The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference college basketball tournament will make its Atlantic City debut this week under the best of basketball circumstances.
The three New Jersey men’s teams in the conference — Saint Peter’s, Monmouth and Rider universities — have all had compelling regular seasons that have them near the top of the conference standings.
“That was all planned,” Monmouth athletic director Marilyn McNeil said with a laugh. “It couldn’t have been a better scenario.”
The MAAC men’s and women’s tournaments start Tuesday at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. The finals are scheduled for Saturday, with the women playing at 11 a.m. and the men at 4 p.m.
It is the first time since the Atlantic 10 men’s tournament left Boardwalk Hall in 2012 that Atlantic City will be a part of March Madness.
“We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from the community of Atlantic City about the efforts to publicize the event,” MAAC Commissioner Richard Ensor said. “I think teams are very excited about Atlantic City. They feel it’s going to be a neutral site.”
The MAAC consists of 11 schools. In addition to the New Jersey trio, there are Fairfield and Quinnipiac in Connecticut and Marist, Canisius, Iona, Manhattan, Niagara and Siena in New York.
With the success the three New Jersey schools have had this season, fans and alumni of Rider, Saint Peter’s and Monmouth should be motivated to attend. All three will be among the top four seeds.
Saint Peter’s features a core of freshmen and is organizing a fan bus to travel from Jersey City to Boardwalk Hall for its Wednesday night quarterfinal. Rider relies on seniors, who will try to make the most of their final opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament. Monmouth plays in Thursday night’s quarterfinals.
“Atlantic City is part of the Jersey Shore vibe we have (at Monmouth),” McNeil said. “We have a majority of Jersey students here. It just has a vibe that is known here, and people are comfortable with.”
It’s not just the New Jersey men’s teams that are coming into the tournament on the upswing. The Rider women feature Stella Johnson, who leads the country in scoring with a 24.2 average.
“I think we’re going to get a good turnout,” Ensor said. “We’ll see what happens. But we do know it’s March Madness. It’s here.”
Monmouth was the driving force behind the MAAC coming to Atlantic City. This is the first of the conference’s three-year deal with Boardwalk Hall.
The university pushed for the move because it was tired of the tournament being played in Albany, New York, on Siena’s home court. Siena is on track to be the top seed in this year’s tournament.
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“Monmouth has been a proponent of Atlantic City from the beginning,” McNeil said. “Albany was great, and they were great hosts. Nothing bad to say, but it was always hard to play on somebody’s home floor. I’m hoping the Siena fans come down to Atlantic City and be as supportive and loud as they were up in Albany.”
The main question now is how the tournament will draw in Atlantic City. When the Atlantic 10 played at Boardwalk Hall, attendance was driven by match-ups. Philadelphia schools, such as Temple, drew the biggest crowds.
Ensor said he hopes the tournament draws between 20,000 and 30,000 fans this week.
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The big night will be Friday, when the men’s semifinals will be played at 6 and 8 p.m. The women’s semifinals will be played at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Friday.
“That’s the best night of basketball,” Ensor said. “You have two doubleheaders. I’d like to see 6,000 in the building. If we could hit that number, I think we’d be doing really well.”
The move to Atlantic City means the MAAC Tournament is a week later than it’s been in the past. The men’s final was traditionally played the Monday before the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Sunday.
Some critics wonder whether the MAAC Tournament will be overshadowed this week by the big-time conference events, such as the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. The MAAC men’s final will be played the same day as the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference championship games.
Ensor said he didn’t know how that scenario would play out. He did point out that basketball fans can watch the MAAC championships in person and then head to the casinos or restaurants to watch the Big East, ACC and other major conference title games.
“I think we’re going to build and grow this event over time,” Ensor said. “I think it will become a really great site for this championship for the future.”