By: Ben Burke
The Iona Gaels have been a major presence in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference the last four years, either winning or finishing runner up in the conference tournament the last four seasons. However, though Iona still has a good team, last year’s top scoring team in the conference is sitting at third in the pre-season conference rankings, and boast an All-MAAC first teamer in senior forward Jordan Washington. However, the loss of star A.J. English, who led the conference in points and assists last season, might be just enough to keep Iona out of the championship game.
If Iona doesn’t repeat as conference tournament champions, it might have less to do with their lack of talent, and more to do with the impressive amount of talent on the two teams in front of them in the preseason standings. We’ll start with last year’s MAAC regular season champions, the Monmouth Hawks. Now this team was a lot more than the inventive bench celebrations that everyone came to know and love them for last year. This was a 29-8 team who picked up wins over Notre Dame, UCLA, and USC, finished 17-3 in conference play, and barely missed out on an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite losing to Iona in the conference championship game. This year’s team could be even better. The Hawks only lost one senior from last season, and this year they have the unanimous MAAC Preseason Player of the Year in Justin Robinson. Robinson won the regular season player of the year award last year, averaging 19.3 points per game and leading the conference in steals with over two per game. There’s areason this team is first in the MAAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, and why the Hawks are fifth in the CollegeInsider.com Preseason Men’s Mid-Major Top 25 Poll. This team could really run the table in the conference.
Speaking of teams returning talent, the Siena Saints are bringing back plenty of experience this season. Siena is returning all five of its top five scorers from last year, including the conference’s leading rebounder last season in Brett Bisping, and the conference’s block leader last season in Javion Ogunyemi. Both Bisping and Ogunyemi are on the All-MAAC Preseason First Team this year. The Saints as a team dominated the paint last season, finishing second in the conference in both rebounds and blocks. Siena was on the outside looking in when it came to the championship picture last season, but improved play from its core scorers and a menacing presence down low could put the Saints right in the middle of it.
These three teams should be at the forefront when it comes to teams competing for the regular season title and the automatic bid. Fairfield and St. Peter’s, led by preseason second teamers Tyler Nelson and Quadir Welton respectively, are both looking to improve on 12-8 conference records last season. Both teams have talent, but not quite enough to compete with last year’s top three teams.
Monmouth only lost three conference games last season, and I don’t see the Hawks losing more than that number this year either. I see them running away with the conference title. For the tournament, as much as my gut is telling me that Siena will be this year’s version of Iona by taking down the one seed in the championship game, I’m going to have to stick with Monmouth. It’ll be interesting to see what the bench will pull out for the Big Dance.