Friday, March 7, 2008

MAAC Tournament Preview

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference might have had arguably the best league race of any conference in the country. Six teams finished within two games of each other at the top of the league, with Siena and Rider tying for the regular-season championship at 13-5. Niagara and Loyola (Md.) finished one game back at 12-5, while Marist and Fairfield were 11-7. Siena got the top-seed, while Marist received the No. 6 seed. It should be a wide-open and exciting conference tournament.

Favorites: Siena came into the season as one of the two favorites to win the conference, with Loyola being the other. The Saints sent a message to the rest of the league when they defeated Stanford in the non-conference portion of the season and also blew out Boise State on the road by 23 in the Bracket Busters. They have a terrific trio in guard Kenny Hasbrouck, swingman Edwin Ubiles and double-double threat Alex Franklin. Rider has the best player in the conference, and one of the best in the country, in forward Jason Thompson. He is good enough to carry the Broncs to the league title. Luckily, he has help, namely younger brother Ryan Thompson, a versatile guard. Harris Mansell can shoot the lights out, and has been hot lately. Rider has won 13 of its last 16 games.

Contenders: My choice heading into the year to win the MAAC was Loyola (Md.). The Greyhounds returned plenty of talent from last season, and had Gerald Brown, a premier scorer. However, they were just 6-9 in non-conference play and struggled to open MAAC play. Since then, though, they have won 11 of their last 14. Brown and Marquis Sullivan form an excellent backcourt, and Michael Tuck leads the way up front. Niagara got off to a hot start in league play, going 4-0 before struggling during most of the middle part of the season. The defending champs are led by one of the most productive players in college basketball, Charron Fisher. He averages almost 28 points and 10 rebounds per game – and he is just 6-3. Tyrone Lewis and Stanley Hodge are two more big-time scorers in the backcourt for the Purple Eagles.

Sleeper: Marist and Fairfield are certainly capable of winning the conference tournament, but teams that are 11-7 and finished two games out of first-place aren’t legit choices as sleepers. Therefore, a team to potentially watch out for could be Manhattan. The Jaspers already have wins over Siena and Marist, and they played Rider and the other contenders close. They are deep and have plenty of options, including guard Antoine Pearson and forward Devon Austin.

Prediction: With so many teams capable of winning the championship, this is one of the toughest conferences to pick a champion from. Siena has the best trio, Rider has the best player, Niagara has tremendous go-to-guys and Loyola (Md.) might have the most weapons. Throw in Fairfield and Marist, and this is going to be fun to watch. I think Niagara against Rider is going to be one of the best conference tournament games in the country in the semi-finals, but I think the Broncs are going to prevail and then knock off Siena in the title game. Jason Thompson is just that good.

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