Three Thoughts: Iona 78, Cleveland State 73

Tim Cluess must have had a pit in his stomach, that sinking feeling of deja vu creeping up his spine with the looming specter of losing a season opener to the same team for a second straight year.

Iona visited Cleveland State last season and despite a double-digit halftime lead, were edged out during the final twenty minutes, but after the first 25 minutes of Friday night’s contest, Iona was primed to exorcise the ghosts of the 2014 opener meltdown. The Gaels led 58-38 and had made seven of their first ten field goals to start the second half, but that feeling of complacency, which undercut their efforts in Cleveland last November, hijacked the Gaels’ game plan. “Last year we lost a game like this at their place,” said Cluess. “You don’t want to give up a big lead, but it showed the character of our guys that they didn’t feel sorry for themselves or quit.”

A defensive breakdown afforded CSU’s Trey Lewis a wide open three that would have tied the game in the final five seconds, but the senior, who had been the Vikings’ offensive catalyst throughout the game, was slightly off and Iona squeaked by Cleveland State, 78-73.

Despite the debuts of several Gaels, Iona played solidly in the opener. In the post game press conference, Cluess alluded to this team’s future — “I don’t know the ceiling for this team, but I know we have so much room for improvement, so if we do get better, we can get a lot better than this” — so what are some takeaways for the Gaels’ next game (at Wofford)?

Iona will depend heavily on those newcomers.
Kelvin Amayo, Jeylani Dublin, and Schadrac Casimir all made their Iona debuts last night, and each will have significant roles if the Gaels are going to defend their MAAC regular season title. Dublin, a graduate transfer from Longwood, was somewhat of a surprise addition to the starting lineup, but his role is already defined: infuse Iona with physicality and energy. The 6’6″ Dublin was aggressive in the front court, grabbing three rebounds and scoring six points in 17 minutes.

As Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo wrote about this past summer, Amayo’s path to Iona has been convoluted and winding. After stops at both Towson and Marshall, Amayo spent the entirety of last season redshirting and rehabbing from several knee surgeries, but despite the uncertainty of whether he would actually be effective, Amayo could be this team’s breakthrough player. “He’s played two games in four years,” said Cluess, “so he had so much rust to take off. We don’t know how quickly his legs will heal, and he’s honestly playing at about 60% right now, but he is aggressive as he can be.”

Amayo is like an overpacked suitcase. He has the body of a much larger man squeezed more efficiently into his 6’4″ frame. That isn’t to say Amayo is overweight — his stoutness enables Amayo to bully his way to the rim in both the open and half court, but he has the agility and foot speed to match-up with guards (Amayo was often paired against CSU’s Lewis). That rust Cluess mentioned was evident — he missed a few close-range shots, and while he shot ten free throws, he only made five — but Amayo should provide a much-needed spark. “He can get out of control and force a shot,” said Cluess, “but he makes so many nonchalant plays that I have to think are the product of playing pick-up for so long. The kid will be a lot better.”

The game’s star, though, was Casimir, who has been profiled several times on this site. When the game tipped, Casimir was far from impressive. “We worried about him early in the game,” said Cluess, “since we noticed he didn’t look at the rim and was extremely passive.” After he made a three-pointer midway through the first half, however, Casimir visibly loosened up and unleashed his full offensive repertoire. The 5’10” guard is shifty enough to get into the lane consistently but also possesses a potent perimeter game — he made three of his seven three-point field goals — and he finished the win with 17 points, hitting the game-clinching free throws as a large contingent of friends and family chanted ‘CED love’ after each make. “He’s got guts,” said Cluess, “and he makes big shots. He’s done this at every level, and that’s why he is here at Iona.”

Iona’s offense is evolving
The Gaels attempted 37 free throws against Cleveland State, matching a high the team last achieved against Quinnipiac in late January, and it was clear this team will attempt to probe defenses more this season, rather than let shots fly from the perimeter. “Our coach tells us to attack to get someone open,” said junior wing Isaiah Williams, “so we’ll take the shot if we are open, but we are attacking the defense looking to find openings.” Following the win, assistant Brock Erickson confirmed this year’s goal is to penetrate often and always in an attempt to get to the free throw line, and though Iona used 72 possessions, there were constant stoppages as the Gaels pressured Cleveland State off the bounce.

The team still attempted 25 three-pointers — David Laury also made his first ever three at Iona — so it’s not like the Gaels will suddenly eschew their long-range game. They are going to take shots whenever they present themselves, and those attempts will create interior spacing for Laury and the other Gaels to dance about the frontcourt, but there is a distinct emphasis on getting to the line. The next step is making those free throws — the team converted just 60% from the stripe.

Could front court depth become an issue?
Iona’s starting five should be one of the MAAC’s best this season, but there are questions already about the team’s bench. Iona uses a variety of zone defenses — against Cleveland State, they alternated consistently between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1 — and have learned to mask their depth concerns in past seasons by hardly fouling (Iona’s defensive free throw rate has ranked within the nation’s top 100 since arriving in New Rochelle), but one worries whether Cluess will have to overextend his core Gaels.

Four players used more than 30 minutes, and Amayo was the only bench player to see significant playing time. Cleveland State didn’t try to exploit their size advantage, and used small lineups to counter the Gaels, so Cluess didn’t have to dip into his reserves — “We planned to use Ryden [Hines] and Daniel Robinson some tonight, but since they played small, we did as well” — but the lack of any front court depth could be a significant bugbear, especially when facing a team like Manhattan (Jermaine Lawrence and Ashton Pankey) or Siena (Brett Bisping and Lavon Long). The Gaels managed to grab just 9% of their offensive boards, and while Cluess stresses second-chance opportunities as often as slowing the pace, Iona was completely ineffective on the glass.

It’s worth noting, though, that Iona’s zone is seamless. To help Laury and Dublin in the post, the guards will double the paint touch, and while that leaves an opponent momentarily open on the perimeter, the Gaels scramble and close out well.

David Laury is in fantastic shape.
Ryan Restivo delved into and documented the relationship Cluess has with his star big man, Laury, the MAAC’s preseason player of the year pick, and Laury appeared to be in the best shape of his Iona career during the opener. He lost up to 25 pounds this past offseason, and played 39 minutes against the Vikings. There were moments in the past where Laury would seem winded and either force a tough shot or be forced to foul after slipping defensively, but the senior seemed much more svelte than in past contests. If Laury can continue to stay on the floor (he used roughly three-quarters of Iona’s minutes in 2014), that could alleviate those depth concerns.

Laury is also the epitome of a zone buster. In an attempt to slow down and blunt the Gaels’ relentless attack, teams will likely zone Iona, a tactic Cleveland State used somewhat effective in the second half — when CSU eliminated the double-digit lead, they had shifted to zone — but Laury’s skill-set is perfectly suited for flashes to the high post and then directing the offense from ten feet out.

Matt Giles covers the Big East and a host of other conferences for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @Hudsongiles.

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