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MAAC Musings: Sam’s thoughts before the weekend slate

Fairfield the talk of the league. Niagara comes off a weekend to remember, and more.

NCAA Basketball: Fairfield at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Fields and Brycen Goodine are workout partners. They go into the gym every day, and they were simply torching the nets last week.

“We know we can make shots,” Fields said. “We see each other make shots every single day.”

Thanks to 40 points from Goodine on Friday night at Siena, and 10 treys in a 33-point burst Sunday against Marist, Fairfield is the talk of the MAAC.

“I’m having a blast [coaching] these guys,” interim Stag boss Chris Casey said on Sunday. “They’re a lot of fun to coach, they’re a lot of fun to go to practice with, they’re a lot of fun to travel with, and they’re a lot of fun to go to games with.”

What coach wouldn’t be having fun with this team?

Fairfield is the hottest team in the northeast on the back of an eight game winning streak. The Stags sit at 3-1 in the MAAC and take a weekend trip to Buffalo to face Canisius and Niagara this weekend.

Niagara is also coming off of a weekend to remember. The Purple Eagles led wire to wire in a win over Manhattan, and Braxton Bayless drilled a buzzer beater on Sunday to defeat Iona. Bayless, an Indian Hills College graduate in his second season with Niagara, has been one of the most impactful performers for the Purple Eagles this year. However, he had by far his best weekend for Greg Paulus’ team, matching his career-high with 20 points on Friday, and breaking it with 22 on Sunday.

“Luke [Bumbalough] trusted me,” Bayless said of the man who sent him a rocket of a pass to set up his shot. “My teammates trusted me, and I made the shot.”

Bayless is one of just three returning members from last year’s Niagara squad that finished in bye position, but he’s not the only one to experience major growth and development. Harlan Obioha averaged under three points per game as a freshman, but he is using all of his 7-foot, 280-pound, offensive tackle frame to make an impact on the MAAC this year.

Obioha poured in a career-high 21 points and 16 rebounds against Manhattan on Friday night, and John Gallagher was stunned at how well he performed.

“Harlan, to me, in person, moved a lot better than I thought,” Gallagher said. “His skill level was way better than I imagined.”

During the game, Obioha’s body control shined. When Bumbalough delivered a pass that was slightly out of position, Obioha found it and put it in the basket all in one motion while falling away.

“He’s a guy that you see strides through his work,” Greg Paulus said. “He’s just continuing to learn, and he had a heck of a performance today, and he really helps establishing a presence down low.”

Gallagher was dismayed by how easily the Purple Eagles got to the post, saying that the Jaspers didn’t establish their identity. This weekend, Manhattan will have a chance to respond by facing Rider and Saint Peter’s.

The Peacocks are the last remaining undefeated team in the MAAC, sitting at 4-0, just as everybody had predicted. While Manhattan struggled to find an identity, Saint Peter’s has been much the opposite. It’s becoming a cliche, but Bashir Mason has picked up where Shaheen Holloway left off, sans a rough first year. The Peacocks are playing tenacious pressure defense with a very deep rotation.

The Peacocks held a fast Iona team at bay, and Mason expressed his pleasure postgame.

“I thought we took up the challenge of an explosive offensive team,” Mason said. “And, we made them struggle, that’s really difficult to do.”

Manhattan isn’t quite as explosive, but Shaquil Bender has hit his stride and is a chore for any defense to stop. He scored 30 points in Friday’s game against Niagara but was suspended for disciplinary reasons in Sunday’s game against Quinnipiac.

In order for the Jaspers to topple Saint Peter’s, they’ll need more than just Bender.

“We have to get another performer,” Gallagher said after the Jaspers fell to Niagara.

Seydou Traore has been a high-level performer this year, but Gallagher has been consistent in his message that he can get even better. He’s not the only freshman in the league that is learning on the go.

“The MAAC is a guard’s league,” Marist’s Jadin Collins said. “I’ve heard it from coaches but you can’t really grasp it until you experience it yourself. It means that on the court, I’m going to go at the guy in front of me. That doesn’t mean chuck up shots, that means I’m going to outplay him offensively and defensively.”

Collins will have a chance to outplay Quinnipiac’s Savion Lewis, who had 18 assists last Friday night against Rider when the Bobcats and Red Foxes square off on Friday night.

The MAAC has a lighter Friday with just four games, but there’s another five-game slate on Sunday, headlined by Fairfield facing Canisius and Mount St. Mary’s against Iona.