About one week from now, the MAAC Men’s Championship game will be played for the first time at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, MA. We were honored to have a chance to get to talk to MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor (follow him on twitter @MAACCommish), the third commissioner of the conference and has been commissioner since August of 1988. In part one of this interview, we get Ensor’s thoughts on the MAAC regular season as well as the MAAC’s involvement and relationship with Springfield so far.

SienaSaintsBlog: What are your thoughts on this exciting regular season we had this year?

Rich Ensor/ MAAC Commissioner: I think it’s always great for the fans when the seeds for the championship come down to the last weekend of play. It keeps interest high and it keeps the teams engaged in the process so I think its indicative of the type of year we’ve had while Iona certainly has been a team that’s driven a lot of interest, they haven’t been able to dominate to the extent where none of the other teams felt like they didn’t have a shot at the number one seed. It came right down to the last weekend and that’s what you want.

SienaSaintsBlog: How do you feel about the competitiveness in the league this season?

Rich Ensor/ MAAC Commissioner: I think it’s been very competitive. I thought back at the beginning of the year that we’d have a pretty good season and we got off to a little of a slow start frankly. Iona came out strong but we thought Fairfield and Rider in particular would get off to better non-conference starts but they had a few issues they were resolving so as we got into conference play I think you saw the teams start to gel and play better and typically when you get into our conference play teams know each other’s tendencies better than anyone else anyhow so it usually is a lot closer and that’s how it played out as teams have upset each other, they’ve won their away game but lost at home and vice-versa, so it’s been interesting and certainly has been hard to handicap.

SienaSaintsBlog: This tournament marks the sixth tournament in which the double-bye has been removed, what do you feel the impact has been with that in retrospect?

Rich Ensor/ MAAC Commissioner: When we went to the double-bye we were trying to protect the number one seed in particular, because you want the team that’s done well over the course of the year to  have some advantage as they get ready for postseason. We got rid of it because there were a lot of unintended consequences. First of all, it was almost too much of an advantage for the team that got to sit back and watch others play for a couple of days and then come in with much stronger legs and not having had to play games previously. So it was too much of an advantage and then we didn’t calculate that it would also impact the fan interest because if you were looking for games that were meaningful, you weren’t going to come in for the full tournament – you would just come in for the semifinals and finals because of the number one team wasn’t playing until the semis.

I’m glad that we went away from it, it was a good experiment but I think it’s a much fairer championship as it is currently constructed because you get to seed placement and theoretically a better opponent, if you’re the higher seed, based on your in season performance but you also have to be able to show that you could put three games, three or four if you’re in the out-bracket, together in a row to claim the automatic bid.

SienaSaintsBlog: What are your thoughts as the MAAC Basketball Championships head to Springfield this week?

Rich Ensor/ MAAC Commissioner: That’s going to be interesting to see how the neutral site works in terms of fan attendance. I know that the arena has done a great job locally in terms of developing interest and awareness of the Championships. So that was part of the deal when we went there, that they had a history of hosting neutral events with the NCAA Division II tournament, and we wanted to see some of that come over to the MAAC in terms of fans coming out to the event. So they’ve done a good job with that and now we have to see if our fans will travel to a neutral site. We haven’t done this since 1989 was the last time we ever had neutral site, when we played at the Meadowlands, and it was a much different MAAC in those days.

There was a sense in the league that the home court had become too much of an advantage, particularly when Siena had that three years in a row of championships. I often say that it wouldn’t have mattered where we played those games, those Siena teams were just that good. But I understood that the membership felt that playing on somebody’s home court was getting to be too much for both the fans and their teams.

So we’re off to Springfield, which has put a nice bid together with the Hall of Fame. We’ve enjoyed the relationship already with the Hall of Fame having our preseason awards show there and opening up the MAAC exhibit that will be in the building for the next three years. This week we’re going to have our postseason awards show there and then on Friday night we’re having a big honors dinner where we’re honoring two athletes, men’s and women’s, from each of the 10 schools for their past basketball accomplishments and then we’re going to enshrine them in our MAAC exhibit as part of our opportunity with the Hall of Fame. That part of it has worked out real well and now we want our fans to come up and experience both the Hall of Fame and the MAAC Championships at the MassMutual Center. It should be fun, they’ve done a lot of work and they’ve got a great FanFest developed for the youth of the area to be involved with and our fans coming in. The championship should be a lot of fun on a lot of different levels for different fans.

SienaSaintsBlog: What did you and your staff learn from December’s Hall of Fame Showcase which featured Siena and Fairfield amongst other teams?

Rich Ensor/ MAAC Commissioner: Operationally, there were a few things we noted. We worked on a lot of the details, how the Box Office works, how Will Call works and the locker room assignments – all the day-to-day sports management type of issues that we deal with. That was why we did it, as much as anything, was to get a sense of how the building works and how it fits into how we do our championships. It was a good useful learning experience for us and the arena.

In part two tomorrow, we’ll talk about the MAAC’s preparedness for conference expansion among other items…