A December tradition is once again brought to life tomorrow night, as Madison Square Garden hosts its annual Holiday Festival. Now a one-day doubleheader after decades of existing as a two-day tournament, the twin bill at the "World's Most Famous Arena" consists of four local programs participating in two nonconference matchups that are as equally intriguing as they are competitive.
In the opening act of the night, Fordham takes on St. John's for the fourth consecutive year and second from the Garden. After defeating the Red Storm two years ago in a dramatic 84-81 upset at Rose Hill Gym that saw the Rams erase a 21-point deficit, Tom Pecora's team will look to be as formidable as they were one year ago against the Johnnies, when Fordham remained in the game throughout the night before falling short to a six-man St. John's rotation by the final of 56-50. In the nightcap, Rutgers takes on Iona in what will be an ultimate clash in styles, pitting Mike Rice's scrappy and defensive-minded Scarlet Knights against the patented uptempo attack of the Gaels and head coach Tim Cluess. For the first time this season, we will have a detailed position-by-position breakdown, which becomes two closer looks given the double celebration of basketball in the Big Apple.
Fordham (1-7) vs. St. John's (6-3)
Guards: This could be the one area where the Rams have the advantage being that Tom Pecora consistently plays three in the backcourt, a number that has increased to four in recent weeks with the injury to do-everything forward Chris Gaston. In Gaston's absence, junior Branden Frazier has taken over as the team leader on the court, averaging over fifteen points and nearly five assists per contest while also cutting down his tendency to take ill-advised shots. Frazier's supporting cast will need to step up in similar fashion to contend with the Red Storm, namely sophomore Bryan Smith. Coming into tomorrow night's matchup with the Johnnies with averages of ten points and four rebounds per game while also shooting a team-leading 39 percent from three-point range, Smith can ill afford to be the enigma he has spent his first three semesters in Rose Hill being. If the Brooklyn native can make a couple of triples in the early going, Fordham stands just as much a chance as they did in each of the last two seasons. If not, the Rams will have to lean even further on Jeff Short; whose 2-of-16 performance against Manhattan helped contribute to a Jasper win, as well as Devon "Fatty" McMillan, who will be in his third game back from a shoulder injury that sacrificed the first month of his sophomore campaign. Jermaine Myers gives the Rams a second point guard alongside Frazier that will help create easier and smoother ball distribution against a Red Storm team that will look to get out in transition early and often against a Fordham unit that averages fifteen turnovers a night and yields 76 points per game on average.
For St. John's, their offense runs through sophomore shooter D'Angelo Harrison, who has ignited Steve Lavin's halfcourt schemes with seven 20-point efforts in the Johnnies' first nine games. Point guard Phil Greene has also improved tremendously in his second season, averaging over eleven points per game while shooting much better from the field following offseason rehab from a wrist injury that hindered his progress as a rookie. Although not a player who sets the box score on fire, Felix Balamou is a wing who could cause several matchup problems for the Rams solely on his intangibles and ability to be a major contributor without putting the ball in the net, while Frenchman Marc-Antoine Bourgault is Lavin's answer to Bryan Smith, a sharpshooter who will take any open look he can get.
Forwards: Fordham is of course hamstrung by Gaston's inactivity, but the Rams have a trio of burgeoning big men that could make an impact against a St. John's frontcourt that is not nearly as physically imposing on paper. Although freshmen, both Ryan Rhoomes and Travion Leonard have shown flashes of brilliance, and Leonard will see significant minutes for the Rams. In addition, sophomore Ryan Canty has been one of Fordham's best and most efficient players in the last week, dominating Manhattan to the tune of 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Canty may not have the same stat line against a much more talented Red Storm front line, but expect him to get a few jabs and uppercuts in before the final bell.
St. John's has the name brands inside that the Rams may lack, but the physicality drops off after freshman JaKarr Sampson, who is the Johnnies' second-leading scorer with an average of 13.6 points per game to go with over six rebounds per night. Given Fordham's struggles with getting to the glass in recent games, do not be surprised to see the Akron product come close to a double-double tomorrow night. Amir Garrett may also have a similar stat line, especially since the swingman does not have Gaston to contend with. Just as he has done to most teams this season, freshman shot blocking sensation Chris Obekpa will present Fordham with something the Rams have never seen before, a freakishly talented specimen who comes in with 38 rejections in nine games, not to mention someone whose defensive skills are seemingly unrivaled.
Rutgers (4-2) vs. Iona (3–3)
Guards: The Scarlet Knights average over 72 points per game, with homegrown talents Eli Carter and Myles Mack accounting for nearly half of that total with their combined total of 31.5 points per contest. After inconsistent patches in their freshman campaigns, Carter and Mack have been more than efficient for Mike Rice, shooting a combined 48 percent from the field, 91 from the free throw line, and 39 from three-point range, the last of those stats proving most critical against an Iona team (more on them later) that is equally as proficient from beyond the arc. Unfortunately for Rutgers, the backcourt productivity drops off after the dynamic duo, as point guard Jerome Seagears and swingman Mike Poole have yet to get out of the box offensively through the Scarlet Knights' first six contests.
On the other side of the court, the Gaels come in with their high-powered attack led by seniors Momo Jones and Sean Armand, the latter of whom has a Garden memory that will no doubt be fresh in his mind after his MAAC record ten threes and career-high 32 points in Iona's 95-59 thrashing of Siena inside the home of the Knicks on January 3rd. Jones and Armand also provide most of the Iona offense the same way Carter and Mack do for Rutgers, with each guard averaging over twenty points per game and Armand shooting a staggering 54 percent from beyond the arc. Swingman Tre Bowman is the third double-figure scorer in the Gaels' seven-man rotation, and the Penn State transfer is just as lethal from long range, with a 40 percent clip (10-for-25) to his credit, while freshman Tavon Sledge is an explosive 5-9 dynamo who will fill up the box score seemingly at will.
Forwards: The Rutgers big men, although they may not appear so on paper, are much more productive this season than they were a year ago. A big reason for this is the eligibility of Wally Judge, the Kansas State transfer who has stepped in for the departed Gilvydas Biruta and immediately contributed averages of over seven points and eight rebounds in his first season on the banks of the old Raritan. Although Dane Miller and Austin Johnson may not be world beaters on the offensive end, their rebounding prowess keeps the Scarlet Knights in games. In addition, Miller and Johnson are high percentage shooters; as is reserve forward Malick Kone, with each shooting 60 percent or better from the field, a statistic that has the potential to improve against an Iona front line that is not as physically imposing since David Laury is still ineligible.
For the Gaels, Taaj Ridley has reprised his role as Tim Cluess' glue guy, averaging nearly eight points and seven rebounds per game as the de facto replacement for Mike Glover. By far the best interior player on the guard-dominated Iona roster, Ridley is aided by swingman Curtis Dennis and big man Shawn Jackson, who should see an increased share of minutes against Rutgers. Despite only playing an average of fourteen minutes per game, Jackson has started four of Iona's six contests while looking to improve his offensive numbers.
Keys To Victory
This is not intended to be stereotypical, but just coincidental. For the two mid-majors tomorrow night, (Fordham and Iona) the biggest key will be guard play, simply because their backcourts are their greatest weapon. Fordham will need to keep Branden Frazier out of foul trouble after his three-foul opening half against Manhattan forced Jeff Short into carrying the Rams, which he did not adjust to well after a 2-for-16 outing. Bryan Smith is an even bigger factor for the Rams, as he will need to score to keep his team in the game against St. John's. For the Red Storm, transition will be the word that Steve Lavin should highlight. The nature of the beast that is Tom Pecora's offense will provide the Johnnies with several opportunities to generate steals and fast breaks on every defensive possession. If the boys from Queens can capitalize on some of their early chances in this department, the first game of the evening could be over quickly.
Getting back to Iona, their guard play is even more critical being that their backcourt trio accounts for two-thirds of the Gaels' total offense. Momo Jones has a history of making clutch baskets and leaving people in disbelief, but the former Rice standout sometimes leaves a lot to be desired in terms of shot selection. Fortunately, Jones has not had this affliction through most of the first six contests for Iona, so the pressure is eased somewhat. If Sean Armand comes anywhere close to his last Garden performance, Rutgers is not only in for a long night, but Mike Rice's trademark blazer toss may take place in the opening minute if the junior guard hits a three right out of the gate. Expect the Scarlet Knights to double-team both Jones and Armand, forcing the Gaels' supporting cast to rise up. Much like Iona's MAAC foe Saint Peter's, who defeated both the Gaels and Rutgers this season, Rutgers will keep Tim Cluess' bunch within reach throughout the night. Don't be surprised if this game becomes an affair where the first to 50 wins, as this game has all the makings of a "Mike Rice special" despite the two different team identities.