MAAC Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview: Can Anyone Take Down Iona in Atlantic City?

The madness is upon us.

On Tuesday night, the MAAC Men’s Basketball Tournament will get underway on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

As usual, the regular season has been filled with plenty of twists and turns. Iona overcame a sluggish start to establish a firm grip on the 1-seed headed into single-elimination play. The Gaels will have to fight off a chasing pack that includes Rider and Quinnipiac, both dangerous teams in their own rights.

Marist finds itself at the bottom of the league following a difficult 2022-23 campaign. The Red Foxes will look to wipe the slate clean in an effort to get John Dunne his first MAAC Tournament win since he took over in 2018.

In this extensive preview, we’ll evaluate Iona, Marist, and everyone in between heading into the opening round of games.

The Favorite

Iona (24-7, 17-3 in the MAAC)

First game: vs winner of Mount St. Mary’s-Canisius, Wednesday 7 p.m.

The Iona Gaels are the team to beat when the action begins in Atlantic City. Their dominance in conference play should leave them as the heavy favorite to represent the MAAC in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Rick Pitino has done a sensational job leading his team to a 24-win season.

Both Walter Clayton Jr. and Nelly Junior Joseph were named to the All-MAAC First Team while first-year Gael Daniss Jenkins wound up on the All-MAAC Second Team. Clayton Jr. and Jenkins have been the best backcourt duo in the conference, proving to be dangerous on either end of the floor. 

Iona averages a league-best 76.6 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field. The Gaels have so many different ways to beat you, making them very difficult to guard. Quinnipiac, Rider and Siena are the only three teams who have managed to take them down in conference play. Barring a shock, Iona should go on to win the tournament for the second time in the last three years.

Potential X-Factor: F Berrick JeanLouis

With Clayton Jr., Junior Joseph, and Jenkins doing a lot of the scoring, most of the attention gets drawn towards those three. JeanLouis is someone who may have to step up, especially on the offensive end. He is best known for his qualities as a defender, but opponents may dare him to shoot from three or drive into the paint. If he can shoot a quality percentage from the field, Iona will be even more dangerous.

The Contenders

Rider (16-13, 13-7 in the MAAC)

First game: vs winner of Fairfield-Saint Peter’s, Wednesday 9:30 p.m.

The Broncs may not be as talented as Iona, but they’re a close second in that department. All-MAAC First Team selection Dwight Murray Jr. is the best individual scorer in the conference over the last two seasons, doing a lot of his damage off the dribble. Mervin James was integral for this group as well, earning a spot on the All-MAAC Second Team. 

Murray Jr. and James are the two main contributors, but Allen Powell and Allen Betrand should be mentioned as well. The two Allens play really effectively off the ball, which suits them in a system where Murray does the ball handling.

Rider had a slow start to the season in non-conference play, but their run in MAAC play proves where they currently stand in the conference. Head coach Kevin Baggett is experienced and so is his team. If anyone is capable of taking down the Gaels in Atlantic City, it will be the Broncs. 

Potential X-Factor: F Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson

The five position for Rider has been held by Ogemuno-Johnson for the last two seasons, but his minutes have significantly decreased this year. The 6-foot-8 graduate student has started 13 of 27 games, playing 20.5 minutes per game. Ogemuno-Johnson could play a huge role in Atlantic City if he is more active on both ends. 

Quinnipiac (20-11, 11-9 in the MAAC)

First game: vs winner of Manhattan-Marist, Thursday 7 p.m.

Quinnipiac made a surprise run in the tournament as the 11-seed last season. The Bobcats returned a lot of their key players, which has helped them quickly move up the MAAC standings in just 12 months. They finished the regular season in third, earning a much-needed first-round bye. 

Dezi Jones, an All-MAAC Second Team selection, is a pass-first point guard that does a great job getting his teammates involved. Matt Balanc and Luis Kortright are two athletic wings who can make shots from three-point range.

Their 73.4 points per game rank second in the conference, a number they will need to replicate in the tournament. Offense can be hard to come by in Atlantic City from time to time, but having a guard in Jones should eliminate some of those scoring droughts. 

Potential X-Factor: G Tyrese Willaims

Williams had his 2021-22 season cut short by a leg injury, but now he’s back and playing some of his best basketball for the Bobcats. His 8.6 points per game may not seem significant, but he is arguably their most impactful wing defender. Williams is shooting 38.4 percent from three, giving Quinnipiac another weapon from long range. 

The Dark Horses

Niagara (15-14, 10-10 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Siena, Thursday 9:30 p.m.

Noah Thomasson led the MAAC in scoring with 19.7 points per game this season. His ability to step in as the number one guy after Marcus Hammond departed for Notre Dame has been critical for the Purple Eagles. The 6-foot-3 senior had a season-high 35 points in the regular season finale against Canisius on Mar. 4. 

Aaron Gray is a big player for Niagara as well, averaging 12.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in his first season with the program. The 6-foot-7 forward has the ability to handle the ball, something the Purple Eagles have taken advantage of with his size.

Niagara may not be in tier one, but they’re near the top of tier two when it comes to teams in the MAAC. Thomasson is not only a great scorer, but he is also an effective playmaker. If he and Gray can play some solid two-man game, the Purple Eagles and head coach Greg Paulus could go on a deep run of their own.

Potential X-Factor: G Braxton Bayless

Bayless has had some big games for Niagara, including a season-high 19 points against Fairfield on Feb. 24. Thomasson does play off the ball at times, which means Bayless takes some of that responsibility. If Bayless can be impactful as a playmaker while adding some scoring, the Purple Eagles could be really dangerous. 

Siena (17-14, 11-9 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Niagara, Thursday 9:30 p.m.

The Saints are trending in the wrong direction as they begin their quest for a conference tournament title. Siena capped off the regular season with five consecutive losses after an 11-4 start to MAAC play. They did play the top three teams in the conference during that stretch, but that should not take away from their current struggles.

Besides a 23-point loss to Iona on Feb. 26, four of their last five defeats were by three points or less. Siena will need to clean up their mistakes to turn those close losses into wins in Atlantic City.

Javian McCollum, an All-MAAC Second Team selection, is one of the most dynamic guards in the league. When it comes to getting into the paint off the dribble, there may not be anyone better in the conference. If McCollum is dominant, both as a scorer (15.6 PPG) and a playmaker (3.7 APG), the Saints will have every chance to go on a run.

Siena has the pieces to complement McCollum, most notably center All-MAAC Third Team selection Jackson Stormo and guard Andrew Platek. Stormo is consistent when it comes to frontcourt play with 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds a night. Platek, a former North Carolina Tar Heel, is a great three-pointer shooter on the catch. He shot 43.9 percent on 155 three-point attempts this season, starting in all of Siena’s games. 

If they can regain their form and find rhythm against Niagara on Thursday night, Siena has a chance to win this tournament. Based on their recent performances though, they will be considered on the outside looking in.  

Potential X-Factor: G Jared Billups 

When McCollum is on the bench or wants to play more off-ball, Billups fills in as a secondary ball handler. The 6-foot-4 sophomore isn’t a great three-point shooter, but he is someone that can attack the rim with his speed and strength. 

Billups plays a key role on the defensive end as well, typically earning the assignment of defending the opponents’ leading scorer. If he can impact the game at a high level on both ends, watch out for Siena. 

Hey, Crazier Things Have Happened

Manhattan (12-17, 10-10 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Marist, Tuesday 9 p.m.

The Jaspers were picked to finish second in the preseason poll. That was before the firing of former head coach Steve Masiello, which resulted in MAAC Preseason Player of the Year Jose Perez entering the transfer portal. He wound up leaving for the University of West Virginia, a move that was far from expected coming into the fall. At that point, the immediate future of the Manhattan program was in question.

RaShawn Stores was brought in to coach on an interim basis, and it is safe to say that he has done a sensational job considering the circumstances. The Jaspers finished sixth in the MAAC, with guard Ant Nelson garnering an All-MAAC First Team selection. Stores should be in contention for MAAC Coach of the Year with the job he has done. He may not win the award, but his ability to get buy-in from the players has been evident from day one.

Nelson will play an important role in how far Manhattan goes in the tournament. His ability to attack with his strong left hand can cause problems for any defense. Combine that with the lob threat of All-MAAC Third Team selection Josh Roberts and the Jaspers have an effective pick-and-roll duo.

A deep run for the Jaspers may not be expected, but don’t count them out yet. When you have a player as talented as Ant Nelson, anything can happen on any given night. If Stores can make the right adjustments and limit the impact of Patrick Gardner on Tuesday night, Manhattan could make some noise.

Potential X-Factor: G Nick Brennen

Having a guy that can space the floor to play alongside a ball-dominant guard in Nelson is critical. Brennen fills that role for the Jaspers with his 41 percent shooting from three. His role in the team has expanded in year three at Manhattan, playing almost 32 minutes a night. If Brennen knocks down shots from long distances, that’ll force teams to stay honest. In turn, more space to create will be there for guys like Nelson and Stewart. The individual success of Breenen will play a big part for the Jaspers this week.

Canisius (10-19, 8-12 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Mount St. Mary’s, Tuesday 5 p.m.

The Golden Griffins love to play in transition under head coach Reggie Witherspoon, which has really benefited their overall scoring. Canisius ranks third in the MAAC at 70.5 points per game. That style of play has allowed them to win their final three games of the regular season, making them one of the most dangerous teams going into the tournament.

Jordan Henderson is the main man for Canisius, earning a spot on the All-MAAC Third Team after averaging 13.8 points in the regular season. Tahj Staveskie is also in double figures at 12.3 points per game.

While their offense is potent, their team defense has suffered as a result of playing the way they do. Canisius ranks last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 72.5 points per game. The Golden Griffins have the ability to score, but their inconsistencies on defense may come back to haunt them in Atlantic City. 

Potential X-Factor: F Xzavier Long 

The 6-foot-7 sophomore came into this season as one of the key guys for the Golden Griffins, but it has not worked out that way. Long has become less and less involved on offense as the season has gone on. He has failed to hit double-figure points in nine straight games, with the last time coming on Jan. 29 against Manhattan. If Long can be a bit more impactful, it could go a long way for Canisius.

Fairfield (13-17, 9-11 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Saint Peter’s, Tuesday 7 p.m.

The Stags were a team that people had on their radar going into this season. A combination of solid returning players and highly-talented transfers made up a roster that was expected to finish near the top of the standings. The Stags failed to meet those expectations, finishing near the middle of the pack in the conference. Still, there is some hope that head coach Jay Young can lead this group to another deep run in Atlantic City. 

All-MAAC Third Team selection Supreme Cook has dominated on the interior, averaging a team-high 13.3 points and 8.5 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 forward has managed to put those numbers up despite playing just 26 minutes a night.  

First-year Stag Caleb Fields has done a solid job at the point guard position, giving Young a guard who is capable of running the offense while looking for his own shot. Fields had a season-high 21 points against Quinnipiac on Mar. 2.

Fairfield has a defense that ranks third in the MAAC, allowing 65.8 points per game. Their problems lie on the other end, as they’re only averaging 65.3 points per game. The Stags have individuals who can score at a high level. Consistency is the only question at this stage of the season.

Two years ago, the Stags rode to the championship game as the seventh seed. Could this be a season where they do something similar?

Potential X-Factor: G Jake Wojcik

Wojcik is in his third season with Fairfield, and he has seen quite a bit of regression on an individual level. Part of that is due to injury as the guard has been in and out of the lineup this year. 

Wojcik is a gifted shooter, which was evidenced by his 2020-21 season when he averaged 13.5 points per game on 41 percent shooting. He is down to 5.9 points this season, shooting 20 percent from three. If he can rediscover the level he reached his first season at Fairfield, their offense could take a leap in Atlantic City.

Mount St. Mary’s (12-19, 8-12 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Canisius, Tuesday 5 p.m.

The Mountaineers have had quite an interesting season in their first year as a member of the MAAC. Mount St. Mary’s was near the bottom of the standings for a majority of conference play, but a two-game winning streak to end the regular season should give them optimism about their potential in Atlantic City.

All-MAAC Third Team selection Jalen Benjamin has been one of the top scorers in the conference, averaging a team-high 15.8 points per game. Dakota Leffew, the team’s 2-guard, has had some big games as well, creating a dynamic duo in the backcourt with Benjamin. 

The Mount lacks depth, which could lead to a potential early exit this week. The team only has six players that average 19 minutes or more. Head coach Dan Engelstad may need to lengthen out his bench on Tuesday against Canisius in order to keep his starters fresh. 

It may be their first season in the conference, but the Mountaineers should not be underestimated. Having a dynamic scorer like Benjamin in the postseason gives them a chance against anyone. Sure, they’ll need others to impact the game, but if Benjamin is at his best, Mount St. Mary’s may have a run in them. 

Potential X-Factor: F Malik Jefferson 

Jefferson may not blow you away with his individual numbers, but his impact on the Mountaineers cannot be undersold. The forward has missed nine games this season through injury, and his absence on the interior has certainly been felt. 

His physicality in the paint not only helps them defensively, but he also creates second-chance looks with his strength. Jefferson’s return to the court has helped Mount St. Mary’s win each of their last two games, and he may have more in store for Atlantic City.  

Happy to Win a Game

Saint Peter’s (12-17, 7-13 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Fairfield, Tuesday 7 p.m.

The reigning champions in the MAAC have yet to find the same success they had under former head coach Shaheen Holloway. With many players gone from the team that reached the Elite Eight, this season has proved to be a difficult one in Jersey City. The Peacocks enter the conference tournament as this year’s tenth seed. 

First-year head coach Bashir Mason has led Saint Peter’s to the best scoring defense in the MAAC, allowing just 65.5 points per game. While that area has been strong, their own scoring has not. The Peacocks averaged a league-low 61.7 points per game on 39 percent shooting from the field. 

6-foot-4 guard Isiah Dasher leads the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game. Jaylen Murray is the only other player who averaged double figures with 11.7 points a night. The Peacocks need to find a way to play with more pace, or their defense may be stretched out in their opening-round matchup against Fairfield.

The Peacocks put the MAAC on the map with their accomplishments last season, going further in the NCAA tournament than even the most optimistic of fans expected. Less than 12 months later, Saint Peter’s is back in the rebuilding stage. They could win a game if all goes well against Fairfield, but that may be their ceiling.

Potential X-Factor: F Corey Washington 

Washington represented Saint Peter’s on the MAAC All-Rookie Team. The forward averaged 7.1 points and a team-high 4.9 rebounds. Washington scored a season-high 18 points in a win at Niagara on Feb. 26. His minutes have expanded as the season has gone on, and if the Peacocks are going to win a game or two, Washington needs to make more than a few winning plays.

Marist (10-19, 6-14 in the MAAC)

First game: vs Manhattan, Tuesday 9 p.m.

After many departures from last season’s team, this year was expected to be a rebuilding one for the Red Foxes. It has proven so as Marist has struggled to find consistency on both ends of the floor. There have been many games where they played solid basketball for 30 to 35 minutes, but poor execution in crunch time led to tough losses. 

Head coach John Dunne discovered his best starting five, as the evolution of freshman point guard Isaiah Brickner has given him someone who can handle the ball in pressure-filled moments. 

Patrick Gardner has been everything they could have asked for and then some, finishing the regular season as an All-MAAC Second Team selection. The 6-foot-11 big adjusted incredibly well to the physicality of MAAC basketball, as his 18.8 points per game ranked second in the conference. 

Despite the best efforts of Gardner, scoring has been the biggest weakness for Marist. Its 63.8 points per game rank second to last in the MAAC, only ahead of Saint Peter’s. In order to win in Atlantic City, they will need more guys to step up on the offensive end. If they can improve in that department, it should make things much easier for Gardner as their primary scorer.

The blueprint to advance past Manhattan was given to the Red Foxes after they beat them 81-58 on Feb. 24. The Jaspers struggled to contain the size of Gardner and Stephane Ingo, who would finish the game with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Relying on the play of their bigs will be key for Marist on Tuesday night. If those two play at their best, it may be a long night for Manhattan.

Potential X-Factor: G Noah Harris

Harris showed lots of promise his freshman season a year ago, shooting 35 percent from three. That’s down to 30 percent from three in year two with the Red Foxes. Harris has a smooth-looking jump shot that has fallen at times, though he has struggled in a more expanded role. 

One of the ways Marist can open the game up for Garnder is by having more weapons from three. If someone like Harris can step up in the big moments, the Red Foxes could surprise some people in this postseason. 

Edited by Jonathan Kinane and Ricardo Martinez

Photo from Jonathan Kinane

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