In a wide-open MAAC an unexpected challenger emerged this weekend

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is expected to have a wide-open race for its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Teams such as defending tournament champion Loyola (MD), Manhattan and Fairfield return key players from last season and there’s also the question of whether or not Iona’s talented newcomers can mesh in time to impact the league race.

But it a conference many felt had as many as six teams capable of winning the conference, a team few discussed in the offseason sits atop the standings with a 2-0 conference record after this weekend.

Canisius, bolstered by the arrival of head coach Jim Baron and son Billy, is now 6-1 on the season after their 94-82 win over Marist on Sunday afternoon. Harold Washington led the way with 25 points (6-of-11 3PT) and Baron added 16 points and 11 assists for the Golden Griffins, who pushed their win streak to three ahead of a game at No. 4 Syracuse next Saturday.

Canisius made 17 of their 36 three-pointers, assisted on 23 of their 30 field goals and out-rebounded Marist 47-29 (19 offensive rebounds).

With the win the Golden Griffins surpassed their win total from last season (five), when they won just five games before Tom Parrotta was relieved of his duties. Some of the names, such as Washington, Alshawn Hymes and Chris Manhertz (18 rebounds today), remain the same but Canisius is yielding far better results in 2012-13.

Offensively Jim Baron’s team was shooting 45.3% from the field entering Sunday’s tilt, an improvement of some five percentage points from last season, and they’re getting to the foul line at a much better clip than in 2011-12.

Adding Billy Baron, who averaged 13.0 points and 2.6 assists per game at Rhode Island last season, to the fold certainly helped Canisius in regards to turning things around. Baron’s currently averaging 18.0 points and 5.6 assists, leading the team in both categories.

And outside of allowing 82 points to the Red Foxes Canisius has improved on the defensive end as well, as they’re forcing more than 16 turnovers per game. As a result of the strides taken on both ends of the floor Canisius picked up road wins this weekend over Fairfield and Marist after going winless on the road in MAAC play last year.

The question now is whether or not the Golden Griffins can pick up where they left off when conference play resumes next month. Canisius has finished seventh or worse in the MAAC in four of the last five seasons, and given the number of teams capable of winning the conference the race will likely go down to the wire.

Nothing of consequence is won in December, but given recent history it’s safe to say that Canisius fans will relish this 2-0 start.

Photo credit: Canisius College

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Reports: Duke’s Frank Jackson to declare for draft

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Frank Jackson will declare for the draft but will not be signing with an agent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Previous reports had indicated that Jackson “planned” to return to school, and that still may end up proving true. But the combination of Trevon Duval potentially enrolling at Duke combined with the fact that there is zero downside to going through the draft process, it makes sense for Jackson to declare.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points and shot 39.5 percent from three. He’s projected as a mid-first round pick in 2018 by Draft Express, but at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to play the two in the NBA and has yet to prove he can be a point guard.

Jackson is the fourth Duke player to declare, following Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Luke Kennard. All three signed with an agent. Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are both returning to school.

VIDEO: Top 2018 recruits Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford go head-to-head at adidas

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This weekend is the first live evaluation period of the spring recruiting calendar as college coaches from all over the country are scouting (and babysitting) the top recruits in the Class of 2018 and 2019.

Friday night the adidas Gauntlet in Dallas opened with a marquee matchup of two star players as five-star forward Zion Williamson and five-star guard Romeo Langford went head-to-head in what should be one of the best games of the spring.

Most scouting services have Williamson and Langford as the No. 2 and No. 3 overall prospects in the Class of 2018 as the duo didn’t disappoint in front of the huge crowd in Fort Worth.

Williamson helped his team to a win with 26 points and seven rebounds while Langford had 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. You’ll be hearing plenty about both of these guys over the next few months as both are still wide open in the recruting process.

(H/t: Ball is Life)

Report: Coppin State hires Juan Dixon as new head coach

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Coppin State has hired former Maryland star guard Juan Dixon to be its next head coach, according to a report from Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun.

The 38-year-old Dixon is best known for leading Maryland to the 2002 national championship as he was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four that year. Now Dixon will have a chance to lead a Division I program for the first time.

Dixon spent seven years in the NBA and also played professionally in Europe before joining the Maryland coaching staff in 2013 as a special assistant to head coach Mark Turgeon. Not retained by Maryland after the 2015-16 season, Dixon took the head coaching job for the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia last season as the Division II program finished only  3-25.

Coppin State finished last season with an 8-24 record after losing its first 12 games of the season. While Dixon will generate some positive local buzz given his background, he’s going to have an uphill battle trying to rebuild that program.

Nebraska scores important Class of 2017 commitment from four-star guard Thomas Allen

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Nebraska landed an important commitment from the Class of 2017 on Friday as four-star guard Thomas Allen is heading to Lincoln next season.

The 6-foot-1 guard is considered the No. 99 overall prospect by Rivals in the national Class of 2017 rankings as Allen was previously committed to N.C. State before head coach Mark Gottfried was fired.

A scorer with a good amount of skill, Allen has a chance to come in and make an immediate impact at Nebraska as he can play a bit on or off the ball. Allen should help offset the loss of senior Tai Webster in the Husker backcourt.

Allen joins wing Nana Akenten in Nebraska’s Class of 2017 recruiting efforts.

North Carolina lands four-star Class of 2017 big man Garrison Brooks

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North Carolina pulled in a late Class of 2017 commitment to begin the weekend as the Tar Heels secured a pledge from four-star Class of 2017 big man Garrison Brooks.

The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Brooks was previously committed to Mississippi State, but he was granted his release this spring to explore other opportunities.

The Tar Heels pounced as they’re getting a low-post threat who could develop into a potential double-double threat. A solid rebounder who isn’t afraid to play with physicality, Brooks has a chance to earn some immediate rotation minutes with seniors like Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks exhausting their eligibility.

Brooks is regarded as the No. 120 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, according to Rivals, as he is a four-star prospect. The native of Auburn, Alabama joins a North Carolina recruiting class that includes point guard Jalek Felton, shooting guard Andrew Platek and big men Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley.