Questions and, hopefully, some well-thought-out answers about the upcoming MAAC basketball season on the women's side ...
This one has been way too easy for more than the past decade, a time during which there has truly only been one contender, Marist.
But, there might be a few proverbial chinks in the armor. The team's only two "bigs" could both miss the upcoming season.
Marist has reported that 6-3 center Tori Jarosz, a transfer from Vanderbilt, suffered a significant injury to her leg this summer. Reports indicate that she had surgery to correct a torn Achilles tendon, which means she could be out again for the coming season. Jarosz also missed all but one game last season with a knee injury.
And, 6-5 center Delaney Hollenbeck's return from a leg condition that saps her strength is still in question and there is concern about her availability as of now.
Then again, we've heard this before. The two post players missed most of last season (Jarosz played in one game and Hollenbeck in six) yet still went a perfect 18-0 in MAAC play, won the conference's post-season tournament and played in the NCAA event.
Last year's team, though, had Elizabeth Beynnon, a 6-2 forward, to step in. Beynnon graduated, leaving 6-foot-0 forward Emma O'Connor as the only front-court returnee with any significant experience.
Still, it's hard to envision anyone other than Marist winning the regular-season crown once again.
But, if there's a threat it will probably come from one of three teams: Iona, Rider or league newcomer Quinnipiac.
Iona returns its entire starting five from last season's second-place team, although its former head coach, Tony Bozzella, moved on to Seton Hall.
Rider suffered some losses, but has one of the league's top individual talents in MyNeshia McKenzie and some other solid returnees.
And Quinnipiac finished 30-3 overall last year (losses to Hartford, Georgia Tech and to Maryland in the NCAA tournament) and lost just one player, albeit a good one in guard Felicia Baron (13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds last season).
The league is likely to be pretty balanced below Marist, but Saint Peter's is likely to go through a rebuilding year after a 2-28 overall record this past season and, then, the loss of its coach Stephanie DeWolfe. Additionally, the team lost three starting players to graduation.
Still, it won't take long for new head coach Pat Coyle to turn things around. She coached the New York Liberty in the WNBA for several years, and has been in the MAAC previously as Loyola's head coach prior to moving on to the pros.
The other likely non-contenders are Siena and Niagara.
The Saints not only lost their best player in Lily Grenci (who finished second in the MAAC in scoring and third in rebounding as a senior), but also one of its better post players in Kate Zarotney, whose career-long shoulder issues have apparently forced an early end to her career.
But, like Saint Peter's, Siena should rebuild quickly and could even be a bit of a factor this season if a highly touted incoming freshman class matures quickly.
Niagara has been solid for the last two seasons and was expected to be again in the coming season. And, then, seniors-to-be center Lauren Gatto, point guard Kayla Stroman and swingperson Shy Britton all left the program early.
Gatto, who transferred in to Niagara, graduated and opted to move on rather than complete her eligibility. Stroman, who missed a season with an injury, also graduated and reportedly transferred to Le Moyne to attend grad school and play there this coming season. And Britton opted not to return. Gatto was one of the league's top players, and all three would likely have started this coming season. It's tough to overcome the unexpected loss of three starters.
As someone who sees a minimum of close to 40 MAAC women's games annually, between regular-season and tournament play, we'd be hardpressed to try to separate the middle group.
And, in truth, the contenders/non-contender lists aren't exactly set in stone.
For now, Fairfield, Monmouth, Manhattan and Canisius certainly appear to be in the middle group, but any of those three could easily move up a little. And, if youth is served, we could envision Siena moving out of non-contender status.
No mystery here. Iona's dynamic junior-to-be guard Damika Martinez was the first freshman in conference history to be its leading scorer (2011-12), and added a second scoring crown as a sophomore. There's no reason to believe she won't score in bunches again this season.
Probably another repeat winner. Iona's 5-11 forward Joy Adams was a freshman revelation last season and her 10.7 rebounds per game led the MAAC. She's certainly the front-runner to do that again.
BEST LONG-RANGE SHOOTER
Both Martinez and Iona teammate Cassidee Ranger finished with higher 3-point shooting percentages a year ago, but we'll go with Fairfield's senior-to-be Alexys Vazquez, who would have been second nationally in 3-point accuracy in the 2011-12 season had she made five more treys. She qualified for the national leaders last year and finished 23rd among all D-I players.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER
We'll go with Monica Roder of Manhattan. She certainly is among the league's top long-range shooting threats and was one of the few bright spots on an eight-win team last season. She was really the Jaspers' only offensive threat, and defenses were stacked to stop here. Still, she averaged 12.1 points per game and could really have an outstanding senior season in 2013-14.
Shereen Lightbourne, Rider. The 5-foot-10 swingperson has to be overjoyed about getting back on the court after injuries cost her the past two seasons. One of the most snake-bitten players in recent memory, Lightbourne suffered a preseason knee injury just prior to the 2011-12 season. She then looked good in preseason workouts for this past season when another knee injury cost her all of 2012-13, too. Now, as a fifth-year player, she has plenty of incentive and, if healthy, could easily surpass her scoring average of 9.6 points per game as a sophomore in the 2010-11 season. Lightbourne was just starting to emerge as one of the better players in the conference that year. If her health holds up, she'll finally be able to fulfill that potential.
It's hard for anyone to accurately predict this category, since very few have seen enough of all the incoming players to truly judge. But, we've seen enough of Manhattan's 6-foot-1 incoming freshman Maeve Parahus to know she can really play. We personally witnessed her make six three-pointers in an AAU game at the Upstate New York GymRat Challenge two summers ago, and she was a big-time high school scorer at Albertus-Magnus of Bardonia. Included was her play in this past season's Section 1 Class A tournament game in which she scored 36 of her team's 59 points in a double-overtime victory over Pearl River. She will immediately be one of the league's top perimeter threats and will play for a team that was offensively challenged last season and has a need for what she can do.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
It's Damika Martinzez of Iona's title to defend, having won that award as a sophomore. But she'll get considerable competition from Rider senior MyNeshia McKenzie, who averaged 14.4 points per game (4th in the MAAC) and 9.8 rebounds (2nd). We'll go with the upset and predict that McKenzie will win this season's award.
An 8-23 finish last year and the loss of arguably its best player to graduation (Toni-Ann Lawrence) doesn't look like a recipe for a turnaround. But, expect one to come from Manhattan. The Jaspers have everyone back and are likely to have fewer injuries than a year ago.The team's most-glaring weakness of last year was the lack of a second scorer to complement senior-to-be Monica Roeder. Freshman Maeve Parahus and emerging sophomore Shayna Erickson (6.7 points, 6.0 rebounds per game last season) are both capable of filling that role this year. And, they'll be getting passes from stellar senior point guard Allison Skrec, whose 5.0 assists per game last season led the MAAC. Plus, the Jaspers play a confounding 1-3-1 zone defense. Expect Manhattan to at least double last season's victory total.