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5 things to watch on the MAAC’s final regular-season weekend

The MAAC season is coming to a close. Here are some storylines to keep an eye out for.

NCAA Basketball: Canisius at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, it’s been 90 days since the first weekend of MAAC games, and depending on how your team’s season has gone, it could feel like it’s been 30 days or 180. The final weekend of games is upon us, and it’s packed with high-stakes action.

Teams are jostling for position in next week’s MAAC Tournament in Atlantic City, with matchups and seeding being all-important for the 11 schools. Only one team has locked in their position, that being Iona having clinched the one seed and a second consecutive MAAC regular season title.

A Battle of the Bridge at crossroads

On Feb. 10, Canisius lost to Iona, a sixth straight loss, and fell to 6-11. That same night, Niagara came back from 17 points behind to beat Quinnipiac, winning their fifth in a row, and improving to 9-5.

Since then, the teams have taken diverging paths, leading to a Saturday showdown a month after their first meeting ended, 76-73, in favor of the Purple Eagles.

Niagara has won just one of their last five, and gave games away to Marist and Saint Peter’s. Niagara is allowing teams to shoot 44.6% from 3, and shooting just 30.2% from distance over the stretch. The -14.4% differential in 3-point percentage is among the worst in the country in the span.

Canisius’ recent results tell a different story, one of in-season player development that has allowed the Griffs to win four of five and be a toenail away from five in a row. While they can’t finish any higher than seventh, their efficiency margins are second best in the league over the same span.

Canisius is ranked 22nd nationally, and first in the MAAC, in eFG% over that span. The Griffs have had a variety of contributors pitch in for this run. Whether it was TJ Gadsden’s 31 points against Quinnipiac, Jacco Fritz’s playmaking ability, Jordan Henderson’s shooting, or Tahj Staveskie’s all-around maturation, it’s all clicking for the Griffs at the right time.

These two rivals will face off on Saturday, and if the Griffs win, and Fairfield loses to Quinnipiac on Thursday, then they’ll get the seventh seed. Niagara can actually fall out of a bye position if Manhattan wins their last two games, and the Purple Eagles lose on Saturday.

Mount looking to finish hot and healthy

Dan Engelstad told me that he’s never had so many injuries in his 15-plus years of coaching. “It’s been hard to get a rhythm,” he said, but that rhythm might have finally arrived for the Mount.

Malik Jefferson and Deandre Thomas are back, and the league’s newcomers finally have a healthy roster. With the emergence of Jedy Cordilia in Jefferson’s absence, the Mount is comfortable going to lineups with two big men on the floor.

Over the last four games, the Mount has won three, including a road win over Rider that eliminated the Broncs from contention for the top seed in the MAAC Tournament.

Jalen Benjamin has also put together a few impressive performances recently, including a 12-assist performance in a home win over Canisius, and Thomas’ versatility has helped them in different lineups.

The Mount closes out their MAAC regular season on Saturday against Manhattan with a chance to get to 8-12, and as high as the eighth seed.

Siena in crisis

Siena received the highest marks, an A+, in both the quarter season, and the half season report cards, but a senior in high school, they’ve fallen off in the second half.

The Saints went just 2-5 in the month of February, with the MAAC’s third-worst efficiency margin in that span. Siena’s long winning streak to start MAAC play was fueled by an offense that didn’t turn the ball over, and made shots, but both evaporated. The Saints had the worst turnover rate in the MAAC during February, and the second worst eFG%, leading to an offense that ranked 333rd nationally.

Most of the losses were close, so not backbreaking, but Sunday was a calamity for Siena, as they got destroyed wire-to-wire by Iona. Siena allowed 93 points, and had already committed eight turnovers by the second media timeout of the first half.

To add injury to insult, Jared Billups’ status is currently up in the air for this weekend’s games. Billups is crucial to everything that Siena does on the defensive end, and he missed the game against Iona with an injury that he picked up late against Rider. Carmen Maciariello says that he’s hopeful that he’ll play this weekend.

Jordan Kellier is out for the rest of the season (unless Siena makes the NCAA Tournament), making Siena’s wing depth really thin in the event that Billups misses any more time.

Siena isn’t locked into a bye right now, it would take a lot of underdogs winning this weekend, but there is a nuclear scenario. If there’s a four-way tie at 11-9 between Siena, Niagara, Manhattan, and Quinnipiac, then the Saints would lose the tiebreaker to Niagara and Manhattan, based on round-robin record, then would lose the tiebreaker to Quinnipiac based on the Bobcats’ sweep of Rider.

The Saints host Manhattan on Thursday, and travel to Saint Peter’s on Saturday before the trip to Atlantic City.

A Connecticut rivalry night

Quinnipiac and Fairfield have been two of the toughest teams to gauge in the MAAC this year, and they face off with each other on Thursday night in the final game of the debut season at the beautiful Leo D. Mahoney Arena.

Fairfield has won and lost in blocks since the new year. They lost their first three games, then won their next four, lost the next four after that, won back-to-back games, and then come into Thursday with three losses in a row. TJ Long has seemingly finally found his shooting stroke. He averaged 20.5 PPG over the four-game stretch from Super Bowl Sunday through last Friday.

The Stags were swept in Buffalo last weekend, thus eliminating them from contention for a bye in the MAAC Tournament, a disappointing season based on preseason expectations. They’ve been plagued with injuries, but still haven’t seemed to find their best lineups that complement each other well enough.

Quinnipiac led Manhattan by 21 points on Sunday, the Bobcats looked well on their way to picking up their third win in a row, to improve to 11-7. However, Manhattan came all the way back, and handed Quinnipiac their fourth blown double-digit lead in less than 30 days.

Because of their collapse at home, the Bobcats are not locked into a bye, if they lose their next two games (at Fairfield, at Marist), they’ll fall to 10-10, however, they also have an outside shot at the second seed.

The guard play has fluctuated all year, with Matt Balanc seemingly hitting his stride late in the year, with four consecutive games with multiple threes and double-digit points.

Quinnipiac defeated their in-state foe back on February 3rd 66-51, and the rematch Thursday night will be an important litmus test for both before they go to Atlantic City.

Iona’s revenge tour

“We give them credit for what they did at their place, but we definitely had that on our mind,” Daniss Jenkins told the media after Iona’s 93-60 drubbing of Siena on Sunday. “We wanted to get back at them, honestly.”

Jenkins and the Gaels are firing on all cylinders, and played their best basketball all year in Sunday’s win over Siena to clinch the top seed. Iona has another chance at revenge this Saturday where they’ll face Rider on the road, the team that not only ended their 21-game home winning streak in January, but knocked them out of last year’s MAAC Tournament.

Iona is 8-0 when facing an opponent for the second time this year, and that’s thanks in part to head coach Rick Pitino’s approach to rematches, which he revealed to the media after the win over Siena.

“The team that loses always changes and makes the corrections of why they got beat with a team that wins stays,” he said. “I’ve always believed just the opposite. You better change when you win, you better change and do different things that they’re not ready for.”

As for this weekend’s games against Marist and Rider, Pitino says there won’t be any load management.

“Nothing’s gonna change,” he said. “You still have to win your games and play good basketball. It’s not load management. To think about anything but winning would be an injustice.”

The MAAC Tournament bracket will be out after Saturday night’s games, and the tournament starts on Tuesday, with the MAAC’s one NCAA Tournament bid being awarded on Saturday night, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU.