2015 MAAC Tournament bracket set

(Click for larger view)

(Click for larger view)

By Nick Veronica

With the conclusion of the MAAC’s regular season Sunday, all seeds for the conference tournament have been set. The above bracket shows the road to the NCAA Tournament.

Three tiebreakers were needed for seeding. Manhattan beat out Monmouth for third place by sweeping the season series; Siena took eighth from Niagara by sweeping the season series; and Fairfield edged Marist for 10th because the highest-seeded team the Stags beat (Manhattan) was better than the highest-seeded team the Red Foxes beat (Canisius).

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Final MAAC standings

The tournament opens Thursday at the Times Union Center in Albany with three play-in games: Siena vs. Niagara at 5 p.m., Saint Peter’s vs. Fairfield at 7 and Quinnipiac vs. Marist at 9. Winners of those games will have Friday off before the quarterfinals begin Saturday.

Canisius opens the tournament Saturday at 2:30 p.m against Monmouth, which took both games from the Griffs this season.

Top-seeded Iona needs to win the tournament to advance to the NCAAs. The Gaels are not expected to earn an at-large bid if they falter in Albany. They open Saturday at noon against the Niagara-Siena winner.

MAAC all-star teams will be announced Monday during the league’s conference call, slated to begin at noon.

Full tournament schedule

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Play-in round

Thursday, March 5

8-Siena vs. 9-Niagara, 5 p.m.
7-Saint Peter’s vs. 10-Fairfield, 7 p.m.
6-Quinnipiac vs. 11-Marist, 9 p.m.

Quarterfinals
Saturday, March 7

1-Iona vs. 8-9 winner, noon
4-Monmouth vs. 5-Canisius, 2:30 p.m.
2-Rider vs. 7-10 winner, 5:30 p.m.
3-Manhattan vs. 6-11 winner, 8 p.m.

Semifinals
Sunday, March 8

Iona/8-9 winner vs. Monmouth/Canisius winner, 4:30 p.m.
Rider/7-10 winner vs. Manhattan/6-11 winner, 7 p.m.

Championship
Monday, March 9

Semifinal winners, 9 p.m.

Quarterfinals and beyond will be on ESPN3, with the championship either on ESPN or ESPN2.

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Postgame interviews: Niagara 82, Canisius 71

By Nick Veronica

Interviews from Niagara’s road win over Canisius, which stretched Niagara’s winning streak to three games…

Canisius coach Jim Baron

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Jim Baron said he knew his team’s “mindset was gonna be fragile” coming into the game. I asked him what he meant by that since Canisius entered the night on a three-game winning streak.

“We were picked 10th,” he said, referencing the MAAC’s preseason poll.

Well you’re fifth right now, I said.

“We got two guys, two starters out, so we’ve been very fortunate to win those games the way we won,” Baron countered.

Translation: Everything Canisius needed to go right went right in those wins. The Griffs are toast from here on out if they don’t have their A-game.

Canisius’ Jeremiah Williams and Josiah Heath

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Tuesday was the final Niagara game for Canisius seniors Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams, barring something wild in the conference tournament.

“Really wanted that one,” Williams said. “Really did.”

“Disappointed,” Heath added. “We got outplayed. That’s what happens.”

Niagara’s Chris Casey, Ramone Snowden, Emile Blackman

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“You saw the togetherness in that run, and that’s the way they are every day,” NU coach Chris Casey said of his team’s blistering start to the second half.

Blackman was humble about his big alley-oop: “It was a great play call, great screen by Ramone. I told him it was his basket. I got the points but it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t set it.”

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VIDEO: Emile Blackman throws down alley-oop vs. Canisius

By Nick Veronica

Niagara guard Emile Blackman threw down a big alley-oop that turned the tide in Tuesday’s 82-71 win over rival Canisius. The video almost doesn’t do justice to how sick the slam was.

UPDATE: The play made the No. 4 on SportsCenter’s Top 10:

Niagara coach Chris Casey gave the credit for the play to Blackman, saying the sophomore drew up the call. It worked perfect for the Purple Eagles since there was only two seconds left on the shot clock.

Blackman finished with 18 points in the win.

Blackman enjoyed the Vine:

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Immediate reactions: Niagara 82, Canisius 71

Niagara 31 51 — 82
Canisius 35 36 — 71

By Nick Veronica

How it happened: Canisius kept a small but comfortable lead for much of the first half before Niagara surged ahead with a 14-2 run out of halftime and led the rest of the way. Niagara had a some difficulty closing out the victory but looked much better than its 21-loss record, holding on for an 11-point win behind 20 points from Dominique Reid, 18 from Emile Blackman, 15 from Ramone Snowden and 14 from Wesley Myers and Karonn Davis.

Canisius looked out of sorts in the second half, giving up 51 points and shooting just 31.4 percent from the field. Jeremiah Williams again led the charge on offense, scoring 18 points. Kassius Robertson had 13 and Josiah Heath had 12 while Zach Lewis was 3 for 10 on three-pointers for 9 points. The closest Canisius’ comeback got was five points at 75-70 with 58.7 left.

But the story was Niagara’s suddenly resurgent offense, which scored its highest point total for a non-overtime game this season and has won three straight games. The Purple Eagles carved up Canisius’ defense in the second half, shooting 78.9 percent from the field and making all three three-point attempts.

What it means: This game was actually fairly meaningless in terms of the conference standings — Canisius couldn’t move above or below the 4-vs-5 game in the MAAC Tournament and Niagara can’t move higher than one of the bottom three seeds in the play-in round — but rivalry games are always important for local pride. Second-year NU coach Chris Casey earned his first win against Canisius (1-3), and three games sets the longest winning streak of his Division I coaching career.

Canisius falls to 15-13, 10-9 MAAC and will finish fifth in the conference — the same as Billy Baron’s first year at the school, though in a down year for the MAAC. Niagara goes to 7-21, 6-13 and appears to be peaking with the tournament around the corner.

It was over when: Emile Blackman threw down one of the nicest alley-oops the KAC has seen since Elton Frazier’s graduation and Karonn Davis followed with a corner three that put Niagara up 53-42 with 10:14 to go (video of it here). The Purple Eagles had a little trouble closing it out, but the momentum was all Niagara after this #SCTop10-worthy slam.

Streak over: Canisius lost four straight games after Phil Valenti was injured but had rebounded to win three straight. That streak ended Tuesday.

Short bench: 

Stats that were good: Emile Blackman’s line: 7 of 12 shooting for 18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 turnovers. … Jan Grzelinski played a limited role but had three assists and no turnovers in 10 minutes. … Dominique Reid was 8 for 12 shooting.

Stats that were bad: Reid’s 20 points came with five turnovers. … “Paid attendance” was a sellout of 2,196 people, but the KAC was definitely not at capacity.

Vegas line: Vegas Insider had Canisius -10.5 and over/under 127.5. Niagara covered, total was 153.

Next: Canisius hosts Fairfield at 7 p.m. Friday in the Griffs’ regular-season finale while Niagara hosts Fairfield on Sunday.

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Canisius can clinch first-round bye with win vs. Quinnipiac

By Nick Veronica

Canisius’ 1 p.m. meeting with Quinnipiac on Saturday may be the Griffs’ biggest game of the season.

With a win, Canisius can turn a long shot into a reality, clinching a top-five seed in the MAAC and earning a first-round bye at the conference tournament.

Here’s how:

Canisius has won two straight to get 9-8 in the conference with three games to go. Quinnipiac has lost two in a row to drop to 8-9, falling back into sixth place.

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A win would put Canisius two games up on Quinnipiac with two to play. The MAAC’s first tiebreaker is head-to-head results, so even if Canisius loses out after winning Saturday, the worst it can do is tie with Quinnipiac at 10-10 — but Canisius would have swept the season series.

Should Saint Peter’s or Siena level with Canisius at 10-10, Canisius has already swept both opponents and would win out. If multiple teams finish with the same record, the MAAC’s tiebreaker is to treat the teams as a mini conference and add up the wins and losses between tied teams, but Canisius would be undefeated in any mini conference.

Seeds 6-11 face off in play-in games Thursday, March 5 at the conference tournament while seeds 1-5 have byes into Saturday’s quarterfinals. (Should Canisius finish fifth, a quarterfinal matchup with fourth-seeded Manhattan seems likely, but that of course could change.)

Earning the first-round bye would cap off one heck of a job by Canisius coach Jim Baron, who loves to remind people that his Griffs were picked 10th in the MAAC’s preseason poll.

Canisius lost five of its top six scorers from last season and graduated the conference Player of the Year. Here’s what I wrote on the first day of practice in October, looking for the Griffs’ absolute best-case scenario this season:

… imagine everyone outperforms their projections, fits into their roles perfectly and no one gets injured.

If all of those things go right, the Griffs play lock-down defense, catch some breaks in the schedule, get a handful of lucky bounces, calls go their way and they go on a tear through February, then maybe they sneak into the fifth seed and avoid the play-in round at the MAAC Tournament. That would be more impressive than anything Jim Baron has done at Canisius.

Add in the facts that Canisius has lost not one, but two key forwards to injury, and that the freshman point guard I was imagining playing great so far has not, and this may go down as one of the best coaching jobs in Baron’s 28-year career.

Baron’s “Junkyard Griffs” — a term he created — are getting it done with defense and team play. Canisius’ defense ranks second in the conference in scoring, allowing just 61.5 points per game, fourth in field goal percentage (.407) and second in three-point percentage (.315). KenPom ranks Canisius 91st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is the best among MAAC teams.

Even on offense, where the Griffs rank 311th nationally in field goal percentage (.400), the team is still second in the conference in assists per game (14.0) and even ranks third in offensive rebounding.

Canisius took a major blow when Phil Valenti was injured in the last meeting with Quinnipiac, but a win Saturday would be a huge lift for the team and a milestone for the program, marking the third straight year Canisius finished fifth or better in the MAAC. That hasn’t happened since the John Beilein era — 1995-97.