Three Thoughts: UMass 87, Iona 82

On the surface, Iona’s 87-82 loss to UMass at the Mullins Center Tuesday night wasn’t a terrible one. First, UMass is an Atlantic-10 team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year, and is probably better than its 6-6 record (and No. 94 KenPom ranking), having played an ambitious schedule, and picking up a couple of close losses (at Harvard and BYU) that might have turned the tide for them.

In addition, UMass picked Tuesday to break out of a prolonged shooting slump from three-point range, particularly junior point guard Trey Davis, who came in shooting an ice-cold just 33.6% from the field, and was just 11-for-47 from behind the arc since the season opener. All he did against Iona was score 25 points on 10-of-11 from the floor, 5-for-6 from three-point range.

So, in a non-conference game in which Iona fought back valiantly in the second half against a hot, pretty good team on the road, tip your cap and move on to Siena on Sunday, right?

Well, not exactly. It was what happened after Ibn Muhammed stepped up and hit his sixth three-pointer over the season to give Iona (8-5) a 78-73 lead with five minutes left that was eating at coach Tim Cluess afterward.

It was switching off of a clearly scorching Davis late in the game to allow him to hit an open jumper. It was David Laury not looking after a UMass basket to see Jabarie Hinds sneaking up in front of him to steal the inbounds and make it four points in four seconds for the Minutemen. And it was just the lack of running any semblance of the offense that they had worked on in practice and had run so well against a good team on the road for the first 35 minutes of the game.

So Cluess and Iona left Amherst angry as they head back into MAAC play for good on Sunday. Here are my thoughts on the contest, closing the book on the non-conference campaign, the first meeting between these two up-tempo programs since 2000, believe it or not:

1. It’s still not a terrible loss – Again, from a pure statistical standpoint, there’s nothing (other than the final score, of course) truly terrible about losing to UMass, who doesn’t lose often at the Mullins Center (twice in the last two seasons, and none this year). They did a very good job on the boards, only turned the ball over nine times (against 19 assists, 12 from A.J. English), and had good looks to take the lead on a couple of possessions down the stretch. But even advanced data people like us here at Big Apple Buckets can recognize, like Cluess, that if they’re in a game like this down the road (and they’ve already lost the first such MAAC game at Monmouth), they need to finish the job.

“I thought he (Davis) might some difficult shots,” Cluess said. “But I thought we left him to let him get going, especially in the second half. Our guys didn’t do a good job of listening to what they were supposed to do on defense, and we helped off him, which was kind of comical that we would help off the guy who was the best shooter on the team and was hot as could be. Our mental capacity at times was lacking during the game.”

2. UMass went small, which was odd, but worked – I’m no veteran Division I head coach like Derek Kellogg, and maybe my opinion is clouded because I spend most of my time with mid-majors, but if I have a muscular 6-foot-10 senior like Cady Lalanne, who’s averaging 9.3 rebounds per game, I’m playing him down the stretch. But Kellogg went small (Lalanne only got 22 minutes and eight rebounds), and guys like freshman Donte Clark stepped up to finish the job. Like Iona, the Minutemen have had their struggles late in games, and unfortunately at 7-6, they’ll probably have to get the A-10s automatic bid to return to the NCAAs.

“I thought we played great in some different spurts, and then we took some shots and responded pretty well at the end of the game. Honestly, I’m happy to be 7-6 instead of the alternative,” Kellogg said. “For people that don’t know, I think Iona is a very good basketball team. They have some high level players, some talented guys and for us to come away with the win after looking at their schedule and who they’ve played is pretty good for us.”

3. Chicken and egg syndrome? – When you watch the game, you notice UMass (and obviously Davis, of course) shot the ball well, and that is part of what allows the Minutemen to score 1.16 points per possession. But when you take Iona’s overall numbers on the defensive end, they’re not pretty to look it currently: 282nd nationally in defensive efficiency (105.0), 243rd in eFG% (50.6), and just 29th in defensive turnover rate (17.4%). Should that concern Iona greatly? Maybe not, I mean their best defensive efficiency rating in the past four years was 198th (2011-12). If they hit an open shot or two in the closing minutes, they beat UMass on the road, and we’re heaping plenty of praise on them. But on this night, again, they didn’t fall.

“We got great looks,” Cluess said. “Isaiah Williams and several other guys had wide shots and shots that they normally make, so I’m happy they took them, they just didn’t go in tonight.”

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