Friday, February 27, 2009

Niagara Creates Late-Season Excitement

The view from in front of a TV set about 300 miles away from Friday night's Siena at Niagara game is that the Saints won't walk through the conference's post-season tournament.

Especially if the two teams both advance to the event's championship contest and both play like they did Friday.

Final outcome on Friday: Niagara 100, Siena 85.

And, yes, it was as lopsided as the score indicates.

Niagara's inside players got in early foul trouble, and it played much of the game with an undersized lineup.

But, that appeared to work in its favor as it consistently beat Siena to loose balls, and used its superior quickness on the boards and in getting into the lane for easy shots on offense. Siena looked a step slower than Niagara in every facet of play, particularly when it was on the defensive end.

The hosts never trailed, had a 10-point edge midway through the first half, a 17-point lead at the half and a 19-point spread after scoring the first basket of the second half.

The Saints eventually got back within seven, the last time with about four minutes left, and followed that with a good defensive possession that resulted in a long Niagara three-point miss as the shot clock expired. And, then, the winners' Bilal Benn grabbed the rebound, converted a shot in the lane and the lead was back to nine and the Saints were never in it again.

The 100 points allowed was the most given up by a Siena team since midway through the 2000-01 season when Niagara also hit the century mark in a 104-83 victory back when Louis Orr was Siena's coach.

What does it mean?

It means Siena won't become the conference's second team to win a regular-season title by four games (joining the 1985-86 Fairfield team). Siena, now 15-2 in MAAC play, holds a two-game edge over 13-4 Niagara and each has one conference game remaining.

The victory clinches second place for Niagara, meaning it will be placed in the opposite bracket as Siena for the conference tournament setting up a championship-game meeting between them.

It probably gives the entire league some optimism heading into the tournament with Niagara showing that Siena isn't necessarily the dominant presence some perceived it to be.

One glaring statistic from the contest: Saints' Player of the Year candidate senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck had what might have been the worst game of his career, shooting 2-of-20 from the floor and finishing with five points in 37 minutes of playing time. He had averaged 21 points over Siena last seven contests.

All-Star Time, MAAC's all-time Best

Several weeks ago, advice was solicited in this forum for help selecting an all-time all-MAAC men's basketball team.

After much debate, and considerable thought ... it's time to release "Keepin' Track of the MAAC's" all-time team of MAAC players.

About a dozen readers have offered opinions on various players, which have been taken into consideration.

Mostly, though, the team is a product of first-hand viewing and knowledge gained from covering the MAAC since its beginning, first as a writer who covered Army basketball in the early 1980s and, later, as one who covered Siena basketball since 1985.

In reviewing the conference's all-time top 50 scorers and rebounders, this humble blogger came to the realization that he has seen every player on the list at least once, and most of them (if not all of them) multiple times.

What does that make me?

Primarily old, I guess.

Also, experienced. And, hopefully, knowledgeable, insightful and objective.

But, this is a subjective list and will draw comment and disagreement. Which isn't a bad thing. We all have opinions, and that's part of what makes following sports so enjoyable.

Initially, I planned to identify 10 players and three coaches.

And, then, it became clear that the list needed to be expanded so as not to slight some who would have been left off.

So, considering that current college rosters include 13 scholarship players and coaching staffs usually include four members ...

Here's one person's 13-man all-MAAC team (selections made in alphabetical order).
The list of the four all-time coaches will come later.

DOREMUS BENNERMAN, 5-11 guard, Siena (1990-1994)
One of two players in Siena's history to finish with 2,000 career points (2,109), and the MAAC's fifth all-time leading scorer overall, despite serving as a reserve as a freshman (behind Marc Brown. His 577 career assists is 5th all-time among players who played four MAAC seasons. His 26.0 point-per game average in the 1993-94 season is Siena's all-time best. That season's team, directed by Bennerman, advanced to the semifinals of the NIT, the furthest progression of any MAAC team in that event. He scored 51 points in the consolation game for third place, and was that season's tournament MVP.

MARC BROWN, 5-11 guard, Siena (1987-91)
Siena's all-time leading scorer with 2,284 points which would rank him fourth all-time among MAAC players had he been in the conference his entire career. Siena, though, didn't join the MAAC until 1989, so Brown only played two MAAC seasons. It says here, though, that Brown was the most-talented guard in MAAC history (those who disagree can contact me for a highlight link that provides viewable evidence) and was denied the opportunity afforded other conference players of getting some NBA time solely because of his stature (he weighed about 155 pounds during his Siena tenure). Recorded 796 career assists and participated in more victories (89) than any other Siena player.

STEVE BURTT SR. 6-2 guard, Iona (1980-84)
Sixth all-time scorer among MAAC players, despite just three seasons in the conference. His freshman season at Iona (381 points in the 1980-81 season) came a year before the MAAC was formed. Add that to his total and he's got 2,534 career points, third among anyone who ever played in the MAAC. A power guard who could shoot long range and get inside for baskets. He played parts of four NBA seasons. At Iona, he shot 52.1 percent from the floor, still best all time among MAAC players who where exclusively guards.

KEYDREN CLARK,, 5-9 guard, Saint Peter's (2002-06)
Ranks with Brown as this blogger's top two guards in league history. The MAAC's second all-time leading scorer (3,058 points), and a two-time national Division I scoring champion who finished second in another season. He had an NBA talent level, but his physical dimensions, like Brown's, precluded an NBA opportunity. Might have been the MAAC's most-unlikely star as he was barely a double-digit scorer in high school, but he flashed his offensive skills immediately with the Peacocks where he single-handedly led that program to respectability over his four seasons.

LUIS FLORES, 6-2 guard, Manhattan (2001-04)
Played a season at Rutgers before joining the Jaspars. First-team all-MAAC all three seasons, and a two-time Player of the Year. One of three multiple PofY winners (Lionel Simmons won three, Burtt won two). One of 11 players to score 2,000 career points while in the MAAC, and one of just two (along with Burtt) to do it in less than four seasons. A fundamentally sound player who operated without flash. Played parts of three NBA seasons. Manhattan finished 68-21 overall during his three seasons.

TONY GEORGE, 6-3 guard, Fairfield (1982-86)
A do-everything guard/swingman who was the best player on the only team in conference history to date to win the regular-season championship by a four-game margin (1985-86). He scored 630 points that season, still No. 1 all-time at Fairfield, and his 2,006 career points is also the highest total in the program's history. One of just 11 career 2,000-point scorers in the history of the MAAC.

KEVIN HOUSTON, 5-11 guard, Army (1983-87)
The first MAAC player to lead the nation in scoring when he averaged 32.9 points per outing, the highest ever by a MAAC player in one year (1986-87). A lightning-quick release on his jumper. No. 3 all-time leading MAAC scorer with 2,325 total points. Only played one season in the 3-point era, and made 47.7 percent of the treys (63-of-132) that year. His career .869 free-throw percentage is third all-time among MAAC players, and the best by any four-year MAAC performer.

JARED JORDAN, 6-2 guard, Marist (2003-07)
Arguably the best "pure" point guard in conference history, whose career assist total (813) is 142 better than the next highest total by a four-year MAAC player. Pass-first player early in his career, he developed an above-average jumper and also finished with 1,538 career points ranking him 45th all time among MAAC players. He led the NCAA in assists twice (8.5 per game as a junior, 8.7 as a senior), the only player to lead the country in that statistical category in consecutive seasons since Avery Johnson did it in the late 1980's.

JUAN MENDEZ, 6-7 center, Niagara (2001-05)
An unyielding inside force who rarely shoot beyond the 10-to-12-foot range yet still scored 2,210 career points, the fourth-highest total of all four-year MAAC players. Mendez is also one of just seven MAAC players to finish with more than 1,000 career rebounds, and his 1,053 total ranks fourth all-tine in that category. One of just three players (along with Lionel Simmons and Jason Thompson) to be in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding on the conference's career list.

DOUG OVERTON, 6-3 guard, La Salle (1987-91)
One of just two players to be a starter (along with Lionel Simmons) on the only two teams to have perfect MAAC seasons (14-0 in 1987-88, 16-0 in 1989-90), and he was a big reason for that. He is No. 2 all-time on the conference's career assist list (671) and No. 17 among scorers (1,795). Also one of seven four-year MAAC players with an assist-to-turnover ratio (2.01) above 2.00. He went on to play 11 NBA seasons, believed to be the longest NBA career by a MAAC player.

LIONEL SIMMONS, 6-7 forward, La Salle (1986-90)
The Babe Ruth of MAAC players ... in other words, the all-time best, and by far. His 3,217 career points not only is the conference's all-time best, but third ever by players exclusively on the D-I level (only Pete Maravich and Freeman Willliams scored more). His career 1,419 rebounds is 248 better than the next highest total by a MAAC player. The conference's only 3-time Player of the Year, and during those three seasons his teams were 33-1 in MAAC play and 80-21 overall, both all-time bests for a league team over three seasons. The MAAC's first-ever first-round NBA draft choice, he played seven NBA seasons.

JASON THOMPSON, 6-11 center, Rider (2004-08)
Unquestionably the conference's all-time best "big man," although he didn't start out that way. A slender 6-7 forward when he was recruited by Rider, he grew into a dominating 6-11, 250-pound physique by his senior year while retaining some perimeter skills to compliment his inside game. The MAAC's latest first-round NBA draft choice, he is having a solid rookie season with the Sacramento Kings. With Rider he had 1,171 career rebounds (second in MAAC history), and scored 2,040 points (ninth all-time in the conference).

RANDY WOODS, 5-11 guard, La Salle (1989-92)
A powerful yet quick guard with long-range shooting ability. His average of 3.2 three-pointers per game is fourth-best all time in the conference. His 1,811 career points in just three seasons (he was ineligible as a freshman) is 16th best all time. With both Simmons and Overton gone, Woods kept La Salle strong in 1991-92, averaging 27.3 points and 6.3 rebounds , 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals per game. It was enough for him to become the conference's second first-round NBA pick, and he played parts of four NBA seasons.

Final Weekend Important for Women, too

There's at least one major possibility at stake for a conference women's team and, as is happening with the final men's weekend of play the scenario is also happening in Western New York.

The Canisius women are currently 13-4 in conference play, a game ahead of 12-5 Fairfield.

The Golden Griffins can close out second place in the MAAC by winning its final regular-season contest when it hosts geographic rival Niagara (1-16 in the league, 2-26 overall) Saturday at 2 p.m.

A second-place finish would mean an automatic berth in the WNIT. That nationaly post-season event expanded to a 48-team field two years ago to give every conference an automatic berth. That berth goes to the best team left in a conference, based on regular-season standings, after the NCAA makes its selections.

Marist, with its 15-2 conference record, has already clinched the regular-season title.

Whether Canisius captures the MAAC's automatic berth to the NCAA's by winning its post-season tournament, or winds up in the WNIT it would be the program's second trip to a national post-season event ever. The 2004-05 team made it to the NCAA's.

The current team's 21-victory total (currently 21-7) matches the 2004-05 team for the most victories in a season on the Division I level.

Whatever success Canisius has down the stretch, though, won't allow it to approach the program's all-time record for victories. The 1982-83 team, a Division II program then, finished 28-5 that season.

That team's roster included current Siena coach Gina Castelli, a freshman that season; and Kara Haun, then a junior, who coached five seasons at Canisius under her married name (Kara Rehbbaum) in the early-to-mid 1990s.

Last Weekend Still Has Drama

It's the last weekend of regular-season play in the conference, and the league championships for men and women are already decided.

But that doesn't mean there aren't some interesting storylines still to play out before the league's upcoming post-season tournament.

Start with tonight's men's matchup between first-place Siena and second-place Niagara at the Taps Gallagher Center on the Purple Eagles' campus. And, even without traveling there, we'll get a look since it's being televised over ESPNU.

(Personal note: While it's hard to beat the seat from in front of the 42-inch TV monitor, this humble blogger will most definitely miss visiting Buffalo's Anchor Bar, the original home of the chicken wing).

Siena has a three-game lead in the league standings with two remaining games (it also plays at Canisius Sunday afternoon).

Still, there's plenty at stake for both the Saints and Niagara.


A Siena victory would give it a four-game advantage over Niagara, truly establish its dominance this season and continue to build a case as one of the best teams ever to play in the conference.

Only once in the league's previous 27 years of existence has the league's regular-season crown been decided by a four-game margin. That was done by the 1985-86 Fairfield team, which finished 13-1 in league play.

A Siena victory would also add to its credibility as a strong candidate for an at-large NCAA tournament berth should it fail to capture the conference's automatic bid that goes to its tournament winner.

Siena, currently 22-6 and rated No. 24 nationally in the Ratings Percentage Index, would need to win its two games this weekend and advance to the MAAC's championship game before losing in order to keep its at-large hopes alive.

Individually, Saints' senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck could strengthen his candidacy for conference Player of the Year consideration with a strong weekend of play.

In conference play only, Hasbrouck averages 17.1 points (third in the league), 48.0 percent field goal accuracy (13th), 2.2 assists (14th), 1.9 steals (third) and 1.7 three-pointers made per game (9th).

Un a year when there isn't truly a single individual standout in the conference ... if Hasbrouck can finish out strong this weekend, it could be enough for the preseason's Player of the Year selectee to be the post-season honoree, as well by virtue of being the best player on the MAAC's best team.


The Purple Eagles are likely to finish second in MAAC play, needing one victory in its final two games (its last game is against Marist on Sunday), but a victory over the Saints would give it a psychological boost if the teams meet again in the post-season tournament's championship game.

Niagara is also trying to strengthen its case for a national post-season tournament berth should it not win the conference tournament.

Currently with a 22-7 record, Niagara has clearly made a strong case for inclusion in the NIT should it not win the MAAC's automatic bid to the NCAA's. That case, though, would weaken were Niagara to falter down the stretch. It probably would still be an NIT team even with a loss to Siena today, but likely couldn't afford losing to Marist, too.

Niagara appears to be playing well at the right time with a 6-1 record so far this month, the only loss coming in a 90-87 decision at Rider, the conference's third-place team.

It gives tonight's game a big-game feel, even without there being a consequence to the regular-season standings.

"This game is big," said Niagara's sophomore point guard Anthony Nelson. "They (the Saints) are 15-1 and we're second in the league. This is basically a game to see how far we've come."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tournament Site Starts Annual Rite

Like birds heading south for the winter, trees beginning to bud in the spring, and leaves turning brilliant colors in the fall ... complaints about the site of the conference's post-season tournament are an annual rite.

Or, at least, when that site is Times Union Center in Albany, where it will be this season for the second consecutive season (and will be next season, too).

Playing there seems to make perfect sense. It is one of the finest facilities available for the event, and because it traditionally draws crowds that dwarf attendance when the the tournament is held elsewhere.

So, why the complaints?

Because since the 1997-98 season the arena has also served as the exclusive home court for the Siena men's team.

And because coaches everywhere have no concern about any bottom line other than the one involving wins and losses, any possibility of a competitive edge isn't viewed favorably by the nine coaches who serve at conference schools other than Siena.

Needless to say that they'd all prefer to play in a empty gymnasium than in a facility that might provide a home-court edge for someone else.

That the tournament is here this year has already become an issue, and is likely to become an even bigger one as this season's event approaches.

That's because Siena has not lost a game at the Times Union Center this season.

The issue affects Rider more than any other team since the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., just down the road from Rider, had originally been set to host this year's tournament before asking to be relieved of that obligation.

Talking about that issue several weeks ago, here's what Rider coach Tommy Dempsey had to say:

"I'm disappointed in not having the tournament here (in Trenton), but it just didn't work out that way," said Dempsey. "It would have given us a competitive advantage not having to go up to Albany.

"Unfortunately, with Siena being a strong as it is ... (playing in Albany) gives them a tremendous advantage. If we had a bigger fan base as a league, a neutral site would be ideal because playing on one of our teams' home courts is too much of a competitive advantage to one team."

Be sure, though, that Dempsey won't be the only one to address the issue before the tournament begins, because Siena's home-court edge appears to be greater this year than ever.

The Saints are 14-0 at home this season, after playing their final regular-season contest there this past Saturday and earning an 81-76 victory over Northern Iowa.

The perfect home slate marked the first time since the building opened in 1990 that Siena got through its schedule of games there unscathed.

Even in the building's early years, when only a portion of the Saints' home games were at the Albany venue, Siena failed to run the table.

The closest it came previously were 2-1 regular-season records there in 1991-92 and 1992-93, a 12-1 mark in 1998-99 and a 13-1 record in 1999-00.

Overall Siena is 134-71 all time (a .658 winning percentage) on the court also previously known first as the Knickerbocker Arena and, later, as the Pepsi Arena.

Prior to this season's 14-0 run that record had been 120-71, a .628 winning percentage.

In all other games played away from its home court since it begain playing games at the Albany arena Siena has a 189-182 record prior to this season, a .510 winning percentage.

So, yes, playing tournament games on Siena's home court does appear to give the Saints an edge.

But, how much?

In MAAC tournament games held in Albany, Siena has an 18-11 record, a .621 winning percentage.

But, there's also this: the tournament has been played 13 times in Albany and Siena has only won it twice (2001-02, 2007-08).

Over the first seven years the event was held in Albany Siena failed even to advance past the semifinal round

Over the 13 times the event has been held in Albany, Siena entered the tournament after finishing first (three times), second (twice) or third (twice) seven times and has only captured the tournament title in one of those seasons.

Its other MAAC tournament victory (2001-02) came when several injured players returned to health late in the season to bolster the late-season play of a Siena team that finished seventh in the regular season.

Heck, each of four other conference teams - Iona (three times), Manhattan (twice), Saint Peter's (twice) and La Salle (twice) - has won the MAAC's post-season tournament at least as many times on the Albany court as Siena.

In the six other years the event has been held elsewhere, venues that are at least geographically favorable to other teams, the "home" team can only claim one post-season tournament crown.

It would seem to point to the fact that the team playing the best during the tournament has a much better chance to win it than the home team.

And if Siena does win this year's MAAC tournament on its home court?

Considering that the Saints are currently 22-6 overall, ranked 24th nationally in the most-recent Ratings Percentage Index and are currently three games in front of the next best team in the conference standings ...

Wouldn't all of that make Siena the most-likely team to win the post-season event, no matter where the tournament games were held?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Observations from a Basketball Weekend

Three basketball games, three venues, 45 hours....

This humble blogger got a nice dose of basketball over this past weekend, witnessing the Fairfield women build a big lead and, then, hold off host Siena (at Siena's Alumni Recreation Center), 68-57, on Friday night; the Siena men build a big lead and, then, hold off Northern Iowa (at Albany's Times Union Center), 81-75; and, the Marist women build a big lead and, then, extend it (at the McCann Center in Poughkeepsie)to knock off Siena, 78-49.

Observations, not only from those games, but from around the league ...

- After getting first-hand looks at both the Fairfield and the Canisius women's teams within the past two weeks, the sentiment here is that Fairfield has the best chance if anyone is to upset Marist in the conference's upcoming post-season tournament.

The Lady Stags have the requisite height (6-foot-1 players in starter Lauren Groom and reserve Tara Flaherty), a standout individual in 5-11 forward Baendu Lowenthal, who is one of the top three or four players in the conference; outside shooting particularly from Lauren Groom (30-of-73, 41.1 percent, on three-pointers this season), and a very effective point guard in Megan Caskin, who is second in the league with 128 total assists.

The Fairfield women also have considerable experience - Lowenthal, Groom and Caskin are seniors and Geehan is a junior - and own a victory over Marist (73-68), one of two conference losses suffered by the Red Foxes this season.

- None of the above is meant to diminish anything accomplished by the Canisius women this season.

The Golden Griffins, by virtue of a 70-67 overtime victory over Iona on Sunday, are 21-7 overall. The victory total matches the program's Division I record for wins in a season, and will establish the record if it can defeat Niagara on Saturday.

Canisius now has an NCAA record of consecutive games with a 3-pointer (449), and entered Sunday's game with Iona ranked seventh nationally by hitting 38.5 percent of its 3-point attempts, and 12th nationally in treys made per game (7.5).

The Griffs, too, have an individual standout in senior Marie Warner, an outstanding point guard (Brittane Russell), some height in 6-1 starter JJ Williams and 6-0 reserve Ellie Radke to go along with the outside shooting. And, Canisius also has a regular-season victory against Marist (68-60).

Both Fairfield and Canisius have four league losses and the prediction here that Fairfield might hold a slight edge between the two comes merely from one first-hand observation of each team recently which hardly constitutes an "expert's" opinion.

For sure, though, the likely semifinal round match of Fairfield and Canisius in the conference tournament will be a good one.

- Marist displayed its usual dominance in Sunday afternoon's 78-49 victory over Siena. A standing-room only crowd of 2,980 was on hand, providing a wonderful sporting atmosphere.

As final seconds ticked off, most in attendance responded with a standing ovation for the home team, which was only fitting. They continue to witness conference history from what has become the most-dominant women's program ever to compete in the MAAC.

Marist is now 25-3 overall and has gone over the 20-victory total for six straight seasons.

Sunday's victory clinched outright possession of the MAAC's regular-season crown, also the sixth straight time the team has either won outright (the past five seasons) or shared (2003-04) the regular-season title.

That's a league record. Only Saint Peter's (1981-82 through the 1985-86 seasons) won or shared five straight regular-season MAAC titles. And, back then, there were only six MAAC teams.

Marist has just three league losses in the past three seasons (50-3) and five in the past four seasons (66-5).

In a word: Incredible.

Marist also has the best player in the league in 6-1 forward Rachele Fitz, the best guard in the league in Julianne Viani and goes 10 deep in quality players.

- A nice touch by the Marist staff on Sunday when it honored Fitz as the program's all-time leading scorer.

On hand for the pregame ceremony was Ursula Winters, previously the program's No. 1 scorer, who graduated in 1985 but looked like she could still play.

Fitz now has 1,742 career points. Winter finished with 1,587 career points.

Only a junior, Fitz already ranks 15th all-time on the conference's career scoring list and, next season, will likely threaten the all-time mark of 2,467 held by former Loyola standout Patty Stoffey.

- Congratulations to the Niagara women's team on earning its first victory of the season, a 70-65 decision over Loyola.

The outcome took place on the Purple Eagles' final home game, the traditional "Senior Night."

Fittingly, Niagara's three seniors, Kristina Walton, Erika Harris and Kayleigh Scannell scored the team's first 15 points and 39 of its 70 in the game. Walton finished with a career-high 22 points, while Harris had 10 and Scannell finished with 7.

Niagara is now 1-16 in league play and avoids becoming just the third MAAC women's team to finish a season without a conference victory.


- It was a successful BracketBusters weekend for the conference as MAAC teams won six of the 10 games in the series.

MAAC BracketBusters victories were:
Siena, 81-75, over Northern Iowa
Niagara, 70-56, over Illinois State
Canisius, 71-66, over Bowling Green
Manhattan, 54-39, over William & Mary
Marist, 57-35, over Hartford
Rider, 71-65, over UMBC.
A note ... Hartford's 35 points in its game with Marist marked the lowest point total that the Red Foxes have ever permitted to a Division I opponent.

The other four BracketBusters results were:
Hofstra over Fairfield, 61-56
Boston University over Iona, 63-57
Youngstown State over Saint Peter's, 68-64
Drexel over Loyola, 74-58

And, some observations:

- Siena continues to establish itself as a candidate for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament should it fail to win the MAAC's post-season tournament.

Siena currently ranks No. 24 in the Ratings Percentage Index, and would finish 26-7 overall should it win its final two regular-season games (Friday at Niagara, Sunday at Canisius) and the first two rounds of the MAAC tournament and, then, falter in the tournament's championship game.

But, then, there is this type of sentiment...
ESPN's NCAA tournament "Bubble Watch" had this to say about the Saints' at-large chances:

"The Saints took care of business in their BracketBusters game Saturday, beating Northern Iowa 81-75 at home. But the victory won’t do much for Siena’s résumé, leaving it without a victory over an RPI top-50 opponent. Siena is 0-4 against RPI top-50 opponents, losing to Pittsburgh and Kansas on the road and Tennessee and Oklahoma State on neutral courts. The Saints have wins over Saint Joseph’s (road) and Northern Iowa (home), but they also have ugly losses to RPI No. 141 Rider and No. 146 Wichita State. Siena will present an intriguing case to the selection committee. Siena’s RPI rating is among the Top 25 because of its strength of schedule, but there aren’t any quality victories in its gaudy record."

Needless to say that your humble blogger does not agree with ESPN.

Since when did losses to teams with RPI's in the 140s become "ugly" ones?

There are 343 teams playing Division I basketball. Even at No. 146, Wichita State ranks in the top 43 percent of all Division teams in the RPI.

Losing to teams, say, ranked 241 or 246 ... that would be ugly.

But losing to 141 and 146?

Definitely not ugly.

Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

- Siena basically outclassed Northern Iowa, the first-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference, in Saturday's game.

The Saints had a 40-19 lead at halftime, and still led by 20 with 11 minutes remaining, and by 13 with just over two minutes left. The Panthers, taking advantage of a Siena defense designed to avoid fouls late in the game, scored on their last seven possessions to turn what was truly a rout into a relatively close final margin.

- Niagara had similar success against Illinois State in its BracketBusters game, a result that should solidify its aspirations for an NIT bid should it fail to make it to the NCAA's by virtue of winnint the conference tournament.

The Purple Eagles are 63rd nationally in Jerry Palm's computer approximation of the RPI's as of Monday morning, certainly high enough for NIT consideration.

Niagara is currently 22-7 overall. The 22 victories already is the highest total for the program prior to the MAAC tournament since it finished the 1992-93 regular season with 23 victories.

The Purple Eagles have two regular-season games remaining to match or surpass its all-time regular-season total for victories. It hosts Siena on Friday and Marist on Sunday.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Siena set up for Historical Domination

In the previous 27 seasons of MAAC basketball, only one regular-season champion has ever finished regular-season play with a four-game edge in the standings over that season's runner-up.

Siena, this season, could become just the second team to create that distance in the standings of a league where parity is historically the norm.

The only conference team ever to finish four games ahead of the pack was the 1985-86 Fairfield team, which finished 13-1 in league play while second-place Iona was 9-5 that season.

Not even the unbeaten La Salle teams (1989-90, and 1987-88) finished with that big a margin. The 1989-90 team that finished 16-0 in conference play was two games better than 14-2 Holy Cross. The 1987-88 Explorers, 14-0 in the MAAC, were three games better than 11-3 Saint Peter's.

And, here's a historical coincidence: The head coach of the 1985-86 Fairfield team was Mitch Buonaguro, who is currently a Siena assistant coach.

The current Siena team has a 15-1 MAAC record. Niagara, which lost Wednesday (90-87) at Rider, is second with a 12-4 record.

Each team has two games remaining, including a Feb. 27 meeting at Niagara which is the next conference contest for both. If Siena wins there, its standings' lead over Niagara would increase to four.

The Saints then could ensure keeping at least that big a lead by winning its final game on March 1 when it plays at Canisius, the league's last-place team.

The MAAC is a team where parity is almost a tradition. Regular-season champions have only earned at least a three-game edge over its closest competitor four times in the previous 27 seasons.

The 1985-86 Fairfield team had its precedent-setting four-game advantage, while titlists with three-game edges have been Manhattan in 2003-04, Iona in 1997-98, and La Salle in 1987-88.

Teams have won regular-season crowns with a two-game margin in the standings six times, meaning the regular-season champ has either won by just a single game or there has been a tie for the title in 17 of 27 seasons since the MAAC was formed.

In fact, there have been eight ties (5 in the 11 seasons since the MAAC expanded to its current 10-team format), and there have been nine times that the regular-season champ held a single game's advantage over the second-place team.

Niagara coach Joe Mihalich has seen most of the MAAC history with 11 seasons as Niagara's coach and nine as an assistant at La Salle when that program was still in the conference.

"This is the 20th year that I've been in this league, and the league has never been better," said Mihalich, recently. "I mean, never from top to bottom. So, for (Siena) to win as many games as they've won is really remarkable."

There are two more games for Siena to win. If the Saints finish those out, it becomes all the more of a remarkable season.

In fact, it arguably would stamp Siena, at least in the opinion of this humble blogger, among the best five teams in MAAC history.

Niagara Loss Clinches title for Siena

As of about 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, Feb. 18, the race for the conference's 2008-09 regular-season championship came to an end.

Second-place Niagara's 90-87 loss at Rider dropped the Purple Eagles three games behind front-running Siena with two regular-season games remaining and clinched the regular-season title for the Saints.

That means Siena is assured of participating in a national post-season tournament this season. The MAAC's regular-season champion is guaranteed a berth in the NIT, provided it does not capture the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA's, which it can only do by winning the league's post-season tournament.

Niagara, currently at 21-7 overall, will still likely finish with a mid-20's victory total and, in this humble blogger's opinion, will deserve an NIT berth should it not win the MAAC's post-season tournament and the resultant NCAA bid.

Here's an interesting tidbit from Wednesday's game ... It marked the first time all season that Niagara allowed 90 points in a league contest, and just the second time overall this season it gave up that many points. Only Tennessee-Chattanooga, a 99-84 winner over the Purple Eagles earlier this year, had also scored at least 90 vs. Niagara this season.

Niagara had held opponents under 60 points in each of its past five games, a first for a Niagara team since the 1949-50 season. The last five games, though, did come against Manhattan, Iona, Saint Peter's, Fairfield and Canisius, teams that are the lowest five in the MAAC in terms of points scored this season.

Niagara's defense wasn't at its best at Rider on Wednesday. Rider made 54.8 percent of its shots in the contest, including an impressive 61.9 percent (13-of-21)from three-point land. That kind of shooting by the winners had the Purple Eagles behind by 19 points with 5:10 remaining.

Still down by an 84-74 score with 3:21 remaining, Niagara's junior guard Tyrone Lewis then scored 10 straight points for his team to bring the Purple Eagles to within 86-84.

Junior reserve Demetrius Williams then made three free throws late in the game to give Niagara an 87-86 lead with 27 seconds remaining.

And, then, Rider's 6-foot-6 junior point guard Ryan Thompson drove the lane and dished out to senior guard Harris Mansell, who drained the game-winning three-pointer with six seconds remaining. Niagara couldn't get off a shot after that, committing a turnover that allowed Mansell to tack on a free throw with a second remaining for the game's final score.

The outcome enabled Rider, currently in third place in the conference standings (10-6) to clinch a spot in the top six, ensuring it won't have to participate in an opening-round game among the bottom four finishers in the conference tournament.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speaking Up in Defense of Niagara

It used to be that the Niagara men's basketball team needed to score in the 80's ... and, often, in the 90's ... to win games.

But that's not the case this year.

There's something different about the Purple Eagles this season.

The results, though, are the same. Now in his 11th season at the school head coach Joe Mihalich has had just one losing season. His team is currently 21-6 overall with four regular-season contests yet to play. Between those games, and MAAC tournament games, the Purple Eagles will likely finish with a win total in the mid-20s. If they don't win the MAAC tournament and the resultant automatic berth to the NCAA's, they should be a strong candidate for an NIT bid.

This also marks the fourth time in the past six seasons that Niagara has won 20 games.

It has been enough for Mihalich to record his 200th career victory at the school in Saturday's victory over Fairfield. His .608 winning percentage (200-129) makes him one of six active coaches with at least 200 wins and a .600 winning percentage at a single school.

Until now, though, Mihalich has found good athletes and allowed them to freedom to make plays on the offensive end.

This year, though, is different in this way: Six of Niagara's victories have come when it scored 68 points or less.

The Purple Eagles, with a lineup that includes a shot-blocking 6-foot-10 Benson Egemonye in the middle surrounded by five superb athletes, have become nearly as good on the defensive end as on offense.

And the measurement of that is tangible. Niagara ranks third nationally in steals per game (10.4), and two of its players are also among the national leaders in that category. Guard Tyrone Lewis is seventh nationally with 2.8 steals per contest, while forward Bilal Benn is 13th with his 2.6 steals-per-game average.

Lewis leads the MAAC in steals, while Benn is second.

It has been enough for Niagara to hold its last five opponents to 55 points or less for the first time since the 1949-50 season.

Other accomplishments?

Niagara's 21 victories makes it, along with Siena (also 21-6 as of Tuesday, Feb. 17), among six mid-major level teams nationally with at least 21 victories.

Thirteen of Niagara's victories have come away from its home-court Gallagher Center, the highest number of away-from-home victories in the country.

Among the earliest signs of the "new" Niagara came in mid-December with a 67-62 victory at Drexel.

"We had to find a different way to win in that game," said Mihalich. "We had to be as good defensively as they were."

Since then Niagara has continued to be strong defensively, nearly as good on that end as it has always been on the offensive end.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marist Women Still a Strong Force

Reports of the vulnerability of the Marist women's team might have been a little premature.

The Lady Red Foxes lost twice in a 14-game span recently, dropping a 73-65 decision (at home, no less) to Fairfield on Jan. 23 and, then, lost by a 69-60 score at Canisius on Feb. 6.

But those, now, appear to have been mid-season blips. At least if the most-recent Marist result is any indication.

The Red Foxes won a nationally televised (ESPN2) battle of northeast mid-major level powers on Sunday, earning a 78-73 victory over Hartford in overtime.

The game was a match of defending league champions, Marist of the MAAC and Hartford of America East. And, both look like they'll defend those crowns. The Red Foxes are 13-2 in MAAC play while the Hawks are 9-1 in its league.

It had to be a satisfying outcome for Marist for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it ended Hartford's 34-game homecourt winning streak, which had been the second-longest active one nationally (only UConn's still-active 36-game streak is longer).

The game was played before a crowd of 3,217, the largest ever to witness a women's game at Hartford's Chase Arena at the Reich Family Pavilion, a place where the Hawks rarely lose. Hartford had been 64-2 on its home court since midway through the 2004-05 season.

The outcome also brought a measure of revenge for a Hartford victory at Marist a year ago, ending a 26-game Marist homecourt winning streak. The Hawks won that game, 49-32, holding Marist to its lowest point total since midway through the 2004-05 season.

Marist outscored Hartford 12-7 in the overtime session, with five of those points coming from 5-foot-10 swingperson Lynzee Johnson, who finished with 12 points in the contest. Johnson also sank two clutch free throws with 26 seconds left in regulation that tied it up, and Hartford's Katie Kelley missed a fadeway jumper with two seconds left that set up the extra session.

"That was one of the best games I've ever been involved in," said Marist coach Brian Giorgis. "It was too bad somebody had to lose. It was a great game for mid-major women's basketball."

The victory was the third straight for Marist since its loss to Canisius. Since then, it beat Loyola, 86-53, and avenged one of its earlier league losses by knocking off Fairfield, 64-52.

Marist is now 23-3 overall and has a 14-1 MAAC record.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mock Committee Says Siena is Worthy

In the MAAC's history only one team, the 1994-95 Manhattan squad, has ever been awarded an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.

Could there be another one this season?

There's at least a chance for that, according to a mock selection committee of 20 national media members and sports information/media directors who recently participated in process, similar to what will actually be conducted by the NCAA's selection committee, to hypothetically select the NCAA tournament field.

The mock committee, provided with a series of hypothetical scenarios, awarded Siena an at-large bid should the Saints finish regular-season play with just one regular-season conference loss and, then, lose in the MAAC tournament's championship game.

The mock committee awarded the Saints the final of 34 at-large bids, gave Siena a No. 12 seeding position in a 16-team bracket and matched the Saints up with UCLA in a first-round contest.

The 20 media members debated for 12 hours and, then, were paired into 10 teams of two. Each two-man team represented one member of the NCAA's actual 10-member selection committee and casted secret ballots throughout the process after considering a variety of scenarios.

According to the blog the mock selection was not meant to predict the NCAA field if selections were made today, but rather what could happen in March.

"The automatic qualifiers have some random upsets involved and so forth," the blog reported. "The committee is throwing wild cards and wrenches into things to prove points and make things interesting."

Siena is currently 20-6 overall and 14-1 in MAAC play. The Saints are ranked 27th nationally in the most-recent Ratings Percentage Index report. Only one team with an RPI in the top-30 (Missouri State in 2006) has ever failed to receive an at-large berth.

Several mock committee members spoke about their reasons for giving the Saints the hypothetical at-large berth.

"Siena has three things that you need to be successful in March: athleticism, toughness and experience," said CBS college basketball analyst Seth Davis. "They actually have a similar profile to Davidson's last year -- a tough non-conference schedule that included a lot of losses, but which served as great prepration for the post season. The fact that they returned all their starters from a team that won a first-round game last year is also critical. These guys have played together a long time, and they have confidence knowing they have succeeded in the tournament before. Believe me, any coach who sees their name pop up next to Siena's on the Selection Show is going to have a fitful night's sleep."

ESPN senior writer Andy Katz also spoke favorably about the Saints, saying "Siena struggled early but didn't fade. Ultimately Siena did the right thing - the Saints scheduled well, built up their RPI and coasted in the MAAC toward the league title. That's the recipe for a potential bid and a decent seed once again."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Han's Career Over at Fairfield

Fairfield senior Jonathan Han, one of the conference's better point guards and a first-team preseason all-MAAC selection, is finished as a Stag.

The school issued a release earlier this week that indicated that Han decided to leave the program for personal reasons and will not play the remainder of the season.

However, a variety of reports indicate that Han might have been able to return to the program were he willing to "smooth things out" with Stags' coach Ed Cooley, related to Han's recent suspension for violating team rules.

Reports indicated that Han had a post-game shouting match with an assistant coach after a recent game that brought about the suspension. But the the blowup was just the latest in difficulties Cooley had with Han, according to a report.

Instead, a Monday meeting between Han and Cooley did not bring a resolution to the simmering situation, and, according to one report, Han given an option of how he wanted to be dismissed from the program.

Han winds up with 1,072 career points and 526 career assists. The assist total is third-best all time at Fairfield.

BracketBusters Times for MAAC Teams Set

Siena and Niagara will each appear on mainstream ESPN2 in a BracketBusters game, while the other conference team to draw a TV date, Fairfield, will be on, a broadband network that is presently available in nearly 25 million homes via approximately 45 internet service providers.

Here's the schedule for the three televised MAAC BracketBusters games:
- Friday, Feb. 20: Illinois State at Niagara, 7 p.m., ESPN2 and
- Saturday, Feb. 21: Northern Iowa at Siena, 3 p.m.; ESPN2 and
- Saturday, Feb. 21: Hofstra at Fairfield, 7 p.m.;

And, here's a listing of the other 10 BracketBusters games that will be televised:
- Friday, Feb. 20: Virginia Commonwealth at Nevada, 9 p.m., ESPNU.

Games of Saturday, Feb. 21 include:
11 a.m., Northeastern at Wright State; ESPN2,
11 a.m., Liberty at Old Dominion, ESPNU.
Noon, Butler at Davidson; ESPN,
1 p.m., Buffalo at Vermont, ESPN2,
3:30 p.m., Miami (Ohio) at Evansville, ESPNU.
5 p.m. Utah State at Saint Mary's; ESPN2,
5:30 p.m., Green Bay at Long Beach State, ESPNU.
7:30 p.m., Boise State at Portland State, ESPNU
9:30 p.m., George Mason at Creighton, ESPNU.

MAAC to get Much TV Exposure

The upcoming BracketBusters games that will be televised are far from the only times conference teams will be featured on TV in coming days.

Here's a rundown of other MAAC regular-season games that will be available on TV:

-Friday, Feb. 13: Niagara at Loyola (women), 5 p.m.; and, Iona at Loyola (men), 9 p.m., both games on ESPNU.

- Saturday, Feb. 14: Niagara at Fairfield (men), 9 p.m., ESPN2.

- Monday, Feb. 16: Canisius at Saint Peter's (women), 6 p.m.; and, Marist at Saint Peter's (men), 8 p.m., Madison Square Garden network.

- Friday, Feb. 27: Siena at Niagara (men), 7 p.m., ESPNU.

- Sunday, March 1: Fairfield at Rider (men), 2 p.m., MSG.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Final Unbeaten Falls at Rider

Did anyone think the Siena men's team would finish this season with a perfect MAAC record?

This humble blogger didn't expect perfection, and perfection was denied for the Saints in a stunning 90-88 loss at Rider on Saturday (Feb. 7).

It's not that the result was stunning, but the manner in which it occurred.

Siena had a 13-point lead with under nine minutes remaining in the game and saw that evaporate faster than a mud puddle in the tropic region.

At one juncture late in the game, the Broncs scored on 16 consecutive possessions. When that incredible run was over Rider had turned its 13-point deficit into an 84-78 lead with 2:24 remaining.

Siena then tied the game twice in the closing minute, but couldn't get a stop after either tie. The last tie was at 88-88 with 37 seconds left.

Rider then put the ball in the hands of its Player of the Year candidate Ryan Thompson at the top of the key with about eight seconds remaining. The 6-foot-6 Thompson, a difficult one-on-one matchup for anyone, drive past Siena defender Edwin Ubiles, and got to the rim for a layup with three seconds remaining to secure the victory.

Without having witnessed the game in person, we'll offer some insight, hopefully with a little perspective ...

- This humble blogger never considered this Siena team to be one of the best ever to play in the MAAC, certainly not close to the caliber of the La Salle teams that finished 16-0 in conference play (the last team to be perfect in 1989-9000 and 14-0 in the league in 1987-88.

In fact, the feeling here is that the Paul Hewitt-coached teams of 1998-99 (which went to the NCAA's) and 1999-00 (which went to the NIT) were both slightly better than the current squad.

It's also a personal belief that the 1988-89 Siena team (which went to the NCAA's and beat Stanford in a first-round game) is better, and was the best Siena team ever, although Siena was not yet a MAAC member then (it joined the conference in the following season).

And, regular-season perfection is extremely difficult. It hasn't been done, now, for 19 seasons, and there have been some very, very good teams along the way.

If Siena finishes out with a 17-1 MAAC record, then, this blogger will recognize it among the MAAC's best of the past two decades. For now, though, we'll hold off on bestowing that accolade.

- The current Siena team has imperfections, one of which showed up again against Rider.

Primarily, this is a below-average free-throw shooting team. The Saints are hitting a poor 64.7 percent of their free throws, the second-lowest percentage, among the 10 MAAC teams. Only Canisius (58.8 percent), which only has two conference victories thus far, is worse.

The Saints shot 18-of-28 from the foul line against Rider (64.3 percent). In a two-point outcome, the value of a missed free throw, or two, becomes magnified.

For some perspective, here are the free-throw percentages of the three seasons that Paul Hewitt coached at Siena:
1997-98: 80.3 percent
1998-99: 78.7 percent
1999-00; 75.0 percent

This season Siena has just one player shooting over 70 percent from the charity stripe. That's 6-foot-9 center Ryan Rossiter (78.1 percent), who scored 14 points and was a perfect 4-for-4 from the line against Rider. his teammates made 14-of-24 FTs (58.3 percent)against the Broncs.

- The Saints also remain flawed in terms of height, although that's not of their own doing. Rossiter is the only true center currently active. Last year's primary two players at the position were Josh Duell and Corey Magee, both still in the program. But, Duell has missed much of the season with a variety of injuries (he's due back, probably in Siena's next game) and Magee is out for the season due to complications from a preseason concussion.

Siena has done well to be outrebounded, overall, only by an average of 36.4-to-35.9 per game.

- All five Siena starters played at least 31 minutes against Rider. The three Saint reserves who got into the game combined for 28 minutes.

Three of Rider's five starters played 29 minutes or fewer. Rider's three reserves combined for 53 minutes.

Was Siena tired, the trait that would most likely show up at the defensive end, when Rider made its 16-possession stretch of scoring plays late in the game?

There's no way of knowing that for sure, and we're just pointing out numbers in this instance.

- Siena's senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck scored 29 against Rider and has 83 points in his last three contests (27.7 per outing) to thrust himself back into Player of the Year consideration. He leads Siena in scoring, steals and 3-pointers made, and is second in assists.

- There is the theory that a late-season loss actually helps a team's motivation afterwards, although most coaches won't subscribe to that.

Still, a post-game comment from Hasbrouck says much ...

"I don't think our heart was there today," Hasbrouck is quoted as saying, immediately following the game. 'It starts at the top. I wasn't playing defense the way I should have. And, I think you just go down the line. None of us were rotating the way we should have. None of us had the urgency to stop somebody."

Maybe a loss will restore the necessary urgency.

- Does the loss knock Siena out of consideration for an NCAA tournament at-large berth, should it fail to capture the conference's post-season tournamnent?

It does diminish that chance, but this humble blogger still believes Siena can re-position itself for a potential at-large berth.

Of course, Siena would have to win out (five more league games, plus its BracketBusters meeting with Northern Iowa), and, likely, have to advance to the championship game of the conference tournament. If that scenario occurs, Siena would have a 26-7 record for the selection committee to consider.

In that respect, it makes the BracketBusters contest Feb. 21 against Northern Iowa probably the most-importaing regular-season contest Siena has remaining.

Northern Iowa is currently 18-6 with an 11-game winning steak and is rated high enough in the Ratings Percentage Index to give Siena a boost in its RPI should it win that meeting.

Actually, though, any loss prior to the MAAC championship game is probably enough to take Siena off the board of at-large teams should it not get the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA's.

- Siena's loss means the MAAC's regular-season title chase isn't entirely over. Siena is currently 12-1 in conference play, followed by 9-3 Niagara.

The Saints have legitimately tough road games remaining against Niagara and Iona (as well as home contests against Loyola, Manhattan and Canisius).

Is it that much out of the realm of possibility for Siena to lose twice more to MAAC opponents and Niagara to finish out with wins to create a tie for the regular-season crown?

Odder, less-likely things have happened in the MAAC over the years.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Former MAACers Making National News

There have been a few happenings on the upper levels of college basketball of late that involve some well-known individuals who were once affiliated with MAAC school.

For this segment, it all relates to former Loyola coach Dino Gaudio, some of it good and some of it not so good in terms of results.

Gaudio is currentlly in his second season as head coach at Wake Forest. Not that long ago, his Deacon Demons knocked off nationally ranked No. 1 Duke. That pushed Wake's record to 17-1 and a No. 6 national ranking in the AP's Top 25 poll.

And, then, some other MAAC connections have had roles in Wake's back-to-back losses since it reached that lofty height.

On January 31st, Wake dropped a 76-74 decision at Georgia Tech, which is coached by former Siena coach Paul Hewitt. The victory was Georgia Tech's first in Atlantic Coast Conference competition this season.

Four days later (Feb. 4), Wake lost again, this time dropping a 79-52 decision at ACC opponent Miami.

Another Siena connection, guard Jack McClinton (he played as a freshman at Siena in the 2004-05 season before transferring) had a season-high 32 points in the victory on 11-of-19 shooting including 6-of-10 from 3-point range.

On the season, McClinton averages 19.0 points per contest. His 45.8 percentage on three-pointers is eighth-best nationally, and his 3.1 treys made per game is 25th best nationally.

League Coaches Tackle Many Topics

Notes and quotes on a variety of topics from a conference call of MAAC men’s coaches on Wednesday, Feb. 4.

… On Jan. 29, when Canisius played against Siena at the Times Union Center in Albany, the Golden Griffins’ 6-foot-9, 300-pound center Chris Gadley looked to be effectively shaking off the rust after missing several weeks with back problems.

But that process, for the Griffs’ big man who matched a MAAC record with 25 rebounds in an early season game against Maine, is far from complete.

“He’s still day-to-day,” said Canisius coach Tom Parotta. “He’s a very large human being, so any tweak at any time, whether he comes down wrong or he moves wrong can activate it. It’s something that has bothered him chronically over the past couple of years.

… The situation involving Fairfield’s senior guard Jon Han, a preseason first-team all-league pick, is expected to be resolved soon, maybe as soon as today (Thursday, Feb. 5).

Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley indicated that he and Han would meet with school administrators and come to a decision on the player’s future status in the program.

Han was suspended for a violation of team policy. It was reported that Han was suspended following a post-game incident after the Stags’ 65-60 loss to Manhattan on Jan. 26 in which the player was heard arguing with an assistant coach. Cooley, though, indicated in reports that the confrontation with the assistant wasn’t Han’s only transgression this season.

“No decision has been made yet, but it will be coming soon,” said Cooley, about Han, who has not practiced in the last 10 days. “His situation will be decided before we leave for our trip to Western New York (for games at Canisius and Niagara on Friday and Sunday, respectively).”

The Stags leave for the trip on Thursday afternoon.

Han’s situation isn’t Fairfield’s only woe. The Stags will be without sophomore forward Anthony Johnson for the rest of the year with an undisclosed medical situation, and without guard Warrren Edney for at least four more weeks (broken foot). Besides that, junior forward Greg Nero has been limited recently with back problems.

Amazingly, since the loss of Han, Johnson and Edney, Fairfield has won its last two games , with victories over Marist and Loyola to push its record to 7-5 in the MAAC and 14-9 overall.

… Iona coach Kevin Willard didn’t offer very much insight to a post-game brush off when he declined to shake hands with Niagara coach Joe Mihalich after a 65-53 loss to the Purple Eagles on Monday.

Published reports speculated that Willard perceived some late-game sideline gestures made by Mihalich as taunting.

In Wednesday’s conference call, though, Willard called the incident a misunderstanding.

“Something was said after the game, we cleared it up and that was the end of that,” Willard said. “It was a misunderstanding by both coaches. I have nothing but great respect for the job that Joe does and how hard his teams play.”

… No coach in the league seems to be looking forward to an upcoming BracketBusters game more than Willard. His Gaels will play at Boston University. Willard knows the area well, having worked for four seasons in Boston as a coaching associate with the Boston Celtics under Rick Pitino. After that, Willard followed Pitino to Louisville where he was an assistant coach for six seasons prior to taking over at Iona.

“I’m excited about taking my team to Boston,” said Willard. “It’s a chance for me to see some old friends with the Celtics, and to eat at a great North End restaurant I know.”

… Manhattan remains without 6-foot-6 forward Devon Austin (back injury), the Jaspers’ third-leading scorer (11.4 points, along with 4.9 rebounds per game), and arguably their best all-around player.

“He’s not with us right now, and we’re not sure when he’ll be back,” said Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen. “ I don’t think he’ll be able to play Saturday (at Loyola). Beyond that, we’re not sure.”

… Let the MAAC Player of the Year debate begin.

Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said his own sophomore Jamal Barney deserves consideration.
And, there’s a case to be made for the 6-foot-3 guard who began his career at Providence before transferring to Loyola.

Barney is the MAAC’s leading scorer (19.0 points per game), but has been hot lately. He twice went hit for at least 40 points in a game in January, getting 41 against Canisius on Jan. 3 and, then, 40 against NJIT 10 days later.

Over the past 11 games, Barney is averaging 24.5 points, and averages 5.6 rebounds on the year.

“We’re not the best team, but he means the most to our team,” said Patsos. “Guys we had here before him, Gerald Brown and Andre Collins (both transfers from major programs who were big-time scorers at Loyola) have shown him the way.

“He’s like an NBA guy, like George Gervin, in that he scores in a lot of ways. He’s just a really good scorer. He just decided to take the team over about Jan. 1, and he has been real good since then.”

… Marist gets one of the easiest trips for a BracketBusters game, a 95-mile bus ride to play at Hartford.

“I’m glad it wasn’t someone out west where it would be a plane ride,” said Marist coach Chuck Martin. “This makes sense geographically, and it’s a good opportunity to play a non-conference team and to give yourself to play against a different style of play and different personnel than what you become used to in your own league.”

… Joe Mihalich of Niagara is not only one of the league’s top coaches, but also one of its staunchest supporters.

“This is my 20th year I’ve been around the league (first as an assistant at former league member La Salle and, for the past 11 years, Niagara’s head coach), and the league has never been better. It absolutely, positively has been better,” said Mihalich. “There’s no game that you look forward to playing, on in which you don’t get that angina.

Niagara, which opened with a 13-3 overall record then lost three of four but has now won its last three games.

“I think, when we were 13-3, our team felt like it had gotten to where we needed to be and it was almost as if the job was done. We forgot why we were good,” added Mihalich. “Now, I feel like the feeling is back. At least I hope it is. We just won two road games (at Manhattan and Iona), and that’s like gold, it’s so difficult to win on the road.”

… Mihalich also had a great perspective about the BracketBusters situation (his team will host Niagara in one of three games involving MAAC teams that will be televised by ESPN).

“We’re ecstatic and proud to have earned a national TV game (hosting Illinois State),” said the Niagara coach. “There are two reasons to be playing in the BracketBusters. One is what has happened to us, to get a national TV game. The other reason is scheduling. It’s so hard to schedule, so hard to get teams to come to your place, and to find the right team. It gives you another scheduling opportunity.”

… Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, whose team hosts UMBC in this year’s BracketBusters game, said he didn’t mind having to travel to Cal State Northridge to play in the event a year ago.

“I can speak to the positive experience we had (in the BracketBusters game) last year, even though we had to fly across the country,” said Dempsey. “At the time we were in first place in the MAAC, and Cal State Northridge was in first place in its league.

“We had some alumni parties back home for people to watch on TV, and everyone was really excited about the game. And, we won by one point. It wasn’t only the national TV exposure, but getting a high-RPI win on the road was a big reason why we did end up in a post-season tournament (in the CBI tournament).

“We were hoping for a TV game again this year. Heck, if they want to put you on TV then you go to the end of the earth. If not, then you hope for one that makes sense (geographically).

Rider gets a game that makes plenty of sense, hosting UMBC this year and, then, having to travel for the return date against the Baltimore school, about an hour's ride away, next season.

… Rider is also banged up physically, according to Dempsey. One of the team’s senior guards, Lamar Johnson, a potent force off the bench, is done for the year with an injury. And, senior Harris Mansell, traditionally a long-range shooting threat, has been battling an elbow injury all season that doesn’t allow him to shoot in practices. “I think he’ll find a way to make shots down the stretch, but he hasn’t been the same since he got hurt (earlier this season),” said Dempsey.

… The third-youngest team in the country, in terms of the age of its players, is Saint Peter’s.

It likely means better things are ahead, and the team’s play of late might be a harbinger. The Peacocks have won two of their last seven games, lost another by a point and another by two points.

“We’re improving day-by-day, and it starts out in practice,” said Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne. “I’m just very happy with how we’re growing on a daily basis in practice. Guys come to practice hard every day, and focus on the scouting report and game plan. When you see guys talking about the game plan during a game, you know they’re paying attention.”

…Siena coach Fran McCaffery’s team reaped the benefits of a 2,500-mile trip to play at Boise State in last season’s BracketBusters game, so he’s not complaining about drawing Northern Iowa in a home game on Feb. 21 that will require an 1,100-mile trip for the return engagement in Cedar Falls, Iowa, next year.

Last year Siena used its game with Boise State as a springboard to a late-season run that ended with a trip to the NCAA tournament and, once there, a first-round upset victory over Vanderbilt.

The Saints were 16-10 and had lost their previous two games prior to their trip to Boise State. Once there, the earned an impressive win and didn’t lose again (winning seven straight, including three in the MAAC tournament) before falling in the NCAA tournament’s second round to Villanova.

Northern Iowa is currently the top team in the Missouri Valley Conference and has won its last 10 games.

“There’s no question about the benefits of games like this,” said McCaffery. “I talked very openly about that at the start of the season about the potential benefits of scheduling like we did this year.”

Siena has already played Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Wichita State in non-conference games this season. Games against those high-caliber opponents, coupled with a 17-5 overall record thus far, helped Siena be rated No. 20 nationally in the most-recent Ratings Percentage Index.

"First, we wanted that kind of difficult schedule to help us secure consideration for an NIT bid if we were not to win our league’s regular-season title,” said McCaffery. “If we do real well, then maybe we’d get consideration for an at-large berth (to the NCAA tournament) if we don’t win our league’s tournament (and an automatic bid to the NCAA’s). If you don’t win the conference tournament, the only way to be on the board for an at-large berth is to play other teams that are in it (the NCAA tournament).”

The other advantage is that Siena could get a favorable seeding if it gets to the NCAA event and its RPI remains high, as it would with a victory over Northern Iowa.

Several of the early “Bracketology” predictions currently have Siena getting a No. 11 seeding in a 16-team region.

… Siena’s attempt to finish out strong and, possibly, be the first team to finish league play unbeaten since the 1989-90 La Salle team won’t be easy. Siena is currently 11-0 in conference play and plays next at Rider on Saturday in a rematch of last season’s MAAC tournament championship game.

“We recognize the difficulty of what remains, beginning with the Rider game on the road,” said McCaffery. “We’ve also got a road game with Iona, which we only beat by one point at home), and a road game with Niagara, which is one of the premier teams in the league, and a road game at Canisius. Coupled with the BracketBusters game, we’re facing a formidable schedule the rest of the way.

“But, so far, we’ve shown a certain level of mental toughness to remain undefeated. More will be necessary to remain unbeaten."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Siena's Buonaguro Near Longevity Mark

One of the all-time "good guys" who works a MAAC school sidelines is Siena assistant coach Mitch Buonaguro, who is about to reach a milestone for longevity as a coach on the college level.

When Siena plays at Rider on Saturday (Feb. 7), Buonaguro will coach his 1,000th Division I basketball game.

It is a testimonony to longevity, but also survival in what is an unstable profession.

One does not last as long as Buonaguro without being good at doing what he does, and the Siena assistant is one of the best.

Buonaguro is now in his 34th season as a college coach, nine of those in the MAAC.

Veteran fans will recall that his only position as a head coach, to date, was a six-yer stretch at Fairfield (1985-86 through 1990-91). He went there immediately after serving as an assistant coach on Villanova's national championship team of 1985.

His first two seasons at Fairfield resulted in two (1986, 1987) of that program's three trips to the NCAA tournament (the other was 1997). Buonaguro was named the MAAC's Coach of the Year after his first season there in 1986.

Buonaguro, now 55, worked as a graudate assistant (1975-77) for two seasons at his alma mater, Boston College, prior to joining Rollie Massamino's staff at Villanova.

After he was fired at Fairfield after a 33-80 record over his last four seasons there. Overall, he has a 73-103 record as a head coach, and his team's 24-7 record in his first year at Fairfield is still the best in that program's Division I history. Since his depature from that school, Fairfield has finished with a winning record just three times in the past 16 years.

Buonaguro then landed as an assistant at Texas A & M (1991-96), as an assistant at Cleveland State (1996-03) and, then, began working for current Siena coach Fran McCaffery, first at UNC-Greensboro (2003-05) and, now with the Saints since the 2005-06 season.

Although his work is behind-the-scenes, Buonaguro is well known in theh Siena community as personable representative of the program who enjoys talking basketball to anyone he encounters.

A great profile of Buonaguro appears in the Feb. 4 edition of the Times Union, written by Pete Iorizzo, who is (in the humble blogger's opinion) the best writer/reporter coving the MAAC.

Herre's a link to Pete's story on Buonaguro ...

Monday, February 2, 2009

BracketBusters TV for Siena, Niagara and Fairfield

Well, now we know that the ratings mean little when it comes to determining the pairings for the upcoming BracketBusters games to be played on Friday, Feb. 20 and Saturday, Feb. 21.

If the ratings meant anything, then followers of the Siena basketball program would be treated to a BracketBusters game against Butler, currently the No. 11 team nationally in this week's AP Top 25 poll.

That would only seem the natural match, since the Saints are the highest-rated team in the pool of teams that will host BracketBusters' games, and Butler is the highest-rated team that will be on the road for the ESPN-sponsored event.

Instead, Siena will host Northern Iowa, the No. 8-rated road team by, which rates teams for the BracketBusters Report. The game will be played on Feb. 21, although the game's time has yet to be determined.

Overall, Northern Iowa is No. 73 nationally in the RPI's, while Siena is No. 20.

Does that make sense? Of course not.

But, remember, this is a made-for-TV, run-by-TV event. ESPN will televise 13 of the 51 matchups of mid-major level programs.

The most-attractive match would involve Butler, which is 19-1 overall, and Davidson, the second-highest rated home team with an 18-3 record. Davidson, which has one of the sport's best players in senior guard Stephen Curry, advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of eight last season.

So, does it surprise anyone that Butler has been matched with Davidson for a BracketBusters' game? It shouldn't. When a television network calls the shots, it dictates what's best for ratings, not what would appear to be the more-equitable "showdown" of the two top-rated teams eligible for the event, Butler and Siena.

It's not as if Northern Iowa isn't a solid oppnent. The Panthers are 16-6 overall and have won their last 10 games.

But, at No. 73 nationally in the RPI's ... a victory over Northern Iowa won't be a major boost for Siena's hopes for an NCAA tournament at-large berth should it fail go get the MAAC's automatic bid by winning the conference's post-season tournament.

A loss to Northern Iowa, though, would be detrimental to Siena's at-large hopes.

And this humble blogger hasn't even addressed the travel difficulties and significant expenses related to sending the Panthers here this season and Siena to Cedar Falls, Iowa, next season for the return portion of the BracketBusters' situation.

What should Siena fans expect from Northern Iowa?

A big, balanced team. The Panthers have five players averaging between 11.5 points and 9.4 points per game. Their two inside players are 7-foot-1, 290-pounder Jordan Eglseder (9.4 points, 5.8 rebounds) and 6-8, 245-pound forward Adam Koch (11.4, 4.8).

Niagara and Fairfield will also be featured in televised matchups. The Purple Eagles will host Illinois State, while Fairfield will host Hofstra.

Game times and network assignments for the televised games will be announced on Monday, Feb. 9. ESPNU will televise five of the games, ESPN2 will televise six and, ESPN's customized broadband service, will offer two.

All 10 MAAC teams will get BracketBusters games, but the other seven contests will not be televised.

Here are those pairings:
Canisius is at Bowling Green
Iona is at Boston University
Loyola is at Drexel
Manhattan is at William & Mary
Saint Peter's is at Youngstown State
Hartford is at Marist
UMBC is at Rider

As part of the agreement, home teams will play a return game at the home facility of their 2009 BracketBusters series opponent in November or December of the following season.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Youthful Iona Not Ready for Prime Time

The Iona men's team, fresh from a near-upset of league-unbeaten Siena in its previous game (Jan. 26), recently showed the downside of the proverbial roller-coaster of wide swings often associated with youthful teams.

The Gaels suffered a surpsing 67-64 loss to Saint Peter's, on Iona's home court no less, on Saturday (Jan. 31).

The Peacocks, now 3-8 in MAAC play, entered the game tied for the fewest number of conference wins.

And, maybe, it wasn't all Iona's doing. Saint Peter's also has a nice group of talented players and is probably the youngest team in the conference. So, it's just as easy to credit the Peacocks for finding the up-swing on its roller coaster ride this season.

Saint Peter's 6-2 sophomore guard Wesley Jenkins certainly played beyond his years in the contest, finishing with a game-high 30 points that included 7-of-8 shooting from beyond the three-point stripe.

Teammates 6-7 center Ryan Bacon and guard Nick Leon, both also sophomores, each added 14 points.

Iona had a 10-point lead with under six minutes to play, and an 8-point edge with under four minutes left.

But from the 4:19 mark, when the Gaels held a 61-53 lead, St. Peter's sprinted in with a 14-3 edge in scoring the rest of the way.

Jenkins led the late surge with back-to-back treys to close it within 61-59 and, then, added a free throw to make it 61-60. When Bacon got a hoop after that, St. Peter's led, 62-61, with 2:32 remaining.

Iona didn't score a field goal in the game's final 4:19 with its only points coming on 3-of-6 shooting from the foul line.

The Peacocks, a small but quick team, likely matched up well with Iona's freshman guard Scott Machado, who is the front-runner to be the MAAC's top freshman this season.

But against Saint Peter's Machado played like a freshman, making just 1-0f-6 shots (3total points) and committing seven turnovers.

Iona had entered the week with five victories in its previous six MAAC games, but now have back-to-back losses (to Siena, and Saint Peter's) and have falline into a tie for sixth place in the conference standings with Manhattan, each with 5-6 league records.


Iona got 41 minutes of playing time in the game from seniors, 52 from juniors, 36 from sophomores and 71 from freshmen.

Saint Peter's only has one senior on its roster (Ismaila Traore), who played 10 minutes in the contest. It also used just one junior in the game (Akeem Gooding), who played 24 minutes. Sophomores played 130 minutes with freshmen 36 minutes.

Fitz No. 1 at Marist, More Coming

In case you missed it, Marist's junior forward Rachele Fitz became the leading career scorer at that school's women's program in the Lady Red Foxes' 70-44 victory over Manhattan on Friday (Jan. 30th).

The 6-foot-1 Fitz had only six points in the game after getting into early foul trouble, but it was enough to push her career point total to 1,593, surpassing the previous school record-holder, Ursula Winter's 1,587 mark.

This humble blogger couldn't possibly identify every milestone statistic compiled within the MAAC, but Fitz' growing total is worth noting because it could continue to grow into a real big one.

Barring something unusual, she is likely to get near the top of the all-time scoring mark for anyone who ever played in the MAAC on the women's side.

If one projects Marist to play three MAAC tournament games this year, and one in a national post-season event, then Fitz will have a minimum of 12 more games to play this season. And, if the same happens next year, she will play 33 more games as a junior.

That's 45 more games. If she continues to score at her 20.2 point-per-game rate of this season, that's 909 more points, which would get her just over 2,400 points for her career. And, then, there's a chance that Marist could go beyond one game in a national post-season event. Last year it got to the NCAA tournament's second round, and two years ago it played in three NCAA tournament games.

Only two players in the league's history have scored more than 2,400 career points.

Patty Stoffey of Loyola (1991-95) finished with 2,467 career points, while Sheila Tighe of Manhattan (1980-84) finished with 2,412.

Only three other conference players finished with at least 2,000 points. They are Melanie Halker of Siena (1995-99), 2021 points; Tonya Grant of Saint Peter's (1986-90), 2020 points; and, Shauna Geronzin of Canisius (1998-2002), 2012 points.

Fitz looks like a certainty to join the "Fabulous Five" atop the league's all-time scoring list and, probably, become one of the all-time top three ... if not, ultimately, No. 1.