During their struggles earlier in the season, St. Francis (NY) head coach Brian Nash made the statement that their problems were on the offensive end, in that they had a hard time putting the ball in the basket consistently. While they aren’t going to challenge VMI or North Carolina among the nation’s offensive leaders, the Terriers found a solid mix of efficient offense and stifling defense in their last two games, wins over Wagner and Monmouth. The Terriers won these two contests by an average score of 67.5-54.0, moving up to ninth place in the NEC in the process. It remains to be seen if SFNY can qualify for the conference tournament, but at least their improvement is starting to result in victories.
At the top of the poll you will find Hofstra, back to the top after wins last week over Towson and William & Mary. Thanks to Marist’s loss at Canisius the Pride were able to move back to number one. Unfortunately for Hofstra, however, they still find themselves behind red-hot Virginia Commonwealth in the Colonial. After their split (they beat Niagara in overtime) in the Buffalo area, the Red Foxes got back on the right track with a home win over slumping St. Peter’s. Although Jared Jordan hasn’t shot well the past two games, Marist is only a half-game behind MAAC leader Loyola (MD), and the two teams get together in Poughkeepsie February 3rd.
For the other metropolitan area MAAC schools, this has been a year to forget for the most part. St. Peter’s hasn’t won since December 8th, and Iona is still winless after their overtime loss to Fairfield Tuesday night. At least Fairfield is on a three-game win streak, getting some separation between themselves and the bottom two teams in the league in the process. Sacred Heart still leads the Northeast, tied with Central Connecticut State at 6-1, and Fairleigh Dickinson is right behind these two in second place. Wagner and Long Island find themselves fighting it out with St. Francis for the final two spots in the Northeast Conference tournament, positions that may go down to the last weekend of the season undecided.
As for Seton Hall and St. John’s, it was a weekend of mixed results for the Pirates and positives for the Red Storm. St. John’s upset Syracuse and Notre Dame at home, winning the second game on a Larry Wright three-pointer with 9.9 seconds remaining on Tuesday. Seton Hall survived a Geoff McDermott layup attempt on Wednesday in knocking off Providence, but lost senior center Grant Billmeier in the process to a torn ACL. His presence was sorely missed in their loss to Georgetown on Friday, a game in which the Hall was out-rebounded 39-11 by the taller Hoyas. John Garcia is back and able to play, but it’s not fair to expect major contributions from him at this time. Whatever help Bobby Gonzalez can get inside will be appreciated greatly at this point in the season.
Here are some games to pay close attention to over the next few days.
• Manhattan @ Loyola (MD), Wednesday 7:00 PM EST
A short time ago I wrote in this column that it was hard to tell whether or not Manhattan was a serious challenger to win the MAAC due to their league schedule at the time. Well, this is one of those games where the Jaspers can show that they’re in this race for the remainder of the season. But they will have their hands full with the league’s leading scorer, Gerald Brown. Manhattan watched their win streak come to a screeching halt on Sunday with an 80-69 home loss to Siena, but they’re still only a game out of first place. If the Jaspers want to entertain any thoughts of winning the regular season title, then they need this road win.
• Quinnipiac @ Fairleigh Dickinson, Thursday 7:00 PM EST
The Bobcats and Knights find themselves part of a serious logjam in the middle of the Northeast Conference, where 2.5 games separate third place from tenth. Quinnipiac, led by guards Adam Gonzalez and DeMario Anderson, have won their last four league games. FDU has four players that average double figures in scoring, led by senior forward Andre Harris, and ended a two-game skid with a 74-73 nail biter over Long Island on Saturday. The Knights are only 3-3 at home this year, so don’t assume that there will be a huge home court advantage.
• Niagara @ Marist, Friday 7:30 PM EST
Only eight days after these two got together for an overtime thriller, won by the Red Foxes 91-86, the Purple Eagles visit Poughkeepsie. Expect Niagara to pay close attention to Marist guard Will Whittington, who burned NU for ten points in the extra session. Performing well in defeat for the Purple Eagles were forwards Charron Fisher (16 points, 16 rebounds) and Clif Brown (18 points, 11 rebounds). Niagara won the rebounding battle 46-39, which allowed them to stay in the game. If this one goes another five minutes, give the edge to the Red Foxes, who are undefeated in overtime this season (3-0). Niagara is 0-2 in such contests.
• Sacred Heart @ Central Connecticut State, Saturday 2:00 PM EST
In-state rivals get together with first place on the line in this one. People expected CCSU to be at or near the top of the NEC when the season began, but Sacred Heart? The Pioneers have done a good job of taking the lessons learned in their tough non-conference slate and applying them to conference play. Their primary goals will be to keep Obie Nwadike off the glass and slow down leading scorer Javier Mojica. Both teams rely on offensive balance to lead the way to victory, so this one could be decided by an unsung hero down the stretch.
• St. John’s @ #9 Pittsburgh, Saturday 4:00 PM EST
The Red Storm’s reward for winning back-to-back home games is a trip to the Oakland Zoo to take on the Pitt Panthers. Lamont Hamilton and Aaron Gray are two of the better big men in the Big East, and their matchup will have a lot to do with how much of a chance the Red Storm have in this one. While both teams are solid on the defensive end, Pittsburgh has an easier time of putting the ball in the basket. And even though they’ve looked better in their last two games, St. John’s is capable of putting together some brutal stretches of offensive basketball. After looking like they were doomed to another year of missing the Big East Tournament, the Red Storm find themselves in the thick of the race for that twelfth and final invite. A win in Pittsburgh would go a long way in making that a reality.
Here are the updated rankings.
1. Hofstra (last week: 2): The Pride hit the road for three straight, and look like they’ll need every one of them to keep up with VCU.
2. Marist (1): That two-game road swing through the Buffalo area can be tough on any MAAC team, so the Red Foxes should be happy that they’re only a half game out of first place.
3. Fordham (3): Don’t look now but the Rams are only one game out of first place in the Atlantic 10. If UMass beats Rhode Island on Wednesday, a Fordham win over La Salle would put them in a tie for first.
4. Sacred Heart (5): The Pioneers look like they will be a contender for the NEC crown for the remainder of the season. Their game at CCSU should be a thriller.
5. St. John’s (7): The Red Storm have their first two-game win streak since wins over Columbia and Boston University at the end of December.
6. Seton Hall (3): There’s no shame in losing to Georgetown, but the way in which the Pirates were handled on the glass shows that Grant Billmeier’s injury will hurt this team more than many may have thought.
7. Army (6): The Cadets got to hear their alma mater played last after the game against Navy on Sunday. In case you didn’t know, that means that they won. Let’s see if they can build on the momentum in games at Lafayette and Bucknell this week.
8. Fairleigh Dickinson (8): The Knights were able to rebound from their loss to CCSU and defeat LIU on Saturday.
9. Manhattan (9): Their loss to Siena was disappointing, but the Jaspers are still in the MAAC title hunt. And none of the teams behind them did much either last week.
10. St. Francis (14): When you win two games in a row the way in which SFNY did, you move up. When you combine this with the play of some of the teams ahead of them, the Terriers move up four spots in the poll.
11. Columbia (10): The Lions only drop one spot following their loss to Cornell, primarily because neither of the next couple of teams showed enough to move up.
12. Fairfield (15): The Stags have won three straight, placing themselves right in the middle of a four-team traffic jam behind the MAAC’s top four teams.
13. Wagner (11): The Seahawks lack of consistency has shown me exactly why the NEC coaches weren’t as high on this team in the preseason as I way. Bad loss to SFNY followed with a good win over LIU. There’s talent on this team, but why can’t they put together night in, night out?
14. Stony Brook (13): The Seawolves ended a two-game skid with an overtime win against Boston University. But they followed that effort with a loss at New Hampshire.
15. Long Island (12): The Blackbirds, losers of their last three, would have dropped further had the three teams behind them not been so bad.
16. NJIT (16): The Highlanders are in the middle of a four-game road trip, so it will be a mighty task for this team that’s winless on the road to get their fourth win of the year.
17. St. Peter’s (17): The Peacocks losing streak hit eleven with their loss at Marist on Tuesday night. Yet their last win came December 8th at Loyola (MD). Go figure.
18. Iona (18): Iona hasn’t won since last year’s MAAC Tournament final over…St. Peter’s. The Gaels are getting close, but close doesn’t get it done. Loyola (MD) and Canisius visit New Rochelle the next two games.