MAAC Media Day: Notes and observations

AP Photo/Tim Roskie

Derek Needham is the electrifying sophomore point guard on Fairfield, picked to win the MAAC.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference held its basketball media day on Tuesday at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, previewing what is shaping up to be an exciting year in the MAAC Conference.

Multiple local teams should be in contention. St. Peter's was predicted to finish third in the conference's preseason coaches' poll, with Iona pegged to finish fourth.

Nearby Fairfield is the preseason favorite, with three-time defending champion Siena selected as the runner-up.

Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, a former Boston College assistant entering his fifth year at the helm, is very excited for the coming season -- especially after his team came excruciatingly close to making the NCAA Tournament last year, losing the MAAC championship game to Siena in overtime.

"This is my 17th year coaching, and I've never had a group in the summer carry over to the beginning of school and to now fall practice, consistently," Cooley said. "The work ethic and attitude has been 120 percent. I've never had a group with that type of carry-over as a coach. By far, the best I've had. So I don't know if that translates into wins, but it's a lot to talk about when you look at the character of our group."

Siena will be gunning for a fourth-straight MAAC championship -- but they'll be doing it with a new coach. Fran McCaffery, who led the Saints to the Big Dance the past three years, is now the head coach at Iowa. Mitch Buonaguro, McCaffery's top assistant and a former Fairfield head coach, takes over.

AP Photo/Rajah Bose

Ryan Rossiter -- Siena forward and preseason MAAC player of the year.

Buonaguro has a lot to live up to. It'll help that he'll have the MAAC's preseason player of the year, senior forward and Staten Island native Ryan Rossiter, on his side. Rossiter, 6-foot-9, averaged 13.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season. The rebounding mark made him No. 7 in the country.

St. Peter's season could largely depend on the health of Wesley Jenkins, the 6-foot-2 senior guard who was the team's leading scorer a season ago (13.8 ppg) and was voted first-team All-MAAC this year. Jenkins partially tore his ACL last month, but is still hoping to play this season.

"We'll know in two weeks," said coach John Dunne. "He's gonna go back [to the doctor] for a follow-up. And he's either gonna be good to go, where he should make it back by December, or they'll have to talk about surgery."

Iona, which went 12-6 in the conference and 21-10 overall last season, should be in contention this season as well after returning all five starters. The person who didn't return is coach Kevin Willard, who is now at Seton Hall. Instead, Tim Cluess will be manning the sideline for the Gaels -- getting his first Division I coaching opportunity after an incredibly successful career at the high school, junior college and Division II level, most recently at C.W. Post on Long Island. Cluess won 384 games and lost only 111 in his 20 seasons spent coaching at those levels (stat courtesy of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook).

"Coaching is coaching, and I've been very fortunate to coach really high-level players in high school for many years and even at C.W. Post. So as far as the talent base of coaching, it's no different," Cluess said. "I think the coaches we will go against and the programs we will go against will be very, very tough."

After those top four schools, the rest of the MAAC preseason poll went as follows: 5) Rider; 6) Loyola; 7) Canisius; 8) Niagra; 9) Manhattan; 10) Marist. (Click here to find previews of all 10 MAAC teams.)

Manhattan is in a rebuilding year, after losing four of its five starters from a season ago -- including Rico Pickett, the MAAC's leading scorer last year, at 17.7 points per game. Fifth-year head coach Barry Rohrssen, the former Pitt assistant who was recruited by St. John's coach Steve Lavin to be his top assistant during the offseason, elected to remain in Riverdale and continue trying to get the Jaspers back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

"We do have a lot of new guys. There's an excitement to that as well," Rohrssen said. "Competitively, sometimes you're more at an advantage when you have returning players. ... We're excited about the new players that we've brought in. It's a blank canvas for us right now, and we're looking to fill in the spots."

One more thing -- keep an eye on Fairfield guard Derek Needham (pictured above) and Iona guard Scott Machado -- both were named first-team All-MAAC, along with Rossiter, Jenkins and Siena guard Clarence Jackson.

It should be a very competitive season in the MAAC, a below-the-radar conference that's well worth paying attention to. In fact, the MAAC was actually ranked 15th in conference RPI a year ago, and 14th the year before that, out of 32 total conferences -- not too shabby. And six of its 10 schools are within a two-hour drive of New York City -- five of them closer than 90 minutes away.

It's not the big time, but it's quality college basketball.