NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – Ibn Muhammad hit his first and only field goal of the game Wednesday night, but it was massive, a three-pointer that extended Iona’s lead to five over pesky Texas Southern with two minutes to go. He followed with a steal and assist for a Jordan Washington dunk that basically sealed Iona’s 22th straight home victory.
Muhammad put his fist to his chest and pointed toward the crowd and the sideline. But although there was the usual cheering from the end of the Iona bench, by the high, high standards that Monmouth has set for exciting plays, it was pretty lame, to be honest.
Of course, the guys at the end of the Iona bench these days haven’t had much practice at perfecting their sideline antics: A.J. English, Schadrac Casimir, and Kelvin Amayo would likely all have been on the floor (and ironically Muhammad probably wouldn’t have been) if they weren’t battling injuries.
So, if you’re going strictly by the letter of the factual law, yes, Iona struggled at home against a 1-9 team from the SWAC, which could be concerning. However, Texas Southern is the two-time defending SWAC champions (and picked to three-peat this season) that plays a ridiculously challenging schedule to help balance its athletic books (current strength of schedule is 25th nationally). The Tigers – bolstered by the debut of Derrick Griffin, once one of the top football recruits in the country – are playing much better of late as well, nearly beating Central Michigan and Stephen F. Austin in its last two outings.
“I’m just proud of my guys tonight for the way they fought, and found a way to win,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “A lot of guys stepped up, and it was a really good team effort.”
The bigger concern for the Gaels going forward is when – and, unfortunately, if – they will be back to 100 percent this season. English is only third in Division I scoring (25.0 ppg) and was averaging 31.0 points per game this month in addition to being 14th nationally in assists (6.8 per game), so that’s obviously a massive loss. Cluess confirmed after the game that English broke a bone in his hand in practice before the Tulsa game (in which he scored 31 points), but they didn’t realize it was broken until after they returned to New Rochelle and decided to have it X-rayed after the pain wasn’t subsiding.
He did have surgery to repair it, but Cluess called him day-to-day, and it doesn’t seem like they will rush English back for the rest of the non-conference schedule, which includes a game at Rhode Island Saturday.
The bigger concern for Iona may be sophomore Schadrac Casimir, who Cluess said is still in a holding pattern for his groin injury. Casimir, you may remember, hit 62 three-pointers in MAAC play alone last season and finished third in the conference in eFG% (57.0%) and fourth in minutes played. Without him, Iona turned the ball over 17 times, an area where the Gaels have been remarkably effective under Cluess, their 64th rank in turnover rate last season being by far the highest in Cluess’ five years in New Rochelle.
Unfortunately, the injuries don’t stop there. Kelvin Amayo, who played a large role last season, might be shut down for the season in an effort to get him another year of eligibility. Ryden Hines, who was expected to take on a little bigger role this year, finally got on the court for the first time Wednesday, but was limited to five minutes. Freshman Rickey McGill is out indefinitely with mono.
Even Isaiah Williams is still battling lingering ailments. When asked if he was now finally 100 percent, Cluess just simply said, “No.” He then added, “We just try to diversify our injuries and illnesses to keep things interesting.”
So while the effort against Texas Southern was actually more solid that it might appear, it’s hard to see Iona winning the MAAC if it can’t get healthy in the next couple months.
What else did we learn Wednesday night at Fortress Hynes Center:
— Iona Athletics (@ICGaels) December 17, 2015
1. Iona does have some depth at its disposal if healthy
We’ll talk about Muhammad in the next note, but if there’s a silver lining with the injuries, it’s that Jordan Washington and Deyshonee Much have had to step up to a bigger role early. Washington finished with 22 points on 10-14 shooting (although the five turnovers and only five rebounds will be a bit concerning). Much had only seven points, but didn’t turn the ball over, while Wake Forest graduate transfer Aaron Rountree went 37 minutes and filled up the stat sheet: nine points, nine assists, six rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. That doesn’t even include surprising freshman Jahaad Proctor who scored 16 points and 6’9” Taylor Bessick, who is an imposing presence underneath who had four rebounds and two blocks in nine minutes.So you can see that if they ever do get healthy, Cluess had some serious depth, although he needed Williams to lead Wednesday.
“You know what I liked? Guys were out and Isaiah knew it, and he knew he had to take more on his shoulders,” Cluess said. “We texted earlier in the week that I think he can be that kind of player that regardless of who we have playing, he’s got the ability to step up. Sometimes you get comfortable within your role on the team, and I think it was nice that he got outside that role and showed what he is as a player.”
2) Enter Ibn Muhammad
We already mentioned that he might have had the two biggest plays in the game down the stretch. As a 5’9” point guard who is not a great shooter, Muhammad is an odd fit in Iona’s system, but Muhammad has developed into a leader as a senior for Cluess, an asset that will be needed as the season progresses. He played 29 minutes Wednesday and only committed two turnovers, and his teammates and Cluess have nothing but great things to say about him. If Casimir is out long-term, it may be Muhammad’s show to run.
“He’s a real big leader in the locker room and the court, so we’ll be needing him,” Williams said. “Even when he doesn’t play, he’ll still be leading us. We know when he gets on the court, he’s going to give his all.”
Said Cluess: “He’s been a leader since he got here. He’s been bringing the guys here in the offseason to get ready. He does everything we ask of him and more.”
3) Life in the SWAC
Mike Davis is now 14 seasons removed from coaching in the national title game with Indiana (man does time fly), and appears to have found a nice niche with Texas Southern. As I’ve discussed from time to time, life in the SWAC (and MEAC) can be thankless and kind of unfair, to be honest. But Davis has been able to find players – including Chris Thomas, who was once a Manhattan commit – that others may not want and transformed his squad into a SWAC power the way Cluess has done the same with Iona in the MAAC. It still can make life difficult this time of year for Davis in the Tigers who have basically been barnstorming the country for the last six weeks absorbing losses. But Davis was actually “very upset” that English didn’t play because he wants his players to face the best, and he considers English one of the best.
“I don’t want to play a Division II school, NAIA school, that’s a waste of our time,” Davis said. “I’d rather go on the road and play teams that are going to win their conference. I may be the craziest coach in America, but I don’t want any home games. If we’re 0-14 before conference play starts, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is our 18 conference games and our conference tournament.”
There are many differences, of course, and the pay is much less, but as far as external pressure is concerned, life is much better at Texas Southern than it is in Bloomington.