Thursday, December 29, 2011

Five pre-game thoughts: Iona

1.) Oh my goodness! It’s the return of pregame thoughts! Christmas really IS the season of miracles! And limited work weeks that were supposed to be completely free of work but aren’t. But anyway.

1b.) The Flying Dutchmen suffered their share of lopsided defeats during a memorable 2010-11, but none stung quite as badly as the 87-62 loss to Iona a year ago tonight in New Rochelle. While part of the Dutchmen’s problem was bad timing—in addition to Brad Kelleher making his first start in place of the injured Dwan McMillan, the Gaels were primed to destroy someone after head coach and former Hofstra player Tim Cluess forced the Gaels to stay on campus and practice on Christmas Day following a loss to Vermont—the loss was the least competitive one of the season. It led to plenty of good things for Hofstra—after Mo Cassara held a boot camp of his own over New Year’s weekend, the Dutchmen opened January with five straight wins, including the seismic upset of George Mason—but the loss is still clearly on the mind of the nine Dutchmen who experienced it, either on the court or on the bench.

“We needed these last two games to get our mojo back for Iona,” McMillan said after the win over Colgate last Thursday. “We’re looking at that game as a measuring stick, because we’re ready for them after what they did to us last year.”

Motivation won’t be a problem today, not with so many New York-area natives on the team and with most of the players knowing one another from high school and AAU ball. “We played together at St. Benedict’s,” McMillan said when asked about Iona’s star point guard Scott Machado. “He knows me and I know him.”

2.) Of course nobody’s Rex Ryan enough to declare the Dutchmen look forward to proving they are the best team in the New York area. That’s Iona. The Gaels are 10-2 and a buzzer-beating half-court shot by Purdue away from being 11-1. They’re a remarkable 9-2 on the road or at neutral sites with wins over Maryland in Puerto Rico and over Denver at Denver, where the Gaels came back from a double-digit deficit in the second half in the mile high air. This is Iona’s eighth straight road game and the closest the Gaels have been to New Rochelle since Nov. 28.

3.) The Gaels are winning by channeling Loyola Marymount circa 1990 (Google it everyone who wasn’t high school age or older 21 years ago!). Iona has scored 80 or more points nine times, 90 or more five times and 100 or more twice. They have yet to average below 1.06 points per possession in a game and are averaging 77 possessions per game, a figure Hofstra hasn’t even reached once. And as our friend Guy Falotico pointed out today, the Gaels can beat you any which way with a big-time big man (Seton Hall transfer Mike Glover), slasher (Arizona transfer MoMo Jones) and a ruthlessly effective point guard (Machado).

The best way to beat Iona, obviously, is to slow the game down, but the Gaels are 2-1 in games in which they had fewer than 70 possessions, and one of those losses was at Marshall in the midst of this eight-game road trip. The Flying Dutchmen don’t need to channel Villanova vs. Georgetown circa 1985 (Google it, etc etc) but they must limit mistakes, maximize their offensive opportunities and force Iona to play a more moderate tempo.

4.) McMillan’s ability to break the Iona press will be a key for the Dutchmen, who can’t afford to give Iona additional opportunities with turnovers. The equation that lifted the Dutchmen past Colgate in the second half needs to work again: A balanced scoring attack and an ability to get players other than Mike Moore involved once the defense keys on him. The Dutchmen need at least two of the McMillan-Nathaniel Lester-David Imes-Shemiye McLendon quartet to score in double figures. Defensively, there’s no stopping Glover, who has five double-doubles and has scored 20 or more points five times this year, but Imes, Stephen Nwaukoni and Moussa Kone have to come up with a way to limit his damage. If the Dutchmen win this game, it’ll be because Kone had a coming out party.

5.) While there are at least 20 games left in the season, it’s no stretch to declare these next two will determine the direction the Dutchmen will take in 2011-12. Iona and VCU are the two best teams Hofstra will see all year, so a split will provide plenty of optimism for those hoping the Dutchmen can move into the top half of a down CAA. Even a pair of competitive losses will engender some hope the Dutchmen can steal a few games come the end of January and February. (We won’t even get into what a sweep would mean) A pair of lopsided defeats, though, and it’ll be tough to sell the idea this is anything other than a rebuilding/transitional season. Rest assured Mo Cassara got no rest even during his trip home for Christmas and that he was obsessing over how to beat Iona and VCU the entire time he was upstate. He’s got his hands full taking on the high-powered Gaels and Rams at less than full strength, but in Mo we trust to keep the rest of the season interesting.

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