The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference featured a Top 25-caliber team throughout the 2015-’16 season — and it wasn’t even the league’s representative in the NCAA Tournament.
West Long Branch, N.J., spent some time as the center of the college basketball world a season ago, thanks to the Monmouth Bench. But for all the attention the game’s most celebrated celebrators attracted, the Hawks’ brand of basketball provided the real show.
Nine out of 11 MAAC coaches voted Monmouth the 2016-’17 preseason favorite in a poll released at Tuesday’s media day. Coming off a 28-8 record in a season that really deserved to end in an NCAA Tournament game, King Rice’s Hawks return many of their play-makers. Chief among them is preseason Player of the Year, point guard Justin Robinson.
Robinson takes the banner from former Oakland Grizzlies star and current Cleveland Kay Felder as the nation’s most dangerous scorer under six-feet tall.
Reason indeed exists to suggest Monmouth will once again be the class of the MAAC — that is, assuming the Hawks were the conference’s class a season ago.
Yes, Monmouth captured the hearts of college basketball fans with an impressive nonconference slate, which included wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers like USC and Elite Eight participant Notre Dame. But the Hawks dropped two out of three games against Iona, including the MAAC Championship Game.
The Gaels secured the conference’s automatic bid into the Big Dance, as it has two other times in the last five years. In the process, Iona proved that some star power can factor prominently into a championship race, with All-MAAC standout A.J. English willing the Gaels into the Tournament.
Much to Monmouth’s presumable relief, English is now playing professionally. He torched the Hawks for 31 and 45 points in the teams’ two regular-season meetings, than went for 19 and five assists in the MAAC title game rubber match.
English’s exit would seemingly lift the velvet rope for Monmouth into the Tournament, but the Gaels won’t fade easily. Forward Jordan Washington returns, and his last time in a MAAC game, he hit the Hawks for a double-double.
The most likely candidate to play the role of Iona in this year’s MAAC race, however, may not be Iona. Before Monmouth and its exuberant bench turned all eyes on West Long Branch, and prior to Iona finding a semi-regular place in the Field of 68, Siena commanded attention for MAAC basketball.
The Saints appeared in three straight NCAA Tournaments from 2008 through 2010, winning Round of 64 contests in 2008 and 2009. Fran McCaffrey parlayed that run of success into his current job as head coach at Iowa, and Siena dipped in the seasons that followed.
In his fourth season, Jimmy Patsos has the Saints ready to return to the spotlight once more. Monmouth’s deep and talented lineup puts a glass ceiling of sorts on the conference, but Siena has a makeup similar to that of Iona a season ago that could see the Saints break through.
Siena returns a pair of 1st Team All-MAAC preseason selections in forwards Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi. The pair combine not only to give Siena one of the best mid-major frontcourts in the nation; the talented twosome gave Monmouth fits twice last season, much like English and Washington.
Siena’s approach is undoubtedly different from that of Iona a season ago. English had a rare ability to erupt offensively — an ability that Saints guard Marquis Wright can ignite to power Siena to MAAC contention.
Wright provides a nice perimeter balance to the double-double averaging Bisping, last season shooting better than 44 percent from behind the 3-point line.
The two regular-season matchups between Monmouth and Siena could be appointment viewing, particularly for the guard battle of Wright and Robinson.
Monmouth may again be Top 25-quality in 2016-’17 — and the Hawks will have the chance to prove it with games against South Carolina, Syracuse and North Carolina. But as was the case a season ago, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a clear path through the MAAC.