Tim Cluess' focus on defense paid off as Iona posted 70-56 home win over Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)
A handful of observations from Iona's 70-56 victory over Manhattan, the Gaels' largest winning margin against the Jaspers since February 16, 2011, when Tim Cluess; then in his first year at the helm in New Rochelle, defeated the Barry Rohrssen-led Jaspers by the final of 102-65:
Around Iona, that is the part of the game that gets discredited more often than not because of the uptempo, run-and-gun attack that Cluess has used to turn Iona's offense into one of the more prolific units in the nation on an annual basis. On this night, however, it was what the Gaels did on the other side of the ball that effectively won them the game, holding Manhattan to just six field goals in a 26 percent shooting display in the first half. "The past couple of games, Coach has been stressing about defense," said A.J. English after the game. "Playing for Coach Cluess, people think he's just 'shoot, shoot, shoot' and 'score, score, score,' but he really tries to perfect the defensive end too, and tonight he showed it."
The Iona defense was its most suffocating on Manhattan guard Tyler Wilson, a role reversal of sorts after Wilson's playmaking abilities were central in the Jaspers defeating the Gaels for their second straight MAAC championship last March, something Steve Masiello would later praise. "I think they said 'beat us,' and he didn't. I think they said 'Tyler, make plays,' and he didn't. Terrific scouting by Iona, give them all the credit.
- Iona won without a major contribution from A.J. English.
English, who Manhattan has always defended historically well, only scored four points, registering his lone field goal with 7:09 remaining in the second half. But what the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year lacked on offense, he made up for with six rebounds and just as many assists. "It's not about me," he humbly stated. "It's about the team, and at the end of the day, every team we play, I know they're going to go to defensive schemes against me. I've been playing Manhattan for four years, and in the past three years, they always send double-teams. I just told them, (my teammates) 'just be ready to shoot.' It doesn't matter if I score zero points or whatever, I'm happy if we win every single time."
"Give A.J. credit," Masiello added, complimenting his adversary's leader for finding a way to exploit Manhattan without scoring. "Six assists and one turnover, how about that? You talk about a young man who has grown as a basketball player? That's a student of the game right there. He knew that was going to happen, and he said 'okay, I'm going to beat you in other ways.' Phenomenal job by A.J. What a great kid."
- Jordan Washington proved to be a mismatch.
The difference here was Manhattan's lack of a big man who could hold his own against Washington the way Ashton Pankey did against David Laury last year, especially in the MAAC championship. With all due respect to Calvin Crawford and Zane Waterman, the Jasper forwards are playing out of position defending someone of Washington's stature and physique, no fault of their own as the lack of depth on the Manhattan roster has forced them into that predicament. "Get him in foul trouble right away. Go right at him," was how Masiello described his strategy of defending Washington, who posted a quiet but noticeable 13 points on the night. "He gets you in foul trouble. It's chicken or egg, because if you leave him in a game, he's going to foul your team out."
- Ibn Muhammad is starting to gradually step up in the Iona backcourt.
The absence of Schadrac Casimir has played a role in Muhammad's ascension on the Gaels' depth chart, and the career-high 15 points from the senior guard proved just how much he has worked to improve his game, which is now showcased more often this season. "I think Ibn has put in so much time working on his game and especially his shot that we've told him, 'if you're open, shoot. Don't even think about it,' said Cluess. "He's got the green light and he's looking around and knows that he's one of the better shooters on the team now, and believes in himself. Tonight, they left him open, and he made some big shots."
- Was there really a whole lot to take away from this game?
Yes and no. For starters, Iona's defense was arguably the best it had been in a long time, rattling Manhattan enough to where Masiello said his Jaspers were "out of sync a little bit" on the offensive end. Manhattan's resilient style was also on display, albeit briefly, in the second half, where they fought to within seven points before a 13-1 Iona run broke the game open. When asked if tonight's result put things in perspective for his team, who hosts the Gaels at Draddy Gymnasium on February 26, Masiello had this to say:
"As long as you learn from your losses, that's the most important thing. I really believe in this: If we didn't twice to Iona last year, there's no way we beat them in the championship. Does that mean this year, Iona couldn't beat us twice, and we play them in the tournament and they beat us a third time? Of course they could. They're a great team. The thing is, could we go back tonight, watch the film, and now take away 11 points from Iona and find a way to get ourselves 10 more points? Then we play them a second time. Could I take away another eight points, seven points from Iona and then get us another six? That's how you've got to look at it. It's about now, 'Okay, we both played. Now, it's the chess match.' Let me make adjustments, let me see what adjustments Tim and Iona make. Let's see how we play the second time."