Niagara, Fairfield, and Others Pose Threat to Siena's Trip to the Big Dance

Ari KramerSenior Analyst IIDecember 18, 2008

The MAAC has traditionally sent one team to the NCAA Tournament every season.

After upsetting Vanderbilt in last season's NCAA Tournament, Siena was the preseason favorite to represent the MAAC in 2009. The Saints returned all five starters, brought in two solid recruits, and saw sophomores Ryan Rossiter and Clarence Jackson improve during the summer.

Fran McCaffery made sure to bolster his non-conference schedule by competing in the Old Spice Classic and scheduling games at Pittsburgh and Kansas.

Unfortunately for the Saints, they have not won any of their big games. Losses to Tennessee, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, and Pittsburgh are making people wonder if the glass slipper actually fits on Siena's foot.

The two-point loss to a weak, rebuilding Wichita State was the worst for Siena.

If this was last season and Siena had lost by 14 to No. 12 Tennessee, nine to Oklahoma State, and 13 at No. 3 Pittsburgh, analysts would say that Siena has the ability to pull off a first round upset.

Higher expectations lead to bigger disappointments, so Siena has definitely been disappointing so far.

There is no doubt that Siena could pull off an upset if they are an 11, 12, or 13 seed in this season's tournament. They are still a very good team and have one last opportunity to prove their strength against Kansas.

However, their path to celebration on Selection Sunday will not be as easy as originally expected.

MAAC foes Niagara and Fairfield have been hot during the non-conference and have proven that they will compete with Siena for the MAAC crown.

Niagara did not receive the respect it deserved during the preseason because Charron Fisher, 2007-08's second-best scorer in the nation, graduated.

Too many people overlooked Bilal Benn and Rob Garrison, who were finally eligible to play for Joe Mihalich this season after transferring from Villanova and UConn respectively.

Last Sunday, the Purple Eagles upset South Florida, 70-55, on the road and post a 7-2 season record. Their two losses were at Villanova and against Akron. Niagara trailed 'Nova by four points midway through the second half but hit a dry spell and allowed the Wildcats to take a double-digit lead.

Along with the two Big East transfers, Tyrone Lewis is the leader of the team. The junior guard is averaging 17.3 points per game, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and is fifth in the country with 3.3 steals per game.

Benn is nearly averaging a double-double with 13 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Garrison is third in scoring for the Purple Eagles with 11.7 points per game.

Niagara is fairly deep with key contributors Benson Egemonye, Anthony Nelson, Demetrius Williamson, and Kamau Gordon.

As a team, Niagara is very well-rounded. The Purple Eagles average 77.2 points for, 64.9 points allowed, 39.7 rebounds, and 10.7 steals per game.

As for Fairfield, they have won seven consecutive games and are the hottest team in the MAAC.

Like the Saints, the Stags returned most of their top talent from 2007-08. The scoring is equally distributed between Jon Han (12.8 ppg), Warren Edney (11.9 ppg), Greg Nero (11.1 ppg), Anthony Johnson (10.8 ppg), and Herbie Allen (8.3 ppg).

As a team, however, the Stags only outscore their opponents 69-67.8. This stat does not seem too impressive, but three of their first four games were blowout losses against Memphis, Virginia Tech, and Missouri. So, without those defeats, Fairfield would have a nicer looking margin of victory.

The Harbor Yard Arena is always a difficult place to play in the conference, and the Stags are already 5-0 in Bridgeport this season.

Fairfield is not the only tough home team in the MAAC. With the help of Ryan Thompson and Harris Mansell, Rider will be able to put up a fight with Siena, Niagara, and Fairfield. Even Manhattan has a chance to compete against the best of the MAAC.

The Jaspers return every key player from a team that upset Siena, 72-71, in Riverdale.

The season is still young, conference play is about two weeks away, and it is too early to tell who will be the last MAAC team standing in March. However, it is possible to say that Siena will not have as easy of a trip to the NCAA Tournament as expected.