When Manhattan and Iona last met, Jaspers celebrated MAAC championship, something Gaels had done one year prior. (Top photo courtesy of Jaden Daly, bottom photo courtesy of Iona College Athletics)
It has been billed by a sports information director at one of the respective institutions as "a college hoops rivalry surpassed only by Duke-North Carolina." Local scribes have considered it a "game of the year," with a level of hype equal to that of the NBA All-Star Game, to be contested this Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Nonetheless, you have Manhattan, and you have Iona, two schools separated by a mere 9.3 miles, a 15-minute journey from southeast Westchester County in New Rochelle over the city limits into the northwest corner of the Bronx; home of Draddy Gymnasium in Riverdale, for an unorthodox 10 p.m. tipoff between two of the heavyweights in New York college basketball.
The Jaspers. The Gaels. Two components of what the head coach of tonight's home team feels is as good as it gets in this game, not just in this area.
"This is one of the best rivalries in college basketball," Steve Masiello passionately advocated two days ago when previewing what will be the 86th collision between Manhattan and Iona. "You have two contrasting styles. You have one organization known for being the best offense in the country, and you have another side that's been known for its defense. It's great for college basketball."
Eight times, Manhattan and Iona have met under Masiello's watch, with the two teams splitting the head-to-head series over the last three years, with buzzer-beaters, double overtime, and each team winning a MAAC championship over the other in the course of that time span. As the ninth battle approaches in less than four hours, another piece of what makes this showdown so unique is the reverence each coach has for his opponent. A stark change of pace from the tension and marked boundaries from such rivalries as Michigan-Ohio State, the approach to Manhattan-Iona; at least from the perspective of the coaches resembles more of the mutual admiration exhibited by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their home run chase of 1998.
"My respect for Tim Cluess," Masiello praised toward a program whom he considers a model for what he envisions Manhattan ultimately becoming in terms of it sustainability as an elite mid-major, "is, I just think the ability, when you have turnover, when you lose guys like (Mike) Glover and Scott, (Machado) you lose Momo, (Jones) you lose Sean (Armand). These guys are good players now, and then you can still be in the top of the conference consistently and challenge for a championship? That's what it's all about."
"I think for us," he continued, "we lost George Beamon two years ago, (and) we were able to compete for a MAAC championship. We then come back and win the MAAC championship. Now again, we're trying to do, similar to what Iona's done, which is stay at the top, be in the top one, two, three spots, make a run for that championship game, try to get that NCAA bid. My respect for Tim Cluess is every year, for him to be able to do that with this Iona program, for as consistently as long as he's done it, it just says so much about him; not only as a basketball coach, but as a leader as well."
Over the course of tonight, and into tomorrow morning, many things will happen. Emmy Andujar, who has seemed to torch Iona almost every time he plays them, will make an impact for better or worse. So too will Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards. For Iona, their trio of David Laury, A.J. English, and Schadrac Casimir will impress a sellout crowd and several NBA scouts with their raw talent and ability to step up in big moments amid hostile environments. One other constant is that the aura surrounding this game will reach yet another unknown crescendo, one that will only garner additional momentum before the rematch between the Jaspers and Gaels at the Hynes Center on February 27.
"It's lived up to its billing every time," Masiello proclaimed, "and that's something we want to continue to do. When you look at it, it's a terrific rivalry, especially with where both of these programs are at right now. For those reasons, it's an unbelievable college basketball rivalry."