Metro Basketball Report: Tight Races

February 9th, 2007
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With one month remaining in the regular season, metropolitan area teams find themselves right in the thick of conference races. For some, this final month will determine whether or not they can win a conference title. Others are merely looking to get a good seed in their conference tournament. And there’s also the group that needs win in order to qualify for their conference tournament period. Here is a breakdown of each league and the position that the New York area teams find themselves in.

America East: Stony Brook looking to get out of the cellar

While the suspense for this league involves Vermont and Albany at the top of the league, the Stony Brook Seawolves find themselves in a three-way tie for last place in America East with Binghamton and Hartford. The eight and nine seeds play in the opening game of the conference tournament, so there is still something at stake for SBU. And given the fact that they’re only two games out of fifth place in the league, a hot streak to end the year could do wonders for both their seeding and their confidence.

Atlantic 10: Fordham in the middle of the title hunt

Barring a monumental collapse, Fordham should be taking part in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Atlantic City next month. The question for the Rams is whether or not they can stay in the hunt for the regular season crown. Fordham finds themselves in a tie with Xavier and George Washington for third, one game behind Rhode Island. The top four seeds don’t play on the first day, so a high seed would make a run to the tournament title a little less taxing (note that Xavier won four games in four days last season, however). A win in tonight’s game at Dayton would be a huge confidence boost for Dereck Whittenburg’s squad, especially when you consider the fact that Dayton is undefeated at home this season.

Big East: St. John’s and Seton Hall looking to punch tickets to New York

The outlook for the Red Storm and Pirates isn’t as clear, with both teams being part of the logjam in the Big East standings. Two games separate fourteenth place from seventh, and with only the top twelve teams being eligible for the Big East Championship, every game from here on out will be of added importance. St. John’s, who will be without the services of Daryll Hill for a few weeks due to injury, needs to find consistency on the offensive end of the floor. The Red Storm have South Florida at home tonight and a return trip to Syracuse coming up, and both games are winnable.

Seton Hall’s problems lie on the other end of the court, especially when it comes to rebounding due to their lack of size. The next four for the Pirates are Villanova, at Connecticut, at West Virginia, and Pittsburgh at home. These four games could be their “last stand” when it comes to a Big East Championship berth.

Colonial: Hofstra one game out of first place in the CAA

With five games left in conference play, the Pride find themselves one game behind Virginia Commonwealth in the race for the regular season title. Hofstra won home games over VCU and Northeastern last week, and host Drexel on Thursday before hitting the road for George Mason and Old Dominion. At the least, Hofstra needs to stay in the top four in order to assure themselves of a first-round bye. VCU has George Mason and ODU coming up as well, so anything can happen in the regular season race.

Ivy: Columbia two games out of first place

After six games, the Lions find themselves two games behind Yale in the conference standings. And with the Ivy not having a conference tournament, any run for the league’s automatic berth needs to start now. They’ve won their last two games since being swept by Cornell, but when the season ends those two losses to the Big Red could be what this teams looks back on if they do not win the conference. Pennsylvania has two games in hand on the rest of the contenders, but the Lions will get them at the Palestra next weekend.

Metro Atlantic: Marist and Manhattan tied for first, but Fairfield is on fire

In the MAAC, Marist finds themselves in the spot that the league coaches thought they would be, in first place. But no one expected them to have company in the form of Loyola (MD) and Manhattan at the top. In recent games the Red Foxes have had trouble on the defensive end, something that they need to improve upon down the stretch. Marist has one of the nation’s better backcourts in Jared Jordan and Will Whittington, and guard play usually has a direct effect on which team wins and who heads home come March.

Manhattan, led by first-year head coach Barry Rohrssen, finds themselves in a position that few outside of the program expected the Jaspers to be in when the season began. Devon Austin and Arturo Dubois have done a good job of leading this team, and look for the disappointment of losing in last season’s MAAC Semifinals to be a motivating force for this group. Manhattan visits Marist on Valentine’s Day in a game that few people expected would have a major impact on the conference title race.

The hottest team in the MAAC? That would be Fairfield, which will host the MAAC Tournament in a couple of weeks in Bridgeport, CT. The Stags, also led by a first-year head coach (Ed Cooley), have won seven straight and are in a three-way tie just one game behind the leaders. While senior guard Michael Van Schaick leads the team in scoring, it’s been a pair of freshmen forwards (Greg Nero and Anthony Johnson) that have carried to load inside. Fairfield has games at Marist (Thursday) and Loyola (Sunday) back-to-back, but even with two losses look out for the Stags next month.

At the bottom of the standings lie St. Peter’s and Iona. Iona got their first win of the season last weekend, and St. Peter’s has lost their last fifteen. It’s safe to say that these two will be playing on the first day of the MAAC Tournament, but who they will play is still up for discussion. On that Friday night (March 2nd), seven (seed) plays ten and eight plays nine with the winners moving on to Saturday. Which one of these two has a better chance to shock the world? Right now, I’ll go with the Gaels.

Northeast: Traffic jam in the middle of the NEC

After Central Connecticut State, it’s hard to make sense of the Northeast Conference standings. Fairleigh Dickinson and Sacred Heart are tied for third with 7-4 conference records, but the two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions. The Knights, thanks to a nail-biting win over Monmouth on Monday, have won three straight. The Pioneers, on the other hand, have lost three of their last four, most recently an 80-76 defeat at Wagner. Unlike most conference tournaments that are played at neutral sites, the NEC rewards the higher seeds by allowing them to host tournament games. Also, only the top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament. Both the Knights and Pioneers would like to do their best to finish on the side of the bracket opposite the league-leading Blue Devils.

Wagner, who just a couple of weeks ago was struggling to make sure that they would qualify for the conference tournament, is only one game behind FDU and SHU thanks to their current three-game win streak. The Seahawks have done a much better job of sharing the basketball of late, with at least four players reaching double figures in points in each of their last three games. If they can keep this up, look out. LIU and St. Francis (NY) find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the conference tournament, with both teams being three games behind Monmouth in the loss column. It will take a lot for both of these squads to make an appearance in the NEC Tournament.

Patriot: Army in a dogfight for fourth

While there is still a chance that the Black Knights could catch Lehigh and take third in the Patriot League, their primary concern right now should be to hold onto fourth place and the final home court slot in the conference tournament. Like the NEC, the Patriot will reward the higher seeds with home court advantage throughout the tournament. No one will catch either Holy Cross or Bucknell at this point in the season, but one game in the loss column separates Army from last place (Navy). At the very least they need to avoid falling to either seventh or eighth, spots that will result in a trip to either Holy Cross or Bucknell for the quarterfinals.

Here are a few games to keep an eye on in the next couple of days.

• South Florida @ St. John’s, Wednesday 7:30 PM EST
The Bulls, fresh off an upset of Notre Dame in Tampa this past weekend, visit Carnesecca Arena in a game that will have a major impact on the tournament hopes of both teams. No, not the NCAA Tournament, but the Big East Tournament. St. John’s is coming off of a win at Cincinnati in what was the best performance of the season for freshman forward Qa’rraan Calhoun (18 points, 5 rebounds). And if you haven’t seen USF forward McHugh Mattis play this season, check this game out. Mattis is currently averaging 13 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per contest.

• Fairfield @ Marist, Thursday 7:30 PM EST
The first of two meetings between these two, and only one game separates the Stags from the Red Foxes atop the MAAC. How Michael Van Schaick does against the Marist backcourt will have a say in which direction this game goes. In the frontcourt, Marist is the more experienced of the two teams, but Fairfield’s freshman duo of Greg Nero and Anthony Johnson have been playing better of late. Marist has the home court advantage, but the Stags have won seven straight, so confidence won’t be lacking on their side. Also, take some time to watch a little of the Drexel/Hofstra and Monmouth/Wagner games, two matchups that will have a big impact on seeding in their respective conference tournaments.

• Yale @ Columbia, Friday 7:00 PM EST
Columbia gets their shot to put a dent in the Bulldogs’ lead atop the Ivy League standings in this showdown between coaching siblings, Yale’s James Jones and Columbia’s Joe Jones. Columbia’s John Baumann is coming off of a 21 and 14 effort in the Lions’ win at Dartmouth on Saturday. Yale has won their last four games, most recently a 77-68 home win over league favorite Penn. Eric Flato and Casey Hughes have been playing some good basketball of late, so look for the Lions’ backcourt to have their hands full in this one. Also, keep an eye on St. Francis (NY)/Fairleigh Dickinson and Manhattan/Rider.

• Hofstra @ George Mason, Saturday 4:00 PM EST
Depending on what happens in games Thursday, Hofstra could find themselves in first place when the get to Fairfax to take on the Patriots. George Mason has alternated wins and losses in their last six games (not counting their game against VCU on Thursday), and it’s been a rather inconsistent year for Mason other than their five-game win streak in January. Hofstra will have to hope that Mike Davis-Sabb and Chris Gadley show up for this one because forward Will Thomas is a beast in the paint. Also, take some time out in your day to catch some of the Villanova/Seton Hall and Wagner/Sacred Heart games.

• Hartford @ Stony Brook, Sunday 2:00 PM EST
Although these two teams are among the three at the bottom of America East, this game is a matchup between two of the better young coaches in the league, Dan Leibovitz (Hartford) and Steve Pikiell (SBU). However, neither team would be described as on a roll at this time, with Hartford riding an eight-game losing skid and SBU having lost six of their last eight. Both would like to avoid that 8/9 nine game on the opening day of the America East Tournament, and a win in this one would go a long way in making sure that the winner does just that. Also, check out St. John’s/ Syracuse and Fairfield/Loyola (MD).

Here are the updated rankings.

1. Hofstra (2): The Pride are back on top after Fordham’s loss to Rhode Island.
2. Marist (3): The Red Foxes are in a three-way tie for first in the MAAC, despite their inconsistent play of late.
3. Fordham (1): Rhody 45, Fordham 44. This was one of the uglier nail-biters of the 2006-07 season, but the Rams are still in the title hunt.
4. Manhattan (4): This team just keeps getting better as the season goes on. Can they turn this improvement into an NCAA bid? Who knows?
5. Fairfield (9): The Stags are on fire right now, but let’s see if they can keep that up with their next two on the road (Marist, Loyola (MD)).
6. St. John’s (7): Who’s going to help shoulder some of the load with Daryll Hill out of action? Meet Qa’rraan Calhoun, but Larry Wright has a chance to step up and gain more minutes in the backcourt.
7. Fairleigh Dickinson (8): The Knights have won three in a row, and their home win over Monmouth (despite trailing by double digits) was impressive.
8. Sacred Heart (5): The Pioneers have struggled of late, but they still control their own destiny when it comes to hosting a quarterfinal in the NEC Tournament.
9. Seton Hall (6): A tough stretch coming up could mean the end of the Hall’s Big East Tournament chances. Or it could be the start of a big-time run. It all depends on how well they can hit the boards.
10. Wagner (11): The Seahawks are putting it together at the right time. Maybe they can make a run in the NEC Tournament.
11. Columbia (13): Road sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth put the Lions back on the right track. Now they get first-place Yale at home in a chance to make a dent in the conference standings.
12. Army (10): Losing at home to Holy Cross is one thing, but only scoring 38 at home in a loss to Colgate? Ouch.
13. St. Francis (NY) (12): Brian Nash’s team has improved, but it looks like they’re destined to spend another March watching the NEC Tournament.
14. Stony Brook (14): Just like SFNY, you can’t just measure improvement in wins and losses. Steve Pikiell’s team has gotten better, but they still make some of the same mistakes that cost them games last season.
15. Long Island (15): Seven straight losses have put the Blackbirds on the wrong side of the NEC Tournament “fence”. And with their next two on the road, it looks like it will stay that way.
16. NJIT (16): No conference tournament for this first-year independent, but the Highlanders will concentrate on improving for 2007-08.
17. Iona (18): Their first win of the season, along with St. Peter’s fifteen game losing streak moves the Gaels up a spot.
18. St. Peter’s (17): Thanks to Iona’s win on Saturday, the Peacocks now have the area’s longest current losing streak.