Iona’s A.J. English is already one of the best players in the country, but the senior guard is taking on an increased role on the sidelines as his Gaels prep for their fourth consecutive MAAC title game tonight at 7:00 pm on ESPN against Monmouth.
According to head coach Tim Cluess, English has been much more vocal amongst the team this season, pushing his teammates to be their best.
“A.J.’s approach to the entire season has been different,” Cluess said. “As we’ve come down the season it’s grown even more. He’s more of a player-coach right now than just a player. He is breaking down things, watching film, inquisitive, talking to other players like I’ve never seen him do before, and leading them. It used to be on court by example, but now he’s leading vocally as well.”
The Gaels are playing in their fourth consecutive league championship game, but it will be the third in a row English has taken part in. The senior sat out the second half of his freshman season due to an injury and did not take part in the postseason.
All three of the Gaels’ previous title tilts have come against local rival Manhattan. Iona took the championship in 2013, but the Jaspers came out on top each of the last two years. This will be the first time English will not be seeing Jasper green on the other end of the court in the Final.
Monmouth is playing in their first MAAC title game after joining the league from the NEC prior to the 2013-14 season. The Gaels and Hawks split the season series, with each team winning on the other’s home court. Monmouth outshot Iona 110-102 in New Rochelle in January before the Gaels got revenge, 83-67, a month later in West Long Branch.
The MAAC’s leading scorer has yet to break out in the championship game, but must do so tonight in order for Iona to take home the league’s automatic bid. English averaged 22.5 ppg this season, but was held to just 10 points in last year’s title game. In 2014, Iona’s first loss to Manhattan, English had posted 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting.
English has played under the gaze of NBA scouts every game this season, and Monday night will be no different. The national stage will be nothing new to the seasoned Gael.
“The stage is always big for me,” English said Monday afternoon. “Every game is big to me, no matter if it’s for the MAAC championship or just a regular season game.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.