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Jack Freifelder | | October 27, 2016

Monmouth looks to lead MAAC

  Monmouth's Justin Robinson (12) will look to help the Hawks keep pace atop the MAAC standings this year.

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Today, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference gets the nod.


Any discussion of the 2015-16 college basketball season would be remiss if it did not include at least a mention of the Monmouth University men's basketball team. Well, the bench deserves its fair share of acclaim as well, but more on that later.

For now, take this résumé as a blind sample.

Monmouth finished 28-8 with 17 wins in conference play and victories over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Georgetown, but in March, the Hawks found themselves NIT-bound while the Iona Gaels took the MAAC's automatic bid.

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The regular season saw five schools tally at least a dozen wins in conference, but the MAAC was the only conference in all of college basketball to feature two teams with 16 conference wins. In other words, the race for the top spot in the conference was really between the top two dogs — Monmouth and Iona.

And with good reason, as those two teams boasted arguably the best players in the conference in Iona's A.J. English and Monmouth's Justin Robinson.

Robinson would take home Player of the Year honors, while English won the conference's scoring title. English is now playing professionally in Italy, but Robinson is back for a follow-up to a stellar junior campaign. And who knows, he could potentially even help lead the Hawks to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

Best player

On that note, Robinson was the first junior to win the MAAC POY award since Luis Flores did so for the Manhattan Jaspers in the 2002-03 season. That said, he is likely still a relatively unknown commodity to most college basketball fans.

Call it the Power Five bias or simply a matter of circumstance, but Robinson has done plenty to merit the attention of basketball faitfhul around the country.

And Robinson's diminutive frame should not belie the fact that he is a tough cover.

Whether he's out on the perimeter or making forays in the paint toward the rim, his dribbling ability, quickness and explosive athleticism are a nightmare to handle. And his numbers speak volumes about his play, as he was only held to single digits in three games in the 2015-16 campaign.

  Monmouth beat UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown a year ago despite not making the Big Dance.
Robinson ranked in the top 50 in the country in scoring (19.3 ppg) and made 180 free throws at an 84.5 percent clip (25th-best in the nation in terms of made free throw attempts). When the 5-foot-8 fireball is not calling his own number, he has also shown a knack for finding his teammates as he tallied at least four assists in 20 games a year ago.

Robinson broke a run of 12 straight seasons in which the conference’s best player award went to a senior, but if he has anything to do with it the trend could start up again at season's end. Mind you, only three players have won the MAAC POY award multiple times.

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Best team

It's getting a bit Monmouth-heavy in this preview, but with good cause. The Hawks return a good portion of their core from a year ago to defend a regular-season title, and perhaps make amends for their loss in the conference title game.

Back to join Robinson (the lead guard) for the 2016-17 slate will be sophomore swingman Micah Seaborn (13.2 ppg), senior guard Je'lon Hornbeak (8.9 ppg) and senior pivot Chris Brady (6.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg), among others. Seaborn, Hornbeak and Robinson all ranked in the top 10 in the MAAC for 3-point shooting percentage a year ago. 

In other words, scoring for this team is a strong suit, one that is only aided by the team's collective touch from the free-throw line (76.6 percent, tops in the MAAC, 8th in the country).

However, the Achilles' heel for this team is undoubtedly its inability to rebound the basketball consistently. A negative rebound margin (-.5) on the year speaks for itself, so the Hawks will look to shore up that part of their game come tipoff.

As much praise as the team on the floor on the floor has drawn for its play, the bench squad has also been turning heads for Monmouth and head coach King Rice.

Believed by some to be the most rambunctious bench in all of college basketball, it's clear the in-game activity adds a bit of levity to the game.

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Sportsmanship still seems to reign in some fashion, but cheering on your teammates is an intrinsic part of sports. Maybe some of the shenanigans get a bit out of hand, but they are still kids at the end of the day.

Sleeper team

It may be hard to call the Siena Saints a sleeper, but given the two-horse race in the MAAC a year ago any team not named Iona or Monmouth was a bit off the radar. That’s likely where head coach Jimmy Patsos wants the Saints to be come tipoff of the 2016-17 season.

  Siena's senior forward Brett Bisping (31) is one of five double-digit scorers back for the Saints.
Siena was a dangerous team in the MAAC a year ago, winning 13 games in conference and 21 contests overall, but the Saints have fluctuated between the bottom of the barrel and the middle of the pack in the MAAC for the better part of this decade.

However, this could be the year where the Saints flex a little more staying power after a third-place finish in the 2015-16 season.

With five double-digit scorers back in the mix, including four seniors, this could be one of the more seasoned teams in the conference. For a club that averaged 78.2 points per game a year ago (tied for 53rd in the nation), more of the same sounds like a good recipe.

On offense the Saints boast a bevy of options, whether it’s the frontcourt duo of Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi or the tandem of Nico Clareth and Lavon Long in the backcourt.

A full season with point guard Marquis Wright, who only played in 14 games a year ago, should also add to the mix, giving the Saints a fairly potent five to contend with in the nonconference slate and when MAAC action kicks off.

Marquis Wright 14.5 ppg 4.4 rpg 4.9 apg
Nico Clareth 13.1 ppg 3.2 rpg 2.2 apg
Lavon Long 10.6 ppg 5.5 rpg 3.3 apg
Brett Bisping 15.9 ppg 10.4 rpg 1.5 apg
Javion Ogunyemi 14.9 ppg 6.1 rpg 1.0 apg

But even the best recipes can benefit from some tweaking. 

In this case, there’s no denying that improving on a poor assist-to-turnover (0.91, tied for 275th in the nation) would put the Saints in better stead. More to the point, the team is already one of the highest-scoring squads in all of college basketball. Just think what another half-dozen to a dozen possessions a game could mean.

  Siena will benefit from the return of Saints guard Marquis Wright (1) who only played in 14 games a year ago.

Early trips to George Washington (NIT champion) and Kansas will be good a eye test of just exactly where this Siena team stands.

Honorable mention:

The Golden Griffins of Canisius return three double-digit scorers from a year ago in Phil Valenti (14.6 ppg), Kassius Robertson (14.1) and Jermaine Crumpton (10.4). Eight of the team’s 14 overall wins came in conference, so don’t be surprised if Canisius gives some teams a real fight.

Head coach Reggie Witherspoon has scheduled a trip to Lexington, Kentucky, to start the season against the Kentucky Wildcats, which should be a good measuring stick for the work ethic on this year’s team. Last year’s squad gave up 90-plus points on seven occasions, so there isn’t much room to go other than up.

Freshman to watch

With the departure of Iona's leading scorer English, the search begins for the ways the Gaels can replace his scoring output. There will likely be a bit of an addition by subtraction scenario as players begin to adjust to more shot attempts, but one potential piece to the puzzle comes in the form of Iona freshman E.J. Crawford.

Interestingly enough, Crawford and English both played on the same AAU circuit as youngsters, but it remains to be seen how Crawford's game translates his talents to the college ranks. Scouts are high on his ability to score the basketball — especially from distance — but he will really have to earn his minutes as the lone freshman on a team that went to the NCAA tournament a year ago. Title defense begins soon.

Schedule highlights

  • The first league game of the season will feature Rider University hosting Fairfield University on Dec. 1 in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
  • A rematch of the MAAC Championship Game from last season between 2015-16 MAAC champion Iona and 2015-16 regular-season champion Monmouth takes place on Jan. 6 at the newly renamed OceanFirst Bank Center in West Long Branch, New Jersey. The Gaels and Hawks meet again on the last day of the MAAC regular season on Feb. 26 when Iona College welcomes Monmouth University to the Hynes Athletic Center.
  • The “Battle of the Bridge” rivalry between Canisius and Niagara resumes on Jan. 23 when the Purple Eagles host the Griffs at the Gallagher Center. The two rivals will meet again on Feb. 10 when the Griffs welcome the Purple Eagles to the Koessler Athletic Center.
  • Iona College and Manhattan College will square off for the first time in the 2016-17 season on Jan. 17 when the Jaspers welcome the Gaels to Draddy Gymnasium. Iona and Manhattan face each other again on Feb. 24 at the Hynes Athletic Center in New Rochelle, New York.
  • Fairfield and Quinnipiac, the two in-state Connecticut rivals, meet on Feb. 6 at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport and play again on Feb. 17 at the TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden.
  • Marist and Siena match up at McCann Arena in Poughkeepsie, New York, on Feb. 11 and play each other again on the last day of the regular season on Feb. 26 at the Times Union Center in Albany, New York.

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