Saturday, November 5, 2011

Questions, Answers For Upcoming Season

Can you believe college basketball season is upon us ... less than a week away?

As the season approaches, you've got questions and we've got answers. We'll start with the men, and give the ladies the same treatment in a future post.

Who will win the MAAC's regular-season championship this season?

The easy answer is Iona. And if all goes well, if playing styles mesh, the Gaels' season could be one for the ages. The talent assembled might account for a group that ranks only slightly behind the great La Salle teams of the late 1980's and pretty close to the Siena group of recent vintage.

That said ... it's not a foregone conclusion. Don't forget about Fairfield, which lost two solid players to graduation and bring in two transfers that, talent-wise, are better than their predecessors. And everyone else on the roster has an extra year's experience.

And, then, there's Loyola. In most years the talent Loyola has on this year's roster would be good enough to be considered a potential regular-season champion.

If you want an answer ... we'll go with Fairfield.

Is this the year the conference sends two teams to the NCAA tournament?

League commissioner Rich Ensor thinks it is. The only time it has happened in the 30-year history of the MAAC was 1995 when Manhattan (25-4) won the regular-season title and got beat by Saint Peter's in the post-season tournament's championship game. The Jaspers then went on to win a first-round NCAA tournament game to finish 26-5.

For that to happen one team would need to dominate in regular-season play and, then, get upset in the post-season tournament. Easy to say that could be the case with Iona this season.

But, the belief here is that there's not that significant a gap between Iona, Fairfield, Loyola, Rider and, potentially, Saint Peter's. This hoopscribe does not believe any one team will distance itself from the pack and finish regular-season conference play with just one, or two, losses.

If that doesn't happen, the MAAC won't get an at-large team to the NCAA event. Clearly, we hope that it happens, but the feeling here is that it won't.

Surprise team?

We'll go with two: Saint Peter's and Niagara.

The Peacocks lost four starters from last season's NCAA team, but bring in quality replacements. It's a matter of how well the newcomers mesh. If all goes well, Saint Peter's could be a dangerous team by season's end.

The Purple Eagles have most of their roster back, along with two highly touted freshmen, Ja'Juan Green and Josh Turner. Green, according to sources who have seen practices, might be the team's best guard. Turner, who won't be eligible to play until the second semester, is a 6-5 swingman who drew recruiting interest from higher-level programs. Like Saint Peter's, Niagara should be at its best by season's end and capable of doing some late-season damage.

Surprise Player?

It's always fun to watch the maturation process as young players blossom into talented standouts.

That should have been the progression of current Siena senior guard Kyle Downey, who had some flashes as a freshman that indicated he would eventually become a solid contributor, at the very least.

And, then, the 6-3 guard battled a series of foot, ankle and leg injuries through his sophomore and junior season but continued to play at far less than 100 percent.

For the first time since his freshman season Downey is now completely healthy and has even lost 10 pounds, in an effort to be quicker, since last season.

He is likely to start at off-guard for the Saints, and head coach Mitch Buonaguro believes Downey might wind up as Siena's leading scorer this season and gain post-season all-star honors.

Post-season all stars?

Forward Mike Glover and Scott Machado of Iona, guard Derek Needham of Fairfield, forward Novar Gadson of Rider and guard George Beamon of Manhattan.

Toughest to omit; Center Ryan Olander of Fairfield.

Biggest non-league game?

Two stand out. Iona meets Purdue on Nov. 17, on a neutral court in Puerto Rico. A Gaels' victory over the Boilermakers would add considerable credibility to Iona's hopes for a post-season tournament berth should it not be the conference's automatic entrant to the NCAA's.

The other might have the potential for a similar impact, but is more attractive based on past connections. That would be when Providence plays Fairfield in Bridgeport, Conn., on Nov. 14. Providence's coach is Ed Cooley, who coached the Stags for the past five seasons.

Top incoming freshman?

We'll go with three here: Niagara's Green, Marist's 6-5 swingman Chevauagn Lewis and Siena's 6-5 swingman Rob Poole.

All three will get significant playing time, and all three, according to a variety of sources, have had outstanding preseasons.

Top incoming transfer?

The memory banks cannot recall so many talented transfers all becoming eligible at once. The best of the bunch might be Fairfield's Rakim Sanders, a 6-5 swingman who already has more than 1,000 career points from three seasons at Boston College. But, the transfer with the most impact could easily be Chris Prescott (previously at St. Joseph's) at Saint Peter's. The Peacocks lost plenty of offense since last year, and Prescott can score, and will probably do plenty of that this season.

MAAC Tournament expectations?

You're on your own for figuring out the eventual winner. The debate here is whether the event will be a success, operating on a neutral court for the first time since 1989.

The tournament will be in Springfield, Mass. (the MassMutual Center) for the first time this year, the first on a three-year contract. Closest MAAC school? About 90 miles away, which means lengthy day trips for schools like Fairfield Marist and Siena, and, likely, overnight stays for fans of any other program.

This, though, is what administrators ... those above athletic departments ... at conference schools wanted. The publicity and prestige gained from having a school participate in the NCAA tournament goes far beyond athletic benefits. The interest generated by an NCAA team results in larger alumni donations, larger application pools and any number of other benefits.

The bottom line is that league administrators wanted the proverbial level playing field. The perception is that a neutral court gives everyone a better chance in the post-season than they would have by playing on one team's home court.

So, back to the question of whether it will succeed?

League commissioner Ensor indicates the best judgment probably can't be made until at least after the second year of the marriage with Springfield. It will take time for the event to be established there.

Will crowds rival the big nights of more than 10,000 that traditionally came to Albany's Times Union Center? That can't happen, since the MassMutual Center's capacity is approximately 7,400. But, crowds of, say, 4,500 in that facility will create a far better atmosphere than when a similar number turned out a year ago in the 12,000-seat Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

And, there's much more than mere basketball now to attract fans. Downtown Springfield appears better suited in terms of very proximitous hotels, restaurants and pubs than either Albany or Bridgeport.

And, then, there's the Basketball Hall of Fame in downtown Springfield, a wonderful way to spend a day examining the sport's history. The league has seized upon the connection, using the Hall's facility's for its preseason Awards Show, and also for the announcement of the post-season award winners just prior to the tournament.

Those who purchase all-session passes for the MAAC tournament will also receive free admission to the Hall.

The build up for the event's move to Springfield began even before last season's tournament. Marketing and promotion has been heavy since then. The preseason Awards Show last month in Springfield was the best of its kind that your hoopscribe has ever attended, dating back to 1989. Not that a preseason event will be any indication of how successful the post-season tournament will be, but the organizational/promotional skills required for success are clearly in place.

The guess here is that the eventual crowd count will more closely resemble the mid-20,000 total of last year's tournament in Bridgeport than the 50,000-plus count from 2010 in Albany.

But, considering the neutral site and the need to establish itself as a presence in Springfield, those type crowds should be considered a success.

The feeling here is similar to Ensor's, that the best judgment will come after the event's second year in Springfield. But, based on the type effort we've already seen within that community, your blogger thinks the tournament will be just fine in its new neutral setting.

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