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The 20th annual Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament begins its third run at HSBC Arena today and will eventually crown a men's and women's champion who will claim the conference's automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament.

It will be an arduous road for 20 teams playing 18 games over five days.

There are six-game programs on Friday and Saturday, with the final game on Saturday likely to stretch past midnight. It usually starts around 10 p.m., and former Niagara coach Jack Armstrong once playfully dubbed it the "West Coast" game of the tournament, played for the benefit of satellite viewers in California.

Here's a guide to the MAAC's version of March Madness:

Ticket choices

The all-sessions pass is the best deal for those planning to make a weekend out of it. For $75, you get a seat for every game in the tournament.

For those who can't make that committment, individual sessions are priced at $20 and $25. Each session has two or three games for the price of one ticket. The exceptions are Sunday's women's championship game and Monday's men's final, each of which are one game for one ticket. Student tickets are $40 for all sessions or $6 for single sessions.

There are two three-game sessions on both Friday and Saturday. The building will be cleared between each one, with fans sent to the pavilion.

As of early this week, about 2,500 all-session passes had been sold. Purchasers earn priority points for future amateur events in the arena, including the 2003 NCAA hockey Frozen Four and the 2004 men's basketball subregional.

On the awards stand

The MAAC will announce its postseason awards today during press conferences prior to the tournament banquet at the arena. All awards are voted on by the league's coaches. Here's a look at how the voting might go:

All-conference team: Manhattan's Durelle Brown, Marist's Sean Kennedy, Niagara's Demond Stewart, Rider's Mario Porter and Siena's Scott Knapp are a good bet to be the top five. The conference often goes past five players however, and that would open room for Iona's Nakiea Miller, Fairfield's Sam Spann, Canisius' Darren Fenn and Loyola's Brian Carroll.

Player of the year: Although he's had a wildly erratic year at times, Stewart led the league in scoring for the second straight year and is likely to get the nod. There will also be sentiment for Knapp and Kennedy.

Coach of the year: Marist's Dave Magarity and Rider's Don Harnum were neck-and-neck most of the season before their teams slumped. That allows first-year Siena coach Louis Orr to sneak in and earn the trophy.

Women's awards: Niagara's Amy Getman and Canisius' Shauna Geronzin are likely candidates for the all-conference team. The top player of the year choices are Fairfield center Gail Strumpf or Siena sophomore forward Gunta Basko, a native of Latvia. Siena center Liene Jansone, another Latvian, is the runaway choice for rookie of the year. Siena's Gina Castelli, the Buffalo native, is expected to be named coach of the year.

Rumor mill reported this week that Iona coach Jeff Ruland, a former Gaels All-American and NBA all-star, is one of six finalists for the job at Rhode Island to replace Jerry DeGregorio, who is stepping down after the season.

Rhode Island is looking for a prominent name to help raise its program's profile, much like ex-UCLA coach Jim Harrick did in taking the Rams to the Elite Eight three years ago. It's opening a new convocation center in two years and wants the coach to be involved in fundraising.

Ruland has been unhappy that Iona has not come up with more money after he led the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament last year. His family still lives in Medford, N.J., a 90-minute ride from the Iona campus in New Rochelle.

"I have an open door with my players and they can come talk to me anytime about schoolwork, life, anything," Ruland said.

And if one walks in and asks about Rhode Island?

"They haven't asked anything and I haven't volunteered anything. . . . My answer would be, "We've got a game on Saturday and Coach would like to be at Iona but we'll address that at the end of the season.' "

Others mentioned by are Holy Cross' Ralph Willard, Maine's John Giannini, UConn assistant Dave Leitao, Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins and Phoenix Suns assistant Roger Reid, the former coach at BYU.

All-Foot in Mouth

Siena's Knapp didn't think ahead when talking about the tournament earlier this season.

Knapp let loose on Buffalo during his team's three-day January break here following a 104-83 loss at Niagara. After a workout prior to the Saints' loss at Canisius, Knapp told the Albany Times-Union he could think of better places to spend a day.

"Buffalo is a place I don't like to come to, ever, for any reason," Knapp said. "I just don't like the city, even though I've always done good here (he was an all-tournament selection when Siena won the 1999 title)."

Hearing his son's comments, Knapp's father, Al, snapped, "Don't say that, because when the tournament's here, they'll crucify you."

Scott Knapp's reply: "That's all right, because nobody comes to the tournament here."

A history refresher for the younger Knapp: The reason the MAAC starting looking for sites other than Albany's Pepsi Arena was because total attendance for the tournament slipped to just over 20,000 in 1996 when the Siena program was in a down cycle. The tourney's two stops in Buffalo have drawn 35,677 (1997) and 38,028 (1999).

The '99 tourney would have easily approached the 50,000 mark had Canisius met Niagara in the semifinals rather than getting upset by St. Peter's. And that would have meant a Big 4 team in the final and a much bigger crowd than the 5,356 that watched Siena-St. Peter's.

The Wing's the thing

At least from a cuisine standpoint, the tournament has been a hit in Buffalo. Former Fairfield men's coach Paul Cormier credited some team meals at Chef's Restaurant on Seneca Street for helping his team bond here in 1997 and win the tournament as an eighth seed. This week's men's coaches teleconference degenerated to a discussion about, of all things, chicken wings.

"Our team is a big fan of Duff's so we're looking forward to it," current Fairfield coach Tim O'Toole said of the Millersport Highway eatery. "My first boss at Fordham (former Canisius coach Nick Macarchuk) used to explain to us the actual folklore behind the wings. He told us that anytime you need a bucket and have a towel to wipe the sweat off the back of your neck, you've reached wing nirvana.

"If King Henry VIII had an opportunity to come back, he would anoint Duff as the chicken wing of his empire."

"I could sleepwalk to Duff's from the Marriott," cracked Marist coach Dave Magarity. "But we're staying downtown at the Hyatt, so the Anchor Bar is more convenient. And I'm not picky when it comes to wings."

Rider's Harnum tabbed Gabriel's Gate on Allen Street as his favorite. Said Harnum: "We go there, put about 175 wings on the table and there's nothing left at the end of the night."

First-year St. Peter's coach Bob Leckie, meanwhile, owns a Rockaway Beach restaurant known as The Wharf and gave Buffalo kitchens some bulletin board material. Quipped Leckie: "I'll put my wings up against any in Buffalo."

They said it

Iona's Ruland, after a lethargic 10-point win over last-place St. Peter's: "I'd like to know what I'm going to get every night. With this group, I can't tell. I don't know if they're ready to come out and go to battle like it's World War II and kill or be killed, or we're at a Sadie Hawkins dance and we're going to pick your partner and do-si-do."

Armstrong, now a MAAC broadcaster, on Manhattan boss Bobby Gonzalez: "He makes caffeine look nervous."

Gonzalez, rating Armstrong's joke: "Hey, he stole that line from Pete Gillen (the Virginia coach who Gonzalez worked under at Virginia and Providence). I'm very intense, hyper and nervous. I coach within my personality and my team plays that way."

More Gonzalez, after his team held Siena's Knapp to 1-for-9 shooting in a win at Albany: "I told our guys to stay on him even if he went to the men's room."

Fairfield's O'Toole, when asked if Chris Rivers would receive a game ball or any other recognition after his 40-point game against Canisius: "Riv gets the opportunity to come back and practice his butt off on Wednesday. This is Fairfield, we can't afford game balls."

The bottom line

Men - Flip a coin, roll some dice, draw straws, whatever. Iona has been the best team over the entire season even though it finished on a three-game slide. Who will join the Gaels in the final is a major question. Manhattan plays great defense, but the knee injury to gunner Justin Jackette may derail the Jaspers' plans. Canisius' interior presence makes it interesting, but four games in four days may be too much for the Griffs to handle.

That leaves Siena, which is shooting for its fourth straight final. The Saints have a renewed commitment to defense under Orr and have the motivation of last year's home loss to Iona in the final. The pick here is that the Saints will get their revenge against the Gaels Monday night and, along the way, will dump Saturday's Canisius-Niagara survivor once the Griffs dispatch St. Peter's on Friday.

Women - Anything other than a Siena-Fairfield final would be a colossal surprise. Only Loyola and St. Peter's harbor any real hope of pulling an upset.

Around the rim

Fairfield's men's and women's teams will play all their home games next year at a new 10,000-seat building off campus, the Bridgeport Arena at Harbor Yards. . . . This is the tourney's final year in Buffalo under its current six-year contract that alternates the site between HSBC Arena and Pepsi Arena. The 2002 tournament returns to the state capital. The Bridgeport facility and the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., are likely to host in future years. . . . Iona's senior class (Leland Matthews, Earl Johnson, Nakiea Miller and Phil Grant) has a 52-20 MAAC record - the second-best four-year run in league history behind only the Lionel Simmons-led La Salle teams of the late '80s. . . . The closest thing to a MAAC dynasty is the St. Peter's women. The Peahens have won tournament titles in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2000. St. Peter's Mike Granelli is one of just four Division I coaches with 500 wins at one school. The others read like a who's who of women's hoops: Tennessee's Pat Summitt, North Carolina State's Kay Yow and Texas' Jody Conradt. . . . Manhattan women's coach Sal Buscaglia, the former University at Buffalo boss, is 41-43 in three years with the Jaspers.

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