Ashton Pankey: Manhattan’s Hercules, mother’s helper

Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan's loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto
Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan’s loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto

Steve Masiello speaks of Ashton Pankey with mythical admiration.

“He’s kind of like a unicorn,” Masiello says.

Masiello is the head coach at Manhattan, a mid-major program hailing from the MAAC. So when he says, “You don’t get guys like that,” he means that schools at his level rarely sign chiseled 6-foot-10 forwards, who, at 225 pounds, can both run the floor and dominate the post.

“You look at this young man, and he looks like Hercules, made out of stone,” Masiello says. “He’s so strong.”

If Pankey is Hercules, Iona was his Nemean lion. The redshirt junior, who transferred from Maryland in 2012, slayed the Gaels with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the MAAC championship to lead Manhattan into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. He was named Most Valuable Player of the conference tournament.

“We’re not where we are today without Ashton Pankey,” Masiello says.

And Pankey would not be here — starring for Manhattan — without his mother.

**

Ashton Pankey remembers feeling confused. Disappointed, too. Most of all, he was frustrated.

The date was Oct. 24, 2012, and Masiello called his newly acquired forward into his office. “AP,” Masiello said, “[the NCAA] denied your waiver. It looks like you’re going to have to sit this year.”

Why? How could they reach that decision? I’m here for a legitimate reason.

Those were the thoughts cluttering Pankey’s head that day. Persuasion Branch, his ailing mother, had been evicted from her South Bronx home. He had only left Maryland — where he started 17 of 32 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 — to care for her. The NCAA, he thought, would grant his hardship waiver for that reason.

“I can’t do anything without my mom,” Pankey says. “If I would have lost her, I don’t know what I would be doing or where I would be in life.”

Pankey was concerned about his mother’s well-being. He says he immediately knew he would transfer closer to home when he heard about the eviction because his younger sister, Taylor Branch, was away at Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.

His mother needed him, even for simple chores around her new Queens home.

“He was missing team-related stuff to go help his mom,” Masiello says. “We knew it was a real situation.”

The NCAA disagreed.

Masiello braced for a tantrum when he summoned Pankey that October day.

Nine out of 10 kids pout, hang their heads, feel sorry for themselves,” Masiello says. “He went out in the Green & White [intrasquad] scrimmage that night and had [26] points in it. I saw the way he handled adversity for the first time, and I was really impressed by it.”

Pankey suppressed his questioning thoughts, the whys and hows behind the NCAA’s conclusion. He so desperately wanted to play immediately, but he could only train with his sights set on the 2013-14 season.

Pankey practiced with the Jaspers throughout the 2012-13 season, though NCAA rules prohibited him, a redshirting transfer, from traveling with the team. He learned from junior center Rhamel Brown and the coaching staff, and he spent as much time as he could with Branch.

Internally, however, he struggled.

“It was a crazy year, and it was really hard for me,” Pankey says.

**

Pankey is a staunch believer in everything happening for a reason, including the undesired NCAA ruling. He’s just as firm in his conviction that he could have made a tremendous impact on the Jaspers that redshirt year.

So watching from the bench as Iona beat Manhattan, 60-57, in the 2013 MAAC championship was debilitating. That experience made Pankey feel useless — he couldn’t do anything to swing the result in Manhattan’s favor — but it also disrupted his stoic disposition.

Masiello remembers sitting in the team hotel that night, on the verge of tears as he recounted how his Jaspers came so close to reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2004.

“[Pankey] came up to me, and he had tears in his eyes — and this is a kid that didn’t show emotion at the time,” Masiello says. “He was very stoic, almost to the effect of where you didn’t know if things mattered to him. He said, ‘Coach, I promise you next year we’re going to win this thing, and you have my word on that.’”

**

Pankey talked the talk, but at first he struggled walking the walk. He was scared of stepping on the toes of George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown, the senior class that had resurrected the program from the ground level. He didn’t want to act like the alpha dog when he wasn’t.

“I just went in and didn’t really know my role with the team,” Pankey says.

The result: a slow start.

Pankey fouled out in each of his first two games, Manhattan wins over La Salle and Columbia. He scored in double-figures — never more than 11 points — in five of the Jaspers’ first 20 games. Then were games at Illinois State and against Monmouth when Pankey scored just two points. Even in his 9-point, 5-rebound, 4-block performance at South Carolina, Pankey shot 2-for-6 from the field and fouled out.

Throughout the struggles, Pankey continued to take the subway out to Queens to help his mother. He battled a leg injury, and adjusted to life coexisting with Brown on the block.

“I don’t think people realized how many things Ashton had to deal with last year,” Masiello said this past October.

Then Pankey exploded for 12 points and eight rebounds in a 64-49 win over Saint Peter’s on Feb. 4, as Manhattan snapped a two-game skid. In the next game, Pankey had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The Jaspers beat Canisius, 84-73, and lost just once in their nine games leading up to the conference championship.

“I think we really saw who Ashton Pankey was the last 10, 12 games of the year,” Masiello says.

Pankey scored just four points in Manhattan’s 71-68 win over Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship, but two of them came in the Jaspers’ critical 8-0 spurt with about six minutes left. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots.

After David Laury’s last-second heave missed, Pankey found his coach.

“The first thing he did is he grabbed me and he goes, ‘I told you I got you,’” Masiello says.

**

Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer
Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer

Pankey’s message was the same not even three weeks later, when Manhattan placed Masiello on leave for falsely stating on his resume that he had graduated from the University of Kentucky. Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello on the condition he complete the necessary coursework to receive his degree, but he was crushed. He was embarrassed that he lost a five-year contract worth about $6 million with South Florida. He was ashamed that a misstep from 14 years earlier nearly cost him his livelihood and the game he loves.

Masiello ordinarily has an unbreakable will, but he was a vulnerable man in those early weeks of spring.

“[Pankey] said, ‘Don’t worry about this coach. A year from now, we’ll be right back where we belong,’” Masiello remembers. “That’s just the type of kid that AP is. The country doesn’t get to see it because he comes off so tough, his demeanor on the court.”

Which brings Pankey’s story to the last two-plus months, when his herculean physique began to consistently overwhelm opponents.

Dating back to Jan. 7 — when he had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a 68-63 win over Saint Peter’s — Pankey averaged 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 games, 14 of them Manhattan wins. That’s easily the best stretch of his career.

“He has been dominating,” Manhattan walk-on Trevor Glassman says.

It’s easy to forget now, but Pankey struggled again early in the season. He had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in a Nov. 18 overtime loss at UMass. He scored five points and fouled out in 15 minutes in a 64-63 loss at George Mason on Nov. 29. In 2013-14, Pankey’s nine points and five rebounds against Northeastern probably would have provided Manhattan enough of a jolt for a win.

“The biggest thing for Ashton last year was he could have an off day and this program could still win because of Rhamel, Emmy [Andujar], George, Mike, etcetera, etcetera,” Masiello says. “This year I didn’t know if we could be successful if he had an off night.”

So Masiello started from the ground level when he and Pankey broke down film together.

“We simplified things,” Masiello says. “I would say, ‘Tell me what you saw here, tell me what you saw there. What do you like? What don’t you like? Where do you like the ball? Where do you want it on this? Here’s your read on this.’”

In Manhattan’s first 13 games, Pankey produced consecutive double-digit outputs just twice. By the Saint Peter’s game in early January, Pankey had grown comfortable. He understood his role — just how important he was to Manhattan’s success — and he was ready to make his mark.

So the Jaspers entered the ball to Pankey on their first possession. Pankey banged into Quadir Welton, forced him deep under the hoop and threw down a rim-rattling dunk.

“Everybody just went crazy and I established myself and established the tone for the game and not just for the game, for the rest of the season as well,” he says.

**

The Jaspers will face Hampton Tuesday night in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. It might be the play-in game, but it’s the tournament, nonetheless — right where Pankey promised Masiello the Jaspers would be.

“I still feel like I’m dreaming, man,” Pankey says three days after cutting down the Times Union Center nets.

Pankey says he is closer than ever with his mother, the woman who drew him to Manhattan in the first place. Without her falling ill and getting evicted, Pankey likely would have stayed at Maryland. Had he never medically redshirted his freshman year at Maryland and had the NCAA granted his hardship waiver in 2012-13, he would have exhausted his eligibility last year. Not that he would ever wish misfortune to seep back into his family’s life, but Pankey says everything happens for a reason.

“Look how things turned out: two championships in a row,” Pankey says. “It’s just all crazy. I’m just so happy, words can’t describe.”

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

NCAA Tournament: Meet the automatic bids

It’s Championship Week, and we have a growing list of  automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Take a few minutes to get to know them as you prepare for March Madness.

This list will update as new conference champions are crowned.

Albany Great Danes

Conference: America East

Record: 24-8, 15-1

Coach: Will Brown

How they got here: Peter Hooley nailed a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left to beat Stony Brook, 51-50, in the America East championship.

Who they are: Albany is a gritty, well-coached team that has won three straight America East tournaments. The Great Danes have NCAA Tournament experience — they lost to Duke, 73-61, in 2013 and to Florida, 67-55, last year — they displayed their resolve in battling out of a seven-point hole with fewer than two minutes remaining against Stony Brook. Albany is a solid rebounding team (No. 119 with a 32.4 percent offensive rebounding percentage; No. 12 with a 25.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage allowed), and despite a 1-for-10 showing from beyond the arc against Stony Brook, the Great Danes convert 36.5 percent of their treys.

Notable wins: W 64-60 at Yale

Notable losses: L 64-60 at Providence; L 75-59 at UNLV

Arizona Wildcats

Conference: Pac-12

Record: 31-3, 16-2

Coach: Sean Miller

How they got here: Arizona obviously did not need to win the Pac-12 tournament to make the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats throttled Oregon, 80-52, in the final to make their case for a No. 1 seed.

Who they are: Arizona is tough, physical and versatile, an absolute force that has flown under the national radar because it plays out west. The Wildcats are an elite defensive squad (No. 3 at 86.4 points per 100 possessions) that shuts down the paint. They’re not the best shot blockers, but Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are big bodies that will change shots. Ashley, in particular, is an intriguing player because of his ability to step outside, put the ball on the deck and bang in the post as a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward. And we haven’t even gotten to T.J. McConnell and Stanley Johnson yet, one of the toughest, smartest point guards in the nation and his running mate and future NBA lottery pick.

Notable wins: W 71-54 vs. UC Irvine; W 61-59 vs. San Diego State (neutral); W 66-63 OT vs. Gonzaga; W 80-53 vs. Michigan; W 80-62 at Oregon; W 69-51 vs. Utah; W 89-82 at Stanford; W 90-56 vs. Oregon; W 57-47 vs. UCLA; W 63-57 at Utah; W 91-69 vs. Stanford; W 70-64 vs. UCLA (neutral); W 80-52 vs. Oregon (neutral)

Notable losses: L 71-67 at UNLV; L 58-56 at Oregon State; L 81-78 at Arizona State

Belmont Bruins

Conference: Ohio Valley

Record: 22-10, 11-5

Coach: Rick Byrd

How they got here: Taylor Barnette sank a last-second 3-pointer to beat Murray State, 88-87, in the OVC final.

Who they are: Barnette, a 39.9 percent 3-point shooter, isn’t even Belmont’s top marksman. That honor goes to Craig Bradshaw, a 41.6 percent shooter who averaged 18.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. As a team, the Bruins rank 45th in the country at 37.9 percent from deep and sixth with a 56.5 percent effective field-goal percentage. The problem is the defense is sub-par — No. 257 at 106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions — and the Bruins rely heavily on the deep ball, which accounts for 40.1 percent of their points (No. 7 nationally).

Notable wins: W 88-87 vs. Murray State

Notable losses: L 78-51 at VCU; L 67-56 at Butler

Buffalo Bulls

Conference: Mid-American

Record: 23-9, 12-6

Coach: Bobby Hurley

How they got here: The Bulls held on to beat Central Michigan, 89-84, in the MAC final.

Who they are: Buffalo plays a fun, fast-paced style and is a sleeper candidate. The Bulls, who rank 21st with 69.1 possessions per game, hung with Kentucky and Wisconsin into the second half and have an offense that excels in transition and gets to the foul line. Sure, the Bulls shoot a below-average 33.6 percent from deep, but they take care of the ball (No. 40 with a 16.5 percent turnover rate) and do a solid job on the glass (No. 63 at 34.6 percent offensive rebounding percentage). And they have Justin Moss, one of the few players to ever posterize Willie Cauley-Stein. What makes Buffalo’s first-ever NCAA bid even more impressive is who graduated last year, particularly Javon McCrea, an undersized big that got NBA looks.

Notable wins: W 89-84 vs. Central Michigan (neutral)

Notable losses: L 71-52 at Kentucky; L 68-56 at Wisconsin

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Conference: Big South

Record: 24-9, 12-6

Coach: Cliff Ellis

How they got here: Warren Gillis’ 22 points led Coastal Carolina to an 81-70 victory over Winthrop in the Big South title game.

Who they are: The Chanticleers returned almost every key player from the team that lost to Virginia, 70-59, in last year’s Round of 64, and they added Shivaughn Wiggins from Mount St. Mary’s. They’ve got solid guard play with Gillis, Wiggins, Josh Cameron and Elijah Wilson. They take care of the ball — 17.8 percent turnover rate, No. 86 nationally — and they’re a decent 3-point shooting team at 35.4 percent (No. 113).

Notable wins: none

Notable losses: L 84-71 at UCLA; L 71-68

Eastern Washington Eagles

Conference: Big Sky

Record: 26-8, 14-4

Coach: Jim Hayford

How they got here: Eastern Washington battled back from an 11-point deficit late in the second half to beat Montana, 69-65, in the Big Sky championship.

Who they are: If you’ve scanned the NCAA leaderboards this year, you might have become familiar with a kid named Tyler Harvey. He’s the nation’s top scorer and the key to Eastern Washington’s high-octane offense. The Eagles don’t exactly soar, but they get up and down the floor and shoot 40 percent from long range (No. 10 nationally). We have seen this team stun a power conference program already — Indiana in Assembly Hall — and the components are there for an upset in the Big Dance.

Notable wins: W 88-86 at Indiana

Notable losses: L 77-68 at Southern Methodist; L 81-77 at Washington; L 76-52 at Sam Houston State; L 78-67 at California

Georgia State Panthers

Conference: Sun Belt

Record: 24-9, 15-5

Coach: Ron Hunter

How they got here: Without point guard and No. 2 scorer Ryan Harrow, Georgia State squeaked out a 38-36 win over Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt final.

Who they are: Georgia State might have more talent than any other mid-major team. The Panthers have Harrow, a Kentucky transfer, and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware. They also have R.J. Hunter, the coach’s son and a projected early second round pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Sunday’s paltry offensive output was an aberration for a team that ranks 47th in the country at 109.8 points per 100 possessions. How are the Panthers so efficient? Their 13.7 percent steal rate ranks fourth nationally, leading to transition opportunities where they rank 57th with a 59.4 percent effective field-goal percentage.

Notable wins: W 72-48 vs. Green Bay

Notable losses: L 81-58 at Iowa State; L 80-70 at Colorado State; L 58-54 OT at Old Dominion; L 78-61 at Green Bay;

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Conference: West Coast

Record: 32-2, 17-1

Coach: Mark Few

How they got here: Gonzaga avenged its only WCC loss by beating BYU, 91-75, in the conference championship.

Who they are: Gonzaga is a well-rounded team with a versatile offense capable of beating teams inside and outside. The Bulldogs rank fifth nationally with 119.5 points per 100 possessions and second with a 58.4 percent effective field-goal percentage. Kyle Wiltjer embodies Gonzaga’s offensive versatility as a 6-foot-10 forward who shoots 46.5 percent from deep but also scores around the rim. This is also Few’s most efficient defensive team at 93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Notable wins: W 72-56 vs. Southern Methodist; W 88-76 vs. Georgia (neutral); W 73-66 at St. John’s; W 87-74 at UCLA; W 87-80 at BYU; W 82-64 vs. Memphis; W 70-60 at Saint Mary’s

Notable losses: L 66-63 OT at Arizona; L 73-70 vs. BYU

Hampton Pirates

Conference: MEAC

Record: 16-17, 8-8

Coach: Edward Joyner Jr.

How they got here: Hampton beat Delaware State, 82-61, in the MEAC final.

Who they are: The Pirates are not an efficient offensive team — No. 305 at 95.1 points per 100 possessions — but Dwight Meikle (13 ppg), Reggie Johnson (11.6 ppg), Deron Powers (10.3 ppg) and Quinton Chievous (10.3 ppg) all average double-figures. Hampton is likely headed to Dayton.

Notable wins: None

Notable losses: L 90-56 at Iowa; L 65-47 at Syracuse; L 73-55 at Illinois

Harvard Crimson

Conference: Ivy

Record: 22-7, 11-3

Coach: Tommy Amaker

How they got here: Steve Moundou-Missi’s 18-footer with seven seconds left beat Yale, 53-51, in the Ivy tiebreaker.

Who they are: You should know Harvard by now. This will be the Crimson’s fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, a year after they upset Cincinnati. Harvard still slows the pace (No. 301 at 62 possessions per game) and plays stingy defense (No. 32 at 94.3 points per 100 possessions), but the offense has taken a step back since last year. Why? One reason is the lack of marksmen, unlike last year with Laurent Rivard (43.2 percent from deep) and Brandyn Curry (37.3 percent). As a team, Harvard is shooting 34.1 percent from long range. The Crimson will still be hard to write off primarily because of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, an elite mid-major guard-wing duo.

Notable wins: W 52-50 at Yale; W 53-51 vs. Yale (neutral)

Notable losses: L 76-27 at Virginia; L 56-46 at Arizona State; L 64-57 OT at Boston College; L 62-52 vs. Yale

Iowa State Cyclones

Conference: Big 12

Record: 25-8, 12-6

Coach: Fred Hoiberg

How they got here: Iowa State overcame a 37-23 halftime deficit to beat Kansas, 70-66, for its second straight Big 12 tournament championship.

Who they are: Iowa State is fun to watch. The Cyclones play at the 14th fastest pace and score a lot of points — 119 per 100 possessions, which ranks seventh nationally. The question is can they win on a bad shooting night? Well, Iowa State scored just 23 points in the first half of the Big 12 final against Kansas and ended with 70. The Cyclones can fill it up fast. Georges Niang is a versatile forward — one of the best in America — and Monte Morris is the point guard that makes everything go, but the Cyclones are solid at every position.

Notable wins: W 81-58 vs. Georgia State; W 95-77 vs. Arkansas; W 90-75 at Iowa; W 63-61 vs. Oklahoma State; W 74-72 at West Virginia; W 86-81 vs. Kansas; W 89-86 vs. Texas; W 79-59 vs. West Virginia; W 70-65 at Oklahoma State; W 85-77 at Texas; W 77-70 vs. Oklahoma; W 69-67 vs. Texas (neutral); W 67-65 vs. Oklahoma (neutral); W 70-66 vs. Kansas (neutral)

Notable losses: L 72-63 vs. Maryland (neutral); L 74-73 at Baylor; L 89-76 at Kansas; L 94-83 at Oklahoma; L 79-70 vs. Baylor

Kentucky Wildcats

Conference: SEC

Record: 34-0, 18-0

Coach: John Calipari

How they got here: Is this really necessary? Kentucky ran away from Arkansas for a 78-63 win in the SEC championship.

Who they are: If you’re new to this thing called college basketball, Kentucky kind of dominated this season. Just a little bit. The Wildcats are deep and loaded with future NBA players, and they do just about everything very well or better. The two areas for concern: the defensive glass — yes, surprising for a team with so much size, but true, nonetheless — and shooting. The Wildcats rank 190th with a 31.4 percent offensive rebounding percentage allowed and 162nd with a 34.4 percent clip from deep. They’ve more than made up for those deficiencies throughout the season.

Notable wins: W 71-52 vs. Buffalo; W 72-40 vs. Kansas (neutral); W 58-38 vs. Providence; W 63-51 vs. Texas; W 84-70 vs. UNC; W 83-44 vs. UCLA (neutral); W 58-50 at Louisville; W 89-86 OT vs. Ole Miss; W 70-64 2OT at Texas A&M; W 69-58 vs. Georgia; W 68-61 at Florida; W 71-69 at LSU; W 84-67 vs. Arkansas; W 72-64 at Georgia; W 67-50 vs. Florida; W 64-49 vs. Florida (neutral); W 78-63 vs. Arkansas (neutral)

Notable losses: None

Lafayette Leopards

Conference: Patriot

Record: 20-12, 9-9

Coach: Fran O’Hanlon

How they got here: The Leopards upset top-seeded Bucknell in the semifinals and defeated American, 65-63, in the Patriot League championship.

Who they are: Put it this way: Lafayette will not beat many teams with its defense. The offense, however, can be lethal. Led by Dan Trist, the Leopards rank eighth in the country with a 56.3 percent effective field-goal percentage. They shoot 41.4 percent from deep (No. 2 nationally) and turn over the ball on just 16.9 percent of their possessions (No. 45). Just about everyone but Trist is a marksman, including a kid named Monty Boykins. How cool is that?

Notable wins: None

Notable losses: L 83-56 at West Virginia; L 82-60 at Yale; L 96-69 at Kansas

Manhattan Jaspers

Conference: Metro Atlantic

Record: 19-13, 13-7

Coach: Steve Masiello

How they got here: The Jaspers upset No. 1 Iona, 79-69, for their second straight MAAC championship.

Who they are: The Jaspers’ primary goals are to turn over opponents and lock down the 3-point line. They’re ninth nationally with a 24.1 percent turnover rate and 73rd with a 32.2 percent 3-point defense. In the MAAC championship, they held Iona — the country’s ninth-best 3-point shooting team at 40 percent — to 5-for-22 shooting from deep. Emmy Andujar is a 6-foot-6 do-it-all forward, and the 6-foot-10 Ashton Pankey has been on a tear since early January. His 21 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks against Iona helped him earn tournament MVP honors.

Notable wins: W 79-69 vs. Iona (neutral)

Notable losses: L 81-66 at Florida State; L 77-68 OT at UMass; L 65-51 vs. Northeastern (neutral); L 65-56 at Pittsburgh; L 63-55 vs. Rutgers (neutral)

New Mexico State Aggies

Conference: WAC

Record: 23-10, 13-1

Coach: Marvin Menzies

How they got here: After an 8-9 non-conference slate, New Mexico State rolled through the WAC all the way to an 80-61 win over Seattle in the championship.

Who they are: The Aggies are dancing for the fourth straight year. They’re prone to turnovers (No. 326 at 21.9 percent), but they hit the offensive glass (No. 9 at 39.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage), force turnovers (No. 89 at 20.5 percent) and shut down the perimeter (No. 7 at 29.5 percent 3-point defense). They’re also a respectable 3-point shooting team at 36.3 percent, good for 82nd nationally.

Notable wins: W 70-67 vs. UC Irvine

Notable losses: L 71-54 at Wichita State; L 83-71 at Saint Mary’s; L 78-75 at Wyoming; L 66-55 at Baylor; L 58-57 OT vs. Colorado State

Northeastern Huskies

Conference: Colonial

Record: 23-11, 12-6

Coach: Bill Coen

How they got here: After winning just six of their last 11 conference games, Northeastern won three straight in the conference tournament and beat William & Mary, 72-61, for the CAA’s auto-bid.

Who they are: Northeastern’s ball movement, patience and 3-point shooting can give solid defensive teams fits — just ask Florida State and Manhattan. The Huskies rank 28th in 3-point shooting at 38.8 percent, and they don’t live and die beyond the arc. Two-pointers account for 52.4 percent of their points, and they knock them down at a 52.9 percent clip. Their 54.6 percent effective field-goal percentage ranks 21st.

Notable wins: W 76-73 at Florida State; W 58-57 at Richmond

Notable losses: L 79-54 at UMass; L 60-46 at Harvard; L 72-68 OT at Saint Mary’s

Northern Iowa Panthers

Conference: Missouri Valley

Record: 30-3, 16-2

Coach: Ben Jacobson

How they got here: The Panthers beat Illinois State, 69-60, in the MVC final.

Who they are: The 2010 Cinderella is back and better than ever, and Seth Tuttle is the favorite to follow in Ali Farokhmanesh’s footsteps as the hero. The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the best players in America. He’s an elite passer for his size — 29.7 percent assist rate — and can also step out and hit the three at 42.9 percent. As a team, the Panthers are sound on both ends of the floor. They slow down the game (No. 348 at 58.5 possessions), keep teams off the offensive glass (26.9 percent offensive rebounding allowed) and shoot 39.7 percent from long range (No. 11).

Notable wins: W 79-77 OT at Stephen F. Austin; W 55-50 vs. Richmond; W 56-44 vs. Iowa (neutral); W 70-54 vs. Wichita State

Notable losses: L 93-87 2OT at VCU; L 74-60 vs. Wichita State

North Dakota State Bison

Conference: Summit

Record: 23-9, 12-4

Coach: Dave Richman

How they got here: The Bison forced a pair of tough shots on South Dakota State’s last two possessions to win the Summit championship game, 57-56.

Who they are: The Bison returned just two key players — Lawrence Alexander and Kory Brown — from last year’s NCAA team. They brought in a new coach, too. Nonetheless, North Dakota State is back in the Big Dance. Alexander had a phenomenal season, taking over Taylor Braun’s role as go-to-guy, and won the Summit Player of the Year award. The Bison are another mid-major team that slows the pace (No. 324 at 61.2 possessions per game) and hits 3-pointers (No. 47 at 37.8 percent).

Notable wins: None

Notables losses: L 85-50 at Texas; L 87-56 at Iowa

North Florida Ospreys

Conference: Atlantic Sun

Record: 23-11, 12-2

Coach: Matthew Driscoll

How they got here: North Florida beat USC Upstate, 63-57, in the Atlantic Sun final.

Who they are: After a 7-9 start, the Ospreys have won 16 of their last 18. The only two losses were to Upstate. North Florida is a solid offensive team that launches from deep with regularity. The Ospreys take 42.1 percent of their field goals from long range, and they convert at a 38 percent clip (No. 43 nationally). Dallas Moore is the leading scorer (15.9 ppg) and playmaker.

Notable wins: W 73-70 at Purdue

Notable losses: L 81-56 at South Carolina; L 66-49 at Northern Iowa; L 93-77 at Florida State; L 80-70 at Iowa; L 76-61 at Alabama

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Conference: ACC

Record: 29-5, 14-4

Coach: Mike Brey

How they got here: Notre Dame was securely in the NCAA Tournament for weeks, but the Fighting Irish beat UNC, 90-82, for their first-ever conference tournament championship.

Who they are: Not may teams have a better offense than Notre Dame. In fact, only three teams — Wisconsin, Duke and Villanova — score more points per 100 possessions than Notre Dame’s 121. They have players who do things like this and this. Yes, Notre Dame is fun to watch. The Fighting Irish’s problem? The defense isn’t even near the same level as the offense. It exists, though, and it fueled Notre Dame’s comeback against UNC.

Notable wins: W 79-78 OT vs. Michigan State; W 94-63 vs. Purdue (neutral); W 71-70 at UNC; W 75-70 vs. Miami (Florida); W 81-78 OT at NC State; W 77-73 vs. Notre Dame; W 71-59 at Louisville; W 70-63 vs. Miami (Florida) (neutral); W 74-64 vs. Duke (neutral); W 90-82 vs. UNC (neutral)

Notable losses: L 75-74 vs. Providence (neutral); L 62-56 vs. Virginia; L 76-72 at Pittsburgh; L 90-60 at Duke; L 65-60 vs. Syracuse

Robert Morris Colonials

Conference: Northeast

Record: 19-14, 12-6

Coach: Andy Toole

How they got here: Picked up a 66-63 NEC championship win at St. Francis N.Y., which was seeking its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

Who they are: Rodney Pryor (15.2 ppg), Marcquise Reed (14.8 ppg) and Lucky Jones (14.3 ppg) are solid mid-major scorers for a team whose success is predicated on forcing turnovers (No. 31 at 21.7 percent rate). When they’re not getting out in transition off turnovers, the Colonials are prone to bouts of inefficiency on the offensive end. They can overcome a deficit quickly, though, thanks to the pressure and 38 percent 3-point shooting.

Notable wins: None

Notable losses: L 103-59 at UNC; L 80-66 at Georgetown; L 74-59 vs. Buffalo; L 64-57 at Clemson

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Conference: Southland

Record: 29-4, 17-1

Coach: Brad Underwood

How they got here: The Lumberjacks beat Sam Houston State, 83-70, in the Southland final.

Who they are: Underwood is off to an okay start to his head coaching career: 61-7, no big deal. The Lumberjacks were great last year, when they knocked off VCU in the Round of 64, and they might be even better this year. At least the numbers say they are. Stephen F. Austin is 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency at 112.4 points per 100 possessions, ninth in effective field-goal percentage at 56.2 percent and fifth in defensive turnover rate at 24.6 percent. And they’re led by Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker, a pair of upperclassmen who experienced last year’s NCAA Tournament trip.

Notable wins: W 64-52 at Memphis; W 79-68 at Sam Houston State; W 64-55 vs. Sam Houston State; W 83-70 vs. Sam Houston State (neutral)

Notable losses: L 79-77 OT vs. Northern Iowa; L 81-63 at Xavier; L 67-51 at Baylor

Texas Southern Tigers

Conference: SWAC

Record: 21-12, 16-2

Coach: Mike Davis

How they got here: Oddly, Texas Southern punched its ticket with a 90-77 win over Prairie View A&M in a SWAC semifinal because Southern — the other championship contestant — is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.

Who they are: The Tigers aren’t your typical SWAC team, in that they’ve actually proven they can beat quality teams. In a non-conference schedule loaded with power conference games, Texas Southern beat Michigan State and Kansas State — both games, obviously, were on the road. The Tigers had the SWAC’s most efficient offense at 108.7 points per 100 possessions in league play, and they’ve got a pair of top players named Madarious Gibbs and Deverell Biggs. That rolls off the tongue. The third member of Texas Southern’s big three is Chris Thomas, a former five-star recruit who had committed to Xavier and Manhattan before playing a year at Marshall.

Notable wins: W 71-64 OT at Michigan State; W 58-56 at Kansas State

Notable losses: L 83-64 at Indiana; L 70-58 at Tennessee; L 72-59 at Southern Methodist; L 75-49 at Baylor; L 75-50 at Florida; L 94-54 at Gonzaga

UAB Blazers

Conference: Conference USA

Record: 19-15, 12-6

Coach: Jerod Haase

How they got here: UAB beat Middle Tennessee, 73-60, in the C-USA final.

Who they are: UAB is a solid defensive team whose glaring weakness is a propensity to go cold on offense. The Blazers are 244th in the country with a 47.4 percent effective field-goal percentage. The reasons they’re slightly above average in offensive efficiency: a 34 percent offensive rebounding percentage (No. 82) and a 74.1 percent free throw clip (No. 29).

Notable wins: W 72-62 OT vs. Louisiana Tech (neutral); W 81-68 vs. Old Dominion

Notable losses: L 72-43 vs. Wisconsin (neutral); L 56-47 vs. Florida (neutral); L 88-76 vs. UCLA (neutral); L 78-74 vs. Illinois State; L 79-70 vs. LSU; L 89-58 at UNC; L 74-71 at Louisiana Tech

UC Irvine Anteaters

Conference: Big West

Record: 21-12, 11-5

Coach: Russell Turner

How they got here: UC Irvine beat Hawaii, 67-58, in the Big West final.

Who they are: Probably the first thing you’ll notice when watching UC Irvine in the NCAA Tournament is the enormous human being stationed in the lane. He’s 7-foot-6, and his name is Mamadou Ndiaye. He averaged 10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 14 games this season. Ndiaye’s the player to watch, but the rest of the Anteaters are solid. As a team, UC Irvine is 23rd nationally with a 44.7 percent effective field-goal percentage. Teams have trouble scoring inside because of Ndiaye and fellow 7-footer Ioannis Dimakopoulos, and the Anteaters shoot 38.3 percent from deep (No. 32).

Notable wins: W 72-70 vs. Green Bay (neutral)

Notable losses: L 71-54 at Arizona; L 72-69 at Saint Mary’s; L 69-67 OT at Oregon; L 70-67 at New Mexico State

Valparaiso Crusaders

Conference: Horizon

Record: 28-5, 13-3

Coach: Bryce Drew

How they got here: The Crusaders pulled away late to beat Green Bay, 54-44, in the Horizon championship.

Who they are: After a down year, the Crusaders are back in the Big Dance. They slow the pace (No. 278 at 62.8 possessions per game) and make scoring inside a challenge. Vashil Fernandez (No. 6 at 13.2 percent block rate) is the rim protector, but as a team, Valpo is 14th with a field-goal defense of 42.1 percent. Alec Peters, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, is the leading scorer at 16.7 points per game. He also shoots 46.2 percent from deep.

Notable wins: W 93-58 vs. Murray State (neutral), W 54-44 vs. Green Bay

Notable losses: L 51-50 at Green Bay

VCU Rams

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 26-9, 12-6

Coach: Shaka Smart

How they got here: VCU held on to beat a pesky Dayton team, 71-65, in the Atlantic 10 championship.

Who they are: Even without Briante Weber, who tore his ACL just a handful of steals shy of the NCAA record, VCU has the same approach as always under Smart. The Rams harass opponents with their “Havoc” defense, forcing turnovers (No. 2 with a 14.5 percent steal rate) and getting out in transition. When they’re hitting 3-pointers, like they did in various stretches of the Atlantic 10 tournament, they’re extremely tough to beat.

Notable wins: W 77-63 vs. Oregon (neutral); W 93-87 2OT vs. Northern Iowa; W 68-47 at Cincinnati; W 71-65 vs. Davidson; W 65-60 at Rhode Island; W 70-67 vs. Richmond (neutral); W 93-73 vs. Davidson (neutral); W 71-65 vs. Dayton (neutral)

Notable losses: L 77-53 vs. Villanova (neutral); L 74-57 vs. Virginia; L 64-55 vs Richmond; L 67-63 2OT at Richmond; L 59-55 vs. Dayton; L 82-55 at Dayton

Villanova Wildcats

Conference: Big East

Record: 32-2, 16-2

Coach: Jay Wright

How they got here: Villanova vanquished Xavier, 69-52, in the Big East final.

Who they are: A strong candidate for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Villanova does just about everything well. It’s fairly difficult to pinpoint a glaring weakness in the Wildcats’ game, except, perhaps, their lack of frontcourt depth behind JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. Ryan Arcidiacano is their rock at point guard, and guard Dylan Ennis is one of the country’s most improved players. That’s to say nothing of Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart, their leading scorer and top 3-point shooter, respectively. The Wildcats’ ability to force turnovers (No. 27 at 21.9 percent turnover rate; No. 21 at 11.9 percent steal rate) and knock down 3-pointers (No. 24 at 38.9 percent) enables them to turn close games into blowouts rather quickly.

Notable wins: W 77-53 vs. VCU (neutral); W 60-55 vs. Michigan (neutral); W 73-59 vs. Illinois (neutral); W 85-62 vs. Temple; W 82-77 OT vs. Syracuse; W 67-55 vs. Butler; W 90-72 at St. John’s; W 88-75 vs. Xavier; W 69-53 vs. Georgetown; W 74-68 at Providence; W 68-65 at Butler; W 89-61 vs. Providence; W 78-66 at Xavier; W 105-68 vs. St. John’s; W 63-61 vs. Providence (neutral); W 69-52 vs. Xavier (neutral)

Notable losses: L 66-61 OT vs. Seton Hall; L 78-58 at Georgetown

Wofford Terriers

Conference: Southern

Record: 28-6, 16-2

Coach: Mike Young

How they got here: Wofford fended off Furman’s upset bid in the Southern championship, advancing to the NCAA tournament with a 67-64 win.

Who they are: A well-coached and fundamentally sound team, Wofford didn’t have much competition in conference play. The Terriers are solid defensively — No. 76 at 97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions — and that showed in a 55-54 win at NC State in December. Karl Cochran, Lee Skinner and Spencer Collins form one of mid-major basketball’s best trios.

Notable wins: W 86-73 vs. Iona; W 64-53 vs. Sam Houston State (neutral); W 55-54 at NC State

Notable losses: L 74-59 at Stanford; L 77-44 at West Virginia; L 84-55 at Duke

Wyoming Cowboys

Conference: Mountain West

Record: 25-9, 11-7

Coach: Larry Shyatt

How they got here: Wyoming popped someone’s bubble by beating San Diego State, 45-43, in the Mountain West championship

Who they are: Though Wyoming is a grind-it-out defensive team (No. 343 at 59.7 possessions per game; No. 73 at 97.2 points per 100 possessions), Saturday’s result was a bit of an aberration: The Cowboys had not won a game this year in which they scored in the 40s. They’re a solid team with solid players — particularly Larry Nance Jr. — but the question has always been, “Can they win away from home?” Wyoming was 17-2 at home and 5-7 on the road. Well, the Cowboys just won three straight on a neutral floor in Las Vegas.

Notable wins: W 56-33 vs. Colorado; W 78-75 vs. New Mexico State; W 76-71 vs. UNLV; W 60-54 at Colorado State; W 65-54 vs. Boise State; W 59-48 vs. Colorado State; W 71-66 OT vs. Boise State (neutral); W 45-43 vs. San Diego State (neutral)

Notable losses: L 66-53 at Southern Methodist; L 45-42 at California; L 60-52 vs. San Diego State; L 67-41 at San Diego State; L 69-57 at UNLV

Steve Masiello, RaShawn Stores, Manhattan win second straight MAAC title

ALBANY, N.Y. – There they stood, atop a podium beneath a net-less rim. Steve Masiello and RaShawn Stores, back against back.

Third-seeded Manhattan had just defeated No. 1 Iona, 79-69, in the MAAC championship at Times Union Center Monday night, and the coach and point guard who have had each others’ backs for four years basked as teammates chanted “back to back! Back to back!”

Masiello buried a smile in Emmy Andujar’s chest, while an elated Stores flashed a wide grin. Manhattan had punched its second straight bid to the NCAA tournament.

“[It was] one of the best feelings,” said Stores, a senior. “Journey started four years ago when he brought me in. I thank him every day.”

Masiello believed in Stores when no other coaches offered him a roster spot. He also heeded Stores’ advice Sunday night when discussing a gameplan for Iona.

“He literally came up with the scheme of how he wanted to play the game,” Masiello said. “He told me he wanted to fan out, not trap David [Laury], play single coverage, and let’s see how they play it.”

The Jaspers executed that plan and led for 33 minutes and 39 seconds. Playing Laury one-on-one enabled them to keep closer tabs on Iona’s lethal shooters who had set a MAAC tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers against Monmouth in Sunday’s semifinal. The Gaels were 5-for-22 from deep and 23-for-59 overall.

“If you take away a team’s top priority and make them to go C and D… it’s always going to be rough,” Stores said. “We just know ball pressure, ball pressure, keep trying to get to their legs. They’re a jump-shooting team. If you don’t have legs, you can’t really shoot the ball too well.”

“[Stores is] going to be a superstar in this coaching business,” Masiello said, “and I’m lucky to have him.”

Stores, Manhattan’s undisputed leader, stressed the importance of unity, reiterating the Jaspers’ 2014 slogan of “T.O.E.” or “Team Over Everything” and this year’s version, “22 Strong,” as he sat next to the championship trophy.

That unity helped Manhattan fight through a rare form of adversity that seeped into the program last spring. Five days after the No. 13 Jaspers gave No. 4 Louisville a scare in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64, Masiello accepted the head coaching position at South Florida. The deal fell through when a background check revealed Masiello had not earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, as his resume stated.

After internal deliberation, Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello as head coach on the condition that he complete his degree.

The Jaspers welcomed him back with alacrity.

“It’s been, probably, the hardest year of my life,” Masiello said.

And now he and Manhattan are back on top, heading to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. No MAAC team had advanced to consecutive NCAA tournaments since Siena from 2008-2010.

An emotional Masiello deflected the credit for the program’s return to glory towards his players.

“They handled themselves with class, and the cream rises,” he said. “For me to be where I’m sitting and to be associated with these young men, I’m the lucky one. I’m the luckiest coach in college basketball. It’s about these kids. That’s what we can’t lose sight of. It’s about these kids.”

Manhattan advances to third straight MAAC final

ALBANY, N.Y. – Just 40 minutes of basketball separate Manhattan from its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Yet as Steve Masiello spoke about his team’s third consecutive bid to the MAAC championship, one thing irked him.

“I’m not happy about the opponent,” he said.

That opponent is Iona, the same team the Jaspers defeated in last year’s title game and the same team they fell to in 2012-13. The Gaels beat Manhattan in both regular-season meetings by an average of 3.5 points.

In the early semifinal Sunday evening at Times Union Center, Iona knocked down a MAAC tournament record 19 three-pointers (on 35 attempts) and throttled Monmouth, 95-77.

“They’re, offensively, just a nightmare to deal with,” Masiello said.

Manhattan can be a different type of bad dream for opponents. The Jaspers held Saint Peter’s to 0.77 points per possession and forced 19 turnovers in their 65-48 semifinal win.

“I thought we had the ability to make it ugly and win, which is what you have to be able to do in any type of tournament setting because there are going to be nights you don’t shoot the ball great,” Masiello said.

This Manhattan team has a different look than the squad that cut down the nets last year. George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown — the top three scorers last season — graduated in the spring.

“I think that’s the thing I’m really proud of,” Masiello said. “Obviously we have great turnover. We all know what Mike, George, Rhamel meant to this program. But for me, for these guys, there’s a major pride factor.”

Masiello highlighted his senior class of Emmy Andujar, RaShawn Stores and Donovan Kates.

“They know how to win,” Masiello said. “That’s what they’re about.”

Stores, who had nine points and three steals against St. Peter’s, was on the court in the waning seconds of last year’s NCAA ticket-puncher.

“We’ve been in this game the last two years, so we just want to get back and have fun,” Stores said. “Tomorrow is about business, but they’re our biggest rival so we know what’s on the line, an NCAA tournament berth.”

Onions and rings: Reliving Siena’s MAAC three-peat

The Fran McCaffery era at Siena began in a dorm room in April 2005. Four grown men living in a dorm room, sustaining themselves on a diet of basketball, basketball and basketball. McCaffery and his assistants had inherited a roster in disarray, so they couldn’t waste time ticking off the checklist most people would assemble after relocating — you know, like finding and moving into a house.

“We had to figure out, okay, who’s staying, who’s leaving, who’s eligible, what pieces do we have, what pieces do we need,” McCaffery said.

Five springs later, McCaffery guided Siena to its third straight NCAA tournament appearance. No MAAC team had won three consecutive league titles since La Salle (1988-1990). Four different programs have won the four MAAC tournaments since Siena’s last championship in 2010.

McCaffery built something special in Loudonville. How?

The Saints celebrate their second straight MAAC championship, in 2009. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics
The Saints celebrate their second straight MAAC championship, in 2009. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics

Family Affair

Many college basketball coaches quixotically preach the importance of a family environment only to see their rosters splinter into cliques — the freshmen, the forwards, whatever they might be. That’s only natural. Coaches can’t reasonably expect all of their players to have compatible personalities.

By all accounts, the Saints were inseparable. They loved each other’s company.

“We were all close,” says Tay Fisher, who played for Siena from 2004-08. “We all hung out together on and off the court. We all did things together. We were a family not only on the court. That’s the thing that separates good teams from great teams is that they’re not only teammates — they’re like family — and coach McCaffery made sure we were like family.”

The McCafferys essentially had an open door policy with the Saints. The team would frequent the McCaffery residence to hang out, watch football and basketball games and play with Fran and wife Margaret’s kids.

“My children loved those guys and wanted to play horse with them or hang out with them when they came,” McCaffery says. “They were so excited when they would come to the house.”

If a player got sick, Margaret fed him chicken soup. Fran McCaffery recalls the time Alex Franklin missed a 2008 trip to Memphis with an injury.

“He was at our house because he had a bad back, and [Margaret] was feeding him and taking care of him,” McCaffery says. “I wanted recruits’ parents to know that if they sent their sons to play for me, we were going to look out for them.”

Injuries and illnesses weren’t the only impetuses for meals at coach’s house. Most times, the Saints needed no reason at all. They headed over in a pack, ordered pizza and lined up for Margaret’s patented specialties — apple cake and brownies — for dessert.

“You ask any of the guys, they’ll remember that in a second. Everyone loved that,” says Ryan Rossiter, who played for Siena from 2007-11. “She always made it for us, made it for the dinners. It was everyone’s favorite part of the night.”

“It was pretty good,” says Josh Duell, a Vermont transfer who suited up for Siena from 2007-09, adding with a laugh, “I had to kind of layoff. I wasn’t a fit athlete like all these other guys were, so I couldn’t enjoy it as much as them.”

Those hours spent at the McCaffery’s house helped foster an unbreakable bond, one where teammates — brothers — could rib Duell about his shape and the good-humored Duell would know it was nothing but love.

“We always had jokes with Duell about his weight,” says a chuckling Ronald Moore, whose affectionate tone doesn’t get lost over the phone from Northern Italy, where he’s playing professional basketball. “He was always worried about what he ate. He was always kind of the old man.”

If Duell was the old man, McCaffery was one of the guys.

“My first encounter with Fran, he was joking around,” Moore says. “He knows how kids are. It was real cool to have a conversation with a coach where he’s joking about me talking to girls, whatever the case might be, partying. He was really a down-to-earth guy. Away from the basketball court he didn’t really bring up basketball stuff. He wanted to know about everything else that was going on in your personal life and school, whatever it might be. I don’t know too many coaches who might be willing to care to that extent. You can talk to him like a friend sometimes more than a coach.”

That’s the relationship McCaffery strived to cultivate with his players.

“Once we’re separated from the court, then I want them to be part of my family,” McCaffery says.

“He does an excellent job separating basketball and life,” says Rossiter, who is playing professionally in Japan. “You could have a terrible practice that day. He could be on you for two and a half hours, but he sees you that night or we have a team function that night, he completely forgets about what you messed up in practice. It makes everyone feel comfortable and that they can be themselves.”

The Saints trusted McCaffery as more than a coach, and their bond off the court strengthened their relationship on the court, where they hung on every word McCaffery said in practice and the huddle. Siena had a knack for winning in dramatic fashion. “They had that clutch gene,” former Rider coach Tommy Dempsey says. Moore, of course, is staked to the program’s most famous moment, his double order of onions that beat Ohio State in the NCAA tournament, but the McCaffery-era Saints overcame many a daunting hole.

“You believed in [McCaffrey] when he said, ‘hey, we’re down 10 with two minutes to go, but we’re going to win this game.’ You believed him,” Duell says.

Josh Duell (left) and Kenny Hasbrouck (right) hoist Siena's 2009 MAAC championship trophy. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics
Josh Duell (left) and Kenny Hasbrouck (right) hoist Siena’s 2009 MAAC championship trophy. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics

Kenny’s Killer Mentality

McCaffery deflects the credit elsewhere. His Siena teams, he says, had a world-beating attitude. The development of that mindset began with Antoine “Scoop” Jordan, a holdover from the Rob Lanier regime.

A senior on McCaffery’s first team in Loudonville, Jordan was tough, and took a liking to a freshman from Washington D.C., named Kenny Hasbrouck. Jordan, McCaffery says, saw familiar qualities in Hasbrouck: toughness, grittiness and an assured belief in his abilities.

“[Jordan] really put his arm around Kenny and taught him how to prepare and taught him how to get ready,” McCaffery says. “He was kind of hard on him.”

Hasbrouck won the 2005-06 MAAC Rookie of the Year award after averaging 12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. Then Jordan graduated, and Kojo Mensah transferred.

Hasbrouck was anointed leader as a sophomore.

“A lot of times it becomes your team when you’re a senior, but it was Kenny’s team,” McCaffery says of the 2006-07 squad.

Hasbrouck became a beacon of toughness to the loaded freshman class of Moore, Franklin and Edwin Ubiles — the most heavily recruited of the bunch, according to McCaffery.

“[Hasbrouck] brought a lot of attitude to the team,” Moore says.

In that group’s sixth game, Hasbrouck battled a fever and put forth a memorable performance. He scored 22 points in 41 minutes as the Saints beat Albany, 76-75, in double overtime before 11,271 people at Times Union Center.

“He was as sick as any player I’ve ever seen,” McCaffery says. “We put an IV in him. He’s not even there for warm-ups. He’s not there for the pregame talk and going over the scouting report one last time. He walks out on the floor, I sub him into the game and he gets [22]. That’s not coaching, okay? That’s nothing at all to do with coaching. That is a tough guy who wants to win, and just think how his teammates responded to him. They didn’t want to let him down. And they didn’t.”

That became a theme over the years, as the Saints followed Hasbrouck’s example.

“He had a killer mentality, where he could shrug stuff off like a closer in baseball,” Rossiter says. “He could have a terrible first half and absolutely dominate the second half. People learned from that.”

In 2008-09, Siena lost just two MAAC games, the latter a 100-85 setback at Niagara on Feb. 27. Hasbrouck shot 2-for-20 for five points.

The two teams met again in the MAAC championship 10 days later. Hasbrouck was nursing a calf injury, and he missed nine of his first 10 shots. That put him at 3-for-30 shooting in about a 50-minute stretch against the Purple Eagles.

“Then in the second half he absolutely took the game over and just won it for us,” Rossiter says.

Hasbrouck scored 17 of his 19 points in the last 16 minutes. He had nine points in a 13-1 Siena run that spanned three minutes and 30 seconds and gave the Saints a 63-51 lead with 5:09 remaining.

Says Rossiter: “He has that what happened happened, I don’t really care attitude. Now I’m just going to get up and come at you that much harder.”

That essentially sums up how Hasbrouck landed at Siena. Disappointed by the scholarship offers he had received in high school, Hasbrouck enrolled at Maine Central Prep for a postgrad year in 2004-05.

“When he went to prep school, he was still on the radar screen, but I don’t know that he was any more on the radar screen than he was before,” McCaffery says. “I think he kind of had in his mind what he was looking for, and it wasn’t happening for him.”

As Hasbrouck waited, interested programs filled their needs. The 2004-05 college season ended, and McCaffery and his staff arrived in Loudonville and recruited the guard from D.C. Hasbrouck, who was also being courted by Jacksonville, visited Siena on graduation weekend in the middle of May.

“That’s very late in the process,” McCaffery says, “and he didn’t commit to us or sign until probably six or eight weeks later.”

But from the day he finally signed until the day he graduated, Hasbrouck personified the toughness and resiliency that became the staples of McCaffery’s Siena teams.

Josh Duell, Star of the Game

The pervasiveness of those traits and the team’s unity with McCaffery off the court enabled a symbiotic relationship between the players and their coach in practices and games. To outsiders, McCaffery frequently appeared on the sidelines as a petulant, irascible lunatic. “Outside looking in, somebody might say he was a little crazy,” Moore laughs. Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future” seemed crazy, too, but he, like McCaffery always had a plan. “He definitely has his moments where he really gets fired up, but everything is calculated,” Rossiter says.

McCaffery berated his players for fundamental mistakes such as setting a screen too early or forcing a pass. If they didn’t box out or drive strong to the bucket, they got an earful from their coach.

“I just have a firm belief that if you’re going to get on one of your guys, it better make sense to him,” McCaffery says. “Even if you’re saying it loudly, it better make sense because if he thinks, well, this guy’s just yelling at me to yell, then we just took a step backward.”

Moore says the players always understood.

“Shortly after that, he would let us know he loved us and wanted the best for us,” Moore says. “We never took it as hard criticism because we knew how he really felt, and he was just trying to motivate us to do better.”

The tactic worked. McCaffery recalls Siena’s 79-67 upset of Robin Lopez and No. 20 Stanford on Nov. 17, 2007 — Brook Lopez was academically ineligible for the first nine games that season.

“That’s a win that everybody sort of forgot,” McCaffery says, “but we don’t win that game without Josh Duell, and I buried him early in the game because he wouldn’t shoot the ball. Think about it, I’m yelling at him to shoot: ‘I put you in to shoot. I want you to shoot. I’m setting you up. You’re going to make those shots.’”

His words were prophetic. As Siena did so frequently under McCaffery, the Saints corralled a miss and raced up court, holding a 47-46 lead with about 10 minutes remaining. Duell, who had attempted — and missed — just two shots, caught a pass from Chris De La Rosa behind the 3-point line. Emboldened by McCaffery’s demands, he let fly. Bang. Fisher buried a trey on Siena’s next possession, and then the ball found Duell again. He splashed in another 3-pointer, giving Siena a 56-46 lead. Stanford did not shrink the gap to single-digits again until the final minute, and Duell finished with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field.

“He blows the game open and the roof’s coming off the place and he’s the star of the game afterwards,” McCaffery says. “He’s going against Lopez. Josh Duell against Lopez, and Josh Duell is the star of the game.”

Tay Fisher (left) and Edwin Ubiles (center) celebrate Siena's 2008 MAAC championship. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics
Tay Fisher (left) and Edwin Ubiles (center) celebrate Siena’s 2008 MAAC championship. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics

Just Another Game

Stanford was the second of four high-profile tests McCaffery inserted into Siena’s non-conference schedule that season. It was the only of the four the Saints won — they lost to Syracuse and Saint Joseph’s in close games before getting vanquished by Memphis, the eventual national runner-up.

“I think Coach Mac knew he had tough guys that weren’t going to get down if we played one of those teams and didn’t hang with them,” says Duell, who earned a law degree and landed a job with a financial advisory firm in the Albany area. “That’s what happened at Memphis, but it was a great experience for us. When we put that together and came back for the MAAC, it was a little different. He knew we wouldn’t take those losses too hard and they’d just help us, and that’s what happened.”

Says Fisher: “After playing Memphis when they have one of the best teams in the country with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts and then playing Stanford that year with the Lopez boys, once you play Villanova and Vanderbilt it’s like, hey, it’s just another game. There’s no difference.”

Before the Saints faced Vanderbilt and Villanova in the 2008 NCAA tournament, however, they needed to secure the MAAC’s automatic bid. The quest was far from easy. They won a pair of games in early February thanks to the clutch gene Dempsey, the former Rider coach, noted. First, Hasbrouck forced overtime on a late layup against Marist, then Duell beat the buzzer and Dempsey’s Broncs not even 48 hours later.

But they couldn’t hit the big shots in their next two games, falling in overtime to Loyola Maryland and by one at Manhattan. In the latter, Hasbrouck had a good look for a buzzer-beating winner, but his stepback from the right side rimmed out.

“When a guy like him, he’s so used to making those big plays, misses, it’s a shock,” Duell says.

That was Feb. 18. The Saints did not lose again until March 23.

They almost did not get that far.

Jimmy Patsos’ Greyhounds held a 17-point lead late in the first half of the MAAC semifinal. With the home crowd at Times Union Center on their side, though, the Saints battled back into the game with Hasbrouck scoring all 17 of his points after the break. They finally evened the score on Alex Franklin’s putback with 1:13 left. Siena forced a miss on the ensuing possession, and, given the circumstances, drained the clock after an initial push wasn’t available. As the shot clock wound down, Hasbrouck put the ball on the deck and penetrated the lane.

Says Duell: “I just was floating around when Kenny drove to the hole. Any time a player like him drives to the hole he draws three or four guys.”

Rather than force a tough shot, Hasbrouck had the presence of mind to dump the ball down to Duell, whose layup with 19.4 seconds left gave Siena its first lead since early in the first half.

“The biggest part of that whole game, after that happened, Alex Franklin blocked a wide-open layup with five seconds to go,” Duell says. “That kind of goes under the radar because of the big moment Kenny had, but Alex saved the game.”

It was Fisher’s turn for the big moment the following night, his 22nd birthday and the Saints’ championship clash with Jason Thompson and Rider. The teams had split the season series, and Rider torched Siena for 59 first-half points in an 89-75 win at Times Union Center on Feb. 2.

Through the first 13 minutes that Monday night in March, neither team led by more than four points. They seemed destined for another tight finish, like the one at Rider on Feb. 10, when Duell’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer lifted Siena.

Then Fisher scored 13 points in a three-minute stretch, and Siena took a 38-27 lead. The birthday boy finished with 21 points, leading the Saints to their first MAAC championship under McCaffery, a 74-53 throttling of Rider.

“It was a great night for me, and then the team was just so happy not only that we made it but because we did it all together as a team,” Fisher says. “We all hung out after that. It was one of those birthdays that you never forget.”

Recalls Dempsey: “We had a couple moments where I thought we could have gotten back in the game or taken a lead, and they always made the big play in the big moment. That’s what I thought defined that group, and eventually they pulled away and the place was rocking. It was a great college basketball season for our team, but we ran into a little bit of a bus in the finals against a team that had really come into their own.”

It’s Siena, Not Sienna

Six days later, the Saints gathered to watch the NCAA’s Selection Sunday show.

“We have the big party, we invite everybody, you know how fun that is,” McCaffery says. “As a coach, to watch your players enjoy that with their families, it’s everything you want to experience. Your name comes up, everybody jumps up, everybody’s hugging. It’s like you won it again.”

Their name popped up next to Vanderbilt, a No. 4 seed hailing from the powerful SEC. Siena would face the Commodores in Tampa Bay on March 21 in one of the first round’s last games. Vanderbilt was led by Shan Foster, the SEC Player of the Year who had just notched the 1,998th point of his career, and A.J. Ogilvy, a 6-foot-11 Australian center for whom the Saints had no physical match. Not even four weeks earlier, Foster dropped 32 points as Vanderbilt upset No. 1 Tennessee.

That all added up to Vanderbilt entering the Friday night game as the prohibitive favorite over Siena.

“No one knew about us,” Fisher says. “People were spelling our name with two Ns, like the car [Toyota’s minivan].”

Siena introduced itself to the college basketball world with a barrage of 3-pointers and McCaffery’s patented high-pressure, fast-paced style of play. The Saints never trailed, and, again, it was Fisher who created separation by burying three 3-pointers in three minutes to give Siena a 26-13 lead. By halftime, Siena held a 46-34 advantage.

“We went into that game not wanting it to be close, going right at them from the beginning,” says Fisher, who scored 19 points and sank all six of his 3-point attempts. He attributes the Harlem Globetrotters career he has forged directly to that performance.

Foster scored 11 points in that first half, surpassing the 2,000-point mark for his career. If the Commodores could ride him in the second half, they would have a solid chance of overcoming the deficit.

Edwin Ubiles would have none of that.

Even as a sophomore — on a team with Hasbrouck, no less — Ubiles was Siena’s leading scorer at 17 points per game. The athletic 6-foot-6 wing could almost effortlessly pour in 20 points. “He makes things look so easy because he’s so good,” Duell says. But McCaffery needed something more valuable than buckets from his 6-foot-6 wing, who matched up inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound with Foster.

“I said Eddie, personally I’ve watched 14 games,” McCaffery remembers. “I think you’re better than [Foster]. I know he’s the SEC Player of the Year — and I still think he’s better than Shan Foster — but he believed he was better than Shan Foster. I said, ‘if you take the SEC Player of the Year out of the game, they can’t beat us.’ That’s what he did.”

Foster scored just two points after the break, and Siena pulled away for an 83-62 win. “That messed up everybody’s bracket,” Fisher says. “That’s what we wanted to do.” And while Hasbrouck torched the Commodores for 30 points — “He was out of his mind,” Rossiter says — Ubiles was the unsung hero, reinforcing the selfless attitude that characterized McCaffery’s Siena teams.

Says McCaffery: “It would have been easy for Edwin to say, ‘wait, I want to be a first round draft pick. I want to get 30. Why is Kenny getting 30?’ Because I need you to shut down Shan Foster so we can run into the locker room and jump on top of each other.”

Ubiles, who is playing professionally in Puerto Rico, was all for it.

Though the Saints wouldn’t get another opportunity to celebrate that March — No. 12 Villanova knocked them out two days later — the win over Vanderbilt would be far from the most dramatic victory in program history.

Tay Fisher (left) and Kenny Hasbrouck (right) hoist the 2008 MAAC championship trophy. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics
Tay Fisher (left) and Kenny Hasbrouck (right) hoist the 2008 MAAC championship trophy. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics

Why the Slipper Fit

Other than the Vanderbilt upset, one thing about the 2007-08 season stands out in Duell’s memory.

“The jump Ronald, Alex and Edwin made from freshman to sophomore years,” he says. “Everybody tells you that’s the biggest jump, but man those guys turned into all-league players in one year. They were never scared to go out and play with the best.”

Ubiles joined Hasbrouck on the All-MAAC First Team, and Franklin was a second teamer. Moore, who did not receive any accolades as a sophomore, averaged 8.6 points, 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Their complementary skill sets stimulated growth in each other and fostered a cohesive unit that flowed with the ease of midnight traffic on I-87.

Not only did Hasbrouck and Franklin go on to win MAAC Player of the Year awards and forge high-level pro careers, but so did Rossiter, a freshman on that 2007-08 team. Clarence Jackson, another freshman who Rossiter says scored 34 against Dionte Christmas and Temple in a secret scrimmage, would eventually become an all-league player and pro overseas.

“We also had a guy that led the nation in assists (Moore), and then the other guy (Ubiles) scored more points than all of them,” McCaffery says. “It’s not only that we were able to get those guys there, but their skill sets blended. It’s what everybody tries to do, but rarely can you assemble that much talent at one place and have them all sort of be in their primes together. That’s what we had.”

“Their pieces fit,” Dempsey says. “Their best players were all guys that played different positions, so they had the good inside presence [in Rossiter]. They had Ubiles who was the ultimate wing player in college basketball, with the great size and athleticism and flashing ability. They had Hasbrouck, who was a great shooter but could also do a little bit more than that, and Franklin at power forward, and they mixed in some other big kids that were good role players at that time. Then they had the point guard that made it all work in Ronald Moore.”

“That is rare, to get that much talent at one place,” McCaffery says.

Stiff Nets

With its entire 2007-08 roster intact — minus Fisher — the Saints were the favorites to cut down the MAAC tournament’s nets in 2008-09. They had a stiff challenge in Niagara, a team loaded with talent capable of making the MAAC a two-bid league. They also had a veritable target on their backs. Everyone wanted to upset the defending champs, and they would try anything that could aid their chances.

The Saints’ race through the league — they went 16-2 in 2008-09 — was emblematic of the pace at which they played. Sleeping on them for one second could lead to an easy bucket.

“Just as much as a team gets down on themselves after a miss, they like to pat themselves on the back after a make,” Rossiter says, “so I remember times where a team would score on us and before they even crossed halfcourt, we had already hit a layup on the other side.”

Rossiter remembers a game at Niagara — Feb. 27, 2009, the same night Hasbrouck shot 2-for-20 for five points in a 100-85 Purple Eagles win — when the Saints’ opponent pulled a trick out of its sleeve to slow them down.

“We come out at halftime and we see a guy on a ladder changing the net to a brand new net,” says Rossiter, inferring the Purple Eagles wanted a stiffer net to cradle their made baskets and slow down Siena’s break. “Coach Mac sees this, and he almost threw the guy off the ladder in the middle of the gym.”

The tactic hardly worked, as Siena broke out for 54 points after halftime. Niagara, however, held on for the win.

Other teams weren’t as lucky, even when an upset appeared imminent. Such was the case at Marist that Jan. 15. The Red Foxes, who would finish the season 10-23, led by 14 points with 3:20 left. Siena outscored its hosts 23-9 through the end of regulation and won, 91-85, in overtime.

“We appreciated how hard teams were coming at us,” McCaffery says. “We never overlooked an opponent. We respected that we may go over [to Marist] and get that kind of game from them.”

And despite everyone’s best efforts and all the pressure heaped on Siena to repeat, the Saints breezed through to the MAAC championship game for a rematch with Niagara. Hasbrouck had his memorable second half, and, once again, the Saints cut down the nets.

Had Siena lost to Niagara, the Saints likely would have received an at-large bid. However, that would have altered fate, preventing the most historic call in program history from materializing at the lips of a broadcasting legend.

Onions! Double Order!

The venerable Bill Raftery has proclaimed, “Onions!” after many a clutch shot, quite literally referring to a player’s testicular fortitude with the pressure ramped high. If you’ve got balls, in Raftery’s lingo, you’ve got “Onions!”

Had Raftery called every Siena game during the Fran McCaffery era, he would have had plenty of opportunities to shout the iconic catchphrase before Siena’s first-round clash with Ohio State in the 2009 NCAA tournament. There was the time Rossiter calmly sank two foul shots with two seconds left, as Siena overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to win at Saint Joseph’s, and there was Ubiles’ jumper with four seconds left that beat Iona, 69-68. Duell once nailed a trey with 1.3 seconds left to beat Jason Thompson and Rider, 80-77. His layup with 19 seconds remaining in the Saints’ 2008 MAAC semifinal against Loyola Md. was the winning touch on a 17-point comeback. Hasbrouck also had his “Onions!” moments, beating the buzzer for a 61-60 win over Iona in 2007 and forcing overtime on a layup at Marist in 2008.

There were other moments, too, and none involved Ronald Moore forcing an overtime or sinking a game-winner.

The guard from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania did both against Ohio State, with Raftery on the call.

In overtime against the eighth-seeded Buckeyes, ninth-seeded Siena needed just one stop to gain possession with a chance to win the game. Evan Turner, the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, had the ball in his hands for Ohio State, but Siena forced him into a tough stepback from the right wing with about 15 seconds left and the Buckeyes clinging to a 63-62 lead. The shot missed, but B.J. Mullens got a fingertip on the rebound over Hasbrouck and flung a one-handed pass to P.J. Hill up top as he fell out of bounds on the baseline.

Moore had no choice. He had to foul Hill.

Ohio State’s point guard sank both foul shots to extend the lead to 65-62 with nine seconds remaining. McCaffery had called timeout before Hill’s foul shots to set up a play, designed for Hasbrouck to get a 3-point look in the right corner.

“I knew when coach drew it up, I didn’t want to tell him, but I kind of had a doubt that it was going to work to begin with,” says a chuckling Moore.

Moore took the inbounds pass and raced up floor. Hasbrouck cut across the baseline and used a Ubiles pick of Turner to get to the corner. Ohio State, however, switched the screen. William Buford draped Hasbrouck, leaving Moore with one option.

“Ohio State, being the smart team they are, decided to switch it,” Moore recalls. “I was seeing that develop as Kenny was going to the corner, and with not much time left, I had to make an instinct play. We needed a three.”

Hill, playing the pass, had sagged off Moore just enough for Siena’s floor general to get a clean look from the right wing. As the shot sank through the net with 3.5 seconds left, Raftery, in near disbelief, shouted, “Ohhhh, onions!”

Ohio State misfired on the other end. Moore, who had missed nine of his first 11 shots, had forced a second overtime.

“Ronald can miss 10 in a row, and he still feels like he’s going to make that 11th shot,” Fisher says. “That’s just the type of person he is.”

A forgotten tidbit about the second overtime is that Moore missed one of his two foul shots with 35 seconds left, opening the door for Turner to stake the Buckeyes to a 72-71 lead with 18 seconds remaining. The junior more than made up for the miss at the stripe.

Needing just one point to tie and a bucket to win, Ubiles flashed to the high post on Siena’s last possession. Moore couldn’t safely feed him the ball, so Ubiles slipped out to the left wing to catch a pass. As he dribbled back inside the arc, he had two options: take a difficult shot or kick the ball out. Time was winding down, but he had enough for the latter.

“Everybody in the building thought Ubiles was going to shoot that ball,” McCaffery says, “and had he shot the ball and missed and we had lost, nobody would have said a word to him. It would have been essentially a 2,000-point scorer taking a shot.”

But by putting the ball on the deck, Ubiles had drawn Buford towards the lane, leaving Moore open on the right wing. Ubiles passed him the ball.

“It was from the same spot,” Moore says. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I just hit one from right here, why not go for it again?’”

So, again, Moore rose. Buford closed late, and Rossiter battled under the hoop for a potential game-winning putback.

“Luckily I didn’t need to,” Rossiter says.

The ball settled in the net with 3.9 seconds left. Ohio State called timeout, and Raftery graced the air with a phrase that has become timeless at Siena: “Ohhhh, onions! Double order!” Moore raised his arms above his head. Franklin and Hasbrouck ran to him and wrapped their arms around his torso. They were just an Evan Turner missed leaner from advancing to the second round for the second straight year.

Kenny Hasbrouck and Alex Franklin mob Ronald Moore after the point guard's second order of onions. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics
Kenny Hasbrouck and Alex Franklin mob Ronald Moore after the point guard’s second order of onions. Courtesy Photo / Siena Athletics

“That was a classic,” Fisher says.

So classic that Siena fans printed “Onions Double Order” shirts. The following March, when Raftery visited Albany to call Siena’s MAAC championship game against Fairfield, Moore presented him with the shirt.

“Anyone near Siena, if you say ‘Onions Double Order’ they know exactly what you’re talking about,” Rossiter says. “It’s one of those Siena things now that if you’re any sort of fan, you know exactly what someone’s talking about when they say that. It’s a great memory for me. I’m sure you can imagine for Ron.”

“It gives me chills,” Moore says. “It’s a great flashback.”

End of an Era

The end of the Fran McCaffery era at Siena ended in a dorm room, just like it began.

The Saints, who had lost a close game to top-seeded Louisville after beating Ohio State, had won their third straight MAAC tournament a few weeks earlier. In classic Siena fashion, McCaffery’s bunch had overcome a 13-point second-half deficit to beat Fairfield, 72-65, in overtime in the 2010 MAAC final.

The Saints drew a No. 13 seed and a first round date with No. 4 Purdue, which had lost star player Robbie Hummel to an ACL tear in late February. When Hummel went down, Purdue was ranked third in the country. The Boilermakers were talented, though, and had two other future NBA players — E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson — on the roster.

For the first time under McCaffery, Siena failed to advance in the Big Dance. The Saints had cut Purdue’s 15-point lead to three in five minutes, but they couldn’t finish the comeback in the final 60 seconds.

That was March 19.

Despite the loss, McCaffery’s phone rang steadily in the ensuing days. He had built Siena into a mid-major power, and programs across the country courted his services.

The Saints were awoken in their rooms early Sunday March 28. The assistant coaches had been sent as messengers, telling them to gather in the locker room. Team meeting. Nine days after the Saints had Purdue on the ropes. Twenty days after they had won their third straight league championship.

“We all kind of put it together before he got in the room,” Rossiter remembers.

Then McCaffery told his players the news they had dreaded: He had accepted the head coaching position at Iowa. He was leaving Siena.

“Once he said the words, it was almost like a knife to the heart for a lot of us,” Rossiter says.

They appreciated the gesture, though. Not that they expected anything else from McCaffery.

“He wanted to tell us face-to-face that he was taking the Iowa job,” Rossiter says. “He didn’t want us to be watching TV and hear, ‘Fran McCaffery to Iowa.’ That’s just the stand-up guy he is and shows us how much he appreciated us. He thanked us for getting him the job.”

The decision required strenuous thought. The grass — or in Iowa’s case, the cornfield — isn’t always greener, but the Hawkeyes boasted a robust basketball budget in comparison to Siena’s and called the Big Ten home.

“My family loved living in Albany,” McCaffery says. “My wife loved it there. We loved our team. We loved the people we worked for. I was prepared to be the coach there for as long as they would have me, and I said that when I was hired [at Siena] it would take a very special opportunity to ever get me to leave. That’s what I honestly believed [the Iowa] opportunity was.”

It has been five years since McCaffery strolled the Times Union Center sidelines. Last year, he led Iowa to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. The Hawkeyes are in good position to earn another at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The Saints, meanwhile, have had just one winning season — 2013-14 — since McCaffery left. They earned the No. 8 seed in this year’s conference tournament and beat Niagara in the opening round, but they’ll need three more wins in as many days to return to the NCAA tournament.

No MAAC team has won consecutive conference tournaments since Siena, though Manhattan, the No. 3 seed, has a chance to defend its 2014 title. Even if the Jaspers cut down the nets Monday night, they would only be two-thirds of the way to matching Siena’s feat.

“Every year something can go wrong,” Duell says. “Injuries can happen, things happen that you can’t control. At Siena, we were just fortunate that we were able to stay relatively healthy, everybody was on the same page, we had a special group of kids. It’s something that you don’t see all the time, and that’s what made it so special.”

“It,” McCaffery says, “was an amazing ride, no question.”

Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC and college basketball.

2015 MAAC tournament primer

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and, no, this is not an outdated story from the holiday season.

March is here. Seeds are set. The 2015 MAAC tournament is encroaching ever so quickly.

So let’s take a look at the teams and the best potential matchups as we wait.

MAAC Bracket 2015

The Teams (by seed)

1. Iona (24-7, 17-3)

The regular-season champs are back at full strength — or, at least, are fielding their complete lineup. Isaiah Williams may not be fully in game shape after returning from the stress fracture in his foot, but just having him available adds another dimension to Iona’s rotation. He’s the team’s best defender. Even if he’s not scoring the ball — though he did just fine with 12 points in 32 minutes against Manhattan on Feb. 27 — he’ll aid the Gaels’ defense with his instincts and athleticism.

The Gaels were already the favorite without Williams. Now, it’ll be even harder to beat them.

That said, if someone does upset Iona, Tim Cluess’ squad will be banished to the NIT. The Gaels have no chance of obtaining an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They need to win the MAAC tournament to break into the Big Dance.

Why?

They’re 0-3 against RPI top 100 teams, with four losses against RPI sub-150 teams. ESPN has their non-conference strength of schedule at No. 95 nationally, while KenPom has it at No. 87.

It’s just not happening.

Gaels fans — and Jimmy Patsos, who clamored for Iona to receive an at-large bid on Monday’s MAAC conference call — if you haven’t already come to grips with this, you must.

2. Rider (21-10, 15-5)

Give the Broncs credit. When the verdict on Matt Lopez’s season-ending ACL tear came down, Rider seemed to be in a perilous state. Lopez had been the team’s most consistent player all year. Kevin Baggett dubbed the 7-footer Rider’s MVP. No way could the Broncs survive without him.

Well, they have so far. Though they lost to Niagara without Lopez — their first full game without their center — the Broncs rallied for wins over Monmouth and Marist to end the season.

But how far can they go without their center, especially considering they would need three wins in three days to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1994?

3. Manhattan (16-13, 13-7)

The defending champs played their way into the No. 3 seed, clinching it in the season finale against Quinnipiac. They’re not as formidable as the team that featured George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Mike Alvarado last year, but Manhattan is more than capable of returning to the NCAA tournament.

Led by All-MAAC First Teamer Emmy Andujar, Manhattan has had a shot late in just about every league game this season, save road games against Quinnipiac, Niagara and Fairfield.

The Jaspers took Rider to overtime twice, and Lopez dominated the second game. They lost to Iona twice by seven total points. Those are the only teams that swept Manhattan.

4. Monmouth (17-14, 13-7)

Every coach says his team thinks it can beat anybody, but the Hawks have to like their bracket because they know they can beat anybody standing between them and the championship game.

Monmouth swept Canisius, Niagara and Siena. Even Iona couldn’t sweep the Hawks, falling in a 92-89 thriller on Dec. 7 and coming back for a 69-68 win on Feb. 22.

Keep in mind that Monmouth lost twice to Manhattan and Quinnipiac and split with Rider, the loss coming against a Matt Lopez-less Broncs squad. So, basically, the Hawks should be happy with the No. 4 seed.

5. Canisius (16-13, 11-9)

The Golden Griffins bounced back from a four-game skid with four wins in their final five regular-season games. They’re hot, but what does that really mean? We’re not going to get into a discussion on whether or not momentum exists right now. But here’s what matters: Canisius showed it can win without Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton.

Why does that matter? Valenti, an all-MAAC caliber forward, last suited up on Jan. 30, when he severely sprained an ankle in Canisius’ win over Quinnipiac. He has a chance to play, though Jim Baron said Monday that Valenti had not yet practiced. Crumpton, a freshman averaging 7.3 points per game, is out for the season.

Can Canisius make a run?

Unlikely, but maybe. Role players such as Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams have stepped up in recent weeks, and any team with a scorer as potent as Zach Lewis has a chance to get hot.

6. Quinnipiac (15-14, 9-11)

While Canisius rides a solid stretch into the tournament, Quinnipiac doesn’t — if you define “solid” by tangible results. But Tom Moore said Monday on the conference call that he and his staff were encouraged by the performances, despite the results that materialized in four losses in five games. The Bobcats lost to Manhattan, Canisius and Iona by nine total points in three of those games.

We know that Quinnipiac will attack the glass with reckless abandon, particularly on the offensive end, where they have a rebounding clip of 41.6 percent (No. 2 nationally). Zaid Hearst is one of the best lockdown defenders in the MAAC, and Ousmane Drame is the league’s most formidable rim protector. If the Bobcats can hit enough shots — a big “if” for a team that ranks 331st in the country with a 44.1 percent effective field-goal percentage ranks — they can beat anyone in their way.

7. Saint Peter’s (14-17, 8-12)

The Peacocks beat Iona in the season-finale, snapping a four-game skid that included a loss at Fairfield. The Gaels couldn’t lose their No. 1 seed for the MAAC tournament, which they locked up a week earlier, but anyone who thinks Iona had nothing to play for is wrong.

As previously noted, Iona has no chance at an at-large bid. That wouldn’t have changed with a win over Saint Peter’s. However, Iona is still jockeying for NCAA tournament seeding, and the loss dropped them from a No. 12 to a No. 13 in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology.

So Saint Peter’s picked up a solid win that John Dunne said he hopes boosts the team’s confidence entering the tournament.

8. Siena (10-19, 7-13)

The Saints go down as the biggest disappointment of the year, but they have an opportunity to make amends as the MAAC tournament hosts. That doesn’t seem likely, though.

Marquis Wright and Rob Poole are two of the league’s best players at their respective positions, but Poole is not fully healthy. The senior is battling an ankle injury that will require surgery in the offseason. Jimmy Patsos rested Poole in the season finale at Monmouth because he feared two games in three days would be more than the ankle could handle. If Poole’s condition hasn’t improved significantly by Thursday, how is Siena supposed to win four games in five days?

9. Niagara (8-21, 7-13)

Chris Casey’s young squad closed the season on a four-game winning streak, including victories at Rider and Canisius. The Purple Eagles are hardly built to reel off four wins in four games, and it’s hard to imagine them making a run, given they would face Iona in the quarterfinals.

The future is bright at Niagara. It’s just not here yet.

10. Fairfield (7-23, 5-15)

There was a time — after Fairfield beat Manhattan and Quinnipiac to open MAAC play — that I wrote, only half-jokingly, that this seemed like the year a team like Fairfield would win the conference tournament. Now, you’re probably more likely to see Barry Rohrssen step in as Kentucky’s head coach in 2015-16.

The Stags have lost 12 of their last 13. But they clobbered their opening-round opponent — Saint Peter’s — last Friday, and they took their potential quarterfinal foe — Rider — to overtime on Feb. 5. Then, who could they face in the semis? Manhattan or Quinnipiac, maybe? Wow, maybe Fairfield actually has a chance.

11. Marist (6-24, 5-15)

Tom Moore promised his Quinnipiac team wouldn’t overlook Marist in the opening round — not after the Red Foxes nearly beat the Bobcats in January. Since then, Marist has won five of its 12 games, as Khallid Hart and T.J. Curry have returned to full health.

Marist’s offensive talent is streaky enough that a hot shooting night or two could bust the bracket.

The Favorite: Iona

Seriously, could it be anyone else? The regular-season champs hardly skipped a beat without Isaiah Williams, as role players filled in admirably. Now Williams is back. Even if he was rusty against Saint Peter’s less than 48 hours after playing 32 minutes against Manhattan, at least he’s an option. And if he’s feeling drained later in the tournament, Tim Cluess has more confidence now in his other players.

The Darkhorse: Quinnipiac

The Bobcats may not have a gaudy record, but they have the pieces and potential matchups to make a run, even if they need to win four games in five days. Though they don’t force turnovers at a high rate, they have the league’s third-most efficient defense, thanks largely to top-30 marks in effective field-goal percentage (44.6 percent) and offensive rebounding percentage allowed (26.7 percent). Zaid Hearst and Ousmane Drame lead the defensive effort, with Hearst’s shutdown ability and Drame’s rim protection (10.2 percent block rate, No. 32 nationally).

Can the Bobcats crash the glass with their usual ferocity and sustain a high-level defensive effort for four games in five days? Can they score enough points against stout defenses like Manhattan’s and Rider’s? If they can, they can beat any potential opponent. Quinnipiac split with Manhattan (more on that matchup in a bit) and gave Rider and Iona runs for their money. Quinnipiac also swept Monmouth.

Most Intriguing (Potential) Matchups

No. 1 Iona vs. (at?) No. 8 Siena

Siena first needs to get past a hot Niagara team, but the prospects of the regular-season champs playing in a road environment are exciting, if concerning for the league. Iona is the MAAC’s best team — without a doubt — and has the best chance to advance in the NCAA tournament, which would earn the league a hefty paycheck. Should the No. 1 seed ever be in the position of playing a road game in the tournament? It’s all water under the bridge if Iona beats Siena. If, somehow, the depleted Saints pull off the upset, expect a massive eruption of criticism towards the MAAC. That’s what happened when No. 4 Albany knocked off No. 1 Stony Brook and No. 1 Vermont in consecutive years as the America East tournament host.

No. 3 Manhattan vs. No. 6 Quinnipiac

These teams split the season series, plus Manhattan eliminated Quinnipiac in last year’s semifinals. The Bobcats haven’t forgotten that, and they have the recipe to return the favor in this year’s quarterfinal: crash the glass as always, coax Ashton Pankey into foul trouble and employ Zaid Hearst’s defensive ability to shut down Shane Richards. That worked in the first meeting between these two teams, and if Quinnipiac replicates that effort, Manhattan will likely be one-and-done.

On the other hand, Manhattan’s ability to make shots would affect the game twofold. Not only would the Jaspers put points on the board, but they also would set up their press, which could wreak havoc on a turnover prone team like Quinnipiac. That’s what happened in the season finale, when the Bobcats coughed up the ball on 26.4 percent of their possessions.

Of course, this is basketball. Quinnipiac could all but eliminate Pankey and Richards and still lose, just as Manhattan could harass Quinnipiac and fall short. Regardless, seeing how those gameplans would play out would make this a must-watch matchup.

No. 1 Iona vs. No. 4 Monmouth

Who (other than Canisius, Siena and Niagara fans) wouldn’t love a rematch of Iona and Monmouth? The first meeting was a thrilling offensive showcase in West Long Branch, with the Hawks coming out on top, 92-89. Then, we saw the Hawks’ stoicism on display in the second meeting, when they easily could have folded after blowing a 16-point second-half lead in five minutes. Monmouth went punch for punch in the last 13 minutes, but ultimately fell short after A.J. English’s three-point play in the final minute.

No. 1 Iona vs. No. 3 Manhattan

Okay, so Iona is in three of the four most intriguing matchups, but what did you expect? No way Saint Peter’s clash with Fairfield would ever make the cut, for instance, and any game the Gaels play from here on out has to be must-watch TV. All the more so when the opponent is Manhattan.

Though Iona swept the series, Manhattan was right there until the final few possessions each time. Plus these rivals have split the last two MAAC tournament championships. Enough said? Enough said.

Marist’s Mike Maker: “I still think we have a shot”

Khallid Hart, Chavaughn Lewis and Mike Maker address media after Marist's loss to Manhattan. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh
Khallid Hart, Chavaughn Lewis and Mike Maker address media after Marist’s loss to Manhattan. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – Mike Maker spoke slowly, recounting Marist’s 67-54 loss to Manhattan Monday night in his opening statement to media.

He said he was disappointed. He credited Manhattan’s adjustments. He bemoaned his team’s woeful shooting clips of 34.5 percent from the field, 19 percent from deep and 54.5 percent from the line.

All the while, he sat hunched over his microphone, looking as worn down as his Red Foxes had against Manhattan’s harassing half-court defense in the second half.

And, really, who could blame Maker?

Marist is 5-23 overall and 4-14 in the MAAC in Maker’s first year as a Division I head coach. He was dealt a tough hand when Khallid Hart and T.J. Curry, the starting backcourt, sustained injuries early in the season and played three combined games before mid-January. And though the Red Foxes won four in a row shortly after Hart and Curry returned to the lineup, the loss to Manhattan was the team’s fifth straight.

Yet after glumly crediting Steve Masiello and Manhattan for the night’s result, Maker tapped the table with his right hand and, with an upbeat undertone, said: “Call me crazy. I still think we have a shot.”

Marist’s chances are more favorable than Lloyd Christmas’ one-in-a-million, but, on the surface, the odds are stacked against a surprise run.

The Red Foxes cannot finish higher than ninth. They’re locked into a Friday night bout in Albany next week, meaning they would need four wins in four days to cut down the nets at the MAAC tournament, and just about every team in the conference has beaten them at least once.

But since Curry and Hart returned, Marist is 4-8. Four of the losses — to Quinnipiac, Siena, Monmouth and regular-season champ Iona — had combined margins of 11 points. Even Monday night, the Red Foxes led Manhattan with 12 minutes left.

“We showed it throughout the season when all our guys were healthy,” Chavaughn Lewis said. “We showed what we’re capable of.”

The 72-68 loss to Iona last Friday, in particular, stands out in Maker’s memory as reason to think his team could beat anyone. The Red Foxes had their opportunities in the final minute, despite shooting 26.9 percent from deep and 63 percent from the line.

“The other day against Iona, I thought we outplayed them,” Maker said. “We didn’t shoot well, but I thought we outplayed them. I really do.”

Marist has two more games — versus Saint Peter’s and at Rider — before a loss would end the season, and Maker said he hopes the Red Foxes can sustain for 40 minutes the level of play they employed for two-thirds of the Manhattan game.

“I thought Marist came out and really played well,” Masiello said. “I think coach is doing a great job of getting his system in. I don’t know if he really has the guys for his system yet, but you could tell how good they’re going to be.”

“We’re getting better,” Maker said. “We didn’t take a step back [against Manhattan], but we certainly didn’t take a step forward, and I thought we took a major step, maybe a couple, against Iona, even though we lost… I say this a lot: I still believe in the product we have and the players we have.”

Maker spent about 35 minutes in the locker room with his team Monday night before taking Lewis and Hart into the presser. He shared all the above sentiments with his players — the disappointment but also the optimism.

“What I take from all of it is just to have a positive mindset and continue pushing and not let the circumstances break us,” Lewis said. “So far I feel like it’s gotten through to our players, but I don’t think we understand it fully yet. [Maker] just instills a lot of confidence in us and just hopes eventually, hopefully not too late, that we just believe and have the same passion for the game that he has.”

“If we do that,” Hart said, “we could make a run in Albany.”

Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.

Jermaine Lawrence breaks out for Manhattan

Jermaine Lawrence beats Connor McClennaghan off the dribble for a two-handed slam Monday night at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh
Jermaine Lawrence beats Connor McClennaghan off the dribble for a two-handed slam Monday night at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y – Steve Masiello looked to his left moments after Manhattan beat Marist, 67-54, Monday night, and asked Jermaine Lawrence a question.

“You haven’t been too happy with me the last couple of weeks, have you?” he asked.

Lawrence flashed a smile, shook his head and answered bluntly: “No.”

Masiello has demanded a lot from his 6-foot-10 sophomore forward. In recent weeks, he has instructed Lawrence to hold himself accountable — a tall order for a former top-30 recruit who had been told all his life just how talented he was. Masiello said Lawrence’s growth in that regard was the key factor behind a 19-point, six-rebound performance at the McCann Center.

“I think the light has now gone off,” Masiello said. “I think two weeks ago, three weeks ago, you’d say something to him and he’d say, ‘I believe you, but this happened.’ Now he’s saying, ‘I got you, I’m going to do it,’ no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Lawrence looked confident, unlike the tentative offensive player he had been for much of the season. He sank a pair of jumpers, soared for an alley-oop and threw a shot fake to beat his man off the dribble for a dunk. By halftime, he had passed his previous career-high of 11 points by a field goal.

“It was pretty good,” Lawrence said. “I just let the game come to me, didn’t want to force anything, just move without the ball and pick my spots.”

Masiello had predicted Lawrence would need time to acclimate to Manhattan’s system, and a foot injury early in the season protracted that process. The Jaspers struggled to a 2-7 record, as Emmy Andujar and Shane Richards were the only two offensive threats. Then they won three of four, and Ashton Pankey broke out for 18 points in a Jan. 7 win over Saint Peter’s, prompting Masiello to say: “The key for our offense to continue to grow is AP and then Jermaine Lawrence. Now we’re starting to get AP going, and next will be Jermaine.”

Jermaine Lawrence blocks T.J. Curry's layup in the second half of Manhattan's win at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh
Jermaine Lawrence blocks T.J. Curry’s layup in the second half of Manhattan’s win at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh

With the trio of Andujar, Pankey and Richards producing consistently, Manhattan (15-12, 12-6) has won 13 of its last 18 games. They have carried the Jaspers, but Manhattan has lacked a reliable fourth scorer who can boost the offense when one or more of the big three is limited. Monday night, Andujar, Pankey and Richards combined for four points in the first half — Richards did not return to the game, and Masiello said his status is day-to-day with a knee injury — yet the Jaspers trailed Marist by a slim 31-27 margin because of Lawrence’s 13 points and five rebounds.

“I don’t think we would have won this game [Monday] without Jermaine, for real,” said Andujar, who scored all 13 of his points after the break.

“We get [Lawrence] going with AP, Emmy and Shane, we’ve got a chance,” Masiello said. “So hopefully we can continue it and just keep playing good team basketball.”

While Lawrence’s 19 points set a career-high, his six rebounds were a season-high. Remember, Masiello pulled Lawrence from the Jaspers’ exhibition win over LIU Post because the forward was not attacking the boards.

“It’s a difference maker,” Masiello said. “Ironically, the difference on the glass tonight was six.”

Perhaps the moment that exemplified Lawrence’s confidence the most came in the first half, when he leaked baseline and signaled for an alley-oop. Rashawn Stores didn’t throw a pass towards the rim, but Lawrence jumped anyway, like he needed the ball.

“He’s finally getting that lion in him, and you’re seeing it because he can’t take it out on me,” Masiello said. “He knows that wouldn’t be good, so he’s taking it out on the other team. That’s what I like to see.”

Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.

No Payne, no gain: Cameron Payne is Murray State’s No. 1

Cameron Payne shoots a jumper against SIU-Edwardsville on Feb. 12. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics
Cameron Payne shoots a jumper against SIU-Edwardsville on Feb. 12. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics

Teardrops almost always accompanied losses when Cameron Payne was a young hoopster playing in a Memphis church league.

He did not sulk. He did not feel embarrassed.

“It was not so much crying but crying for passion, hating to lose,” Cameron’s father, Tony Payne Sr., says.

Fast forward 14 years, and Payne has discarded his tearful habits. Not that he has had much reason to cry lately, anyway.

Payne’s Murray State Racers have won 22 consecutive games, the most recent an 89-54 throttling of Austin Peay on Saturday. That’s the second longest winning streak in the country behind No. 1 Kentucky’s 27 straight.

Payne, a 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard, leads Murray State in points (19.7 ppg), assists (5.8 apg) and steals (2.0 spg). His 119.7 offensive rating is third among Division I players used in at least 28 percent of their teams’ possessions, and he’s eighth nationally with a 38.5 percent assist rate.

“He’s a remarkable, remarkable point guard,” Racers head coach Steve Prohm says, “and I wouldn’t take any other point guard in the country over him.”

So how has a lanky, lightly recruited kid out of a small Memphis private school led a storied mid-major program to a 47-15 record in his first season-plus?

“That starts from when I was a little boy,” says Payne, who has drawn a steady stream of NBA scouts to Murray State’s games this year. “My dad was a point guard himself. He was my basketball coach my whole life. It all started with him.”

Payne Sr. grew up in a Memphis suburb, and basketball defined his childhood.

“One thing we always had was a basketball court,” Payne Sr. says. “It’s always been something we did. Kids in our neighborhood would play in our yard. We grew up playing basketball. That’s what my family does. We play a lot of basketball.”

Payne Sr. fostered a basketball environment in his and wife Leshawn’s home, where he groomed Payne and Tony Jr., four years Cameron’s elder, into point guards. Walk in, and you’re bound to find AAU jerseys from Payne Sr.’s team piled on a chair. You’ll see trophies — lots and lots of trophies — and a fathead of Payne in his Lausanne Collegiate high school uniform.

“Cameron has a personal room for his trophies,” Payne Sr. says.

“You’d know it’s a basketball house if you walked in,” Payne says.

Cameron Payne skies for a layup against Tennessee State on Jan. 17. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics
Cameron Payne skies for a layup against Tennessee State on Jan. 17. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics

Payne Sr. never sprouted past 5-feet-7-inches. His playing career ended after high school, but he derived pleasure coaching his boys, manning their AAU teams throughout their youth.

Payne Sr. always told his sons to take the best shot. Payne, he says, understood that meant he would need to share the ball, that his teammates would sometimes have better looks than his.

“He’s a very humble, very bright kid,” Payne Sr. said.

So when Payne made varsity at Lausanne Collegiate as a freshman, Payne Sr. was not surprised to see his son in a leadership role. Payne carried Lausanne to the state tournament that year, his father says, and led the school to a state title as a senior. He was named Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball, while averaging 20 points, 10 assists and four rebounds per game and displaying the all-around play he would bring to Murray State.

“Cameron turned out to be a great leader at that school,” Payne Sr. says, “and it’s actually carried over at Murray State.”

It almost didn’t — not entirely, at least.

That’s because Prohm initially planned on playing Payne off the ball. The Racers had Zay Jackson, who was set to return after a season-long suspension, and Prohm figured the junior was a better fit at point guard.

Cameron Payne scans the floor against Tennessee State on Jan. 17. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics
Cameron Payne scans the floor against Tennessee State on Jan. 17. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics

“The only reason [Payne] would have been the 2 is because we already had a great point guard,” Prohm says, “and you want your best players on the floor.”

Then Jackson tore his ACL a month before Murray State’s opener and elected to leave the team. (Aside: Jackson transferred to Southeastern Louisiana in April and received a waiver for immediate eligibility.) Prohm asked Payne to take Jackson’s spot.

In his first game, Payne needed 24 shots to score 21 points and Murray State lost at Valparaiso, 77-74. “When Zay went out and Cam had to take ownership of the point guard, that’s hard as a freshman,” Prohm said. “I kind of laughed and said, ‘man, I don’t think Isaiah [Canaan] took that many shots in a game as a senior.’ That was kind of funny.”

Payne didn’t shuck responsibility, and by Ohio Valley play, he had adjusted to the college game and began consistently pouring in more efficient outputs. The Racers started 5-0 in conference, and Payne averaged 21 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals, while shooting 43.7 percent from the field.

He was the lone freshman, but his charismatic leadership did not alienate his teammates, who this year comprise a strong cast of shooters and bigs.

“That can be tough,” Prohm says, “and that’s one of the things a lot of coaches watched our team and said, ‘it’s amazing how your kids bought in to a freshman.’ He’s the main guy. The go-to guy, who takes a lot of shots. It’s really a credit to our other guys, their character, their not having egos, them wanting to win and be successful. Everybody just bought into their roles and understood that Cam is a special player. He’s really got the drive to get his teammates to go on the offensive end because he can score but he does a great job getting everybody involved and he has such a great IQ.”

With that reputation stronger than ever this year, Payne has dropped 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting against Xavier. He has gone for 32 points (10-of-19 FG), eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in a win over MVC contender Evansville. He’s had big game after big game.

All the while he has worn No. 1, the jersey he chose out of deference to Canaan, the Philadelphia 76ers guard who wore Payne’s high school No. 3 for Murray State until he graduated the spring before Payne arrived. And though Payne and Canaan share many similarities — Prohm noted their leadership ability, as well as their character and commitment to school and the community — they are different point guards.

“Cam’s 6-foot-3, lanky, really skilled in his game,” Prohm says. “He can get 10 or 12 assists. Isaiah was a dynamic scorer that could go through big-time scoring streaks. I think their games are very different.”

But the net result of having Canaan and then Payne running the point has been the same: Murray State has won consistently.

Cameron Payne dribbles up the floor against SIU-Edwardsville on Feb. 12. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics
Cameron Payne dribbles up the floor against SIU-Edwardsville on Feb. 12. Courtesy Photo / Tab Brockman-Murray State Athletics

As a junior, Canaan led the Racers to a 23-0 start and a NCAA tournament win. Murray State failed to get a postseason bid in Canaan’s senior year, but the Mississippi native still carried his team to a 21-10 record. He graduated with 106 wins and 26 losses.

Payne is on a similar trajectory. With a win over Eastern Illinois Thursday, the Racers would tie the 2011-12 team’s record streak. They could break it in the regular-season finale Saturday at Tennessee Martin.

“It’s really crazy,” Payne says. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. It’s really hard to think about this because I know a few years from now we’ll be like man, we won that many games in a row? Right now, we’re in the moment.”

Though Payne says he’s never experienced a streak like this, he’s quick to add that he has won every year at every level. The state title at Lausanne is the only championship to his name, but Payne says he has never endured a losing season.

Those losses in church league were too painful. He couldn’t let them mount, and they never did.

“He’s used to winning,” Payne Sr. says. “Hey, man, that’s what it’s all about.”

OBW MAAC Power Rankings v14

Ladies and Gentlemen, your OBW MAAC Power Rankings v14.

1. Iona (23-6, 16-2)

Previous ranking: 1

Results: W 72-68 at Marist, W 69-68 vs. Monmouth

This week: Friday vs. Manhattan; Sunday at Saint Peter’s

The Gaels put together a pair of comeback victories last week to clinch the MAAC’s regular season title.

A.J. English hit the winner against Monmouth, faking Max DiLeo into the air and finishing an elbow jumper, plus the foul. English has thrived in the big moment this year. His 3-pointer against Manhattan was the winner, and he also sank two pressure free throws with two seconds left to give Iona a one-point win at Niagara. Don’t forget, his pass to Kelvin Amayo with less than a second left forced overtime in Iona’s win over Saint Peter’s on Jan. 31.

Those late-game heroics could help him take Player of the Year next week.

2. Rider (19-10, 13-5)

Previous ranking: 2

Results: W 94-83 vs. Quinnipiac; L 65-61 vs. Niagara

This week: Thursday at Monmouth; Sunday vs. Marist

According to the Trentonian’s Kyle Franko, Matt Lopez is just day-to-day with what Rider thinks is an ankle sprain. He’s seeing the doctor again today.

But without Lopez, Rider struggled at home against Niagara and ultimately dropped a close game.

Especially because it looks like Lopez will return, Rider does not fall in this week’s rankings.

3. Monmouth (16-13, 12-6)

Previous ranking: 4

Results: W 69-65 vs. Marist; W 63-58 at Saint Peter’s; L 69-68 at Iona

This week: Thursday vs. Rider; Sunday vs. Siena

To be clear, Monmouth doesn’t jump to No. 3 because of anything Manhattan did (more on the Jaspers in a bit). The Hawks just showed that their Dec. 7 win over Iona was no fluke, as they took a 16-point lead over the Gaels on the road Sunday and didn’t fold after their hosts hit their inevitable hot streak.

Justin Robinson was fantastic, and earned praise from Iona’s Player of the Year candidates.

4. Manhattan (14-12, 11-6)

Previous ranking: 3

Results: W 80-74 at Siena

This week: Today at Marist; Friday at Iona; Sunday vs. Quinnipiac

Again, Manhattan did nothing to fall to No. 4, and the Jaspers have their own close call against Iona. Monmouth just did enough to rise to No. 3.

The Jaspers finally won at Siena, something they hadn’t done since 2006, and Rashawn Stores stepped up in a big way. The senior point guard, who has a knack for hitting big shots, had 15 points, three assists and zero turnovers and knocked down a few clutch 3-pointers. That performance ranks right up with his nine-point, nine-assist, one-turnover outing in Manhattan’s win at Monmouth on Feb. 1.

The Jaspers can clinch a top-four seed with a win at Marist tonight. They still have an outside chance at the No. 2 seed, if they win out and Rider loses out. Manhattan holds the tiebreaker over Monmouth, thanks to a season sweep.

5. Canisius (15-12, 10-8)

Previous ranking: 6

Results: W 69-63 OT at Siena; W 63-63 at Quinnipiac

This week: Tuesday vs. Niagara; Friday vs. Fairfield

Canisius locked up a top-five seed with yesterday’s win at Quinnipiac, and the Golden Griffins have to like their chances of finishing 12-8. Even if they don’t catch Manhattan — they can’t catch Monmouth, which swept the season series — they could carry a five-game winning streak into the MAAC tournament.

6. Quinnipiac (14-13, 8-10)

Previous ranking: 5

Results: L 94-83 at Rider; L 65-63 vs. Canisius

This week: Friday vs. Siena; Sunday at Manhattan

The Bobcats are one of a few teams on a three-game slide, but all three losses were to top five teams: Iona, Rider and Canisius. At least their three-game winning streak that preceded the skid isn’t too far in the past.

Quinnipiac can finish no higher than sixth, their current seed, and as low as eighth.

7. Saint Peter’s (13-16, 7-11)

Previous ranking: 7

Results: L 63-58 vs. Monmouth; L 57-43 at Fairfield

This week: Friday at Marist; Sunday vs. Iona

The Peacocks seemed to be clicking, like they did late last season. They hung with Rider, nearly beat Iona and reeled off three straight wins against Fairfield, Siena and Niagara.

Since then, they have lost three straight, the latest a damning 57-43 setback at Fairfield.

Saint Peter’s can finish anywhere between sixth and ninth.

8. Siena (10-17, 7-11)

Previous ranking: 8

Results: L 69-63 OT vs. Canisius; L 80-74 vs. Manhattan

This week: Friday at Quinnipiac; Sunday at Monmouth

Siena has hung close with a number of the MAAC’s top teams. The Canisius and Manhattan games are the most recent examples. But the Saints’ only win over a top-five team came on Feb. 2 against Rider.

They’ve lost three straight and seven of nine.

Siena can finish anywhere between sixth and ninth.

9. Marist (5-22, 4-13)

Previous ranking: 9

Results: L 69-65 at Monmouth; L 72-68 vs. Iona

This week: Today vs. Manhattan; Friday vs. Saint Peter’s; Sunday at Rider

Marist has lost four straight since winning four in a row. The last three losses, however, were by 10 total points to Siena, Monmouth and Iona.

Marist can finish anywhere between eighth and last.

10. Niagara (6-21, 5-13)

Previous ranking: t-10

Results: W 55-53 at Fairfield; W 65-61 at Rider

This week: Tuesday at Canisius; Sunday vs. Fairfield

Does it matter that two of Niagara’s five conference wins came against teams missing a key player? The Purple Eagles beat Desi Washington-less Saint Peter’s in November and Matt Lopez-less Rider Sunday.

Wins are wins, and though Fairfield finally won again, too, Niagara breaks the power rankings tie with its win over the Stags.

11. Fairfield (7-21, 5-13)

Previous ranking: t-10

Results: L 55-53 vs. Niagara; W 57-43 vs. Saint Peter’s

This week: Friday at Canisius; Sunday at Niagara

Fairfield snapped a 10-game skid with the win over Saint Peter’s. The Stags were 2-0 in MAAC play with wins over Manhattan and Quinnipiac. Now they’re just a few games from the end of a dreadful season.

Player of the Week

David Laury, Sr., F, Iona

Laury was dominant while battling foul trouble in Iona’s comeback win at Marist, posting 21 points and 18 boards. He averaged 22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds for the week.

Rookie of the Week

Tyler Nelson, G, Fairfield

Nelson averaged 19.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and a steal in Fairfield’s two games. He poured in a career-high 26 points in the Stags’ win over Saint Peter’s.

Fab Five

David Laury, Sr., F, Iona

A.J. English, Jr., G, Iona

Emmy Andujar, Sr., F, Manhattan

Ousmane Drame, Sr., C, Quinnipiac

Justin Robinson, So., G, Monmouth

Frosh Five

Schadrac Casimir, G, Iona

Tyler Nelson, G, Fairfield

Dominique Reid, F, Niagara

Karonn Davis, G, Niagara

Kassius Robertson, G, Canisius