Sunday, November 28, 2021

Kevin Willard quote book: Bethune-Cookman

On Alexis Yetna:
“I’m still getting used to a lot of the new guys and what they’re doing, and what they can do, and one of the things I’ve got to do with Lex is get him inside more and not space him, and give him the opportunities to be aggressive and get some of his junkyard dog points that he’s always gotten. So I think some of his stats and his rebounding issues have been more the way I’ve used him on offense than him, but it was good to see him be out there and be aggressive.”

On using Kadary Richmond off the bench:
“More than anything, I’m just trying to get Kadary to be a little bit more comfortable as the game goes, and I think the last few games, I think he’s really started to get a little bit more comfortable, get a little bit more rhythm on the offensive end, but that's not going to be the way it is all year long.”

On playing Bryce Aiken and Richmond together:
“Well, guards are all kind of small so we’re kind of matching up small guys with small guys, big guys with big guys, and with Bryce and Kadary, you can kind of have — they had their two point guards out there for about 25 minutes of the game — so we tried to match up with them a little bit, and for us, it was more or less trying to get Kadary and Bryce out there together and see what they can do together.”

On Jahari Long:
“You know what? I’m just trying to bring him along, get him out there to where he doesn’t have to do too much. He’s out there with Jared and either Bryce or Kadary, so I’m just trying to get his legs back under him. He missed almost three months in rehab, so I’m just trying to get him some confidence back and some rhythm back, and get him back into some sort of game shape. That’s kind of what I’m looking for. I thought he played really well in the first half. The second half, I sat him too long, but in the first half, he played well. He’s worked hard to get back. He was working hard in the summer — again, he was one of our better players in the summer before he had a setback — for him to work, that’s why I’m trying to get him out there and just get him back into, just get him some game reps more than anything, because practice is so totally different than a game.”

On goals over next two games:
“I’m still trying to figure out my rotation, Adam. I really am. Like, who I can play together, who complements well, what I can run with each group out there, who to get the ball when. I’m still a work in progress when it comes to that, because we’re literally playing nine to ten guys. More than anything, I’m trying to figure out lineups, plays with lineups, certain defenses with lineups. We’re a long way from being a smooth, cohesive group, that’s for sure.”

On free throw shooting:
“For the most part, everyone that goes to the line is a good free throw shooter, even Ikey. Ikey’s worked hard at it. All these guys are good, even though we’re not shooting the ball good, these guys are good shooters, so when they get up there, they should be making their free throws.”

On Ryan Conway, Brandon Weston and Myles Cale:
“Ryan’s on the path to being a redshirt. B-Wes is still recovering from injury. B-Wes could definitely play when he gets cleared by the doctors. I don’t know when that is, don’t ask. MC’s looking much better. He definitely won’t play Wednesday, but after that, it’ll probably be game-to-game.”

On his halftime message:
“We watch film at halftime. We just make corrections on what we’re doing wrong, so we just kind of watch ten clips of our offense and five clips of their offense at halftime. Sometimes we flip-flop depending on what it is, so more or less, I try to just make corrections. I don’t try to reinvent the wheel at halftime, I just make game adjustments at halftime, so I think that was it. That’s all I really do at halftime. I’m not a yeller, it’s not worth it.”

On marquee non-conference games:
“At 10:30 at night, no. I wish those games were at 8:30 Eastern time, or even 9:00 Eastern time, then I would make it. I wake up at 5:00 every morning, I don’t make it past 10. I think college basketball’s in a great spot. I have watched a lot of college basketball, that’s all I did on Thanksgiving. There’s a lot of good basketball, top to bottom, in every conference. I look at Oakland, I wouldn’t want to play them, they’ve got some transfers — Jamal Cain, they’re really good — then you look at what Coach Pitino’s doing at Iona, beating Alabama, you look at a team like — who’d they lose to? — Belmont, who’s really good, veteran experience, and obviously Duke and Gonzaga. I just think college basketball’s in a good — it’s been exciting — I love the fact that we’ve played a lot of away games in college basketball. I wish we would do more away games, true instead of neutral sites. It’s fun. It’s not fun when their crowds are in it and you’re trying to win a game, but even our Ohio State game, we had 1,500 and 1,500, it was an unbelievable atmosphere. So I think college basketball’s in a great spot.”

Silverio’s career day pushes Hofstra past Detroit


Omar Silverio’s 28 points and school record-tying eight 3-pointers were enough for Hofstra to win second straight game Saturday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Dimaio (@JasonDimaio1)

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — There was an offensive explosion in The Mack Sports Complex Saturday afternoon, and the charge was led by a senior coming off the bench for what would be the best performance of his career. 

It was the Omar Silverio show and nothing short of it, as he erupted for a career-high 28 points and eight 3-point field goals, the latter tying a school record, as Hofstra scored a 98-84 victory over Detroit-Mercy for the Pride’s second straight victory and head coach Speedy Claxton’s first over a Division I opponent on his home floor.

By the third media timeout of the opening half, Silverio had already scored 16 points, doubling his regular season average entering the game. When it was all said and done, the senior credited the slow start to his season as a key to his breakout performance.

“The first game (against Houston), I shot 3-for-15, so I said to myself that I have to put more shots up and I have to be efficient,” Silverio said. “I’ve been focusing on my shot and trusting myself.”

Getting contributions like today from players outside of Jalen Ray, Aaron Estrada and Zach Cooks make Hofstra that much more of a threat, and the Pride needs to sustain that scoring depth to give it that extra edge over everybody else. While it was easy going heading into halftime, as Hofstra (3-4) found itself sitting comfortably with a 24 point lead, the trend of momentarily taking its foot off the gas showed its face yet again. 

At the 11:29 mark of the second stanza, Hofstra found its lead cut to single digits as Detroit blitzed Hofstra on a 30-15 run, pulling the visiting Titans within nine points of the Pride. Hofstra had no answer for Horizon League Preseason Player of the Year Antoine Davis, who dropped a game-high 39 points and led the near-comeback. But unlike prior games, Hofstra found a way through the storm. 

After a timeout called by Claxton, it was all Pride from that point forward, as Hofstra went on a 22-11 run over the next seven minutes to fire the final dagger to Detroit, extending its lead back up to 20.

In a game with so many points being scored, the defensive aspect will get overlooked, but Hofstra was able to score 32 points on 20 turnovers to the delight of a visibly pleased head coach.

“That’s our backbone, our defense,” Claxton said. “We barely played our offense during practice. I’m not worried about us offensively, and these kids bought in. We have to be a good defensive team if we want to win a championship. We’re getting close.”

“We have to be mature and be able to play with a big lead. That’s the second time we had a big lead at halftime and we let the team come back, so once we clean that up I think we’ll be in a good place.”

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Monmouth’s maturation, motivation has positioned Hawks as prime threat in MAAC

Two points away from a 5-0 start, Monmouth has inside track toward emerging as Iona’s biggest competition in MAAC. (Photo by Monmouth University Athletics)

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — After Rick Pitino led Iona to a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in last year’s abbreviated season and having a full offseason to tailor his roster into one of his more typical outfits, it came as no surprise to see the Gaels recognized as the unanimous preseason MAAC favorite, with visions of NCAA Tournament grandeur from the fan base in New Rochelle accompanying the opinions of the pundits.

And with five wins in as many games, Iona’s hype has proven to be justified through the first fortnight of the young season, but those who predicted a coronation before the ball was even tipped for the first time may want to look closely at one of the Gaels’ main rivals over the past several campaigns.

Just two points shy of a 5-0 start of its own, Monmouth — off to its best beginning to a season since 1990 — has gained steam and ridden an experienced core fused with the arrival of graduate transfers Walker Miller and Shavar Reynolds to a wave of momentum that began last March when the Hawks earned a share of the MAAC’s regular season crown. Despite the tangible success, Monmouth was still picked a surprising fourth in October’s preseason poll, which begs the question:

Is there something to prove in West Long Branch?

“For sure,” said George Papas, the senior guard who carried a preseason first team all-MAAC recognition into his fifth year. “I’ve just been working my tail off. When the preseason stuff came out, I was just in shock. I expect that from myself, but there’s a lot of stuff on social media talking about, ‘what the heck is Papas doing up there?’ I’m simply just going to show them why I was picked. It’s pretty simple.”

Rebounding off their only loss, an opening night heartbreaker on the road in Charlotte, the Hawks have since authored authoritative victories over Towson, Lehigh, Saint Joseph’s and Princeton, the latter coming in a defensive clampdown in which Monmouth allowed just one field goal over the final eight-plus minutes of regulation to further illustrate the incremental progress being made both during and between games.

“I think we’ve been building each day,” Reynolds revealed. “You can see each game that we’re weathering adversity. That’s what championship teams are made of. We don’t change. We stay even-keeled, we stay steady and we just keep going.”

“That’s how championship teams are made. You can’t argue or bicker, you can’t get down, you just have to keep going because in that adversity, that’s when you find out what your team is made of. So I think we’ve been doing very good in that aspect.”

With the most experience in the program since the days of Justin Robinson, Josh James and Je’lon Hornbeak among others, Monmouth has the added luxury of allowing its elder statesmen to simply do what they do, a key attribute for a veteran group that has been on the doorstep and may not need to be coached up as hard as a younger roster still finding its way.

“These guys are grown-ups,” head coach King Rice reiterated. “When you have older guys, I’m not going to be yelling at them and telling them. I’m drawing up stuff and asking them, ‘if you don’t like it, guys, tell me and we’ll come up with some new stuff.’ Because they’re grown-ups, they’ve seen every situation and I’d be a fool not to lean on them. They’re running the locker room, they’re running stuff, I get to step back and help them when they need it.”

“This has been great so far, and they’re leading the young guys. We don’t have a lot of bickering, we don’t have bad stuff in our locker room like we’ve had the last couple years. It’s clean, everybody’s pulling in one direction, and I think you can see that on the floor.”

Shavar Reynolds relishing his final collegiate chapter as Monmouth’s leader

With his confidence restored and his conscience clear, Shavar Reynolds is embracing change of pace in his graduate season at Monmouth. (Photo by Monmouth University Athletics)

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — The story of Shavar Reynolds and his rise from Big East walk-on to indispensable part of Kevin Willard’s program the past several years at Seton Hall has been told so many times to a point where nearly every New Jersey basketball fan has committed it to memory. But what has remained unwritten in some circles is how the modern-day college basketball rags-to-riches saga has been allowed to close as Reynolds, now a graduate transfer at Monmouth, is unwinding his career on his terms in perhaps the most prosperous environment the Manchester Township native has been exposed to and permitted to infiltrate.

Reynolds’ impact is still felt almost instantaneously, just as it was less than an hour to the north when he served as a wing man to the likes of Myles Powell, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale at Seton Hall, helping quarterback the Pirates to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. However, the starting point guard role that has come with the ability to play looser and more freely at Monmouth has given him free rein to impart his wisdom and lead by example at the same time.

“It’s been lovely,” Reynolds said of his experience to date with the Hawks, fresh off a 76-64 victory over in-state rival Princeton Wednesday night. “It’s a totally different experience. It’s more personal because I just get to play. I don’t want to get too in depth, but I just get to play basketball again and enjoy it, have fun again.”

“I just love the group. Everybody wants to get better. There’s no egos, no selfishness, I just enjoy it again. There’s no pressure, I don’t have to look over my shoulder, I just have fun. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, because I think in all this, you can really lose that because you’re trying to pursue a dream for so long that you lose it. Go out there and just play, enjoy the game, because you’ve been doing this your whole life.”

Reynolds’ eyes lit up when he spoke of the freedom he has to play his game and not worry about doing too much, a byproduct of his relationship with head coach King Rice, a former point guard in his own right who has learned — like most others — that his newest player’s intangibles are truly impossible to quantify in finite values.

“It’s everything,” Rice said of Reynolds and the effect his leadership has provided to the Hawks as a whole. “And I’ve told this story, when we first talked on the phone, we FaceTimed, and I did the calling on him. Usually, the other guys do, but I called him, he answered, we were looking at each other, I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ And his first thing was, “Coach, I want to lead the country in assists. I said, ‘Okay, what else?’ Because I’m waiting for him to tell me he needs the ball in his hands, he needs this many shots because that’s what every super senior does, especially coming down a little bit. And then he goes, ‘Coach, I just need someone to really believe in me as a coach.”

“And now, I started thinking someone put him up to this. That’s who I am. I’m going to make you believe in yourself on the basketball court, and when you show me you can do it, I’m going to let you rock and you’re going to know I’m behind you and I got your back. Then he asked me about Sam Chaput and Myles Ruth, and he was like, ‘how are they gonna feel with me coming in as an older dude?’ And right then, I knew I needed this guy on my team because of those qualities, and he’s been ten times better than all the things that he said.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Monmouth stifles Princeton, drives away to convincing Thanksgiving Eve win

Walker Miller blocks a layup attempt by Princeton's Jaelin Llewellyn as Monmouth locked down Tigers in second half Wednesday. (Photo by Monmouth University Athletics)

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — With two of its top six players under the weather and a third medically compromised enough to have to come off the bench, Monmouth played a shorter rotation than normal Wednesday night.

The lack of depth was merely a footnote to a second half that flipped the script in more ways than one.

Trailing by as many as 14 points against Princeton in the first half, Monmouth turned the battle of New Jersey mid-majors on its head after halftime, conceding just one field goal in the final 8:39 of regulation and allowing a meager 18 second-half markers to the visiting Tigers, using its defense to create offense while pulling away to a decisive 76-64 victory — the Hawks’ fourth straight after a two-point loss to Charlotte in their season opener — at the OceanFirst Bank Center.

“I thought our defense ramped up in the second half,” head coach King Rice remarked as Monmouth (4-1) limited a Princeton team with high-major victories against Oregon State and South Carolina on its ledger to just 24 percent shooting over the game’s final 20 minutes. “They were just working us and we talked about it, because we were half a step slow on everything, and then our defense of talking to each other — communication — was so good in the second half, I think that got into their legs and they were a little bit tired, and we were able to get away from them.”

With Nikkei Rutty (flu) and Myles Ruth (pinkeye) unavailable, the Hawks found themselves victimized by Princeton’s trademark backdoor cuts and precise, timely 3-point shooting in the opening stanza, qualities that manifested themselves most notably in the latter stages of the first half, when the Tigers ripped off a 13-2 run to open up their largest advantage of the game, at 44-30. But Monmouth — paced by Shavar Reynolds after the senior’s own flu-like symptoms were controlled enough for him to enter the game — unleashed a 9-2 spurt before the end of the half, cutting its deficit in half to a more manageable seven points entering the locker room.

“In the first half, we were a little lax,” Reynolds admitted. “We weren’t as aggressive as we usually were. In the second half, we made more of an effort to pick up 94 feet, try to push them out more, don’t let them be so comfortable. Before we were switching, we were giving them more lanes, spreading them out and just leaving Walker (Miller) on an island, so we just tightened up a little more and then we contested shots a little more.”

Reynolds not only spearheaded the defensive rally, he also led the offensive charge with his patented clutch shot prowess. The Seton Hall transfer buried a 3-pointer almost six minutes removed from the intermission to tie the score at 55 apiece, and after the Tigers and Hawks traded baskets, drained back-to-back triples to fuel a 21-5 outburst that gave Monmouth a lead it would never relinquish.

“I was just shooting it,” Reynolds casually said. “My teammates believed in me, they just kept looking for me. That’s another test to Coach Rice. You don’t have to worry with him, you don’t have to second-guess your shot, you could just play. As long as you give him that same effort defensively, he’ll let you just play your game. Coach Rice allowed me to be myself.”

Monmouth embarks upon a five-game road trip beginning Saturday against Cincinnati, but does so with renewed momentum, optimism, and overall positive energy after making perhaps its most resonant statement two weeks into the young season.

“The fact that we rallied and beat them as much as we did, that just shows how good our team is and how together we are,” said George Papas. “This is, for sure, among the top three happiest moments I’ve ever felt after a win. It was just a battle and I’m so happy with our guys.”

Monday, November 22, 2021

Rutgers left to reflect and reassess after colossal upset loss to Lafayette

Cliff Omoruyi was one of few bright spots for Rutgers Monday as Scarlet Knights suffered unexpected upset loss to Lafayette. (Photo by Rutgers Athletics)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers had been living dangerously in each of its first four games, needing overtime to survive Lehigh in the season opener, then shaking off slow starts against Merrimack and NJIT before being outdueled late on the road at DePaul.

Monday night proved more of the same.

Unable to shake Lafayette, an 0-4 team ranked 315th of 358 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and one who suffered losses of 28 points or more in all but one of its contests — including trips to Syracuse and Duke — on the young season, the Scarlet Knights were life and death to put the pesky Leopards away, not getting breathing room until Ron Harper, Jr. stripped a cutting Neal Quinn and then converted Paul Mulcahy’s dish for a straightaway 3-pointer to give Rutgers the lead inside the final minute.

But as the old adage states, play with fire long enough and you will get burned.

Lafayette proved the time-tested axiom right when Kyle Jenkins confidently shot an early dagger into a season rife with high hopes, the expectation that the Scarlet Knights would add to their renaissance of the past two seasons, by draining a three with two seconds to play. A desperation heave by Mulcahy caromed off the backboard, and there was Rutgers, left to pick itself up off the ground following a shocking 53-51 defeat, perhaps one of the more glaring losses under Steve Pikiell’s six-year watch on the banks.

“Disappointing,” was all Pikiell could say in the aftermath of a night where Rutgers (3-2) shot just 29 percent from the field and connected on only four of its 26 3-point field goals. “But I’m going to give Lafayette credit. When they needed to make a big play down the stretch, they made the big shot. The last two games have come down to a couple of stops, and we weren’t able to get it. We obviously have to play much better, we have to figure out a way to keep improving, but you certainly can’t shoot that percentage from three when you’re getting open looks.”

“We’ve just gotta play better, more energy. And it’s on me. It’s on me as the coach, I’m fully aware of that and I stand by (that) I like this team a lot. I really do.”

His point guard, who shouldered more responsibility in the wake of Geo Baker being forced off the court by a hamstring injury and Harper fighting back issues, affirmed the optimism.

“I’m not happy, but I’m not worried,” Mulcahy reiterated. “We have a really good team and we’ve shown a lot of flashes of that, so I’m not satisfied (with) where we are, but I’m not worried. We’re gonna figure it out. I’m trying my best with my leadership and I’m working on that to help us, but we’re gonna figure it out.”

“I don’t know who’s shooting well right now. Coach says sometimes that affects our entire game, but all of us work our tails off. Everybody’s always in the gym, so we all kind of still trust each other and believe in each other, so it doesn’t really matter right now. They’re gonna fall.”

Glossing over what could be a major issue can only last so long, however. Rutgers’ next contest comes Saturday at UMass, followed by a rematch of its first-round NCAA victory over Clemson a week from Tuesday at the building formerly known as the RAC. And not only is Rutgers struggling offensively, but the rebounding aspect of this year’s roster that Pikiell highlighted and praised so effusively in the preseason was demolished to the tune of a 45-32 Lafayette domination on the glass.

“We kind of addressed it, and I thought we did a good job on the backboards against a really good rebounding team (DePaul),” Pikiell reflected. “I thought we were kind of headed in that area, but I really was disappointed. I thought we could have had 18 offensive rebounds today, but we just didn’t have it when we needed it. We need to bring it on that end of the floor, we need to rebound better, and we will.”

Mulcahy was even more succinct.

“We need to do a better job coming out and punching teams in their mouth,” he admitted. “We’re gonna get there. This isn’t real adversity, it’s just basketball. We lost two games early that everyone expected us to win, but it’s (about) how we collect ourselves and bounce back.”

“I think we’re a lot better than this, obviously,” Pikiell reiterated. “I’d like to be 5-0. That’s where I thought we’d be, but we’re not there and there’s nothing you can do about the past. You can only work on what you need to do to get better in the future. Lafayette ran us around, you’ve got to give them credit. We’ve just got to get them playing a lot better together, and we will. That’s what my job is.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Hofstra battles, falls short late against Iona

Jalen Ray led Hofstra with 20 points in season debut as Pride suffered narrow loss to Iona. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Dimaio (@JasonDimaio1)

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — The third leg of the grueling nationwide tour that is the Hofstra non- conference schedule took place Tuesday, as the Pride fell short to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason favorite Iona by the final of 82-74, bringing its record to 1-2.

Hofstra started the game a step behind Iona, as the Gaels quickly jumped to a 12-2 lead by the first media timeout of the game. Despite the slow beginning, the Pride maintained composure and did not fold, cutting Iona’s lead to six by halftime. Nelly Junior Joseph was not much of a factor in the first half for Iona, only playing six minutes due to foul trouble, but Tyson Jolly picked up the slack, scoring 11 of his game-high 21 points before the break. Aaron Estrada led the Pride with eight points in the opening stanza.

This game also saw the season debut of senior guard Jalen Ray, who had a quiet 6 points in the first half as he returned from a sprained ankle, but was sure to make his presence felt after the intermission. Ray was the focal point of the Pride offense, as he had a team high 20 points, 14 of which coming in the second half, and shot 6-of-8 overall from behind the arc.

The inside size of Iona was definitely felt by Hofstra, who struggled to score in the paint. Iona’s 10 blocked shots had the Hynes Athletics Center crowd on its feet every time Hofstra attacked the zone. Hofstra's shooting kept the Pride in the game, as Hofstra was within two points at the under-8 timeout in the second half and tied the score twice after that, but could not manage to ever take the lead. Heading into the final media timeout of the game, The Pride had back-to-back turnovers, which essentially sealed the game as Iona would close the game out. Head coach Speedy Claxton made it a point that the Pride's slow start to the game was the biggest detriment to the Pride Tuesday night. 

“We kind of spotted them a pretty good lead to start the game,” he conceded. “That was pretty much hard to overcome. We didn’t come to play from the start. I think we eventually picked it up, but that deficit was hard to come back from.”

Claxton’s counterpart, Rick Pitino, said this was his favorite win so far of this young season, praising Hofstra in the process. 

“That’s not a usual Hofstra team,” Pitino said. “That is a good Hofstra team, and I’d be very surprised if they don’t win 22 or 23 games.”

The acid test will not get any easier for Hofstra, who heads to Maryland Friday for a matchup with the 20th-ranked Terrapins, but this team showed it can hang with anyone so far. Now, it becomes a matter of closing out games, and Claxton insists the Pride is in good shape by and large.

“We’ve got a good team,” he said, reassuringly. “We definitely have one of the hardest non-conference schedules, but that’s by design. I’m not worried about it. We’re going to peak at the right time. It’s still early in the year, I’m not worried about these guys. I know I have a good group, and we’re new. There’s a lot of new faces in that locker room, and it’s going to take time to build that team chemistry.”

“This was J-Ray’s first game. We’ve gotta get in sync with him now. We kind of had it going, but now we’ve got to incorporate J-Ray into that mix and we’ve got to start all over, but we’ll be fine. We will be fine, mark my words. We’ll be fine. This is going to make us better when it’s all said and done, I promise you that.”

Elijah Joiner rediscovers his love for basketball as his new coach falls for simple charm of Iona

Elijah Joiner has put his past behind him, soaring to new heights and uplifting himself and his teammates at Iona. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — In one corner stands a four-year player, broken in some ways, humbled in others. He, like so many others both in and out of his chosen profession, has fought battles within himself to remain where he is, scarred but still standing.

In another corner stands a legend of the coaching ranks, the only man in history to win national championships at multiple schools. Ostracized and cast aside after scandals left his reputation sullied and turned an immortal into a pariah, he was tossed a life preserver to once again do what he loves and end his storied career his way, on his terms.

Both player and coach crossed paths in the spring, uniting to go to war together. Bound by a common desire, their connection was forged by a rekindling of what attracted them to the same walk of life.

Elijah Joiner came to Iona from Chicago by way of the University of Tulsa, and at an emotional crossroads having grown up without his father around to watch him develop from boy to man, as Broderick Joiner was stationed in Iraq during a tour of duty in the United States Army. The two reunited when the elder Joiner returned stateside, and shared a memorable moment in 2020, when Elijah’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer helped Tulsa defeat Wichita State.

When you’re in college, it’s a lot of mental health that goes along with things, and I’m a big believer in mental health,” Elijah said of his life experiences and the brightened outlook he has had since signing with Iona, where he runs the Gaels’ offense as the point guard and primary ball handler. “A lot of people don’t understand it from the outside looking in, so sometimes that can be something that can hold you back from something that you love, and it kind of held me back from basketball.”

“Being able to come to New York, which is a new place, meeting new people, having new teammates and just being comfortable having my own mental health right is making me fall in love with the game again, and I’m just happy that I’m able to do that. When you’re comfortable within yourself, you’re going to be comfortable doing anything that you do. I’m comfortable with my mental health and everything that I’ve been through in my life, so now I’m at the point where I’m just having fun. I’ve got a smile on my face at all times, my teammates are making me laugh, so I’m just enjoying myself out there.”

Playing point guard carries with it a grueling set of demands, which only intensify at a place like Iona under a Hall of Fame coach in Rick Pitino. That does not matter to Joiner, who is not only unfazed by the specter of being the extension of a coach with six decades worth of experience, but buoyed by effusive and overflowing confidence that has enabled him to thrive in his current situation.

“I feel like I gotta make a lot of decisions,” Joiner said of the marriage between his game and Iona’s style. “That’s a situation that I’m comfortable in. This is my fifth year and I’m a grad transfer, and Coach Pitino trusts me with the ball. Having the trust from a guy like that is only going to give you confidence, so whenever I’m out there, I’m comfortable having it.”

Rick Pitino looks on as Iona battles Hofstra. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Rick Pitino, much like Elijah Joiner, fought through his own adversity after his acrimonious departure from the University of Louisville in 2017.

What some may consider a penance, Pitino simply calls another way to share his vast basketball knowledge and passion for the game, that being his Euroleague stint with Greek club Panathinaikos, where he coached before being lured back to the college game by Iona athletic director Matt Glovaski to replace the ailing Tim Cluess, who had to abdicate his title as head coach due to health reasons.

It took only four months for the Hall of Famer to make an impact in his new line of work, authoring perhaps one of his more impressive turnarounds by taking an Iona team limited to just 12 regular-season games by virtue of four separate COVID-19-related shutdowns — one of which was a program-record 51 days — to an improbable Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship and subsequent automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But while a younger Pitino may have consumed himself more with the accolades, the current version of the longtime coach has grown to enjoy simply being around his players, finding mere joy in the little things that make the game great for people of all ages.

“This is the best attitude team,” Pitino gushed after Iona defeated Hofstra in the third game of its season. “I took Quinn (Slazinski) out of the game after he made a great move, and he was the best cheerleader on the bench. He was up like the biggest cheerleader on the court, so for me, it’s a great treat coaching these guys.”

“They’re such great people and they pull for each other so much that they all look up to Elijah. He’s the leader. Dylan (van Eyck) is a leader, we’ve got great leadership out there. My whole postgame speech was how lucky I am as a coach, after 40-some-odd years, to coach you guys because of your attitude. You don’t see this today in most kids, and then Quinn did this: After I told them how proud of them I was, he said, ‘Guys, you see the stat sheet?’ And he ripped it in half. We don’t care about that. We care about winning.”

Winning off the court carries as much value to Pitino as his team’s victories on the hardwood, and his presence in the locker room and as an influence for better or worse has helped him view every place he has been as a triumph of sorts, his coda to an historic tenure included.

“The one thing I’ve done throughout my lifetime is I consider every job between the lines a great job. I thought Panathinaikos in Greece was a great job. People would ask me, ‘Why do you think it’s a great job?’ I said, ‘that’s where I’m at.’ And I consider this an awesome job, because that’s where I’m at. I tell recruits all the time, you don’t have to worry about me leaving. I’m here because I’m from New York, and I wanted to end my career in New York. It just so happens that it’s Iona College, and I'm very lucky to have this job.”

Iona fends off Hofstra, caps off undefeated homestand

Tyson Jolly was catalyst in game-clinching run Tuesday as Iona defeated Hofstra to improve to 3-0. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

— Tyson Jolly summed it up best following Iona’s season-opening victory over Appalachian State, insisting that every night, you can get something different from the graduate transfer and his Gaels.

Last week, it was stifling defense in the opener, then offensive firepower that guided Iona past Harvard last Saturday. And in Tuesday’s finale of a three-game homestand inside the Hynes Athletics Center, it was veteran fortitude and experience that brought the Gaels to the finish line ahead of Hofstra, whose valiant effort fell short in an 82-74 Iona triumph.

“It feels amazing,” Jolly said after his latest game-changing heroics included a 3-pointer that started a 13-4 run after Hofstra had tied the score at 62 with 7:21 remaining in regulation, and a dunk that punctuated the spurt for the last of his game-high 21 points. “That’s what I wanted to be, and I feel like now, my teammates have the confidence in me to be that. Elijah (Joiner) was saying, ‘give Tyson the ball.’ He kept making sure he was getting it to me, so I feel like it’s great, especially for my teammates and coaches, to trust me with the ball late in the game. It’s a special feeling.”

Iona (3-0) never trailed against a Hofstra team that battled Houston to the wire and then won at Duquesne to give Speedy Claxton his first victory at the helm of his alma mater, opening a 14-2 lead as the Pride struggled to both hit shots in the initial minutes and handle Rick Pitino’s patented press, which rendered leading scorer Zach Cooks into an uncharacteristic 4-for-17 shooting night.

“We wanted to wear out Cooks,” Pitino emphatically declared. “It’s been a long time since I pressed the whole game, and all we wanted to do was just wear him out so he wouldn’t be able to have his legs shooting. I’ve done that to every great point guard I’ve gone against in 40-plus years, and I think Berrick (JeanLouis) did a fabulous job on him today. Fabulous job.”

Hofstra (1-2) did manage to crawl out of its deficit, settling into a rhythm late in the first half behind the timely shooting of Jalen Ray, who led the Pride with 20 points in his season debut after missing both of the season’s first two games due to a sprained ankle. Darlinstone Dubar added 14 points, while Cooks and Aaron Estrada each tallied 11. For Iona, Nelly Junior Joseph posted 12 points amid foul trouble, with 11 from Dylan van Eyck and 10 from Quinn Slazinski, while Elijah Joiner (9 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) came one point and two helpers shy of what would have been just the fourth triple-double in program history.

Iona now heads to Orlando, where its next five games will come in the MAAC-Atlantic Sun Challenge against Liberty and North Alabama before joining a star-studded field in the ESPN Events Invitational, and will do so having learned a valuable lesson in proving its mettle regardless of the opponent or situation.

“I just told them, ‘Don't scoreboard watch, don’t want the game to run out. Win the game,’” Pitino advised. “The win is there for you, but if you look at the clock and want it to run out, they’ll come back and you’ll lose. And they did a great job with that.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Seton Hall, St. John’s both on parallel upswings entering stiff road tests in Gavitt Games

Jared Rhoden made his return Sunday for Seton Hall, anchoring hungry and committed Pirates heading into Michigan Tuesday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Two games into the season, Villanova may still be the class of the Big East Conference, but the Wildcats’ chief competition may very well come from either side of the Hudson River.

Seton Hall has turned heads as the Pirates welcome an influx of depth while replacing Sandro Mamukelashvili, with promising early returns in decisive victories over FDU and Yale that saw Kevin Willard’s team allow just 93 total points in its showcase as an aggressive defensive unit heading into Tuesday's pivotal battle with fourth-ranked Michigan in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.

“I just think that this team is really locked in defensively,” senior forward Jared Rhoden assessed after Seton Hall’s 80-44 lockdown of Yale Sunday afternoon. “We’re all connected and we’re all individually good defenders, and when we all come together and defend and communicate together, I think we’re unstoppable in that way.”

“One thing I did realize when we were in the locker room was nobody was too high, and I think that’s big. We expected to win (Sunday) and we expected to win by a lot, so I think that’s a testament to how good we are, and the way we practice and play is going to translate. It’s easy for us.”

The defense has come naturally for the Pirates, but the clash with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor will be instrumental in how Seton Hall deals with 7-foot-1 All-American candidate Hunter Dickinson, against whom Willard stressed defense would need to be a team effort. Nonetheless, momentum and a positive mindset are traveling from the Garden State in a long-awaited rematch of the 1989 national championship game, whose bitter ending remains a sensitive subject in and around South Orange.

“The vibe’s pretty great right now,” Alexis Yetna intimated. “We feel confident about our team and where we’re at right now. We play great together, great chemistry, so we really feel like we have great momentum leading to Michigan.”

Rhoden reiterated the step up in class, but also declared that the standard had been set in light of a fifth-place preseason ranking that he and his teammates have regarded to be a slight against Seton Hall’s potential.

“It’s a big test for us,” he echoed. “For us to come out and put on the show that we did (Sunday), I think it shows a lot about who we are and how good this team is going to be. We’re just out here trying to make statements to everybody, that we’re not nobody to play around with. We’re dogs, and we’re going to play.”

Julian Champagnie leads St. John’s into battle against Mike Woodson and Indiana Wednesday. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John’s University Athletics)

Also 2-0 in its own right, St. John’s has made an early name for itself on the offensive end of the basketball, averaging 105 points in a pair of wins against Mississippi Valley State and Saint Peter’s. But for all the firepower the Red Storm possesses in the scoring prowess of Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander, it is the collective performance at the other end of the floor — much like Seton Hall — that has been the more profound takeaway through the young season’s opening week, which leads into a meeting with Indiana in Bloomington Wednesday night.

“I think our energy on defense has really been a standout,” Champagnie said following Saturday’s 91-70 rout of Saint Peter’s. “I feel like we can score the basketball, I don’t think that’s a question, but our defense is what’s stood out to me so far. Everybody’s locked in on defense, even though we have some breakdowns. The defensive intensity has been top of the line.”

“We want to come out and fight. It just shows that we’re getting along together, becoming a real team. We still have some things to work out, but we’re getting there.”

The work-in-progress mentality in Queens has been heightened after eight players arrived either through the transfer portal or Mike Anderson’s incoming freshman class, learning the ropes from Champagnie, Alexander and sophomore guard Dylan Addae-Wusu while carving out their own niche in the Red Storm’s uptempo attack that still, at least in the purview of its architect, is far from a finished product, but in line with his ultimate vision.

“We’ve got to continue to get better,” said Anderson. “That’s the biggest key. We’ve got to get better in a lot of departments. With the depth that we have, we should be able to plug guys in and keep the momentum going. I think they’re buying into what we’re trying to do. They’re very unselfish individuals.”

“We’ve been together since June, so we’ve had time to mesh, learn our weaknesses, our strengths,” Joel Soriano, the Fordham transfer and former Stepinac star, added. “When we work, we work hard, every day. I feel like the amount of work we put in, it shows. The harder we work, the harder we’re going to play, and Coach emphasizes that.”

What sets the two local rivals apart is the manner in which each goes about its business. Seton Hall’s modus operandi is clearer, a defensive boa constrictor of sorts out to suffocate its opposition, whereas the multifaceted St. John’s roster does not have a defined identity, says Champagnie, who dismissed any comparisons to the teams of his first two years on the corner of Union and Utopia.

“I feel like the way we’ve played the past two years, considering it was a different team each year, I think we did the best we could,” he assessed. “Honestly this year, we’re just looking to improve as a new team and find our identity. We don’t have one from last year.”

“Obviously, Coach speaks on wanting to be a defensive team, a gritty team, a New York team. That’s going to be our main identity, but we have to find ourselves as players within our team. I just see a team that wants to come out and win. We want to do what we do and be the best version of ourselves that day. Every day, we want to come out and execute like our life’s depending on it. We’re going to run through brick walls for our fans, and we’re also going to run through brick walls for our teammates and our coaches.”