Thursday, February 18, 2010

Easy Answer to MAAC's Top Team Debate

When Siena got off to a 14-0 start in conference play this season, matching the second-best beginning in MAAC history, there was some growing sentiment about the current Saints' team being, perhaps, the best group to ever play in the league.

But, any thoughts of that type were nothing more than wishful thinking or, even, dillusional.

And, they were dispelled when Siena dropped an 87-74 decision at Niagara and, now, stands at 15-1 with two conference games remaining (at Rider, and home against Marist).

You can still make a case that Siena could be the second-best group the MAAC has ever seen. The Iona team of 1984-85 (26-5), the Manhattan team of 1994-95 (26-5), the Fairfield team of 1985-86 (24-7) and the Siena team of 1998-99 (25-6) are all in that discussion, too.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: A personal opinion is that the 1988-89 Siena team that featured Marc Brown and upset a Stanford team ranked No. 13 nationally in the first round of the NCAA tournament, is the all-time best Division I team at Siena. But, that's a debate for another day. And, that took place the season before Siena joined the MAAC.)

Yet when it comes time to pick the No. 1 MAAC team of all time, there's only one choice ...

The 1989-90 team that played for La Salle.

The best judge of that is current Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who not only has been in his present position for 12 years but was previously an assistant coach at La Salle, including during its late-1980's/early 1990's era of conference dominance.

"This is no knock on Siena, and this is coming from a guy who will probably vote four Siena players as first-teamers on this year's all-star team ... but that La Salle team was just incredible. It was a team that had three legitimate NBA players. The conference has never had another team like that," Mihalich told this blogger recently."

Here's how good the Explorers were during the 1989-90 season:

- 16-0 in conference play, just one of two teams (the 1987-88 team finished 14-0) to go through a MAAC season unbeaten.

- Winning margins of double figures in all but two of those 16 wins.

- An average winning margin of 20.1 points per game in league play, best ever by a MAAC team.
- MAAC tournament victories that season by 30, 16 and 10 points.

- The 19 wins against conference opponents that season made up the bulk of a 30-game winning streak against league representatives, the longest ever by a MAAC team.

- A 30-1 record before its season ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a 79-75 loss against a Clemson team led by two future NBA standouts 6-foot-11 center Elden Campbell and 6-9 power forward Dale Davis.

- La Salle's only regular-season loss was a 121-116 setback at Loyola-Marymount, which featured Hank Gaithers and Bo Kimble.

- The most-impressive collection of non-conference victories a MAAC team has ever recorded, including, in order: DePaul, Penn, Villanova, Ohio State, Florida, Temple, Notre Dame and St. Joe's.

As one would expect from a team with those type accomplishments, there was plenty of talent on hand, including those three legitimate NBA players.

They were 6-7 forward Lional Simmons, 6-3 junior guard Doug Overton and 5-11 sophomore guard Randy Woods.

Simmons wasn't only the MAAC's best player ever (the only men's player to be a three-time conference Player of the Year), but he was the James Naismith Award winner as the best player in the country.

Simmons still ranks No. 3 all-time in career scoring (3,217 points), trailing only Pete Maravich and Freeman Williams. He is still the only player in NCAA history with 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds over his career. Simmons also holds the NCAA record for most consecutive games scoring in double figures (115).

He was the seventh pick in the first round of the 1990 NBA draft, still the highest a MAAC player has ever been selected, and played seven professional seasons (averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds) before injuries forced him to retire.

Overton wound up with even a longer NBA career than Simmons, lasting 11 professional seasons for eight teams as a well-regarded combo guard. At La Salle he finished with 1,795 points and 671 assists.

Woods, academically ineligible as a freshman, wound up with 1,811 career points in three seasons. Only Simmons scored more points at La Salle over three seasons. Woods was the 16th pick in the first round of the NBA draft, but never came close there to his college success.

Also on the 1988-89 team was a sophomore 6-6 swingman Jack Hurd who was arguably its best shooter. He finished with 1,683 career points.

That type of talent together at one time has never been seen in the MAAC since. In fact, it can easily be argued that the entire rest of the MAAC hasn't produced a trio of players as talented as Simmons/Overton/Woods in the conference's history.

That makes it easy to see that while there might be considerable debate about which team might be the second-best ever to come through the MAAC, there's no question about which one is No. 1.

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