Loyola digging itself out of the cellar
AP Photo/Joseph OliverMichael Tuck is the lone remaining member of that embarrassing 1-27 season.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has a very defined Tri-State identity. Nine of its 10 schools are either located within the Empire State's borders or sit a short drive from its unofficial capital of New York City. So for much of Loyola's stay in the conference, the Baltimore-based Greyhounds have found themselves playing the role of misunderstood outsiders from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"We're the southernmost school, but we also weren't very good for a long while," said Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos. "If maybe people took us lightly, or the referees didn't give us any breaks, or we didn't get the schedule we deserved. We hadn't really earned any of that."
Patsos arrived fresh from Maryland in April 2004 after 12 years at Gary Williams' side. The Loyola program that Patsos inherited was a down-and-out one that had a single winning season to show for nearly two decades of MAAC membership. Loyola basketball had bottomed out the season before with a 1-27 record that flirted with historic futility. There's only one player left who remembers that dark era, 6-7 senior forward Michael Tuck.
"Coming in, I knew it wasn't a great team, but I knew I was going to get a lot of playing time," said Tuck, a freshman in 2003-04 and a medical redshirt during Patsos' first season. "But game after game, we just kept racking up the Ls. When we were on ESPN "SportsCenter" for almost breaking the record for most losses, it was embarrassing, the worst feeling ever. I can't even describe it."
In the three years since Patsos' arrival, he's engineered a sharp rise through the standings by building his teams around high-scoring transfers, like now-departed ex-Maryland guard Andre Collins and current star Gerald Brown, a local boy who spent his first two seasons at Providence. At the same time, he's slowly building enough local name recognition to dip into the deep pool of Baltimore prep talent. The Greyhounds went from a six-win transition season to a 15-13 mark in 2005-06, then served notice in a big way last season with a school-record 18 victories and a trip to the semifinals of the conference tournament.
And this could be the season that it all comes together; Loyola will enter the season as MAAC favorites for the first time ever. The Greyhounds return the hyper-athletic Brown, the sixth-leading scorer in the country last year with 22.2 points per contest, and pair him in the backcourt with transfer guard Joe Miles, who averaged 10.3 ppg in two years at Marshall. Up front, the Greyhounds have plenty of senior bulk in 6-10 former Terp Hassan Fofana and returning leading rebounder Omari Isreal (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), a 6-8 Rockville, Md., native.
"It's exciting and it's rewarding," said Tuck, who scored 9.1 ppg on a team-leading 60 percent field-goal shooting. "After sticking through the hard times, it's rewarding to have the opportunity to have a great team and play for a great coach. I think we'll do really well this year and contend for the championship."
But the Greyhounds might have had their net-cutting ceremony and national breakthrough this past March if not for a key flaw. Loyola led the MAAC in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 41.7 percent shooting, but still found a way to allow more than 70 points a game. Patsos concedes that the solution to that particular problem is all upstairs.
"We've got to stop fouling," intoned Patsos, whose team committed nearly 21 fouls per ballgame in 2006-07. "That's the first thing I put on the blackboard. I'm an aggressive coach and we play fast and we press. But I'm a thinking man too, you know. We've got to use our heads better. We foul the wrong guys a lot."
Patsos, much like his Maryland mentor Williams, is -- how should we put this -- demonstrative on the sidelines. The painted barriers of the coach's box outline is an invisible cage he's not afraid to step out of at any time, and the fans up in the cheap seats are privy to just about every word he says during games. And Patsos' rapier-like in-game wit, much more suitable for HBO than a cable game broadcast, has made him a frequent technical foul target.
"I came from a place where you're expected to be excited on the bench," Patsos said. "And I was taking over a 1-27 program. I was pretty nervous. There was no energy or excitement in the program, and I was doing whatever I could to get people fired up. So my energy was a little out of control. Maybe I get the team revved up too much, maybe that's why we foul. I've got to be myself, you know, but I'm going to dial it down a little bit this year.
"What can I say, I'm growing up as a coach."
Saints keep marching on
Siena charged toward March with plenty of MAAC momentum, winning seven straight games before a Feb. 24 overtime loss at eventual regular-season champion Marist. The No. 4-seeded Saints later avenged that drop in the conference tourney semifinals, then came within four points of the NCAA Tournament in the title game against Niagara.
Siena will lose the services of leading scorer and rebounder Michael Haddix from that squad. But last season allowed the development of two promising frontcourters behind him: 6-7 Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin, who scored 27 points and grabbed 11 boards in the nationally televised season-ender. Along with 6-7 Vermont transfer Josh Duell, a former all-rookie pick in the America East, the Saints' front line is formidable.
And they'll need it to absorb a bruising nonconference schedule that promises to toughen them up for a run at a conference crown. Siena will play Memphis, Saint Joseph's and Stanford, as well as NCAA qualifiers Albany and Holy Cross.
"This is the most challenging nonconference schedule Siena's ever had," said third-year head coach Fran McCaffery. "We've really tried to challenge this team with a schedule that will ultimately get us ready for what the MAAC has in store."
Marist's Jared Jordan was picked at No. 45 in the 2007 draft, but there's another MAAC player who might go higher than that when the 2008 NBA draft rolls around.
Rider's senior forward Jason Thompson is a rarity at the mid-major level. He's a 6-10, 245-pound specimen who moves easily around the floor and is as comfortable posting up as he is knocking down 12-foot jumpers. Thompson averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.1 rpg last season and recorded 17 double-doubles.
"He's an NBA player and a real gamer," said Siena's McCaffery, whose Saints allowed Thompson 31 points, 16 boards and seven blocks in a game on Jan. 27. "He has the ability to get a triple-double on you with points, rebounds and blocked shots. I recruited him out of high school when I was at [UNC-] Greensboro, and I thought the only thing he was missing was strength. He's since developed that. There aren't many players in the country who are 6-10 and as versatile as he is."
Unfriendly welcome for most
After four coaching changes last year, it's been a quiet summer on the MAAC coaching carousel with only a single change. Jeff Ruland, formerly of Iona, is now in the NBA family as a D-League coach in Albuquerque, replaced in New Rochelle by Kevin Willard.
Of last season's new hires, none really burned up the league. All four registered losing records with no more than 13 wins, and none made it any farther than the tourney quarterfinals. But Barry Rohrssen's Manhattan Jaspers and Ed Cooley's Fairfield Stags can boast winning regular-season MAAC marks as both finished 10-8.
Once again, all 10 teams will participate in BracketBusters next February. Canisius, Iona, Loyola, Manhattan and St. Peter's will host a game, while Fairfield, Marist, Niagara, Rider and Siena will take to the road. MAAC teams were 6-4 in the event last season.
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
The eighth-seeded Golden Griffins destroyed No. 9 St. Peter's in the tourney's opening round, keeping their three-year winning streak in the conference tournament intact. Small consolation in Tom Parrotta's first season at the helm, a 12-19 (6-12) nightmare that ended with nine losses in the club's final 10 games. Three career 1,000-point scorers are lost to graduation (57 percent of the team's 2006-07 scoring), so Canisius will be the conference's youngest team with only three upperclassmen. But the Grif-Fans still have sweet dreams of the future with sophomore point guard Frank Turner, last season's co-MAAC Rookie of the Year (11.9 ppg, 5.4 apg).
The Stags came out stagnant in 2006-07, losing 15 of their first 18 games. But they bounced back, registering a 10-8 league record before blowing a five-point lead in the waning moments of a tourney quarterfinal against Loyola. The instigator of Fairfield's turnaround (15.3 ppg scorer Michael Van Schaick) is gone now, but forwards Greg Nero (6-7) and Anthony Johnson (6-8) showed promise as raw freshmen, combining for 18 points per contest. Second-year coach Ed Cooley hopes the young frontcourt pair crashes the boards better and helps the team improve on its MAAC-worst rebounding (27.1 rpg).
Graduations, injuries and academic suspensions meant Iona had to manage its MAAC championship defense last season with just eight active players. Often starting with five frosh, the glum Gaels lost 22 times before beating Rider. Head coach Jeff Ruland's only other victory came over similarly depleted Delaware in the BracketBusters. The administration was decidedly unsympathetic, buying out the former Iona star's contract after the 2-28 season ended. So former Louisville assistant Kevin Willard inherits a Gael group that will get all its injured and ineligible players back, most notably junior guard Kyle Camper and St. John's transfer Dexter Gray.
When Skip Prosser died of a heart attack in July, the entire college basketball world mourned his passing. But his loss hit the North Baltimore campus particularly hard. In 1993, after a 2-25 season, the school turned to then-Xavier assistant Prosser and gave him his first top job at the college level. In his single season at Loyola, the Greyhounds earned Loyola's only NCAA bid to date. "Skip was one of the main reasons I took this job," said Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos. "He told me, 'Jimmy, I love Loyola. I would have stayed there, but Xavier was where I spent 10 years.' He told me I could get it done here and that I shouldn't make the mistake of not taking the job. He was just one of those guys who looked out for people."
First-year head coach Barry Rohrssen and seven freshmen overachieved in '07, committing the fewest turnovers in MAAC games on the way to a 10-8 league record and a No. 5 seed in the conference tourney. The Jaspers relied on their rookies for 58 percent of the team's scoring, then came within three points of upsetting eventual runner-up Siena in the quarterfinals. The sophomore septet is led by 6-4 local kid Darryl Crawford (9.6 ppg), who followed up an All-Bronx high school career at All Hallows by notching 13 shooting nights of 50 percent or better in his first collegiate season. If this greenhorn group progresses as planned, expect another green banner in the Draddy Gym rafters within the next three years.
Jared Jordan, now of the L.A. Clippers, established himself as one of those point guards who just makes his teammates look better -- there was a noticeable drop-off in play when he was on the Red Fox's bench. Now that Jordan is gone (along with cohorts Will Whittington and James Smith), the 25-win regular season champions and NIT first-round winners (at Oklahoma State, no less) are forced to face the future with considerably less Marist magic. The returning frontcourt looks impressive enough, with three senior forwards led by 6-8 Ryan Stilphen, who shot a team-leading 58 percent last season.
On its way to the MAAC championship, Niagara was outrebounded only three times in 17 conference games; the Purple Eagles' 35 boards per contest easily led the league. Half those rebounds are gone now, most notably the 10 rpg from outgoing senior Clif Brown. But Charron Fisher, the 6-3 spark plug of this squad (20.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg), is back for what should be a sensational senior season. Once he returned from an eight-game suspension for his role in a bar fight, the Eagles morphed from a 2-6 team into a 22-win finisher.
The word "Broncs" might be missing an "O," but the 2006-07 team missed the "D" a heckuva lot more. Rider died by the three, allowing a league-worst 40.2 percent 3-point field goal percentage and yielding well over a point per defensive possession. The end result: a 16-15 (9-9 MAAC) record and a 25-point "L" in the quarterfinals to Niagara. If 6-11 star Jason Thompson is to get his national spotlight in a Rider resurgence, the team will need more consistent guard play out of junior Mansell Harris (12.4 ppg) and unrelated sophomore Ryan Thompson (8.3 ppg).
A season after two-time national scoring champ Keydren Clark graduated, the Peacocks had all sorts of trouble replacing his offensive output. Under new coach John Dunne, five-win Saint Peter's finished last in the MAAC in field goal percentage and averaged less than 60 points a game. The most spectacular returning Peacock is 6-7 senior Todd Sowell, who notched nine double-doubles on the way to 13 ppg and 8.5 rpg averages, but SPC is destined to be the MAAC's feather-dusters if none of the young guards step up.
Washington, D.C., product Kenny Hasbrouck made an instant impact in the MAAC two seasons ago, winning the league rookie of the year award with a 12.4 ppg freshman season in which he shot 46 percent from the floor. His second season was even better: 16.1 ppg on 47.8 percent shooting, with nine 20-point games including a 36-point explosion at Rider. With stop-and-go speed and improving skill in shooting off the dribble, look for Hasbrouck to become the MAAC's premier game-changing guard as an upperclassman.
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
Niagara was disappointed last season when it had to play in the NCAA Tournament's opening-round game. But the MAAC (especially Siena) won't be strapped with that this season, predicts Joe Lunardi.
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here for the archive.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.