By: Ben Burke
For each of the last three seasons, the championship game of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament featured a battle between the Manhattan Jaspers and the Iona Gaels. With the Jaspers struggling to a 9-11 conference record this season; there may finally be a spot for another MAAC team to make it to the championship game.
However, the Gaels appear poised to make their fifth conference championship game in the last six years.
Iona (19-10, 16-4 MAAC) is playing perhaps its best basketball of the season right now, heading into the tournament winners of nine of its last ten. As hot as the team has been of late, Iona guard A.J. English has been hotter. The All-MAAC First Team selection has averaged just under 27 points per game in his last six.
Another major factor in Iona’s success is the Gaels’ unselfish play on offense. Iona leads the MAAC with just under 17 assists per game.
The only team above the Gaels in the MAAC standings is the Monmouth Hawks (25-6, 17-3 MAAC). Although they are better known for their bench’s unique celebrations, the Hawks have made major strides up the MAAC ladder in just their third season in the conference. After going 11-21 in its first season in the MAAC, Monmouth has improved its win total by seven in each of its last two seasons.
The Hawks also have an All-MAAC First Team selection in guard Justin Robinson, who averaged 20.2 points per game and shot 41.5 percent from beyond the arc this season.
One positive takeaway from the 2015-2016 MAAC season is that it appears that the Siena Saints (20-11, 13-7 MAAC) have finally recovered from the departure of former head coach Fran McCaffery. Before leaving for Iowa in 2010, McCaffery had led the Saints to three consecutive MAAC titles. From 2010-2015, Siena had just one above-.500 season.
This year, the Saints are sitting third in the MAAC heading into the tournament, thanks in no small part to the balanced scoring of the Siena offense. The Saints have three players averaging at least 15 points per game, and are led in scoring by forward Brett Bisping. The MAAC First Team selection also averages 10.4 rebounds per game for the Saints.
The only other two MAAC teams with above-.500 conference records are the Fairfield Stags and the Saint Peter’s Peacocks. Fairfield (18-12, 12-8 MAAC) had quite the turnaround season this year, after finishing last season 7-24. Meanwhile, Saint Peter’s (14-15, 8-12 MAAC) had a fairly solid conference season, but really struggled during the nonconference season. The Peacocks had several bad outings, including losses to 6-24 Lafayette and 9-22 Hartford.
While Siena and Fairfield have a shot at crashing the MAAC championship game, Monmouth and Iona are clearly the best two teams in this conference, and should be able to decide their season series (currently tied at a game apiece) in the championship.
Monmouth could make it into the NCAA tournament even if the Hawks don’t get the automatic bid (barring an early round exit in the conference tournament). But you can’t ignore how Iona has been playing as of late, as well as its recent tournament performances. English will lead the Gaels into the Big Dance as MAAC champions.
[Video Courtesy of the Monmouth Digital Network]