CHRIS CIRILLO & DANIEL YNFANTE
STAFF WRITER & ASST. SPORTS EDITOR
March Madness is finally here.
The most exciting time of the year, sorry Christmas, is set to get underway on March 5 with the start of the MAAC Tournament.
The Manhattan College Jaspers enter as the defending champs, but in a year where the parity in the conference has been at its highest, a Jasper repeat will certainly be tough.
The Frontrunner: Iona Gaels
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Manhattan’s bid for a repeat is its crosstown-rival Iona Gaels.
The Gaels undoubtedly enter the tournament as the favorites, given their superb regular season conference record of 17-3.
Behind the stalwarts of First Team All MAAC selections in David Laury and A.J. English, the Gaels pose a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
But as they have proved all season, the Gaels can beat teams even when Laury and English have quiet games.
They have received considerable contributions from freshman Schadrac Casimir, whose play and poise on the court resembles that of an upperclassmen.
The return of 6-foot-7 wing Isaiah Williams, the team’s best defender, not only provides much needed help on the defensive side of the game, but also adds to the offensive firepower Iona possesses.
Williams averaged 13.5 points per game this season on efficient shooting percentages of 51 percent from the floor and 45 percent from downtown.
His return, to go along with Casimir, English and Laury, will make the task of stopping Iona’s offense extremely difficult for teams.
However, the games have to be played and of course, this is basketball, anything can happen.
The Gaels can be beaten. But it will take either a phenomenal defensive effort from an opponent or a track meet where the opponent matches Iona’s offensive blow for blow.
It happened on Dec. 7 when Monmouth traded baskets with Iona and defeated it 92-89.
The recipe for defeating Iona is there. Ask Monmouth. The problem is, it just has not occurred often enough this season to believe that it will happen again.
The Darkhorse: Siena Saints
Before the season started there were huge expectations for the Siena Saints.
Expectations were so high that the Saints were picked to finish second in the MAAC Pre Season Coaches’ Poll and some media outlets even had them as the MAAC favorites.
But then everything changed when Brett Bisping, one of Siena’s best players, went down in early December for the rest of the season.
Siena’s hopes and its season went down the drain with Bisping’s injury.
So it might seem confusing why the Saints are even in consideration for the title of darkhorse, given how bad the team has been all year—7-13 record in the MAAC.
One simple reason: the MAAC Tournament will be played at the Times Union Center in Albany, home of the Siena Saints.
Regardless of how poor the Saints have played this season, it is no secret that they will be a tough out at the tournament.
They will have home court advantage throughout and that alone might propel them to victory over their opponents.
No doubt about it, given the choice of choosing its opponent, no team would want to face Siena on the road.
Of course, no one will be surprised if the Saints were to lose in the first round of the MAAC tournament, but at the same time no one will be surprised if the Saints were to make a run to at least the semifinals, upsetting a team in the process.
One potential matchup of interest to Manhattan, would be a Siena vs. Iona encounter in the MAAC quarterfinals.
The crowd will approach 10,000, mostly in favor of Siena.
The Saints lost a close game to Iona on Feb. 6 by a score of 87-83, so it is not out of the picture that they can repeat that performance and come out victorious next time.
Most Likely Championship Battle: Manhattan vs. Iona
Not one, not two, how about three in a row? The stage is set for a third consecutive Iona-Manhattan championship matchup.
Iona, however, is more dangerous offensively than previous years. Williams, Laury, English and Casimir have contributed to the high-powered offense where its 79.6 points per game and 110.1 adjusted offense efficiency per 100 possessions both rank first in the MAAC, according to kenpom.com
While Iona’s offense has firepower, Manhattan proved last year that defense wins championships. Manhattan also proved the past two years that losing twice to a team in the regular season means nothing during playoff time. Manhattan beat Quinnipiac in the semifinals after failing to defeat it during the regular season last year, and also defeated Loyola (Md.) after losing to it twice in 2013.
So, even though Iona has defeated Manhattan twice this season, don’t pencil the Gaels into the NCAA Tournament just yet.
If Iona has a weakness, it is its defense. Out of the top six teams in the MAAC (Iona, Rider, Manhattan, Monmouth, Canisius and Quinnipiac), Iona has the worst adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom. Per 100 possessions, Iona gives up 104.4 points per game, compared to Manhattan’s 101.1, which ranks third out of the top six, according to kenpom.
Don’t forget that Manhattan had a brutal non-conference schedule earlier in the season.
However, Iona’s offense will be difficult to slow down. While they are the favorite, no one should be surprised if the Jaspers pull off the upset in the championship.