One season ends and, it seems, it's time to start looking ahead to the next one.
It's probably a little early for that. MAAC programs are still in the middle of the late recruiting period so incoming recruits and transfers could have subsequent changes on our league's basketball landscape in the time between now and the season's start in November.
But, we'll give it a try anyway. For now, here's one scribe's view of how teams will finish for the coming season, in reverse order.
The analysis will be relatively short, for now. We will say that it looks like a long, cold basketball winter in Western New York, that there appears to be a top-heavy, two-team race for the regular-season title, that two others seem strong bets for the top five spots and that everything below the top four is anyone's guess.
One last reminder: As I have done for at least a dozen years, I will once again be providing the MAAC's seasonal preview for The Sporting News' annual College Basketball preview issue, which traditionally hits newsstands in late September/early October.
The magazine is the best-of-its-kind national publication available through traditional outlets, and while the mid- and low-major leagues don't get quite as much space in the magazines as the high-level leagues, there's still enough to provide a concise and complete look at our league. Hope you'll check it out.
So, this year's "early" predictions for men. Women's predictions to follow within a few days...
It looks like, at least right now, that guard Antoine Mason will return for his senior season. The nation's No. 2 scorer this past season will at least help the Purple Eagles remain competitive. But, the team's top big man (Marcus Ware) and second-best scorer (guard Marvin Jordan) are both graduating, and back-up point guard Tahjere McCall is leaving the program. Mason, 6-5 forward Ramone Snowden and point guard Wesley Myers is a nice trio, but there's not much else there for now. Incoming freshmen, or redshirts from this past season, will likely join the starting lineup and would have to make huge strides to move Niagara up in the conference standings.
Losing Billy Baron, the league's top perimeter player in at least a decade, is bad enough. But, the program also loses its next two leading scorers (Chris Perez, Jordan Heath) and its best rebounder (Chris Manhertz). The Griffs start out with some backcourt potential in Zach Lewis and Dominique Raney, but without a point guard. Phil Valenti is becoming a very good MAAC forward, and Josiah Heath, who averaged just 11 minutes per game last season, probably moves into the starting rotation. But, the team will be extremely inexperienced and will struggle to maintain the success of the past two seasons.
Could be another rebuilding year for the Stags, who faced inexperience issues in the backcourt this past season and will again this year, due to reported transfers. Guards Justin Jenkins, Sean Grennan and Lincoln Davis all appear to be leaving Fairfield. And, the team's best player, Maurice Barrow, is graduating. It leaves talented 6-6 forward Marcus Gilbert, bruising forward Amadou Sidibe and promising sophomores-to-be K.J. Rose and Doug Chappell as four likely starters. The rest of the playing group is a question mark.
The Broncs usually figure out a way to be competitive, but they're losing four-year stalwarts guard Anthony Myles and Daniel Stewart, their top two players. There's still a very good guard trio returning in Zedric Taylor, Kahlil Thomas and Jimmy Taylor, one of the league's emerging point guard standouts. Brusing post Junior Fortunat is also back. And, there's the addition of 7-foot-0 center Matt Lopez, who is very talented but has already been at two schools (La Salle, Utah State) in his first two seasons of college play. If Lopez works out, Rider has the potential to move up.
The very effective front-court duo of Adam Kemp and Jay Bowie is gone, and there don't appear to be step-in replacements. Still, the Red Foxes have one of the top perimeter tandems in the MAAC in 6-5 senior swingman Chavaughn Lewis and Rookie of the Year point guard Khalil Hart, who is a real good one. And Lewis is an early Player of the Year candidate. Another guard, T.J. Curry, was effective when he got into the starting lineup. But, lightly used freshmen, ones like Kentrall Brooks and Nick Colletta, and sophomore Eric Truog will have to step up for Marist to continue building on the solid foundation coach Jeff Bower put in place in his first season.
Probably the biggest team in the MAAC with 6-10 post players Chris Brady and Zac Tillman having contributed this season as freshmen, as did 6-8 Greg Noack. The perimeter is well-stocked with bookend 6-6 forwards Deon Jones and Andrew Nicholas, the team's top two scorers from this past season. Guards Max DiLeo and Josh Jones give the team a good backcourt tandem as scorers and Justin Robinson, in his freshman season, showed he's one of the conference's better young point guards. Basically, everyone is back and that could mean the Hawks could challenge for the top five.
The fallout from the Steve Masiello mess probably won't be felt this season, but his credibility took a hit in recent weeks and the question about whether his players will be as receptive to him in the future remains. Plus, the program lost as much via graduation as anyone with the departures of scoring swingman George Beamon, Defensive Player of the Year post player Rhamel Brown and gritty point guard Michael Alvarado. Returning is talented swingman Emmy Andujar, sniper Shane Richards and post player Ashton Pankey, who flashed some strong signs late in the season. But there are questions in the backcourt, enough to ensure Manhattan is on the bubble for finishing in the top five in the coming season.
The graduation losses of big man Ike Azotam and the two Shannons, Shaq and Umar, are considerable ones. But, there's a wealth of returning talent starting with one of the league's most-gifted inside players in Ousmane Drame and do-everything/hard-playing guard Zaid Hearst. Add to that group two very strong freshmen of this past season, guard Kasim Chandler and forward A.J. Sumbry, who will be a reasonable replacement for Azotam. Senior-to-be guard Evan Conti provides much versatility and experience to the backcourt and swingman James Ford provided off-the-bench production this past season.
3. SAINT PETER'S
Everyone of significance returns, with the exception of fourth-leading scorer Chris Burke, and a redshirt sophomore, Chaz Patterson, could be a more-than-adequate replacement. Senior-to-be guard Desi Washington (just ask Fairfield about him) and forward Marvin Dominique are among the top 10, or so, players in the league. Bruising post Quadir Welton and point guard Trevis Wyche both had strong freshman seasons and should step up even more. Kris Rolle had some big contributions in the MAAC tournament, and could play a bigger role this coming season. The Peacocks are probably either one more quality big man, or scorer, short of truly contending for the regular-season title. But, John Dunne is one of the league's top coaches and always seems to get his teams playing like the proverbial junk-yard dogs, particularly late in the season.
Every scholarship player returns from a 20-victory team, albeit one whose win total got a significant boost from playing, and winning the title of, the CBI post-season tournament. Still, Siena got better as the season went on and went 9-2 in its last 11 games. The extra games (Siena played a program high 38 this season) helped it develop. Two freshmen were starters this past season, and two more were in the playing group. One frosh, Marquis Wright, is already among the best floor generals in the league. Senior-to-be Rob Poole is one of the MAAC's better players and 6-8 junior-to-be Brett Bisping emerged as a future all-conference candidate and probably improved, off the previous season, more than any other player in the league. Add to that mix eligible talented transfer swingman Patrick Cole and a couple of promising incoming freshmen and Siena is clearly in the mix for the top spot in the coming season. And, it doesn't hurt to have the league's best coach in Jimmy Patsos.
Tough to lose three starters in swingman Mike Poole and guards Trey Bowman and Sean Armand, the league's second most-proficient three-point shooter (to Canisius' Billy Baron this past season). But, two starters return in point guard A.J. English and forward Isaiah Williams. English is an early candidate for Player of the Year a year from now, and Williams is one of the league's most-talented performers. Plus, big man David Laury was an early season starter and lost that role through some lackluster midseason effort. But, at his best he's as good as it gets in the post in the MAAC. Then, there's Marshall transfer Kelvin Amayo, a redshirt last season, who adds more gifted offense to the Gaels. The fifth starter might be Tavon Sledge, a feisty point guard who has held that role in the past. And, as always, expect an off-season's infusion of more talented transfers/JC players to come aboard to help out. If offense meant everything Iona would be the runaway favorite for next season. But, because defense is an equal part of the equation, the Gaels look to be only a very slight favorite over Siena.