Monday, January 21, 2013

ATM: News, Notes, Opinions From Around The MAAC

News, notes and comments .... otherwise known as "ATM," or Around The MAAC.

- Coaches say it every year without fail: "The league has never been more balanced .... any team can beat any other on a given night."

Usually, is purely promotional; almost always pure stretch-the-truth praise to make the conference look good, an attempt to generate interest.

This year? It seems true, particularly if one starts at the bottom of the current standings.

Your Hoopscribe had occasion to watch both the men's and women's teams from Saint Peter's in recent days. Both were picked to finish last by coaches in the preseason poll to predict the final regular-season standings, and both appear to be fulfilling those predictions.

The Saint Peter's women are currently 0-6 in league play and 0-17 overall. The men are 1-7 and 6-12. Both occupy the bottom of the MAAC standings.

But, after seeing both in recent days, the opinion here is this: If these are the the conference's worst teams, then they might both be the best last-place teams the MAAC has had in many years.

Ask Iona how good the Saint Peter's men's team can be this year. The Gaels are currently 6-2 in MAAC play, good for second place. One of those two setbacks came at the hands of the Peacocks, 64-62, in a December meeting.

Coach John Dunne's team, at least visually, is improved from a year ago. Since last season it added rugged 6-foot-6 forward Patrick Jackson, a grad-school transfer from Rutgers; and, sharp-shooting guard Desi Washington, a transfer from Delaware State whose 2.5 made three-pointers per contest place him third in the conference for that statistic.

Already in place were another blue-collar inside player in 6-7 Darius Conley, off-guard Yvon Raymond and point guard Blaise Ffrench, who averages 5.2 assists per game (second-best in the MAAC) and is among the conference's most-improved players from a year ago.

Dunne's team probably is one offensive-minded player short of getting to the upper half of the league standings. But, it remains the grind-it-out, rugged-defense playing team it has been in recent years.

And, on any given night ....

It might be a little harder to make a case for the Saint Peter's women's team, which hasn't beaten anyone yet.

But, it's coming close. Of its six league losses, four have been by 10 points or fewer and the Peacocks held a halftime lead in two of those contests. Add to the team's struggles this year is that head coach Stephanie DeWolfe is out on maternity leave and isn't expected to return to the sidelines until  early February.

Still, the Peacocks are not without some individual talent.

Aziza May, who had a nice freshman season but struggled as a sophomore, appears to have improved significantly and is among the conference's better point guards. Forward Jessika Holmes leads the MAAC in steals. Senior swingperson Kristal Edwards is a potent scorer (12.9 ppg.) and Kaydine Bent is a rugged inside player.

The team, though, lacks depth and a true in-the-paint force. Saint Peter's is getting outrebounded by 8.3 per game, the second-largest difference among the 10 conference teams, a statistic that emphasizes the team's relative weakness in the post.

But, the Peacocks are close and their stretch of winless games won't continue much longer.

It truly does appear that, for once, the coaches are right with the annual refrain that on a given night any team could beat any other one this season.

- The Loyola women's team was picked to finish third, according to conference coaches in their preseason poll. But the Greyhounds are currently second-from-the-bottom in the league standings, are 1-5 in MAAC play, 6-11 overall and riding a four-game losing streak.

The team's recent woes are more than partially related to playing the last two games without its do-everything guard Katie Sheahin, who is currently out with flu-like symptoms. Coach Joe Logan hopes his top player returns for games this weekends, which would go a long way toward curing what ails Loyola right now.

After all, Sheahin is the only women's player to lead her team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals and was one of just two in the conference a year ago (Corielle Yarde of Marist was the other) to lead her team, in those statistical categories.

Without Sheahin, though, Loyola is not only without its only true offensive weapon but without, arguably, its best ball-handler, too. It also leaves the Greyhounds young with freshmen guard Diana Logan and forward Tiffany Padgett in the starting lineup.

Still, Loyola played well for 32 minutes at Siena on Sunday, moving into a 45-45 tie at that point before its lack of depth appeared to leave it a half-step slow down the stretch. Siena went on to take a 62-52 victory.

- Hottest women's teams right now? Marist has won six straight and Fairfield has taken four in a row (since a five-point loss to Marist).

Next is Siena, with a three-game winning streak.

Still ... the Saints' victories have come against Manhattan, Saint Peter's and Loyola, the three bottom teams in the conference standings.

A better gauge of Siena's potential this season is coming up when the Saints are at Fairfield on Friday and at Marist on Monday.

- The surprise men's team this season?

That would be Niagara, picked in the coaches' preseason poll to finish fifth.

But, the Purple Eagles are alone in first place in the conference standings with a 7-1 record, ahead of Iona and Rider (both 6-2) and preseason favorite Loyola (5-2).

It's not that much of a shock, considering Niagara's talent. But, things seem to have fallen into place earlier than expected for a team that starts four perimeter players, a freshmen and three sophomores.

“Are we ahead of schedule? I don’t know what the schedule is,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich told the Buffalo News after a recent victory by his team. “But the team is coming together.”

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