While the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has received two bids to the NCAA tournament only twice in its history, the conference still maintains that standard as a goal for the future.
“We all want a two-bid league, so I think everything that’s done towards that, we’re all in support of it,” Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said describing it as an agenda item at the league’s coaches meetings this summer.
The last time the league received two bids was after Johnson’s Stags knocked off top seeded Iona in the conference tournament semifinals. After Loyola (MD) won the tournament championship over Fairfield, the Gaels found out on Selection Sunday that they drew a spot in the First Four in Dayton.
Last season Manhattan and Iona faced each other for the second straight season in the MAAC championship game. They were the league’s only two teams that finished the season with an RPI in the top 75; Canisius and Quinnipiac finished just outside the top 100.
“Last year us and Iona should have been in no matter who won the MAAC championship,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “I guess it’s not going to be an every year thing, but in given years and this is just what I base it on: if you put Iona or you put Quinnipiac or you put Siena on a neutral site, who’s playing them? No one’s playing them.”
Coaches find that they need to schedule aggressively in their non-conference portion, because of the presumed RPI hit they will take when playing the bottom of their own league compared to a possible power conference bubble team. Iona head coach Tim Cluess admits that he sometimes schedules too many tough games, but he knows his team will be better off for it.
“If you look at our non-league RPI, it’s right up there with a lot of teams in the country,” Cluess said. “You shouldn’t be penalized because people perceive that your league is not that strong last year.”
Last season the conference’s best RPI win belonged to Canisius, who beat 78th ranked Georgia State on a neutral site in North Carolina. The Golden Griffins nearly beat Notre Dame on the road and tournament champion Manhattan had fourth-seeded Louisville on the ropes in their matchup. All which lends to the opinion that the conference could compete with some of the best power conference teams.
“I guess it’s probably another 8 or 10 teams around the country in different leagues like ours that feel the exact same way and maybe they’re all right,” Cluess said. “Maybe we should stop giving the 7th, 8th, 9th place team that have already proven they can’t win on the road.”
The 20-game MAAC schedule also reduces the amount of non-conference games teams can schedule by two. Masiello said he feels that the change has hurt his program, especially when the Jaspers win road games in conference and see their RPI fall.
“When you’re going on the road and your RPI is going down, I’d rather go play a neutral [site game] against a team who’s in the BCS,” Masiello said. “If you take away our opportunities outside of our conference to make a statement, we have to make a statement and whether it’s the Iona-Cleveland State or Manhattan versus Rutgers or Florida State, we have to make a statement.”
“If you don’t make a statement, it’s going to be very hard to get that at-large and the more opportunities you have to make a statement, the more opportunities to be able to make a statement.”
Most staffs have worked around the reduced schedule by participating in exempt events. Canisius, Niagara, Quinnipiac and Siena are the only teams in the conference that won’t participate in an exempt event this season.
The Jaspers are a part of the Hall of Fame Tip Off, which includes games at Florida State and at UMass followed by two games at Mohegan Sun Arena. Iona will be a part of the Roundball Showcase, a multi-team event played exclusively at on campus sites and will have to travel to Wake Forest and Arkansas as part of the event.
Success though is a double-edged sword. It is tougher to find programs willing to schedule some of the MAAC’s best teams, but Cluess believes there will always be a high-major team willing to play his Gaels.
“We’re going on the road to play all these teams at their schools, and they all win at home as we know, and you have to play great just to be in the game, let alone have a chance to win it,” Cluess said. “I think you have to take advantage of that. If you’re not playing in those type of games, if you have none of those teams, even if you don’t think you’re going to be great that year, I think you still have to play a couple of those type of teams because what if your team surprises you and plays above it’s head and you look at the end of the season and say, ‘hey geez if we would have played three higher level teams, rather than six bad teams, we might have had a chance.'”
MAAC Associate Commissioner Ken Taylor said he would like to see the league’s future become similar to how the West Coast Conference has ascended over the past two decades.
“They get to the end of the year and Gonzaga, St Mary’s, some of the other schools in that league, they’re so good and they might play each other in the final, but everyone is in agreement that both will be in the tournament,” Taylor said. “We’d love to be there someday, we’ve never had that situation, our second bids have been a result of a single team that was great.”
Commissioner Rich Ensor has said in the past that Iona’s home victory over Nevada in their BracketBuster game helped boost their stock for the NCAA tournament’s selection committee that year. When they finished the season with an RPI in the top 50, Iona drew an NCAA tournament bid as one of the final teams in the field.
Iona’s 80-78 win over Denver that season was their third top-100 RPI victory in an impressive early non-conference schedule. Last season Iona’s non-conference schedule was 39th in the country and Manhattan’s ranked 121st. Manhattan will be taking a similar approach this season, with an aggressive non-conference schedule.
Masiello believes that the argument shouldn’t be framed as it is now, comparing the best MAAC team to the sixth or seventh best team in a power conference.
“The top two teams in the MAAC could play in a BCS conference and be successful,” Masiello said adding that they will have a better RPI than a MAAC school due to their conference opponents. “We as basketball people have to be able to say that team, just from the eye test is really good, one of the best 68 teams in the country. There’s a reason why no one will play them and the reason is they’re that good.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.