On a night when Iona was without preseason player of the year David Laury, the Gaels dispelled some early concern following a loss at Monmouth by outrunning Rider in a 77-64 victory Wednesday evening.
Junior guard A.J. English poured in 30 points for the second straight game to lead all scorers while grabbing 14 rebounds for just his third career double-double as the Gaels improved to 1-1 in the MAAC.
Here are three thoughts from Wednesday night:
Iona’s lack of depth isn’t hurting them – yet. The big question before the players took the court was how the absence of David Laury would affect the Gaels. The 6’9″ senior was suspended for the game against Rider due to an undisclosed violation of team rules. Going into Wednesday’s matchup, Laury ranked first on the team with 7.4 rpg and second with 16.6 ppg.
With even head coach Tim Cluess admitting the Gaels weren’t getting enough production out of their bench earlier in the week, the concern seemed legitimate, especially since Rider would test them with a front court duo of Kahlil Thomas (6’7”) and Matt Lopez (7’0”).
That concern didn’t even last through the first half. Despite Laury’s absence, the Gaels controlled the pace throughout. Iona played to a pace of 1.14 points per possession through the first half while holding Rider to a paltry 0.78 PPP.
“That’s Iona basketball,” English said. “For three years now and watching coach Cluess for a while, that’s how he coaches; fast-paced. We try to get up and down and take advantage of mismatches and just outrun people.”
In fact, it seemed like the Gaels didn’t miss Laury much at all. They were out-rebounded by only three, scored just four fewer points in the paint than the Broncs (30-26), and held the front court duo of Thomas and Lopez to a mediocre 14 points combined.
“I thought we were able to take their size advantage out of the game,” Cluess said. “Our guys, especially Ryden Hines and Jeylani Dublin, did a great job working on Lopez. They got help from the other players, but they did a really nice job of meeting him early and not letting him establish great position. It looked like at the beginning of the second half they tried to establish inside and got a couple of plays. We were worried about that, but our guys stepped up and defended it.”
While Iona proved they could win without Laury, they didn’t fully answer concerns about their depth. Three of their regular starters accounted for 64 of the team’s 77 points. Junior Ibn Muhammad, normally coming off the bench, scored six points in his first start of the year – all on two 3-pointers within the first four minutes of the game. The Gaels will continue to be their high-flying selves this year and they have the firepower to do it, but the question of depth will follow them until the bench produces on a consistent basis.
Schadrac Casimir is not only running away with MAAC Rookie of the Year, he’s one of the top offensive threats in the conference. Another year, another star guard brought in by Cluess to keep the Iona wheels turning. Casimir leads all MAAC rookies in scoring and by a large margin. He heads the category with 16.3 ppg while his closest competition, Niagara’s Karonn Davis, trails far behind with 9.2 ppg.
Casimir’s impressive debut, a 20 point outburst against Cleveland State on opening night, was just a small sample of things to come. He turned heads by setting a rookie record with 40 points on 11-13 shooting while going 8-9 from beyond the arc in a 126-76 thrashing of Delaware State the night before Thanksgiving. He surpassed his debut outing with 29 points in the Gaels’ loss at Monmouth and nearly matched his debut with 19 points against Rider.
“That’s what he does,” teammate Isaiah Williams said of Casimir. “Everyone brings something to the table, and that’s what he does well.”
Iona continues to be one of the most potent offenses in the nation (currently fifth at 86.6 ppg), so it’s no surprise to see four of their players ranked in the top 10 amongst MAAC scorers. Casimir entered Wednesday ranked fifth in the conference behind teammates English and Laury. He also stands out as fourth in the conference in Offensive Rating and Effective field goal percentage according to KenPom.
Rider needs to be more assertive. Head coach Kevin Baggett lamented at the missed opportunity presented to him on a night when the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year was in street clothes.
“We’ve got a long way to go to get better,” Baggett said. “On a night where David Laury isn’t playing, we have to take advantage of that and we didn’t do it tonight. That’s discouraging. I’m happy [with where we are] in some areas, but in other areas we have a long way to go and a lot to do to get better.”
The Broncs fell behind early and trailed 40-28 at halftime. Iona quickly pounced after the break and opened up their largest lead of the night at 17 points less than two minutes into the second half. Rider was able to withstand the barrage and whittle the lead down to just six with 5:09 left in the game. However, the Broncs made just one more field goal down the stretch as they watched Iona draw away.
Iona’s press made things difficult for the Broncs, forcing 22 turnovers on the evening, a season-worst mark for Rider. The Broncs also gave the ball away 21 times in their previous game, an 80-68 victory over Siena. For Rider, taking a more aggressive approach to pressure should yield better results.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Baggett said. “That’s not the way we were playing early on. We were taking care of the ball, giving ourselves opportunities to score. Our guys, for whatever reason, were really hesitant against their pressure. We told them about it and we worked on it, but we decided in the second half to just go. We were more aggressive. We were playing too passive.”
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.