by Jesse Kramer, @Jesse_Kramer

The MAAC is a lovable mid-major league. Even though the conference is headed for its fourth straight down year – maybe at this point being below average is the new norm — the MAAC always manages to produce exciting basketball, especially in March. Four of the last five championship games have been decided by one possession.

Iona has made the championship game every year since 2012-13, and it’s hard to imagine the Gaels not getting back there this March. The bigger question is: whom will they face? There’s a good chance we see our fourth Iona-Manhattan championship game since Steve Masiello took over for the Jaspers in 2011, but this league is relatively even from two through nine. So it’s basically a crapshoot.

Now let’s take a closer look.

Predicted order of finish

1. Iona
The Gaels’ backcourt is extremely deep. In a preseason exhibition game against Army, they rolled out 2016-17 breakout star Rickey McGill, former MAAC Freshman of the Year Schadrac Casimir, and UMass transfer Zach Lewis, who poured in 27 points on 13 shots. Preseason all-conference selection Deyshonee Much missed the exhibition with a foot injury. We’ll see if coach Tim Cluess brings him off the bench on opening night. No matter how you cut it, Iona has four guards who would be surefire starters on any other team in the conference to couple with MAAC championship game hero E.J. Crawford and junior college transfers Roland Griffin and TK Edogi up front.

The Gaels will be insanely tough to defend. We’ll see if their defense is adequate enough to earn them their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Keep an eye on: G Schadrac Casimir. The 5’10” junior redshirted 2015-16 due to double hip surgery, and then he had a sports hernia procedure the following offseason. He played 20 minutes per game last year, but it took a while until he got back to 100 percent. He averaged only 7.0 points but started to look more like his old self starting with a Feb. 17 win against Marist. From that point on, he averaged 11.7 points with a 64.9 effective field goal percentage.

2. Manhattan
After NCAA Tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015, Manhattan has gone 23-40 – 14-26 in the MAAC – in the last two seasons with an offense that has ranked among the least efficient in the nation each year. This year, the Jaspers are poised for a comeback with their top five scorers returning and fifth-year senior Rich Williams returning from injury. Between Williams and senior forward Zane Waterman, Manhattan has a pair of sleepers for MAAC Player of the Year. They also have one of the best names in the country in JUCO transfer Pauly Paulicap.

However, the Jaspers may have a kryptonite – they don’t have a true point guard. 5’9” senior Zavier Turner led the team with 3.3 assists last season, but he’s a score-first talent who also had a 21.5 turnover rate. Same goes for junior Thomas Capuano. Aaron Walker had more turnovers than assists last year, granted he was a freshman.

Keep an eye on: G Rich Williams. Call this the year of comeback guards in the MAAC between Casimir at Iona and Williams at Manhattan. The 6’5” Williams redshirted last year with a knee injury. He’s a two-way player, falling among the MAAC’s best scorers, shooters, defenders and pure athletes when healthy. The last time we saw the Brooklyn native, he posted 26 points on 15 shots in a MAAC Tournament loss to Siena, capping a breakout season where he averaged 14.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals. If it seems surprising to you that Manhattan, which went 5-15 in the MAAC last year, was picked second by the voters and yours truly, it’s largely because of Williams’ return.

3. Monmouth
The two-time defending regular season champions lost a handful of key pieces, most notably backcourt mates Justin Robinson, a two-time MAAC Player of the Year, and Je’lon Hornbeak. Despite that, the backcourt remains strong with junior Micah Seaborn and senior Austin Tilghman returning. Tilghman, who’s spent the first three years of his career at the two and three, will replace Robinson at the point, and he should get some backup from redshirt freshman Ray Salnave.

The Hawks also lost their top three frontcourt players, which means they’ll need a lot more production out of 6’10” senior Zac Tillman, who took a medical redshirt last year, 6’9” junior Diago Quinn and 6’6” sophomore wing Louie Pillari.

Keep an eye on: G Micah Seaborn.

4. Niagara
Niagara will be the beneficiary of minimal roster turnover, losing a pair of bench players and nothing more. Among their returners, the Purple Eagles have a pair of dynamic guards in seniors Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes and last year’s shot-blocking champion in junior forward Dominic Robb, who averaged 2.2 rejections.

Keep an eye on: G Matt Scott. The 6’4” senior is best-equipped to challenge Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson for player of the year. He averaged 17.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists last season while developing into a dangerous 3-point shooter at 37.6 percent. This guy finds ways to stuff the stat sheet every night.

5. Rider
Similar to Monmouth, here’s another team that lost several key players. Jimmie Taylor, Khalil Thomas, Norville Carey and Xavier Lundy contributed 67.8 percent of Rider’s scoring and 61.6 percent of its rebounding last year. That’s a ton to replace. But sixth-year coach Kevin Baggett has a new group of up-and-comers ready to take over the program.

Sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan is one of the league’s most promising players. While Jordan already has a full year of starting under his belt, the Broncs will need his junior guard Kealen Washington-Ives and sophomore center Tyere Marshall, to develop into larger roles this season after productive rookie years off the bench.

Keep an eye on: G Stevie Jordan. Taylor had a freshman season that would normally warrant Rookie of the Year honors, but Quinnipiac’s Mikey Dixon walked away with that honor after averaging 16.5 points. Jordan, a 6-foot sophomore, averaged 11.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, a MAAC-best 5.6 assists and 1.3 steals. His 50.5 two-point FG% in conference games ranks third among returning guards. Even though Jordan now has a year of experience, this year will be a much bigger challenge. Last year he had a veteran supporting cast. This year he’s the Broncs’ second-most experienced player by minutes played.

6. Fairfield
The Stags lost skilled scorer Curtis Cobb to the transfer market, but they possess the league’s top returning scorer in senior guard Tyler Nelson. Nelson, the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year, averaged 19.5 points and 3.1 assists last year.

The Stags were a top-three defensive team in the MAAC last year. We’ll see if they can keep that up after losing Cobb and senior forward Amadou Sidibe. Nelson and point guard Jerome Segura each have career defensive ratings above 107. Sydney Johnson has got to be thrilled junior forward Jonathan Kasibabu, arguably the conference’s best interior defender, is still around. As skilled as Nelson is, Johnson’s teams have always been offensively challenged, save for his one NCAA Tournament team at Princeton. So the Stags will need other players to improve defensively if they’re going to challenge for a top five spot in the MAAC.

Keep an eye on: G Tyler Nelson. He’s the preseason player of the year for a reason. He enters the season with 1,440 career points and needs 566 more to become Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer. If he continues with last year’s scoring pace and stays healthy, he’ll break Tony George’s record in the regular season finale against Monmouth.

7. Canisius
Coach Reggie Witherspoon had a strong first year at Canisius, winning 18 games. With two starters and multiple key bench players returning, the Golden Griffins figure to be in the middle of the pack again.

Senior forward Jermaine Crumpton has MAAC Player of the Year potential, but the key for Canisius’ success will be sophomore point guard Malik Johnson’s development. Johnson had his turnover issues as a freshman and struggled to score, but he averaged 4.4 assists and ranked top 10 in the MAAC in assist rate during conference play. He still doesn’t need to score for this team to win games, but he’ll need to learn from some of those freshman mistakes and become a better floor general.

Keep an eye on: F Jermaine Crumpton. Crumpton is a versatile big man who can score at the rim, from midrange, and from three. He’s shown consistent growth from season to season, posting 15.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last year. This is a guard’s league, but Crumpton is the No. 1 big man.

8. Siena
2016-17 was a disappointing year for Siena, although the Saints turned it around in February and March to come within one basket for a NCAA Tournament berth. Barring a miracle, the window of opportunity for Siena to return to the NCAA Tournament has closed this year. The Saints lost four starters, including All-MAAC point guard Marquis Wright. They’ll get offense from junior guard Nico Clareth, but who else will score?

Keep an eye on: G Nico Clareth. Clareth, a junior who averaged 13.7 points last year, is an unconscious shooter, which is great when he’s dealing and terrible when he’s off. He attempted 13 shots per game last year with a 47 eFG%. But … every now and then he goes crazy. He made five or more threes on four different occasions last season.

9. Saint Peter’s
Saint Peter’s was the surprise in the MAAC last year, going 14-6 in the conference and then winning the CIT. We’ll see if coach John Dunne, who has won at least eight conference games in each of the last four seasons, has any more surprises up his sleeve.

The Peacocks lost their four leaders in playing time, so the new group will take some time to figure out roles and put things together. They have a promising trio of shooters in Nick Griffin, Nnamdi Enechionyia and Samuel Idowu, but what’s most important is if they can keep Saint Peter’s atop the MAAC defensively. The Peacocks’ offense was often brutal, but a top-40 defense carried them to a second place finish.

Keep an eye on: F Samuel Idowu. Idowu played only 11.7 minutes per game as a sophomore, but he led the team in field goal percentage and scoring per 40 minutes. With Quadir Welton gone, we’ll get to see if Idowu can produce as efficiently in increased time on the court.

Here’s where the big drop off comes. While 4th through 9th can go in basically any order, Marist is a cut below. The Red Foxes have finished in last place each of the last three years, and they’ll have to claw to avoid stretching that streak another year.

Marist’s only major loss is leading scorer Khallid Hart, but they actually have the firepower to replace his production with junior guards Brian Parker and Ryan Funk, each of whom averaged more than 12 points last season. But aside from that duo, there’s not much else to get excited about.

Keep an eye on: G Ryan Funk. An electric shooter, the 6’6” Western New York native led the MAAC in eFG% at 61.2 percent in conference play. He made nearly three treys per game and shot 43.3 percent from beyond the arc in February.

11. Quinnipiac
Losing: Mikey Dixon, Peter Kiss, Reggie Oliver, Donovan Smith, Daniel Harris, Phil Winston
Projected starters: Isaiah Washington, ??, Andrew Robinson, Abdulai Bundu, Chaise Daniels

The future looked bright at Quinnipiac with MAAC Rookie of the Year Mikey Dixon and fellow All-Rookie Team selection Peter Kiss. But both freshman guards transferred to greener pastures, and now the Bobcats are staring down a year in the cellar.

They return only one player who averaged more than 20 minutes per game, and it’s senior forward Chaise Daniels. He’s among MAAC’s best interior players on both ends of the court, but he’s not going to get much help.

Kee an eye on: F Chaise Daniels. Daniels came through with a breakout junior season, scoring 13 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.

My All-MAAC Selections
First Team
Tyler Nelson, Fairfield
Matt Scott, Niagara
Rickey McGill, Iona
Jermaine Crumpton, Canisius
Micah Seaborn, Monmouth

Second Team
Zane Waterman, Manhattan
Rich Williams, Manhattan
Deyshonee Much, Iona
Schadrac Casimir, Iona
Stevie Jordan, Rider

Opening Weekend
Friday, November 10
Iona at Albany, 7 p.m.
Siena at Charleston, 7 p.m.
Niagara at St. Bonaventure, 7 p.m.
Hampton at Rider, 8 p.m.
Bucknell at Monmouth, 8 p.m.

Saturday, November 11
Canisius at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Penn at Fairfield, 1 p.m.
Dartmouth at Quinnipiac, 2 p.m.
Saint Peter’s at La Salle, 3 p.m.
Lehigh at Marist, 7 p.m.

Sunday, November 12
Monmouth at Seton Hall, 1:30 p.m.