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NCAA BERTH IS UP FOR GRABS
NOT MUCH SEPARATES THE UPPER TWO-THIRDS OF THE MEN'S FIELD

When the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coaches met in New York City last November to preview the men's basketball season, it was unanimous that as many as seven teams had a shot to win the tournament.

Were those guys prophetic or what? Six of the 10 teams finished within a game of each other, including a three-way tie for first place at 12-6. Six teams won at least 16 games overall and seven finished .500 or better in conference play.

That should make for a very entertaining MAAC tournament this weekend at HSBC Arena. The following is a team-by-team look at the field, in order of seeding:

No. 1 Iona

At A Glance: The defending tournament champions ended the regular season on a sour note with three consecutive losses. However, no team in the MAAC has a more talented roster. Center Nakiea Miller (15.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.96 blocks per game) leads a formidable front line. Versatile swingman Dyree Wilson (12.8 ppg) and point guard Earl Johnson (12.2 ppg, 4.1 apg) can score from the perimeter or take the ball to the basket. Phil Grant, a long-armed 6-foot-5 guard, is a tough defender. Guard Maceo Wofford (Jamestown) gets key minutes off the bench and forward Greg Jenkins is one of the league's top freshmen. Despite their abundance of talent, the Gaels are prone to mental lapses. Defensively, Iona has allowed just 67.4 points in 19 wins, but 83.3 in its 10 losses. On offense, the Gaels commit 17 turnovers per game, which tied Fairfield for highest in the league.

They'll cut down the nets if: Coach Jeff Ruland can get his team to play up to the level of its talent.

No. 2 Niagara

At A Glance: The Purple Eagles enter the tournament with serious health issues. Guard Demond Stewart (20.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg), the MAAC's leading scorer for the second straight year, missed the regular season-ending win at Siena with a stress fracture in his foot. Point guard Daryl Greene (10.1 ppg, 5.1 apg) has been playing with ankle tendinitis and turf toe. Coach Joe Mihalich will keep his fingers crossed that both players can be effective over three days. With the two big guns less than 100 percent, forward Michael Schmidt (14.3 ppg) and rookie of the year candidate James Reaves (9.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) must come through. Backcourt reserves Rhossi Carron and Tremmell Darden figure to play important minutes. Niagara can score with anyone, but its weak interior defense has been troublesome most of the season.

They'll cut down the nets if: Stewart and Greene can play through their injuries and the Purple Eagles' interior people contribute more than just fouls.

No. 3 Siena

At A Glance: Given the Saints' recent play, they might be the team to beat this weekend. They had won five straight and seven of eight before losing to Niagara on Saturday. First-year coach Louis Orr tries to wear opponents down with pressure defense and substituting in waves. Led by Dwayne Archbold (15.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and deadeye outside shooter Scott Knapp (13.5 ppg), the Saints averaged 78.1 points per game to share the top spot with Iona. They are also winning with defense, holding eight of their last nine opponents under 70 points. Freshman forward Justin Miller (Southwestern) has been a major contributor the second half of the season. The Saints rely heavily on their perimeter game. No team has taken (664) or made (249) more three-pointers. Siena is trying to become the first team since Manhattan (1992-95) to reach four consecutive tournament finals.

They'll cut down the nets if: The defense and outside shooting click at the same time.

No. 4 Marist

At A Glance: After a surprisingly strong start (5-0 in the MAAC), the Red Foxes struggled down the stretch. They haven't gotten over the loss of center Marius Janisius, who was suspended after being arrested for allegedly stabbing a student during a fracas in a campus apartment. Still, coach Dave Magarity won't allow his team go away quietly. Forward Drew Samuels (15.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg) is a strong interior presence but isn't nearly the player he was during the first half of the season due to the effects of a bone chip in his ankle. Point guard Sean Kennedy is one of the nation's leaders in assists (8.3 per game) and leads the MAAC in steals (2.3 per game). Guard Rick Smith (10.6 ppg) has become a more consistent scorer the last month of the season. No team protects the ball better than the Red Foxes (MAAC-low 13.1 turnovers per game).

They'll cut down the nets if: The team that started 9-3 in the MAAC shows up.

No. 5 Rider

At A Glance: The Broncs have been up and down. After racing to a 6-0 start in the MAAC, they lost six of their next eight league games before closing the season by winning three out of four. They swept the season series with Iona, but lost by 40 at home to Siena. Rider has one of the MAAC's best front courts led by player of the year candidate Mario Porter (19.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg). He hasn't practiced in a month because of a stress fracture in his foot, but it doesn't seem to affect his performance. Center Jonathan McClark (12.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 10 double-doubles) and guard Michael Crawford (10.1 ppg, 3.1 apg) provide solid senior leadership.

They'll cut down the nets if: They get a huge weekend from Porter, McClark and Crawford.

No. 6 Manhattan

At A Glance: If you're looking for a darkhorse, this is it. Coach Bobby Gonzalez, a Buffalo State alumnus, has a good mix on offense and a defense that led the MAAC in fewest points allowed (68.0) and most turnovers forced (18.3) per game. Forward Durelle Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is hard to defend near the basket because of his variety of moves. He also can step outside and shoot the three-pointer. Diminutive guards Von Damien "Muggsy" Green (9.8 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.0 spg) and Michael "Spud" Johnson are terrific playmakers and tenacious defenders. Freshman forward Dave Holmes (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) has been a force since gaining his eligibility in late December. Gonzalez is concerned about the availability of second-leading scorer Justin Jackette (11.4 ppg), who suffered a knee injury Sunday in Manhattan's 98-79 win over Iona. His possible absence makes reserve sophomore swingman Bruce Seals more important. Seals has been inconsistent after a great freshman season, but he is capable of scoring in bunches (remember his 41-point output in last year's four-overtime game at Canisius?).

They'll cut down the nets if: Brown doesn't have to carry the team by himself.

No. 7 Canisius

At A Glance: There isn't a team in the field Canisius can't beat. But a loss to Loyola earlier this season shows the Griffs are capable of succumbing to mediocrity. This is the last go-round for center Darren Fenn (14.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who is looking to get beyond the quarterfinals for the first time. Fenn has come on lately, averaging 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in the last four games. Toby Foster (10.4 ppg, .446 three-point pct.) and Tory Jefferson (9.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have the perimeter games to complement Fenn and his backup, Andrew Bush (10.2 ppg, .575 FG pct.). Clive Bentick (13.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Brian Dux (9.9 ppg, 4.0 apg) form one of the MAAC's best backcourts.

They'll cut down the nets if: Coach Mike MacDonald can convince his team it's possible to win four games in four days.

No. 8 Fairfield

At A Glance: When you face the Stags, be prepared to play a physical and frenetic game. The good news for the Stags is their fast-paced style allowed them to be the second-highest scoring offense at 78 points a game. The bad news is they have the second-worst defense - giving up exactly as many points as many as they score - and turn the ball over more (17) than their opponents (15.8). Sam Spann (15.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg), a 6-5 forward who started his career at Syracuse before transferring, has recorded 13 double-doubles this season. Chris Rivers (14.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg), a 6-6 swingman, erupted for 40 points against Canisius. At 6-5, Jeremy Logan (11.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and Jermaine Clark (11.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.0 apg) bring size to the backcourt.

They'll cut down the nets if: They can play under control for four days, which may be too much to ask.

No. 9 Loyola

At A Glance: The Greyhounds have relied on freshman forward John Reimold (15.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and first-year guard B.J. Davis (12.4 ppg) for offense. Having junior Damien Jenifer back from knee surgery injects needed experience in the backcourt. The team has reinstated forward Brian Carroll (10.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg) after the MAAC's leading rebounder was suspended for Sunday's season finale at Fairfield for violating team policy. Loyola has been competitive with a lot of teams, just not enough to win games.

They'll cut down the nets if: The rest of the tourney field comes down with the West Nile virus.

No. 10 St. Peter's

At A Glance: The Peacocks have the MAAC's third-leading scorer in Keith Sellers (18.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and one of the top big men in Rodney Rodgers (14.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg). They have carried the team since forward Kamaal McQueen was lost for the season with a major knee injury. The problem with the Peacocks is they can't stop anybody. They give up 81 points per game and allow opponents to shoot 49.6 percent from the field. Both figures are the worst in the MAAC. They're also the MAAC's poorest rebounding team.

They'll cut down the nets if: They won't.

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