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Five things to watch on opening nights in the MAAC

Defending champ is in action; will waivers be granted; showdowns with the ACC; and teams figure out their rotations

NCAA Basketball: ESPN Events Invitational-Sienna vs Mississippi
Reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Michael Eley averaged a shade under 10 points a game last season for Siena.
Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

The scent of freshly unwrapped Wilson basketballs, the temperature numbers beginning to start with 4’s and 3’s, and the constant buzzing of optimism can only mean one thing. College basketball is back.

Tonight is opening night for many of the Division I men’s basketball teams across the country, including nine of the 11 MAAC programs who have waited all offseason to have the chance to make their mark on the league. With a large portion of the league being comprised of new faces, including four new head coaches, fans around the region are eager to see what the season has in store.

Here are five things to watch on opening night around the conference.

1. Iona in the Six

Tobin Anderson said when he took the job at Iona that he would continue to schedule challenging matchups with competitive opponents, and that starts on night one. The Gaels take their 12 new players (and one returning player) down to Charleston, where Pat Kelsey’s Cougars and a sold-out crowd await them.

Charleston went 31-4 last season, winning 17 of 18 home games. The Cougars return a few key pieces, while also bringing in a variety of impact transfers. Big man Ante Brzovic is expected to be one of the best players in the CAA, which the Cougars are projected to win for the second straight year. New Cougar PG C.J. Fulton will match up with new Gael PG Joel Brown in a fascinating matchup.

These teams have very similar identities in that they both want to play fast and cycle in a healthy rotation of bench players. A plethora of Iona players, including Brown, sharpshooter Wheza Panzo and scoring guard Idan Tretout, have never played for such a fast-paced outfit, but they’ll have to get used to it quickly.

2. Waiver Wonders

Three MAAC players need to have their waiver requests approved by the NCAA in order to be eligible to play for their respective teams this season.

Siena’s Sean Durugordon played his first collegiate season at Missouri before transferring to Austin Peay, where he averaged double figures last season. However, after a coaching change and plenty of strife around the Govs program, he decided to transfer to Siena, which is closer to home. Durugordon can be a key piece for the Saints this year. If eligible, he’d be the only upperclassman and the only player to have averaged double figures in a previous Division I season. Head coach Carmen Maciariello has declined to comment on Durugordon’s waiver status over the past few weeks. The Saints play against Holy Cross at 7 p.m.

Mount St. Mary’s does not play tonight, but Presbyterian transfer Terrell Ard Jr. is unsure if he’ll be able to play at all. Head coach Dan Engelstad told me that the program was expecting to hear back from the NCAA on Ard’s waiver decision a few weeks back, but it has not gotten any information on his status since. Ard, a physical and athletic interior threat with downhill scoring ability, would provide a bridge from the wings to the bigs on the roster. The Mount opens up its season on Tuesday against Maryland.

Manhattan’s Dejuan Clayton had his waiver request denied, but he’s waiting to hear back from the NCAA on an appeal. Clayton has played in parts of seven college basketball seasons, but he’s petitioning for his third medical redshirt after playing just nine games last year for Cal. Clayton played under John Gallagher for just two games at Hartford in 2021-22 before suffering an injury. Gallagher is hoping for Clayton to be able to bring his double-digit scoring and playmaking prowess from his Coppin State days over to the Bronx. Manhattan opens up its season against Bryant tonight at 7:30 p.m.

3. Peacocks’ Point Problem

Just 10 days before the season, Saint Peter’s point guard Jaheim Tanksley, who was expected to start and be one of the team’s top players, announced that he’d miss the entire campaign with a broken fibula.

The injury created a void at the point guard position for Bashir Mason, who needs to look elsewhere for perimeter shot creation and playmaking. While Latrell Reid can provide a ton of defensive value from the point guard spot, the Peacocks are likely looking for a little bit more offensively that what he can give them.

Six-foot-7-inch JUCO transfer Elijah Wood is a versatile playmaker who led his team in assists last year. While he’s not an excellent shooter by any means, he’s probably the best playmaker remaining on the roster. Earlier in the offseason, Mason told me that Wood would have opportunities to play the point guard, shooting guard and small forward spots this season. He may not have expected him to have to play point guard as much as he does though.

Most of SPU’s other options in the backcourt are better off the ball, such as shooters Marcus Randolph and Brent Bland, defensive specialist Roy Clarke and the athletic Elijah Perkins, Wood has tons of experience playing on the ball at the college level.

Reid will still undoubtedly see minutes at the point guard spot. Clarke, Perkins and freshman Armoni Zeigler will all be asked to handle the ball at times, but Wood is probably going to see the biggest uptick in the role.

Saint Peter’s opens up its season with a trip to Seton Hall to face off with old coach Shaheen Holloway at 7:30 p.m.

4. MAAC vs. ACC

Three MAAC teams open up their seasons with matchups against ACC foes. These buy games are nothing new for the MAAC, but something about a few of these games feels distinctly winnable this season.

Niagara, a team stocked with graduate transfers and experienced Division I players, will be the first opponent of the Micah Shrewsberry era at Notre Dame. Shrewsberry didn’t see the success that many had imagined he would in the transfer portal this offseason, opting instead to focus on building up a young core of players. Four freshmen and three sophomores make up 70% of the scholarship players on the Irish roster, including projected top scorer Markus Burton. Notre Dame was picked to finish dead last in the ACC Preseason Poll. KenPom projects the game to be decided by fewer than 10 points.

While Niagara doesn't have an established pecking order for scoring in late-game situations, the season opener could provide a relatively low-stakes chance for the Purple Eagles to figure out who their go-to guys are. Freshman Ahmad Henderson II and grad transfers Kwane Marble and Luke Bumbalough are sure to have their chances to score.

Fairfield’s new era under interim coach Chris Casey begins with a trip to an ACC gym as the Stags take on Boston College. With Alexis Yetna and Birima Seck on the mend with injuries, Casey is going to have to rely on freshman Peyton Smith to defend All-ACC big man Quentin Post.

The path to victory for Fairfield is for Post to “get his.” Boston College’s supporting cast is not a particularly scary group, but the Stags will have to find a way to defend Claudell Harris Jr. Any win for Fairfield will almost certainly feature a great shooting performance from the Stag guards. Caleb Fields cannot be the only shot creator, and Louis Bleechmore must have a good day on the wing.

The least likely win for the MAAC comes on Wednesday, when Canisius will take on Syracuse at the JMA Wireless Dome. The Orange, under first-year head coach Adrian Autry, is expected to improve defensively by using a man-to-man system instead of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.

The Griffs are expected to take steps forward this season as the MAAC preseason poll picked them to finish third. Canisius reportedly defeated Patriot League favorite Colgate in a secret scrimmage 74-58 with projected starter Xzavier Long being held out for precaution.

However, Reggie Witherspoon will have to concoct a defensive gameplan to stop Judah Mintz and JJ Starling in the backcourt, a tall task for any coach in the country.

5. Second-Year Leaps

Siena’s Michael Eley and Marist’s Isaiah Brickner made their marks as true freshman guards with immense scoring talent last season. Both are expected to make the jump into stars, with many players who were above them in the pecking order having departed.

Eley, the reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year, averaged 13.1 PPG in the final eight games of last season, including a 23-point outburst against Mount St. Mary’s. It’s the above-the-rim athleticism combined with in-the-gym shooting range that has made Eley a popular pick for MAAC Player of the Year.

Brickner was a much less consistent scorer than Eley as a freshman but will have just as crucial of a role to his team’s success in 2023-24. While he has the talent to score at a high level in the mid-range, and is a great 3-point shooter off the catch, the next step for Brickner is to be better attacking the rim. He ranked 44th out of 52 players in the conference in efficiency at the rim last season.