The beginning of 2009 marks the start of MAAC play.
So far, there have not been any surprises in terms of records or wins. However, Siena disappointed with three losses in the Old Spice Classic, and Niagara has exceeded expectations.
January and February should be full of exciting MAAC basketball, and it would not be surprising to see the regular season league champion be decided on the last day of conference play.
Rider and Niagara are the only teams who have not played two conference games already, but they are each 1-0. Siena and Fairfield are currently atop the MAAC with two wins and no losses apiece.
Analyzing the Top-Third
Siena, Niagara, and Fairfield will likely compete for the title.
Even though they have underachieved in non-conference play, the Siena Saints are still dangerous. Their one point victory at St. Joseph's was crucial to prove that they were not over-hyped at the beginning of the season. Siena has a must-win game at Holy Cross (4-8) tonight and would love a win at Kansas next week.
Despite playing against tough competition, Siena outscores their opponent by an average of five points per game. Their rebounding game has been more effective against smaller teams, but they average a total of 35.5 boards per game.
Last year's three-point shooting strength has diminished from 38.2 percent in 2007-08 to 30.1 percent this year.
Kenny Hasbrouck, the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year, has been the most disappointing player in the MAAC. His 10.6 points per game and three-point percentage of 25 percent are down from last season's 16.1 ppg and 38.9 percent.
Starters Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin have also declined statistically.
Siena definitely has the talent to win the MAAC, but they will need improved play from Hasbrouck, Ubiles, and Franklin.
On the bright side, sophomores Clarence Jackson and Ryan Rossiter have really stepped up and are major reasons that Siena has been able to post a 7-4 record.
Niagara is 10-2 with losses to No. 22 Villanova and Akron. The Purple Eagles kept the Wildcats in a close game until the middle of the second half, and blew a late eight-point lead to lose to Akron.
A 15-point win at South Florida proved that Niagara can compete with higher-profile teams—South Florida is not a top notch Big East team, but they are in the Big East, nonetheless.
Four Purple Eagles average over 11 points per game. Tyrone Lewis, Bilal Benn, Benson Egemonye, and Rob Garrison have all been crucial to the team's early success. Anthony Nelson, Demetrius Williamson, and Kamau Gordon have also provided points when needed.
Niagara's biggest strength is their depth—the seven aforementioned players can all be relied on in key situations.
The Purple Eagles are strong in every major statistical category. They average 77.1 ppg, 38.8 rpg, 14.2 apg, and 9.9 steals per game. Joe Mihalich's squad also shoots well—43.2 percent from the floor, 70 percent from the charity stripe, and 32 percent from deep.
Currently on a five-game winning streak, Niagara's next losable game is against Rider on January 17. However, they should not have much trouble with the Broncs. Siena hosts Niagara the following week.
Fairfield is the weakest of the three teams in the upper-third.
The Stags have only played one game in the last two weeks, and the result was a 20-point loss at UConn.
They are averaging a one-point loss, but that is due to four blowouts against high-profile teams.
Each of their four leading scorers—all averaging over 10 points per game—have led the team in scoring at least once this season.
Fairfield is not a high-scoring team and they struggle with controlling the basketball on offense and shooting free throws. They can shoot well from long range—they have a 37.3 percentage from deep this season—and will likely be able to pull out some MAAC wins because of their strength along the perimeter.
Their abysmal 59.5 percent from the charity stripe will be a major factor in deciding close games against lower MAAC opponents. It will also prevent the Stags from upending Siena or Niagara for the league crown.
Four of their first five MAAC games are on the road against Siena, Iona, Loyola, and St. Peter's.
The way the Stags play in these games will help paint a clearer picture as to whether they belong in the upper-third of the MAAC.
Analyzing the Middle-Third
Rider, Manhattan, and Iona have all been inconsistent, but they each belong in the middle-third.
Rider's only conference game was a 76-73 victory against the Jaspers. They are 5-5 in the non-conference and lost some games that they should have won. The Broncs possessed a second half lead against Rutgers, but fell losers in the end. They also should have beaten Drexel and Binghamton.
Ryan Thompson has been superb for the Broncs. The junior is averaging 17.2 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game. He is an all-around talent—he also averages 3.2 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game, and shoots 50.8 percent from the floor, 78.9 percent from the line, and 35.7 percent from deep.
Led by Thompson, the Broncs will be able to compete with the upper-third teams, but they will most likely not be able to beat Niagara or Siena due to depth issues.
Manhattan may be the most inconsistent team in the MAAC—mainly because of Chris Smith and Devon Austin.
Smith averages 15.5 points per game and Austin averages 11.5 points per game. Unfortunately for the Jaspers, neither have shown up to score on the same night since an 81-63 victory against Canisius on December 5.
The Jaspers are 3-2 since then and have squeaked out wins against Long Island and Binghamton. Even beating Princeton was not easy—Smith scored a career-high 35 points, but Austin got his only points on two foul shots in the final minute.
Austin scored 24 points in the loss at Rider, but Smith was 1-8 from the floor.
Neither Smith nor Austin were factors in last night's loss against American.
Luckily for the Jaspers, Darryl Crawford and Antoine Pearson have come through in clutch situations. However, Smith and Austin really need to break out of their slumps and play consistently good basketball during MAAC play if the Jaspers want any chance of finishing in the upper-third.
Another consistent problem for Manhattan is their poor perimeter defense. There are some volatile shooters in the MAAC, and all they need are some open looks from deep to get hot and be a factor throughout the game. Manhattan will struggle to win games when they let the likes of Kenny Hasbrouck and Tyrone Lewis find their stroke early in the game.
Iona is better than their 5-8 record suggests. The Gaels lost two close games to solid opponents in the Paradise Jam. They fell in overtime to then No. 22 Wisconsin and lost to Southern Mississippi.
Kevin Willard's squad was also able to contend with Ohio State until the middle of the second half.
They are 0-2 in the MAAC, but the two losses were by one point at Marist and two at Fairfield. In both games, the Gaels held leads with under five seconds left, but gave up game-winning jumpshots in both circumstances.
Gary Springer has consistently been the Gaels' best player, but Scott Machado has been doing a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor to help keep Iona in games.
The Gaels have a tough opening to MAAC play with four of their first five games being against Rider, Fairfield, and Niagara. However, they have the opportunity to go on a late run to close out the season—their last six games are against Marist, Manhattan, Loyola, Siena, St. Peter's, and Loyola again.
Brief Analysis of Bottom-Third
Marist, St. Peter's, Canisius, and Loyola don't have the potential to finish in the upper-third this year. None of them are deep or experienced enough; however, they can all play the role of a spoiler towards the end of conference play.
Beyond Ryan Schneider and David Devezin, Marist is not strong at all.
St. Peter's has seen solid play from Wesley Jenkins and Nick Leon, but do not have much talent beyond those two sophomores.
Canisius has Frank Turner, Chris Gadley, and Greg Logins, but they have lost too many games by double-digits in the non-conference to be considered anything special.
Loyola is the deepest of the bottom-third. Jamal Barney, Marquis Sullivan, Brett Harvey, and Brian Rudolph are all very talented. However, the Greyhounds have struggled in games that they could have won.
The Greyhounds will definitely be tough at home and could knock off a solid MAAC team on the road, but don't expect Jimmy Patsos' team to sneak anywhere higher than the bottom-third.
Projected Final Standings
1. Niagara (25-5, 16-2)
2. Siena (19-8, 14-4)
3. Rider (17-11, 12-6)
4. Fairfield (19-10, 12-6)
5. Manhattan (17-12, 11-7)
6. Iona (15-14, 10-8)
7. Loyola (13-17, 8-10)
8. Marist (9-21, 5-13)
9. Canisius (10-20, 4-14)
10. St. Peter's (6-22, 3-15)