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MAAC Tournament Primer: Monmouth isn’t as hyped as last year, but the Hawks are really good

Defense of St. Peter’s and offense of Iona could be factors

NCAA Basketball: Monmouth-NJ at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it’s better this way for Monmouth. Perhaps the pressure of a looming at-large bid was weighing on them a bit in last year’s MAAC title game vs Iona. This year it’s clearly win or back to the NIT for the Hawks. The irony is that Monmouth is a better team this year, and dominated the MAAC in an even more thorough fashion than last, dropping just two conference games, and zero since Jan 2.

To be clear, Monmouth is the favorite in Albany once again, but the field is littered with pitfalls, from the offensive system of Tim Cluess at Iona to the masterful defensive schemes of John Dunne at St. Peter’s. Throw in the fact that Siena is hosting the entire tournament and you’ve got plenty of reason to sweat if you’re King Rice (although I’m not sure King Rice actually gets nervous about anything).

Tournament Format

The MAAC awards byes to the top 5 teams, with the top two seeds playing on Friday as opposed to Saturday, which gives them an extra day of rest for Sunday semifinals. The 6-11 seeds play in the first round starting Thursday.

This is the third year in a row that the tournament has been held at the Times Union Center in Albany, NY, the home court of the Siena Saints.

How to Watch

First Round Thursday 3/2:

#8 Quinnipiac vs. #9 Niagara 5PM ET ESPN3

#7 Canisius vs. #10 Marist 7PM ET ESPN3

#6 Rider vs. #11 Manhattan 9PM ET ESPN3

Quarterfinals Friday 3/3:

#1 Monmouth vs. Winner #8/#9 7PM ET ESPN3

#2 Saint Peter's vs. Winner #7/#10 9:30PM ET ESPN3

Quarterfinals Saturday 3/4:

#3 Iona vs. Winner #6/#11 7PM ET ESPN3

#4 Siena vs. #5 Fairfield 9:30 PM ET ESPNU

Semifinals Sunday 3/5:

4:30PM ET and 7PM ET ESPN 3

Final Monday 3/6:

9PM ET ESPN2

Three Things to Watch:

1. Is this the year for Monmouth?

The Bench Mob is gone, and there’s far less media attention for the Hawks this year (and maybe that’s a good thing), but this iteration of Monmouth is a really good basketball team. The incomparable and irrepressible Justin Robinson leads the way at the point, flanked by two versatile athletic running mates in Je’lon Hornbeak and Micah Seaborn. Chris Brady is an enforcer inside and Collin Stewart provides some athleticism at the four. The Hawks are one of the oldest teams in the country and are obviously looking to exorcise some demons in Albany.

Monmouth’s path to the title game has one significant potential speed bump looming, and that’s 4-seed Siena, who would have the advantage of playing on their home floor. Siena point guard Marquis Wright and Robinson have something of a rivalry going on, and Monmouth trailed late at home to the Saints before pulling it out, and that was just a week ago. A “hidden” advantage to being the top seed? Monmouth plays Friday in the quarters while Siena and Fairfield play the late game Saturday night, then turn right around for the 4:30 tip on Sunday afternoon. That extra rest is key.

2. The non-Monmouth side of the bracket is intriguing. Who emerges to face the Hawks in a hypothetical title game?

Last year’s champion Iona slides in at the 3-seed this year, but they’re a typical Tim Cluess team. They were the most efficient offense in the league per KenPom, due in large to their 42% mark from behind the arc in conference play. With Jon Severe, EJ Crawford, Sam Cassell Jr, and Deyshonee Much, the Gaels can shoot the ball ridiculously well from four spots and those four surround an efficient big man in Jordan Washington (when he can stay out of foul trouble). Iona has some potential trouble looming in the quarterfinals, as 6-seed Rider has been an offensive juggernaut to close the season, putting 103 on the Gaels in 83 possessions a few weeks ago. Iona’s other potential opponent is bitter rival Manhattan, who took the MAAC’s last seed in a long, rant filled year for Steve Masiello, but the Jaspers have had more time to rest and prep than anyone else in the MAAC.

On the other end of the spectrum you have John Dunne’s defense oriented St. Peter’s Peacocks sitting at the 2-seed. SPU held MAAC opponents to just .945 points per possession, the top mark in the league. Dunne’s defense is structured a little differently than usual this year because he’s used something of a four guard lineup more to spur the offense, but the defense anchors around Quadir Welton at the rim with Trevis Wyche and Chazz Patterson pressuring ball handlers up front (and Cavon Baker for that matter, who has come on strong of late). The Peacocks finished the regular season on a 6-game winning streak, and it should be noted that five of SPU’s six losses were by one possession (including two OT losses to Iona and Monmouth, who they very easily could have swept).

3. If there’s going to be a bracket destroyer, where will it come from?

If 7-seed Canisius gets past 10-seed Marist, they pose a significant matchup problem for St. Peter’s because of the mobility of Jermaine Crumpton and Phil Valenti in the frontcourt. The celebrated ball movement and reversals of Reggie Witherspoon offense has been as sharp of late for the Griffs (they did finish with the 6th highest assist rate nationally though), and they stumble into the tournament having lost three in a row (including a game at Marist).

The other team I would keep an eye on is 5-seed Fairfield. Yes, they’re playing host Siena in the quarterfinals, a team that swept them in the regular season. But Sydney Johnson is a very adept game planner when he sees teams the second and third time around. The Stags can fill it up offensively with Tyler Nelson, Jerry “Buckets” Johnson, and Curtis Cobb (who posted 46 at Draddy Gym earlier this year), and they’re playing with “house money” so to speak, having swept the western New York trip to end the year and back into the fifth and final bye.

Prediction

Monmouth wins a tight one over St. Peter’s, who takes away Monmouth’s prolific transition game, but Robinson carries the Hawks to the finish line.