Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Women's Tournament Preview: Looking at Marist

Here's another in the series previewing upcoming MAAC women's tournament games and teams.

No. 1 Seeded Marist (18-0, 23-6 overall) in a quarterfinal-round game Friday at 1:30 p.m. vs. the winner of Thursday's preliminary round game between Loyola and Manhattan.

WHAT MARIST HAS: Where to begin? A program that puts up its third perfect league season in the last six years, has won 28 straight games against conference opponents (including tournament games), has been the MAAC's regular-season champion for the past 10 seasons and is chasing its eighth straight tournament title and resultant trip to the NCAA's ... well, it has plenty. Start with coach Brian Giorgis, unquestionably the best in the league and among the best anywhere in women's college basketball. What does his team do well? Start with defense where it allows a league low (by 8.5 points) 46.6 points per game in conference play only. Yet, Marist scores 66.6 ppg., second best in conference-only games. It toughened up with a non-league schedule that included four games against nationally rated top 15 opponents and, then, ripped through the MAAC by an average margin of 20 points per game. Marist also leads the conference in field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, assists and steals. Individually there is no singular star, just a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. That's not to say there isn't considerable talent within the team. Forward Elizabeth Beynon leads a balanced attack (six players average between 6.8 and 12.0 ppg.) with her 12.0 ppg. average. Seven players have at least 38 assists, attesting to overall team selfless play. Marist is the only team in the league with more assists than turnovers. Kristina Danella, the likely choice for Sixth Player of the Year in the conference, leads the team with 129 rebounds, but five others have at least 80. Junior guard Leanne Ockenden is a prime candidate for Defensive Player of the Year award and four players (Ockenden, Beynnon, Dulin, and Emma O'Connor) already have been picked as post-season all stars, while freshman Sydney Coffey is an all-Rookie Team selection.

WHAT MARIST DOESN'T HAVE: A true post player. It started the year with two quality ones and, then, lost both to injuries after the team's second game. It left Giorgis having to redesign its playing style during an on-going season, and he accomplished that flawlessly. Still, there's not a lot of height. Emma O'Connor, a 6-footer, serves as the team's primary inside player. No player averages more than 4.6 rebounds per contest and, as a team, Marist gets beat on the boards by an average of 3.4 per outing. And while the tendency is to think teams with strong inside games would give Marist problems, the Red Foxes' swarming, help defensive tendencies have effectively negated opponents' post players all season ... and, it's not that there are many real quality "bigs" in the league to begin with. The lack of tall post player will probably have an adverse effect on Marist in the NCAA tournament, but not in this event.

HOW MARIST CAN WIN: Just by being itself. Even a reasonable facsimile, even if Marist isn't quite at its best, will still be good enough. The conference's second-best team this season, Iona, lost five times indicative that the rest of the league is significantly removed from Marist's level of play. The team's offense could have an off-night from the field one night, but its defense is a constant and can (and has) overcome poor shooting performances this season. Probably the better question is how Marist could lose. Three of four of its key players could get into deep foul trouble, and Marist could have to go deep into its bench. But even its reserves are solid. "You have to catch them on a night when they're not hitting shots, and even then they're as good as it gets defensively," said Fairfield coach Joe Frager. In other words ... it's not out of the realm of human possibility for Marist to get upset in this year's event. Heck, Niagara took the Red Foxes into overtime in last season's semifinal round. But, if the Red Foxes don't win the MAAC tournament, it would rank with the biggest upsets in league history.

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