Friday, March 6, 2009

MAAC Tournament Preview

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This was Siena’s conference to lose from the outset of the season, and the Saints didn’t fail. There were some slip-ups along the way, but they won their first 12 league games en route to a regular-season title. Niagara finished in second, two games back at 14-4, while Rider finished in third at 12-6. No other teams were above .500 in league play, with two teams finishing at 9-9 and everyone else sporting a losing record. Despite the regular-season title, this won’t be a cakewalk for the champs.

Favorite: Coming off a first-round upset of Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament last season, Siena was the clear front-runner heading into the year. They didn’t disappoint, winning their first 12 league games before dropping a couple of road games in February. The Saints are led by their outstanding perimeter group. 6-3 Kenny Hasbrouck and 6-6 Edwin Ubiles are the leading scorers on the team and are both capable of carrying the team to victory. Hasbrouck is one of the better guards in the mid-major world, while Ubiles has good size and a very tough-to-defend skill set. Ronald Moore, a terrific passer, is the least heralded of the three starters, but he might be the most important one. Alex Franklin is a load up front, and Ryan Rossiter is a very good rebounder.

Contenders: Niagara won 10 of its last 11 games to finish the season, including a victory over Illinois State in the Bracket Busters and a win at Siena. The Purple Eagles are fun to watch and have plenty of options offensively. Tyrone Lewis can really fill it up from beyond the arc, and former Villanova transfer Bilal Benn is one of the best players in the MAAC. Former Connecticut transfer Rob Garrison and Anthony Nelson also start on the perimeter, with big man Benson Egemonye providing scoring and rebounding. Rider was the only other team to knock off Siena, and the Broncs also defeated Niagara. Five players average in double-figures, led by Ryan Thompson, one of the most versatile and best all-around players in the league. Harris Mansell can really stroke it, while Justin Robinson runs the show. Novar Gadson is a good scorer and rebounder, and Mike Ringgold is the leader up front.

Sleeper: The days of Keydren Clark lighting it up for St. Peter’s are over, but the Peacocks have won their last five league games heading into the conference tournament. They do it with defense, not offense, but they still have multiple threats at that end. The backcourt of Wesley Jenkins and Nick Leon is one of the more underrated ones in the league, as both can shoot the three and score. Ryan Bacon is a scorer and rebounder down low.

Prediction: This is one of the more highly-anticipated conference tournaments in the country. Not only are teams looking to see if Siena can win the automatic bid and not have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, but a potential rubber match between the Saints and Niagara is going to be a classic. Siena won the first battle, Niagara the second one. It will come down to these two in the title game. Both teams are balanced and explosive, and the winner might have to score 90. The difference will be Ubiles and Franklin; Niagara doesn't have two players with the size and ability to compete with them. Siena gets the automatic bid and a berth to the Big Dance. Unfortunately, Niagara will be relegated to a lesser tournament despite its gaudy record and upset potential.

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