Can Siena cap off a strong season with a tournament berth? Can Monmouth finally end a streak of heartbreak? Or will Iona write the same old story — even with an unusual season and a new coach — and qualify for the big dance yet again?
All seem like viable possibilities in a season that saw almost every MAAC team significantly affected by COVID. Though Siena crossed the regular season finish line with the best record, neither they nor any team appears dominant enough to be a lock for the tourney crown.
The MAAC chose a different path than most in choosing to seed by total wins instead of by win percentage or even metric-adjusted win percentage. In doing so, a team like Iona, who owns a share of the second best winning percentage. is vastly under-seeded, perhaps, due to a couple of large COVID delays that notably caused its coach to call for the postponement of the season. They could face teams like Siena earlier than they would under normal circumstances.
All games at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
Siena (12-4, 12-4): The most consistent team throughout the season, the Saints rode a four-game winning streak before dropping their regular season finale to Canisius in bizarre fashion by a single point. The metrics appear to like them; Siena is the highest-ranked MAAC team in KenPom, and rank tied for second in the MAAC in points allowed per game. Not only are they good at defending, they are exceptional at defending without fouling, allowing the fewest fouls and free throws attempted in conference play.
Perhaps the best news is that the Saints’ Jalen Pickett, last year’s MAAC POY, is looking about as healthy as he has all season after suffering a hamstring injury early on. Pickett is joined on the MAAC First Team by teammate Manny Camper, a favorite for this year’s Player of the Year, who averaged a double-double at 16.4 points and 10.0 rebounds. They also received a surprising contribution from former walk-on Jordan King, averaging over 12 points per game, and aim to get senior guard Nick Hopkins back after missing the past five games. Carmen Maciarello’s Saints have been strong all season long, and appear to be getting healthy and hitting their stride at the right time.
The Dark Horses
Monmouth (12-7, 12-6): Is it Monmouth’s time? The Hawks last went dancing in 2006, but have been undone by bad luck (and Iona) as of late. Mid-major fans remember their 2016 season with big wins and animated bench, only to be undone by Iona in the final; five of their last six years they have had winning seasons in conference and have come up short. This year, King Rice’s squad leads the league in scoring at 74.1 points per contest — his best teams to this point, in 2016 and 2017, also ranked among the nation’s highest in points scored. They are led this year by a trio of double-figure scorers: George Papas, Melik Martin, and unanimous first team selection Deion Hammond. They’re all seniors to go along with seasoned coach Rice, in his 10th season. The Hawks, who would avoid facing Siena and Iona until the finals, are 9-3 in their last 12 and have not been as badly affected by COVID as some other participants are. They’re hoping some of their chemistry and continuity can help them overcome their poor defense and end their tournament drought.
Iona (8-5. 6-3): The Gaels are here because...well, they always seem to get there. And by there we mean the NCAA tournament. They’ve won the last four (completed) MAAC tournaments, and despite losing longtime coach Tim Cluess, were able to hire perhaps the biggest name of any mid-major program in Rick Pitino. Unfortunately, this season’s Gaels team has been hit with two massive COVID pauses: they had an amazing 49 days between games between Dec. 23 and Feb. 12 in their first pause, and their second has been ongoing since a decisive win over Monmouth on Feb. 20. The Gaels are the best shooting team in the conference and are led by the conference’s leading scorer in Isaiah Ross at over 20 points a game, but with only 13 games played, they feel like the wild card. And yet, it would be almost fitting if in a season with so much changing (including Iona’s head coach), the Gaels were able to crawl back into the tournament.
The Long Shots
Saint Peter’s (13-10, 10-8): The Peacocks allow the fewest points per game in the MAAC, and junior forward KC Ndefo is a massive reason why. A stat sheet stuffer ranking top ten in points, steals, blocks, and rebounds, Ndefo is especially dominant on the defensive end, leading the nation in blocks per game. Shaheen Holloway’s bunch has proven capable of beating good teams: Saint Peter’s should have beaten St. John’s earlier in the season, beat La Salle and Stony Brook, and earned road splits with both Siena and Monmouth during the year.
Marist (12-8, 10-8): The Red Foxes also sport a strong defense, tied for the second least points per game allowed. Offensively, they are young and led by freshmen Ricardo Wright and Hakim Byrd, who earned spots on the MAAC All-Rookie team. Though they went through a rough January, at one point losing six of nine games, they are the only team coming in on a multiple-game winning streak.
Players to Watch
Jake Wojcik, Jr., Fairfield: 13.6 Pts, 2.8 Reb, 2.2 Ast
Taj Benning, Sr., Fairfield: 12.0 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 1.3 Ast
Isaiah Ross, Sr., Iona: 20.5 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 1.7 Ast
Nelly Junior Joseph, Fr., Iona: 12.1 Pts, 7.1 Reb, 1.2 Ast
Ant Nelson, Jr., Manhattan: 13.3 Pts, 3.2 Reb, 3.0 Ast
Warren Williams, Jr., Manhattan: 11.5 Pts, 7.5 Reb, 0.8 Ast
Hakim Byrd, Fr., Marist: 9.8 Pts, 2.4 Reb, 3.1 Ast
Ricardo Wright, Fr., Marist: 11.4 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 1.8 Ast
Deion Hammond, Sr., Monmouth: 17.2 Pts, 3.8 Reb, 1.7 Ast
George Papas, Sr., Monmouth: 12.6 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 1.8 Ast
Melik Martin, Sr., Monmouth: 12.5 Pts, 5.8 Reb, 1.7 Ast
Marcus Hammond, Jr., Niagara: 13.2 Pts, 5.7 Reb, 2.9 Ast
Kobi Nwandu, Sr., Niagara: 14.5 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 2.7 Ast
Jacob Rigoni, Sr., Quinnipiac: 12.0 Pts, 6.3 Reb, 1.3 Ast
Tymu Chenery, Fr., Quinnipiac: 10.0 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 0.8 Ast
Luis Kortright, Fr., Quinnipiac: 10.5 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 2.9 As
Dwight Murray Jr., Jr., Rider: 15.9 Pts, 6.0 Reb, 4.1 Ast
KC Ndefo, Jr., Saint Peter’s: 13.6 Pts, 6.2 Reb, 1.4 Ast
Daryl Banks III, So., Saint Peter’s: 10.8 Pts, 3.8 Reb, 2.3 Ast
Manny Camper, Sr., Siena: 14.6 Pts, 10.0 Reb, 3.9 Ast
Jalen Pickett, Jr., Siena: 12.8 Pts, 6.2 Reb, 4.8 Ast
Jordan King, So., Siena: 12.5 Pts, 1.6 Reb, 2.1 Ast
Iona leans on Isaiah Ross, Rick Pitino, and their tournament pedigree to nip Siena in the quarterfinals and go on to represent the MAAC in the big dance for the fifth consecutive time.