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College basketball MACC teams pick up the pace Guards fuel high-tempo game

Let the fun begin when Canisius and Niagara open their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference seasons on Friday.

The MAAC ranked No. 1 out of 33 men’s basketball conferences last season in terms of close games – those decided by three points or fewer or in overtime. The MAAC also ranked No. 10 in terms of fast pace – possessions per game, according to the analytics website

“I think it’s why the coaches have no hair,” cracked Niagara coach Chris Casey.

The percentage of close games in a conference tend to vary widely year by year.

But the MAAC consistently has ranked high in terms of fast pace. It was No. 1 out of 33 conferences in 2013-14. It has ranked among the top 12 in tempo seven of the past eight seasons.

MAAC teams like to go up and down the court, and there’s a consensus on the reason for it.

“Guards,” said Casey. “You look at our preseason MAAC selections. Nine of our top 10 players are guards. The guards are really good. Guards get you up and down the floor. You have teams in our league that are playing four guards. You have a lot of guys at the ‘four’ spot who can handle it and have versatility.”

“The history of this league has been dominated by guards,” said Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson. “It’s a guard-dominated league. Those are the guys charged with setting the tempo and getting their teams going in transition. I think it reflects we usually attract good guards in this part of the country, and sometimes out of the country.”

Canisius plays Monmouth at Friday at the Koessler Athletic Center, while Quinnipiac visits Niagara’s Taps Gallagher Center. Both games start at 7 p.m. Monmouth was picked to finish second behind Iona in the MAAC’s preseason poll of coaches. Monmouth boasts one of the MAAC’s top guards in 5-foot-8 junior Justin Robinson.

The MAAC, comprised of small, Catholic schools, doesn’t attract a lot of dominant power forwards and centers. The point guards usually aren’t waiting for the 250-pounders to set up in the half-court offense.

Eight of the 11 MAAC teams played faster than the national average of 64.7 possessions per game last season.

Iona led the MAAC in tempo (68.8 possessions a game) and scoring last season. The Gaels averaged 79.5 points, fifth most in the nation. Iona has led the MAAC in tempo three straight years.

“I think we’re committed to scoring,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “Iona is. We are, and you’ve got to keep up.”

“It starts at the top,” said Siena coach Jimmy Patsos. “In the ACC, it started with Duke and Carolina when I was at Maryland. They led the way. Iona and Manhattan are high-energy teams that score a lot, so you have to catch them. ... I’ve been here 11 years. Joe Mihalich’s teams at Niagara could really score. It’s a high-energy league.”

Niagara’s guard-oriented lineup ranked fifth in pace last year and is playing fast again this season.

Baron likes to play fast at Canisius. To his credit, he slowed things down last year when it became apparent that point guard was not a strength and the team was more efficient in the half-court sets. Canisius led the conference in assists per field goal and exceeded expectations with a fourth-place finish.

This year the Griffs are better at point guard with the addition of graduate student Malcolm McMillan. Canisius is playing a lot faster, averaging 87.8 ppg.

The Griffs lost three times to Monmouth last year, getting eliminated by the Hawks in the MAAC quarterfinals.

Both Canisius and Niagara saw six of their 18 conference games last season decided by three points or fewer or in overtime.

“In the last four minutes, welcome to the MAAC,” Patsos said. “It’s a very competitive league.”