Iona's Kelvin Amayo, Manhattan's RaShawn Stores (AP Photo)

MAAC Preview: Resurgent programs look to join familiar contenders

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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

Former Penn coach allegedly took bribes from potential recruit’s father

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Former Penn head coach Jerome Allen allegedly took bribes from a Miami businessman who wanted his son to get into the school as a “recruited basketball player” — increasing his chances to gain entry to the Ivy League school.

According to a report from Bloomberg’s Michael Smith, David Voreacos and Eben Novy-Williams, Allen was involved with Miami businessman Philip Esformes, who had a son, Morris, who was allegedly recruited by several Ivy League schools. When Philip Esformes was accused of health-care fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and bribery, the government uncovered more than $74,000 in gifts that Esformes gave to Allen in 2013 and 2014.

Allen is identified strictly as “Coach-2” in the indictment that alleges that he took multiple cash payments, paid trips from Philadelphia to Miami, and a private jet trip that included Allen, Esformes and his son. The benefits are alleged to be $74,558 — including three separate wired payments of $15,000, $20,000 and $18,000 to Allen from Esformes.

These alleged incidents took place in 2013 and 2014, when Allen was still head coach at Penn and Morris Esformes was a high school basketball player trying to make it to the Division I level. Esformes was eventually granted admission to Penn as he was allegedly going to be on the basketball team. But Allen was fired before Esformes enrolled at the school. So Esformes went to school at Penn, but he never played for the basketball team. Esformes is currently still a senior at Penn.

Allen has been an assistant coach under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics since leaving Penn in 2015. He hasn’t been criminally charged for any of these alleged benefits while the NCAA also hasn’t been involved with anything yet.

But this is yet another black eye on college basketball — and this time coming from a prestigious Ivy League institution. It shows that cheating and using leverage happens at all levels of Division I college basketball. Lately, the schools have been paying to get players. This shows there are instances of wealthy people attempting to gain influence through athletics.

This case at Penn is certainly a rare one. Esformes tried to exploit a loophole that would allow his son entry into a great school under the guise that he was a potential Division I-caliber basketball player. And Morris Esformes did end up at Penn — and seems to be doing well. So, this didn’t end poorly for Morris or Allen.

Since Allen is coaching at the NBA level, this likely won’t alter his coaching career, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NCAA get involved with Penn and Allen going forward.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”