Three Thoughts: Iona 89, Marist 67

Coming out in a zone against Iona at the Hynes Center seems more than counterintuitive, it seems flat out dumb. The Gaels are the fourth-best three-point shooting team in the country (41.6%), and added for degree of difficulty and depth, betting against Iona in a shooting competition is certainly a losing proposition.

But Mike Maker is not dumb. And, despite the fact that Sunday was the Marist first-year coach’s inaugural matchup with Iona (they play again in two weeks), Maker thought his zone might just be the way to confuse and slow down the Gaels, who entered 38-4 in home MAAC games under Tim Cluess.

Alas, in the end, it didn’t quite work as Iona rolled to an 89-67 victory on 1.29 points per possession and 15-27 from beyond the arc. But it wasn’t as silly a plan as you might think, and Iona might see it again.

The problems for Marist came with physics and trigonometry (this is college, after all). A.J. English was a focal point and still hit two three-pointers from 25 feet or more in the first four minutes. They were the only points he would score, but it brought Marist out so far to account for him that its zone became much bigger and therefore left more area open for people like David Laury to work in.

Which is why the most important person in a successful zone like Syracuse’s is the rim protector. However, Sunday, when it was David Laury against either Eric Truog or Connor McClenaghan, there was only going to be one winner, and Laury finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists.

Speaking of assists, when the Red Foxes (5-19, 4-10) went to aid on Laury, Schadrac Casimir found himself open. Initially, in a bit of a shooting slump (5 for his last 22 from beyond arc), Casimir passed up a couple of opportunities, but soon he was scoring at will, finishing with 33 points on 9-14 three-point shooting. It was the third time this season he had eight or more threes, and his nine tied a Division I high this season (against Division I opposition). English finished with 11 assists as the Gaels (18-6, 11-2) had an outrageous 29 assists on 33 field goals and remained unbeaten at home this season.

“It gave us some space and I thought our guys moved the ball well against the zone,” Cluess said. “They’ve been very successful with their zone and today, our guys made shots. If we hadn’t, it would have been a much closer, tighter game.”

So, no, on this day, Marist’s zone did not work against Iona (which has only two home games left, against Manhattan and Monmouth). And the odds of it working are probably smaller with Isaiah Williams returns, and according to Cluess after the game, it looks like it will be the final weekend of the MAAC regular season (Feb. 27-March 1). He said it could be the week before if everything goes perfectly, but he still has a way to go and was still in a boot on the bench Sunday. But I thought it was a decent idea.

And might it work on a March day in Albany (Alas, the two highest block percentages in the MAAC – Ousmane Drame and Brice Kofane – play almost no zone)? Well, that (and about 10 other things) will be interesting to see in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, here are my other thoughts from the Hynes Center:

1. Iona’s defense still might hold the key – Cluess was upset, as he should have been, with some mistakes in the second half that eventually let Chavaughn Lewis score five points in four seconds after he scored, Iona threw the ball back to him as he was running back down the court, then hit a three-pointer. That brought Marist within 56-51 with 13:05 left, but the Iona defense clamped down the rest of the way and the Gaels pulled away.

Cluess got 25 minutes out of Ibn Muhammed, 28 from Kelvin Amayo, and 23 from Ryden Hines, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Muhammed and Amayo, especially, are defensive forces who can take some of the pressure off the other players. Marist finished at 0.97 ppp, the fourth time in five games the Gaels have held an opponent under 1 ppp, and it’s probably not a coincidence they’ve won five straight. And it’s their defense that will help them survive a poor offensive night in Albany.

“I think we lose guys sometimes,” Cluess said. “Sometimes we don’t have good recognition, and we let the better players on the other teams get easy ones when those are the guys that we should be taking away, and then we can make their third, fourth, fifth options be the one to make shots. And if that guy does it? Good for them on that day. I’d rather have our guys rest on the bench than rest on defense.”

2. Poor Chavaughn Lewis  – Lewis’ Sunday will be remembered by most as the guy who was posterized by Kelvin Amayo in what has to be the MAAC Dunk of the Year, although there are a couple of other candidates. But Lewis also had 24 points, the fifth straight game he’s scored 20 or more, and he has scored at least 18 in every game except for when he was injured against Monmouth and played only two minutes.

Perhaps more importantly, Lewis passed Rik Smits for second on Marist’s all-time scoring list and has a very good chance to beat Steve Smith’s 1983 record before the season ends. Lewis is at 1,948 points and Smith’s record is 2,078, meaning Lewis needs 131 points in the Red Foxes’ final (at least) seven games.

Marist has a tough schedule the rest of the way, but I think they are good for at least a couple more victories.

3. Little acts of sportsmanship – Not much happens at the end of blowouts. Iona spent most of the last few minutes trying to get graduate student Kristian Duravcevic his first points of the season. But as it was clear Iona wasn’t going to shoot on the last possession, Vangelis Bebis went over to shake the hand of Marist’s Obi Momah, but Momah refused. Again, Bebis tried, but Momah this time pushed his hand away. Shades of the previous Saturday developing again?

Well, as it turned out, Momah was just taking the “play until the final buzzer” thing seriously, and why not for a freshman trying to make a name for himself? Or maybe he’s a big English soccer fan and Jose Mourinho hater.

As soon as the buzzer sounded, Momah sought out Bebis, patted him on the shoulder, and shook his hand warmly. No hard feelings.