NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – It’s nice to be home if you’re Iona, a saying that holds true for more reasons than the obvious. The Gaels have won both games at home and lost both games on the road thus far, but certainly were their most impressive and balanced in Saturday’s 89-73 thumping of George Mason that was never a ballgame.
Head coach Tim Cluess thinks this team needs to be balanced offensively, and that was certainly the case on Saturday. While Sean Armand’s 30-point outing, which included breaking the school record for career three-pointers and going 10-16 from the field, will get a lot of attention, the big development was elsewhere in the lineup. If Saturday is any indication, the Gaels may know who their primary point guard is going forward.
A.J. English was a thorn in the Patriots’ side for much of the game, getting in the lane often and even making it look easy at times. Part of why it looked easy was the Patriot defense, which didn’t have its finest hour, but the sophomore took advantage with 18 points and six assists against two turnovers, while also grabbing seven rebounds. Tavon Sledge has missed three games with an ankle injury, and English has taken advantage of the opportunity to start.
“He’s going to be playing a lot more,” Cluess said. “I think we’ve found our point guard, which I’m really happy about. He’s done a great job the last three games being put in that position.”
The final score doesn’t tell you that this was a blowout. Iona started fast, scoring the game’s first 14 points and later leading 34-5. George Mason burned two timeouts before two media timeouts were reached. The Gaels were running left and right, turning Patriot turnovers and missed layups into points. They even out-rebounded the Patriots, notable since George Mason came into the game out-rebounding opponents by nine a game, although in part that owes to the defense as the Gaels had more missed shots to grab.
The Gaels have a well-balanced team, although Armand and David Laury appear to be the clear leaders. The preseason All-MAAC selections came up big on Saturday in different ways, with Laury at times carrying them in the first half and Armand scoring of his points after intermission, and getting some of those points at times to stop any semblance of a George Mason rally. They were two of five players who scored in double figures on Saturday, and Isaiah Williams had a quiet day but is very capable of doing that as well.
“I think we have a lot of pieces,” said Armand. “We’re athletic, we have a lot of length that we didn’t have in the past.”
Iona had 19 assists on 31 field goals on Saturday, and that’s a sign of what this team must do. Because they have several good scoring threats, they need to share the ball to get the best shots they can. There’s enough talent to draw plenty of defensive attention and allow a good shot for someone on most possessions.
“That’s what it’s going to be, and the one key I look at is how many assists that we have,” said Cluess. We had 19 assists, and that’s what it was all about. When we pass the ball and we share the ball, we’re a good team. The times we’ve played well this year is when we’re passing, the times we struggle are when we start going one-on-one. We’re much better when we pass the ball.”
Laury also showed that on occasion, he can handle the ball, which can help against a press. That’s not a long-term solution, but in a pinch he’s another ball handler. The reality is that the Gaels appear to have their floor leader for the foreseeable future, and when Sledge returns they have two options. Considering the importance of the point guard spot, that’s big for a team that has every intention of contending for another MAAC title.
Besides the balance, Iona isn’t playing like a team that feels entitled after winning a conference title a year ago. The Gaels have a little different cast, but a number of players were part of last season’s championship team and want more. They know nothing is given to them, and if anything winning last year and being picked near the top this year just puts a target on their backs.
“Everybody doubts our team, but we have got a lot to prove,” said Armand. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder every day, day in, day out, in practice, in warm-ups, in the game, and we come out and fight every day.”
Iona’s non-conference schedule is challenging. They head to Florida Gulf Coast for their next game, then later host St. Bonaventure before a three-game road swing completes it with stops at Dayton, Nevada and Northern Iowa. It will get them ready for MAAC play, and with their point guard situation in a better place and the balance they have, they will have every opportunity to be playing on a Monday night in Springfield in March.