Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The 2010-11 Resurrection of New York City Metro Basketball - Part I - Iona

In February of last year, I took my son into New York City for a Saturday afternoon matinee at Madison Square Garden.  Thanks to my friend Mal, I had two free courtside seats underneath the basket for St John's - Pittsburgh.  My son Matthew went with me (mostly for the train ride) and we would stay for the first half of the game.  I wrote about this in "Three Games in 24 Hours - An Empty City for a Half".

It was a somewhat sobering experience for me seeing so many empty seats in the World's Most Famous Arena.  In fact, until late in the first half, my row of courtside seats were empty except for Matthew and me.  Years ago in the heyday of the Jonnies, this would never have happened.  I was lucky if I could get 300 section seats.

But several people have written in the past couple of years about the decline of NYC basketball.  Kyle Whelliston wrote a terrific article last year called "Empty City".  I even wrote my take on his "Empty City" article.   Entering this season, there hadn't been a NYC metro basketball team in the NCAA Tournament since Iona in 2006 (there should have been Hofstra as well in 2006, but we all know what happened).

But last Spring, there seemed to be optimism about NYC basketball.   There were a lot of local college hires.  Tom Pecora bolted Hofstra for Fordham.  Hofstra first replaced Pecora with Tim Welsh.  After Welsh's DUI and resignation, the Pride hired Mo Cassara.  Wagner hired Dan Hurley, while Iona hired Tim Cluess after Kevin Willard left for Seton Hall.  And in the biggest move of all, St John's hired Steve Lavin to replace the fired Norm Roberts.

And as it would turn out, all those hires helped rejuvenate NYC metro basketball.   Hurley, along with his assistant coach and brother Bobby Hurley, helped the Seahawks to an eight win improvement from the previous season along with a .500 record in the NEC.   Fordham had a signature comeback win over St John's at a sold out Rose Hill Gym.  Despite struggling in the A-10, Fordham finally broke their winless streak in conference beating UMass at home.

Then there were four teams who made the 2010-11 season for New York City basketball fans.  Three of those teams had first year coaches - Hofstra, Iona and St John's, while the fourth team, LIU, might have been the best kept secret in the metro area.   Those four teams provided their fans with terrific college basketball and provided hope for city hoops.

I have recently done a two part retrospect on Hofstra basketball, so if you want to know what Hofstra did in detail in the 2010-11 season, click here for Part I and click here for Part II.    But to do a short summary, the Pride finished third in what now was a very competitive  and deep CAA (three teams made the NCAA Tournament with VCU making the Final Four).   And Charles Jenkins had such a terrific season that he became only the third player to ever win the Haggerty Award three times in a row (Jim McMillan and Chris Mullin are the other two) and also won the CAA Player of the Year award for the second year in a row.  In his first year as coach, Mo Cassara brought a buzz to the program that looks like it will carry on for years to come.

As for Iona, Tim Cluess inherited a pretty talented team with returning players Scott Machado, Jermel Jenkins, Kyle Smyth, Alejo Rodriguez and Rashon Dwight.  But Iona became a legitimate threat when Cluess added JUCO transfer Michael Glover and talented freshman Sean Armand.    The Gaels struggled though at the outset, losing three straight games at the World Vision Classic in Cleveland, two of which came in the last second.

But Iona rebounded from their Cleveland road trip in a big way as the Gaels upset eventual Sweet 16 member Richmond at the Hynes Center in overtime.  It was the start of a seven game winning streak for Iona.  The streak would end as the Gaels would hold their own against the Orange in the Carrier Dome before eventually losing to at that time #5 Syracuse 83-77.  

After a home loss to Vermont,  Iona drubbed Hofstra at home before starting MAAC conference play.  It would be one of several Iona home games that I attended.  Glover and Machado provided a seemingly unstoppable one-two punch as both had double doubles in the Gaels' convincing 87-62 win over Hofstra.

Including their earlier conference win over Canisius, Iona would win six of their first seven in MAAC play, including a 70-52 win over St Peter's that I attended.  After watching the Gaels thoroughly defeat the Peacocks, it seemed Iona had now found a winning formula.  But MAAC road play would cause havoc for the Gaels.  Iona would lose four games in a row, three on the road and a home loss to Rider.   The Gaels lost all four games by four points or less.   The Gaels stood at 7-5 and 13-10 overall.   They needed to right themselves for the last third of the MAAC regular season.

Well Iona righted themselves and then some.  The Gaels would win their last six straight regular season conference games, including a 69-65 win over Siena, which was the third Gaels home game I attended. Iona entered the MAAC Conference Tournament in Bridegport on a definite roll as the #2 seed with a 13-5 record.

And the Gaels continued their roll, looking unstoppable in their first two games in the MAAC Tournament.  First,  they crushed Siena 94-64 in the second round.  Glover was dominant with 31 points and 11 rebounds, Then Iona thoroughly beat a Rider team they had struggled with during the regular season.  The Gaels crushed the Broncs 83-59 as Iona literally shot Rider out of the building by hitting 14 of 28 threes.   The Gaels were on an eight game winning streak.  All that stood between them and the NCAA Tournament was St Peter's, a team Iona had beaten twice during the regular season by double digits.

But the Peacocks got the ultimate revenge, stunning the Gaels 62-57 in the championship game.  Glover was his usual self, with 23 points on 9 of 12 shooting and 11 rebounds.  But Machado had an off night as he was only 4 of 17 from the floor and had four turnovers.  The Gaels had to settle for a berth in the CIT as Fairfield got the automatic NIT berth for finishing first during the regular season.

Iona would win their first CIT game, a road win over Valparaiso.  Glover had 17 points on only 8 of 10 shooting and added 11 rebounds as the Gaels torched the Crusaders with 58 percent shooting from the field. Next was a home game vs. Buffalo, the fourth Gaels game I had seen live on the season.  Again the Gaels showed that they were more than just Glover as they buried 11 of 23 three pointers in a solid 78-63 win over Buffalo.

After a close win at East Tennessee State, Iona was now in the finals of the CIT, hosting Santa Clara for the CIT title trophy (which upon viewing looked like something I could have done in woodshop class).   It was the fifth Iona men's basketball game I attended and the Gaels were 4-0 when I was at the Hynes Center.  I brought my older son Matthew to watch the championship game.

Perhaps due to Iona bringing out its bagpipe band before the start of the game, the Gaels came out energized and jumped out to a 16-8 lead.  Glover was his usual Optimus Prime self, scoring seven of the sixteen points Iona scored.  I thought we were going to see a Gaels win for sure.

But college basketball has always been a game of runs and Santa Clara responded with one hell of a run.  The Broncos outscored the Gaels 22-3 over seven minutes.  Santa Clara went up 30-19 on Iona and went to the half up 38-28.   The question was did Iona have another run of their own left in them.

The answer was yes. With the Gaels no doubt being inspired by the Iona Pep Band's always terrific version of Steely Dan's "Peg", Iona tied up the game at forty with fifteen and half minutes left.  But Santa Clara, behind Kevin Foster and Marc Trasolini, responded by outscoring Iona 25-11 over nearly eight and a half minutes.  The Gaels would get no closer than six points the rest of the way as the Broncos won 76-69.  Glover had a terrific game with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks shooting 7 of 11 from the field and 8 of 12 from the line.

Iona finished the season at 25-12, their most wins since the 1997-98 season, when the Gaels had 27 wins (thanks to Iona Athletics for responding to my tweet request on that).  They were 5th in the country averaging 17.4 assists per game, 15th in the country in points per game with 79 and 19th in the nation in FG percentage at 47.4 percent.

Glover averaged a double double on the season with 18.2 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game.  Glover would have 21 games where he had a double double and shot 60.3 percent from the field.  Machado averaged 7.5 assists per game on the season.

As good as the 2010-11 season was for Iona, the 2011-12 season has the potential to be even better for the Gaels.   Iona's top four scorers - Glover, Machado, Smyth and Jermel Jenkins all return as does Armand, the Gaels top freshman from this past season.   And the rich get richer as Iona landed a prize transfer in Momo Jones, who averaged nearly ten points per game for Arizona in his sophomore season.  Jones left Arizona to be closer to his Harlem home due to his grandmother's illness.

Iona is applying for a hardship waiver for Jones.  If the NCAA grants it, Jones can play for the Gaels in the 2011-12 season.   With MAAC Tournament champion St Peter's graduating their top four scorers and Fairfield returning only two of their three top scorers, Iona would be the likely favorite to win the MAAC, especially if Jones is granted the hardship waiver.  But no matter what, with their four top scorers returning, the Gaels will be rocking the Hynes Center this upcoming season.   For New York City college basketball fans, that sounds just as good as the Iona Pep Band's rendition of a Stevie Wonder song.  And trust me, that's really good.

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