Having made my hotel reservations for the CAA Tournament earlier this week, I have been in anticipation mode. Anticipation mode for me is thinking about the CAA Tournament at least three times a day with the giddy expectations of a guy going on a date with his dream girl. Yes the CAA Tournament is like that for me.
Now I have been to the CAA Tournament every season since 2002-03 with one exception, last season when my younger son had kidney surgery. Now part of what I am feeling may be due to the fact of having not been to the tournament in two years. I am already looking forward to the old haunts like Pasta Luna and Aunt Sarah's pancake house. Greeting an old worn down friend like the Richmond Coliseum. Getting to hear the best pep band in the CAA, James Madison. Getting to watch the most gorgeous kickline in the CAA, the VCU kickline. Wait, did I just say that?
This season appears to be very special, unusually so. The last time I felt so eager with anticipation for the CAA Tournament was 2005-06, the pinnacle of CAA seasons. A good part of that was due in part to how good a season Hofstra was having . Though I try to remain neutral on this site, when you are a season ticket holder for the school you have been a part of since you were 18 and you have a good team very capable of winning the tournament, you can't help but get excited.
Now the excitement for me this season is unlike 2005-06. My excitement is due to the fact that I think this might be the most competitive CAA tournament ever since that season. You have six teams capable of beating each other. And you have two teams, Old Dominion and William and Mary who have been in the at large discussion for much of this season. Strangely enough both teams played last night as part of the Bracketbusters. And I was traveling up to see the Mary as Tieff calls them take on Iona at the Hynes Athletic Center.
Now it was a familiar drive as Tieff and I headed to the Hynes. If you are a regular reader to the site, you know I go often to Iona to see the Iona Lady Gaels, coached by Anthony Bozzella. So it was a little unusual to take the drive up to see the men's team play, though I have before.
While we were on the LIE, Tieff, who was driving, turned to me and said "You know I decided to take advantage of the HOV lane with you as my mannequin. " So I put on a fake smile and bobbed my head like a mannequin might. Hey why not play along and at least I wasn't wearing sunglasses.
Our plan was to get to Iona early, park, and hit a sports bar along the way to watch the Old Dominion - Northern Iowa game. A game I thought that Old Dominion would win especially with UNI's best player Jordan Eglseder being out due to suspension. Being the good passenger, I pulled out my cell phone and gave updates of that game to Tieff. And my start of the 30 second updates caught the Panthers on a run. A 9-8 lead quickly became 21-10. The Monarchs, one of the best scoring defenses in the country apparently couldn't keep UNI from scoring.
So we got to Iona, parked in the back parking garage and walked back to the front entrance. We asked the security guard who had greeted us when we entered Iona where there was a sports bar with food. He directed us to The Beechmont Tavern cross the street.
The Beechmont Tavern is located directly across from Iona on North Avenue. It's a pub/restaurant with a good number of TVs and very good Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. It's also adorned with a lot of pictures of Iona athletes. We noted two of Coach Bozzella's former players on that wall, Regan Pettijohn and Martina Weber.
So we got there at halftime of the ODU-UNI game, each ordered a magnus cider and cheesesteak sandwich and proceeded to watch a good part of the second half. Thursday, I had predicted a game in the fifties. Well, as the second half got underway, with UNI leading 31-22, immediately I could tell I was dead wrong.
In barely three minutes, the Monarchs and Panthers traded three 3 pointers and ODU cut the lead to 34-30 with 16:52 left. One of those threes was a non-called bank shot by Gerald Lee. It was Lee's sixth three pointer on the year on only nine attempts.
Then came the killer play of the game. A Northern Iowa player drove the lane and kicked it out to the corner to Ali Farokhmanesh who squared up and buried a three. During this time Darius James raced out to contest the shot and in the process fouled Farokhmanesh. He sinks the free throw and bingo, four point play. But it got worse for James and ODU. Lucas O' Rear stole the ball from James and went in for a two point dunk shot. Panthers were now up ten, 40-30 and would never really look back.
What was shocking was ODU, the third best team in the CAA in three point FG percentage defense at 29.5 percent, was consistently allowing open three pointers. Over the first seven and half minutes of the second half, Northern Iowa nailed five three pointers for a 49-35 lead. ODU would comeback with an 11-2 run to make it 51-46 with 9:24 left. But having a chance to cut the lead further, Lee missed the front end of a one and one free throw and Farokhmanesh hit another three, and the Monarchs would only get as close as six points the rest of the way.
Northern Iowa went on to an impressive 71-62 win. Both teams had very similar FG percentages. ODU shot 23 of 49 while UNI shot 22 of 47, both nearly 47 percent. The difference is UNI was 10 of 22 from beyond the arc while ODU was 6 of 18. Farokhmanesh had 23 to lead all scorers while Lee had 19.
We were in our seats at the Mulcahy Center before the ODU-UNI game ended. It was a very good crowd for an ESPNU contest, but not sold out. It was a very important game for both teams. First, both teams were going for their 20th win on the season. Considering the prior seasons both teams had, that was a significant accomplishment.
Second, the Tribe wanted to show on national TV that their 51 RPI and wins over Wake Forest, Maryland and Richmond were not flukes. Iona wanted this game because they wanted to show the MAAC was not just Siena. Thus, you had the makings of a very good game on the U.
I had been looking forward to see how W&M would handle a small hostile gym. And a decent number of William and Mary fans made the drive from Williamsburg to see their Tribe go for their tenth road win. And it started out favorably for the W&M faithful as the Tribe tandem of David Schneider and Danny Sumner hit five of their first seven shots for a 13-9 lead with 14:38 left in the first half.
The Mary would continue to lead 17-13 with 8:36 left when I - O - N - A Iona, as the fans would chant throughout the game, unleashed one hell of a run to end the first half. Alejo Rodriguez and Scott Machado would hit the next four baskets for the Gaels. Then Jonathan Huffman would bury a three (which would become a familiar sight as the game went along) and Jermel Jenkins would follow with a layup. Before you knew it, a 14-2 run would put Iona up 27-19.
David Schneider would hit a three to temporarily stop the bleeding at 27-22. But Iona would finish on a 9-1 run to end the half, all on three pointers. The run was punctuated by Jenkins three pointer making it 36-23 at the half. Iona shot a stunning 64 percent from the field in the first half (the picture taken to the left was before the first half ended).
Any Tribe faithful hoping for a Tribe comeback saw their hopes immediately dashed at the start of the second half. Before you blinked, Huffman and Machado combined to hit four three pointers and the lead swelled to 5o-26. The rout was on, much to the chagrin of the Tribe fans and to Tieff and I, who were hoping for a good game.
And you could sense the panic on the Tribe. They got away from their backdoor cuts and ball movement and started hoisting three point attempts. W&M missed on their first four three point attempts. And to make matters worse, Schneider and Quinn McDowell, two excellent 80 percent free throw shooters, missed on three of their first four free throw attempts in the second half. In fact, later in the second half, Schneider missed really badly on both of his free throw attempts as they barely brushed the front rim.
But give Iona a lot of credit, they played very very well. They contested most of the Tribe's shots and held W&M to 36 percent FG shooting and 28 percent from beyond the arc. McDowell, the Tribe's second leading scorer was held to four field goal attempts. Meanwhile, the Gaels shot 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc. It was a thorough beatdown as the Gaels won 69-53.
Iona moved the ball around very well and got a lot of open looks for Huffman and Machado. Machado and Jenkins were much quicker than the Tribe guards and often drove the lane. Machado in fact made one sick layup in the first half where he went one way, the defender the other then drove by another for a scoop shot. Lots of oohs and aahs there.
Kevin Willard has done a terrific job in his third season with the Gaels. He is the son of Ralph Willard, former coach for Western Kentucky, Pitt and Holy Cross, who is now the associate head coach for his good friend, Rick Pitino at Louisville. And Kevin was an assistant at Louisville before becoming the Iona head coach. In fact he brought Huffman with him. Willard is one of those coaches to watch, and I wouldn't be surprised if his name comes up for some soon to be coaching vacancies in April.
As for the Mary, their night was very similar to the disappointing night for Old Dominion. They didn't defend the three well, and they allowed the crowd and Iona's 31-6 run over two halves to get them away from their game. I found that very surprising for a team that has won road games at Wake, Maryland and recently George Mason would have had such trouble. But Tieff and I along with 2609 people at the Hynes saw exactly that.
With such a thorough loss on national TV, any hopes the Mary had of an at large bid crashed with a resounding thud. Now the Mary must squarely focus on their last two CAA regular season games and make sure to have a first round bye in the CAA Tournament. Their only hope now of ending their NCAA Tournamentless drought is to win the CAA Tournament.
But I don't know if their loss was as bad as Old Dominion's. Old Dominion lost to a team that didn't even have its best player due to suspension. Their vaunted scoring defense gave up 16 more points than their season average. And they did not defend the three well at all. And finally, the number one rebounding team in the CAA got outrebounded.
ODU is probably now squarely on the bubble. They probably need to make the CAA Tournament finals to give themselves a good chance of getting an at large bid. But winning the CAA tourney would be the best bet.
But give UNI credit for playing such a terrific game without arguably their best player. They showed why they are a nationally ranked team. Farokhmanesh played an outstanding game. The Panthers outrebounded the best team in the CAA. They showed their vaunted scoring defense is legit. And with the win, Northern Iowa has DEFINITELY secured an at large bid....well as long as they make the Valley semis. The Panthers are a very very good team.
I stated a few days ago that I thought the CAA was the best mid major conference. After last night's two beatdowns, I am not so sure. Northern Iowa made a strong case for the Valley and if Wichita State can pull off a very tough task, winning at Utah State, then I'll eat some crow and say the Valley is the best conference.