Last year: In the first year of the tournament's move to Springfield, fourth-seeded Fairfield made a play to win win it all. The Stags upset top-seeded Iona, which ended up earning the MAAC's first NCAA Tournament at-large bid since 1995, in the semifinals before falling to No. 2 Loyola (MD), 48-44, in the finals on a rousing halftime sermon from Jimmy Patsos.
This year: Lacrosse's control on the look of the MAAC means the conference is on the edge of some big changes. Loyola (MD) is on the way out, and at least Quinnipiac and Monmouth are on the way in.
But before that happens, the MAAC tournament features a stacked field. Only two games separate top-seeded Niagara (18-12 overall, 13-5 MAAC) and fifth-seeded Canisius (18-12, 11-7), and No. 2 Rider, No. 3 Loyola (MD) and No. 4 Iona fall in between. Nobody's looking at an at-large this season, making the competition even more intense.
The favorite: I'm taking No. 4 Iona (17-13, 11-7) as the favorite. Their lower seeding is meaningless among the packed standings, especially when you consider that six of their seven conference losses were by one possession, three of which came in overtime or double OT.
The Gaels punctuated the season with a pair of wins over Siena and Loyola in which they scored 170 points in 145 possessions (1.17 ppp), reinforcing their position as the MAAC's most efficient scoring team at 1.10 ppp in conference play. All-MAAC first-teamer Lamont Jones, and second-teamer Sean Armand (a 41.4 percent high-volume 3-point shooter) got them there. Ballhandling, shooting, and especially 3-point shooting are something they do better than any MAAC team.
Defensively, Tim Cluess' men haven't been stellar while their foes scored 1.03 ppp in league play. They're not great at shot defense and less effective at crashing the boards and creating turnover opportunities.
If Iona pulled it off, it would be a first for them since 2006, when they won the crown as a two-seed.
The contender: Not since 2002 has a No. 2 seed not made the championship game in the MAAC Tournament, so No. 2 Rider (18-13, 12-6) deserves a spot here.
Perhaps they deserve it more for winning five straight games to end the season, including a pair of wins at Canisius and Niagara by more than one possession. The Broncs have managed just 0.99 ppp, but have held conference foes to 0.96 ppp.
That's impressive given that Head Coach Kevin Baggett was promoted to the top spot to start the season and had to deal with a lot of roster turnover on a team that finished 13-19 last season with a loss in the opening round of the MAAC tourney. Now, a pair of juniors in Anthony Myles and Nurideen Lindsey power an offense that likes to score inside and a defense that has been effective at shot defense from all over the floor, creating opportunities and grabbing boards. Senior Jonathon Thompson has a lot to do with those things too.
Rider has never won the tournament as a MAAC member, and their last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 1994.
dark horse other contender: While No. 1 Niagara doesn't stand out much from the field, the Purple Eagles have the easiest path to the championship game. No. 9 Siena, which is now a shadow of the team that won three straight MAAC Tournaments from 2008 too 2010, and No. 8 Marist went 0-4 against Niagara during the season. Obviously No. 4 Iona and No. 5 Canisius could be problematic, but Niagara has beaten (and lost to) both once already this season.
A pair of 6-3 sophomore guards in Juan'ya Green and Antoine Mason, who were both chosen to the six-man All-MAAC first-team, get the lion's share of the Purple Eagles' possessions and run an offense that scored 1.04 ppp and allowed 0.98 ppp in league play. They come in with some momentum havin won four of their last five games of the season.
Head Coach Joe Mihalich, now in his 10th season at the helm, led his team to a MAAC Tournament title in 2005 and in 2007.
Another contender: No. 3 Loyola MD (21-10, 12-6) returned a solid roster from last year's tournament team, including current All-MAAC first-team selections Erik Etherly and Dylon Cormier and senior Robert Olson. Can't count them out.