Championships aren’t won in January but insights are gleaned. And this shapes up as a significant week in measuring where Big 4 teams stand as we contemplate March possibilities.
UB (8-4, 2-0) takes its share of the Mid-American Conference East lead and a four-game winning streak to 13-2 Toledo Wednesday night then returns home Saturday afternoon to face Kent State (10-5, 1-1), the team that knocked it out of last year’s conference tournament.
High-flying Canisius (11-6, 5-1) travels to Iona Friday for a 9 p.m. ESPNU rematch of last season’s MAAC quarterfinal won by the Gaels, and completes the road trip with their second game in a week against Monmouth.
There’s no easing of the schedule for St. Bonaventure (11-5, 1-1). The Bonnies took a big swing at No. 19 on UMass Saturday and almost connected. Now they’re off to play Atlantic 10 co-leader Saint Louis (ranked 24th, 15-2, 2-0) on Wednesday before returning to the Reilly Center for a Saturday night date with George Washington (13-3, 1-1).
Niagara (4-13, 1-5), the lone Big 4 team residing on the far fringes of its conference race, hits the road for games at Fairfield (3-13, 0-6) on Thursday and MAAC newcomer Quinnipiac (9-6, 4-2) on Saturday.
UB-Toledo shapes up as one of the more compelling crossover games on the MAC schedule. The Rockets were the preseason pick to win the MAC West only to fall by 11 at Western Michigan in their conference opener. They returned to form with a 13-point victory over Central Michigan, placing all five starters and a reserve in double figures.
Toledo’s already two wins from equaling last season’s 15-win total. What gives? MAAC fans might remember Justin Drummond, who once formed one of the conference’s more promising young backcourts when he played alongside Dylon Cormier at Loyola (Md.). He subsequently moved to Toledo, joining a transfer-enhanced program that includes former Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon. Both became eligible this season, enabling the Rockets to build upon a foundation that includes one of the MAC’s top offensive players in all-conference guard Rian Pearson and 2012 MAC Freshman of the Year Julius Brown.
All five Rocket starters, a cast that includes 6-9 sophomore Nathan Boothe, average double figures.
Kent State goes from one end of the MAC to the other this week. The Golden Flashes are at Northern Illinois on Wednesday before traveling to Alumni Arena. Gone from a year ago are stalwarts Chris Evans and Randall Holt. But the Golden Flashes return a cast of familiar names, including, double-figure scorers Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson and Darren Goodson. Kent dropped its MAC opener at home to Ohio U. before rallying from nine down to beat Ball State on the road.
Canisius-Iona games typically rank among the MAAC’s more entertaining. They split two regular-season meetings last season by holding court at home, Iona by 97-87 and Canisius by 77-74. That set up the quarterfinal showdown in the tournament, with MoMo Jones scoring 33 to power the Gaels to an 89-85 victory.
Jones is gone but Sean Armand had 24 that night and he’s back averaging 19.1 for a team that’s 20th nationally at 82.4 points a game. The step-up guy for the Gaels has been sophomore guard Alex English, averaging 18.2 and coming off a career-high 31 against Siena.
Bona faces the other extreme as it journeys to Saint Louis. The Billikens are seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing 57.6 points per game, and have held their last five opponents under 60 while mounting a nine-game winning streak. They’re two losses are to a pair of ranked teams, Wisconsin (up to No. 4) and Wichita State (up to No. 6).
The paces changes when George Washington visits the Reilly Center. The Colonials rank in the top third nationally in scoring, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage.
Through the weekend Niagara’s Antoine Mason continues to top the nation in scoring at 28.3, with Billy Baron of Canisius up to sixth at 22.9 and not far from making a leap into the top three. Baron is also seventh in the country in free throw percentage at 92.2 while Mason leads all in free throws made with 157, 40 more than anyone else . … Baron’s 38 points in Friday’s double overtime win over Rider rank second for a Cansius player at the Koessler Athletics Center behind Craig Prosser’s 39 against Saint Peter’s in 1976. … Griffs big man Jordan Heath is shooting 49.2 percent from three, which puts him 30th overall and ninth among non-guards. … UB’s Javon McCrea is tied for 22nd nationally in blocks at 3.0 a game and 24th in rebounds at 9.6.
Behind the arc
Canisius High grad Matt MacDonald, a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson, was named the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Week Monday. He averaged 17 points, 3.5 rebounds and shot 88.8 percent from the foul iine (16 of 18). His week included a career-high 21 points against Mount St. Mary’s, Matt’s father is Mike MacDonald, head coach at Medaille. … John Maddock at Canisius passes along that T.J. McConnell, point guard at top-ranked Arizona, is the son of Tim McConnell, a graduate assistant for the Griffs under Marty Marbach in 1987-88. McConnell transferred to the Wildcats from Duquesne.