Well, the Manhattan Jaspers are indeed a threat to win the MAAC this year. It took me a little while to believe this, but consider me a believer now, especially after their 75-74 victory over Marist on Tuesday night. A Darryl Crawford floater with seven seconds remaining was the difference, giving Manhattan sole possession of second place at 8-3, one game behind Loyola (MD). The forward combination of Devon Austin and Arturo Dubois has gotten it done for first year head coach Barry Rohrssen all year long, but it’s two freshmen in the backcourt that have had a major impact as well. In addition to the aforementioned Crawford, there’s Antoine Pearson, who is averaging 9.4 points per game. And Coach Rohrssen’s ability to recruit New York City while at Pittsburgh wasn’t left behind in the Steel City, as both Crawford and Pearson are Big Apple natives. Can this team with a young backcourt win the league title? You never know, but don’t sleep on the Jaspers.
Staying in the MAAC, Marist has lost two straight and three of their last four games to fall to 7-4 in league play. It’s become quite obvious that if either Jared Jordan or Will Whittington struggles to put the ball in the basket, the Red Foxes are in trouble. And when you have a hard time stopping people on the defensive end, this issue becomes even more of an obstacle. In their last four games, the Red Foxes have allowed their opponents to shoot the following percentages from the field: 54.9% (loss), 43.8% (win), 47.9% (loss), and 50.8% (loss). If the defense doesn’t improve, it won’t matter what Marist does on offense.
Fairfield has improved their play of late, getting to 6-5 in the league, just one game out of third place. The goal is to get out of the seventh and eighth slots, since those two teams would join St. Peter’s and Iona in Bridgeport for the opening round of the conference tournament. And if you’re a fan of either the Peacocks or Gaels, I know that there’s still a mathematical possibility of getting out of that portion of the standings, but it’s not looking too good right now.
Fordham has won four straight in the Atlantic 10 since their loss to Xavier, moving the Rams to 5-2 in the league one game behind first place George Washington. While junior forward Bryant Dunston hasn’t put up the same numbers as a year ago, the good news for Dereck Whittenburg and his staff is that they don’t have to lean as heavily on Dunston as they did in 2005-06. Upperclassmen Marcus Stout and Sebastian Greene have played well, as has freshman guard Brenton Butler. Fordham has two home games this week, St. Bonaventure on Wednesday and Rhode Island on Saturday. They need both in order to keep up with the Colonials.
In the NEC, Sacred Heart was knocked out of first place by Central Connecticut State, who has in turn gone on to gain some separation between themselves and the rest of the league. The Pioneers lost another close one after the overtime loss to CCSU, a 91-88 decision to Fairleigh Dickinson on Tuesday night. Expect these two, along with Wagner, to be in a dogfight to the end of the season for seeding in the conference tournament. Long Island and St. Francis (NY) would find themselves on the outside looking in if the season ended today, but the two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions. The slumping Blackbirds have lost five straight, while SFNY had a two-game win streak snapped by CCSU on Thursday.
Just like some of the local teams in the NEC, St. John’s and Seton Hall find themselves in a struggle to qualify for the Big East Tournament. As of right now, both would be in, but things can change on a daily basis given the unpredictable nature of the league this season. The two schools have identical records (12-9, 3-5 Big East), and both suffered bad losses on Saturday. St. John’s was blown out at Pittsburgh (the loss itself wasn’t bad, just the way that it happened), and Seton Hall lost at Rutgers. The Pirates regrouped to blow out Princeton on Monday, but their next five games (West Virginia, Villanova, at UConn, at West Virginia, Pittsburgh) will decide whether or not they go to New York.
Here are a few area games to pay attention to in the next few days.
• Virginia Commonwealth @ Hofstra, Wednesday 7:00 PM EST
This game lost some of its luster when Hofstra lost at Delaware, dropping them two games behind the front-running Rams in the Colonial, but it becomes almost a “last stand” for the Pride if they want to win the regular season title. Both teams feature dominant backcourts, and maybe it wasn’t a given that Hofstra would have the best backcourt in the Colonial. Two seniors (B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa) and a sophomore (Eric Maynor) lead first-year head coach Anthony Grant’s team. Unfortunately, this one is not scheduled to be on television, so try to catch this one on the radio.
• Fairleigh Dickinson @ Robert Morris, Thursday 7:00 PM EST
The Knights and Colonials enter this game separated by one half game in the NEC standings, and with the higher seeds getting home court in the conference tournament every game is important. An entertaining matchup to watch in this game will be the one between forwards Andre Harris (FDU) and A.J. Jackson (RMU), two seniors that lead their teams in scoring. The Knights are a slightly better team on the glass, but Robert Morris is the better shooting team by a wide margin (47.1% to 41.6%).
• Fairfield @ Canisius, Friday 7:00 PM EST
The Stags and Golden Griffins are two-fifths of the 6-5 logjam in the middle of the MAAC standings, and it’s not out of the question that if one of those five teams can get hot they can challenge for the regular season crown. But time is of the essence for these two teams, meaning that any run needs to begin with this clash on Friday. Michael Van Schaick leads the Stags in scoring, but two freshmen (Greg Nero and Anthony Johnson) are counted on for major contributions as well. Canisius has won five straight, and even though they beat Iona twice and St. Peter’s once during their current run, don’t discount the fact that they also took out Marist and Manhattan. Four Golden Griffins average double figures in points, so Fairfield will have their hands full on the defensive end.
• Rhode Island @ Fordham, Saturday 1:00 PM EST
Two sets of Rams battle in Rose Hill Gym in a game that few people expected would involve teams near the top of the Atlantic 10 at this point in the season. Rhode Island, typically a half-court team under Jim Baron, has done away with that approach in order to take advantage of their talented offensive players. Five players average at least 8.5 points per game for Rhody, currently the highest scoring team in the league. Fordham gets it done in the half court, and leans heavily on their defense to win games. The Rams from the Bronx are the second-worst scoring team in the A-10, so this should offer an intriguing clash of styles.
• Loyola (MD) @ Marist, Saturday 7:30 PM EST
Just like Hofstra’s game against VCU on Wednesday, this could be the Red Foxes’ last chance to make a run at winning the league. A loss Saturday night would put Marist three games behind the Greyhounds, who won the first meeting between the two (77-69 January 2nd). In that game Loyola shot 49.1% from the field, and Gerald Brown went off for thirty-three points. Marist had four players reach double figures in that one, but when you don’t defend well and turn the ball over eighteen times, your chances of leaving someone else’s gym with a W are slim. If Marist defends, they have a very good chance to win, but if not they risk dropping back into the traffic jam right behind them in the standings.
Updated rankings (last week in parentheses):
1. Fordham (3): The Rams are playing better than either the Pride or the Red Foxes right now.
2. Hofstra (1): The loss to Delaware was certainly disappointing, but the Pride were able to recover in knocking off first-place VCU Wednesday night.
3. Marist (2): They’ve lost three of their last four, but I don’t see too many teams in the area that should be ahead of Marist. Maybe Manhattan, but I can’t justify jumping the Jaspers six spots.
4. Manhattan (9): They’re only 2-2 in their last four games, but they’ve done more in the past week than either Seton Hall or St. John’s.
5. Sacred Heart (4): The Pioneers lost two heartbreakers this past week, but they can still get to second place in the NEC.
6. Seton Hall (6): Losing to Rutgers is never a good thing, but at least they got the bad taste out of their mouths by pasting Princeton on Monday. They’ll need the confidence boost with the schedule that they have coming up.
7. St. John’s (5): The Red Storm can beat teams at home, especially those that struggle with the concept of defense at times. But on the road against a highly ranked team that enjoys defense? Not so good.
8. Fairleigh Dickinson (8): The Knights went 1-2 last week, but unlike Army they found a way to win a game.
9. Fairfield (12): About a month ago, I wondered if the Stags would be able to win ten games. Now I wonder if they can get a high seed in the MAAC Tournament.
10. Army (7): Losing a close one at Lafayette is tough, but to follow that up with a blowout loss to Bucknell shows just how far Army has to go in order to be a threat in the Patriot League.
11. Wagner (13): The Seahawks seem to like playing LIU, having beaten them twice in the last eight days. Unfortunately for them, Sacred Heart and Monmouth will pose a stiffer challenge.
12. St. Francis (10): The Terriers hung tough, but in the end didn’t have enough to upset Central Connecticut State at home. Look out for this team in 2007-08.
13. Columbia (11): Were it not for the play of some of the schools below the Lions, Columbia would have dropped more than the two spots that they did following two losses to Cornell.
14. Stony Brook (14): Although they’ve exceeded their win total from last season, the Seawolves find themselves in a familiar place: the bottom of the America East standings.
15. Long Island (15): LIU stayed put, despite a five-game losing streak, due to the fact that the three teams below them aren’t very good either.
16. NJIT (16): How do you celebrate ending a thirteen-game losing streak? You go on a three-game losing streak. The Highlanders will get better as they get used to Division I college basketball, so be patient. Very patient.
17. St. Peter’s (17): The losing streak has now hit thirteen following a 54-53 heartbreaker suffered at the hands of Rider on Monday night.
18. Iona (18): Twenty-one straight losses and counting. Need I say more?