Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Looking Back at MAAC'S Top Stories For 2013-14

College basketball season, at least for men (the women's NCAA championship contest is tonight), is over. So, what better time to reflect on what we've seen.

Here, in reverse order, are one person's opinion on the Top 10 stories in the MAAC this season. We'll do men first. The ladies will get their chance ... when their season ends.


The decisions to add the two programs was visionary. Each brings nice mid-sized facilities to the league, true "small arenas," if you will, that instantly became the best two on-campus buildings in the league.

And, both brought pretty good teams. Quinnipiac contended for the league title most of the season, while Monmouth, despite a less-than-stellar won-loss record, exhibited one of the better stables of young players and figures to be a solid program in the coming year and even better going forward.


Quinnipiac was the best rebounding team in the country, its 11.8 rebound-per-game positive differential over opponents was No. 1 nationally.

There was little surprise about that, not after watching the bruising inside tandem of junior Ousmane Drame and senior Ike Azotam do their tough work inside all season. Drame's 10.5 rebound-per-game average is ninth-best nationally, while Azotam's 10.2 average is 12th best.


He was the head coach at Loyola for the previous nine seasons, but clearly didn't want to be part of that program's move to the Patriot League. When Siena's position opened up last March, Patsos was interested. And, credit Siena for being interested in him.

In truth, it was a no-brainer of a decision. Patsos had a strong resume as both a program-builder (Loyola won a single game the year before he took over and, then, had the MAAC's best record over his final two seasons) and for bringing out the best in his players.

At Siena, he turned 6-8 sophomore forward Brett Bisping, a virtual non-entity the previous season, into one of the most-improved performers nationally. He fit together a playing group of four freshmen, two sophomores who barely played last season and three juniors who all had bigger roles than in the past and, somehow, turned in a 20-victory season (more on that later).

It's no stretch to consider Patsos the best coach in the MAAC.


The 6-foot-3 junior guard at Niagara led the country in scoring for a good portion of the season before winding up No. 2 (to Doug McDermott) with his 25.6 ppg. average.

And, somehow, he was omitted, by league coaches (shame on you!) from the conference's top post-season all-star team.

Still, he was the rare bright light for a Purple Eagles' program that was decimated by defections last spring and summer of former head coach Joe Mihalich and three of its best expected returnees who opted to play elsewhere.


After finishing fourth the previous year, the Gaels reloaded and came as close to dominating the regular season, with a 17-3 record, as we've seen since Siena's three-peat series of titles a few years back.

As usual, Tim Cluess' team made a living with its offense, scoring 83.6 points per game that ranked nearly five points per contest better than the next-best scoring average by a conference squad.

If nothing else, Iona was the league's most-exciting team to watch, particularly with its all-league backcourt pairing of senior Sean Armand and sophomore A.J. English.


The offensive-minded junior guard from Saint Peter's ended Fairfield's season with a 28-foot three-pointer from the right side as time was running down in overtime, giving the Peacocks an overtime victory in the quarterfinal round of the MAAC tournament.

By then, Fairfield had already seen far more of that than it wanted. The buzzer-beater marked the third time this year Washington beat the Stags on a last-second shot. All three were three-pointers, and all three were virtually from the same exact spot ... right hand side ... of the court.

At Saint Peter's, they called that "thrice as nice."


The 6-2 senior guard was a do-everything performer who helped lift his team to its best season since the days when John Beilein prowled the Buffalo school's sidelines.

Baron averaged 24.1 points per game (1,405 total points over two years since transferring from Rhode Island to continue playing for his father, Jim Baron) AND, he led the MAAC in assists.

The statistics he accumulated, creating a place in school history and, even, reaching some rare national milestones, are too wide-reaching to mention them all. It's sufficient to just say he was the top perimeter talent these eyes have seen in the MAAC since Luis Flores played at Manhattan more than a decade ago.


The regular season didn't go as expected. The Jaspers were the universal preseason pick to win the regular-season crown and, then, went 15-5 to finish second to Iona. But Manhattan got things right after that, advancing to the NCAA's via a MAAC tournament title that included a 71-68 victory over Iona (holding the Gaels to more than 15 points below their per-game average).

Once in the national event, Manhattan drew the unenviable match-up with Louisville, the previous season's national championship. And, it was an even less-enviable pairing for the coaches of the two schools. Rick Pitino is Louisville's head coach, and Manhattan coach Steve Masiello not only played a season for Pitino (at Kentucky), but served under Pitino as a Louisville assistant for the six seasons prior to his hiring at Manhattan.

And, then, Masiello's team nearly pulled off what would have been one of the top upsets of the tournament, leading Louisville with only a few minutes remaining before Pitino's team made a final surge to earn a 71-64 victory.


Not long after Manhattan's NCAA Tournament appearance, it appeared Masiello was making the inevitable move to bigger and better ... a five-year deal for more than $6 million total was agreed on for the Jaspers' coach to move to the University of South Florida.

And, then, a background check turned up the previously overlooked fact that Masiello had never graduated from Kentucky, despite having claimed, on his official resume, to have earned a degree in communications from that school.

Once the fabrication was discovered, USF opted to withdraw its agreement with Masiello, and the coach was left in limbo for several weeks while Manhattan (which also has a policy of not hiring coaches without a degree) decided whether or not to allow him to return.

In a recent decision, Manhattan announced that Masiello would be on unpaid suspension, but would be permitted to return to his position as head coach upon completion of degree work (reportedly, he needs to complete 10 credit hours), presumably this summer.


It might only be No. 4 in the proverbial pecking order of the four national post-season tournaments, but it's a national event, nonetheless, and Siena won it this season. It is believed to be the first championship of a national post-season tournament ever by a MAAC team since the league's formation in the early 1980's.

Siena did it with a back-to-the-future there, playing the final two games of the unusual best-of-three championship series with Fresno State on its on-campus, 3,500-capacity Alumni Recreation Center gymnasium.

It's the first time the ARC was used, due to conflicts at Siena's usual Times Union Center home, for a regular-season men's game since Feb. 18, 1997.

Siena did its best work there on Saturday, leading every second of the way after the game's first play (a Brett Bisping three-pointer). The Saints had a 17-point lead by halftime against a very good opponent, a 22-point lead early in the second half and, then, held off a late-game challenge (the Bulldogs got to within nine with 1:31 remaining).

Bisping, who Siena coach Jimmy Patsos called "one of the most-improved players in the country," was the event's MVP.

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