Purdue during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Gaels were the team to beat in the MAAC in 2011-12. The team lost back-to-back games only once, unfortunately they came at the end of the campaign during the conference tournament against Fairfield and versus BYU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton. Featuring perhaps two of the top players ever to perform in the MAAC, Iona was blessed to have both Mike Glover (18.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Scott Machado (13.6 ppg, 327 assists) to guide the team to success. Unfortunately they are both gone, but at least the cupboard is not completely bare. Senior guard Lamont Jones will now be the focal point of the offense, after he placed second on the team in scoring with 15.7 ppg, but now the opposition knows this and it will be harder for him to find open shots. Last season, the Gaels led the nation in scoring with 82.9 ppg and were third in field goal shooting (.502), but without Machado feeding the ball to teammates in scoring situations those numbers will surely go down under head coach Tim Cluess. Sean Armand (9.5 ppg) will also be expected to pick up some of the slack and surely he will earn more than just 18.9 minutes per game this time around, especially if he can come anywhere close to the 46.2 percent he made from three-point range. Taaj Ridley (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) will also pick up additional playing time for a team that not only has a lot to live up to from past years, it also must work beyond the loss of recruit Michael Haynes who was shot and killed in Chicago in late July.
CANISIUS Last season was a complete disaster for the Golden Griffins as they won a total of five games, finishing 1-17 in league play. Unfortunately, when teams have such dreadful campaigns someone has to take the fall and in this case it was head coach Tom Parrotta who saw his six-year tenure with the Griffins come to an end. But with that change brings new hope as the program hired Jim Baron to take over and hopefully guide Canisius basketball in the right direction. Baron has been in the coaching business for a quarter century and needs just 10 wins in order to reach 400 for his career, an achievement that should take place this season if the team can get on track with four key returnees. Granted, it might be a bit of a long shot given how many new faces will be showing up at practice, but coach Baron does have Harold Washington who appeared in all 30 games for the Griffs a year ago and was named Second- Team All-MAAC after netting 17.0 ppg. Washington, who also handed out a team- high 83 assists, tried to do it all for the team from his 4.3 rpg to his 118 made free throws, a number that was 34 more than his closest teammate even attempted. Alshwan Hymes played the most minutes which meant he was given plenty of opportunity to let fly with 257 three-pointers, an average of more than eight per game, hitting a school-record 84 triples as he averaged 15.4 ppg. Another starter in all 30 games for Canisius, Chris Manhertz (7.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is the banger in the paint, the enforcer who fouled out eight times for a team that was being outscored by 10.2 ppg and could have used him down around the goal.
MARIST Like several other teams in the MAAC last season, the Red Foxes also ended up with a losing record overall at 14-18, suffering in a big way on the road where they were winners in just two of 14 outings. The squad finished eighth in the league standings at 7-11 under head coach Chuck Martin, who is now entering his fifth season at Marist. At one point the team was entangled in an eight-game slide in conference play, something they hope to avoid this time around, but it will only get better if the defense starts playing stronger. Over the course of 32 contests the Red Foxes gave up 72.9 ppg which was one of the weakest efforts in the country, ranking them 301st among the 338 Division I teams tracked by the NCAA. At least from an offensive standpoint, the team has to be happy about bringing back Chavaughn Lewis who led the way with 14.4 ppg and was also a solid man to have on the glass with close to five rebounds per outing. Although he was just a 38.9 percent shooter from the floor, Devin Price (13.6 ppg) was still an integral part of the offense a year ago, particularly behind the three-point line where he knocked down a team-best 60 attempts. Dorvell Carter appeared in just three games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Vermont so it will be important to see how ready he is to get back into competitive action for Marist. One of only two players to have started every game last season, Adam Kemp (8.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is the one that the Red Foxes need to throw his weight around in the paint, especially since he accounted for half of their 140 blocked shots.
FAIRFIELD The Stags had their problems early on during the 2011-12 campaign, but they turned it around at just the right time and even made it into a postseason tournament where they dropped Yale, Manhattan and Robert Morris before succumbing to Mercer in the CIT. The three postseason victories were the most ever in a single year for the Stags. That team was carried by Rakim Sanders with his 16.6 ppg and 8.2 rpg, but he's no longer available and that means guys like Derek Needham and Maurice Barrow will be called upon to supply even more in the way of offense for a program that prides itself on keeping scoring low no matter who the opposition. Fairfield was 34th in the nation a year ago as it held the competition to only 61.1 ppg, and that generally worked in favor of the Stags as they finished with a record of 22-15 and 12-6 in conference during the first year under head coach Sydney Johnson. Needham was second on the team in scoring with 11.8 ppg and was tops in the passing department with 100 assists over the course of 29 starts. Needham also made good on 38.9 percent of his three-point tries, which was almost as good as his 39.7 percent from the floor overall sorry to say. Barrow (9.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg) was second on the team in total minutes, so coach Johnson knows he can rely on him to help direct a team that has several new faces on the roster.
RIDER Like every other program that takes to the floor each season, the Broncs had certain expectations last year and right off the bat the team was hit with a string of poor performances. In fact, if it were not for a narrow 74-72 victory over Howard at home on Nov. 21 the squad would have begun 2011-12 with a double-digit losing streak. As it stood, Rider was just 3-11 in non-conference outings and 13-19 overall as it bowed to Fairfield in the conference tournament to put an end to an awful campaign. Ironically enough, head coach Tommy Dempsey decided to leave the program instead of trying to bring the Broncs back to life, opting to go to Binghamton and a school that won a grand total of just two games all of last season. Stepping in is former associate head coach Kevin Baggett who has been a coach at the Division I level for 16 years. Taking over a team that had five double-digit scorers a year ago, Baggett has only two returning in Daniel Stewart and Anthony Myles, responsible for 11.1 ppg and 10.1 ppg, respectively. A 56.1 percent shooter from the floor, Stewart was the top rebounder for the group with better than six and a half boards per contest, but the ball was not always safe in his hands since he had just 19 assists in nearly 1,000 minutes of action. Having his bother Derrick join him at Rider should help with team chemistry. One of only two seniors on the roster, Jonathon Thompson (8.1 ppg) will be the one expected to kick the offense into gear after handing out 141 assists and suffering just 72 turnovers a season ago.
SAINT PETER'S The Peacocks had a torturous 2011-12 campaign during which they won just five games and were a mere 2-13 on the road. The squad was particularly roughed up outside of MAAC play, winning just once in 13 opportunities and that came against Binghamton, a team which finished the season with only two wins in 31 opportunities. Needless to say, Saint Peter's and head coach John Dunne have quite a bit of work ahead of them if they hope to be any measure of competition against the rest of the league. The good news is that there are five seniors on the roster at the moment, two of whom averaged double-digit scoring a year ago for a group that managed to produce a mere 58.0 ppg and was ranked 326 out of 338 Division I schools in that department. Darius Conley (11.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is someone who works hard in the paint and rarely finds himself anywhere else on the offensive end of the floor, but he needs to get a better handle on the ball after logging just 17 assists against 69 turnovers. Then again, miscues were a major issue for everyone involved as the team averaged 15.6 per game to rank 310th in the country. Chris Prescott, the other returnee who averaged double figures with 10.1 ppg, is perhaps the best thing the Peacocks have to a deep threat after hitting 62 triples in 2011-12, but his overall accuracy from the field was just 33.9 percent.