It was a welcome return to the Hynes Center for Iona Friday night, as A.J. English & Co. dismantled Delaware 92-77.
The Gaels entered the evening 0-2, not looking themselves on a season-opening road trip that brought them through Valparaiso and Oregon State. Although they averaged 79.5 points per game in 2014-15 – good for 5th in all of Division I – the Gaels averaged just 65.5 ppg during their road trip.
Upon returning to their friendly confines in New Rochelle, Iona quickly snapped back to form. Over the last five years, the Gaels are 68-10 at the Hynes Center, currently riding a 20 game home winning streak. With Friday night’s victory, the Gaels improved to a perfect 5-0 all-time against Delaware. Here are three thoughts from Iona’s first victory of the season:
1.) Meet A.J. English, the passer. Everyone who follows the Gaels is well aware of English’s status as one of the top scorers in the MAAC if not the country, but the senior guard showed a new dimension Friday night. In addition to his game-high 25 points, English handed out 10 assists without committing a turnover.
His 25 points were the most scored by a Gael this young season, but it was the assists and lack of turnovers which could prove to be the more valuable contribution to this year’s Iona team.
“I think he’s capable of doing that,” head coach Tim Cluess said in regard to English’s assist-to-turnover ratio. “When he plays slowed-down out there, he sees the floor well. When you lose a player like Dave Laury, sometimes A.J., who’s on par at that level, thinks he has to do everything. Sometimes doing everything is getting your other teammates involved.”
Getting everyone involved is the exact mentality English displayed Friday night. He rightfully sees himself in a leadership role atop this team and has taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible outcome for his teammates each and every night.
“I’ll step on the court with any of these guys any night against anybody,” English said. “I knew we were going to make shots, and I knew guys were going to get their feet wet. It’s a lot of guys’ first games, first times even playing organized college basketball. At the same time, I knew they were going to come around.”
2.) Jordan Washington is the new man down low. The 6’8” Washington broke out with a 12 point, eight rebound performance Friday night. The junior forward’s presence in the post will go a long way toward the Gaels replacing last year’s MAAC Player of the Year David Laury.
Washington’s size is a vital resource to a high-octane Iona team loaded with guards who can all shoot the ball from the perimeter, even if he’s unable to match Laury’s level of talent.
“They’re different, but I think we can get a lot of rebounding out of him,” Cluess said of the comparison between Washington and Laury. “I think we can obviously get more defensively. Jordan has taken four charges I think in the last two games. He’s got to wall up a little better and not bring his hands forward to stay out of some of that foul trouble, but makes an effort on that end that we didn’t have last year.”
The former Arizona State commit should thrive in Iona’s system, where the focus lies on the perimeter. With an entire arsenal around him, Washington is already growing comfortable as the new man in the middle.
“My confidence level is good,” Washington said. “Whatever they want me to do I’m going to go do it. When I’m in the post it makes it easier to kick it out to anybody around because everybody can shoot.”
3.) Iona has more than enough firepower, but can they defend? The Gaels have always been about offense, offense, and more offense. However, they have learned the hard way the last two years that offense doesn’t always get the job done at the end of the year.
Iona has loaded up with a slew of new players to join a strong group of returners this season. There is no doubt the Gaels will do what they have always done and shoot the ball from the perimeter with deadly accuracy. Though they struggled with this task on their opening road trip (29% from 3-point range), the Gaels finished Friday netting over 47% of their shots from downtown.
English, along with Schadrac Casimir and Isaiah Williams, have all proven to be some of the best 3-point shooters in the MAAC. This year the addition of Deyshonee Much, a transfer guard from Buffalo, gives Cluess’ team yet another weapon to unleash. Much shot 4-for-6 against Delaware, all from 3-point range.
“I thought he did a really good job,” Cluess said of Much on Friday. “He looked so much more relaxed out there today, and he looked comfortable. I think as he moves along, you’re going to see even more out of him.”
Okay, now that we know Iona can score (and you knew that already), what about the other side of the ball? Well, Delaware opened the game 6-for-6 from the field, playing for over seven minutes before missing a shot.
“We kind of guarded the wrong guys who couldn’t shoot and left the guys who could shoot open for a few possessions,” Cluess said of Iona’s early defensive sets. “I think that’s just the nerves of an early-season game. We have eight new players on our roster, so there’s a lot of learning going on.”
After giving up an average of 88 ppg on their opening road trip, Iona allowed 77 to Delaware. While an improvement, the Blue Hens likely aren’t on the same level as Valparaiso and Oregon State, and they were playing on the road. Delaware scored 62 points in their only other game this season, a win over in-state rival Delaware State.
The question will loom over the Gaels all season, and the onus will be on this staff to prove they are able to guard at a strong enough level to win the MAAC by season’s end.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.