SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - If I try to sell you on the merits of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, I probably wouldn't start with the actual venue. While just a couple of blocks from the Naismith Hall of Fame, the MassMutual Center is a decaying relic much better suited for hockey than basketball.
Springfield itself? Well, not much to do there, either, except for the Hall of Fame, of course, which you'd think would be open extra hours the week of the MAAC Tournament, strangely is closed much of the time. Get there in the morning of you can.
But we really don't care about any of that crap anyway at TMM, do we? And so I'll sell you on what's most important, the basketball.
As I sit in a virtually empty arena watching the women's quarterfinals, I can't tell you who is going to win the MAAC this year. Niagara is the top seed, but was No. 8 last year and still has had its share of bad days (1-2 in games I saw them play this season). Many people tagged Fairfield as the league's hottest team and pre-tournament favorite a couple of weeks ago. The Stags finished seventh and have to play in the preliminary round in front of friends and family later tonight (Friday).
And that kind of uncertainty is not unusual in the MAAC. Top-seeded Iona bit the dust in the semifinals against Fairfield last seaso
n, and the year before the Stags were the victim as No. 1, falling to Saint Peter's. After winning the crown, the Peacocks have finished last in two consecutive season in the cellar.
That's just how the MAAC rolls.
While other tournament have fiddled with formats to give the top seeds an advantage (I think the WCC made Loyola Marymount play 23 games to get to the semifinals against Gonzaga, which makes their road to glory look like a Bruce Lee movie), the MAAC just puts a straight bracket up and rolls out the ball.
The biggest day for the MAAC is not necessarily the final, but the traditional Saturday quarterfinal. If you're so inclined, you can come at 9:30 a.m. for the women's semifinal (as it should be, the MAAC holds the men's and women's tourneys simultaneously) and stay until closing time sometime after midnight.
The MAAC really doesn't believe in exact starting times, going with more of a European schedule of TBA. For instance, tonight's men's doubleheader is slated for 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. with a 30-minute break (which turns into 35 or so) in between. Not going to happen.
On Quarterfinal Saturday that back-up inevitably trickles down to the final of the sexaheader, of which tip-off is comically scheduled for 9:30 p.m., but usually starts well after 10. This last game holds a special place in the hearts of MAAC lovers as it is affectionately known as MAAC After Dark, a world where anything and everything can happen.Last year's game tipped off at about 10:15 p.m
. and that was with no overtimes in the five games proceeding it. And we had a near-fight a buzzer-beater that defied gravity, overtime, and an upset. This Saturday, it's Manhattan and Steve Masiello again, but this time against Jimmy Patsos and Loyola. How fun will that be when the clock strikes midnight?
And that's the final way I'll try to sell you on the MAAC Tournament. The teams may battle each other all season, but the camaraderie between the teams is obvious off the court. You see it in the well-done Fan Fest (which features the Mascot Battle). You witness it in the stands, as the coaches eat and scout, and are generally visible and humble enough to say hi to you.
As I said, starting in a couple of hours, I really have no idea what's going to happen at the MAAC Tournament in the next four days. Everyone says that. But in the MAAC, they really mean it.