Sunday, December 4, 2011

More ATM, News & Notes From The MAAC

Time for more "ATM," better known as "Around The MAAC."

- YOUR HOOPSCRIBE GOT A FIRST-HAND look at the Loyola men in their 66-59 victory over Siena at Albany, N.Y.'s Times Union Center, and was very impressed.

For much of the early season, almost all speculation about this year's regular-season title contenders have centered on Iona or Fairfield. But, what about Loyola? The Greyhounds are now 6-1 overall this season, their only loss coming against Wake Forest. And, they're off to their first 2-0 beginning in MAAC competition in 23 years.

Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos was asked about the focus on Iona and Fairfield, so far, and whether his team is being overlooked ...

"I hope everyone continues to overlook us," said the always quote-worthy Patsos. "I definitely think we have a team that can contend for the league title. But, I thought we had one last year, too, until some things happened. If nothing else, our guys can deal with adversity after having to deal with having me on the sidelines every day."

Of course that last personal dig comes with tongue firmly in cheek. It's hard to find a coach that drives his players harder than Patsos, but the results are clearly positive. And, now, he has arguably the most talent at Loyola since the 1993-94 team coached by the late Skip Prosser went to that season's NCAA tournament.

Having seen both teams, the 1993-94 squad and this one, the current group (it says here) has more overall talent and much more depth. Against Siena, Loyola used nine players. Three of the reserves have been starters at one time in their careers and the fourth is a transfer from Xavier.

The only question coming in to the season was whether a young backcourt, one that needed to replace graduated point guard Brian Rudolph, would be good enough. And, it is. Sophomore Dylon Cormier had a career-high 22 points (5-of-6 on three-pointers) against Siena, and if he plays like that consistently he'll eventually emerge as one of the MAAC's best guards. And, Rudolph's replacement is freshman point guard R.J. Williams, who operates like a true floor general at both ends. He only had six points against Siena, but with his cast he doesn't need to score. He also had four assists (against just two turnovers) and five steals.

The bottom line is this: The conversation for this season's potential regular-season champion goes beyond Iona and Fairfield. It most definitely includes Loyola.

- THE SIENA MEN continued to be inspirational, now playing with just eight scholarship players that include four freshmen. The Saints continue to play well (there was scattered applause for their effort after Saturday's loss to Loyola), but it appears that wins might be slow in coming.

The setback against the Greyhounds was Siena's fifth straight, making the program's first five-game losing streak since it also dropped five in a row late in the 2004-05 season. The program's longest stretch of negative results before that was an eight-game losing streak midway through the 2004-05 season.

- JUST EIGHT GAMES INTO the season the Manhattan men have already won four games, just two fewer than last season's victory total when the program finished with a 6-25 overall ledger.

Much of the improvement can be credited to the maturation process of current sophomore Mike Alvarado and the return from injury of power forward Roberto Colonette, who missed all of last season. Alvarado currently has more assists than turnovers and Colonette is one of the most-effective rebounders in the conference, averaging 6.8 per game in an average of 19.8 minutes of playing time.

Credit some of the improvement, too, to first-year head coach Steve Masiello, who has changed playing styles, team philosophy and just about everything within the program.

"We're learning to improve as a team, but everything is new to everyone here," said Masiello, whose team earned a 71-55 upset victory over Rider on Friday. "I feel like we've got an entire roster of freshmen. I'm trying to install a new system that's very complicated. We understand there's going to be some growing pains as we try to change the culture. Everything is different for them now."

- GO WEST, YOUNG MAN ... At least to Western New York, if you want to find the conference's leading men's scorers. The two players atop the league's scoring chart share another trait, as well. Both are in the MAAC for the first season.

Harold Washington, a 6-foot-1 junior guard at Canisius, leads the MAAC in scoring at 19.0 points per game. He joined the Golden Griffins after playing two seasons at Cecil (Md.) Junior College.

"He has been very good at times (including a 30-point outburst against Longwood College in his second game at Canisius), and at other times he has looked like a guy who has only played five Division I games," said Canisius coach Tom Parrotta. "But, according to our sports information director, he's the first guy here in 25 years who has been in double figures for scoring in his first five games in our program."

Juan'ya Green, a 6-3 freshman guard at Niagara, is the MAAC's second-leading scorer (after Saturday's games), averaging 18.7 points per outing.

His average got a significant boost when he scored 35 points, a school record by a Niagara freshman, in Friday's 79-75 loss to Fairfield.

"It's going to be a real challenge for him, playing against Derrick Needam (Fairfield's standout junior guard)," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, prior to Friday's contest. "Juan'ya is still adjusting to the college game. It's hard to be a freshman, and it's hard to be a point guard so that means it's doubly tough for him."

Green, who leads the conference in minutes per game (37.6) was up for the challenge. In addition to his 35 points, he had six rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. Needham had 12 points, 2 1 rebound, two assists and four turnovers.

- WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON AT RIDER? The Broncs, one of the conference's most-consistent teams of recent vintage, currently possess the worst overall record this season of any MAAC team.

The Broncs' 1-7 start through Saturday's games is far below expectations for the team picked to finish fourth by the coaches in their preseason poll.

But, the beginning is somewhat understandable. The team's first loss came to a tough Robert Morris squad. Another came against a decent Penn team. Four others have been in "up" games, losses to Pitt, James Madison, La Salle and Drexel.

And, then, came Friday's clunker, a 71-55 loss against Manhattan, picked to finish eighth this season according to the coaches' preseason poll.

Even though the competition to date has been challenging, much more is expected from Rider, which had winning records for the past five seasons, including two 23-victory years (it was 23-11 just last season).

"Yes, I'm discouraged a little," admitted coach Tommy Dempsey. "We took some chances in scheduling. The league encourages you to take some chances, to schedule some `up' games, and we took some chances. With that type of schedule you get exposed a little. I think we have a very good offensive team, but we're not a very good defensive team right now."

Neither is Rider a good rebounding team yet, averaging a league-worst 28.6 rebounds per game.

It hasn't helped that the Broncs lost two of their best players from a year ago, inside force Mike Ringold and point guard Justin Robinson, from any team's prime two positions. Nor has it helped that 6-9, 220-pound freshman forward Junior Fortunate (Roman Catholic H.S. in Philadelphia), who was expected to contribute significantly, has yet to get NCAA clearance to begin playing.

And, then, senior forward Novar Gadson, a first-team all-MAAC preseason pick, is not yet fully recovered from off-season knee surgery and is only averaging 9.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game after averages of 13.7 and 5.8 a year ago.

"It has been a little bit of a perfect story working against us so far," said Dempsey. "But, we're going to be OK."

- IT TOOK A LITTLE TIME, but it appears that defending post-season tournament champion Saint Peter's has begun playing Saint Peter's-type basketball again this season.

That means bruising, in-your-face defense, as Fairfield and Iona, the two teams the Peacocks upset in the semifinal and championship post-season tournament games last season, can attest to.

How much did defense carry last year's team? It finished second nationally among all Division I teams in opponents' field-goal percentage (.376) and 12th nationally in points allowed (60.1).

But, the Peacocks allowed point totals of 72, 69 and 73 in their first three games this season.

"Defense has been our calling card, and it looked like we took the first three games off," said head coach John Dunne.

But, the defense has been back on the job lately, allowing point totals of 43, 63 (against Seton Hall) and 44 in its last three games.

"We've got a lot of new guys learning that playing intense defense in college involves a whole other level of toughness," added Dunne. "We've definitely started seeing that in the last week, or so."

That the Peacocks are going through an early season adjustment period can be expected. They lost four senior starters off last year's squad and the team's roster is dominated either by players eligible to play in the program for the first year (transfers and freshmen), or adjusting to new roles.

Dunne, though, is urging his team to forge its own identity.

Last year?

"We don't go there at all," said Dunne. "Last year was magical for Saint Peter's and the community, but that's a thing of the past. We're moving forward. We unveiled the tournament championship banner before our first home game, and I honestly didn't want to do that. We had a two-minute ceremony and moved on."

But, moving on also involves returning to its roots ... a defensive style that has become the program's trademark in recent years.

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