It’s conference tournament time and the local mid-majors are practicing their steps in hopes of qualifying for the Big Dance. Here are five schools to watch:
Hofstra avoided any COVID-19 pauses until a bad time: The final two weeks of the season. That means the Pride will enter the CAA Tournament having gone 20 days without playing a game. The league’s defending champion was having an up-and-down season up to that point. Hofstra started 7-3, only to lose three of its last four games. The fourth seed, led by all-league players Jalen Ray, Isaac Kante and Tareq Coburn, has the potential to repeat — though the Pride went 0-4 against the league’s top two teams, James Madison and Northeastern.
Next Game: Sunday 11 a.m. vs. Delaware, CAA Tournament quarterfinals
Rick Pitino’s return to college basketball was a mess. The Hall of Fame coach’s team won six of its nine league games but just couldn’t avoid COVID-19 pauses. It had a 51-day layoff, played five games and was paused again on Feb. 21 to end its regular season prematurely.
Since the MAAC seeds based on the number of conference victories, Iona received the ninth seed and will have to win four games in five days to go dancing. The Gaels, which feature the league’s leading scorer in Isaiah Ross and one of its top big men in freshman Nelly Junior Joseph, will not be an easy out — granted they can avoid any more problems with the virus.
Next Game: Tuesday 5 p.m. vs. Quinnipiac, MAAC Tournament first round
The Jaspers can play with the best teams in the MAAC, as a win over Iona and narrow losses to Monmouth, Siena and Marist suggest. But putting quality performances together consecutively has proven challenging. Manhattan has backed up a win with another win just twice. That said, there is talent on this roster, with Seton Hall transfer Anthony Nelson capable of explosive outings.
Next Game: Tuesday 7:30 p.m. vs. Fairfield, MAAC Tournament first round
The biggest surprise in the area is Wagner, which was picked to finish seventh in the NEC after suffering its most losses (21) last year in a decade, and won the league outright. After starting 0-2 in league play, the Seahawks won 13 of their 16 games, including six straight at home. They haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2003, but coach Bashir Mason’s team has gotten close, losing in the tournament final in 2016 and 2018.
Next Game: Saturday 2 p.m. vs. Mount St. Mary’s, NEC Tournament semifinals
Depth and balance are hallmarks of Shaheen Holloway’s program, and those remained constants this year in a third-place finish, even if sophomore forward KC Ndefo emerged as one of the best players in the MAAC. Shooting from deep (31.5 percent) and holding onto the ball (14.8 turnovers), however, held this team back.
Next Game: Thursday 5 p.m. vs. Canisius/Rider winner, MAAC Tournament quarterfinals