Our culture can be weird, man. Well yeah, of course, just take a walk down the street sometime, I know.
But in this case, I’m talking about the culture of mid-major Division I basketball. Consider what Tim Cluess and Iona have done the past two seasons in the MAAC, now 33-5, winning the 11-team league last season by two full games and now having a three-game advantage over the other 10 schools with only two games to go.
This season, the coaches tabbed Iona to win the league in the preseason, but it was far from unanimous, the Gaels got six of 11 first-place votes. They then proceeded to lose their MAAC opener at Monmouth before going on a fairly remarkable streak, winning 16 of their last 17 in the league, the 16th coming Sunday as Iona overcame a 16-point second-half deficit against that same Monmouth team, finding a way to prevail 69-68 and capture its second straight MAAC regular season title.
Oh, and they’ve played the last 12 games (and won the last 10) without junior Isaiah Williams, who was one of the most efficient players in the nation (third in KenPom) before going down with a foot injury, and have also won games without likely first-team MAAC performers David Laury and A.J. English, who were serving suspensions.
That’s pretty awesome and deserves to be celebrated, right? But you’ll notice I added the qualifier “regular season” before those titles two paragraphs ago. Because if the Gaels slip up in Albany in two weeks, they’ll be considered a flop. As a gutsy and talented Monmouth team showed Sunday, the gap between Iona and the rest of the league is not enough that it would be a huge shock if the Gaels were to fall in the three games it will have to prevail in on a neutral court to be the “real” MAAC champion, the one that advances to the main stage of the NCAA tournament.
Cluess and Iona know that all too well, of course. Last season after grinding out a regular season champion, they fell to Manhattan in the MAAC final. In 2013, the Gaels limped to an 11-7 mark and No. 4 seed in Springfield … and then won the tournament. The year before that, Iona won the MAAC by two games only to be knocked off by Fairfield in the semifinals, and then somewhat surprisingly be given an at-large NCAA bid (and lose to BYU in Dayton).
Although there are some similarities in the 2012 and 2015 resumes, barring something unforseen, Iona will need to win the MAAC Tournament to make the NCAAs this season. But before we get into matchups and ways Iona might be had in Albany, let’s take a moment to recognize the accomplishments of the now two-time defending conference champs.
They’ve earned it.
“We have a number of goals that we strive for and that’s (MAAC regular season title) our first major one,” Cluess said. “In all fairness, I think it’s a lot harder to do that than anything else that we’ll do. That tells you what you’ve been like for four months not what you’re like for three days.”
Here are my other three thoughts from the Hynes Center, where Iona remains unbeaten this season and 40-4 in MAAC games under Cluess:
1. Time to worry about Iona’s offense? – Iona has been in the top 20 nationally in offensive efficiency in each of the past three seasons, and was this season until recently, when a rash of mediocre performances have pushed the Gaels all the way down to 39th (gasp!). A.J. English has hit just two of his last 17 three-pointers (and broke a streak of 14 straight misses in the second half Sunday), while Iona’s offense was extremely stagnant against Monmouth’s zone with the exception of the quick 23-4 burst that got them back into the game early in the second half. In its last five games (all wins), the highest points per possession the Gaels posted was 1.09 against Fairfield.
Isaiah Williams should return Friday against Manhattan, and that will give Iona’s offense a huge boost, although it remains to be seen how close to 100% he is. Luckily, the defense has picked up the slack.
“Of course, you worry about our offense, but you also have to be realistic,” Cluess said. “I mean look who we’re putting out there. Really, our third best scorer (Williams) hasn’t played in 12 games. He’s a guy who makes a difference. If you have one more guy out there who stretches the floor in a certain area, think of how wide open our driving lanes become. Right now, teams have done a good job of making certain guys hit shots. The first number of games without him (Williams), guys were making them. Now our guys are struggling a little bit in that area. My most important thing is the only way we’re going to win in this stretch is with our defense and we’ve done that.”
2. Monmouth has in inferiority complex, in a good way – King Rice seemed a little upset that Iona celebrated as much as it did (the reasons to do that are stated above), but Monmouth has proven all season long that it is a contender, and will continue to be one as we head toward Albany. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that the Hawks were second-favorite before Sunday, and that was obviously only strengthened. Justin Robinson (who looked like he gave up a inch to Schadrac Casimir when they stood side by side) is as tough as anyone in the league, Brice Kofane is second in the MAAC in block percentage, and Rice can call on depth from a number of sources. They’re not perfect, and not a great shooting team, but they are obviously a far cry from the Hawks team that lost 11 of its final 12 games last season. And if playing the inferiority card keeps his team motivated, who is going to begrudge Rice.
“I’ve been telling everybody we’re getting better,” Rice said. “Eighty percent of our team is sophomores. We are coming. We’re not just coming to be a part of the party, we’re coming after everybody. We’re still a little young right now, but we’re coming. I think you ask everybody else and they notice that we’re coming. They (Iona) seemed pretty excited to get the win today. The kids, the coaches, everybody, they jumped around.”
3. Small margins – One of the keys Sunday was David Laury being able to play in foul trouble. After picking up his third foul with four minutes left in the first half, Laury played all 20 minutes of the second half without picking up another despite a tight whistle from the officials that led to 49 combined free throws between the teams. Laury finished with 24 points and just three rebounds, partly due to the fact that he was being very careful.
“It (having three fouls) really made me upset because I was so skeptical of challenging Robinson when he was making his moves, so it was hurting my team, like when our bigs kept getting split on double-teams. I wanted to try to step up and block it so bad, but I knew that Coach told me, ‘You’ve got to understand that your production on the floor, we need that more than you trying to block a shot.’”
Trailing 68-66 with 40 seconds left, A.J. English was just 5-16 from the field, drove at Max DiLeo with the shot clock running down, looked like he was going for a step back, but faked again, DiLeo jumped, and English not only drew contact, but threw a line drive in from 18 feet to tie the game and the subsequent free throw was the winning point.
“There was definitely some contact,” DiLeo said. “I use that play all the time. I really thought he was going to do like he did against Manhattan and fake like he was going and then pull up. I bit on it. He makes game-winning plays and that was a tough shot.”
DiLeo had one more chance to win it at the buzzer, but his 12-footer went off the back of the rim and Iona had survived. Small margins, indeed.
Bonus) Iona and defense – This was the eighth time in nine games that Iona held an opponent under 1.00 point per possession (Monmouth finished at 0.99 when DiLeo’s shot fell off the rim). Iona has creeped up to 195th in defensive efficiency, which if the Gaels can finish there would be the best Iona defense since 2010-11, Cluess’ first year in New Rochelle.