maac season preview
Mark Vergari/The Journal News via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Can anyone challenge Iona in the MAAC this season?

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is rarely in the national spotlight. Rick Pitino’s presence at Iona College gives the MAAC some national appeal entering the 2021-22 season. But don’t expect to see this mid-major making headlines on SportsCenter too often.

With all that said, hoops fans who are local to the tri-state area shouldn’t be overlooking the MAAC. It’s high-level, competitive basketball right in our backyard. Iona is the heavy favorite to run the table, but the 2021-22 season is going to be a war of attrition from the start.

Saint Peter’s is returning a ton of talent, including two-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year KC Ndefo who briefly stuck his head into the transfer portal. Meanwhile, Monmouth’s King Rice is bringing in a major transfer get in former Seton Hall starter Shavar Reynolds.

But the rest of the league can hold its own as well. Let’s take a deep dive into the MAAC with a look at the projected standings, awards, tiers, and more.

MAAC Projected Order of Finish

  1. Iona
  2. Monmouth
  3. Saint Peter’s
  4. Fairfield
  5. Siena
  6. Manhattan
  7. Niagara
  8. Quinnipiac
  9. Rider
  10. Marist
  11. Canisius

MAAC Tournament Champion: Iona

Awards & All-MAAC Teams

Coach of the Year: Rick Pitino, Iona
Player of the Year: KC Ndefo, Saint Peter’s
Defensive Player of the Year: KC Ndefo, Saint Peter’s
Newcomer of the Year: Shavar Reynolds, Monmouth

All-MAAC 1st Team

Shavar Reynolds, Monmouth
KC Ndefo, Saint Peter’s
Nelly Junior Joseph, Iona
Marcus Hammond, Niagara
Kevin Marfo, Quinnipiac

MAAC Tiers

Tier 1 — Iona

Iona has gone to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and they are the clear-cut favorite to do it again in 2022. It’s worth noting that the Gaels did not qualify for the 2020 NCAA Tournament that never was, but their dominance is undeniable. They have made nine of the last 10 MAAC Tournament Finals, winning six titles during that span.

The Gaels are losing their top two scorers from last season — Isaiah Ross and Asante Gist — but they should be able to reload in a hurry. Nelly Junior Joseph earned MAAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2021. Due to the NCAA’s lenient rules on eligibility during these strange times, Junior Joseph is going to be a freshman again. And he should be a prime candidate to win Player of the Year and/or Defensive Player of the Year in the MAAC.

But Junior Joseph won’t need to do it all himself. The Gaels are as deep as deep gets. Big man Dylan Van Eyck and swingman Berrick JeanLouis are perfect glue guys in the starting lineup. Not to mention, Rick Pitino landed three immediate impact transfers in Elijah Joiner (Tulsa), Tyson Jolly (SMU), and Quinn Slazinski (Louisville).

Tier 2 — Monmouth, Saint Peter’s

Monmouth and Saint Peter’s are the two biggest threats to Pitino’s Gaels in the MAAC. Both teams benefitted from the transfer portal during the offseason but in slightly different ways.

The Hawks are adding Seton Hall’s starting point guard Shavar Reynolds, who wasn’t a standout in the Big East. Reynolds is a dog on defense and his offense should play up in the MAAC. He averaged 7.7 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Pirates in 2020-21. Reynolds and George Papas should make for one of the best backcourts in the conference. Papas earned Second Team All-MAAC honors last year while averaging 12.4 points on 39.4% three-point shooting.

North on I-95, Saint Peter’s is benefitting from someone having second thoughts about transferring. KC Ndefo entered the transfer portal but made a late decision to return to Jersey City. The Peacocks are returning all five starters, but they need more offense from the backcourt this year. A strong defensive identity and homecourt advantage at the recently renovated Yanitelli Center (26-12 under Shaheen Holloway) should position the Peacocks near the top of the MAAC.

Tier 3 — Fairfield, Siena, Manhattan, Niagara, Quinnipiac, Marist, Rider

The MAAC is consistently one of the most competitive conferences in the country. This year should be no different. There are a handful of teams who could finish almost anywhere in the conference.

Fairfield was a few plays away from upsetting Iona in the MAAC Championship in March. They bring back a ton of production from last season, including Jake Wojcik and Caleb Green. Are they the first-half version of themselves that went 2-12 to start the year or the second-half team that finished 8-5 and almost made the NCAA Tournament? We lean towards the latter.

Siena’s offseason was a mass exodus as the Saints lost four starters, including their top three scorers — Manny Camper, Jalen Pickett, and Jordan King. But Carmen Maciarello is bringing in some talent in freshman Jared Billups. The Saints might not be as strong as they were over the last two years, but they won’t be a pushover.

Manhattan is a team with Big East ties and not just because of the location of the campus. Jose Perez is coming in from Marquette and one-time St. John’s starter Josh Roberts is changing boroughs. They will join Ant Nelson, a former Seton Hall transfer who led the Jaspers in scoring. Manhattan will need Nelson to be more efficient on offense this season.

Niagara is one of the toughest teams to suss out in the MAAC. They have been on a complete roller-coaster ride the last two seasons. In fact, this offseason was the first real offseason Greg Paulus had despite this being his third season as head coach. Some familiarity and continuity should help the Purple Eagles. Marcus Hammond is a potential first-team All-MAAC performer.

The prodigal son returns for Quinnipiac in Kevin Marfo. The grad transfer from Texas A&M was a Bobcat not too long ago. Marfo averaged a double-double in 2019-20 and he should have a smooth transition to a familiar situation. Jacob Rigoni is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the MAAC and he is already the most prolific in Quinnipiac history with 259.

Marist has continuity with four of five starters returning, but every team in the MAAC is bringing a ton of experience back. Scoring is going to be an issue with the Red Foxes. They finished third-to-last in the MAAC from three-point range last season (31%).

The Rider Broncs were the worst defensive team in the MAAC last season. Monmouth gave up more points per game, but the Hawks play at a much faster pace. If Rider can shore up the defense, they might have a chance to surprise a few people this year. Dimencio Vaughn is returning to the mix to join two-time first-time All-MAAC performer Dwight Murray Jr.

Tier 4 — Canisius

Canisius is the one team I feel pretty confident will land near the bottom of the MAAC. All of the teams in tier three could be in the conversation to finish top-three in the MAAC. Unfortunately, there are just too many question marks surrounding the Golden Griffins. Their best player, forward Malek Green had knee surgery last season and has dealt with some issues in the offseason according to reports. If his health is up in the air, it could be a long year for Canisius.

Three Questions

Can Anyone Challenge Iona?

Based on my tiers and the rankings put out by national outlets like Sports Illustrated, the Gaels are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. There are already debates about whether or not they can win an at-large bid. After all, they play a few high-profile non-conference games against Liberty, Alabama, Belmont/Drake, and Seton Hall.

There is precedent for it happening. Iona was granted a 14-seed as an at-large team in 2012. I wouldn’t bank on it happening, but anything is possible.

And keeping with the theme that anything is possible, yes, there are potential challengers to Iona’s throne in the MAAC. All it takes is one bad game in the conference tournament to end a season. That’s part of the tragic beauty of mid-major conference tournaments. Juggernauts like Iona are vulnerable.

As far as teams that could knock off the Gaels, Monmouth and Saint Peter’s are the most dangerous, but for different reasons. The Hawks will play fast while the Peacocks will slow the game down to a grinding halt. It’s also safe to assume one or two teams from tier three will outperform expectations and be a tough out come March.

Can Siena Reload?

This is the $1 million question in Loudonville. They are losing four of five starters, including their top three scorers, after finishing first in last year’s bizarre regular season. After losing so much, the crystal ball is murky on Siena’s future. Even the Magic 8-Ball is telling me “reply hazy, try again.”

But if there is one thing that we do know about Siena, it’s that Carmen Macariello can coach. He’s 32-15 overall and 27-9 in the MAAC in his two seasons at the helm of the Saints. It might be tough sledding early for Siena as they try to develop chemistry with almost an entirely new roster, but they should be a competitive team in the MAAC by the middle of the conference schedule at the very latest.

Can Iona (or Anyone Else) Win an NCAA Tournament Game?

It’s been over a decade since the MAAC had any kind of success in the NCAA Tournament. The last time a MAAC school won in the Big Dance was in 2009 when the ninth-seeded Siena Saints took down the Ohio State Buckeyes. We should also give some love to the 2008 Saints who upset Vanderbilt as a 13-seed. From 2008 to 2010, the Saints were 2-3 in the NCAA Tournament.

Iona is the league’s best chance to win a Tourney game since those Siena teams of old. The Gaels have had a stranglehold on the MAAC over the last half-decade, but they will never be able to take the next step as a program until there is some success in the round of 64.

Anyone can upset anyone in an NCAA Tournament game. But after more than a decade and nothing to show for it, we have to wonder when it will happen again for the MAAC?

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.