We catch up again with MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor and get his evaluation of the first MAAC Basketball Championships in Springfield, get some insight on what may be a tweaked tournament format in the future, as well as conference realignment thoughts and the MAAC’s expanded commitment with ESPN3 which includes a unique presentation of the preseason awards…

SienaSaintsBlog: How would you evaluate the first MAAC Basketball Championships in Springfield?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: We actually just went through that with the athletic directors, coaches and the presidents over the course of the last month in league meetings. The general sense is the neutral site was well received. The coaches unanimously supported the neutral site format. We’re looking at a couple of tweaks going forward as far as times of games and things of that nature, most likely in the next bid cycle which will be from 2015-18. The fan turnout was very strong from out of the region which was one of our concerns going in. The wrap on the MAAC was that fans wouldn’t travel to a neutral site but that didn’t seem to hold out and in fact we exceeded our room blocks in the region by a significant percentage and the presidents specifically asked me to get some more hotel rooms for their fans so we’re working on that.

So generally good, a couple of things the arena needs to do better. The number one critique from the coaches and administrators was  the  scoreboard there is a bit out dated to be kind and needs to be replaced. There was a general sense that the MassMutual Center did not activate locally ticket sales to the extent we were expecting. Some of that was driven by decisions they made relative to price point and promotion in the local market. We’re working with them on that, and we’ll come up with a few different strategies as it relates to local fans.

SienaSaintsBlog: What future tweaks to the tournament are you thinking of making?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: There’s some format changes we’re looking at and we’ll have for the presidents in December. Generally on Saturday when we had the six games, I think we’re going to move to a format that splits the women to Thursday/Friday [First Round/Quarterfinals] and on the men, perhaps on Thursday [First Round] and then Friday off. And then Men’s quarters would be standalone games and that way we wouldn’t have to start quite as early or end quite as late. And then Sunday we would just have both sets of semis and Monday both sets of finals. So, nothing has been concrete at this point but that is probably the general direction of where we’re probably headed.

SienaSaintsBlog: Any concern, when you met with the Presidents and Athletic Directors, about the recent round of Conference realignment (CAA movement & Boston University to the Patriot League)?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: We’ve been talking about it for over two years now with the presidents and have spent a lot of time and effort in terms of both examining internally what we look for in terms of member schools if opportunities present themselves and also how would we to react if we lose some schools for some reason. Not just doing the due diligence in today’s environment, obviously there’s been a lot of changes, so you don’t want to be caught unprepared. So we’ve done a lot of that work and we came in to the presidents with some suggestions, in terms of different strategies, and what the presidents have basically told me is that they’ve met separately and that they’re committed to each other, full disclosure,  and a general commitment that nobody is actively seeking membership in any other conference. With that type of stability, which has typically been the case in the MAAC, the 10 schools are so similar in terms of size, budget, academic focus and mission. That they’re very very comfortable with each other. That’s good in terms of stability and continuity and when we look at other possible members – because we’ve said over a decade ago that we would go to 12 if the right schools were available. Well that list is relatively small because our average enrollment is about 4,000 undergrads and we have a bunch of ranges we work within as well, overall budget for athletics, and then there’s the academic filter as well. When we start looking at schools that fit our mold, there aren’t that many of them out there frankly. We did do some scenarios looking at member schools from a wide range of conferences, and if you look for instance at America East schools – by and large they’re all public and we want to stay private, so right off the bat you eliminate those that don’t fit that criteria. If you look at any of the privates, they’re typically much larger than us. Boston University, who just decided to go to the Patriot League, their undergraduate population is in the 8,000 range. The reason why that is so important is because, typically in private schools budgets are driven by enrollment. It’s just a fact of life. You’re only going to be able to spend a certain percentage of your revenues on athletics based on the number of students you can have that help fund the enterprise. So at the very basic level enrollment dictates a lot of what any school can do in terms of athletics.

Most of the schools that are readily available right now or at least in transition, those in the Colonial or the America East, are much much larger than us or are publics. So the list becomes fairly finite. And then some schools that we have typically been interested in; it’s no secret we’ve always been interested in LaSalle, for instance they were in the league at one point and were a good member, is not interested right now.

Those schools aren’t available for us to look at so at this point, we’re just sitting pat with our 10, knowing we have a pretty good league and pretty satisfied with each other and see where that leads in the short term and the long  term but I think we’ll be successful.

SienaSaintsBlog: What sort of expanded commitment should fans look forward to with ESPN3? 

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: We’re going to have a 43-game package between the U and ESPN3 this year. Dan Shoemaker the Vice President for ESPN that we deal with out of their Charlotte office was at our meetings and told the coaches and AD’s that. We’re doing to do a slightly different format on our preseason awards show. This previous year we did it in Springfield as part of our opening of the MAAC experience at the Basketball Hall of Fame and we did a fairly extended broadcast as part of that show. This year we’re going to take it to a whole other level. We’re going to move it to the opening games for the two previous years winners – so the opening game at Marist for the women’s side and the opening game at Loyola on the men’s side.

We’re going to do a half-hour pregame show that does all the award winners and such, has some features in it from last year and some predictions about this coming year. Then after we do our show, we’ll do a banner unfurling at each of the schools for the previous year, and then we’ll have a non-conference opponent matchup and broadcast it on ESPN3. So we’ll do a show, the awards ceremony and then a game and they will be backed up on each other so one game will start at 6pm and the other will start at 9pm.

SienaSaintsBlog: Is this year’s tournament result, Iona losing but drawing an at-large bid thus increasing the NCAA tournament shares for the conference, the optimal scenario?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: The optimum is that we get multiple bids regardless of who wins or loses. I don’t necessarily think that it’s optimal that the in-season champion loses in the tournament, it just happened this time around that that worked out for us with the at-large selection. That was because Iona made a major commitment to scheduling and won quite a few of those games. Whether that was down in Puerto Rico or during the season, and then they had the BracketBuster game two weeks before our tournament, we know the NCAA Men’s Basketball committee was watching because they told us. I think when they won that game going away, given what else they had done during the course of the year, I think that weighed heavily on the committee’s mind when they selected them as an at-large.

We’ve had many scenarios in the past where our regular season winner could have lost and could have gotten an at-large just because their schedule wasn’t tough enough and they didn’t have enough requisite wins that you need. We do have the failsafe there that you get an NIT bid automatically if your team doesn’t get an at-large to the NCAA, so you do know you’re going to get multiple teams in postseason in that scenario but I think we’d rather see us getting at-larges regularly because of our strength of schedule and our ability to win those games.

And then just the general commitment the league has made to postseason play, we don’t talk about it a lot but we now fund eight postseason home games that a school is able to secure through some of the other events; the CBI and the CIT for instance. We also give support to away games in those tournaments. Our coaches, both the men and women, have told us that the funding has really helped them because a lot of schools at the mid-major level when they get to the point where they’re invited to the tournament and get an option to host a home game, they’ll pass  on it because there’s an expense associated with that you have to fund the home game

The MAAC really stepped up two years ago and decided to fund those through our operating budget.  So the question wouldn’t be you have to go to your President and ask for additional funding in order to have postseason success. We want our schools to have postseason success, it helps the next year, that helps with our profile and it helps with our broadcasting. That has turned out to be a successful and well-received program.

SienaSaintsBlog: Thoughts on the outcome of the court case: Marist v. Matt Brady, their former Coach and Siena alum?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: It was a difficult situation, obviously Matt Brady is also a Siena grad and he just hired Mike Deane as an assistant coach so we’ve known Matt for a long time. When he left Marist, Marist as I understand it, was fine with him leaving there were provisions in the contract that allowed that. The problem became with Marist was that the allegation that he also, in making the move to James Madison, took recruits with him and players that were on the team, in effect damaging Marist’s ability to have a competitive team for a number of years. I think that is an important issue.

There should be an honesty between a coach and a school that says I appreciate the fact that you’ve given me the opportunity to succeed here – I have an opportunity to go to the next level, and we’ve had that in many number of instances – but I’m not going to raid your team to field the next program I have to operate. I think the President at Marist, Dr. Murray, felt strongly that it was underhanded to move in that direction and felt it was important enough to litigate. In effect, it was successful, because James Madison who was a party to the suit at some point had both apologized for what occurred acknowledged they weren’t’ aware of it and paid some damages and then the court did rule that Matt did violate his contract. While they didn’t award damages and Marist didn’t appeal that, I think there is a principle that you can’t just walk away and take everything with you and have no consequences.

SienaSaintsBlog: Does it concern you that one of your member schools would sue their former coach?

Rich Ensor, MAAC Commissioner: Not generally. Frankly, the MAAC has had to file lawsuits against schools itself. We filed against LaSalle 20 years ago because they didn’t want to pay their exit fee when they left the MAAC. You see that happening in a number of cases nationwide right now. While nobody likes to do it, occasionally it happens and for the right reasons it’s justified.