Here's another in the off-season series examing conference programs.
Up now ...
2010-11 RECORD: 18-0 in the MAAC, 31-3 overall.
2010-11 RECAP: Start with the second perfect season (Marist in 2007-08 was the other) since the MAAC went to an 18-game league schedule in 1996-97. Along the way there was only one game the Red Foxes did not win by double digits, that a two-point victory over Fairfield. Add to that MAAC tournament wins by 28, 15 and 18 points, followed by a first-round NCAA tournament victory over Iowa State and, then, an 11-point lead with 15:40 left and a six-point edge with 5:27 remaining against Duke, a No. 1 seed in its bracket, before the Blue Devils got past an obvious tired Marist, 71-66. Marist played most of that game with its top player, senior guard Erica Allenspach, on the bench after she suffered a severely sprained ankle early in the first half. In her absence, junior guard Corielle Yard turned in an heroic effort with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Overall the team led the nation in fewest turnovers and finished ranked 21st nationally in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll. Between its Duel in the Desert early-season tourament victory (wins over Louisville, Nebraska and Houston) and its NCAA tournament resuts Marist left little doubt it could play at the sport's highest level. And as the director of a team that didn't truly have a singular "star" player, Brian Giorgis proved once again he is among the best coaches not only at a mid-major program but at any program at any level.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Team play and quality depth marked this year's success. Giorgis often said he didn't know exactly what he had, but that he had plenty of it. The team legitimately went nine or 10 deep every game. Allenspach's style was understated, but coaches recognized her contributions and named her the MAAC's Player of the Year. And, then, she showed exactly why she earned that honor with arguably the best stretch of play in the history of the conference tournament. On the offensive end she was 24-of-33 shooting from the floor, including 12-of-15 from 3-point territory to average 23.7 points over the three games. Even the best players would have difficulty making that high percentage of shots taking uncontested shots in practice. But, Allenspach was far from alone. A group of solid, above-average ... but not great ... players fit together in uncommon fashion. Surprisingly, Allenspach and junior guard Corielle Yarde were the team's top two rebounders from their backcourt positions. Kate Oliver, a 6-4 forward, became more of an offensive force and 6-2 forward Brandy Gang also emerged after being primarily a role player in the past. And senior Elise Caron, also a reserve in past years, moved into the starting lineup as the team's point guard and top perimeter defender and directed the flow of the game at both ends. And, considerable strong play came from a strong freshman class.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Try to find something. If you want to nit-pick, a 45-40 early season loss to St. Bonaventure was a little surprising. Otherwise, the only disappointment was the loss of Allenspach in the NCAA tournament game against Duke and, then, having the Red Foxes running on fumes late in that contest as Duke rallied from a game-long deficit. Had Allenspach not sprained her ankle and Marist had that one extra quality peformer ... well, who knows? The off-season, though, wasn't kind to Marist. Oliver, who looked ready to emerge as one of the conference's top players over the next two years, instead transferred to Washington State where, according to published reports, she believes her height and skill set will be more of a factor.
WHAT'S AHEAD: The loss of three strong starters, one of them a transfer which has never happened before for the Red Foxes, is likely to create some optimism around the league. The preseason sentiment will surely be: This is the year Marist comes back to the pack. Of course, that was the sentiment a year ago after all-timer Rachele Fitz graduated, too, and we all saw how that turned out. The very strong likelihood is that Marist will be very good again. Maybe not as good as another perfect conference record, but there is plenty returning. Start with Yarde, the athletic guard whose NCAA performance against Duke stamped her as a preseason favorite for the coming year's Player of the Year honors. Also back is Gang, an effective 6-2 forward. And Marist adds a very significant piece in KIristina Danella, a 6-1 forward entering her junior season after transferring from UMass where she averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in Atlantic 10-level compeition in the 2009-10 season. The point guard spot is likely to fall back into th ehands of senior-to-be Kristine Best, who was the team's starter two years ago. Marist's next four best returnees are current freshmen 5-10 guards Leanne Ockenden (4.1 points per game, and 36 three pointers), and Casey Dulin (3.5 points) and 6-0 forward Emma O'Connor (3.3 points) and 6-2 current sophomore Kelsey Beynnon (3.1 points). Not hard to envision some from that group emerging into legitimate standouts. About the only aspect remotely resembling a weakness is is post play, but the MAAC doesn't abound in strong post players so that shouldn't be much of a problem for the Red Foxes.
2011-12 PREDICTION: This shouldn't be any surprise: Another first-place finish, maybe not quite so dominant as this past season, but another great season.