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MAAC Madness

by Kevin Martone

MAAC Tournament Preview from the eyes of CHN's Siena Columnist



Can lightning strike in the same place twice? Two years ago, the Siena Saints Men's Basketball team limped into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament on a three game losing streak and with a losing record. They began the weekend as a weak seven seed, but ended it by winning the championship at the Pepsi Arena, their home court in Albany, NY, and capturing the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.


Like in 2001-2002, this year's team is below .500 overall and 9-9 in the conference, although they are the six seed this time around. Unlike 2001-2002, however, the Saints are playing their best basketball late in the season, having survived a ten game losing streak earlier in the year. “Since we lost to St. Peter’s [College] on January sixth at [home], we’re 9-5,” Siena Head Coach Rob Lanier said during the annual MAAC pre-tournament teleconference. “We’re playing better basketball since then. On defense, we’ve done a better job carrying out our assignments. Offensively, we’ve done a better job sharing the basketball.”


Coach Lanier’s team won’t surprise anyone this season. Their recent play has included a final regular season victory against third-seeded Fairfield University, who would be Siena’s second round opponent if they get by ninth-seeded Marist College in the first round on Friday night. The Saints will rely upon Sophomore Guard Antoine Jordan to continue to give the team a spark. He’s back playing at one hundred percent after a leg injury kept him out of a few games earlier in the season. “Antoine Jordan re-emerging has really helped us,” Lanier said. “He gets a deflection, get a rebound, and makes shots.” The Saints hope Jordan can help fellow Sophomore Michael Haddix, a second team All-MAAC performerk, and Senior Justin Miller repeat the team’s accomplishment from two years ago.


The Competition


It won’t be easy. Manhattan College is the consensus favorite to win the conference title for the second consecutive year. Led by Guard Luis Flores, reigning conference player of the year, the top-seeded Jaspers easily captured the MAAC regular season crown. Since Siena surprised the conference two years ago, the league changed the tournament format, requiring the regular season champion to win only two tournament games to take the title. This advantage may be all the Jaspers need to coast to the NCAA tournament again this season.


If the Jaspers falter, the second-seeded Niagara University Purple Eagles may step in with their explosive offense. Niagara boasts four players on the three All-MAAC teams this season, including Junior Forward Juan Mendez, a first team selection. The lone starter who did not make one of the teams is Point Guard Alvin Cruz, who leads the conference in both Assists and Assists/Turnover Ratio. There isn’t a more talented starting five in the conference. Their downfall is defense, as they are ranked eighth out of ten in points allowed in the MAAC.


Fairfield University, the third seed, is just the opposite. They rely on stingy team defense (second in the conference to Manhattan) to win games. After recovering from a mid-season injury to star Deng Gai, the team has played well recently, despite the lone setback to the Saints. Senior Center Rob Thomson, a first team All-MAAC selection, has led the team in Gai’s absence.


Fourth-seeded St. Peter’s College will also compete for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, led by Sophomore sensation Keydren Clark. Not only does he lead the conference in scoring, but he also tops the entire nation, averaging 27 points per game. The Peacocks faltered slightly near the end of the season, but are always a threat with Clark.


Those four teams are the most likely to end the MAAC tournament on Monday night with smiles on their faces. However, the MAAC conference rarely finishes as expected, as evidenced by Siena’s unlikely run two seasons ago. Fifth seed Rider University could easily make a run behind Junior Guard Jerry Johnson. The sharpshooter can carry his team with a hot shooting weekend. Iona College can also never be counted out. Since former Syracuse University star DeShaun Williams left the team in early February, the Gaels have played much better. Senior Center Greg Jenkins, a second team All-MAAC selection leads the way.


The Saints’ Chances


That leaves us with the Saints and their big question: can they can repeat history? Coach Lanier is not concerned with the past, only the present. “What happened two years ago really has nothing to do with how we approach our game Friday,” Lanier said. But he is excited about the tournament and his team’s chances. “When we play on Friday, there will be a big section dressed in red [cheering for Marist] and there will be an even bigger section dressed in green [cheering for Siena],” Lanier said. “That’s what makes college basketball special.” The Saints will need all the support they can get to win the four straight games they need to become MAAC Tournament champions. “You like to go into the tournament feeling that you can win any game you play,” Lanier said. “We’ve certainly developed that confidence…We’re playing our best basketball right now.” They will need to if they want lightning to strike again at the Pepsi this weekend.


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