A pair of prodigal sons will square off in tonight’s MAAC championship game. Siena’s Nico Clareth and Iona’s Deyshonee Much each took a leave of absence from their respective programs this season, but as Monday night rolls around, they will be among the players their teams turn to in the most crucial game of the year.
As a freshman last season, Clareth quickly established himself as one of the premier perimeter players not just on the Saints, but in the league. The Baltimore native ranked fourth on the team with 13.1 pointer per game, and broke the school’s freshman scoring record with 447 points during the year.
He was named 2015-16 MAAC Sixth Player of the Year and earned a spot on the league’s All-Rookie team at season’s end.
Entering the 2016-17 campaign, Clareth was expected to be the fifth head in the hydra of Siena’s starting lineup, and a dynamic complement to seniors Marquis Wright, Brett Bisping, Lavon Long, and Javion Ogunyemi.
The plan held together for two games as Clareth opened the season with back-to-back 14 point efforts, but the league’s most interesting man was suspended for the Saints’ following three games for a violation of team rules.
Clareth underwent surgery to repair his right knee last June, and problems in that knee held him out of another non-conference game at Florida Gulf Coast in early December. He returned to play in the team’s next seven games, but a January 12 contest against Quinnipiac in which saw the court for just three minutes and failed to record a point for the first time in his career began the odyssey we find ourselves in the midst of today.
The sophomore took an indefinite leave of absence from the program beginning with a January 15 win at Fairfield (Siena’s first road victory of the season) and lasting through a February 4 contest against Canisius. The Saints accumulated a 4-3 record during that stretch, and found themselves in the middle of the MAAC pack with a trip to New Rochelle on the horizon.
Clareth made his long-awaited return in that contest at Iona and picked up right where he left off. His 14-point, eight-rebound night helped guide the Saints to an improbable 81-79 win over the Gaels.
“I think it was part of the turnaround,” head coach Jimmy Patsos said of the win at Iona. “I thought Fairfield, because it was our first road win, was very important. There’s been moments all year. The Iona thing, because Nico came back and they’re the defending champs, that was really big too.”
Clareth averaged 15.7 ppg down the stretch, as the Saints put together a 5-2 record in the final seven games of the regular season to finish in a third-place tie with the Gaels at 12-8 in league play.
Then of course, Clareth stole the show Sunday night when he shot 7-of-8 from three-point range in the second half and led all scorers with 27 points to lead Siena past top-seeded Monmouth and into its first MAAC title game since 2010.
“There was a lot of things going through my head,” Clareth said after Sunday’s win, when asked to reflect on his mindset while away from the team. “I was thinking everything, but hey, we’re here.”
It is in that championship game where Clareth with square off against Much and the Gaels once more. Like Clareth, Much dealt with a knee injury early in the year, but that was suffered during the season on Iona’s trip north to participate in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Much banged knees with 6-foot-8, 235 pound forward Jordan Washington during a practice in the midst of the tournament. The Gaels won three games in three days and took home the event’s trophy (and some neat moose hats), but Much was lost for four of the team’s next five games. He played just nine minutes in the team’s home opener against Niagara on December 2, then finally returned to full action against NJIT twelve days later.
With an average of 13.0 ppg last season, Much entered the 2016-17 season as the Gaels’ lead returning backcourt scorer. Only Washington (14.2 ppg) performed better last year and is currently listed on the roster.
Following the loss of stars like A.J. English and Isaiah Williams, Much struggled with the load of attempting to replicate their production from the guard spot. Through the first four games of the season, Much averaged 9.0 ppg and shot 35% from the floor.
“You have a lot of guys graduate, he thinks he’s going to be the man, and doesn’t come out playing that well early in the season,” head coach Tim Cluess said of Much. “He kind of pressed, and kind of lost himself. I think he was making it more about him than he was the team, and struggled because of that.”
Much eventually took his own leave of absence, a four game stretch beginning with a New Year’s Eve win over Marist and continuing through consecutive losses at Fairfield and Monmouth.
“It was just a lot of frustration,” Much said of his mindset during that time on leave. “I just felt like I worked so hard and it wasn’t showing in my game. With the game of basketball, you’ve just got to be patient. I feel like I was just impatient with it and kind of taking the easy way out. That’s not how things work in the real world. My coach addressed me about that a couple of times, and he got my head on straight to get me back on the floor with my teammates.”
The junior has returned to score double figures in six of Iona’s 14 games to end the regular season, and averaged 18.5 points in the team’s final two contests against Manhattan and Monmouth. Much has continued his solid play into the MAAC tournament, where he posted 10 points in the Gaels’ quarterfinal victory over Rider, then 11 in the team’s semifinal win over Saint Peter’s.
It was Much who converted an invaluable three-point play in the final minute of last year’s title game victory over Monmouth to give Iona the space to hold off the Hawks late, and Monday night may very well be his time to shine again.
As the Gaels seek back-to-back tournament titles and the Saints pursue their first since the start of the decade, one of these two men who lost his way will lead his team home.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.