For all the talk about Iona being nicknamed Transfer U, some of it deserved, the Gaels’ success under Tim Cluess over the past five seasons has not been solely about picking up talented players that other programs may not want for various reasons.
Consider the case of freshman Schadrac Casimir, who will likely be the MAAC Rookie of the Year in a few weeks. Casimir drew a little attention at Trinity Catholic in Stamford (Conn.), but at 5’10” (probably at least a couple inches shorter), teams that were tracking him were limited to schools like NC Central, Fairfield, and UMass-Lowell. After a year of prep school at South Kent, he drew a little more attention, but stayed loyal with the team that eventually wanted him most.
“(Assistant) Coach (Jared) Grasso actually knew his older brother,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “They had a relationship from the Quinnipiac days and that’s how it all started. I saw him a couple of times and we weren’t sure because of his slight build and I’m kind of a nut about how you shoot the ball, and I see this thing coming out from the left side. The first couple times I saw him, he didn’t really shoot it that well. I said, ‘I like him, but he’s this big and he can’t even shoot.’ Then we saw him after a year of prep school and he was a lot more consistent playing against players bigger than we see right now and he did very well. We can make up for certain deficiencies the way we play and he’s obviously been great for us.”
And that, friends, is how you go 68-17 in the MAAC (Cluess’ current conference record as a head coach). Casimir was not a kid that Iona stole from St. John’s or an Atlantic-10 school.
“You talk about that (the JUCO transfers), but we’ve had A.J. English, Schadrac, Sean Armand last year, Ryden Hines and Vangelis Bebis who both played plenty today have been with us all along,” Cluess said. “I think it’s easy for people who point in a direction and say, ‘Well, you do this.’”
Tuesday night, Casimir made sure his family and friends could see how far he’s come as a basketball player, as he scored 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the game against Fairfield. Although Casimir pointed out that his home in Stamford is actually five miles closer to Iona than Bridgeport (my GPS checked it out as 3.8 miles), he had played a few games in Webster Bank Arena, and in a big, empty stadium, Casimir’s fan section was clearly audible when he did something well.
In the end, he scored “only” 19 points on 7-11 shooting as Iona coasted to its sixth straight win (and 11th in its last 12 games) by pounding struggling Fairfield 72-57 in a game that was originally snowed out on Feb. 2. Casimir has now hit 13 of his last 19 three-pointers and the Gaels (19-6, 12-2) are two games clear of second-place Rider and three ahead of Manhattan, who they clash with Friday night at Draddy Gym.
“My teammates tell me to keep shooting,” Casimir said. “That gives me all the confidence I need.”
Here are my other thoughts from Webster Bank Arena Tuesday night:
1. Fairfield is lost at the moment – You may remember that the Stags started MAAC play 2-0 way back in December and were 4-3 after being Marist on Jan. 16, but this was their seventh straight loss and they were never in the game. Iona was able to go into playground mode early in the second half, able to throw behind-the-back passes and the like with relative impunity because the Stags (6-18, 4-10) just couldn’t score. Fairfield finished 5-31 from beyond the arc and had 0.86 points per possession against an Iona defense that has left a bit to be desired this season. In fact, the 57 and 58 points the Stags scored against Iona are the two lowest point totals against the gaels this season (North Texas also scored 58).
Fairfield’s struggles are always exacerbated in cavernous Webster Bank Arena. Obviously, this was a make-up game so there is some excuse for the tiny crowd, but this looks like it will be the second straight season that the Stags will finish near the bottom of the MAAC.
Even Marcus Gilbert, who came in with 58 points in his last two games, looked lost, regularly passing up shots and getting his only field goal (and points) on a three-pointer late in the game. (Somehow Mike Kirkland was a major bright spot, finishing with 23 points and 13 rebounds). As with other teams that are struggling this late in the season, Sydney Johnson is still tinkering with rotations and minutes, and that’s not usually a good sign, especially when your offense is ranked 319th in efficiency (and 10th in the MAAC, only Marist is worse, but much of that was before they got healthy). The Stags have Quinnipiac and Manhattan this weekend, so things may get worse before they have any chance to get better, although half their MAAC wins this season have come against … Quinnipiac and Manhattan.
2. Concern about A.J. English? – English was in single digits for the second straight game since returning from his suspension, filling up the stat sheet with eight rebounds, six assists, and six turnovers, but only nine points. As Cluess pointed out, they didn’t really need English to score in either of the last two games, and he’s not worried about a shooting slump.
“It’s really tough when you have the vision that A.J. has, he sees so many different things happening for different people and he’s trying to keep those guys happy when he scores,” Cluess said. “Guys who don’t see it take more shots because they don’t see what’s going on. And he’ll find the right balance depending how teams are playing him.”
3. More time for Amayo? – Kelvin Amayo has been the biggest beneficiary of Isaiah Williams being out until the end of the month. Williams missed his eighth straight game with a foot injury on Tuesday and Amayo actually tied with Casimir for the team lead with 19 points, able to get to the rim seemingly at will against a lackluster Fairfield defense. Amayo gives the Gaels a physical presence on the defensive end as well, and it’s probably not coincidental that the Iona defense is much improved since his minutes increased. But Cluess has a few weeks to figure out how to divide up the minutes upon Williams’ return.
For now, we can just enjoy Amayo’s dunks. He had another at the end of the game Tuesday, although it wasn’t nearly as flashy as the one that landed him all over SportsCenter against Marist.
“I woke up Monday and had like hundreds of texts,” Amayo said. “It’s great for me, but it’s really great for the school. It’s not about the name on the back.”