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5 things to watch on MAAC Opening Weekend

Quinnipiac goes west with the league’s top record, plus more to look out for in the start of MAAC play.

Savion Lewis
Rob Rasmussen/Quinnipiac Athletics

With Marist’s win at Iona on Wednesday night, the start of 2023-24 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball season is officially underway. The first game was a microcosm for the league, a sloppy, gritty game, where neither team could truly find an edge until the very end.

Now that this new year’s can of worms has been opened up, it’s time to examine things to watch for the first weekend of games between conference foes.

1. Quinnipiac ventures west

While a light schedule has no doubt been a factor, the best record in the league belongs to Quinnipiac, at 5-1. Savion Lewis is currently second in the country in assists, and is the only player in the eastern time zone in the top five. He’s made life easier for Matt Balanc, who is enjoying the best stretch of his career. Along with the potent offensive backcourt, the Bobcats have the top defensive rebounding rate in the conference thanks to a highly athletic frontcourt.

Wofford transfer Amarri Tice has been better than advertised, putting up excellent scoring, rebounding, and defensive box score numbers. Richie Springs’ length and mobility have provided head coach Tom Pecora with plenty of different options rotationally. Freshman Ri Vavers and junior Alexis Reyes have each shot over 40% from distance, and Paul Otieno continues to do Otieno things.

Quinnipiac opens conference play with the vaunted Buffalo trip. The western swing acts as kryptonite for the league’s elite at times. In each of the last two seasons, the final remaining undefeated MAAC team has picked up its first blemish on the lakefront.

The Bobcats’ trip starts in downtown Buffalo, where Canisius itself is looking to reaffirm its ambitions as one of the league’s top teams. After taking two of three games in Montreal, the Griffs are 4-3, and the conference’s second-highest-ranked team on KenPom. In Tahj Staveskie’s absence due to injury, both Siem Uijtendaal and Frank Mitchell have stepped up, providing the punch that Reggie Witherspoon’s team has needed. It may sound strange, but Quinnipiac versus Canisius might be the MAAC’s game of the night on Friday.

Niagara hasn’t had the start to the season that it imagined, but the Purple Eagles are looking to build off of last week’s win at Saint Francis. Picked to finish fifth in my MAAC Season Preview, NU sits at 1-3, but boasts the league’s top-scoring freshman, Ahmad Henderson. The Chicago product is averaging 16 points per game thanks to his shooting and shiftiness, and presents a challenge for anybody attempting to guard him. The Bobcats will face that challenge on Sunday afternoon.

Quinnipiac doesn’t have to win both games to be a legit contender in the MAAC, but doing so would make the rest of the league take immediate notice.

2. Rider’s shooting woes

Entering this weekend’s games, Rider ranks 358th nationally in effective field goal percentage. The Broncs were picked to win the league by the coaches in the preseason, but stumble into league play without a Division I win. The Broncs have played a very difficult schedule, but they have been less competitive than most MAAC fans hoped.

Outside of Mervin James, who has been arguably the top player in the conference so far, everybody seems to be struggling offensively. Allen Powell is averaging under six points per game while shooting under 25% from the field. Tariq Ingraham, who shot 59% from the field last year, is shooting 35% from the field to open up this season. T.J. Weeks, who was expected to be the remedy to Rider’s mediocre 3-point shooting of past years, is in a slump of his own, shooting just 26% from beyond the arc.

There’s no doubt that the Broncs are better than this, but shooting slumps can linger and derail seasons. Last season, Fairfield was expected to be one of the top offensive teams in the league, but it never fully recovered from the shooting slump that plagued the team at the outset of the campaign.

The Broncs open MAAC play with a trip to Siena followed by a home tilt with Fairfield.

3. Freshmen guards at Draddy

Dallas Hobbs and Jaden Winston were each expected to be contributors as freshmen, but not this much, this soon. Both Mount St. Mary’s and Manhattan have seen their starting point guards go down with long term injuries, forcing talented freshmen into big roles. Mountaineer senior Xavier Lipscomb suffered a broken foot, and will be out for some time, while Jasper sophomore Brett Rumpel will miss the remainder of the season with a tear in his right knee.

In the Jaspers’ first game without Rumpel, who head coach John Gallagher called one of the best defenders he’s ever coached, they surrendered 93 points to rival Fordham on Monday.

In the MAAC Season Preview, Gallagher stated that Winston would “eventually” be a very good starting point guard, but admitted that he wasn’t sure when that would happen. For Manhattan to exceed preseason expectations, that time must be now. The Dematha product has struggled thus far, but has shown plenty of flashes, and has the pedigree to fill the void.

Hobbs has had a little bit more time to settle into his role, as he’s started the last three games in Lipscomb’s absence. While he’s not shooting with great efficiency, Hobbs has already recorded his first double-double, a 10-point 10 rebound effort against Georgetown, as well as a 20-point performance against Howard.

Mount head coach Dan Engelstad knew that Hobbs would be a key piece for the ceiling of this roster, but he probably didn’t imagine him playing 40 minutes in just his fifth college game.

These two freshmen will square off on Friday night in Riverdale, and while neither are the focal points of the offense for their respective teams, they’ll have a lot to say about who wins the game.

4. Iona’s response

Iona has only started conference play 0-2 once since 2011. In order to avoid that fate, Tobin Anderson’s crew must win at Fairfield on Friday night.

The Gaels, who feature 12 new players, have had growing pains within the first seven games of the season. While the pressure defense does an excellent job at forcing quick turnovers, the offensive structure isn’t quite fluid yet. Osborn Shema, the lone returning player, has yet to play this season due to injury, and isn’t expected to play on Friday night. The absence of the seven-footer has been part of why the Gaels are 315th in two-point defense.

Iona has used plenty of dribble handoffs to get its guards downhill, but the team is in just the 33rd percentile in finishing at the rim. The physicality on both ends has also led to plenty of foul shots, which the Gaels have struggled to convert.

After Wednesday night’s loss to Marist, Anderson said that he is “frustrated” with where his team stands right now, with a 2-5 record.

However, Iona being Iona, the team will always have a target on its back in this league. As Marist head coach John Dunne said in the lead up to Wednesday, “They’re the champs until they’re not.”

5. Marist’s follow-up

After being picked last in my MAAC Season Preview, the Red Foxes have been the most surprising team in the league. For the first time in his career at Marist, John Dunne’s team started MAAC play with a victory. Wednesday night’s win improved Marist to 4-2, and has placed a target firmly on the team’s back.

A major factor in the surprising start has been the depth of Marist’s backcourt.

“Guys have different strengths,” Dunne said on Saturday. “As long as the team stays selfless, I can call on different guys in different games for what we may need for that particular moment.”

All five of Marist’s top guards, Javon Cooley, Isaiah Brickner, Noah Harris, Jadin Collins, and Josh Pascarelli, have had multiple games this season scoring in double figures.

“We have a lot of playmakers out there,” Harris said, acknowledging the shift in offensive identity.

For the first time in Dunne’s tenure, the Foxes rank in the top 200 in assists per field goal. As of Friday morning, Marist is 130th in that metric. Marist has Friday night off, but the team returns to action with a chance for the program’s first 2-0 MAAC start since 2010-11, on Sunday against Manhattan.

Bonus: Merrimack’s big opportunity

Future MAAC member Merrimack hosts UMass Lowell on Saturday. Just 10 miles along the south shore of the Merrimack River separates these two universities. The Riverhawks enter with a 5-1 record, the only blemish coming against Arizona State after blowing a late lead. Merrimack has lost three in a row, but had plenty of chances to win those games on the road.

While UMass Lowell is the favorite in this game, Merrimack’s turnover-forcing zone can absolutely cause problems for a Riverhawk team that turns the ball over on nearly 20% of possessions.