Monday, February 23, 2009

Observations from a Basketball Weekend

Three basketball games, three venues, 45 hours....

This humble blogger got a nice dose of basketball over this past weekend, witnessing the Fairfield women build a big lead and, then, hold off host Siena (at Siena's Alumni Recreation Center), 68-57, on Friday night; the Siena men build a big lead and, then, hold off Northern Iowa (at Albany's Times Union Center), 81-75; and, the Marist women build a big lead and, then, extend it (at the McCann Center in Poughkeepsie)to knock off Siena, 78-49.

Observations, not only from those games, but from around the league ...

- After getting first-hand looks at both the Fairfield and the Canisius women's teams within the past two weeks, the sentiment here is that Fairfield has the best chance if anyone is to upset Marist in the conference's upcoming post-season tournament.

The Lady Stags have the requisite height (6-foot-1 players in starter Lauren Groom and reserve Tara Flaherty), a standout individual in 5-11 forward Baendu Lowenthal, who is one of the top three or four players in the conference; outside shooting particularly from Lauren Groom (30-of-73, 41.1 percent, on three-pointers this season), and a very effective point guard in Megan Caskin, who is second in the league with 128 total assists.

The Fairfield women also have considerable experience - Lowenthal, Groom and Caskin are seniors and Geehan is a junior - and own a victory over Marist (73-68), one of two conference losses suffered by the Red Foxes this season.

- None of the above is meant to diminish anything accomplished by the Canisius women this season.

The Golden Griffins, by virtue of a 70-67 overtime victory over Iona on Sunday, are 21-7 overall. The victory total matches the program's Division I record for wins in a season, and will establish the record if it can defeat Niagara on Saturday.

Canisius now has an NCAA record of consecutive games with a 3-pointer (449), and entered Sunday's game with Iona ranked seventh nationally by hitting 38.5 percent of its 3-point attempts, and 12th nationally in treys made per game (7.5).

The Griffs, too, have an individual standout in senior Marie Warner, an outstanding point guard (Brittane Russell), some height in 6-1 starter JJ Williams and 6-0 reserve Ellie Radke to go along with the outside shooting. And, Canisius also has a regular-season victory against Marist (68-60).

Both Fairfield and Canisius have four league losses and the prediction here that Fairfield might hold a slight edge between the two comes merely from one first-hand observation of each team recently which hardly constitutes an "expert's" opinion.

For sure, though, the likely semifinal round match of Fairfield and Canisius in the conference tournament will be a good one.

- Marist displayed its usual dominance in Sunday afternoon's 78-49 victory over Siena. A standing-room only crowd of 2,980 was on hand, providing a wonderful sporting atmosphere.

As final seconds ticked off, most in attendance responded with a standing ovation for the home team, which was only fitting. They continue to witness conference history from what has become the most-dominant women's program ever to compete in the MAAC.

Marist is now 25-3 overall and has gone over the 20-victory total for six straight seasons.

Sunday's victory clinched outright possession of the MAAC's regular-season crown, also the sixth straight time the team has either won outright (the past five seasons) or shared (2003-04) the regular-season title.

That's a league record. Only Saint Peter's (1981-82 through the 1985-86 seasons) won or shared five straight regular-season MAAC titles. And, back then, there were only six MAAC teams.

Marist has just three league losses in the past three seasons (50-3) and five in the past four seasons (66-5).

In a word: Incredible.

Marist also has the best player in the league in 6-1 forward Rachele Fitz, the best guard in the league in Julianne Viani and goes 10 deep in quality players.

- A nice touch by the Marist staff on Sunday when it honored Fitz as the program's all-time leading scorer.

On hand for the pregame ceremony was Ursula Winters, previously the program's No. 1 scorer, who graduated in 1985 but looked like she could still play.

Fitz now has 1,742 career points. Winter finished with 1,587 career points.

Only a junior, Fitz already ranks 15th all-time on the conference's career scoring list and, next season, will likely threaten the all-time mark of 2,467 held by former Loyola standout Patty Stoffey.

- Congratulations to the Niagara women's team on earning its first victory of the season, a 70-65 decision over Loyola.

The outcome took place on the Purple Eagles' final home game, the traditional "Senior Night."

Fittingly, Niagara's three seniors, Kristina Walton, Erika Harris and Kayleigh Scannell scored the team's first 15 points and 39 of its 70 in the game. Walton finished with a career-high 22 points, while Harris had 10 and Scannell finished with 7.

Niagara is now 1-16 in league play and avoids becoming just the third MAAC women's team to finish a season without a conference victory.


- It was a successful BracketBusters weekend for the conference as MAAC teams won six of the 10 games in the series.

MAAC BracketBusters victories were:
Siena, 81-75, over Northern Iowa
Niagara, 70-56, over Illinois State
Canisius, 71-66, over Bowling Green
Manhattan, 54-39, over William & Mary
Marist, 57-35, over Hartford
Rider, 71-65, over UMBC.
A note ... Hartford's 35 points in its game with Marist marked the lowest point total that the Red Foxes have ever permitted to a Division I opponent.

The other four BracketBusters results were:
Hofstra over Fairfield, 61-56
Boston University over Iona, 63-57
Youngstown State over Saint Peter's, 68-64
Drexel over Loyola, 74-58

And, some observations:

- Siena continues to establish itself as a candidate for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament should it fail to win the MAAC's post-season tournament.

Siena currently ranks No. 24 in the Ratings Percentage Index, and would finish 26-7 overall should it win its final two regular-season games (Friday at Niagara, Sunday at Canisius) and the first two rounds of the MAAC tournament and, then, falter in the tournament's championship game.

But, then, there is this type of sentiment...
ESPN's NCAA tournament "Bubble Watch" had this to say about the Saints' at-large chances:

"The Saints took care of business in their BracketBusters game Saturday, beating Northern Iowa 81-75 at home. But the victory won’t do much for Siena’s résumé, leaving it without a victory over an RPI top-50 opponent. Siena is 0-4 against RPI top-50 opponents, losing to Pittsburgh and Kansas on the road and Tennessee and Oklahoma State on neutral courts. The Saints have wins over Saint Joseph’s (road) and Northern Iowa (home), but they also have ugly losses to RPI No. 141 Rider and No. 146 Wichita State. Siena will present an intriguing case to the selection committee. Siena’s RPI rating is among the Top 25 because of its strength of schedule, but there aren’t any quality victories in its gaudy record."

Needless to say that your humble blogger does not agree with ESPN.

Since when did losses to teams with RPI's in the 140s become "ugly" ones?

There are 343 teams playing Division I basketball. Even at No. 146, Wichita State ranks in the top 43 percent of all Division teams in the RPI.

Losing to teams, say, ranked 241 or 246 ... that would be ugly.

But losing to 141 and 146?

Definitely not ugly.

Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

- Siena basically outclassed Northern Iowa, the first-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference, in Saturday's game.

The Saints had a 40-19 lead at halftime, and still led by 20 with 11 minutes remaining, and by 13 with just over two minutes left. The Panthers, taking advantage of a Siena defense designed to avoid fouls late in the game, scored on their last seven possessions to turn what was truly a rout into a relatively close final margin.

- Niagara had similar success against Illinois State in its BracketBusters game, a result that should solidify its aspirations for an NIT bid should it fail to make it to the NCAA's by virtue of winnint the conference tournament.

The Purple Eagles are 63rd nationally in Jerry Palm's computer approximation of the RPI's as of Monday morning, certainly high enough for NIT consideration.

Niagara is currently 22-7 overall. The 22 victories already is the highest total for the program prior to the MAAC tournament since it finished the 1992-93 regular season with 23 victories.

The Purple Eagles have two regular-season games remaining to match or surpass its all-time regular-season total for victories. It hosts Siena on Friday and Marist on Sunday.

No comments: