MAAC Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview: Iona or the Field?

The 2021-22 MAAC men’s basketball season was another wild ride that fans of the conference have come to expect. Rick Pitino’s Iona clinched the top-seed, Monmouth announced it was leaving for the CAA, Marist ripped off six straight wins before faltering in Buffalo, and Jose Perez rarely failed to provide excitement (and antics) for Manhattan.

The 20 regular-season games have led up to this point. Now, it’s all about winning, surviving and advancing to the next game. In a league with so much parity, we’re sure to see some fireworks on the boardwalk. Let’s see how these teams stack up. 

1: Iona

Prior to the beginning of the season, the expectation was that the Gaels would finish the season at the top of the conference. The team was able to accomplish that under head coach Rick Pitino, losing just three games in MAAC play. 

The aspect that makes this Iona team so dangerous is their ability to rely on a different guy each night. Tyson Jolly, an All-MAAC First Team selection and the betting favorite to win MAAC POTY, averaged a team-high 14.5 points per game. Nelly Junior Joseph and Elijah Joiner were also All-MAAC selections, further proving the point of the talent at Pitino’s disposal. 

If the Gaels are unable to win three straight games in A.C., it will be as a result of the team making careless mistakes. Iona is by far the most talented team in the conference, so it would be a major surprise if they are not the team representing the MAAC in NCAA March Madness later this month.

2: Saint Peter’s 

The Peacocks ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak, including a game against Niagara on Feb. 27th in which the team held the Purple Eagles to just 36 points on 24.1 percent shooting from the field. 

If Saint Peter’s is going to challenge for a conference tournament title, it will be because of their outstanding defense. The Peacocks give up an average of 62.4 points per game, the best mark in the conference. KC Ndefo, an All-MAAC Second Team selection who will also be in contention for DPOY, is the leader of an older group. Offensively, the team averages 66.9 points per game, which ranks tenth in the MAAC. Saint Peter’s will need to improve in that aspect if they want a good chance at beating a team like Siena or Iona later in the tournament. The Peacocks are an excellent team under head coach Shaheen Holloway. If guys like Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert step up in Atlantic City, Saint Peter’s may go on to win the tournament. 

3: Siena 

Prior to the beginning of the season, this team was expected to finish near the bottom of the MAAC after losing Jalen Pickett and Manny Camper. Instead, the Saints defied expectations and finished in the top three.

Still, the concern for Siena going into Atlantic City is their lack of scoring. The Saints averaged 66.1 points per game on the season, which ranked last in the conference. 

Head coach Carmen Maciariello will rely on Colby Rogers, who was named to the All-MAAC Second team after averaging 14.1 points per game, to be his primary scorer. Anthony Gaines, an All-MAAC Third Team selection, is another player who can score in bunches for Siena.

If a guy like Jackson Stormo can add something alongside Rogers and Gainers, Siena may find themselves in the championship game, where anything can happen. 

4: Monmouth 

The Hawks are a team struggling as they head into the conference tournament, losing three of their last four. Still, this group has a lot of veterans that understand what it takes to win in March. 

Following this season, Monmouth will be moving to the CAA. With that being said, head coach King Rice will be looking to make one final run in Atlantic City. 

George Papas, an All-MAAC First Team selection, led the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game. Monmouth also has Walker Miller and Shavar Reynolds Jr., two players who were also selected to All-MAAC teams. The other player to watch out for is Marcus McClary, one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. 

Monmouth versus Niagara in the 4/5 matchup should be a tightly-contested game. If the Hawks manage to advance, the team will get another opportunity to beat Iona. Monmouth may have been expected to finish higher than fourth this season, but this group still has enough talent to make a deep run this week.

5: Niagara 

The Purple Eagles may be the most dangerous high-seed in this entire tournament. Niagara is playing with a lot of confidence at the moment, giving them every opportunity to knock off some more talented teams in A.C.

The key contributor for this group is 6-foot-3 guard Marcus Hammond, an All-MAAC First Team selection. He averaged a team-high 18.1 points per game, which ranked second in the conference. How Hammond performs as an individual later this week could determine how far the Purple Eagles go in Atlantic City.

One player who could be an x-factor for this team is guard Noah Thomasson. The 6-foot-3 junior is coming off a career-high 27 points in a win over Marist on Saturday afternoon. Niagara won their final two games of the regular season to earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Head coach Greg Paulus will now get his chance to send Monmouth home in their final season in the MAAC. If the Purple Eagles are able to advance to the quarterfinals, they will provide a strong test for Iona, a team they have already beaten this season.

6: Marist 

Going into the final week of regular season play, Marist controlled their own destiny. A single win over a two-game road trip would have given the team a first-round bye in A.C. The Red Foxes squandered the opportunity, losing the chance for a potential bye and falling to the sixth seed.

Throughout the season, the standout performer for the Red Foxes has been All-MAAC Second Team and All-MAAC Rookie Team selection Jao Ituka. The freshman guard has come into the program and immediately made a crucial impact. Ituka averaged 15.5 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting from the field.

Marist opens up conference tournament play against the Quinnipiac Bobcats on Tuesday night. If the team is going to make a run this week, they will need to provide consistency alongside Ituka. Ricardo Wright is someone head coach John Dunne can rely on, as the sophomore guard was named to the All-MAAC Third Team after averaging 13.6 points per game while making a team-high 57 three-pointers. The interior presence of Jordan Jones and Victor Enoh will be important as well. 

The Red Foxes finished the season with a record of 14-15, yet that doesn’t tell the whole story. Marist played Iona close twice, earned two wins over Monmouth by a combined score of 61 points, and got swept by Saint Peter’s. While the team has shown some inconsistencies, they are certainly capable of giving anyone their best shot. If Marist can advance past the Bobcats in the first round, the team could provide some real problems for Siena in the quarterfinals.  

7: Fairfield 

The Stags were looking to take the next step in the right direction after advancing all the way to the championship game last season. Yet, Fairfield finds itself as the seven seed going into Atlantic City after losing four of their last six games.

6-foot-4 guard Taj Benning led the team in scoring with 10.7 points per game. The only other Stag to average double figures was Supreme Cook at 10.3 points per game. 

One player to watch out for is senior Jake Wojcik. The 6-foot-5 guard is one of the better three-point shooters in the conference, connecting on a team-high 59 threes during the regular season. If Wojcik can get hot over a three or four day stretch, Fairfield could make a similar run as they did last year.

8: Manhattan 

The Jaspers capped off the regular season with an electrifying 74-72 victory over Iona on Thursday night. All-MAAC First Team selection Jose Perez had a game-high 27 points, including the game-winner in the final seconds of the game. 

Heading into Atlantic City, the biggest storyline for Manhattan will revolve around the availability of guard Ant Nelson. The 6-foot-4 senior hobbled off the floor with an ankle injury against Saint Peter’s on March 1, and has not played since. Nelson is averaging 11 points per game, the second highest tally on the team. 

Health is the question for this Jaspers team. Perez dealt with injuries of his own in the second half of the season, yet was still able to play through it. If Nelson can return for Manhattan’s first-round matchup with the Rider Broncs, that would provide the team with a major boost. The Jaspers have the offensive firepower to beat some of the best teams in the conference. The question is whether or not they will be able to put it all together this week.

9: Rider 

Going into this season, the expectation was the Broncs would push for a top-half finish in the MAAC. With the return of Dimencio Vaughn, Rider had the potential to be really dangerous. After a difficult start to conference play, the team started to pick things up, going on a four-game win streak between late January and mid February. But just as it seemed like Rider was going to push for a potential first-round bye, the team closed out conference play with losses in five of their last seven games.

Rider versus Manhattan in the 8/9 matchup includes two teams who have the talent to beat anyone in the conference. If Vaughn, an All-MAAC Third Team selection and Dwight Murray Jr., the team’s leading scorer figure it out, the Broncs can advance past the Jaspers and make things difficult for Iona in the quarterfinals. 

10: Canisius 

The Golden Griffins are heading into Atlantic City full of confidence, as they are winners of their last three contests. Canisius ended the season by winning their final two home games against Marist and Siena. 

While the Golden Griffins have been a tough team to beat at the Koessler Athletic Center, they have really struggled playing away from home. Canisius went 1-15 on the road during the regular season, with their only win coming at Quinnipiac in late February.

If the team wants to create some chaos in the conference tournament, head coach Reggie Witherspoon will look to continue working with a balanced scoring attack. The Golden Griffins had four players finish the season averaging nine or more points per game. Canisius versus Fairfield in the 7/10 matchup should be an exciting game. If the Golden Griffins advance, the team will get the opportunity to face Saint Peter’s in the quarterfinals Wednesday night.

11: Quinnipiac 

Midway through conference play, the Bobcats were in prime position to push for a first-round bye. But just when it seemed like the team was heading to a successful season, everything fell apart for head coach Baker Dunleavy. Quinnipiac lost the last six games of the year, falling to 11th in the MAAC. With that being said, their matchup with Marist should provide some optimism. The Bobcats earned a 94-87 victory when the teams faced off on January 28, so they do know what it takes to beat the Red Foxes. Quinnipiac may have ended the season on a bad note, but don’t be surprised if they pull off an upset in the first-round.

Edited by Bridget Reilly and Jonathan Kinane

Photo from Marist Athletics

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