After burying Quinnipiac in a barrage of second half three-pointers Tuesday night at the Hynes Center, the assembled media grilled consensus MAAC favorite Iona about the pressure of being the league leader. David Laury did his best to dance around the loaded questions, and showed his veteran leadership by being tremendously diplomatic.
“We definitely have a chance to establish ourselves, but this is the MAAC,” Laury said. “This conference is a great conference. On any given night, anyone could lose. You can’t just say it’s Iona and everyone else in the conference, there’s great teams in the conference.”
However, Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, in an effort to compliment a team he had just seen in person, took the bait.
“In my opinion, there’s Iona and there’s everybody else right now,” Moore said.
Moore didn’t say anything that others (me included) have said privately and sometimes publicly this season. And by KenPom and every other computer rating (including my old Commodore 64), Iona is the class of the MAAC and its best shot to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament two months down the line. Heck, as of this writing, Iona’s KenPom rank (68) is 80 spots better than the next MAAC contender (Saint Peter’s, 148).
There’s a fatal flaw here, though, and it resides in these numbers from Dec. 7 that did not come from a computer: Monmouth 92, Iona 89.
So while the hype still surrounds Iona and the computers dislike everyone else in the MAAC (and hate King Rice’s poor Hawks), Monmouth entered Friday leading the conference in another place computers don’t dare tread: the official league standings, a perfect 4-0, including a win over the Gaels.
And wouldn’t you know it, the next team to come down to the Jersey shore was Quinnipiac Friday night, a team the computers (and Nevadans) thought was much better than its 0-4 MAAC record, so much so that the Bobcats were only a 1.5-point underdog at tip on the road against the conference leader.
You can score one for artificial intelligence, I guess, although without Zaid Hearst, those algorithms might have had some egg on their programs, as Hearst scored 20 of his game-high 27 points in the second half, several of which came with a hand in his face as Quinnipiac won at the MAC, 68-64, in yet another MAAC game that came down to the final minute.
The result didn’t make Rice feel any better.
“Unfortunately, their coach thinks there’s only one good team in this league,” Rice said. “There’s a lot of good teams in this league. There isn’t one team and everybody else. We feel important in the league, too. I bet you they feel pretty important tonight. Mr. (MAAC commissioner Rich) Ensor has worked for years to make this one of the best mid-major leagues in the country. This is not a one-team league. Maybe only one team will go to the show (NCAA Tournament) this year, maybe. But it is way more than one team and then everybody else.”
(Ironically, Quinnipiac and Monmouth were the two new additions to the MAAC last season, with both previously playing in the NEC.)
So what about Monmouth, who still leads the MAAC by a half-game over Iona and Rider currently, at least until the Hawks face the Broncs on Monday.
Well, would it be a cop-out to say the Hawks have just as good a chance as everyone else? A closer look shows why the computers throw so much shade Monmouth’s way. They only have a 7-8 overall record and four of those wins came against teams ranked 315th or worse in KenPom (Wagner, Bethune-Cookman, Central Connecticut, and Marist), with a fifth – Niagara – checking in at 282nd.
However, they do obviously have that Iona win, in which Monmouth’s front line held Laury to just 13 points and scored at a 1.19 points per possession clip. The Hawks also led West Virginia in the second half and battled Maryland to the wire (Monmouth also played respectably against SMU), and both of those teams are having great seasons.
Watching Friday’s game, Justin Robinson is an underrated point guard who Quinnipiac couldn’t keep out of the lane until they put Kasim Chandler in. Brice Kofane and Chris Brady helped hold the Bobcats to just six offensive rebounds (22.2%), while Max DiLeo is always going to give you hustle and big plays at key times (DiLeo had a steal and dunk in the second half, too). Andrew Nicholas has been a key offensive weapon, and scored 13 points Friday night.
Leading scorer Deon Jones scored only two points (1-8 FG), which Rice attributed largely to him struggling with his Type 1 Diabetes and never being able to get his blood sugar at an optimum level.
Indeed, it was a pretty baffling stat sheet that saw Monmouth do most things well, but missing 11 of its final 13 shots from the field eventually doomed the Hawks.
“It’s one game, we lost the game, we just have to get back to work tomorrow (Monmouth is at Rider on Monday),” Rice said. “We’re not going to overstate this, Quinnipiac came in here, they were due. In the paint, did ‘em. Points off turnovers, did ‘em. Second chance points, did ‘em. Bench points we won 29-27. They just made some timely shots down the stretch that we didn’t make.”
If you believe in karma, Quinnipiac likely had a close win like this coming after similar losses to Fairfield (and Hartford out of conference) that saw the Bobcats dominate in many areas except the final tally. Or if you’re more of a numbers person, the law of averages helped Quinnipiac out.
“I thought both team laid everything on the line,” Moore – who was aware he gave Monmouth some bulletin board material as soon as he made the Iona comment Tuesday – said. “Monmouth is a deep, well-coached team. They have a system and they stood up to us the whole night on the boards all night, and Zaid Hearst was obviously brilliant offensively in the second half. I wish we had run better offense to create better looks for him. We didn’t, and that’s a tribute to Monmouth’s defense, too.”
In the end, the computers predict Iona to win the MAAC with good reason given their statistics and talent. The rest of the MAAC looks pretty even, which the early-season results have borne out. But weather forecasters use computer models to try to tell you what the weather is going to be a week down the road, too, and how does that work out sometimes?
There are so many factors that will play into the MAAC race in the next two months, some of which are completely unpredictable at the moment. So, for now, why don’t you sit back, grab your popcorn, and watch how it all unfolds.