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.

#CBTtop100: Counting down the Top 100 Players in college basketball

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We’ll be counting down the top 100 players in college basketball all week long. Be sure to check back here throughout the week as the countdown continues over @CBTonNBC.

Jalen Coleman-Lands cleared to practice

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Jarrod Uthoff #20 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends against Jalen Coleman-Lands #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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When Illinois takes on Southeast Missouri State in the opener of the 2016-17 season, the Fighting Illini should have it’s starting backcourt out on the floor.

According to Jon Rothstein, Jalen Coleman-Lands has been cleared for all basketball activities. The sophomore two-guard has been recovering from a broken bone in his right hand.

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.

Coleman-Lands will team up with Tracy Abrams, a point guard who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing the past two seasons due to injuries.

This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.

The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.

NBC Sports projected Illinois to finish eighth in the Big Ten this season.

Curtis Jones jumps over Tom Crean

Tom Crean
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Indiana held its annual Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday night.

One of the highlights from the team’s dunk contest was when freshman guard Curtis Jones jumped over Indiana head coach Tom Crean.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a newcomer us his coach as a dunk contest prop. Last week, Rawle Alkins cleared Arizona head coach Sean Miller en route to a reverse jam.

Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.

WATCH: Edmond Sumner take off from the foul line

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Edmond Sumner is a big reason why Xavier is likely going to be a preseason top-10 team.

On Saturday night, during Musketeer Madness, Sumner won the team’s dunk contest when he took off from the foul line.

Sumner defeated freshmen Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, took home the honors last year.

The 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore is coming off a debut season in which he averaged 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

WATCH: Duke goes crazy for Chase Jeter’s bottle flip

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Chase Jeter #2 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on in the second half against the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The bottle flip has become an international sensation in recent months.

It’s as simple as it sounds: flipping a water bottle in the air, attempting to have it land upright.

Duke sophomore forward Chase Jeter, in front of 9,300-plus fans, successfully pulled off the bottle flip on Saturday night at Duke’s Craziness.

Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.