After Willis Re...I mean Nico Clareth led Siena to the stunning upset of top-seeded Monmouth, No. 2 Saint Peter’s and No. 3 Iona took the Times Union floor, and the upsets continued. Although it was a more mild upset, Iona defeated Saint Peter’s 73-65 to move on to the title game for the fifth straight season under Tim Cluess, and the sixth time in his seven years at the helm.
The Gaels hit more than a few rough patches en route to victory, enduring an 11-plus-minute field goal drought that wrapped around halftime. The Peacocks had a 28-24 lead at the half on 30 possessions, right where John Dunne wanted the Gaels. Jordan Washington broke the dry spell for the Gaels in the second half, and as a Cluess’s offense is wont to do, Iona knocked in three straight threes and embarked on a 17-0 run that flipped a game-high Peacock lead of nine to an Iona game-high lead of eight with 14:30 remaining. From there, both teams struggled to score consistently, as Iona burned clock with the lead. SPU had one last mini push left in them, as a Trevis Wyche three with 51 seconds left cut the lead to four, but the Gaels hit their free throws down the stretch and held on for an eight-point victory. Washington led Iona with 22 points, while Wyche and Quadir Welton each had 18 for the Peacocks in defeat.
Monday’s championship game is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Here’s a look at how each team could punch their dance ticket (all stats per hoop-math.com):
5 Reasons why Iona can win
- Offense. Iona has the league’s most efficient offense, a regular occurrence in the Cluess era. In a season split with the Saints, Iona posted 1.15 points per possession in the victory, and 1.04 point per possession in the loss. With a revamped lineup thanks to a confident Deyshonee Much, the Gaels can score from five spots on the floor.
- Transition. Iona attempts shots in transition at the 29th-highest rate in the country. Siena’s defense allows field goal attempts in transition at the 10th-highest rate in the country. Why is that? Siena crashes the offensive glass as religiously as any team in the country, which limits the amount of defenders you can send back on defense off misses. Additionally, Jimmy Patsos’s offense is a compact, modified flex offense that wants to get the ball as close to the rim as possible, whenever possible. That scheme is also going to limit the amount of defenders that get back off misses.
- Experience. Some of the key players like EJ Crawford, Sam Cassell Jr., and Jon Severe are new faces, but Iona is, by and large, an experienced team that has been here and done that. This is new for the Saints (although it is Patsos’s second MAAC title game).
- Confidence. Iona has won seven straight against Siena on their home floor. The controversy surrounding the MAAC’s format for this tournament after Monmouth was ousted will fall on deaf ears for Cluess and the Gaels.
- Versatility. This iteration of the Gaels is a little different from previous Cluess teams in that they seem much more at ease in the halfcourt when they need to be. Cluess still prefers to get up and down and find open threes in transition with a drag screen offense, but the Gaels were a top-75 halfcourt offense this year in terms of effective field goal percentage.
5 Reasons why Siena can win
- Home court advantage. Iona likely won’t be bothered by playing on the TUC floor, but come on, who doesn’t prefer to play at home?
- Ability to score at the rim. Only three team in the entire country take a higher percentage of their field goal attempts at the rim than the Saints. Iona is actually pretty good at defending at the rim (26th lowest FG% allowed at the rim), but that generally involves Cluess making an offense-for-defense sub with Taylor Bessick playing for Washington. That’s not something Cluess is fond of doing right now with the way Washington is playing offense. Washington is a good defender in his own right, just not at the rim. Coincidentally, Washington was only able to log six minutes because of fouls in Iona’s win in Albany this year, and the Saints’ offense was held under a point per possession.
- Experience. The Saints might not have MAAC title game experience, but Javion Ogunyemi, Marquis Wright, Brett Bisping, and Lavon Long are all four-year (or five-year in Bisping’s case) program guys. Those four are the heart and soul of the team. They’ve had a tumultuous season, but this is their chance to go out like they thought they would when the season began.
- Sandbagging. Patsos appears to be trying a little too hard to convince Iona that Clareth isn’t going to play. Clareth turned in one of the iconic performances in MAAC tournament history Sunday night, coming off the bench in the second half to score 27 points. He was clearly in pain, but I’d be stunned if he doesn’t play, despite Patsos insisting he was good for just one game.
- Offensive rebounding. I mentioned that Siena’s propensity to hit the offensive glass with a vengeance tends to have a direct impact on its transition defense, but if you’re actually grabbing the misses and scoring, who’s to complain? Siena did just that in both meetings this year, and Iona isn’t a strong defensive rebounding group given its mostly four-out offensive personnel. If you can extend possessions and generate offense when you can’t hit jump shots, that’s generally a good thing.
PREDICTION: Iona wins and Cluess nabs his fourth MAAC title, 78-70