Iona, Manhattan both aim for Big Dance

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- St. John’s NCAA tournament hopes are on thin ice, but another local team’s chances are looking stronger by the day.

Iona clinched the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season championship Thursday, courtesy of a loss by second-place Quinnipiac, before Friday's matchup at archrival Manhattan (ESPN2, 7 p.m.).

The Gaels (19-8, 16-2 MAAC) have won 11 games in a row, the third-longest streak in school history, as they attempt to make the Big Dance for the third year in a row.

“Obviously I like the way we’re playing right now,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said Thursday. “If we continue that over the next couple of weeks, I’ll really enjoy it.”

This is a very different Iona team from the ones that went dancing in 2012 and 2013. Two years ago, Scott Machado led the nation in assists and Mike Glover averaged nearly 20 points and 10 boards. Last year, Momo Jones was third in the country in scoring at 23 points per game.

The 2013-14 squad features five players averaging in double figures. “I think these guys epitomize a team,” Cluess said. “On a given day, someone’s gonna make plays, and someone else probably isn’t, but someone is making up for that. They rely on each other, trust each other, which is huge -- I don’t think we really had that last year.”

The backcourt tandem of sophomore A.J. English (17.9 PPG) and senior Sean Armand (17.6 PPG) leads the way. English also averages a team-high 4.4 assists, and has been a pleasant surprise after missing half of his freshman season with a broken wrist. Armand has been as dangerous as ever from behind the 3-point line, shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc and burying nearly three treys per game.

Iona was 5-6 after four straight losses in December, albeit against a challenging nonconference schedule, but was able to right the ship. The Gaels haven’t lost since Jan. 17, and Cluess cited the improved play of junior forward David Laury (14.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG) and the return of sophomore swingman Isaiah Williams (10.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG). Williams missed five games due to a family situation, and Iona went 1-4 without him.

“Once we got him back, I think our players kind of started feeding off of his energy, and felt good about our team again,” Cluess said. “You win a game or two, and things change.”

“The guys bought in,” Armand said. “We knew we had to share the ball more, we knew we had to commit to defending. It started from the top guys leading in practice, and then practice goes to the games, and right now we’re on the same page and playing great.”

Manhattan (20-7, 13-5) was on a great run of its own, 6-0 in February, before a 67-63 loss at Siena last Friday. Coach Steve Masiello’s club was picked to win the MAAC in the preseason, but instead finds itself tied for third with Canisius.

“I’m happy overall -- anytime you have a 20-win season you want to celebrate it,” Masiello said. “Would I like to be playing for a conference title? Yes. Is that gonna happen this year? No. But that doesn’t mean your year is bad.”

The Jaspers can’t catch the Gaels in the regular season, but they have plenty to play for Friday. It’s the second-to-last home game for three seniors who have helped Masiello turn around the program -- swingman George Beamon (19.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG), guard Michael Alvarado (12.7 PPG, 4.3 APG) and forward Rhamel Brown (9.6 PPG, 3.9 BPG).

These players went 6-25 as freshmen, before Masiello took over. They’ve won 55 games since, and counting.

“They embraced every ounce of coaching, every ounce of adversity,” Masiello said. “They just took everything and ran with it.”

Six of Manhattan’s seven losses have been by six points or fewer. The one exception? An 85-73 defeat at Iona on Jan. 31, which was closer than the final score indicates -- the Jaspers led by six points early in the second half, and were still within two with under five minutes remaining.

“It’s just a good rivalry,” Beamon said. “Two good teams battling it out, you can’t ask for anything better than that. Those guys’ll be ready, but we’re gonna be ready ourselves, so they gotta watch out for us, definitely.”

The fifth-highest scoring team in the country (Iona) versus the team ranked sixth in blocks and 15th in steals (Manhattan)? Yes, Friday night will be fun.

But what would really be fun is a rematch in the MAAC tournament in Springfield, Mass. These two local rivals met in the title game last season, for the first time ever, with Iona pulling out a nail-biter 60-57.

The Jaspers have used that game as motivation all season long. “That’d be a dream come true, to see them in the championship,” Beamon said. “I hope we see them.”

Iona would be the favorite, but Manhattan doesn’t lack for confidence.

“I love our chances on a neutral site,” Masiello said. “With our roster, I think we have a very good chance.”

March can’t get here fast enough.