Metro Atlantic Conference Preview
by Michael DiPiazza
When Manhattan College basketball coach Bobby Gonzalez took over the Jaspers program four years ago, it was a team in shambles. Constantly tabbed as the league’s cellar dwellers, Gonzalez knew he had to turn things around. While Siena and Iona were and still are two of the league’s more prominent teams, it is now Manhattan who everyone is looking up to.
However, despite showing great enthusiasm towards being named the 2002-03 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s (MAAC) team to beat, Gonzalez still isn’t sure if his team is worthy of the honor.
“I’m looking at it as a challenge,” Gonzalez said, on MAAC media day in late October. “I don’t know if we deserve it.”
Tell that to the rest of the league, who also named Jaspers guard Luis Flores the league’s preseason All-Conference player.
“We now have a bullseye on our back,” Gonzalez said. “Now we have the respectability as one of the better teams. We have to go out and prove it.”
Last season the Jaspers darted through the first half of the season, only to fade at the end, while exiting the MAAC tournament in Albany after only one game. However, despite the loss, the Jaspers were the only team in the conference to earn a trip to National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
With a solid core of returning players, such as Justin Jackette, Jarod Johnson and Dave Holmes along with Floris, Manhattan could be a skyscraper above the rest of the conference.
“I wouldn’t pick Manhattan number one,” Gonzalez said. “I would pick Niagara, because they got to the (MAAC) championship game on ESPN.”
Speaking of Niagara, the Purple Eagles are expected to soar through the season. Finishing only 7 points behind Manhattan as the preseason favorite, Niagara will return the likes of first team All-MAAC preseason James Reaves, as well as third team selection Tremmell Darden. The Purple Eagles will open the season on Nov. 22 versus Marshall.
After being tabbed as the team to beat last season, the Iona Gaels beat themselves. There season opening loss to Akron, in which they blew a 10-point halftime lead, the Gaels faithful should have seen that as a pre-cursor of things to come for what was a 13-17 season. However, Iona does return first team All-Conference preseason player Courtney Fields, along with second team All-Conference Greg Jenkins. With what is expected to be a superb recruiting class for Jeff Ruland, the Gaels could make some noise. And, while no one in Iona-land will admit it, the off season signing of former Syracuse standout DeShaun Williams, who was dismissed from SU for academic problems, the 2002-03 season could be viewed as a rebuilding year for what is already being considered a highly touted 2003-04 campaign.
It seems as if they’re are only two words affiliated with the Siena that don’t start with the letter “S.” And that would be the schools colors, green and gold. Everything else is related – the school name, the school’s logo, the Saints, the mascot, a Saint Bernard, and of course the terms Shocking, Superb and Surprising. Siena’s spectacular run through the MAAC tournament last March and up till their loss against Maryland, the Saints were shocking the world. Considering that the MAAC tournament was played on Siena’s home court at the Pepsi Arena, Saints coach Rob Lanier really proved his worth. Having been a top contender the last few seasons, its nearly impossible to count Siena out in this league. Despite the loss of sharp shooter Dwayne Archbold, it will be divine intervention that will determine conference’s best group of rookies, as the Saints and Gaels could possibly have the league’s best freshmen.
With one of the league’s best young coaches in Tim O’Toole, the Fairfield Stags are another team that can scramble their way to a victory. The Stags return top players Nick Delfico, Ajou Deng and Oscar Garcia, who racked up 18 points in Fairfield’s 97-70 victory in their first exhibition game against the Connecticut Stars. Despite being one of the conference’s scarier teams, the Stags do suffer from poor play, which has lead to disappointing losses. The departure of Sam Spamm to graduation could have lasting effect through this season.
In a league known for its parity, again it’s always tough to count a team, no matter how they’re predicted to finish, evident in Siena’s run last season. So why would anyone count out Canisius, who has a solid returning core of Brian Dux, Hodari Mallory and Toby Foster. After last seasons unbelievable tournament win over top seeded Rider, 85-84, the Griffs realize anything is possible. However, back-to-back games against Notre Dame and Syracuse in December could go either way in their confidence level. A win or least the solid “old college try” could boast a team’s morale, especially for a program that has their first two MAAC games on the road.
The Marist Red Foxes will enter the season in a somber mood. After junior college transfer Pierre Monogan was shot at a local bar, the Red Foxes will look to get past that in hopes of making another run at the regular season crown, one they shared with Rider last season. With the departure of sweet shooting Sean Kennedy, Marist will rely on Nick Eppehimer, Brandon Ellerbee and David Bennentt.
Last season ended in complete disarray for Rider, the team everyone expected to take the MAAC in the tournament. After the loss to Canisius in the first round, and the loss of MAAC Player of the Year, Mario Porter, the Broncs will rely heavily on preseason first team All-Conference player Jerry Johnson to fill the shoes of Porter. As the host of the MAAC tournament at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J. Rider’s newcomer is freshman Edwin Muniz, a 6-7 forward, who should fit in well in the Broncs lineup.
Constantly a contender for the crown as the conference’s cellar dweller, the Peacocks of St. Peter’s will fall into the same nest this season. After finishing 4-24 overall, a five-win season for the Peacocks would meet expectations. A high from last season was a Super Bowl Sunday victory at Iona with a last second shot, however don’t expect too much the Peacocks, as they will luckily be grounded.
Along the same lines as St. Peter’s is lowly Loyola. Just like the Peacocks, much shouldn’t be expected from the Greyhounds, however they do return Lucious Jordan, who was named third team All-Conference. As a freshman, Jordan started in 27 of 28 games.
1. Luis Flores
2. Courtney Fields
3. Jerry Johnson
4. Prosper Karangwa
5. Dave Holmes
Coach of the Year:
As one of the best young coaches in probably all of Division 1 basketball you can expect big things from Fairfield coach Tim O’Toole. A guy with loads of Division 1 experience and a solid nucleus of players, the Stags could surprise a few teams this season.
Coach on the Hot Seat:
Nearly impossible to call. While many teams, such as St. Peter’s and Loyola have constantly sported no muscles, the chances of firing either coach are heavily slim. As a mid major conference, the MAAC is a stepping-stone for coaches on their way to big D1 schools. As seen in recent years with Siena, who had three coaches in three years and at Iona two years ago, when Jeff Ruland almost left for Seton Hall shortly after signing a contract extension. So lets call this “The Next Coach to Move Up.” Barring a debacle, expect Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez to be the next highly touted MAAC coach. An intense, enthusiastic Gonzalez is only a MAAC championship away from the next step.