For a team like Iona, whose bench plays the 11th fewest minutes of any team in the country, losing any of the starters is akin to disaster.
So far the Gaels have managed through their loss of junior Isaiah Williams to a foot injury, whose return date is unknown at this time. The team split two games on their Buffalo trip to Niagara and Canisius, without the 6’7″ junior who ranks in the top 10 in the conference in nine statistical categories. Those include scoring (14.2 ppg), rebounding (6.4 rpg), field goal percentage (52.2%), steals (1.8) and leading the league in three-point field goal percentage (46.4%) among others.
Despite the absence of Williams, Iona managed to beat Niagara, but scored 74 points in their four-point loss to the Golden Griffins. That output was one point off their season-low from the second game of the season at Wofford. The injury has forced Cluess to make plenty of adjustments to the lineup, but also to almost every role on the team.
“It’s almost like you’re starting the season over right now as far as what you have to do and where you have to put certain guys,” Cluess said. “They need to learn quickly.”
Over the course of the Buffalo swing, senior David Laury and junior A.J. English accounted for 61.5% of the team’s points. However even the 6’9″ Laury noticed how Williams’ absence forced him to work harder to get as many baskets as he did.
“That energy has to be made up in other ways, that he provides on the court,” Laury said of Williams. “If you got beat on the play or something like that, he’s going to be there some how, some way, to make that play to help us out.”
In order for the Gaels to hold onto the top of the MAAC, they will need to piece together replacements for the variety of ways that Williams produces.
“He masked some of our other problems because his effort was probably the best energy on our team,” Cluess said. “We might make mistakes somewhere else and he made up for it out of his play, now you don’t have that, so now someone being out of position a little bit gets magnified even more.”
While English and Laury might appear to be the most irreplaceable parts, Williams is an even harder presence to replicate. Whether that’s placing a new player at the top of their press to grab steals, placing a different player in the team’s variety of zone defenses, the 6’7″ junior gave the Gaels a presence that helped combat matchup problems. Laury said that the junior “can guard all five positions,” and losing him will damage their versatility.
“We try to sit there and say if everybody could do one play on each end better, than what they were doing, we’ll make up for Isaiah, but that’s how much he was a factor for us,” Cluess said. “That’s nine guys, I think we have that are active right now, so we need nine guys making nine better offensive plays and nine better defensive plays.”
Meanwhile, the fourth year head coach of the Gaels sees this as an opportunity for a player on the bench to deliver and become a piece to the team’s run, though Cluess would be satisfied if he could replace Williams’ production by committee.
“We have several guys that maybe can one could help us in rebounding, one could help us in shooting, one could help us in defense, someone else could handle the ball and keep our break going,” Cluess said. “I think that’s what it’s going to be for us is a product of the pieces that we have left giving us what they can with the utmost amount of energy.”
For Iona that means trying to get more out of Kelvin Amayo who will step into the lineup from a bench role, the Gaels have confidence that they can make up the production. Sophomore Ryden Hines, who entered the starting lineup in late December, has provided a 6’10” presence that should help make up for the loss of Williams’ versatility. However, Cluess would like more production from the bench, which means working graduate transfer Jeylani Dublin (2.2 ppg/1.2 rpg), freshman Vangelis Bebis and junior Ibn Muhammad among others into larger roles.
“I think it helps us too because, by the end of this period of time, we’re going to know which of those guys, if any, can play and which ones can’t play at all,” Cluess said. “If everything goes well and Isaiah is back playing at the end of the season in the playoffs then we’re going to sit there and go, ‘Okay well this guy and this guy gave us a good lift during that time.’ They can play in this situation and they can play in the playoffs where other guys are going to know we can’t even look at them.”
The Laury said that he knows that his teammates sometimes get stuck in watching he and English handle the ball, but in order to overcome Williams’ presence they will need to involve their teammates in their up-and-down style.
“Me and A.J. have to find a better way to get those guys involved, get them touching the ball more,” Laury said. “What we can’t have is, us throwing the ball and then like people have opportunities and they don’t take those opportunities. That’s what we try to do is keep those guys aggressive and on the attack.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.