Thursday, November 3, 2011

MAAC Teams Have Key Non-League Games

Although there is probably no way to chart this definitively, the opinion here is that non-league schedules facing conference teams this season are among the most-demanding your hoopscribe can remember ... and, I've been covering the MAAC in some form since 1989.

Is that a good thing? Coaches will universally speak about the benefits of playing "up" once or twice in non-league games, opportunities for their respective teams to play tougher competition and, theoretically better themselves in preparation for conference play.

But we've been seeing more times when mid-major teams, MAAC teams included, have snuck away with a victory when playing "up."

It's a by-product of mid-major teams getting better, lessening the gap between themselves and the high majors.

And, that gap has probably never been smaller between some of the better opponents facing certain MAAC teams this season and more than a few teams from our favored conference.

Realistically, even the best MAAC teams would struggle to match up with the true elite of college basketball. But, the outcome isn't so certain when teams below, say, the top 10 or 15 nationally meet the best conference teams.

How good will some MAAC teams be this season?

Consider this ... the preseason favorite, Iona, not only has a preseason Wooden Award candidate (senior forward Mike Glover), a list limited to 50 players nationally, but also has an immediately eligible transfer (junior guard LaMont "Momo" Jones) who started for Arizona last year, a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight round. And the team's best player just might be senior guard Scott Machado, who was No. 2 nationally in assists last season. Iona is truly loaded this year, and has two or three reserves who would be starters, potentially standouts, for just about any other conference team.

And, then, there's Fairfield, the defending regular-season league champion. The Stags lost two players to graduation from a year ago but the replacements, incoming transfers, are both arguably better than the departees.

The team picked to finish third this year? It's Loyola, which has four returning starters and an incoming immediately eligible transfer from a higher-level conference. In most years, that kind of firepower would get a team preseason consideration to be the conference winner.

Let's not forget Rider, which knocked off two "up" opponents last season and should be every bit as good this season.

How important is it to have success against higher-rated opponents? It's probably as important as it has ever been for MAAC teams this season.

League commissioner Rich Ensor has speculated that this might be the year a conference team gets at-large consideration for the NCAA tournament (the only time that ever happened was in 1995 when Manhattan was awarded an at-large berth).

That kind of consideration gets a significant boost with a victory over an "up" opponent, and one of the conference's teams with a real chance for an at-large berth, if it doesn't get the league's automatic spot in the NCAA's, gets that kind of opportunity immediately.

Iona's first game is Nov. 17 when it meets Purdue in a tournament in Puerto Rico. The Boilermakers, a perennial NCAA participant, coincidentally has knocked MAAC teams (Siena in 2010, Saint Peter's in 2011) out of the NCAA's first round in the past two seasons.

"That would be a great boost for us," said Glover, about the potential of beating Purdue. "We know they're a real good team, but we think we've got a real chance."

While Purdue has racked up 55 total victories over the past two seasons, it lost its two best players from a year ago -- center JaJuan Johnson and guard ETwaun Moore, the first- and second-round picks, respectively, of the Boston Celtics in this past spring's NBA draft.

Still, Purdue has All-American candidate 6-8 forward Robbie Hummel, whose knee injury forced him to miss last season.

"He's terrific ... he'll be tough for us," said Iona's Glover, who is likely to spend a lot of time in Hummel's vicinity when the teams meet.

Here's a look at some other non-league games of note on the schedules of MAAC teams this season:

- Siena meets two opponents with familiar faces on the opposing sidelines. On Nov. 19 the Saints travel to Mount Saint Mary's of Emmitsburg, Md., coached by Robert Burke, who not only was a Siena assistant during Paul Hewitt's tenure there in the late 1990's, but was a serious candidate in Siena's search for a coach that resulted in its hiring of Fran McCaffery. Siena also plays at Florida Atlantic on Dec. 28, a program coached by Mike Jarvis, whose Boston University teams were a league rival of Siena's when both programs were members of the old Northeast Athletic Conference (NAC) before Siena joined the MAAC.

- Canisius opens its season on Nov. 13 when it travels to James Madison University, whose coach is former Marist College head coach Matt Brady, whose playing career took place at Siena. The Golden Griffins also have a tough contest on Nov. 17 at UNLV, a team picked to finish second (by The Sporting News) in the Mountain West Conference.

- Fairfield has a Dec. 22 meeting with defending national champion UConn, the preseason favorite to win the Big East this year. UConn has five players back who started games at various times last season, including forward Jeremy Lamb, who averaged 16.2 points per game in last season's NCAA tournament. But, an even more-intriguing Fairfield game takes place on Nov. 14 when Providence comes to Bridgeport, Conn., to play the Stags at the Arena at Harbor Yard. The Friars are coached by former Fairfield coach Ed Cooley.

- Both Marist (No. 11) and Loyola (Dec. 22) play games at Kentucky this season. The Wildcats got to last season's NCAA Final Four, and are likely to have a legitimate opportunity to get that far again behind sophomore forward Terrence Jones (15.7 points, 8.8 rebounds per game). Kentucky also brings in 6-10 freshman forward Anthony Davis, the top-rated recruit nationally according to several scouting services.

- Manhattan plays at Syracuse on Nov. 14 in a preseason NIT contest. The Orangemen are ranked behind only UConn in the Big East and have four starters returning from last year's team that finished 27-8 overall. The Jaspers also have a Dec. 23 game at George Mason, a program now directed by former Siena coach Paul Hewitt.

- Rider gets tested early when it travels to Pitt for a Nov. 13 game. The Panthers are picked to finish third in the Big East this season. Pitt's top player is 6-2 senior guard Ashton Gibbs, who has led the team in scoring the past two seasons.The Panthers also bring in 6-9 freshman forward Khem Birch, a consensus top-10 recruit. The Broncs also see a familiar faces on Nov. 25 at James Madison (coached by Matt Brady), and face another elite-level foe on Dec. 9 when it plays at Florida, the No. 2-rated team in the SEC.

- Niagara gets a look at a high-powered foe when it plays at Missouri on Nov. 17. The Tigers have all five starters back from a team that won 23 games last season.

And those games feature merely the cream-of-the-crop non-league opponents facing MAAC teams this season. It seems that every conference team's non-conference schedule includes more than a couple games against higher-level opponents.

It means good early season basketball for MAAC teams and, theoretically, good preparation for the upcoming league season.

No comments: