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MAAC Tournament: Manhattan, Iona meet in championship

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Seated behind Iona head coach Tim Cluess as he scouted the semifinal between Manhattan and Fairfield, I kept a close eye on his facial expressions. (Some would call this “creepy,” but I just consider it “observant.”)

We both watched as Manhattan pulled away from Fairfield—an eventual 60-42 Jaspers victory—as Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello energized with relentless yelling, raw emotion and plenty of butt-slaps and bear-hugs.

At halftime, I asked the 53-year-old Iona coach if he remembers when he had the youthful exuberance of the 35-year-old Masiello, a Louisville assistant for six years under Rick Pitino after spending four as a Kentucky bench-warmer under Pitino and Tubby Smith.

“Yeah, I remember those days,” Cluess responded with a chuckle. “I think they were 25 years ago.”

The contrast in head coaches mirrors the vastly different philosophies of the two teams competing in tonight’s MAAC Championship: No. 4 seed Iona and No. 6 seed Manhattan at 9 p.m. on ESPN2 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.

Roads to the championship:

Manhattan: Pre-quarterfinal bye; beat No. 3 Loyola (MD) 55-52 in quarters; ousted No. 7 Fairfield 60-42 in semifinals.
Iona: Pre-quarterfinal bye; beat No. 5 Canisius 89-85 in quarters, dethroned No. 1 Niagara 79-73 in semifinals.
Odds: Iona is a four-point favorite.
Previous results: They split two games—Gaels beat Manhattan 78-70 in Iona on Jan. 10 before dropping a 74-73 double-OT decision in Manhattan on Feb. 15.

Key match-up:

Manhattan’s Rhamel Brown vs. Iona’s David Laury: Manhattan’s most heralded player—the burly-yet-refined 6’7 Brown—will have his hands full with Laury’s versatility. The Gaels’ 6’8 sophomore is a match-up nightmare—Laury can pass out of the high post, attack the basket with authority and rebound at a high level.

There’s a reason that Brown was an All-MAAC second-team selection despite rather pedestrian averages of 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Pound-for-pound, Brown may be the conference’s strongest player, and his best performance this season may have been his 21-point, 17-rebound (10 offensive), seven-block castration of the Gaels in Manhattan’s double-OT win.

For Manhattan to win, the Jaspers will need to:

Play to their strengths: Manhattan’s feeds off aggressive defense, pure hustle and a very deep bench—Masiello doesn’t hesitate to rotate 10 players into the game. In fact, he shoved startled sophomore Ryan McCoy into the second half of the semifinal—McCoy’s first minute of the entire tournament—during a critical stretch.

Because of the fiery Masiello, the Jaspers won’t come out flat, and they’ll be prepared to hassle Iona’s star guards MoMo Jones and Sean Armand. Rashawn Stores, Mohamed Koita and Michael Alvarado will be the guard trio tasked with stopping Cluess’ dynamic duo.

Keep Iona out of transition: The Gaels love to run, and Cluess’ philosophy of “if you’re open, shoot it” often results in quick possessions and points in bunches. Masiello will be perfectly content turning Monday’s final into a grind-it-out type of game, similar to the semifinal win over Fairfield. Unfortunately for the Jaspers, it’s easier to dictate a high-tempo than a slow one, and it’ll be interesting to see how Masiello prevents a shootout.

Tough love for Emmy: He’s a mercurial player, for sure, and that’s likely why Masiello rides sophomore sixth man Emmy Andujar so hard. If you look over at the Jaspers’ huddle during timeouts, there’s a good chance you’ll see Masiello screaming in Andujar’s face, whether it’s for defensive positioning, decisions with the basketball or effort.

The Bronx native responded yesterday with 16 points in 31 minutes—but there have been many games where Andujar has simply vanished. Which Emmy will we see tonight in the biggest game of his life?

For Iona to win, the Gaels will need to:

Rebound: Iona and Manhattan were smack in the middle of the MAAC in terms of rebounding differential in the regular season. In the postseason, however, the Gaels were +9 against Canisius and +11 vs. Niagara, while the Jaspers were +2 against Loyola and -4 vs. Fairfield. Is it fair to speculate that the winner of tonight’s rebounding battle will be the MAAC champion? Probably not, but if Iona can sustain its superior glass cleaning, then Iona’s shooters are too good to be awarded extra possessions.

Ride MoMo: Hampered by an illness this weekend, MoMo Jones gutted out a 33-point performance against Canisius before deferring to Laury against Niagara. All-MAAC second-teamer Sean Armand has been an exquisite second fiddle, but Iona is best when Jones has the ball in his hands and is relentlessly attacking the tin—not settling for 24-footers because his body is gassed.

A transfer from Arizona, Jones is a big-game player, a high-major talent in a mid-major league. Regardless of his illness, he’ll be expected to be the difference tonight—that’s just life as the MAAC Player of the Year.

‘Sledge’-hammer and Boo ‘Ridley’: Iona’s two unsung heroes log heavy minutes and have very specific roles. Tavon Sledge handles the ball, pesters opposing guards defensively and offers sustained energy. As Pickin’ Splinters’ Paul Gotham noted during the Iona v. Niagara game, Ridley is the perfect complement to Laury—Ridley is much less refined and more of a bulldozer, but he’s an animal on the glass and has the potential to neutralize Rhamel Brown. 

Prediction: Manhattan 67-65. The Jaspers are too well-coached and deep, and Jones’ third game in three days with an illness will play a role.
Player of the game: Rhamel Brown

TAGGED: emmy andujar, iona gaels, maac championship, maac tournament, manhattan jaspers, momo jones, rhamel brown, sean armand, steve masiello, tim cluess

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