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5 things to watch in the MAAC this weekend

Thank Goodness It’s (MAAC) Friday.

NCAA Basketball: Rider at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

T.G.I.(M).F.

Thank Goodness It’s (MAAC) Friday

Even as there is no national showcase for the league on ESPNU last week, in which Niagara pulled off a win against Marist and the raucous student section stormed the court, the show goes on. Now that the MAAC season is about halfway done, each weekend pulls us closer into view of what the bracket will look like in Atlantic City.

Here’s a peak at five things to watch this weekend.

Possible cat trap?

In his sixth year in the program, Matt Balanc is making a statement. His last-minute heroics put Quinnipiac over Fairfield in front of a hostile Mahoney Arena crowd to improve to 16-4 and 8-1 in the MAAC. It’s the best overall start for the Bobcats in the Division I era, and Tom Pecora is among the favorites for MAAC Coach of the Year.

However, with a looming weekend of matchups against two of the teams loitering near the bottom of the standings, Quinnipiac must avoid the vicious trap door that has consumed so many. With a solo lead in the conference, everybody knows that Quinnipiac is the hunted right now. There’s a massive target on its back as it heads to Manhattan on Friday, and retreats home to face Canisius on Sunday.

The Bobcats may be without Amarri Tice as well, who suffered a mild ankle sprain in the waning moments of Sunday’s big win. Tice is playing at an All-MAAC level this year, averaging 13.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game during league play. Without him, QU must turn to Richie Springs, Rihards Vavers, and smaller lineups that include three or even four guards.

The Jaspers are coming off of an overtime win against Niagara on Sunday, and look to build momentum from a very strong extra period. Tice is an excellent physical equal for Manhattan freshman Seydou Traore, but if he’s unable to play, QU will have to find another way to hold him in check. With Shaquil Bender, Daniel Rouzan, and Jaden Winston hitting their strides, the Jaspers are playing much better offensive basketball of late.

Canisius defeated Quinnipiac by 20 early in the season, scoring 93 points. Now with Siem Uijtendaal returning to the lineup, and Frank Mitchell emerging into a star, the Griffs have the ability to disrupt the Bobcats’ rhythm once again.

According to KenPom, QU has a 54.8% chance to escape the weekend with a 10-1 record, but a low probability considering they are playing against teams ranked 9 and 11 in the MAAC standings, showing how close the MAAC is from top to bottom.

Galloping Broncs

Kevin Baggett’s Broncs were 0-3 in the MAAC and 3-11 overall when they woke up on January 7th. That day, they gritted out an overtime win against Canisius, and have won four of their last six games including that.

Last weekend, in road wins against Saint Peter’s and Mount St. Mary’s, Rider’s first-half defense was enough to propel them forward, allowing just 45 points between the two opening stanzas. While second-half defense continues to lag behind, slowing the pace down makes it harder for teams to cut into leads and push forward.

The Broncs take on Siena on Friday night in Lawrenceville looking to avenge the defeat from the opening night of the MAAC season. In that game, Rider turned the ball over 15 times, against a shorthanded Saints team. Protecting the ball and winning the turnover battle is going to be paramount in that matchup.

Sunday brings Rider to New Rochelle, where it faces off with an Iona team that is playing much better basketball recently. While at the beginning of the season, that game may have been looked at as a matchup between two of the league’s best teams, it’s now a crucial inflection point in both seasons.

Gut check in Jersey City

Saint Peter’s was the final remaining undefeated team in the MAAC, but has fallen in two of its last four games. The Peacocks are likely to be without star Corey Washington, who injured his shoulder in the loss to Rider, for this weekend’s gut-check matchups against Niagara and Marist.

The Peacocks will need to rely on stingy defense, and hope that they can muster enough offense without their top scorer to topple a Niagara team that also needs to regroup.

Greg Paulus’ Purple Eagles strutted their stuff on ESPNU with a win against Marist on Friday, but failed to back it up, losing in overtime to Manhattan on Sunday. Niagara should’ve won that game if it retreated back on defense in the final three seconds, but instead of being 7-3, the Purps are 6-4 with a crucial road test.

Niagara has just one game this weekend, but a win in Jersey City will make them feel significantly better about where their team stands going into a rivalry matchup with Canisius on Tuesday.

Saint Peter’s is expecting to have Michael Houge back at some point very soon, which could ease the pain of losing Washington for the time being.

This matchup pits the top three-point shooting offense in Niagara against the top three-point defense in the conference in Saint Peter’s. Whoever wins that battle will have a good chance to win the game.

Tobin Time?

Iona came into the season as the most talented team, from top to bottom, in the conference. It took a long time for the Gaels to get rolling, and the team still hasn’t found consistency from everybody. However, by the time the tournament in Atlantic City comes around, it wouldn’t shock many people if the Gaels were considered one of the teams to beat.

Iona hosts Fairfield on Friday night with a chance to make a statement, and climb over .500 in MAAC play for the first time this season.

In fact, a statement was made last Friday, when Iona led Siena by 25 points at halftime on the road without leading scorer Idan Tretout. His status is uncertain for this weekend, but at their best, the Gaels have enough options to win even without him.

The Stags are a much stiffer task than Siena, even with the game being at home. Fairfield’s high-powered offense has caused issues for much of the MAAC, but Quinnipiac was able to hold it to 5-26 from three.

Iona won its first meeting with Fairfield by draining ten three-pointers and forcing 17 turnovers. That will once again be the recipe for Gael success on Friday night.

Sliding down the Mount

It’s been tough sledding for Mount St. Mary’s recently. Dan Engelstad’s team has lost three in a row, and five out of six, sliding down the MAAC standings after a 2-1 start. The catalyst for the most recent struggles? The Mount is too guardable right now.

Dakota Leffew is the heart and soul of the Mount St. Mary’s offense, but teams now have answers for him. Making it difficult for Leffew to use ball screens to get to his spots can grind the Mount’s offense to a near-complete stop.

The team simply doesn’t have any consistent offensive presence beyond him, whether it’s beyond the arc or attacking the basket. In the last three games, the Mount has just 28 total assists, but 41 turnovers. Additionally, the struggles of De’Shayne Montgomery have left the Mount without consistent options for getting to the basket and getting to the line.

While individual performances from the likes of Josh Reaves and Dola Adebayo have sprouted up at times, there has not been enough consistency to get the job done on the offensive end.

If the Mount is going to turn its season around, wins at Marist and Siena this weekend are paramount. The easiest way for Mount St. Mary’s to score will be to turn defense into offense, forcing turnovers and running in transition. Despite ranking in the top 60 nationally in points off turnovers per 100 possessions, the Mount has struggled to generate that easy offense recently, ranking just 311th over the last five games.

BONUS: WBB UPDATE

The Fairfield women’s basketball team lost on November 12th by three points in Nashville to a Vanderbilt team that is currently 17-4. Since then, the Stags have won 16 straight games to bring up a record of 18-1. Fairfield, led by second-year head coach Carly Thibault-Dudonis, is the only team in mid-major basketball with one or fewer losses. After Thursday night’s win over Rider, the Stags are halfway to becoming the first team to go 20-0 in MAAC play since Quinnipiac in 2014-15. Fairfield received votes in last week’s AP Top 25 and is on the verge of becoming the first MAAC team to rank in the Top 25 since Marist in 2011.