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Perhaps you thought March Madness left town after last year's visits by the likes of Temple, Indiana, Seton Hall, Oklahoma State and Pepperdine wowed the crowd at HSBC Arena.

That was Buffalo's first visit from the NCAA Tournament since 1954 and it will be repeated come 2004. But that doesn't mean the arena will stand quiet this March.

The real jockeying for positions to college basketball's big dance comes this week, as conference tournaments sprout up across the nation to hand out automatic berths to the NCAAs.

And what a doozy we've got in our own backyard.

Several national web sites and basketball trade publications have tabbed the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament as one to watch this March, with CBS Sportsline recently tabbing it the most interesting one of all mid-major conferences.

The 20th annual tournament opens today with two women's prequarterfinals. The men's brackets begin play Friday and conclude with the nationally televised championship game Monday night at 7 on ESPN.

While Siena and Fairfield are overwhelming favorites to meet in Sunday night's women's final, history shows it's anything but a slam dunk trying to figure out who's going to win the topsy-turvy men's bracket.

This year's white-knuckle race for the No. 1 seed (Iona, Niagara and Siena finished in the MAAC's first three-way tie for the top spot since 1984) portends another wild weekend.

"I've been saying all year and beating the drum around here that people should be excited about this like they were when the NCAA was here last year," said Canisius coach Mike MacDonald, whose team is the seventh seed despite a 17-10 overall record and a 9-9 league mark.

"Let's be honest: We're not getting an (NCAA) at-large bid for our league so this is it. This is our NCAA Tournament. For us, you fold up the uniforms and pack everything in if you lose.

"I think there's eight teams coming in here - and we're one of them - that are thinking, "Hey, we could win this thing.' . . . Everybody is also sitting at home going, "Boy, we could be done the first day.' "

Teams can't repeat

History shows how unpredictable the tournament has been. Consider these facts:

No men's team has repeated as champions since La Salle, now a member of the Atlantic 10, won three straight titles from 1988-1990.

There were eight different winners from 1992-99 - La Salle, Manhattan, Loyola, St. Peter's, Canisius, Fairfield, Iona, Siena - and few favorites were safe. Only Manhattan in '93 and Iona in '98 won the title as No. 1 seeds. Iona won it last year as a No. 2.

Low seeds can do more than just spring one upset. Fairfield won the tournament as the No. 7 seed in 1987 and repeated the feat from the No. 8 slot in 1997, the first year the tourney was in Buffalo, by stunning Canisius in the final. That 78-72 victory ruined the Griffs' run to back-to-back NCAA berths. Loyola ('94) and Canisius ('96) each won the title after entering the tournament as No. 5 seeds.

Think HSBC Arena will be an advantage for Canisius and Niagara? Think again. The home team has never won the championship since it moved to Albany's Pepsi Arena in 1990 and began play in Buffalo in 1997. Siena's lone championship in 1999 was earned in Buffalo while Canisius' 1996 title was won in Albany. In both 1998 and 2000, Siena got to the championship game at home and lost to Iona.

Another school of thought that gives everyone hope is that top-seeded Iona comes into the tourney on a season-high three-game losing streak, not the momentum you'd expect from a team gunning for back-to-back titles. The Gaels were spanked at Manhattan, 98-79, in Sunday's finale.

"Anybody who writes Iona off is making a huge mistake," warned Marist coach Dave Magarity. "You go up against them in the first round and you're talking about going against a wounded animal.

"I'm thanking my lucky stars we're not facing them in the first game (Iona meets Friday's Fairfield-Loyola winner). They're as dangerous as ever."

No. 1 often gets stung

While schools in most leagues relish the No. 1 seed, Iona is in a tenuous position. Few top seeds have done well in the MAAC tournament.

"The favorite rarely gets an at-large bid so the pressure they feel is incredible," said Iona athletic director Rich Petriccione, whose association with the MAAC dates to its 1981 inception. "Those first Saturday games (the men's quarterfinals) are nightmares. You're No. 1 and here comes somebody that has absolutely nothing to lose. You're so tight but you usually get through it.

"Then the Sunday games (the semifinals) are killers. There's so much at stake. You're thinking, "Maybe we're locked into the NIT' but you still think getting to the finals will make sure of that. Plus getting to the finals means you get on television (ESPN). There's so many other things going on in your minds that make it tough to just go play."

"It's no small feat to go up there and win three straight games," said Iona coach Jeff Ruland. "There's a lot of different things involved. It's nearly cost me my sanity just to get the No. 1 seed so far."

The Gaels' two previous tournament trips to Buffalo have caused their fans a lot of sleepless nights.

In 1997, Iona entered the quarterfinals 22-6 and met a Fairfield team that was 2-12 in conference after an injury riddled season. The Buffalo News tournament preview section even needled Fairfield by saying, "They'll win if a miracle strikes the tournament for three straight days. By Saturday afternoon, the Stags will already be on their way out of town."

The prediction had the Stags riled. They were finally healthy. Iona wasn't as star Mindaugus Timinskas had the flu. Fairfield won, 80-71, to spark its improbable title run. It remains the only time the No. 1 seed has lost its first game.

"That was so disappointing," Petriccione recalled. "I'm there with the president of the school, booster club guys, the works. What could you do? The game was over at about 2:15 in the afternoon. So we called the airport and we were gone by 3 o'clock."

Things were no better for the Gaels here two years ago. As the No. 3 seed, they were upset by No. 6 Marist in the quarterfinals.

"It's not that I don't like Buffalo but I've never really felt the tournament has worked as well there as in Albany," Petriccione said. "But I also understand my feelings might have something to do with our experiences there. Hey, Jim Valvano always said Albuquerque was his favorite place in the world. We all know why."

Valvano, the late coaching and broadcasting icon who began his career on the sidelines at Iona, moved on to North Carolina State and won the 1983 national championship on a buzzer-beating dunk against Houston in Albuquerque.

Ruland is trying to stay upbeat in the face of the worst adversity his team has faced all season.

"Hopefully we've hit rock bottom," Ruland said after Sunday's loss. "I think we'll either go up there and win the championship or lose the first game."

If not Iona, then who?

Iona isn't the only team that enters the tournament carrying some heavy baggage. All of the likeliest contenders have had major crossroads moments in their season.

Which Niagara team will show up? The one that had to overcome double-digit deficits in the second half in both of its wins over last-place St. Peter's? Or the one that finished 7-2 in MAAC play to grab the No. 2 seed?

NU coach Joe Mihalich - whose team has not gone to the NCAAs since 1970 - shakes his head when comparing the tournament's current competitiveness to the days in the late '80s when he was an assistant at La Salle and the Explorers were easily lapping the field.

"During that run, there were always about three teams that just couldn't beat you no matter what happened," Mihalich recalled. "You were really 6-0 before the season started. Who can say there's a team in the league that can't beat them now? No way. The parity is incredible."

La Salle, of course, had All-American Lionel Simmons in that era. It also had NBA players in Randy Woods and Doug Overton and role players like Jack Hurd and Tim Legler. While current MAAC teams have one go-to player, Mihalich always insists depth makes the difference.

"It's not the X's and the O's," Mihalich said. "It's the Jimmys and the Joes."

Which Siena team will show up? The one that gave up 99 points in a loss to St. Bonaventure and 104 and 95, respectively in defeats at Niagara and Canisius? Or the one that closed the season 11-3 and held seven opponents to 62 points or less?

"When you do lose and get embarrassed - and I thought our defense was embarrassing - you definitely get their attention," said first-year coach Louis Orr. "Sometimes when you have injuries and you're short on bodies, your hands are tied. . . . But getting healthy and stubbing our toes got our attention and they made their commitment that's what they were going to do."

Which Rider team will show up? The one that opened MAAC play 6-0 or the one that lost at home to Siena, 94-54?

"I couldn't wait to practice the next day after that game because you feel like you need to cleanse yourself and wash it off you," said Rider coach Don Harnum. "I had all day to stew about it and find ways to torture guys. Since then, we've played pretty well (going 4-3 with one of the losses in overtime at Siena in a rematch)."

Which Marist team? The one that opened 5-0 in the league? Or the one that closed the season 3-5?

Which Manhattan team? The one that won 11 league games or the one that hasn't won a game in Buffalo since the 1996-97 season?

Which Canisius team? The one that went 2-5 at midseason, blowing a 22-point lead at Siena and losing to lowly Loyola? Or the one that finished the campaign 6-2, drilling Iona and Niagara?

"I look at them and say there's one of the best teams in this league," Marist's Magarity said of the Griffs. "They've beaten Iona, Siena, us, everybody. That's significant. I love their guys. (Brian) Dux is an up-and-coming great point guard in this league. (Darren) Fenn is the best post player hands-down. They've got different weapons."

"Canisius being a seventh team is laughable because they're as good as any team in the league," Mihalich added. "The difference is so small. It's minimal. There's not a whole lot between Iona at No. 1 to Canisius or Fairfield at No. 8."

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