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MAAC Preseason Power Rankings: It’s Iona’s league to lose

Iona has reloaded, not rebuilt, for the 2017-18 season.

NCAA Basketball: MAAC Conference Tournament-Siena vs Iona Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is a high-flying, fast-paced, offensive-centric league. Teams often play four-guard sets — if basketball at large is trending towards position-less rosters, then the MAAC is an alternate reality in which teams put guards in nearly every position.

In other words, the MAAC is fun as hell. Prefer fast-paced games over slow, methodical defensive slogs? Last season, the MAAC was the fifth-fastest conference in the NCAA, per, and boasts two of the fastest offenses in Monmouth and Iona. Want to see teams take a ton of threes and rely on the transition game? Led by the NCAA’s 14th best three-point shooting team, Iona (42.2 3P%), teams in the MAAC averaged 36.6 percent from beyond the arc last season.

So how will the 11 running-and-gunning teams stack up in the MAAC?

11. Quinnipiac Bobcats

Last season: 10-21 (7-13)

No team in the MAAC had a more exciting freshman duo than guards Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss. But both double-digit scorers transferred to St. John’s and Rutgers, respectively. The tandem led the Bobcats in scoring last season and combined to average 29.8 points per game.

Expect senior forward Chaise Daniels to fill the scoring vacuum. Daniels’ offensive production has improved significantly over the course of his career. As a sophomore, Daniels averaged 9.8 points per game on 39.5 percent field goal shooting. Last season, Daniels’ notched 13.0 points per game by shooting 51.4 percent from the field — good for fourth in the MAAC.

But like the team ahead them in the power rankings, defense is an area for improvement. Save for Marist’s lackluster defense, the Bobcats were second-to-last in defensive efficiency last season per KenPom. Opponents torched the Bobcats by shooting 38 percent from the field. In a conference with one of the best three-point offenses in Iona, tightening up their three-point defense is paramount.

Projected Starting Lineup: Cameron Young, Andrew Robinson, Reggie Oliver, Chaise Daniels, Abdulai Bundu

10. Marist Red Foxes

Last season: 8-24 (5-15)

Head Coach Mike Maker’s Marist squad endured plenty of growing pains last season. Although Marist tied Manhattan at the bottom of the conference standings, the Red Foxes needed overtime to earn two of their five wins (interestingly enough, one of the overtime wins was against fellow cellar-dweller Manhattan). The losses weren’t pretty either: in 15 conference losses, Marist’s average margin of defeat was by a whopping 14 points.

Last season’s big losses don’t seem as surprising in light of Marist’s porous defense. Opposing teams averaged 79.1 points per game against the Red Foxes, including connecting on 37.7 percent of their three pointer attempts. These defensive struggles put Marist at No. 330 out of 351 schools in defensive efficiency per KenPom.

Returning four of five starters on one of the nation’s worst all-around defenses doesn’t inspire confidence, but the good news is that Marist was a young team last year. Six sophomores were the core of Marist’s production, and it’ll need at least one of them to make a leap on both ends of the floor in order to rise up the rankings. Look for Brian Parker (12.9 PPG and 5.9 RPG) or Ryan Funk (12.4 PPG, No. 3 on the MAAC’s made three-pointers rankings) to answer the call.

Projected Starting Lineup: Ryan Funk, Brian Parker, Isaiah Lamb, Obi Momah, Tobias Sjöberg

9. Rider Broncs

Last season: 18-15 (10-10)

So how does an 18-win team that went .500 in conference play end up at ninth on these power rankings?

Losing four starters from a team with a sub-par offense and a mediocre defense will do the trick.

Rider will have to build around a backcourt tandem of Stevie Jordan and Kealen Washington-Ives — one of the few consistencies from last season. This duo, along with JuCo power forward Karaoke Cisse and a five-man freshmen class will be responsible for setting up Rider for a position to succeed next year. Unfortunately for the Broncs, key transfers Ahmad Gilbert (Minnesota) and Kimar Williams (FIU) will have to sit out this season.

Projected Starting Lineup: Stevie Jordan, Kealen Washington-Ives, Anthony Durham, Karamoko Cisse, Tyere Marshall

8. Canisius Golden Griffins

Last season: 18-16 (10-10)

No team in the MAAC lost more players to transfer than the Golden Griffins. On top of losing starters Kiefer Douse and Phil Valenti to graduation, Canisius needs to replace transfers Ronnie Gombe (Robert Morris), Chris Atkinson (St. Thomas Acquainas) and — most critically — Kassius Robertson, the onetime All-MAAC Second Team selection who will likely start at Missouri.

In the wake of this heavy roster turnover, the Golden Griffins will have to build around eight underclassmen and the MAAC’s best post player, Jermaine Crumpton. The senior from Niagara Falls, NY was in the top-10 in the conference in field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage while leading his team in possessions used per KenPom. He also established himself as an inside-out threat by connecting on 41.6 of his threes in conference play, albeit on a relatively-small sample size of 77 attempts.

Projected Starting Lineup: Malik Johnson, D.J. Heath, Isaiah Reese, Jermaine Crumpton, Selveden Planincic

7. Niagara Purple Eagles

Last season: 10-23 (6-14)

It’s now or never for Chris Casey and the Purple Eagles. Since taking over the program when longtime coach Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra in 2014, Casey has only one double-digit win season to his credit. But led by seniors Khalil Dukes and Matt Scott, the Purple Eagles could finally get out of a slump this season.

Niagara is the one of two teams in the MAAC to return all five starters from last year — and this doesn't include JuCo guard Dwayne Pow, who started six of his ten games until an ankle injury curtailed his season.

Projected Starting Lineup: Kahlil Dukes, Matt Scott, Chris Barton, Marvin Prochet, Dominic Robb

6. Manhattan Jaspers

Last season: 10-22 (5-15)

Manhattan won’t struggle with adversity as bad as it did last during last season’s disappointing 10-22 campaign, but the Jaspers won’t make a miraculous turnaround in 2017-18. Teams in the upper echelon of the MAAC have too many advantages over the Jaspers. Expect a middle-of-the-pack finish this year at best.

The Jaspers need to address two glaring issues in order to stay competitive in conference games: turnovers and shooting. Manhattan’s offense was problematic. The Jaspers had not only the ninth-highest turnover percentage in the nation, but also the conference’s worst offense, per KenPom. In a blistering conference like the MAAC, averaging .97 points-per-possession and being careless with the basketball is a sure way to let games slip away.

One player to track keep an eye on this season, however, is sophomore guard Aaron Walker. A notable snub on the MAAC All-Rookie team, the Queens native found his rhythm in the the final four games in conference play by averaging 15.8 points per game (on 51.2 percent shooting), 3.0 assists per game and 1.8 rebounds per game.

Projected Starting Lineup: Zavier Turner, Thomas Capuano, Aaron Walker, Calvin Crawford, Zane Waterman

5. Siena Saints

Last season: 17-17 (12-8)

Despite being a point away from an NCAA appearance last season, the Saints will probably have to wait a year before getting another shot at winning the MAAC Tournament crown. Losing four 1,000-point scorers in Brett Bisping, Lavon Long, Javion Ogunyemi and Marquis Wright will definitely set the Saints back this season.

With that said, the Saints look like they’re a year away from making a lot of noise in the MAAC. Having no seniors on the roster and a promising young core, Siena will look to rebuild around 2017 MAAC Tournament hero Nico Clareth, sophomore guard Asante Shivers and a five-man freshmen class.

The main areas of concern for the Saints are rebounding and three-point offense. Siena led the MAAC in rebounding by having three of the conference's top overall rebounders in Bisping, Long and Ogunyemi but all three players graduated last season. Further, the Saints were second-to-last in the MAAC in three-point offense. Siena was not only one of the least three-point reliant offenses in the MAAC, it was also one of the nation’s least-reliant teams on the three: Siena was 336th out of 351 Division-I teams in point distribution from three.

So what does all of this jargon really mean? Siena will have a harder time keeping pace with teams like Iona and Monmouth — two teams that are quite proficient from three. Not only that, if Siena can’t extend possessions with adept rebounding as it has in the past, the Saints will have a hard time getting back into games whenever they fall behind the MAAC’s uptempo, high-flying offenses.

With all of this said, frontcourt players like Evan Fisher, Sammy Friday and freshman Prince Oduro will need to make up for lost rebounding production, and guards like Shivers and Clareth need to be more comfortable making the outside shot.

Projected Starting Lineup: Ahsante Shivers, Nico Clareth, Khalil Richard, Prince Oduro, Evan Fisher

4. Fairfield Stags

Last season: 16-15 (11-9)

Although they’re listed at fourth place, the Stags fit the bill for the MAAC’s surprise team of the year.

Fairfield returns all five starters from last season, including one of the MAAC’s best players — if not, the best — in guard Tyler Nelson. During last year’s campaign, Nelson averaged 19.1 points per game, scored in double figures in all but one game and had one the best offensive performances in conference play with a 38-point outburst against Rider. Yet despite these numbers, he often played second-fiddle to sophomore guard Curtis Cobb, who transferred to UMass in the offseason.

More likely than not, Stags will have a third-straight CIT appearance with an uninspiring non-conference slate. But because of their roster consistency, solid three-point defense and the likely preseason MAAC player of the year, Fairfield has the potential to make a different postseason tournament with a solid run in the MAAC Tournament.

Projected Starting Lineup: Tyler Nelson, Jerome Segura, Jonathan Kasibabu

3. Monmouth Hawks

Last season: 27-7 (18-2)

The Internet’s favorite college basketball team might not be the dominant force in the MAAC this year. The Bench Mob lost a whopping six seniors from last season — four of whom were consistent starters. This senior class’s importance cannot be understated: Players like Justin Robinson, Chris Brady and Je’lon Hornbeak were the impetus behind Monmouth’s national resurgence over the past two seasons, and finding their replacements will be a tall task.

Of the aforementioned senior class, no player will leave a bigger void on Monmouth’s roster than two-time MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, whose scoring and in-game management might be near-impossible to replace. Robinson not only led the MAAC by averaging 19.1 points per game last year, but also was a steady presence at point guard: the senior averaged 4.8 assists per game while being one of the MAAC’s best at protecting the basketball.

Despite these losses, Monmouth has solutions. First-team MAAC selection Micah Seaborn will become the focal point of the Hawks’ offense in light of the senior departures. The Fort Worth native has posted two strikingly-similar seasons in a Monmouth uniform by averaging 13.2 points per game and at least two rebounds and assists per game. However, Seaborn’s shooting percentage in all facets decreased from his freshman to his sophomore years. In other words, he maintained his statistical output from his freshman season albeit by being less efficient.

But Seaborn will have to rebound from a poor shooting season because he will have to be the Hawks’ go-to guy this year. He isn’t surrounded by a plethora of experienced seniors to pick up the slack. Yet this doesn't mean Seaborn is left high and dry. Since King Rice relies on a deep bench — Monmouth was 57th nationally in bench usage per KenPom — there are plenty of opportunities for reserves to make the leap this season.

Projected Starting Lineup: Austin Tilghman, Micah Seaborn, Pierre Sarr, Diago Quinn, Zac Tillman

2. Saint Peter’s Peacocks

Last season: 23-13 (14-6)

The reigning CIT champions are in the same boat as the majority of the MAAC: they’ve lost so many crucial players. Defensive anchor and first team all-conference selection Quadir Welton graduated. Ditto to Chazz Patterson, Welton’s sidekick on defense who started every game for the past two seasons. Point guard Trevis Wyche, the skilled distributor who was second in the MAAC in KenPom assist rate, graduated as well. Promising junior guard Antwon Portley transferred to Fordham.

But the Peacocks differ from the rest of the MAAC in a different, more crucial way: their team defense is incredible.

Saint Peter’s stingy defense ranked No. 36 nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. To put this in perspective: Saint Peter’s was 53 spots ahead of the Monmouth (the next best defensive team in the MAAC) and four spots ahead of fellow mid-major defensive stalwart VCU. The Peacocks could very well be the best defensive mid-major you’ve never heard of.

This season’s success hinges on their ability to keep the likes of Monmouth and Iona in check. Yes, the Peacocks will have to rely on two JuCo players in DaVauhnte Turner and Julian Powell to step into important roles right away. And yes, NBC Sports and Daily Dose of Hoops have Saint Peter’s slated at 6th and 9th in their MAAC previews, respectively.

But John Donne’s system can be trusted, as the Peacocks’ defense has finished in the top half of the MAAC over the past four seasons. Their decision to zig while the rest of the conference zags will provide an interesting foil to their uptempo, offensive-minded counterparts.

Projected Starting Lineup: DaVauhnte Turner, Nick Griffin, Nnamdi Enechionyia, Sam Idowu, Julian Powell

1. Iona Gaels

Last season: 22-13 (12-8)

The Gaels have made the NCAA tournament for two consecutive seasons. Don’t be surprised if they make it a third consecutive year in 2017-18.

Despite losing senior forwards Taylor Bessick and Jordan Washington — the latter was the MAAC’s top scorer not named Justin Robinson — plus guards Sam Cassell and John Severe, the Gaels retain the best backcourt in Rickey McGill, Deyshonee Much and E.J. Crawford.

Without McGill’s maturation last season, Iona would be in flux this season. Last year, McGill went from averaging 2.8 points per game in 10.5 minutes per game, to averaging 10.5 points per game and 5.1 assists per game while logging 32.1 minutes per contest — all while being the only player to start all 35 of the Gaels’ games. His ability to run the point on a senior-heavy team was impressive, and it seems like McGill will only improve on last season’s numbers this year.

McGill’s backcourt mate, senior guard Deyshonee Much, is equally important to the Gael’s success this season. Much is a long, extremely-athletic guard who oftentimes operates as Iona’s go-to scorer. The Buffalo transfer took 61.4 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, connecting on 38.5 percent of them last season. Not only that, Much is another defensive threat. He was third in the league in steal percentage per KenPom last season, which makes him a threat in the transition game — a crucial facet in Iona’s offense.

Throw in the physicality of small-forward E.J. Crawford — who is a comparable compliment to McGill and Much’s flashy, run-and-gun style of play — and the rebounding skill of Tulsa transfer T.K. Edogi (12.7 RPG per 40 minutes), and the Gaels look like the most complete team on both ends of the floor.

Even though losing Washington, Cassell and Severe will create a statistical vacuum for Iona, the Gaels have the pieces to make up for lost production with the promising — and, most importantly, proven — core it retains from last year. In a conference where four-guard sets are the norm and teams live and die by the transition game, Iona has the biggest advantage in the MAAC.

But with that said, the top-seeded team in the MAAC hasn’t won the conference tournament since Siena ran the table in 2009-10. So even Iona’s dominance over the MAAC should be written in pencil instead of in sharpie.

Projected Starting Lineup: Rickey McGill, Deyshonee Much, Zach Lewis, E.J. Crawford, T.K. Edogi