Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All-time MAAC Team Sought

I recently told a friend who, in the late 1970s was a college basketball assistant coach and, now, helps operate my favorite Southern Maine inn (commercial plug: the inn is called "Ocean Woods Resort" in the Goose Rocks Beach area of Kennebunkport, Maine), about this blog. He was kind enough to submit what he called his "All Dinosaur" team from MAAC teams.

Unfortunately, my friend hasn't followed the conference closely in a few years (make that many years), and his selections, while all among the best players in their respective schools' histories, all played before the MAAC even came into existence.

Here's are his picks ...
- Elnoro Webster of Saint Peter's, a bruising 6-foot-5 forward who played two seasons (1967-68, 68-69), scored 1,338 points in 54 games and grabbed 769 rebounds (still 2nd on the school's all-time list)
- Calvin Murphy, Niagara, the dynamic 5-9 guard of the late 1960's, early 1970s, who averaged well over 30 points per game over his college career and had a distinguished NBA playing career.
- Jeff Ruland, Iona, a 6-10 center of (if memory serves) mid-1970s vintage who helped vault his school into the national limelight, had a distinguished NBA career, recently coached at Iona and, now is an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers.
- Billy Campion, Manhattan, a 6-10 center of the early-to-mid 1970s' era who became that school's first player to accumulate 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
- George Bucci, a big guard who played alongside Campion and finished with over 1,300 career points at Manhattan.

Great players all, but all played in the pre-MAAC era.

Which leads to the question ... who were the best players to compete in the MAAC?
We'll get to that eventually, but opinions prior to this typist's picks, would be appreciated.

Let's limit it to 10 players, regardless of position.

I have followed the MAAC closely since its formative years, and had covered MAAC basketball as a writer for 18 seasons. So, hopefully, I've developed a little insight on the topic.

But, as it is with all such subjective topics, there will be disagreements and debates. And, when it comes to sports, that is always a good thing. My choices won't necessarily be definitive. They will just be my choices.

So, let the debates rage. Oh, and let's pick an all-time list of top coaches, too. Since most current MAAC staffs have four full-time coaches, let's pick the conference's all-time top four coaches.

In conjunction with my eventual choice for an all-time, all-MAAC team I will also offer my "favorite" MAAC players. Those might not necessarily be the best who ever played for conference teams, although they might be. They will just be a group of 10 (or so) of players I took a little extra pleasure in watching or interacting with during my time around college basketball.

Friday, December 19, 2008

More Hoop News from 5-year Plan

The availability of the MAAC tournament for a single facility to host for a three-year block (2012-14) wasn't the only basketball news to come from the league's Council of Presidents meetinging.

That group discussed plans to make the 2009 and 2010 tournaments, both at Albany's times Union Center, more of a neutral environment.

The facility serves as the home court for the Siena men's team during regular-season play, and traditionally retains a strong Saints' flavor during the tournament.

The league hopes that adding additional team purchase options for seats within the center court sections of the arena's lower bowl will help create a more neutral environment. In other words, some Siena ticket holders who have center court section seating for regular-season games will be displaced for the tournament.

"It's actually to the area's benefit to have the arena become a more neutral setting," said Ensor. "Presidents of our individual schools don't want the event always to be played in a hostile environment for their teams."

Hostile environment, or not, Siena has only captured the MAAC tournament title twice in the 13 years the event has been played in Albany.

The league will also offer a maximum of six "premium" courtside seats to each of the 10 participating schools. It will also change signage around the top of the facility's mid-court scoreboard and at entrance doors and windows to reflect a MAAC flavor.

"We'll take out anything that has a Siena look to it both on the court and around it for the tournament," added Ensor.

Ensor also indicated that ticket sales for the 2009 event are ahead of 2008 sales thus far.

"I don't know exact numbers, but we have more money in the bank (for the 2009 event) than we did at this point last year," he said.

MAAC Tourney Tops 5-year Plan

Much of the news of a basketball variety contained in the MAAC's recently approved 5-year Strategic Plan involves future league tournaments.

We already know that event will be held at Albany's Times Union Center this season as well as at the end of the 2009-10 season. The event returns to the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn., for 2011, but remains open beyond that.

At their Dec. 11 meeting, the MAAC's Council of Presidents approved a recommendation for the development of bidding specifications for a 3-year commitment for the 2012, 2013 and 2014 league championship tournament at one venue.

Formal applications will be due by September, 2009 and the league's Council of Presidents will make a decision, at its December 2009 meeting, on awarding those three events.

League commissioner Rich Ensor, who does not have a vote about the ultimate site (but does have considerable influence), said that multiple venues have expressed preliminary interest.

Among those are Albany's T-U Center, Mohegan Sun Casino's Arena in Uncasville, Conn., the Izod Center (at the Meadowlands), the Prudential Center in Newark, N.Y., the Baltimore Arena, the Arena at Harbor Yard and the HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

"The dynamics of a three-year deal are a little different (than alternating sites annually)," said Ensor.

Albany only has it for two successive years (this season and next) because this season's original host, the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., asked to be released from its commitment.

Ensor declined to address any front-runners for the up-for-grabs three-year block.

But, it would be difficult to imagine that the Albany facility, which has hosted the tournament 13 times in the 19 years since it opened, would go four years without being home for the post-season event. Attendance figures at the Albany arena, particularly in recent years, have dwarfed turnouts when the event is held elsewhere.

"I know it would be hard for Siena fans (if, after the event is played in Bridgeport in 2011, it also gets played elsewhere for the next three seasons)," said Ensor. "But, it's also a great opportunity for Albany to host it five times in a six-year span."

Bob Belber, the general manager of the Times Union Center in Albany, has indicated that he he will aggressively pursue hosting the tournament whenever it is available.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tough non-league skeds beneficial

The Siena men's team plays on Wednesday (Dec. 17) at Pittsburgh, the No. 3-ranked team nationally in the most-recent USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll. Canisius plays the same night at Syracuse, rated No. 11 (prior to its Monday night loss to Cleveland State).
Fairfield played at Memphis (losing, 90-63), last year's runner-up in the NCAA national championship tournament. So did Marist (losing to Memphis, 100-61).

And, on it goes. Almost every MAAC team has at least one game, if not more, scheduled against a team that traditionally inhabits the annual Top 25 national polls.

Does it help?

It does in one sense. MAAC teams get sizeable "guarantees" to take those games.
Big-time teams pay, usually in the mid-to-high five-figure range, to bring in teams to play non-conference games.
Siena has two such games this year, not only playing at Pitt but also at defending national champion Kansas on Jan. 6.
The money helps. Siena makes no pretense that a good portion of the money it will take in from those two games helps pay for the two-week trip the team took for a series of games in Italy this past August.

The other question is does it help competitively?

There might be mixed feelings on that. Does it help a team to suffer a 40-point loss?
Maybe. Conventional wisdom says that playing better opponents makes you better.

Does it?
Definitely. Exactly a week after losing at Memphis, Marist played at Siena.

Siena, with its uptempo style of play, is a mid-major version of how Memphis plays.

"Playing Mempis first definitely helped us prepare for Siena," said Marist coach Chuck Martin who, coincidentally, was an assistant on the Memphis staff prior to this season.

"You see that type of pressure from Memphis and, then, the pressure you see from Siena becomes a little easier to deal with. As a coach, you don't mind having one or two tough games early. That experience helps prepare you for the MAAC season."

Marist, picked to finish last in the MAAC in the preseason poll of league coaches, played well against Siena and even holding a lead midway through the second half until the Saints finally took over.

Teams benefitting most from tough opponents, though, are likely to be ones that will face that level opponent later on.

Siena had one of its most-difficult non-conference schedules ever last season, playing games gainst Syracuse (losing, 97-89), hosting Stanford (winning, 79-67), and playing at Memphis (losing 102-58).

Did it help? Probably. The Saints didn't seem awed by the level of competition after it won the MAAC's post-season tournament and advanced to the NCAA event. There, Siena had no problem posting a first-round victory over Vanderbilt (83-62) before it fell to Villanova in the second round (84-72).

The only other Siena team to win a first-round NCAA game was its 1988-89 edition that played high-powered non-conference foes Pittsburgh (winning, 80-79) and Florida (losing, 71-67) early in the season. Later on it upset Stanford, 80-78, in the NCAA's.

Current Siena coach Fran McCaffery said playing strong non-league opponents not only prepares a team competitively, but helps set up a more-favorable first-round match if it does get to national post-season play.

"Those games help your RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), so if you are fortunate enough to get in to the (NCAA) tournament, it gets you a better seed," said McCaffery. "Or, if you have a good conference record and don't win the MAAC tournament there's a chance that it sets you up to be in position to be considered for an at-large berth.

"There's no question that our non-conference schedule helped us get a decent seed (a No. 13 in its 16-team region). last season. Our non-conference schedule was rated the 13th toughest nationally."

McCaffery points out that there are other benefits, too.

"The other big thing is exposure," he said. "In order to get on national TV you have to play good teams. The immediate impact of that type of exposure helps recruiting and name recognition of your program and your institution."

Siena will have been on national television plenty this season. All three of its early season tournament games in the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at DisneyWorld, were nationally televised. Its game against Pitt will be on ESPN2, and its game with Kansas is part of the full-court package of college basketball games.

"The other thing is that I believe strongly in scheduling up (playing better teams) to prepare you for conference play," added McCaffery. "Especially this year because the league is really strong. So many of our teams that had good years last year have a lot of people back. You look at it and say you almost have to schedule up to better prepare for the league season."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Well-Known Face in the Crowd

A very interested observer at Tuesday's contest between Siena and Marist at Albany's Times Union Center was Tom Brennan, a college basketball analyst for ESPN.

Brennan was in town to get a look at the Saints, whose next game is at Pittsburgh and will be nationally televised by ESPN 2. Brennan will be working the game as an analyst, so his visit was mostly about doing his homework.

But there was a pleasurable secondary benefit for Brennan to be at the game.

The personable television personality previously coached for 19 seasons at Vermont, the first 16 of those resulting in a sub-.500 overall record.

But, the last three all resulted in league titles in the America East Conference, and trips to the NCAA tournament. In his last season there (2004-05), Brennan's top player was Taylor Coppenrath, a 6-9 mid-major level version of Larry Bird, and the Catamounts' storybook 2004-05 season included a first-round NCAA tournament upset of Syracuse.

Two freshmen on that Vermont team are now college seniors, and both were on the court Tuesday night in Albany.

Josh Duell, a 6-7 forward who averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds as a Catamount freshman under Brennan, is now a Siena co-captain. Bothered by a variety of early season injuries, Duell had his best game to date playing 17 minutes, contributing strong interior defense and scoring six points on a pair of 3-pointers.

Ryan Schneider, also a 6-7 senior forward, is Marist's leading scorer and rebounder this season. He averaged 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game as a freshman on Brennan's last Vermont team. Including Tuesday's game, he is now averaging 12.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest.

Brennan was able to spend some time with his two former players both before and after the game.

Marist Better Than Expected

In their preseason poll, MAAC coaches predicted that Marist would finish last in this season's conference standings.
After getting a first look at the Red Foxes, this typist's reaction is this ... if Marist is the MAAC's worst team, then this is a real, real good league.

Tuesday night at the Times Union Center in Albany, Marist played unanimous preseason conference favorite Siena far better than the final 77-60 score indicates.
In fact, the Red Foxes held a 58-57 lead with 11:06 remaining before Siena went on a 15-0 run over the next 8:30 to end the suspense.

Siena's late spurt could almost be expected against a Marist team with only nine scholarship players that includes three players making their Division I debuts this year and three others who played very minor roles until this season.
Add to those woes Tuesday the fact that the team's top front-court player, 6-foot-7 senior Ryan Schneider, was ill and far less than his best, and the team's point guard, junior David Devezin, was limping noticeably with a sore heel.

Despite its difficulties, first-year coach Chuck Martin, formerly an assistant for the past two seasons at Memphis, has his team playing a spread offense that makes advantages of the team's overall quickness and shooting.

It's a style similar to what Siena played in coach Fran McCaffery's first season (2005-06) when that Saint team was also picked for last and had limited numbers yet wound up 10-8 in MAAC play and 15-13 overall.

Marist might or might not approach that won-loss record, but with one viewing as an indication it looks like the team could finish significantly north of the league's bottom position.

The Red Foxes already served notice of that, even before Tuesday's match with the Saints. In their MAAC opener, they knocked off a solid Iona team, 51-50, on sophomore guard Dejuan Goodwin's 15-foot jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining.

Schneider, who began his career at Vermont, had five 3-pointers against the Gaels. Despite feeling less than 100 percent against Siena, he still had three 3's, and has made at least one trifecta in all eight Marist games thus far (22-of-58 to date overall).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Iona Set for 2009 Old Spice Classic

The Iona men's team and its fans will be the ones enjoying basketball, along with the traditional turkey dinner, in 2009 it was announced on Thursday.
The Gaels have been named as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's representative to next season's Old Spice Classic at the Milk House at DisneyWorld in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. held over the Thanksgiving break.
The event, which just finished its third annual appearance, has quickly become recognized as the premier early season tournament nationally due to its terrific fields, and the 2009 version is similarly strong.
Joining Iona will be Alabama, Baylor, Creighton, Marquette, Michigan and Xavier. The eighth team will be announced at a later date, but a variety of internet sites have speculated that the final team might well be national powerhouse North Carolina.

Previous MAAC representatives to the event were Marist (which won two games in 2006), Rider (which won one game in 2007) and Siena in this year's event. Although the Saints didn't win a game, losing to Tennessee, Wichita State and Oklahoma State, they had chances to win two of their three contests.

Iona appears poised to be another strong representative a year from now. Its key personnel loss after this year will be 6-9 post player Gary Springer, currently averaging 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. The only other departing senior will be guard Devon Clarke, the Gaels' fifth-leading scorer so far (6.0 ppg.).
Everyone else is scheduled to return and Iona has already gotten a signed commitment for next season's team from 6-9, 240-pound center Chris Pelcher, currently a senior at Albany Academy high school in Albany, N.Y.
Pelcher averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game as a junior for Academy, one of the premier programs in upstate New York, and is expected to be a solid contributor at Iona.

This blogger thinks Iona, which has as much quality depth as any team in the MAAC, will be the conference's surprise team this year and will probably be even stronger a year from now.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Loyola Coach Patsos at it Again

Some people call him crazy, but I prefer to view Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos as "crazy like a fox."

Patsos, took over a program that had the worst record among 330+ Division I teams nationally (1-27) in 2003-04 season, the year before his arrival.
Not only has he brought a winning attitude and winning records to the team, but he has instilled a new level of enthusuasm within the school and local community. Games there, once played before family members and close friends, now draw large enthusiastic crowds.
Last season's Loyola team finished 19-14, setting a school record for wins on the Division I level. It was also the program's third straight winning season, the first time that has happened in two decades.
Over that time, Patsos' teams have been 52-40.
Overall, including this season (prior to Wednesday's game against Siena), his record at Loyola is 60-67 and includes a 6-22 record his first year.

Patsos, though, has come under some scrutiny this year on two fronts.
In a game against Colgate, Patsos left his team's bench after earning a technical foul and spent the rest of the game watching from the stands, next to his athletic director and school president.
In his team's game against Davidson recently, he employed a diamond-and-two defensive scheme that put two defenders on Davidson star Stephen Curry and allowed the other three Greyhounds to guard the remaining four Davidson players.
Curry went scoreless, but Davidson won by 30.
Who knows what might have happened had Loyola played Curry straight-up defensively. Odds are, though, that Davidson is good enough to have still won by 30. At least Patsos tried something.

Patsos is an act worth viewing at games as he works referees, and works his players with a fiery demeanor. He quickly becomes disheveled, throwing off his sport jacket and loosening his tie. He has "mellowed" slightly since his first days on the job, but not too much.
And, there is no discounting what he has done to restore winning and enthusiasm to a program that had very little of either before his arrival. His methods work.

A good friend, Pete Iorizzo of the Albany Times-Union, painted a terrific picture of Patsos with a story that appeared in Wednesday's paper (Dec. 3). Here's the link:


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Message to Siena fans: Don't Panic

The Siena men's team became the first MAAC representative in the three-year history of the Old Spice Classic tournament to come home from that event in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., without a victory.
Rider won once in its appearance last season, while Marist had two victories in the inaugural 2006 event.
Siena went winless by dropping games by scores of 78-64 to nationally ranked No. 12 Tennessee, by 72-70 to Wichita State and by 77-68 to Oklahoma.

Reason for Siena and its fans to panic?
Not so.

Let's take the games individually, with observations made from the front of a 42-inch TV screen...
Tennessee is loaded with size, speed, talent and athleticism. It plays an uptempo style similar to Siena's.
College basketball games are much about match-ups, and this one wasn't a good one for Siena.
It was reminiscent of Siena's appearance in the 1998-99 season's NCAA tournament when it drew Arkansas in the first round.
Siena, under then coach Paul Hewitt, played even faster than it does now, pressing and trying to run on every possession.
But, that was also Arkansas' game with its "40 minutes of hell" philosophy of former coach Nolan Richardson.
That Arkansas team played the same way Siena did, only with bigger, faster, stronger athletes and handled Siena with ease back then.
Siena had that same matchup problem with Tennessee in this year's Old Spice first-rounder. No knock there. Tennessee also entered the game ranked No. 12 nationally.

Wichita State might be young, but it's talented and exhibied its potential with a close game against Georgetown in the event's first round.
Still, Siena held a 12-point lead midway through the second half before the Shockers' dedication to defense and its work on the boards (they outrebounded Siena, 37-24, for the game) turned things around.
Verdict? Could have been a victory, but not a horrendous loss.

Oklahoma State held a 13-point lead at halftime, but Siena stormed back to get within a point late in the contest. Clearly, though, this was a game Siena would have won had it shot better than 42.9 percent (12-of-28) from the foul line.

Problems for Siena? They were evident, at varying times, in the Old Spice event: Rebounding, free-throw shooting and turnovers.
Actually, rebounding was only a problem against Wichita State. Siena outrebounded both Tennessee (40-39) and Oklahoma St. (39-37).
While the free-throw work was horrendous against Oklahoma State, the Saints made 26-of-39 in its other two tournament games, 66.7 percent. Not great, but not horrible.
The turnovers were a problem. After averaging a miserly 11 turnovers per game last season, the Saints made 13, 17 and 18 in the three tournament games.
Credit some of that to playing against quality opponents and rosters filled with the type quickness not as prevelent in the MAAC.

Siena should get better as the season progresses. Remember, this is a team with one senior starter (Kenny Hasbrouck).
The other senior on the team, 6-7 forward Josh Duell, has been hampered by injuries and has played limited minutes thus far. And, another role player, 6-7 junior forward Corey Magee (concussion) has yet to get on the court this season.

But, there's one other Siena deficiency worth mentioning from the Old Spice Classic: 3-point shooting. Siena made just 6-of-36 (16.7 percent) of its bonus shots in the three-game event.

Siena was the unanimous choice of MAAC coaches to win this year's conference title.
But the Old Spice Classic, despite some flashes of good play by the Saints, indicated there are weaknesses Siena needs to correct quickly if it intends to fulfill the lofty preseason expectations.

2 MAAC women's teams get good wins

This blogger made a trip to Siena's Alumni Recreation Center on Sunday, Nov. 30, to see Harvard knock off the Saints, 72-49, in a women's game.
The Harvard women are big (two 6-3 post players start and an effective 6-7 player comes off the bench), have very good shooters, a terrific point guard and depth. And, the team plays intelligently (no surprise there, right?)
The victory brought Harvard's record to 3-2 on the season.
Both losses have come at the hands of other MAAC teams.
Marist knocked off the Crimson, 76-63, on Nov. 23.
And, Loyola also upended Harvard, 78-69, on Nov. 15.
Just a personal observation: Harvard is a very good team.
That, of course, means that Marist and Loyola are also pretty darned good right now.

MAAC Teams Get National Mention

In case you missed it ...
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams got some national recognition in Sports Illustrated's "College Basketball Preview" issue in mid-November.
The magazine's staff made its projection for the men's NCAA tournament's field of 65, selecting Siena as the No. 29 team nationally.
"Up-tempo Saints, paced by guard Kenny Hasbrouck, the league tournament MVP, prep for return to NCAAs with tune-ups against Tennessee Pitt and Kansas," was the comment made about Siena.
But there was more.
Within the same issue appeared a two-page feature entitled "5-minute guide: Listings of the most honorable, the up-and-comers, the new hires and the next tournament upstarts."
Within the guide is a category entitled "Cinderella teams that will dance deep into March."
Two teams were listed ... both from the MAAC, Siena on the men's side and Marist on the women's.
Here's what SI had to say about that:
- "The Saints return all five starters including 6-6 junior swingman Edwin Ubiles (17.0 ppg.) from a 23-win team that routed Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament."
- Leading the way (for the Marist women) is junior forward Rachele Fitz, who averaged 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds last year when the 25-2 Red Foxes gave No. 2 seed LSU a scare in the second round of the NCAAs."
National recognition of that type never hurts. In truth, it gives not only the teams mentioned but the MAAC as a whole, greater recognition nationally and, probably, a bit more national respect.
Here's what MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor had to say about the mentions in Sports Illustrated:
"The Sports Illustrated metions about the Siena and Marist programs are great to see," said Ensor. "Not because the MAAC is built around national recognition, but because it ackonwledges the efforts of those individual programs, coaches and student-athletes."
How are the potential "Cinderella" MAAC teams doing so far?
The Marist women are 6-1 as of Dec. 1 with the only loss an 83-57 setback at the hands of Oklahoma, the No. 4 team nationally at the time of that meeting.
Fitz, a Marist junior, appears well on the way to defending MAAC Player of the Year accolades she earned for the 2007-08 season. The 6-1 forward is averaging 24.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game through seven games.
The Siena men are off to a 2-3 start with all three losses coming in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
There, the Saints were defeated by No. 12 Tennessee, 78-64; nipped by Wichita State, 72-70; and, held off by Oklahoma State, 77-60.
Prior to that tournament, Siena had good wins over Boise State and Cornell, both NCAA tournament teams last season.

Gettin' Back to the MAAC

Please excuse what turned out to be a slightly more than two-week absence from the blog for reasons that don't require an explanation here.
But, the blog is back.
Hope you'll be reading.
Much has happened in the past 2+ weeks, and your blogger hasn't been able to keep up with everything, but there have been some things that have earned attention ...