If you handicapped the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference race over the summer, it seemed a good bet that former Buffalo Traditional star Jason Rowe might end his freshman season at Loyola College of Maryland by cutting down the Marine Midland Arena nets this March.
The Greyhounds looked loaded with seven returnees and four strong freshmen and appeared to be the top choice to win the championship at Buffalo's first MAAC tournament.
But titles aren't won in the summer, and they certainly can be lost in the fall. Several injuries and a key academic casualty have struck Loyola, leaving Fairfield as the choice of conference coaches to unseat Canisius as MAAC champ.
The Griffs -- who graduated Darrell Barley, Micheal Meeks and Mickey Frazier from last year's NCAA Tournament team -- were slotted to finish sixth in the eight-team league, while Niagara was tabbed fourth. The selections were announced at the MAAC's annual media day in the Heisman Room of the Downtown Athletic Club.
Loyola sophomore forward Nsilo Abraham, last season's
MAAC Rookie of the Year, was academically disqualified from school three days before practice began. Lamar Butler, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, has been lost for the season with a torn knee ligament. And star forward Anthony Smith (14.2 points per game last year) is out for about eight weeks with a broken elbow. Guard Milt Williams has a broken thumb and freshman guard Larry Harris has a chipped bone in his ankle. Both could miss three or four weeks.
"We've lost substantial parts to our team, so it will be difficult to say the least," said Loyola coach Brian Ellerbe, whose club was picked to finish second. "Had we been healthy, I'd be singing another tune."
Ellerbe said Rowe has experienced normal growing pains during scrimmages that include an assistant coach and two walk-ons to fill the squad. Rowe is expected to be a backup to starting guards Williams and Mike Powell.
"He has all the ability, but fundamentals and his overall strength have been Achilles heels," Ellerbe said. "He'll have good days and bad days, and it's tough for a kid who has had so much success on the floor to all of a sudden be told he can't, or that's not how it's going to get it done.
"It's been a struggle, but we've been happy with his demeanor and how he accepts criticism and coaching."
Fairfield returns three double-figure scorers from a team that lost a 52-46 decision to Canisius in the MAAC final. Senior forward Shannon Bowman and guard Greg Francis were named to the preseason all-conference team along with Niagara forward Chris Watson, Loyola's Powell and Iona forward Mindaugas Timinskas.
"We're picked No. 1 and I would think every school would still feel very good about playing Fairfield on their home floor," said Fairfield coach Paul Cormier. "The team that can go out and be road-tough is the team that will win it because there's so much parity this year."
Iona is picked third, followed by Niagara, Manhattan, Canisius, St. Peter's and Siena.
"I'm happy we're picked where we are," said Niagara coach Jack Armstrong, who returns nine contributing players and has been picked as high as third in national publications. "We're not getting too much credit because we don't deserve it yet, but we're getting a little taste of it."
Canisius had been the conference's No. 1 or 2 preseason choice for three straight years, but hasn't faced graduation losses this severe since Ray Hall and Mike Smrek left in 1985.
"We're young and real bad right now," deadpanned Griffs coach John Beilein, whose roster includes eight freshmen and sophomores. "It's going to take a long time for us to be a good team, but we're working like crazy."
Cormier echoed the sentiment of many coaches when he said he was looking forward to the tournament's move to Buffalo after seven years in Albany.
"Albany was a nice situation, but I'm hearing wonderful things about Buffalo," Cormier said. "The arena is just gorgeous and I'm sure we wouldn't move from Albany without knowing we have a good situation. Plus I didn't know many good Italian restaurants in Albany and some of my favorites are in Buffalo."
In other preseason awards, Canisius senior guard Bam Moore and senior center Ryan Collins made the MAAC's second team and Canisius guard Heather Fiore made the women's first team.
Two-time defending regular-season champion St. Peter's was picked to finish atop the women's standings. Canisius and Niagara were tabbed sixth and seventh.