MAAC Conference Men’s Basketball Preview

After almost eight long months, it’s finally here. Basketball season is back and so is another year of Center Field’s MAAC basketball previews.

Marist men’s basketball had a tumultuous end to the 2021-22 season. After winning six straight games in February, they dropped three straight lopsided games to end the season and saw several players enter the transfer portal. As you will soon find out, the Red Foxes weren’t the only team in the MAAC that endured a major roster overhaul.

With the men’s college basketball season now underway, the time has come to take a look at where things stand in the MAAC conference and rank each team.

  1. Iona 

Last Year’s Record: 25-8, 17-3 in the MAAC (first place)

Key Returner: Nelly Junior Joseph 

Key Departure: Tyson Jolly

One Burning Question: Who will replace Tyson Jolly as the leading scorer for the Gaels?

The Gaels are at the top of my rankings for the second straight season, which should not come as a surprise. Iona proved to be the most talented team throughout MAAC play, before losing to Rider in their opening game of the postseason. The program lost some of its most important players a year ago, most notably reigning player of the year Tyson Jolly, as well as guard Elijah Joiner and forward Dylan Van Eyck. 

Joseph and sophomore Walter Clayton Jr. highlight a group that has countless weapons at their disposal. Despite the departure of some talent following the end of the 2021-22 season, Quinn Slazinski and Berrick JeanLouis are one of the best wing duos in the conference. One newcomer to keep an eye on for the Gaels is guard Daniss Jenkins, who spent time at Pacific in the WCC prior to his only season at Odessa College last year. If he can replace the production of Joiner at the point, Iona could be in for another dominant season.  

One area that could be considered a weakness for Iona is their lack of depth beyond the starting five. Just five players averaged over 20 minutes a night last season, three of which are no longer in the program. Transfers Jenkins and Anton Brookshire from Missouri should help with the lack of game-time experience, but their impact has yet to be determined. Head coach Rick Pitino may need to rely upon a freshman or two to help fill in those gaps on the bench. 

Iona finished three games ahead of the second-place Saint Peter’s Peacocks last season to top the conference. There is no guarantee the Gaels will run away with the MAAC, but I would not be surprised if the gap is significant at the end of the regular season. Pitino had Iona in the “Big Dance” two seasons ago, which he should accomplish for the second time with the program later this season.

  1. Rider

Last Year’s Record: 14-19, 8-12 in the MAAC (ninth place)

Key Returner: Dwight Murray Jr. 

Key Departure: Dimencio Vaughn

One Burning Question: Is this veteran group ready to challenge for a MAAC championship?

Prior to Atlantic City, it felt like another disappointing season for Rider. The Broncs finished ninth in the MAAC, despite having a team bursting with talent. Their entire narrative changed in March, as Rider was able to advance past Manhattan in the first-round before taking down top-seeded Iona in the quarterfinals. The team would go onto lose 72-68 against Monmouth in the next round, but an incredible finish to the year was a major step in the right direction for the program. 

Rider brings back a roster ready to contend for a conference championship, led by preseason All-MAAC First-Team selection Dwight Murray Jr.. The senior has developed into one of the best late crunch-time performers in the conference; his knack for stepping up when his team needs him most has been evident from day one in Lawrenceville. With Manhattan’s Jose Perez no longer in the MAAC, Murray is my pick to win the player of the year award.

The rest of the roster is strong, with guard Allen Powell and forward Mervin James earning spots on the Preseason All-MAAC Third-Team. Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson is a force in the paint when he stays out of foul trouble. Allen Bertrand, a transfer from Rhode Island, is the X-factor for Broncs. The 6-foot-5 guard missed all of last season through injury but was a bright spot for the Rams during the 2020-21 season. If Bertrand can return to that level of play, Rider may have another go-to scorer on their hands. 

Iona has to be the favorite to win the MAAC, but don’t be surprised if Rider cements themselves as the “best of the rest” in the regular season. While I do not see them winning a regular-season title, the Broncs have the roster to take down the Gaels in March. Head coach Kevin Baggett is entering his 11th season in the job, and this may be his most well-rounded team. Last season was just a glimpse of what Rider is capable of, but the 2022-23 season is where this group is going to put the rest of the conference on notice. 

  1. Quinnipiac 

Last Year’s Record: 14-17, 7-13 in the MAAC (eleventh place)

Key Returner: Matt Balanc

Key Departure: Jacob Rigoni

One Burning Question: Can Matt Balanc have a MAAC Player of the Year type season?

The Bobcats are my pick to have the most significant jump from last season to this season. Quinnipiac finished the 2021-22 campaign as the lowest seed in the conference, but that did not stop them from having success in Atlantic City. Wins against Marist and Siena got the team to the semifinals of the postseason, before having their season ended by Saint Peter’s with a 64-52 loss. Quinnipiac as an eleven seed was a bit misleading, considering the gap between them and fifth-seeded Niagara was two games in the win column. 

Preseason All-MAAC First Team selection Matt Balanc is back after scoring a team-high 14.6 points per game last season. The Bobcats also have Dezi Jones, a Preseason All-MAAC Third Team selection to help form one of the more dynamic backcourts in the conference. Quinnipiac did lose Jacob Rigoni and Kevin Marfo in the offseason, but those are absences that can be filled with the Bobcats’ impressive depth.    

Tyrese Williams is the most interesting player on this roster, simply based on what Quinnipiac accomplished without him in the postseason. The 6-foot-3 guard missed the end of the 2021-22 season with a leg injury but is back with the Bobcats as a graduate student. Williams is best known for his defensive prowess, giving the team a player they can rely on to contain the top-scoring guards in the MAAC. 

Like Rider, Quinnipiac has a core squad that has strung a few seasons playing as a unit. Combine that with a head coach in Baker Dunleavy, who is entering his sixth season in the program, and you have a team that should finish near the top of the conference. Quinnipiac has a well-rounded team, and the expectation should be to have another deep run in March.  

  1. Fairfield

Last Year’s Record: 15-18, 8-12 in the MAAC (seventh place)

Key Returner: Jake Wojcik

Key Departure: Taj Benning

One Burning Question: Do the Stags have enough scoring to keep up with top teams in the MAAC?

Like Quinnipiac, the Fairfield Stags are a program I’m optimistic about heading into the 2022-23 season. Two years ago, the team made a surprise run to the championship game, where they lost to Iona 60-51. Fairfield was unable to build off that postseason run in following season, finishing seventh in the MAAC standings and losing in the second round of the MAAC tournament to Saint Peter’s. Even with that disappointment from a year ago, the Stags had a busy offseason in the transfer portal, giving themselves a well-balanced roster going into the season. 

The program was able to bring in Caleb Fields from Bowling Green, who missed all of last season through injury. At 6-foot-2, he has the size and strength at the guard position to be an impact player for the Stags right away. Fairfield was also able to recruit Brycen Goodine from Providence, who did not get much playing time with the Friars. Expect to see both of those incoming transfers play important roles in their new environments. 

There is palpable excitement over the new incoming players, but Fairfield has some very talented pieces returning as well. Preseason All-MAAC First Team Selection Supreme Cook is one of the best rebounders in the league, and Preseason-All-MAAC Third Team Selection Jake Wojcik has the potential to be the best three-point shooter in the conference. Those are certainly two players head coach Jay Young will look to rely upon this season.

Another player to keep an eye on is TJ Long, who shot 40.3 percent from three during his freshman year for the Stags. Wojcik and Long are two of the best perimeter shooters in the conference, something the team will look to capitalize on. The Stags are a team I am high on going into this season, and I would not be surprised if they make some noise in the MAAC tournament. Coach Young has a great group of guys who are hungry to be at the top of the conference by the end of March.

  1. Siena

Last Year’s Record: 15-14, 12-8 in the MAAC (third place)

Key Returner: Jackson Stormo

Key Departure: Colby Rogers

One Burning Question: Do the Saints have enough talent on the wings to replace Rogers and Gaines?

Thanks to the leadership of head coach Carmen Maciariello, Siena has potentially been the most consistent team in the conference over the last handful of years. The Saints exceeded expectations in the 2021-22 season, finishing third in the conference after being picked eighth in the preseason rankings. It is safe to say the team could– and maybe even should– do the same this season, but the program lost some of their most important pieces.

Colby Rogers and Anthony Gaines were the most notable players to leave the program, as the duo combined for 25 points per game last season. Aidan Carpenter will also be missed, as the 6-foot-4 guard is off to Sacred Heart despite his potential to be a cornerstone of the Saint’s future. Add Nick Hopkins to the list of departing players, and suddenly the task to replace all of that production seems daunting. 

Although the Saints were unable to retain a few key pieces, they did get preseason All-MAAC Second Team selection Jackson Stormo. The 6-foot-9 senior is one of the more productive bigs in the conference, and will be looking to repeat his performance this season. Other important returnees include Javian McCollum and Jared Billups, both entering their sophomore seasons. 

Can Siena over-perform and finish higher than their preseason ranking of sixth in the MAAC? With Maciariello leading the way, this is a program more than capable of rising back up into the top four. If Andrew Platek can return from an injury to help Stormo lead the way, the Saints may be in for another solid season. Siena will struggle to replace the scoring of Rogers and Gaines in the early portion of conference play, but the team will finish strong heading into the postseason. 

  1. Mount St. Mary’s 

Last Year’s Record: 14-16, 9-9 in the NEC (fifth place) 

Key Returner: Jalen Benjamin

Key Departure: Nana Opoku

One Burning Question: How long will it take for Mount St. Mary’s to adjust to the MAAC?

The newcomers of the MAAC are who I have pegged to finish right in the middle of the conference. Mount St. Mary’s has some recent trips to the NCAA Tournament under their belt, with their last one coming in 2021. The Mountaineers have the pedigree to step into a new league and compete with the best the MAAC has to offer, based on their recent success in the Northeast Conference. While it may take some time for the program to get adjusted to playing new conference opponents, this is a process they will certainly enjoy.    

Preseason All-MAAC Third Team selection Jalen Benjamin is back for his second season with the program after averaging 13.3 points per game last year. The 5-foot-10 guard was Second Team All-Northeast Conference in his first season with the Mountaineers, showing what he is capable of going into his senior season. If Benjamin plays like one of the best guards in the MAAC, this team should be on everyone’s radar. 

The program did lose two players on the interior in Nana Opoku and Mezie Offurum, which should give Malik Jefferson an expanded role. Dakota Leffew will play an important role as the backcourt partner to Benjamin. Standing at 6-foot-5, Leffew has the size and length to impact the game on both ends of the floor. Mount St. Mary’s has a standout player, so how their supporting cast plays off of him will determine how far they can go this season. 

Mount St. Mary’s comes into the 2022-23 season as the most unpredictable team in the MAAC. Most would say this could be a year of growing pains for the program, as it usually takes time to learn the style of a new conference. But with so much change going on across the league, the Mountaineers could rise much higher in their first season. If there is any team I would suggest keeping an eye on before conference play, it has to be Mount St. Mary’s. 

  1. Marist

Last Year’s Record: 14-16, 9-11 in the MAAC (sixth place)

Key Returner: Noah Harris

Key Departure: Jao Ituka

One Burning Question: Who will the Red Foxes lean on to be their scorer late in games?

Marist dealt with the highest degree of roster turnover following the end of the 2021-22 season, losing seven players in their rotation to the transfer portal. That does not include the exit of center Jordan Jones, who ran out of eligibility. Jao Ituka was the most notable departure, with the MAAC Rookie of the Year and talented scorer taking his talents to Wake Forest in the ACC. The Red Foxes underachieved at the end of the last year, leaving the program in a strange place in the immediate future. Head coach John Dunne replenished the roster with transfers and freshmen, with a few returners looking for more defined roles sprinkled in.

Sophomore Noah Harris averaged just 20.5 minutes per game last year, a number that should see a significant increase in his second season with the Red Foxes. The 6-foot-1 guard had a few games where he took over offensively, including a season-high 24 points at Quinnipiac midway through the season. If Harris can take a step forward, especially on the defensive end, Marist could have an All-MAAC performer at the guard position.

In terms of players coming from the portal, Patrick Gardner from Saint Michael’s College has a unique skill set that could be a game-changer for the Red Foxes. The 6-foot-11 center averaged 20.2 points per game in the Northeast-10 Conference at the DII level. Gardner shot 32.3 percent from beyond the arc last season, something Marist has not had from a big man in quite a while. If he replicates his three-point shooting in the MAAC, he will be a major difference-maker for this young group.

The situation for the Red Foxes was unclear following the end of last season due to how many players left the program. Where Marist finishes in the MAAC is difficult to predict at this point. There certainly is potential for the team to surprise a lot of people. If Harris, Gardner, and the rest of the team can put the pieces together by the beginning of conference play, the Red Foxes are a team to watch out for. 

  1. Manhattan

Last Year’s Record: 15-15, 8-12 in the MAAC (eighth place)

Key Returner: Ant Nelson

Key Departure: Jose Perez

One Burning Question: Can the Jaspers recover from the loss of Jose Perez?

Just over a week ago, Manhattan was considered to be the biggest threat to Iona at the top of the MAAC food chain. That all changed when former head coach Steve Masiello was abruptly fired on Oct. 25, leaving the players with a difficult decision to make. Some took their frustration to social media, led by MAAC Preseason Player of the Year Jose Perez. He was one of the players who had a very strong relationship with Masiello, which made his next move far from surprising. 

Perez entered his name into the transfer portal just hours after the Masiello news broke, completely changing the trajectory of the 2022-23 Jaspers. Less than a week later, he announced that he would be playing for Bob Huggins at West Virginia. Omar Silverio and Samba Diallo followed Perez by entering the transfer portal, although neither of them has yet to find new situations. While Manhattan still has a roster with talent, the loss of Perez at this stage of the year may be too tall of a task to overcome.

Interim head coach RaShawn Stores will have to rely upon his upperclassmen to help the team handle these circumstances. Preseason All-MAAC Second Team selection Ant Nelson will step back into a lead role, something he did with the Jaspers two seasons ago. Samir Stewart, Elijah Buchanan, and Josh Roberts, all of which are fifth-year players, will be critical for the Jaspers this year.

Manhattan is currently in a position that most programs have never found themselves in thanks to the fallout of the new transfer portal dynamic. To let a coach go with as much experience and internal support as Steve Masiello– especially this close to the dawn of a new season– is a decision many will question. The Jaspers will have plenty of attention on themselves, but how will they respond? Without Jose Perez, this is a team that could struggle to find sustainable success in the conference.  

  1. Niagara

Last Year’s Record: 14-16, 9-11 in the MAAC (fifth place)

Key Returner: Noah Thomasson

Key Departure: Marcus Hammond 

One Burning Question: Who will replace the scoring of Marcus Hammond on this roster?

Niagara made a surprise run at the end of the 2021-22 regular season to finish as the fifth seed in the conference, before losing 61-58 to Monmouth in their only postseason game. The Purple Eagles were led by All-MAAC First Team selection Marcus Hammond, but his time with the program ended when he entered the transfer portal, ultimately landing with Notre Dame.

Hammond has been an integral part of the program for a while now, so how will Niagara replace his production? Preseason All-MAAC Second Team selection Noah Thomasson is a good starting point, as the guard put up 10.8 points per game last season. Sam Iorio will need to step up as well, as the 6-foot-7 forward averaged eight and six in 30 games last year. 

The Purple Eagles were able to bring in a fair amount of transfers, although most of them did not come from Division I schools. Aaron Gray averaged 15.6 points per game at Southern New Hampshire last year, but can he provide that same scoring threat in the MAAC? Lance Erving from Chipola Community College and Keith Kiner from Three Rivers College could have expanded roles as well.

Head coach Greg Paulus is one of the best in the conference, but his biggest test will be to replicate the scoring output from his most recent star. Marcus Hammond did so much for this Niagara team, so it will not be easy to replace his scoring and playmaking abilities. Noah Thomasson may end up being an All-MAAC First Team player, but the Purple Eagles will need others to step up if they hope to finish in the top half of the MAAC this season.

  1. Saint Peter’s

Last Year’s Record: 22-12, 14-6 in the MAAC (second place, made Elite Eight)

Key Returner: Jaylen Murray

Key Departure: KC Ndefo

One Burning Question: How will the new-look Peacocks perform under a new coaching philosophy?

The 2021-22 Saint Peter’s Peacocks will be forever immortalized in basketball lore, as the team captured the hearts and minds of the entire country with their improbable upset against John Calipari’s title-contending Kentucky squad. Monumental wins against the Wildcats, Murray State, and Purdue before losing to North Carolina in the Elite Eight gave the group an unexpected amount of publicity. Shaheen Holloway did an incredible job building the program, one of the many reasons why he departed to replace Kevin Willard at Seton Hall. 

Saint Peter’s not only lost their coach, but most of the key players from their rotation left as well. Matthew Lee (Missouri State), Daryl Banks III (St. Bonaventure), Doug Edert (Bryant), and KC Ndefo (Seton Hall) among others, all capitalized on their performances in the NCAA Tournament by moving to bigger basketball schools. Such a development was to be expected, yet it has left the program in a tough place entering this season. 

The Peacocks are now led by former Wagner head coach Bashir Mason, who had a great deal of success in the Northeast Conference (NEC). He will be tasked with rebuilding a roster with a lot of new faces. Sophomore Jaylen Murray is the most significant returning player from a year ago, who averaged 5.8 points per game in just 15.6 minutes a night. The 5-foot-11 guard should expect to see an increased role on the offensive end. 

How this season goes for the Peacocks will be determined by their ability to develop chemistry. If the incoming players can build rapport with the coaching staff in a timely manner, the team could move up in the conference. Saint Peter’s will eventually get back to a place where they can contend for champions in the MAAC, but that will happen this season. The team will show some progression under Mason, but this is going to be a year of rebuilding for the Peacocks.  

  1. Canisius 

Last Year’s Record: 11-21, 7-13 in the MAAC (tenth place)

Key Returner: Jordan Henderson

Key Departure: Ahamadou Fofana

One Burning Question: Can Reggie Witherspoon help the Golden Griffins win a postseason game?

The Golden Griffins could be in for a difficult season after failing to retain a majority of their rotation. Malek Green, Akrum Ahemed, Ahamadou Fofana, Armon Harried, and Scott Hitchon are no longer in the program, sending the team in a new direction. Head coach Reggie Witherspoon will have his hands full trying to mesh this inexperienced group together prior to the beginning of conference play.

While Canisius had a lot of players leave in the offseason, Preseason All-MAAC Second Team selection Jordan Henderson is back as a graduate student after scoring 11 points per game last year. If the team is going to take a leap in the conference, Henderson will need to step up and perform like one of the best players at his position. Sophomore guard Xzavier Long will be critical as well, as he has a chance to develop into a primary scorer in his second season with Canisius. 

Witherspoon would love to see a few of the incoming transfers play well off of Henderson and Long. Jamir Moultrie out of Kennesaw State and TJ Gadsden from George Mason are two potential candidates to help in that department. If either of them can contribute in a big way, on the defensive end, in particular, the Golden Griffins could be in good shape as they push toward the postseason.  

Like so many other teams in the conference, Canisius has a lot of question marks entering this season. With so many players leaving the program, the rotation will need to be filled by players who have yet to prove themselves at this level. The Golden Griffins should see a few newcomers shine at different points this year, but it won’t be enough to keep them from finishing at or near the bottom of the MAAC.

Edited by Dan Aulbach and Luke Sassa

Photo Credit: Jonathan Kinane

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