Two questions per team, in order of predicted order of finish.
Questions: Can the Saints survive the hype ... and,, can Kenny Hasbrouck, last season's Player of the Year in the MAAC, be adequately replaced?
The strong guess here is that the hype ... Siena is picked as high as 15th by one off-the-wall publication, but mostly in the 20's or 30's nationally, by more responsible outlets ... won't be a major factor/distraction.
Head coach Fran McCaffery has already addressed it. Displeased with some early practices, he closed the workouts to fans and media recently, a move McCaffery had only made once previously in his prior four seasons with the Saints.
It's a good move. McCaffery gets his team' s undivided attention to hammer home his point that taking things for granted doesn't get it done. Siena, too, has dealt with hype before. The expectations for success were nearly as high last season, and the Saints handled that pretty well.
There's just too much talent ... all five starters are capable of having the type season to gain all-conference recognition ... and there's more depth in place than in recent years.
As for replacing Hasbrouck ... last season's Sixth Man of the Year winner in the conference last season, Clarence Jackson, steps in. Offensively, Siena won't suffer at all with Jackson in the lineup. Defense and leadership, though, were also key contributions Hasbrouck made last season. But, a three-player senior class will capably step into leadership roles (particularly point guard Ronald Moore) which should also help address any defensive concerns.NIAGARA
Questions: Who moves into the starting lineup, after the graduation of center Benson Egemoyne, and can Niagara overtake Siena for the conference title?
Egemoyne might not have been as noticeable a cog as the team's prolific tandem of forward Bilal Benn and guard Lewis, but the 6-10 center provided an important inside presence last season.
Replacing him will probably be done by committee Demetrius Williamson, a 6-foot-6 senior, will likely get plenty of time there, and a quick acclimation to the college game by 6-8 freshman Scooter Gillette would help significantly.
Niagara certainly could win this year's title. Its returning core of four starters -- Bilal Benn, Tyrone Lewis, Anthony Nelson and Rob Garrison -- doesn't take a backseat to any team's top four in terms of talent. Problem is that Benn is the tallest of that group at 6-5, so the Purple Eagles need a strong answer to its vacant center position in order to compete with the Saints.
Questions: Who moves into the starting lineup to replace graduated guard Harris Mansell, and can the Broncs fulfill coach Tommy Dempsey's expectation of a first-place vote (the only one not for Siena) in the league's preseason coaches' poll?
Easy answer first. The Broncs plug in Jhamar Youngblood, a good shooter who transferred in from Monmouth where he was a two-year starter and the Northeast Conference's Rookie of the Year as a freshman. Considering that Mansell battled injuries his entire senior season, a healthy Youngblood will be an improvement.
Yes, Rider could also dethrone the Saints. But, they'll have to find more depth than they had a year ago. The starting five is strong. The inside duo of Mike Ringold and Novar Gadson is as good as any. Senior 6-6 point guard Ryan Thompson might be the league's best player. Figure on 6-7 sophomore Brandon Penn, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in an exhibition victory over Division II West Chester University, to provide help off the bench.
Bottom line is that both Niagara and Rider are very good teams. But, Siena appears to be more than that. Yours truly has learned that nothing that happens in the MAAC is truly a shock. But, your blogger would be a little surprised if someone other than Siena, discounting serious injuries to the Saints' key players, were to win this year's conference crown.
Questions: Can the Stags compete for the upper echelon despite injuries and, can an influx of good young players carry the team if the injured upperclassmen aren't 100 percent?
Easy answers: No, and no.
Teams that rely on youth rarely make real noise in the conference. Fairfield has three good ones in red-shirt freshmen forward Shimeek Johnson and guards Derrick Needham and Colin Nickerson. Now, the bad news. Those three were the team's top three scorers in a recent exhibition game against Stonehill College. Not exactly a recipe for success. Almost universally freshmen rarely provide the requisite consistency of excellence to lead a team to success.
If the three freshmen aren't relied upon to be the team's primary weapons, though, then the Stags might be above average. It would mean that forwards Greg Nero and Yorel Hawkins and guard Warren Edney all get healthy enough to be contributors this season. None from that trio played against Stonehill.
The good news is that hard-working forward Anthony Johnson, who missed most of last season with a blood clot issue, did play in that game and is back to full health.
The bad news is there is much speculation out there that Nero might miss the season. If he does, or if he isn't at his best, then Fairfield won't be as good as it was picked in the coaches' poll.
LOYOLAQuestions: Can a youthful frontcourt develop quickly enough to support a strong perimeter group, and can the Greyhounds contend for a league title?
Have to see how this plays out, although one of the expected two starters up front, 6-10 forward Shane Walker, already has a season at Maryland and a red-shirt season at Loyola under his belt, so he should fit in quickly.
The other potential starter up front is 6-8 freshman Julius Brooks, who played 20 minutes in a recent exhibition contest with Adelphi. How quickly Walker and Brooks become acclimated, and how much they can contribute will determine if the Greyhounds can finish in the upper half of the league this season.
The perimeter trio of Jamal Barney, Brett Harvey and Brian Rudolph ranks with any in the MAAC, but the Greyhounds' paint players weren't strong enough last season. How well Walker and Brooks develop will determine Loyola's fate this season.
Answer? Siena, Niagara and Rider are the clear-cut top three. Your blogger believes that Saint Peter's is the fourth-best team in the conference until the Greyhounds' front court proves otherwise.
Questions: What's here, beyond the "Big Three," and how good does that make the Peacocks?
Dynamic in the backcourt with sniper Wesley Jenkins (15.7 points per game) and point guard Nick Leon (15.1), and with 6-7 Ryan Bacon (11.5, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) up front.
But, that's not enough. It makes Saint Peter's decent, but another piece, at least, is needed.Still, there's positive progression here. Fourth-year coach John Dunne was 5-25 overall in the program's first post-Keydren Clark year (2006-07), finished 6-24 in 2007-08 and, then, 11-19 last season with a team whose best players were sophomores.
The natural improvement of Jenkins, Leon and Bacon, now all juniors, will help. So, will another piece.
Preseason workouts indicate that 6-7, 235-pound inside presence Darius Conley, forced to sit out his freshman season to work on his academics, could be a valuable contributor. Conley is strong inside, a trait the Peacocks need. The early reviews are that he can defend, rebound and score in the paint. If his preseason work continues into the season, then he's the additional piece that can help this team make a significant improvement this season.
And, then, there's Jeron Belin, a talented transfer from Monroe Community College who is still adjusting to the Division I level of play. If Belin eventually contributes, he's another piece to this puzzle.
Bottom line is this: Saint Peter's was going to be solid merely through the presence of the Big Three. If Conley solidifies the inside game, then the Peacocks will be better than that. And, if Belin contributes, too, then Saint Peter's is better yet.
This blogger thinks Saint Peter's is the fourth-best team in the league and the team most likely to challenge the Siena/Niagara/Rider upper group.
Questions: Can the Golden Griffins escape the lower half of the league standings, and how does that happen?
First answer: It's a possibility. The Griffs haven't had a winning season since 2000-01. Last year's record was 11-20, but that was progression from a 6-25 finish the previous season.
Another five-game improvement isn't an unrealistic goal for a team that returns every player of significance, as well as adds depth with some solid freshmen.
So, how does Canisius elevate its position in the conference standings?
It starts by taking better care of the ball. Senior point guard Frank Turner is one of the most-talented players in the MAAC. But the one knock is that he turns it over too often. Good point guards have twice as many assists as turnovers. Turner, though, had more turnovers (126) than assists last season (124).
It's a good sign that Turner and Rishawn Johnson combined for 10 assists and just two turnovers in a recent scrimmage with Binghamton. The fact that Canisius is, finally, a veteran team after struggling through the woes of youth in recent years, won't hurt either. Veteran teams traditionally have success in this conference. Canisius is a veteran team. It might not have the talent level of Siena, Niagara and Rider, but there is some talent in place. That, plus having an experienced group should ensure Canisius will flirt with a .500 record, and maybe be a little better than that.
Questions: How competitive will the Jaspers be this season, and who replaces Chris Smith, who transferred to Louisville?
Manhattan will be competitive, but probably won't creep into the top five. The talent level seems about the same as a year ago when the Jaspers finished 16-14 overall and 9-9 in the league, including a victory over Rider.
But, there just isn't enough in place to expect any significant improvement this year.
This blogger doesn't think the team will miss Smith, not with newcomer Rico Pickett coming aboard. Pickett, a 6-4 junior guard, started 20 of 29 games as a freshman at Alabama before leaving there to attend Miami Dade Community College last season (17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds).
He has looked very good in preseason, according to sources, and had a 22-point, 7-assist, 7-rebound performance in Manhattan's exhibition game against Kean University. He could easily wind up being one of the conference's better guards.
Questions: Will the parts fit, and is this truly a ninth-place team?
Iona was picked to finish ninth in the coaches' voting for their preseason poll. There's talent here. If the Gaels finish ninth, this might be the most-talented ninth-place team in many seasons. This blogger's strong guess is that Iona will finish higher than ninth.
How much higher? That depends on how everything fits into place. There is more transition here in terms of personnel than, maybe, any other conference program.
There are six freshmen on the roster, four true first-year players and two red-shirts. Add to that a 7-footer in Jonathan Huffman, who has lived on the perimeter in the past; and 6-8 power forward Alejo Rodriguez who missed the 2007-08 season with a back injury and wasn't anywhere near 100 percent last season.
So, in addition to the influx of new players, Huffman is trying to develop a better inside game (he reportedly gained 20 pounds in the off-season), and Rodriguez is trying to return to the form he flashed as a freshman in the 2006-07 season.
It will likely take a little time for all that to fall into place this season. Iona might not be a ninth-place team, but it probably won't finish too much higher than that.
Questions: Can it escape the cellar, and how good are the newcomers?
The answer to the second question will determine the answer to the first.
If the newcomers are good, then Marist will escape the bottom of the conference. The guess here, though, is that Marist will struggle to do that this season.
There are just two many variables ... six freshmen, two transfers who haven't played before. It doesn't add up to conference success.
Still, it does bode well for the program's future. What Marist needs is a year's experience for players to develop and blend together. Some of the newcomers should be very good. The best of those might be 6-3 guard Sam Prescott and 6-1 point guard Devin Price.
Other potential impact "newcomers" are 6-10, 275-pound center Casiem Drummond, a transfer from Villanova; and 6-3, 215-pound guard Daye Kaba, a transfer from Boston College.
How good are they? Drummond had some strong games at Villanova, but he also battled ankle injuries. And, he's not eligible until the second semester.
Kaba only played nine games at BC as a freshman and, then, seven games for a total of 17 minutes as a sophomore before leaving that program. A native of France, he is already 23 years old.
Bottom line here is that Marist will indeed vault out of the MAAC celler ... but, probably not this season.