A.J. English entered the Christmas break as the leading Division I scorer in the nation, but he shot a combined 3-19 from the field and scored just 18 points combined as Iona struggled to beat Indiana State and then lost to George Mason in consecutive games.
Still, after English went for 22 in the first half (and finished with 27) as the Gaels pretty much eviscerated Atlantic Sun favorite Florida Gulf Coast 86-67 Tuesday at the Hynes Center, he remained philosophical. And exceedingly (perhaps delusionally) humble. Or maybe a little from Column A and a little from Column B.
“Everybody is telling me I had some tough games, I mean my numbers weren’t what they usually are, but I feel like it’s not about me,” English said. “I feel like I’m the fourth, fifth best player on the team. I just try to feed off my guys. Every game is not going to be a great game. At the end of the day, I just love playing basketball.”
When Iona coach Tim Cluess was informed English didn’t seem to be phased by his struggles of the past couple of weeks, he just shrugged.
“Now you know what I’m dealing with,” Cluess said. “Welcome to coaching.”
Welcome to Iona, the classic riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, where entertainment and talent are not in short supply, but consistency sometimes is.
Or is that just as apocryphal as English being the fourth of fifth best player on Iona?
One thing we do know is that — for those of us with short memories — is that it beats the alternative. It was only eight years ago that Iona finished 2-28 under poor Jeff Ruland and while Kevin Willard brought the program back to a high level, he never enjoyed the consistency that Cluess has been able to produce, now in his fifth season.
Did I say consistent? Well, Iona has won 20 games in each of Cluess’ first four campaigns, and has been nearly unbeatable at the Hynes Center, 37-4 in the last four seasons there after the rout of FGCU (and 49-7 total there under Cluess). They are seventh nationally in adjusted tempo this season and have finished no lower than 34th since Cluess took over. But even more impressive than that is the Gaels’ efficiency in those possessions: 27th, 17th, 19th, 7th, and 10th this season, respectively. That seems not only remarkably impressive, but consistent as well.
What makes Iona’s offensive numbers even more astounding is that their tempo is not a result of full-court pressure or taking bad shots just to push tempo. They just have better offensive players than most.
FGCU point guard Brett Comer of Dunk City fame found out the hard way how tough the Gaels can be to guard. Three minutes in – after English had already driven for a basket, Comer put a token hand in English’s face, which is the proper thing to do under normal circumstances when someone is 25 feet from the hoop. But English, with a high release, drained a three-pointer anyway and Comer could only do what many defenders do against Iona, shake his head.
With his size and athleticism, David Laury is basically unguardable 1-on-1 for most teams at this level, and he showed off his passing ability out of double-teams as well Tuesday. Clues gave Ryden Hines his second start of the season, ostensibly to give the Gaels a little more size, but also another shooting option. Even at 6’10”, 12 of Hines’ 13 field goal attempts this season have been from behind the arc (he’s now hit a respectable four), which gives Laury even more of the lane to operate in.
“It really helped us to be able to play big, and be able to score the ball while playing big,” Cluess said.
The game slowed down in the second half Tuesday, and Iona was very effective nonetheless, doing what they always seem to do, spreading the opponent out and knocking down shots.
“They are just so tough in transition,” Florida Gulf Coast coach Joe Dooley said. “In the first half, I thought English was the best player on the floor. In the second half, Laury dominated the game. So they’re just a matchup nightmare.”
In the second half, after Comer scored 20 in the first, Kelvin Amayo got more playing time and did an outstanding job of shutting FGCU’s star guard down. In fact, the Eagles scored just 11 points in the first 12 minutes after halftime.
“We sat there, and I know this sounds crazy, but we said if they’re going to beat us, he’s going to have to have 40,” Cluess said. “At halftime, we said, ‘He may get that.’ We were kind of letting him shoot and keying on other guys, and the second half we tried to cut him off and see if the other guys could score after not doing for a half and Kelvin Amayo — with a lot of help — did a great job.”
Defense really hasn’t been Iona’s thing under Cluess (with efficiency rankings of 198, 263, and 236 the last three seasons), but this season, it has been a real eyesore for the Gaels, 299th nationally even after Tuesday’s performance. And that seems to be what leads to the inconsistency in games that can be infuriating for fans when shots aren’t falling. The Gaels gave up 1.19 points per possession in a MAAC loss against Monmouth and 1.15 in a loss to George Mason (both on the road).
Some depth might help, Iona has three of the top five scorers in the MAAC currently (freshman Schadrac Casimir is fifth) and English is actually second in the league in assists, Iona is still averaging the sixth fewest bench minutes in the country despite getting 40 on Tuesday.
After two more road tests at Drexel and UMass, it’s 18 MAAC games to finish the season. The KenPom numbers say the Gaels will be favored in 17 of them (with a 1-point loss at Canisius).
Will they win that many? Probably not. But if recent history tells us anything, Iona’s lack of consistency will lead to another fairly consistent rise to the top of the MAAC standings by March.