The Iona Gaels enter this weekend’s MAAC tournament as the reigning champions, but lack the target most teams seeking back to back titles would wear on their back.
Iona can thank Monmouth for stealing all the attention by winning their final 16 games and running away with the MAAC regular season title. With the Hawks on a mission to get back to the league championship game and avenge last year’s loss to the Gaels, it appears Iona will be able to fly under the radar this weekend.
Player to watch: #23 Jordan Washington, Sr. F
“I think the target’s not on our back,” Cluess said during a league conference call Monday. “We graduated most of the players from last year’s team, and Monmouth’s had an outstanding year. I think they’re the team that everyone’s looking at.”
Iona finished the regular season 12-8 and in a tie for third place with Siena. However, thanks to the Gaels’ season sweep of #2 seed Saint Peter’s, Iona enters the weekend as the tournament’s #3 seed and will play the winner of Thursday’s contest between #6 Rider and #11 Manhattan Saturday night at 7:00 p.m.
The Gaels are led by senior forward and unanimous all-MAAC First Team selection Jordan Washington, whose 17.7 points per game rank fourth in the MAAC and 7.5 rebounds per contest top the team. In a league full of talented senior forwards, the Gaels’ big man may be the best of them all.
However, foul trouble has limited his impact throughout the year. Washington averages just 21.2 minutes per game, the fewest among any player in the MAAC’s top 40 scorers. On the flip side, Washington is prolific at drawing the opposition into foul trouble. According to KenPom.com, Washington draws a national-best 9.2 fouls per 40 minutes against the competition.
This year’s iteration of the Gaels is made up of a balanced backcourt attack, powered by the graduate duo of Jon Severe and Sam Cassell Jr., who average 11.9 and 11.3 ppg respectively. Sophomore Rickey McGill more than tripled his production from a year ago and averages 10.3 ppg to go along with a team-best 5.3 assists per game.
Freshman E.J. Crawford worked his way into the starting lineup for the majority of the year to average 9.7 ppg and shoot a team-best 45% from behind the arc.
“I think he’s done a great job as a freshman,” Cluess said of Crawford. “As far as his overall game, he’s come in and played hard. I think he’s scored in double figures in probably about 60 percent of our games. He’s got to get better on the defensive end, get stronger and all those things that freshmen do as they progress, but I think he’s really brought a nice spark to our team and given us that other player teams have to worry about on the defensive end.”
Schadrac Casimir, the 2015 MAAC Rookie of the Year, sat out the Gaels’ championship season least year due to injury. Following multiple surgeries in the offseason, Casimir returned to Cluess’ lineup this year, but has been unable to showcase his past form on a consistent basis. Casimir averaged 14.5 ppg in his freshman campaign two years ago, but has been limited to 6.5 ppg with just seven double-digit performances this season.
“I don’t think we can look at him for major minutes if we go past day one,” Cluess said bluntly in regard to Casimir contributing on back to back nights. “I think he’s just kind of shown that he’s physically not able to do that, unfortunately. Hopefully he will get back to being that player a year from now after he’s had a full offseason to continue to rehab, but as of now, he’s looking like he’s physically not able to play in that situation for major minutes.”
Deyshonee Much – one of only three holdovers from last year’s championship squad along with Washington and McGill – struggled to be a consistent contributor and even left the team for a short period, but averaged 8.8 ppg for the season.
The #3 seed is unfamiliar territory for the Gaels, who along with Monmouth benefitted from a schedule change instituted last year that allows the top two seeds to play their quarterfinal game Friday, then have an off day on Saturday before resuming play in the semifinals Sunday.
Now, Iona will have to win three games in three days to capture their second consecutive MAAC title, but it is a situation they have already been preparing for. The team participated in multiple non-conference events, and captured the Great Alaska Shootout title by winning three games in four days.
“It’s obviously tough when you play back-to-back-to-back, but someone’s got to do it,” Cluess said. “We hope that we’re one of the teams that has to do it, but for anyone, it’s difficult. We did play in tournaments this year to get used to it. We played in the Great Alaska Shootout and we did very well in that situation. Right now, we’re worried about Saturday. No matter who we play, it’s gonna be a heck of a team and a heck of a game.”
The Gaels swept local rival Manhattan by an average of 17.0 points per game, but split the season series with the Broncs as each team traded blowouts on the opponents’ home floor. Iona took care of Rider 95-76 February 3 behind 29 points from Cassell, but the Broncs returned the favor with a 103-85 victory in New Rochelle February 19 behind 28 points from senior guard Jimmie Taylor. Washington averaged 31.0 ppg over the two contests with Rider, including a career-high 38 points in the second meeting.
“We did play both of them recently, so they remember what we do as well, and they have a day off,” Cluess said of each potential opponent. “If it was back-to-back nights, that’s one thing, but whoever we play is gonna’ come in on a day off and have a day to prepare for us, so we can’t really prepare until we know who won either.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.