The MAAC slate offers up a split schedule before the weekend, with two games tonight and three more on Friday. Siena hosts a shorthanded Loyola squad and Fairfield visits Marist in tonight's games, but one of the better matchups could be the one that's being televised by ESPNU on Friday night. Iona, winners of four straight and nine of their last eleven, take on Manhattan at Draddy Gymnasium with tip time set for 9 PM. I was able to spend a few minutes on the phone this morning with Iona head coach Kevin Willard, who singled out the Gaels' improved defense as a key to their current run.
"The biggest things for us has been defense. Guys know that if they go out and defense we'll have a shot at winning," said Coach Willard. As for their improvement throughout the entire season, a team with nine freshmen and sophomores realizes that it cannot afford to look too far ahead. "We make sure the focus is on our next opponent," remarked Coach Willard. "We're a young team that can't afford to look ahead so we focus on each day and each practice." One thing that's been impressive about Iona in game action is that they seldom worry about things they can't control and they compete for forty minutes.
And while they have one of the conference's younger backcourts in sophomore Scott Machado and redshirt freshman Kyle Smyth the Gaels also have one of the more talented guard tandems in the MAAC. On Machado, Coach Willard noted that his biggest improvement has been his ability to "control the game without forcing things and playing within the tempo of the game." Fast pace or in the half court Scott (12.5 ppg, 4.3 apg) has been the consummate floor general for Iona and the fact that he had to play so much last season (almost a "baptism by fire" situation) has reaped benefits in 2009-10.
As for Smyth, who had to sit out last season due to injury (bruised knee followed by blowing out his ankle), the year off wasn't as serious of a blow in the rust department for the New Jersey native who was expect to be a part of last year's rotation. "Kyle was on campus for both summer sessions last year and he was around to practice," said Coach Willard. The head coach went on to describe Smyth as a player with an "unbelievable work ethic" and those are the kids that all programs need. When you have to convince a guy that he needs to be in the gym then you've got problems.
Lastly he touched on the leadership provided by three key upperclassmen in juniors Rashon Dwight and Alejo Rodriguez and senior Milan Prodanovic. Dwight is a three-year captain who's been a "stable influence" in the team while the other two, both having already graduated, "are as good a team leaders as anyone could hope for and they've been through the wars." Tied for third in the MAAC with Saint Peter's with a league mark of 5-3, Iona has the look of a team that could make some noise both in the regular season as well as in the MAAC Tournament.
7p Saint Peter's at Niagara
This is a crucial game within the conference standings, for if the Peacocks win they gain another game of separation between themselves and the Purple Eagles while a Niagara win re-enters them into the discussion for that two-seed in the MAAC Tournament. Their first meeting was a high-scoring affair, won by the Peacocks in Jersey City 90-86 in double overtime as the Purple Eagles shot just 37.3% from the field. What kept Niagara in the contest was their three-point shooting, making thirteen of thirty-six shots from behind the arc.
Bilal Benn is one of the best rebounders in the MAAC especially for being 6-4, but as a team Niagara isn't the best on the glass. If Ryan Bacon and company can control the boards they've got a shot at leaving Gallagher Arena with a win. Guard play should not disappoint either, with Saint Peter's boasting a very good tandem in Wesley Jenkins and Nick Leon. Those two combined to score fifty-six points in the first meeting while Niagara's Tyrone Lewis scored twenty. Look for this to be another high-scoring contest with the game not being decided until late.
7p Rider at Canisius
The Broncs are reeling right now, and the two-game swing through the Buffalo area may come at the worst possible time for a team that's lost five of its last seven (the two wins came against teams below them in the standings) and two straight. Rider opponents are shooting 45.1% from the field this season and they've allowed each of their last three opponents to shoot at least that well from the field. And when a team that's traditionally very good offensively is making just 41% of its shots and you can't make up for it defensively you're in trouble. Ryan Thompson and Novar Gadson will have to be two of the standouts if the Broncs are to leave Buffalo with a win.
As for the Golden Griffins, Tom Parrotta's team have alternated wins and losses in their last four which would set them up for a win tomorrow night if form holds. The backcourt duo of Frank Turner and Julius Coles is the highest-scoring guard tandem in the MAAC with an average of 32.2 points per game. The key for Canisius: make sure bigs such as Greg Logins and Tomas Vasquez-Simmons don't get too trigger-happy on the perimeter. They can hit those shots, especially Logins, but the Griffs would be better served if the lion's share of those shots came from Turner and Coles. 2-3 in conference road games, Rider could have their hands full at the Koessler Center.
9p ESPNU Iona at Manhattan
This game is a matchup that usually determined the conference champion in the late-90s and while the aforementioned Gaels are playing well the same can't be said for Manhattan. The Jaspers have lost four of their last five with three of the defeats being by three points or less. The perimeter trio of Darryl Crawford, Antoine Pearson and Rico Pickett can be a handful for opponents. In regards to the threat that Manhattan poses his team Coach Willard noted that Manhattan "is a very good transition team that can be dangerous" and "we need to match their intensity". The Gaels are the deeper team and if they can win the turnover battle they stand a good chance of leaving Draddy with their sixth conference win.
Thursday's Quick Picks
7p Loyola at Siena
The Greyhounds are without Jamal Barney, who left the team, and it's unknown when leading scorer Brett Harvey (shoulder) will be healthy enough to return. Anthony Winbush has also missed time recently due to injury so Jimmy Patsos' team isn't in the best of health right now. Edwin Ubiles (back) did take part in warmups for the Saints, who are also down a man with Kyle Downey breaking his foot in practice earlier this week. Look for Siena to hit the halfway mark of league play with a 9-0 record.
7:30p Fairfield at Marist
Marist is extremely young and they've struggled as a result. Add in a Fairfield squad that's made a solid case for being the MAAC's second-best team and it wouldn't be much of a stretch to expect Ed Cooley's squad take care of business. Derek Needham has been the best freshman in the league and Anthony Johnson could be in for a big night up front for Fairfield.