Friday, March 2, 2018

Iona-Manhattan still has same big-game juice even though a quarterfinal matchup

Tim Cluess (left) and Steve Masiello (right) will forever be linked by their three MAAC championship battles, but both lead Iona and Manhattan into quarterfinal clash against one another Saturday. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Separated by 9.3 miles and inextricably linked to one another through their fierce rivalry that has spanned countless home-and-home series and timeless Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament encounters, the last three of which came with championships on the line, Iona and Manhattan are spoken of almost as how the late great Frank Sinatra addressed love and marriage: You simply cannot have one without the other.

Iona and Manhattan resume their ageless battle Saturday night, but on a different stage of sorts, the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament. It is the first time since 1994, when Fran Fraschilla and the Jaspers annihilated Jerry Welsh's Gaels in a 99-65 thrashing, that Iona and Manhattan meet in a round other than the championship, which begs the question: Does the juice level subside because of the quarterfinal matchup?

"If I had my perfect world -- and I don't -- I wouldn't have them play right away, because they're the two defending champs," Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos; no stranger to the Iona-Manhattan rivalry from his decade-and-a-half in the MAAC at both Loyola and Siena, said of the significance of the rivalry and its impact on the conference. "On the other hand, it's a fantastic game. People should go. Fan bases really want to see that game, and I hope all their fans come up. That's a premier game at this level."

"I don't know," said Saint Peter's head coach John Dunne. "Obviously, Iona's been in the top two or three every year since (Tim) Cluess has been in the league, so I guess in that instance, it's a little bit different. But with all that being said, you've got two teams that can easily both make it to the final."

Iona head coach Tim Cluess, who won his first of three MAAC championships against Manhattan, tends to agree with Dunne in the sense that although the earlier collision is unusual, it does not necessarily diminish the nature of the rivalry.

"I think playing in the championship game against anyone is a different feeling than playing them in the first-round game, so obviously, there is a difference," he said. "But it's important for both teams, and both teams are looking forward to it and looking forward to a heck of a game."

His counterpart, Steve Masiello, is unfazed by the date and the circumstances, paying sole attention to the name on the front of the jersey and their past credentials.

"We're going against the champion," he said. "They're a back-to-back NCAA (Tournament) team, a back-to-back MAAC Tournament champion. Tim's done the best job of any program consistently, year in and year out. Iona's set the bar for this conference, and we understand that."

"We're going against a team that has done it and continues to do it. He's done it with different kids and he's done an excellent job, so whether it's in the quarters -- whether it's at Iona, at Nassau -- it doesn't matter where it is or what round it's in. It's Iona."

At the end of the day, it is, as Masiello stated, just another Iona-Manhattan game, but the coach who may end up having to face the Gaels or Jaspers knows that whoever walks away with the victory will be a tough out regardless.

"Both those teams have coaches that have won MAAC championships," said Dunne. "Both are really good coaches -- different styles -- but very, very good coaches, and I think if whoever can win that first one and get to the semis, I think they're just as tough an opponent as anyone else. We'll just throw the ball up and see what happens here in the tournament. It should be interesting."

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