Iona Gaels

Jerod Haase
Associated Press

Mid-majors capable of wrecking some brackets

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It never fails.

Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.

Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.

1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.

2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.

3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.

4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.

5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.

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Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman (AP Photo)

6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.

7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.

8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.

9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).

10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.

Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine

MAAC Preview: Resurgent programs look to join familiar contenders

RaShawn Stores, Kelvin Amayo
Iona's Kelvin Amayo, Manhattan's RaShawn Stores (AP Photo)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the MAAC.

The 2014-15 season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference produced two repeat performances: Iona won its second straight MAAC regular season title, but once again they fell to rival Manhattan in the MAAC tournament title game. The two programs, separated by about ten miles, have been the class of the MAAC recently and, given the returnees in New Rochelle and Riverdale, it would surprise no one if the Gaels and Jaspers once again fought it out for the title.

Iona returns four starters from last season’s team, led by senior guard A.J. English, who averaged 20.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. English should once again be one of the nation’s best scorers, and with sophomore guard Shadrac Casimir coming off of a season in which he was named the MAAC’s best rookie Iona can make a claim of having the conference’s most explosive scoring tandem. Add in Isaiah Williams and Kelvin Amayo, and head coach Tim Cluess has the combination of skill and experience that coaches desire.

Iona’s one key loss was an important one, as forward David Laury IV, 2015 MAAC Player of the Year, was an incredibly versatile player who ranked second on the team in scoring (19.8 ppg) and first in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and blocked shots (45 blocks). How players such as James Madison transfer Taylor Bessick, Wake Forest transfer Aaron Rountree and Indian Hills CC transfer Jordan Washington perform in the paint will have a significant impact on the Gaels’ fortunes throughout the season.

As for Manhattan, Steve Masiello received great news in July when the NCAA granted the team’s heart and soul, point guard Rashawn Stores, a fifth year of eligibility. Stores’ return may not jump out to some who focus solely on stats, but there’s no denying the impact that he has on the Jaspers as a leader. With experienced players such as senior Shane Richards and junior Rich Williams also back, not to mention a forward in junior Jermaine Lawrence who they’ll need to be more productive in his second season in the Manhattan program, the Jaspers have enough to contend if not win the MAAC.

All that said, entering the 2015-16 season it’s clear that there are other programs capable of challenging those two and winning the MAAC themselves.

When discussing other possible contenders, three immediately jump out: Monmouth, Rider and Siena. King Rice’s Hawks took a needed step forward defensively last season, and with Oklahoma transfer Je’lon Hornbeak and fellow guard Micah Seaborn — a non-qualifier last year — eligible, Monmouth adds two talented options capable of having an immediate impact. They’ll join a group anchored by leading scorers Justin Robinson and Deon Jones, and if Monmouth can find enough production in the paint, the Hawks will be a team to watch.

Just over an hour away in Lawrenceville, N.J., sits a Rider program that won 21 games and finished second in the MAAC last season under head coach Kevin Baggett. The Broncs welcome back three starters from that team led by guards Teddy Okereafor and Jimmie Taylor, but the key for this team will be the progression of forwards Xavier Lundy and Khalil Thomas. One of Rider’s personnel losses was center Matt Lopez, a first team All-MAAC performer who led the team in both scoring and rebounding a season ago.

While other contenders have a key personnel loss to focus on entering 2015-16, Siena’s key boils down to two words: stay healthy. Brett Bisping played in just six games due to injury and center Imoh Silas being lost before the season even began due to a torn ACL. Of Siena’s top nine scorers only three — Marquis Wright, Javion Ogunyemi and Ryan Oliver — managed to play in all 31 games. With most of that rotation back, head coach Jimmy Patsos has a group that’s capable of contending. The x-factor for the Saints is Ogunyemi, who is waiting to see if he will be available to play. He initially transferred to Boston University this offseason before returning to Siena.

While Canisius will have to account for the loss of three of its top four scorers, led by guard Zach Lewis, Jim Baron has some players who can help the Golden Griffins emerge as a sleeper of sorts in the MAAC. Central Connecticut State transfer Malcolm McMillan, who averaged 10.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a junior in 2013-14, joins the ranks with forwards Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton among the returnees.

Teams such as Marist (guard Khalid Hart) and Fairfield (forward Marcus Gilbert) have individual talents whose names will be on the end of season all-conference team lists come March, which should make for an entertaining (and challenging) 20-game slate for each MAAC team. In each of the last three seasons the same two rivals have faced off with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. And while Iona and Manhattan will be expected to extend that streak to four, there’s no doubt that others are capable of claiming the MAAC title as their own.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “There are four or five teams looking to accomplish what Iona and Manhattan have [in recent years]. But from a recognition standpoint you can’t talk about the MAAC without talking about Manhattan and Iona, because they’re the teams that have [been successful].”
  • Sleeper: “I think Canisius is always a dangerous team. One thing about Jim Baron is that he always gets his guys to play above the level that they’re supposed to, and I think that’s a gift. He’s done a great job of that throughout his career, and when he has the talent that’s supposed to win he wins. And when he’s had talent that made you say ‘I don’t know how good they’re going to be,’ he wins then too.
  • Star to watch: “I think there are a number of guys. Obviously A.J. (English) has a great résumé in terms of what he’s accomplished; from a numbers standpoint he’s accomplished a lot of great things. I think a guy who could have a monster year is (Marist PG) Khalid Hart. I just think he’s a special young man who can really go.”

PRESEASON MAAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: A.J. English, Iona

As one of the nation’s best scorers English averaged 20.1 points per contest as a junior. But he isn’t simply a shooter/scorer either, as English also accounted for 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The ability to be productive in multiple areas is one reason why English has been on the receiving end of attention from NBA scouts.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MAAC TEAM:

  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Monmouth’s best team since joining the MAAC will be led by Robinson, who averaged 13.4 points and 3.6 assists per game in a first team All-MAAC 2014-15 campaign.
  • Shadrac Casimir, Iona: One of the best perimeter shooters in the MAAC, Casimir shot 42.3 percent from three and averaged 14.5 ppg as a freshman.
  • Shane Richards, Manhattan: Richards averaged 13.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last season, and his role gets even larger with the departures of Emmy Andujar and Ashton Pankey.
  • Marcus Gilbert, Fairfield: A third team All-MAAC selection last season, Gilbert averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ryanarestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Iona
2. Manhattan
3. Monmouth
4. Rider
5. Siena
6. Canisius
7. Marist
8. Fairfield
9. Quinnipiac
10. Niagara
11. Saint Peter’s

MAAC announces change to conference tournament format

Hampton v Manhattan
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For conferences in which at-large bids to the NCAA tournament are tough to come by, the conference tournament is an incredibly important event. With that being the case, some leagues have looked give their top teams in the regular season an advantage when it comes to the conference tournament setup.

For some that advantage comes in the form of home court advantage, while others may do things such as advance their top seeds to the semifinals of the event. Thursday afternoon the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which in the past rewarded its top two seeds with a bye into the semifinals, announced that it has changed the format for its men’s and women’s conference tournaments.

Both tournaments, which are held at the same site (the Times Union Center, Siena’s home court in Albany, New York), will begin on Thursday, March 2 with three first round games in the women’s tournament followed by three games in the men’s bracket. The biggest change comes on Friday, with the top two seeds in both brackets taking the court against the winners of the 8/9 and 7/10 games respectively.

“The vote for the revised format was 9-1-1, with Manhattan opposed and Quinnipiac abstaining,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said in the release.  “The format change has been accepted by the Times Union Center (Albany, NY) which is hosting the 2016 & 2017 championships under a current three-year contract.”

And the winners of those games get a day off ahead of Sunday’s semifinals, which could especially pay dividends for teams that aren’t especially deep. News of a format change was first reported by the Asbury Park Press on Tuesday, and the paper got some comments from Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello.

And it’s safe to say that he isn’t all too thrilled with the timing of this change.

“I can’t recall a time when some changes happen within eight, nine months. Why not wait until the next contract?,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello told the Asbury Park Press via phone on Thursday afternoon.

“Basically, to have this changed, I have yet to get an answer why, which is what I find very puzzling. I think maybe people are tired of Manhattan and they don’t want to talk about that elephant in the room, our style and our depth. We’ve been to three title games in three years, back-to-back winners in two. I have a feeling that people didn’t like that because maybe we weren’t supposed to be there.”

The MAAC’s contract with the Times Union Center runs through the 2017 MAAC tournaments. Next year’s MAAC tournament schedule breaks down as follows:

Thursday, March 
Women’s First Round
9:30 a.m. 8 seed vs. 9 seed
11:30 a.m. 7 seed vs. 10 seed
1:30 p.m. 6 seed vs. 11 seed

Men’s First Round
5:00 p.m. 8 seed vs. 9 seed
7:00 p.m. 7 seed vs. 10 seed
9:00 p.m. 6 seed vs. 11 seed

Friday, March 4
Women’s Quarterfinals
12:00 p.m. 1 seed vs. 8/9 winner
2:30 p.m. 2 seed vs. 7/10 winner

Men’s Quarterfinals
7:00 p.m. 1 seed vs. 8/9 winner
9:30 p.m. 2 seed vs. 7/10 winner

Saturday, March 5
Women’s Quarterfinals
12:00 p.m. 3 seed vs. 6/11 winner
2:30 p.m. 4 seed vs. 5 seed

Men’s Quarterfinals
7:00 p.m. 3 seed vs. 6/11 winner
9:30 p.m. 4 seed vs. 5 seed

Sunday, March 6
Women’s Semifinals
11:00 a.m. 1/8/9 winner vs. 4/5 winner
1:30 p.m. 2/7/10 winner vs. 3/6/11 winner

Men’s Semifinals
4:30 p.m. 1/8/9 winner vs. 4/5 winner
7:00 p.m. 2/7/10 winner vs. 3/6/11 winner

Monday, March 7
Women’s Championship 
Semifinal winners, Time TBD

Men’s Championship
Semifinal winners, Time TBD

Report: Former Providence center Paschal Chukwu to visit Syracuse

(AP)
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Having already visited Kansas, Nebraska and Michigan State, former Providence center Paschal Chukwu is still working through the process of picking a new school. Thursday afternoon CBSSports.com reported that the former Friar will visit Syracuse this weekend.

Also being considered by the 7-foot-2 Chukwu as possible transfer destinations per the report are Iona and Virginia. Chukwu averaged 2.6 points and 2.4 rebound per game as a freshman at Providence.

In regards to the Orange, Jim Boeheim can use another big man for the future. While the Orange welcome back Chinoso Obokoh and Dajuan Coleman and add freshman Moustapha Diagne, Coleman hasn’t played much during his time at Syracuse to to injury problems and Obokoh has played sparingly as well.

Chukwu wouldn’t be eligible to play next season for the Orange due to NCAA transfer rules, but adding another interior piece for the future would help Syracuse. The Orange did lose a scholarship as a result of sanctions handed down by the NCAA earlier this year, but they’d still have room for Chukwu in 2015-16 and beyond.

Heading into the 2015-16 season players such as Diagne, fellow freshman Tyler Lydon and junior Tyler Roberson will be key pieces as Syracuse looks to account for the loss of All-ACC forward Rakeem Christmas. Chris McCullough, who left for the NBA after his freshman season, suffered a torn ACL during the non-conference portion of the 2014-15 campaign.

Former Wake Forest forward to finish career at Iona

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Under head coach Tim Cluess, Iona’s had a lot of success with transfers from either the junior college ranks or another Division I school. Sunday the two-time MAAC regular season champions added a graduate student to its program, as former Wake Forest forward Aaron Rountree III announced that he’ll use his final season of eligibility at Iona.

The 6-foot-8 Rountree was a role player in each of his three seasons at Wake Forest, playing 14.4 minutes per game in 2014-15. Rountree averaged 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest last season, shooting 42.6 percent from the field for the Demon Deacons under first-year head coach Danny Manning.

With Iona losing an incredibly versatile forward in David Laury III, recent pickups of Jordan Washington and Rountree will help the Gaels account for Laury’s departure from a depth standpoint.

In addition to Washington, Rountree joins junior college transfer Najeal Young and James Madison transfer Taylor Bessick as players who did not suit up for Iona in 2014-15 but will next season. Kelvin Amayo is Iona’s most productive front court returnee, as he averaged 7.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest last season, with occasional starter Ryden Hines due to return as well.

Guards A.J. English, Shadrac Casimir and Isaiah Williams will be asked to lead the way for a team that should once again be favored to win the MAAC and make a run at its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.

MAAC Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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With the Gaels and the Jaspers lined up on opposite sides of the bracket, are we in for a Iona-Manhattan MAAC Tournament championship game for the third straight March?

The rivals have split the last two tournament titles with Iona reaching a second-consecutive NCAA tournament in 2013 and Manhattan punching its ticket for the Big Dance for the first in a decade last year. Rider, the No. 2 seed, is without star big man Matt Lopez for the rest of the season while Monmouth and Canisius look to replicate success against the MAAC’s elite again this season.

If we do see Manhattan and Iona for the third time this season, you won’t hear any complaints from me. The teams have met twice with Iona winning both games by a combined seven points.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology | The updated top 25

Bracket

source:

When: March 5, 7-9

Where: Times Union Center (Albany, New York)

Final: March 9, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)

READ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

Favorite: Iona

The Gaels have two guys in line for the MAAC Player of Year in A.J. English and David Laury, Schadrac Casimir, who should be the unanimous choice for MAAC Rookie of the Year and last week got back Isaiah Williams, who is also averaging double figures.

And if they lose?: Manhattan

Like mentioned above, the Jaspers play their rival tight, including a three-point win in last year’s MAAC Tournament championship game. The Jaspers can’t look ahead to March 14 because they’ll likely get Quinnipiac, which has been a torn in their side, in the quarterfinals.

Sleepers:

  • Rider: Odd that the Broncs are being referred to as a sleeper as the No. 2 seed, but they might be written off heading into postseason play after Matt Lopez tore his ACL last week. He was leading the team in scoring and rebounding.
  • Monmouth: The Mountain Hawks have already defeated Iona once this season — losing by one-point in the rematch. It’s worth noting, the No. 4 seed has reached the MAAC Tournament title game in three of the last four years.

Player of the Year: A.J. English, Iona

He’s not even his team’s leading scorer, but he’s the conference’s best player who is luring NBA scouts to New Rochelle. The 6-foot-4 junior scoring guard is top-3 in the MAAC in scoring at 19.5 points per game, grabbed 5.2 rebounds and dished out a conference-best 5.2 assists per game.

Coach of the Year: Kevin Baggett, Rider

The Broncs were picked to finish seventh in the MAAC preseason poll and enter’s the MAAC Tournament in March as the No. 2 seed. Rider led the conference in defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, and head to Albany winners of seven of its last eight.

All-MAAC team:

  • English
  • David Laury, Iona: The leading scorer for the Gaels averaged 20.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
  • Emmy Andujar, Manhattan: One the more versatile mid-major wings led the Jaspers in points (16.5), rebounds (7.5), assists (3.5) and steals (2.1).
  • Zaid Hearst, Quinnipiac: Top-4 in the conference in scoring at 18.4 points per game. The 6-foot-4 guard also corralled 6.2 boards per game.
  • Ousmane Drame, Quinnipiac: Averaged a double-double this season — 14.4 points and 10.8 rebounds — to go along a conference-leading 3.0 blocks per game. Registered double-doubles in 12 MAAC games.

CBT Prediction: Iona over Manhattan