Saturday, December 20, 2014

Iona/George Mason Preview

Sophomore Jalen Jenkins, whose 75-footer beat Manhattan three weeks ago, hopes for similar flair for dramatic against Iona. (Photo courtesy of George Mason University)

The last time George Mason hosted a team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, this happened: (Video courtesy of CBS Sports' Matt Norlander)

Their next opponent, although from the same league as Manhattan, is a completely different animal, though.

At 6-3 on the year, Iona is once again an offensive juggernaut under Tim Cluess, relying on contributions from all-MAAC honorees David Laury and A.J. English to lead a group also bolstered by Schadrac Casimir and Isaiah Williams. However, George Mason, who hosts the Gaels tonight at the Patriot Center, is a complete opposite at 3-6, responding from their dramatic win over the Jaspers with losses to Old Dominion and Northern Iowa before their 33-point win over Division II Catawba College.

Sharpshooter Patrick Holloway and sophomore Marquise Moore pace the backcourt for Paul Hewitt's Patriots, who have gotten a major boost up front with junior college transfer Shevon Thompson joining Manhattan hero Jalen Jenkins to average a double-double per contest. However, with Erik Copes having departed the team earlier in the week, George Mason's frontcourt depth, which is something the Patriots needed to focus on in defending Laury and Williams, takes somewhat of a hit.

The last time these two teams squared off against one another, Iona jumped on the accelerator and never looked back, opening their rout of George Mason last November at the Hynes Center on a 34-5 run. That game was one of the many things we spoke to our favorite Patriots expert, Alan Kelly of, about in his second pregame Q&A session with us this season. Alan also broke down the George Mason/Manhattan matchup three weeks ago before bedlam ensued in Fairfax, and this is what he offered in regard to the 2006 Cinderella meeting the maroon and gold attack from New Rochelle:

Jaden Daly: What has been the biggest difference in how George Mason has played since returning from Puerto Rico?

Alan Kelly: The main difference I've seen is a more consistent level of play being sustained throughout (most of) each game. The play is still uneven at times, and there are still defensive and offensive lapses, but the lapses are usually shorter, limited to just a few possessions in a row, rather than snowballing for long periods of the game. That change probably starts with sophomore point guard Marquise Moore, who has shaken off a very rough start to average 16 points in the last four games, while increasing his steals and assists and decreasing his turnovers. George Mason has also gotten some big individual games from frontcourt players like Jalen Jenkins (24 points versus Manhattan) and Shevon Thompson (29 points against D-II Catawba). Early in the season, the offense was Patrick Holloway or bust, and that wasn't sustainable. Now that more players are getting involved in the scoring, fans just have to hope that all the pieces will start clicking on the same night. We saw some of that on Wednesday against Catawba, with six players in double figures, but that was to be expected against a Division II foe.

JD: On that note, how much has changed from last year's George Mason team that Iona opened on a 34-5 run against last year?

AK: The two big changes are a significant loss of backcourt offensive firepower, and a significant infusion of height and length, especially to the frontcourt. Mason lost close to half of their scoring from last season with the graduation of 1,500-point scorer Sherrod Wright and 1,000-point scorer Bryon Allen. Paul Hewitt has gone from a guard laden team to one that needs to score lots of points in the paint in order to win, and this has forced him to move away from his preferred 4-out, 1-in offense to an offense that uses two post players more often. The newcomers in the frontcourt, 6-11 junior college transfer Shevon Thompson and 6-10 freshman Trey Porter, have been feast or famine for the Patriots offensively. Thompson has scored over 20 points twice in the last six games, but also had an 0-8 goose egg against Manhattan. The Patriots have also increased their size in the backcourt with the addition of 6-6 freshman guard Isaiah Jackson and with significantly increased playing time for 6-6 senior wing Vaughn Gray.

JD: How much does the mid-season departure of Erik Copes affect the Patriots' defense of David Laury?

AK: It probably doesn't have a big impact in Mason's ability to defend Laury, because Copes hadn't proven himself to be a reliable contributor this season. There were a few games where he provided great energy on the defensive end of the floor, but their were also games where he picked up two quick fouls and went right back to the bench (a problem that plagued him throughout his career at Mason). The main defensive change will be that 6-10 freshman center Trey Porter will see increased playing time. While Shevon Thompson has entrenched himself as the starting center by averaging 11.4 points and 10.6 rebounds, Porter has been the more consistent defender and his role has been expanding. The freshman is second on the team in blocks despite averaging less than 14 minutes per game. Sophomore forward Jalen Jenkins, who leads the team in blocks, will continue to be another important piece of the defense, and junior forward Marko Gujanicic may also see increased time. Junior forward Julian Royal, another newcomer, will miss the game (and possibly the rest of the season) after undergoing surgery on his hand.

JD: Besides the possible shootout between Patrick Holloway and Schadrac Casimir, what other matchups are worth watching?

AK: The big one for me is Shevon Thompson versus the Iona frontcourt. The junior has become a rebounding machine in his first season at Mason, using his size and height to abuse smaller or less-skilled interior players. He had 19 rebounds against New Mexico last month, and easily collected 10 in reduced minutes against Catawba on Wednesday night. But he's still adjusting to Division I basketball, so it will be a good test to see how well he performs against a taller, heavier roster like Iona. If he can't limit Iona's second chance opportunities, it could be a long night for the Patriots.

JD: Finally, what are the keys to victory against Iona's offensive juggernaut?

AK: I'm not sure how to diagnose Mason's defense anymore. It is what it is. It's not terrible, but it's not good, either, and they will give up too many open looks around the perimeter. Everyone knows Iona's going to score. The big question is whether Mason's offense can keep pace. The Patriots have yet to break 70 points on the season against D-I competition, but Iona's defense gives up almost 79 per game. The first key is that Mason has to start making their free throws. They're shooting 63.8% for the season from the charity stripe, and those are points they can't afford to give away. Second, the Patriots need to keep their composure on offense. They have a tendency to tense up in high-pressure situations and get away from what's working. They can't let Iona's fast pace pressure them into rushing bad shots, and they can't afford to have lengthy scoring droughts. Lastly, they need to find a way to get Patrick Holloway going. He's been blanketed on the perimeter quite effectively in recent games, and while he's been able to drive around that coverage for mid-range shots, those looks haven't been falling for him. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Harrison, St. John's erase 15-point deficit in 53-47 win over Saint Mary's

D'Angelo Harrison led No. 20 St. John's with 21 points as Red Storm came back from down 15 to defeat Saint Mary's 53-47. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)


You would not have seen this from a St. John’s team from last year.

Down 15 at halftime, No. 20 St. John’s rallied back big-time, outscoring Saint Mary’s 35-14 in the second half to defeat the Gaels 53-47 on Friday night at Carnesecca Arena.

“In my coaching career, I would guess this was no better example of the phrase, ‘tale of two halves,’” head coach Steve Lavin said. “The numbers reflect that this was as dramatic of two halves that I could recall in my time here.”

Their 9-1 start is St. John’s best start under Lavin, and his personal best in 17 years.

“When you look at the schedule and you put W’s and L’s on it in the preseason, there were combinations of 9-1, 9-2, undefeated,” Lavin said. “We felt we let Gonzaga slip away…it’s an interesting thing.

Senior guard D’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm’s only consistent member of the evening, had 21 points as his side out-battled a Saint Mary’s team anchored by Brad Waldow, who continued his stellar senior season with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

Our team’s always going to fight,” Harrison said. “Coach said we have to play, and that first half wasn’t St. John’s basketball. They scored 14 points in the second half. That was St. John’s basketball.

Along with Harrison, Sir’Dominic Pointer, who came alive in the second half, helped seal an impressive come-from-behind win. Pointer, who helped ice the game at the line, scored all 11 of his points in the second half, adding gritty play and defensive fortitude to help spark St. John’s to the win. 

St. John’s was settling for outside looks, relying on finesse to try and open up the Saint Mary’s defense. The problem was, their decision-making was subpar and their shots were not falling. Shooting almost 48 percent from the field in their last four games, St. John’s started just 2-for-15. Pointer summed it up St. John’s first half perfectly: “I don’t know.”

Saint Mary’s plan was simple: get the ball down low to Brad Waldow. The 6’10” forward, who is averaging a double-double a night, was getting started early, recording 11 of Saint Mary’s first 15 points as the Gaels opened up a nine-point first half lead thanks to a 14-1 run.

Trailing by as much as 10 with seven minutes left in the first half, St. John’s defense was trying to hold things together while the offense sputtered. Harrison had eight of the Red Storm’s first 10, but there was no supporting cast. While the NCAA’s second-leading active scorer went 3-of-6 in the first half, the rest of St. John’s shot just 1-for-14 from the field. 

Harrison hit foul trouble, picking up his third foul with two and a half minutes left in the first half. While he sat, the offense recorded just five points, heading to the locker room down 33-18.

Waldow was simply unstoppable, netting 19 in the first half, mixing a powerful inside game with an impressive showing from the mid-range.

I thought our players were too uptight and were caring too much,” Lavin said. “It sometimes creates anxiety…it’s paralysis from analysis. The only way to get through that is turning up the heat defensively and try to get a string of stops.”

Storming out of the gates to start the second half, St. John’s looked rejuvenated. The flat first half performance was exorcised, legs were moving, and the Red Storm began the half on a 7-0 run. 

Pointer and Phil Greene IV recorded their first points in the early stages of the second half as the St. John’s offense finally started reverting to their usual play. Six-and a half-minutes into the final stanza, Saint Mary’s lead shrunk from 15 to four, as the St. John’s run peaked at 15-4.

The pace belonged to the home side, which slowed things down while the defense was active as the equalizer and soon, the lead, seemed inevitable.

“Double zero (Waldow) kept scoring. So we kept taking out the rim,” Harrison said. “It just changed the whole game. You hate to put yourself in that position, but the crowd was great today and the energy was there after every basket."

Waldow tried to regain his first half form as he proved to be the main wrench in St. John’s comeback plans, but a putback from Chris Obekpa tied things up at 41 with just under nine minutes to play. After a pair of offensive rebounds, Pointer, who became the Red Storm talisman of the second half, drew a foul, sinking both free throws to give St. John’s their first lead since it was 5-3.

What was already an unnaturally chippy game for a pair of out of conference opponents, St. John’s seizing of the lead was getting under Saint Mary’s skin as their play grew progressively erratic. A pesky defense began disrupting Waldow as the decibels at Carnesecca Arena continued to increase.

Obekpa, who added eight points and seven assists, picked up his fourth foul with seven minutes to play, but stayed out there as Lavin put Pointer in front of Waldow to provide defensive relief for St. John’s big man.

“I pride myself on defense,” Pointer said. “I’m smaller, I can jump, they’d have to lob it over to me and Obepka could block shots.”

It worked. Pointer disrupted entry play to the post, limiting Obekpa’s range, allowing him to block shots down low. Waldow recorded just seven points in the second half.

“They put a smaller guy on me…it was more difficult to catch the ball in the paint [because Pointer was] in front of me,” Waldow said.

Shutting down Waldow proved to shut down Saint Mary’s, as they could not find a way to pull back.

“It’s tough, we go through adversity all season. We have to work on being a tighter and tougher team,” Waldow said.

Saint Mary’s has now dropped three of their last four, and sits at 6-3 on the season.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday Festival: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK CITY­ - The MSG (for years, the ECAC) Holiday Festival brought four teams with different agendas: St. John’s, off to a surprisingly start in possession of a national ranking, Manhattan, Rutgers and Fordham all trying to find their way early in the season. The focus on this December afternoon was the present campaign. Still, there was a hint of nostalgia permeating the air.

Part of it had to do with the honoring of legends at halftime of the St.John’s-­Fordham nightcap, coaches and players from a few decades back who made their mark and also contributed to Garden lore.

Nostalgia was also evident and remembering this tournament in its rich past, from the days of an eight-team field starting just after Christmas, a time when the hustle and bustle of the season seemed to subside, yet people were still in a festive holiday spirit. Later, the tournament was reduced to four teams, usually St. John’s, a national out-of-area representative and a few local schools. Later, it took on more of a local flavor. Today, it is in its present format: No tournament elimination per se, just a doubleheader with area programs as a highlight.

There was a time when this was a prestigious event of national prominence. Teams hoped for an invitation and capturing the title put you in the conversation regarding the best teams in the land. Today, that is not the case, as the festival as we knew it moved on.

This is not to degrade, only cite change. Teams still relish the invitation to appear at the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena.’ The respective teams utilize the competition to gauge what is needed to improve for their respective conference competition. Rutgers (over Manhattan) and St. John’s, handling Fordham, were the respective victors on a day we concentrated on the present, while remembering a wonderful past with cherished memories.

Fordham enters Madison Square Garden just before halftime of the first contest:
Rutgers dance team members engage in a "selfie" during halftime of their game against Manhattan. Also, yours truly posed with the dance team at the half:
Manhattan in the huddle before starting the second half:
Coach Steve Masiello of Manhattan calls a play:
Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan meets the media following a hard-fought victory over Manhattan:
Off the ball action: Fordham's Eric Paschall looks for a space to cut to as Rysheed Jordan of St. John's defends:
Halftime honorees: From the left are Dee Rowe (UConn) and Jack Powers, (Manhattan) and from right to left are Billy Schaeffer, (St. John's) Darryl Brown, (Fordham) and Tom Young (Rutgers):

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Holiday Festival: Ray Floriani's Tempo-Free Analysis

Emmy Andujar and head coach Steve Masiello meet the media after Manhattan opened Holiday Festival against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)

NEW YORK CITY – Rutgers defeated Manhattan in the Holiday Festival opener at Madison Square Garden. A key factor in the contest was the second half. As Manhattan made a run, they could not take a lead nor draw even. Rutgers stayed ahead and closed it out from the free throw line.

Possessions: 63 (pedestrian pace)

Offensive Efficiency:

Rutgers 100

Manhattan 87

Four Factors:

eFG: Rutgers 49, Manhattan 40
FT Rate: Rutgers 61, Manhattan 49
OREB Pct: Rutgers 48, Manhattan 31
TO Rate: Rutgers 33, Manhattan 22

Manhattan enjoyed a 34­-26 lead in points in the paint, not a surprise. Shot charts revealed that in the second half. Manhattan scored 10 field goals, with the longest being a fifteen-footer. Rutgers was held to six second half field goals, four by Kadeem Jack. Free throw rate was a bit inflated on Rutgers' side as Manhattan was in a late game ‘fouling’ mode to extend the contest.

Rutgers turned the ball over one of every three possessions. Coach Eddie Jordan addressed that as the Scarlet Knights’ offense is still struggling while the defense is acceptable. Jordan pointed to holding Manhattan to a low field goal percentage and forcing turnovers. The defensive efficiency of the Scarlet Knights was outstanding as well.

Jack, a 6-­9 senior, led all with 24 points and an outstanding efficiency of 34. Jordan pointed out the need for Jack to be effective, as Rutgers hopes to do the same. He came through in a big way. The Jaspers were paced by Emmy Andujar, with 21 points and an efficiency of 23. Rutgers improved to 6­-4 while Manhattan is now 2­-6.

The second game saw St. John’s handily defeat Fordham 74-­53. The pace was in the moderate mid-sixties.

Possessions: Fordham 65, St. John’s 64

Offensive Efficiency:

St. John’s 116

Fordham 82

Four Factors:

eFG: St. John's 54, Fordham 44
FT Rate: St. John's 36, Fordham 35
OREB Pct: Fordham 35, St. John's 30 
TO Rate: Fordham 31, St. John's 13

With 3:48 to go in the first half, Chris Obekpa was finished for the afternoon after being assessed a second technical foul. When the 6­-10 junior center went to the bench, St. John’s led 28­-25. From that vantage point, the game changed drastically as the Red Storm exploded on the offensive end. The effective field goal rate and scarcity of turnovers (8 on the game) illustrate the efficiency of an offense checking in at 116.

Offense was fueled also by an outstanding defense. The Rams not only had a high 31% turnover rate, but 28 St. John’s points (a 28-­4 edge) came off Fordham turnovers.

Rysheed Jordan led all scorers with 24 points. The St. John’s sophomore guard also checked in with an efficiency of 28. While praising the play of Jordan, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin also spoke highly of the performance given by Jamal Branch. The senior guard scored only two points, but contributed seven assists against no turnovers in 25 minutes.

Eric Paschall led Fordham with 14 points and an efficiency of 12. Mandell Thomas’ efficiency was 11. The Ram junior guard scored 11 points and had 7 steals. Offsetting those numbers was 4-of-11 shooting from the field and 3-for-9 from the line.

St. John’s is now 8­-1, the only loss being to Gonzaga in the Pre­-Season NIT final. Fordham dropped to 3­-5.

St. John's 74, Fordham 53: Quotes, Takeaways & Nuggets

Fordham head coach Tom Pecora's opening statement:
"Well, you know, I thought we played well for about 15 minutes, and after that, we looked like a young team playing against a veteran team, which is what we were. I thought they did a great job on the defensive end, I think the maturation of some of their players in regards to shot selection and things like that, we wanted to force them to beat us over the top, but they didn't bite. They were very patient, they were able to drive the ball and get in the lane and kick and get real good looks at it, and we hurt ourselves obviously with turnovers. But, you know, I look out there at times and I see three, if not four, freshmen, so there's an upside and there's a downside to that. We'll get better, and they're a good team, they're worthy of their Top 25 ranking, and obviously a veteran team that's going to win a lot of games, I'd imagine; and we're going to take tomorrow off and start preparing for Manhattan next Monday at Barclays."

On improved ball handling in the second half, and Eric Paschall:
"We take good things away from all of it, you know? With the freshmen, you just break down every tape and we show them little things. One of the things is they rest when they're tired, they rest on the defensive end, and veteran players rest on the offensive end, you know, and they continue to defend, so that's what hurt us. We got into just exchanging baskets, and a good number of the, you know, two or three of (Antwoine) Anderson's turnovers were charges. So once again, we're talking to them about being aggressive, but you've got to know when to pull it up, put it off the glass, take a pull-up jumper. Paschall, you know, you can see flashes of it, and as I've told a number of you prior to the game, we're really used to working on getting him in great shape, because in preseason, he was banged up, so he didn't get the full gist of our conditioning program, and we're still working on that, but he could be a special player. He's got a chance, and Christian Sengfelder was coming off a big game, and I thought he really competed for a freshman too, so those are two big bodies and two cornerstones, along with Anderson, that we can build off, I believe."

On whether St. John's smaller lineup and transition game compromised Ryan Rhoomes:
"Yeah, no doubt. I think their transition game and just their speed, you know? They're just a little quicker to the ball and all of those kind of things, so this wasn't a great game in that sense, and then actually, when (Chris) Obekpa left, it was even harder for him because they went and played small and switched everything, and that made it tougher for Ryan."

On continuing to play hard despite trailing by double digits:
"Yeah, well, look: Here's our focus for this year with this young group, seven freshmen and a few of the veterans: All I've said to them is, 'Guys, if you give 100 percent and you stay focused, we'll have a chance to win a lot of games,' but we lost our focus the last five minutes of the first half, and then all of a sudden, you're playing catch-up, and young teams put their heads down. The only thing I said to them in the press conference was 'we're going to show a body language tape tomorrow, and I'm going to show you guys when you make mistakes, you're putting your heads down.' Next play, man. Next play. That's what good college players do, but that's all part of staying focused and the maturation process and all of that. So, that's our war cry, you know? Give 100 percent and stay focused, and they're continuing to work on that, so I'm very happy that a lot of them are working on it and getting better at it, alright? We weren't better or good enough to do it for 40 minutes tonight, but hopefully we will be next time we get on the court."

On facing Manhattan one week from Monday:
"Yeah, I didn't even see them because I wasn't even sure if we could watch them because it's not a true tournament where you play someone the next round, so we didn't scout them, but in this day and age, you know, we have every game they play, they have every game we play. They're a good team, you know? (Emmy) Andujar's very, very good, (Ashton) Pankey's a good player, obviously Stevie (Masiello) does a great job with them, so I'm going to try to wait until tomorrow to start worrying about them or thinking about them."

Nuggets of Note:
- Fordham led the first 10 minutes of the game, thanks in large part to a solid offensive showing from Antwoine Anderson, who scored nine points before running into foul trouble and having a hard time handling the ball against St. John's zone defense and half-court pressure. Seven of the Rams' ten field goals in the opening stanza came in the first 10:25, when Fordham was on top of St. John's.

- Chris Obekpa was ejected from the game with 3:48 remaining in the first half after receiving his second technical foul three minutes after being assessed his first in an incident where Anderson was also called for a technical. When Obekpa departed, St. John's led 28-25. The Red Storm went on to close the game on a 46-28 run, including an 11-3 spurt to head into the locker room up 39-28 at the intermission.

- Fordham got the better of St. John's on the boards, which is usually the case given the desire of Steve Lavin's teams to do most of their damage in transition, but that was about all the Rams were able to emerge victorious from. Rysheed Jordan, whose 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting tied a career high set on February 16 against Georgetown, proved to be the difference, as did D'Angelo Harrison, who poured in 22. Together, Jordan and Harrison shot 71 percent from the field (17-for-24 combined) and accounted for 62 percent of the Red Storm's total offense.

- Although Eric Paschall led the Rams with 14 points and eight rebounds, and did not have the Madison Square Garden debut that Jon Severe struggled to with his 1-for-21 shooting last year in this game, he was not given the ball as much as a player of his talent should have received. Paschall can be a potentially program-changing player, and a perennial all-Atlantic 10 talent. However, it gets harder to justify his potential when the entire offense consists of moving the ball around the arc for half the shot clock and then relying heavily on the three-point shot, which comprised 22 of Fordham's 49 field goal attempts.

- Finally, the Rams head into the Battle of the Bronx one week from Monday against Manhattan with a 3-5 record, one game better than the Jaspers' 2-6 ledger going into Barclays Center after their loss to Rutgers Sunday afternoon. A key for Fordham going into this game will be their backcourt, as it was both Severe and Branden Frazier who made the difference last November in a 79-75 win at Draddy Gym. In addition, the loss of Rhamel Brown allows Ryan Rhoomes to match up better with Ashton Pankey, and potentially establish himself under the rim early and often.

Late rally not enough for Manhattan in 63-55 loss to Rutgers

A valiant performance from Emmy Andujar pulled Manhattan within two late in second half, but Jaspers would get no closer in 63-55 loss to Rutgers. (Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)

Playing inside Madison Square Garden for the first time since 2009, and taking the court as the favorite against Rutgers, Manhattan received the bulk of respect in their meeting with the Scarlet Knights in the opening game of the Holiday Festival.

"My team kept telling me to keep playing, and that it was going to come to me," said Rutgers forward Kadeem Jack, whose 24-point, 9-rebound effort led all scorers. "It finally came to me today."

After drawing first blood on a reverse layup by Tyler Wilson one minute in, it was an uphill battle for the Jaspers, who trailed by as many as 13 early in the second half before a 17-6 run brought Manhattan within two. However, it was as close as they would get, as Rutgers (6-4) hit free throws down the stretch to close out the game, walking out of the Garden 63-55 winners.

"It wasn't the best offensive game or the prettiest game," Steve Masiello intimated, "but I thought both teams really competed. We came out a little flat tonight, I thought. No excuses for that. I thought our first half play was kind of un-Manhattan-like."

On an afternoon where the Jaspers (2-6) made only one of their 14 three-point attempts, and one in which leading scorer Shane Richards was hampered due to a fractured right hand that Masiello revealed the junior forward suffered a week ago against Marist, it was Emmy Andujar carrying Manhattan on his back with 21 points and 9 rebounds.

"We're now just getting guys healthy again," Andujar offered with regard to his team's lackluster start, "so we're trying to build that chemistry. We're a young team, so we've still got a lot of growing pains."

Such youth was evident in the opening half, where the Jaspers struggled while Rutgers shot 59 percent (13-for-22) from the field. The Manhattan defense held the Scarlet Knights to only six field goals the rest of the way, and after going down 42-29 with 16:06 remaining in regulation, Manhattan started to chip away at the deficit as Andujar revisited his career-long flair for the dramatic.

Yet, as Manhattan pulled within two on three different instances down the stretch, Rutgers salted the game away at the free throw line, closing on an 11-5 run and making all but two of their 25 attempts at the charity stripe.

"We knew what to expect," Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan said of Manhattan's run. "We didn't handle it (Manhattan's defense) as well as I thought we could."

Manhattan forced 21 Rutgers turnovers, but their transition offense could only muster 15 points off the miscues by the Scarlet Knights, who only attempted six three-pointers on the day, as Jack's presence under the rim provided a primer on how to attack the Jaspers' pressure.

"He was alert enough and disciplined enough to find the holes in the zone," Jordan said of Jack, "and that was great for us. It got to a point where the team who made less mistakes would win. There was a lot of not-so-pretty basketball."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Laury's 30 guides Iona past Indiana State, 91-84

After missing Wednesday's game vs. Rider, David Laury returned with career-high 30 points in Iona's 91-84 win over Indiana State. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)

David Laury was the center of attention before Iona's last game this past Wednesday, but for the wrong reasons, when it was announced that the senior forward would miss the Gaels' contest against Rider due to a violation of team rules.

Today, Laury was back in Tim Cluess' lineup, and once again made headlines, this time under his own volition.

Behind a career-high 30 points and 11 rebounds from the man voted Preseason Player of the Year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Iona (6-3) overcame a 15-point deficit, relying on Laury's 11-of-15 shooting and staunch team defense in the second half to defeat an upset-minded Indiana State (3-6) squad by the final of 91-84 at the Hynes Center.

"No comment," Laury said when asked about the events that precluded him from taking the floor Wednesday night. "I just want to talk about the game. I just wanted to have my teammates' back(s) like they had my back (in the) last game vs. Rider."

In addition to what could be considered Laury's finest performance in a maroon and gold jersey, Isaiah Williams rewrote his record book as well, scoring a career-best 27 points on 10-for-19 shooting, and 6-of-13 from three-point range as Iona was able to steer their ship in the right direction after Indiana State opened the game shooting 72 percent from the field, making all but five of their first 18 shots to start.

"Isaiah was great from the start, and Dave gave us a great second half," Cluess remarked. "Those two came through."

On an afternoon where A.J. English, the nation's leading scorer who had a 30-point game Wednesday night against Rider, was held to just eight markers on a 1-for-11 shooting display, the contributions of Laury and Williams may not be any further appreciated than they were today in New Rochelle, as Indiana State looked to be driving away with a shocking road win in the early going, leading 44-29 with 3:35 remaining in the first half. But a combination of poor execution and stout Iona defense flustered the visiting Sycamores heading into the locker room, as the Gaels only trailed 48-42 at the intermission following a 13-4 run to close out the opening stanza.

"We cut it to a manageable number, I thought," Cluess said of the spurt to end the first half, one in which Iona was able to go 2-for-1 in the final minute after Indiana State forced up a shot with the shot clock already turned off. "Once we saw that number, we knew we had a chance to get back in the game. We just said if we could get it to single digits, we'd have a chance in this game."

Khristian Smith led the Sycamores with 24 points in the losing effort, one of four Indiana State players in double figures on a day where their head coach lamented what could have been.

"We played harder, we played better," said Greg Lansing, "but playing hard is a minimum. You have to earn victories. We just didn't make enough plays in the second half, (and) I think we gave them a really good shot in the arm."

For the winners, it was a testimonial to their abundance of talent, which will only serve them well as the season continues on, beginning with next Saturday's road trip to George Mason.

"Today was a different style of game," Laury revealed. "We can play in a lot of different ways. All of us know our capabilities. Any one of us can score 20 on any given night."

Cluess echoed his senior leader's sentiment, also offering that his team is still progressing through what remains a young 2014-15 campaign. "The more different style teams you face that are good," he added, "the more you're ready for anything. It's an early process still."

"Tonight, we had several people step up for us, and that was huge. If you're going to be good, you have to have more than one guy."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fordham/St. John's Preview

Fordham fans remember Chris Obekpa well from his 11 blocked shots against Rams in 2012, and junior forward will have chance to repeat effort when St. John's takes on Fordham in Holiday Festival Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the New York Post)

At 7-1 on the year, and the 24th-ranked team in the nation, St. John's is off to its best start under Steve Lavin, now in his fifth season at the helm since replacing Norm Roberts in 2010.

This isn't the same Red Storm team that has become notorious for largely forgettable early-season losses to teams the likes of St. Bonaventure, San Francisco and UNC Asheville. Rather, this year's roster is a collection of upperclassmen who are out to prove that their three years of underachieving are just a mere bump on the road to the school's second NCAA Tournament in five years. A 17-2 run to close out an impressive road victory at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse in front of the largest crowd to attend a Division I game this season, one fueled by the magnum opus of Phil Greene, has already given St. John's a potentially season-defining win just five weeks into the year.

Next up for the team that got the monkey off its back against their former Big East rival Orange is Fordham, marking the sixth consecutive season where the Red Storm and Rams lock horns against one another, doing so inside Madison Square Garden for the fourth straight year as part of the Holiday Festival, which features Manhattan and Rutgers on the undercard. Last December, in a performance Fordham would like to forget, St. John's posted their largest margin of victory in recent years, obliterating the Rams by the final of 104-58 in a game where Pecora reluctantly admitted "everything they shot went in" while Jon Severe struggled through a 1-for-21 nightmare of a game.

Fordham enters the matchup at 3-4 on the season, rebounding from two crushing home defeats to UMass Lowell and Maryland Eastern Shore, setbacks that have placed the fate of head coach Tom Pecora under an even greater microscope. Regardless, the Rams have picked up a solid start to the year from Eric Paschall, and if Christian Sengfelder's 21-point, 11-rebound effort against Monmouth is any indication, the mounds of talent in this year's freshman class are developing on schedule.

In what has become an annual tradition for us in much the same vein as Fordham and St. John's taking the floor against one another, we welcome our friend Norman Rose of Rumble in the Garden back again to answer some Red Storm-related questions for us in advance of Sunday's matchup. We returned the favor for Norman earlier today, and you can find our answers here:

Jaden Daly: Having started 7-1, what has set this particular St. John's team apart from each of Steve Lavin's other three Red Storm teams?

Norman Rose: Comparing this St. John's team to the last three seasons is easy - they have senior talent, like the 2011 team. The players know each other and play for each other.

But even more importantly - this team's defense, which has led the charge, has been unconventional. St. John's plays four-guard lineups, and all of the players get after the ball on defense in one way or another. That unconventionality has really worked, and Chris Obekpa is actually battling for rebounds, while Sir`Dominic Pointer is let loose to play his game, as opposed to being yanked for a more conventional forward or a sniper on the wing.

It's still early, and that 7-1 record has included a number of teams with poor shooting performances from the free throw line. But overall, the team has been impressive in their cohesion and their tenacity.

JD: Through the first eight games, is there a particular player that has impressed you most with your contributions?

NR: Sir`Dominic Pointer is a monster right now. He looks like a player who could have been the highest-rated recruit in that 2011 recruiting class. He must have taken classes at Ball So Hard University's Extension Program last summer - he is on it, and hitting his free throws, and rebounding. He's having a breakout year - not something one often says of a senior.

JD: Phil Greene is enjoying arguably the best stretch of his career right now. Is it safe to say that he is now the firmly entrenched second option behind D'Angelo Harrison, and if so, what changes has he made to become more formidable on offense?
NR: I suppose? "Best stretch" is an important phrase right now. He is certainly the second in the bunch of bananas to Harrison in the backcourt, especially with Rysheed Jordan coming off the bench and struggling with turnovers/ decision-making.

Phil Greene hasn't changed anything, actually - not from last year. He's getting a higher percentage of shots, being asked to be more aggressive fromt he outset of games, is all. He still takes almost-exclusively jump shots, doesn't draw fouls, and protects the ball.

Greene started off the first four games 0/8 from beyond the arc. He's been streaky, and his next period of growth is maintaining this excellence - even while taking jump shots, the shot that every player knows sometimes just won't fall.

He has worked hard on his skills to make that work, though, so he may have finally hit the point where fans can expect that kind of shooting game in and game out.

JD: Fordham is no stranger to Chris Obekpa after his 11-block record showing in 2012, but is he still the Red Storm's X-factor? Also, who else should the Rams fear on the St. John's roster?
NR: Yes. Obekpa is playing better defense, attempting to play offense, and still the linchpin of the Red Storm's defense.

D`Angelo Harrison, of course, is the man to watch for Fordham; after eight games, his shooting percentages are only so-so, and he will relish opportunities to get back on the scoring track in a local game like this. And once you give him a taste of scoring, he can't help but go back for more and more and more....

JD: Aside from the obvious "get out in transition, press, and run," what are the other keys to victory for St. John's, and what do you feel Fordham will need to do to have a shot?
NR: St. John's has to take the game seriously and not make unforced errors. Fordham won't force a lot of turnovers, but every basketball player loves to see a loose ball fall into their hands and an open lane to the basket. Foul trouble, too, could always be an issue, as could an urge to experiment with the lineups. The Red Storm bench isn't particularly impactful now, especially in the big men Amar Alibegovic and Christian Jones.

JD: Finally, exactly how high is the ceiling for the Red Storm, and after the hot start, what record in conference play gets them into the NCAA Tournament?
NR: I think 10-8 gets them the NCAA bid. I think. But if there is a bad loss in the out-of-conference, and the Johnnies can't pull a win off against one of the top-three teams, but instead feast on the bottom of the league? And if Syracuse continues to be mediocre? There could be a little sweat on Selection Sunday, sure.

The ceiling? Second place in the Big East. Maybe first, but the league looks like a minefield filled with height and sneaky-good teams. This style of play takes a lot of energy and effort, which the Johnnies can deliver; but the offense has shown warts, winning with spurts of competence at times. That has to be a worry.

Manhattan/Rutgers Preview

Myles Mack and Rutgers are next test for Manhattan, who return to Madison Square Garden for first time in nearly six years. (Photo courtesy of Rutgers University)

A 60-38 victory over Marist that could best be described as typical Manhattan basketball is what the Jaspers' most recent impression before Sunday's matchup with Rutgers inside Madison Square Garden.

The meeting with the Scarlet Knights serves as Manhattan's first visit to the Garden since January 2009, when they lost to Iona on the undercard of a Big East battle between St. John's and, oddly enough, Rutgers. The Jaspers are also competing in the Holiday Festival for the first time since 2003, when head coach Steve Masiello was an assistant under Bobby Gonzalez, who guided the program to back-to-back Holiday Festival championships during his seven-year tenure in Riverdale, and would have won a third straight had it not been for Penn beating the buzzer.

At 5-4, Rutgers has been a mixed bag, to say the least. Wins over Vanderbilt and Clemson have been countered by a loss to Saint Peter's and their infamous 26-point showing against Virginia in the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic. Regardless, Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack form a potent two-headed scoring punch in Piscataway, combining to average 26 points per game while Junior Etou and freshman guard Mike Williams have served as valuable supporting cast members.

To bring the Scarlet Knights into the limelight even further, we enlist the latest guest analyst into our pregame question and answer session. A critically acclaimed author and teacher by trade, Dave White adds to his versatility by covering the highs and lows of Rutgers basketball for On The Banks, one of the best sources of Rutgers news out there. From a site who has spent a similar amount of time around another program in the area that has fallen on hard times, we appreciate Dave's efforts even more, such as this revealing look at what to expect from Manhattan's next opponent Sunday afternoon:

Jaden Daly: What would be the best description for: a) Rutgers' 5-4 start right now, and b) how it lines up with preseason expectations?

Dave White: a) The record is interesting. There have been disasters, losing to Saint Peter's and getting blown out by Seton Hall. And impressive moments: Beating Vandy and Clemson and hanging with Virginia (don't look at the final score, watch the game, Rutgers hung in there). So, the best description is interesting... or weird. Both words are better than "bad." This team isn't world beaters, and they've struggled a lot at times, but there have also been glorious, wonderful, brief signs of light.

b) The record lines up with preseason expectations. Who they beat to get to that record... that doesn't.

JD: With Bishop Daniels still out, who becomes the second option behind Myles Mack, and who has stepped up most since Daniels' injury?

DW: Rumor has it, Daniels will be back on Sunday (depending on how his practice went on Thursday--I haven't seen an update yet). Mike Williams, the freshman guard out of Brooklyn, has been impressive. He's played confident and smart, and been a surprising defensive stalwart. If he can keep up this level of play, and Daniels comes back soon, it might give Rutgers a bit of confidence about their guard play beyond Myles Mack.

As for second option behind Mack, it was never going to be Daniels. Both Kadeem Jack and Junior Etou have the talent and potential to be the top scorer on any given night. Jack especially--he was considered to be a possible NBA draft pick before the season began.  

JD: Against a Manhattan team that has had its own offensive struggles, is the Scarlet Knights' offensive inconsistency a greater concern?

DW: Rutgers' biggest problem is believing in itself and its system. When they run their offense, they get baskets and the plays are a thing of beauty to watch. The problem is when they get rattled (like what Seton Hall did to them), they go away from that offense and fall into one on one play. That's what the concern is. This team seems to get rattled easily and then the offense stops working.

JD: Overall, what can we expect from Rutgers against Manhattan, and how realistic are their chances of walking out of Madison Square Garden with a win?
DW: I'd say beating Manhattan is a 50/50 option. It really depends. Rutgers is going to try and be patient and run their sets. They'll get out on the fast break if they have the opportunity, but recently they haven't had that chance. If Mack has room to run the offense, they'll be fine and in the game, but if the Jaspers are able to press and frustrate Mack, it could be a long day. I haven't watched Manhattan enough this year to know how well they'll press.

JD: On that note, will this team win a game in the Big Ten? All everyone keeps talking about is how much better everyone else in the conference is.

DW: Yes. This team will win a game in the Big Ten. No one goes 0-for the conference season. Even when DePaul went 0-18 in the Big East a few years ago, they won a game in the Big East Tournament. There are 18 games, someone will come in sleeping, and Mack or Jack will go crazy and Rutgers will win. The key is: Can they get more than 5 wins in conference?

JD: Finally, on somewhat of the same topic, what exactly would constitute a successful, or respectable, season in Piscataway this year?
DW: 9-4 in the out of conference and somewhere beyond 5-13 would be the way to look for improvement. An upset would help, something Eddie Jordan can hang his hat on. I was also hoping for fewer weird, out-of-nowhere losses, but Saint Peter's took that out of the equation. Get to 12 or 13 wins, and be competitive. You want to see hope for the future. You want the team to be fun. They won't be playing in any postseason tournaments, they're not deep or talented enough, but their two best players are seniors. That counts for something, so Rutgers needs to make that count.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Iona gets career night from English for first MAAC win of season, 77-64 over Rider

A.J. English erupted for 30 points and 14 rebounds as Iona defeated Rider 77-64 for first MAAC win of season. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)

Three days removed from what was one of their less desirable showings of the young season, Iona faced another obstacle tonight when one of their star players did not see action. Yet once again, as he had done several times for the Gaels last year, A.J. English came to the rescue.

The junior point guard and all-MAAC first team selection took matters into his own hands tonight at the Hynes Center, exploding for 30 points and 14 rebounds as the Gaels (5-3, 1-1 MAAC) overcame the loss of David Laury to defeat Rider (4-6, 1-1 MAAC) by the final of 77-64, evening their conference record after a bitter loss at Monmouth this past Sunday.

"He was a monster," head coach Tim Cluess said of English, who also added five assists to one of the best games of his already stellar career in New Rochelle. "For a guard to get 14 rebounds and score 30 points, he let it all hang out."

Every one of English's 30 markers was especially important on this night for Iona, as Laury, the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year selection, was benched for what was termed a violation of team rules. In his place, Ryden Hines made his first start of the year. But the night belonged to the Iona backcourt, who rebounded from Rider going up 7-2 early to go on a 15-4 run fueled by English, Schadrac Casimir; who finished with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and Ibn Muhammad, who was also making his first career start, getting the nod in place of Kelvin Amayo.

Rider was within four eight minutes into the game, but the Gaels countered with a 13-4 spurt that put them ahead 30-17 with 5:45 remaining in an opening stanza they eventually exited with a 40-28 halftime lead.

English's two three-pointers in the first 81 seconds after the intermission helped boost the Iona advantage to 17 points, but a combination of an offensive drought and the visiting Broncs finding holes in Iona's full-court pressure, made it a six-point game with 5:09 to play.

However, the Gaels' backcourt superhero provided the ensuing strike, as English's driving layup put Iona ahead 67-59 before Casimir stripped Rider's Khalil Alford and then fed Isaiah Williams for a three-pointer on the left baseline to extend the lead to 11 points, effectively icing the game as the Broncs missed eight of their final nine field goals over the final 6:11 of regulation.

"When you get a team scrambling and uncomfortable, they tend to miss a couple," Cluess revealed when explaining why he ratcheted the pressure in the waning minutes. "We played such poor defense last game, (a 92-89 loss to Monmouth) and we were hoping the energy on that end would be greater. They believed the fact that they needed to play with a lot more intensity on the defensive end."

Iona, who plays host to Indiana State on Saturday, forced 22 turnovers, a statistic the Broncs' head coach was not thrilled with.

"Way too many," Kevin Baggett remarked on his team's miscues. "We were playing too passive. On a night where David Laury isn't playing, you've got to take advantage of it, and we didn't do it." Jimmie Taylor, whose 16 points led the Broncs, continued: "We knew what they were going to do. We didn't do what we were supposed to do."

Baggett's counterpart, despite the career night from his floor general, put the win in perspective.

"Today, it was a team effort," Cluess declared, "and I don't think we've had that for a while."