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Iona’s February surge has re-established the Gaels as the favorites in the MAAC

The stars are aligning and something seems to be brewing at Iona.

Courtesy: Iona Athletics

It had hardly been five minutes since tip-off, but the scoreboard had already read 17-2. It symbolized a new low for a team that had such high expectations. The man on the sideline, his name all too familiar to fans of basketball around the world, was seeing his relatively new inherited empire collapsing.

It was the capstone performance in a January that brought out the worst — until it wasn’t.

A switch was flipped. Rick Pitino and the Iona Gaels have figured it out, and have found their way back to two games ahead of the rest of the MAAC with seven straight wins. From an abysmal January that saw the preseason conference favorites plummet all the way down to 363rd out of 363 in Erik Haslam’s Momentum index, the Gaels have the 18th-best efficiency rating in all of college basketball in February.

So how did the switch flip, and the Gaels rattle off seven straight wins to put them in the driver’s seat for their second consecutive regular season title?

The Stars Are Shining

Iona might have the three best players in the MAAC, with big man Nelly Junior Joseph, along with the stellar backcourt duo of Daniss Jenkins and Walter Clayton Jr, and they can always rely on somebody to have a high-level performance.

Starting with the guards, there’s simply nobody in the MAAC better at getting to his spots off the dribble than Jenkins. He’s an explosive athlete with a quick first step and the ability to blow by defenders. Combined with a smooth mid-range jumper, Jenkins is a deadly scorer off the bounce. He’s 10th in the country in points per possession on mid-range jumpers, and he leads the MAAC by a solid margin there. He takes jumpers off the dribble at a frequency greater than 92% of Division I players, and he makes them consistently and efficiently.

Jenkins isn’t just a mid-range specialist, he’s a three-level scorer with a crafty bag of finishes around the rim, and the ability to step out and hit 3s. While his percentage is down to 33.3%, it’s dangerous to leave him open, because he can hit those shots.

Jenkins’ ability to score couples well with his vision and playmaking, which has recently even outshined his scoring. During the Gaels’ seven-game winning streak, the Dallas native is only averaging 12.4 points, but he’s managed 5.3 assists to just 2.3 turnovers, including a 10 point, 10 assist, double-double against Manhattan on Friday.

As a playmaker, Jenkins benefits tremendously from the immense scoring talent of his sophomore running mate, Clayton Jr. He is averaging 17 points per game during the Gaels winning streak, including a 30 point outburst against Niagara. If you commit resources to stopping Jenkins, you’re going to give Clayton Jr. chances, and he’ll always bury his chances. Clayton Jr. is shooting 46% from deep during MAAC play, and he’s connected on 18 of his 37 long balls during the streak.

Like Jenkins, Clayton is a well-rounded offensive player who can beat you in many different ways. Pitino, who’s coached plenty of star guards in his day, said after the Manhattan game “if [Clayton’s] defense catches up to his offense, he has NBA potential,” which is high praise for his offensive game.

Pitino also highlighted his strength and ability to get to the rim at his size as reasons for his offensive game being so great.

Clayton Jr. has come out of the gates scorching hot in recent games, setting the tone with multiple 15-plus point first halves for the Gaels on the streak. Clayton Jr. didn’t play in the loss to Quinnipiac, and he only played 16 minutes against Rider, since the Gaels have had him back at full strength, they’re 8-1.

In the post, Junior Joseph has been a model of consistency, one of the nation’s leading double-double machines. During the winning streak, Junior Joseph is averaging 14.9 points and 12.1 rebounds, putting up a double-double in all but one game.

In the pick-and-roll, the duo of Junior Joseph and Jenkins is dynamite. He described their combination to media following the win over Mount.

“If you hit [the defender], one of us is gonna be open,” Jenkins said. “As long as I keep being patient, waiting for him to come screening, we’re gonna get free every time.”

Junior Joseph has dominated in the post in recent games, with at least three field goals downlow in four of the last six games. Even when it seems like Junior Joseph is struggling, he can take over the box score by getting to the line and grabbing rebounds. He’s averaging over eight free-throw attempts per game over the last seven, and while he isn’t a great free-throw shooter, the ability to wear down opposing bigs and force them into foul trouble helps him later in games.

The Twin Towers Defense

In terms of big men, it’s not only Junior Joseph. The Gaels have Osborn Shema, who wouldn’t be out of place on the Harlem Globetrotters with his combination of size and athleticism. When Quinn Slazisnki went down, the Gaels were forced to move to lineups with both Shema and Junior Joseph on the floor, and it has worked to disrupt the offenses of many MAAC teams.

Shema has recently been much more assertive on the glass, something that Pitino has drilled into him over the course of his career. His ability to run in transition, swat shots, and even step out for the three makes him a must-watch player, among the most entertaining in mid-major basketball.

Playing two big men isn’t a strategy that’s employed very often in modern basketball, but the Gaels have built a defensive gameplan around it that has made them one of the best units in the country.

“Our main goal is to run guys off the 3-point line, and go finish over the twin towers if you can,” Jenkins said.

Posting up against the Gael bigs will likely get a double sent that can really mess with the offensive player. It takes a really tough finish to beat the Gaels down low, as evidenced by the No. 1 block rate and No. 1 two-point field goal percentage defense in the MAAC.

It’s not just the big men that make Iona’s defense so elite. If you asked most Iona fans, neither of them are even Iona’s best defender. Berrick JeanLouis’ athleticism is freakish, and his ability to force high-level guards and wings into having an off night makes Iona an even scarier opponent. JeanLouis impacts every aspect of defense, swatting shots, nabbing steals, guarding at the point of attack, helping on drives, and so much more.

Due to the defensive personnel, and the full-court press that the Gaels operate, Iona’s defense is among the best in the country as of late. Since the start of February, Iona is 14th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and is sixth in effective field goal percentage defense. It’s really tough to make shots against Iona, and it’s really tough to take care of the ball, as they are forcing turnovers at a 21.7% clip in the month.

Anton’s Arrival

Pitino has gone on and on about how short the bench has been this year. He’s gone on and on about how injuries have ravaged this team.

“The Rams were Super Bowl Champions, and they had injuries, and they struggled mightily,” he said after his team’s 70-67 home loss to Rider on Jan. 15. “We’re going to struggle because of these injuries — not a whole lot we can do about it.”

In that game, Anton Brookshire played just two minutes despite Clayton Jr. not being fully healthy, and could only play 16 minutes himself. Brookshire, a transfer from Missouri, is a speedy guard whose offensive game is his calling card.

He was the best shooter in Springfield, Missouri, during his high school career, and he’s shown his pedigree recently. In the Gaels’ last three games, Brookshire has hit 10-of-16 from distance, and is averaging 13.3 points per game. The jolt that Brookshire’s late-season emergence has given the Gaels is immense, with an option to score off the bench in the absence of freshman Cruz Davis.

Practice Like You Play

In an effort to make practices more competitive, Rick Pitino and his staff switched up the intrasquad teams. Instead of going with the traditional starters versus reserves, Clayton Jr. and Shema moved to the “maroon team” while they face off with Jenkins and Junior Joseph on the “gold team”.

“Our practices are the most competitive they’ve ever been,” Jenkins said.

Clayton Jr. too relishes the change.

“I’m competitive as can be,” the sophomore said. “In practice, I’m not helping the other team.”

What’s Ahead

Iona will get Michael Jefferson back soon, and according to Pitino he should’ve returned already. He dressed on Sunday against Saint Peter’s, but didn’t play. Whenever he does return, it gives the Gaels a power forward, something that they haven’t had on the roster since the New Year.

Davis is also progressing towards a return, with Pitino hopeful that he returns before the MAAC Tournament.

Iona is two games ahead of the pace with four games to play, but still has tough matchups with Siena and Rider on the docket. The Gaels will also travel to Maryland to face a healthy Mount St. Mary’s team that is playing its best basketball of the MAAC season, winning two in a row since getting healthy.

The Gaels are powering forward while the rest of the MAAC seems to cannibalize itself, closing the gap between everybody that isn’t Iona. Through all of the noise about whether Pitino will leave Iona for a high-major job, there’s still basketball being played, and this is a Gaels team that can make some serious noise.