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5 things to watch on MAAC Opening Weekend

Mount? A new arena? Breakout guards and a missing Iona star? Keep an eye out as the MAAC gets rolling.

NCAA Basketball: ESPN Events Invitational-Kansas vs. Iona Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not even a month into the season, but there are some crucial, tone-setting games in the MAAC this weekend, So, here are the top five things to watch for on MAAC opening weekend

Welcome, Mount!

On Thursday, the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary’s (3-4) will officially be baptized into the MAAC with their first league game on the road against Saint Peter’s.

The Mount gets its first taste of the conference with two high-level guard matchups for star player, Jalen Benjamin. Against the Peacocks, he’ll duel with Jaylen Murray, the small and shifty sophomore who is averaging 15 points in just 23 minutes per game. Benjamin then must square up with preseason first-teamer DJ Murray and his Broncs on Saturday. That game against Rider will be the first-ever MAAC game at the Knott Arena in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where there will be 2,000 fans to cheer them on.

Outside of Benjamin, Dakota Leffew and Malik Jefferson have been impressive for the Mountaineers this year, and they’ll need Leffew’s shooting and Jefferson’s rebounding throughout the season.

Home Sweet Mahoney

Speaking of new, Fairfield’s (2-5) brand new 3,500 seat, $51 million on-campus Leo D. Mahoney Arena will host its first men’s basketball game on Saturday when the Stags take on Saint Peter’s. There were 2,440 people filled up in the venue to watch the Stags women’s basketball team defeat Stonehill a few Fridays back, and they’re expecting a rowdy crowd this Saturday.

The new facility immediately makes Fairfield a more attractive place for coaches, players, and fans, and should give a boost to the program from day one. Attempting to christen the facility, the Stags will have to fight off Saint Peter’s. Fairfield has gotten an impressive start to the season from Caleb Fields, but we’ve yet to see the Stags find their best rotation. Brycen Goodine, the other transfer, hasn’t settled in yet, and the shooting from marksmen Jake Wojcik and TJ Long has been uncharacteristically poor. Fairfield started to turn its season around with a 2-1 performance in Savannah, and will want to go 2-0 to start off MAAC play.

Breakout guards duel in Albany

Siena’s Javian McCollum has gotten his fair share of media attention. The sophomore’s breakout campaign sees him averaging 17 points and five assists per game, and doing it efficiently as well.

Siena’s wins over Florida State and Seton Hall were announcements to the country about McCollum’s talent, as he averaged 19 points per game in the ESPN Events Invitational, leading the Saints to a third-place finish. The Florida native’s ability to score at all three levels has been remarkable, putting up elite rim-finishing percentages, as well as sitting in the 88th percentile in efficiency when shooting off the dribble. McCollum has been among the most impressive players in the whole league, and he might just be the very best guard that the league has to offer, but there’s another breakout guard to watch: Canisius guard Tahj Staveskie, who hasn’t been as efficient, but has certainly been impressive.

After taking a medical redshirt as a freshman last year, Staveskie has averaged 14 points and four assists per game, along with two steals. Staveskie’s name wasn’t among the 12,943 words in my comprehensive MAAC Season Preview and was only very briefly mentioned in the Blue Ribbon and Field of 68 Almanac Previews, but he’s burst onto the scene.

High-level big man matchup at Draddy

From a high-level guard matchup to a high-level big man matchup. On Thursday night, two of the league’s top centers will do battle in Riverdale.

Josh Roberts is one of the most exciting players in the league, combining his athleticism with his rebounding ability to create highlight-reel plays. On both ends of the court, his pogo-stick jumping ability makes him one of the best post players that the league has to offer.

Roberts is averaging 16.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, along with 2.8 blocks per game, while staying out of foul trouble in the process. His 80.4% field-goal mark is up there with the most efficient players in the entire country. His counterpart is Fairfield’s Supreme Cook, who has had an up-and-down start to his junior season.

While his scoring numbers are better this year, he hasn’t quite taken the leap that many expected, and he’s struggled on defense containing other bigs. What we do know about Cook is that when he’s on, he loves to go to the post up and finish at the rim, yet he’s started to very slowly expand his game this season. The extent of the expansion will be a key factor in the success of this Stags team, as he’s an extremely important option in the pecking order for Fairfield. His averages of 12 and six are not as gaudy as Roberts’, but he can certainly contend with him Thursday night.

Without Q

After his best performance in a Gaels uniform, a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double against Hofstra, Quinn Slazinski suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the two games since. As there’s not yet a timetable for the return of the 6-foot-8 Texan, Iona needs to find ways to win without him.

Rick Pitino went to his smaller lineup, with Berrick JeanLouis getting minutes at the four, while sliding Cruz Davis in, and it worked against Vermont behind JeanLouis’ 23 points. However, when he scored just four points against Santa Clara, the Gaels couldn’t win the game.

JUCO transfer Michael Jefferson, who’d played just 22 total minutes in the first three games, scored 12 points in 20 minutes against Santa Clara, as he’s the most accurate one-for-one replacement for Slazinski. The 6-foot-7 Texan shares the size (and home state), however, there’s a reason Pitino preferred going to Davis and the small lineup over him at times.

Iona has played just four games, but will play three in five days, including two MAAC games this weekend against Niagara and Canisius before hosting a very good Saint Louis team at Hynes on Tuesday. The quick turnaround in schedule and the smaller rotation due to injuries could play a factor, and the Gaels can’t afford many slip-ups.