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MAAC Hoops Quarter Season Report Card

Buckle up. It is grading season.

Iona guard Walter Clayton Jr.
Charlie Cooper

Believe it or not, we’re about a quarter of the way through MAAC play. With the combination of the conference play weekend in early December, and the first two weekends of the new year, teams have played anywhere from five to seven of their 20-game league schedule.

So, let’s grade how each MAAC team has performed so far:

Iona: B+

It’s been four dominant performances, and one performance where they were dominated, for the Gaels. Iona looked untouchable in their first four MAAC games. It seemed like nobody in the league could even compete. The backcourt of Walter Clayton Jr, Daniss Jenkins, and Berrick Jeanlouis is the best in the MAAC by a good margin. Nobody can match the athleticism and talent that those three have. Nelly Junior Joseph remains the league’s best big, and they have a really solid rotation around them.

Once Rick Pitino has his full team healthy, they’ll be dangerous on a national stage. Despite all of that, the Gaels went into Hamden, and got blown out by an inconsistent Quinnipiac team. Sure, they were without Clayton and Quinn Slazinski, but there was never a reason to think that the Gaels couldn’t win with some injuries. Tempers flared over, especially for Jenkins, who fouled out of the game, and it continued to go downhill from there. At-large hopes are likely gone for the Gaels, and they face adversity for the first time during the MAAC season.

Next weekend, they host Fairfield and Rider at Hynes, for a crucial “get right” stretch before a rivalry road double with Manhattan and Siena.

Siena: A+

The Green and Gold are the only team that gets the highest marks because they’re the only team that’s undefeated. Five games, five wins for Carmen Maciariello’s team, including a sweep in Connecticut and a gutsy win without Javian McCollum against Rider on Sunday.

Siena’s defensive rotations are just as good as anybody else’s in college basketball. The guards fly around, preventing easy ball movement, and suppressing 3-point attempts. But, while they give up plenty in the paint on one end, the development of Jackson Stormo, and everything that Eduardo Lane brings off the bench, helps Siena dominate the interior offensively.

Perhaps most importantly, the Saints have continued to make winning plays late in games, and that’s evident in the last two minutes against Fairfield last weekend.

Niagara: A-

The Purple Eagles always sneak up on people, and they’re doing it again this year. Niagara has rode the efforts of Aaron Gray and Noah Thomasson to a 4-2 start in league play, including tough road wins at Fairfield and Quinnipiac.

Greg Paulus’ team forces you out of your comfort zone offensively. Similarly to Siena, Niagara limits the 3-ball, and restricts free-flowing ball moment, forcing teams to play at their pace. Niagara was built for isolation, and they try to force opponents into that as well.

Noah Thomasson averages over seven isolation possessions per game, which is first in the MAAC by a wide margin. Thomasson excels at getting to the basket in these situations, and he’s been a high-level outside shooter too. While Paulus explained that scoring would be a much more balanced effort this season without Marcus Hammond, Thomasson seems to have taken the initiative himself to go out there and get buckets.

The other key piece of Niagara’s offense is SNHU transfer Aaron Gray, a 6-foot-7-inch forward with a well-rounded on-ball skillset. He can get to the paint, he can shoot the 3 (he hasn’t been super efficient yet, but he can be), and he can even be an outlet when Niagara decides to run in transition.

The Purple Eagles have played four of their six conference games on the road so far, so they only have six road games left. Despite the loss to Manhattan, the overall body of work that the Purples Eagles have put together is strong enough for a good grade.

Manhattan: B+

After the events of late October in Riverdale, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Manhattan would languish near the bottom of the MAAC. After all, their coach only had a few weeks in the job, and lost three important players. That has not been the case so far.

The Jaspers are 3-3 in the MAAC, including wins over Fairfield and Niagara, with Ant Nelson leading the way. Despite poor efficiency metrics over the last two seasons, and creeping into this one, Nelson has been a star in MAAC play, averaging over 17 points per game, on serviceable efficiency.

Shotmaking has been excellent in league games for the Jaspers, with Samir Stewart and Nick Brennen being key cogs to the machine after missing time earlier in the season. With big man Josh Roberts patrolling the lane, grabbing offensive boards, putting in dunks, and swatting shots, Manhattan boasts one of the league’s best big men. Despite playing without Elijah Buchanan for most of the season, interim head coach RaShawn Stores has kept his word, with the Jaspers playing better basketball as the season goes on. Even if the Jaspers’ record doesn’t stay towards .500, there’s a very solid chance the Jaspers may stick with Stores, and take the interim tag off his title.

Quinnipiac: B

Quinnipiac in conference play is like the kid that only studies for the big exam. The quiz grades are a mixed bag, but they took everybody by surprise and got the best score in the class during the midterm.

Quinnipiac’s dominant win over Iona was the third consecutive win for the Bobcats, including a road win at Rider, in which Tyrese Williams hit five treys. With Quinnipiac, you never know who is going to be the guy that leads the offense on a given day. The Bobcats have tons of weapons, from Matt Balanc to Dezi Jones to Ike Nweke, and even the guards off the bench like Luis Kortright and the aforementioned Williams can have their days.

They didn’t make winning plays, despite hanging around in games against Siena, Niagara, and Saint Peter’s. The 0-3 league start was a shock, but they’ve responded strong to get back to .500.

They’ve already lost to Saint Peter’s, their next opponent, and if they lose there, they’d have to win back-to-back games against the Mount and Canisius in order to be over .500 going into Hynes. Quinnipiac has done a good job digging themselves out of the hole, but the expectation wasn’t staying at sea level, it was climbing a mountain.

Fairfield: C-

Fairfield still hasn’t figured it out. While they’re about a half dozen possessions away from being 5-0, they’ve also shown major flaws that must be resolved. Their lineups guard themselves, and they waste possessions with predictable offense. The Stags’ shotmaking has been awful this year, particularly off the dribble and in catch and shoot situations, which feeds into the previous point.

Caleb Fields is the only true threat to get to the rim and put pressure on the defense, especially when the shooters aren’t hitting shots. While Supreme Cook is a good big man, too much of the offensive load gets placed on him, and on possessions where the Stags can’t get Cook a post touch, they struggle to create high quality shots.

The Stags have only won two conference games, and all three of their losses were winnable games. Different ailments have plagued them in their losses, but the common thread has been prolonged stretches without points. Head coach Jay Young is a disciple of Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, and there’s certainly elements of the Scarlet Knights that are visible in the Stags. Fairfield’s identity is on the defensive end, and rotations are geared towards that, and to their credit, the Stags have the second best defensive rating in MAAC play so far, but they’re also dead last in effective field goal percentage.

Marist: D

Marist might have the player of the year in the MAAC in do-it-all 7-footer Patrick Gardner, but, they still rank 10th and 11th in the league in offensive and defensive efficiency.

Marist lost its first four league games, and only one was remotely close, The Red Foxes did snag a win over Mount St. Mary’s at home on Sunday afternoon, though.

Outside of Gardner, Marist is at best inconsistent, and at worst, straight up bad, as an offensive team. The offensive ratings of three main guards, Noah Harris, Isaiah Brickner, and Kam Farris, are all below 86, while Gardner’s is 107.3. The bench showed up against the Mount, with Tyler Saint-Furcy playing his best game of the season, and Farris draining a bunch of threes, and everything seemed to come together for that one win.

However, the guards are not good enough at getting to the basket, placing an incredible load on Gardner, so much that even he can’t raise this offense. Defensively, the Red Foxes would love to be able to use Stephane Ingo more, as he’s a great rim protector, but he’s struggled at defending without fouling.

Head coach John Dunne thinks that the amount of close games in the non-conference prepared them for these types of games in the MAAC, but so far, they’ve been mostly unable to keep games close enough down the stretch for it to make an impact.

Mount: C

Introducing themselves to the MAAC with a 2-3 start, Mount St. Mary’s has had to navigate through new seas. Captaining the ship is Dan Engelstad, and his top crewman, Jalen Benjamin, puts wind in the sails with the pick-and-roll.

Benjamin, a 5-foot-10-inch senior point guard, is averaging 15 points and four assists per game, and is the key piece to the most PNR heavy offense in the country. The Mount’s favorite roll man, Malik Jefferson, is a consistent presence, starting 123 games over the last five seasons, and manning the paint effectively.

While the Mount has players that fit their roles very well, the overall is not overwhelming, and places them firmly in the middle of the pack. Fortunately for the Mount, five of their next six MAAC games are at home, a much-needed reprieve from the four away games out of the first five.

It’s hard to say that the result of the opening quintet of games delivered either much more or much less than expected out of the Mount, and we’ll have a much better idea of who this team is at the halfway point.

Canisius: C-

Canisius was dealt a mega difficult hand to start the MAAC season. It’s been quite the ride.

In the opening weekend, the Griffs travelled to Siena and Iona, then lost both games. The next two MAAC games were supposed to be at home, but a major snowstorm hit Buffalo, so the games had to be played off campus, at Niagara.

The Griffs lost both.

They picked up back-to-back wins on the road against Manhattan and Saint Peter’s in their bounce back over the previous weekend.

It’s hard to say that much more than this was expected from head coach Reggie Witherspoon’s crew, and their schedule should start to get easier as the season goes on, so there’s plenty more chances to bump up this grade.

Saint Peter’s: C-

Everything is new for the Peacocks this year: new head coach, new players. So, it was hard to gauge the team in the preseason.

Sitting at 2-5 in the league after going to the Elite 8 is clearly disappointing, but it was still plausible. The six leading scorers and minute-getters from last year are gone and have been replaced with mixed success. On the bright side, senior guard Isiah Dasher has broken out in a big way, averaging over 14 points per game on decent efficiency. While Jaylen Murray was expected to be the leading scorer, Dasher has taken on that responsibility, with Murray being an impact scorer off the bench, averaging 12 a game.

New head coach Bashir Mason runs one of the deepest benches in the country, and he can boast wins over Quinnipiac and Manhattan, but there’s still a ton that needs to be resolved. The talent pool is significantly worse than last year, and the group had never played together, so the growing pains are tough for this team. The Peacocks will probably stay near the bottom of the MAAC this year, and that’s okay, but seeing how the young players grow throughout the season will certainly be interesting.

Rider: C+

Rider was one of the favorites in the MAAC before the season, and in the first three games, they played like it.

The Broncs took care of business against teams near the bottom of the MAAC, but games started to get tougher, and they’ve now lost three in seven days. The Broncs don’t shoot many 3, so keeping up with teams that do can be a problem. When Tyrese Williams hit five triples last Friday night, there was no response, and a five point halftime lead turned into a nine point loss. At Siena on Sunday, both teams lacked offensive rhythm, and when the Saints were pulling ahead, head coach Kevin Baggett said he told his team “play with more of a sense of urgency.”

Even though Rider played with more urgency, their offense came mostly from Dwight Murray penetrating and making tough shots and free throws. In order to avoid falling below .500, the Broncs will have to beat Iona on the road, which nobody has done with fans in the building since March of 2020.