2020-2021 MAAC men’s basketball preview

By Shaun Chornobroff

College basketball season is scheduled to start on Nov. 25. Exactly when each team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) will experience their first tip-off, remains a mystery.

A surge in COVID-19 cases in the northeast has crept its way into the MAAC causing several programs to pause practicing and potentially eliminate or reschedule games. Non-conference basketball seems less likely by the day. However, MAAC basketball is a much more certain proposition and the 2020-21 season, which is set to start on Dec.11, is set to be a fun one, to say the least.

1. Siena Saints: Jalen Pickett has accomplished pretty much all you can in the MAAC. As a freshman, Pickett was the conference’s Rookie of the Year and as a sophomore became the Conference Player of the Year, leading the Saints to the regular-season title. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down the MAAC tournament and the Saints chances at reaching the NCAA tournament. However, Pickett and fellow first-team All-MAAC selection, Manny Camper, are returning to Carmen Macciarello’s team that should repeat as champions.

2. Saint Peter’s Peacocks: Losing conference Rookie of the Year Aaron Estrada would be insurmountable for a lot of teams. But Shaheen Halloway’s team had 13 players on the court for at least eight minutes per game. KC Ndefo, who led the Peacocks in both points and rebounds was named preseason First Team All-MAAC and should be the centerpiece of Saint Peter’s team. The Peacocks return a lot of their talent and in a year with a shortened off-season, and likely filled with COVID-19 related stoppages, having a deep roster, filled with experience should be crucial.

3. Monmouth Hawks: The Hawks, like Saint Peter’s, have a First-Team All-MAAC in Deion Hammond preseason selection and return a large amount of their roster. The losses of Ray Salnave, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, who transferred to DePaul, and their leading rebounder Musta Traore, may hurt. Even so, I am a fan of a lot of the Hawks’ young talent. Hammond who can seemingly score at will is my dark horse Player of the Year pick and Samuel Chaput is the guard I’m expecting to take the next step and become an even more crucial part of King Rice’s team.

4. Iona Gaels: Not too often does a coach of Rick Pitino’s caliber find his way to the MAAC. And when they do, expectations are high. The pre-season coaches poll had the Gaels at second in the conference, but during the pre-season conference call with reporters Pitino said some of his players were having trouble picking up the new system. Now, the team is paused for two weeks after a positive COVID-19 test. It wouldn’t shock me if Pitino and company end up with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but I’m expecting them to drop some games.

5. Niagara Purple Eagles: Marcus Hammond is one of the MAAC’s best playmakers. He arrived at Niagara as a self-described “pass first point guard,” but his time as a Purple Eagle has seen him develop into one of the conference’s leading scorers. Greg Paulus is one of the MAAC’s best young coaches and may be making the next step as a coach, as his team ascends into one of the best in the conference.

6. Manhattan Jaspers: This may be the biggest wildcard in the MAAC. The Jaspers return most of their roster that went 13-18 and went 8-12 in MAAC play last season. The team does have a Preseason second-team All-MAAC selection in Warren Williams. Having your best talent be a forward, who often finds himself in foul trouble isn’t something that makes me ecstatic. Steve Masiello’s team does have depth after adding three transfers qith a lot of potential, and if that depth matures and takes a step forward this can be a team that’s top-three in the conference. As of right now, I’m not confident that in a conference as hard-nosed and competitive as the MAAC is, the Jaspers have someone who can take over a game and push them to the next level.

7. Quinnipiac Bobcats: Losing one of the best shooters in the conference and the nation’s leading rebounder would bury most teams at the bottom of the conference, but this Quinnipiac team has talent, not to mention, one of the most underrated coaches in the MAAC in Baker Dunleavy. Tyrese Williams and Jacob Rigoni were named to Preseason All-Conference teams and are expected to take prominent roles in the offense. The Bobcats bring back four more players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game. Of those players, sophomore guard Matt Balanc is the guy I have set for a breakout.

8. Canisius Griffins: Majesty Brandon doesn’t only have one of the conference’s best names but is one of its most creative scorers. Brandon can create off the dribble and operate as a catch and shoot player very effectively. A bump in efficiency from the MAAC’s 10th leading scorer would be huge for Reggie Witherspoon’s team. The Griffin’s are going to need the cast around Brandon to improve as well. Unlucky for Witherspoon, the team has already had to be paused twice due to COVID-19 tests, including a positive test in late October from Witherspoon. With multiple interruptions to their preseason, this isn’t the start Canisius was looking for in their season. Don’t be surprised if the lack of practice creeps into the team’s play at the beginning of the season.

9. Rider Broncs: Out with the old and in with the new. The Broncs lost nine players from last year’s team and brought in 12 new players for this season. That’s a lot of players to figure out how to put in a rotation, but also a lot of talent to display in several positions. Head Coach Kevin Baggett is high on his incoming talent and is now armed with a chip on his shoulder after being picked last in the preseason coaches poll. A step forward from Christian Ings and Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson will be crucial for Rider this season. Since becoming head coach, Baggett has never finished lower than seventh in the MAAC. I predict that will come to an end, but this team will not finish dead last as the preseason poll suggests.

10. Fairfield Stags: The Stags will be reliant on two transfers, Caleb Green, a transfer from Holy Cross, and Tsheifu Ngalakulondi who arrived from St. Bonaventure. Both players will be crucial for the Stags to outperform my preseason projection. Neither player has played a live game since early 2019. Call it an overreaction, but relying on two players, in a condensed off-season that have not seen the court since February and March of 2019 scares me. Jay Young’s team ran the least productive offense in the MAAC last season, scoring less than 60 points per game. This was counteracted by the team only giving up 62.9 points per game. The offense will need to take a step up this season if Young’s team wants to take the next step.

11. Marist Red Foxes: The loss of Tyler Sagl will hurt the Red Foxes this season. Sagl, who returned home to Canada this year, led the MAAC freshman in points per game, averaging 8.5. Sagl was also one of the MAAC’s ascending deadeye’s from beyond the arc, shooting 36.5 percent from three-point range. Sagl was a player I had pegged for a breakout campaign. The Red Foxes had no players average double-figures last season, but return guards Michael Cubbage and Matthew Herasme. If these two take a step up and help dominate the backcourt the Red Foxes may be in store for a couple of upsets with the hard-nosed style of basketball Head Coach John Dunne deploys.

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