"I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm." - Franklin D. Roosevelt
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - At the risk of being unpopular, what is the purpose of the non-conference college basketball season at the mid-major level?
You need some practice to get ready for the important games, it's nice to see some different matchups, and picking up a paycheck somewhere above the Red Line once in a while is nice for the wallet. But in most of the conferences we cover (there are some exceptions, especially in the Missouri Valley and Atlantic-10/14/16 that routinely get multiple NCAA Tournament bids), the season doesn't really start until conference play
Evidently someone at the MAAC offices agrees with me, and so - while most teams have a month or so to fine tune their squadrons - defending regular season champion Iona played host to Niagara in what was unofficially the first conference game in the nation on November 28 (there were also a couple of Southern Conference games Wednesday).
As Iona and Niagara were the early birds to conference play, I was likely the first one to arrive at the Hynes Athletic Center, New York traffic conspicuously absent much to my delight. I was able to walk right into the gym two hours before tip-off, seeing only a few Iona players shooting around and workers setting up the facility. One of the Gaels was Swedish freshman Erik Friman, who seemed to be desperately trying to convince his more veteran teammates that he was hip to the American lingo and styles. Not sure they were buying it.
One of the first things you notice when you get to the lobby of Hynes is a strong chlorine smell. With some time, I investigated, and the answer
was simple, there's a pool in the basement. Duh.
There were kids' lessons going on, and as one of them walked by me on the way out, his dad adroitly noticed, "Hmm, must be a basketball game tonight."
"Yup, big game, conference play starts tonight, they're playing Niagara," I replied.
Blank stares all around. "Go Patriots," one of the little kids finally yelled.
I got excited for a fraction of a second, thinking George Mason. Then I looked down at the New York Giants
coat I was wearing. Yea, I've probably been watching way too much mid-major basketball the last few weeks.
The Hynes Center almost perfectly encapsulates the Mid-majority Catch-22. It opened in 1974, and looks like it, both in good and bad ways. On the plus side of the ledger, it can get extremely loud when full, and feels like a gym, hard to describe except for the feel. If you've been around hoops enough, you know it when you feel it.
However, while having a real old-school gym is nice, not having modern amenities is sometimes not all it's made out to be.
The Iona box office did not open until an hour before tip, so I sat patiently in the lobby. By 5:55, the workers were surprised that Niagara hadn't yet arrived, until one of them said:
"Well, they know they're changing in the girls
lacrosse room, right? It's a conference game, they've been here before, so they must know. Why would you get here early? I wouldn't be surprised if they just got off the bus and went out on the floor like a high school team."
Niagara, who made the seven-hour bus trip the day before (which can't be comfortable when you're 6-foot-6 or taller), was one of my teams to watch in the MAAC with a plethora of young scorers returning, including Juan'ya Green, the second leading scorer in the country among freshmen last season. If they could just sure up the defense and add a little bit of size, they could be right in the mix.
But, it became painfully obvious early in this game that the Purple Eagles really haven't plugged too many holes yet on the defensive end. Iona has a similar problem after losing Mike Glover to graduation, which led to a frenetic, yet entertaining contest that featured 49 combined three-point attempts (and an outrageous 30 combined offensive rebounds), many of them very early in possessions.
While not full, the crowd was lively, and included former New York Knicks crowd favorite Anthony Mason
, whose son Antoine is a sophomore for Niagara after playing his high school ball down the street at New Rochelle High (the elder Mason played his college ball at Tennessee State, so it's good to see the Mid-majority passed from generation to generation). Anthony was off his feet after an Antoine early strong offensive rebound and putback, but stayed quiet after Antoine was in foul trouble for most of the first half. And I mean that in a good way, the second foul looked questionable at best, but he didn't berate the officials.
Iona came in with the second-leading scorer in the nation (meaning after seeing C.J. McCollum the night before
, I had seen the top two back-to-back nights) in senior Momo Jones, but they have more than their fair share of shooters, and had most of them on display against a mediocre Niagara defense. Jones' layup put the Gaels up 30-15 midway through the first half, but Curtis Dennis and Tre Bowman - not primary options for coach Tim Cluess - combined to score 29 points and hit eight #superhoops.
The Gaels led 43-31 at the half and 56-41 with 13 minutes left on a Sean Armand #superhoop, but unfortunately, late-game collapses have haunted Iona, so when Mason hit a #superhoop
of his own and proceeded to do his dad's (and now Aaron Rodgers') belt celebration in front of the Iona bench, there was a murmur from the crowd.
Niagara got the deficit as low as five, but - as they were the first time I saw them - Iona was steadied by 5-foot-9 point guard Tavon Sledge. He finished with 12 points, five assists, four steals, and six rebounds (?), but more importantly kept his composure under late-game pressure. Eventually, a Dennis #superhoop
(from Sledge) with two minutes left put the game completely out of reach.
With all the talk of collapses, Iona has won 16 of their last 18 games at the Hynes Center, and is among the favorites to win the MAAC and return to the NCAA Tournament. Niagara still has a lot of work to do, Green was held to 12, and while Mason had a game-high 24, many of them came late. More importantly, the lack of an inside game was blatantly obvious.
(There was a stretch in the second half where both teams went small and there wasn't a player taller than 6-foot-5 on the floor.)
In the end, Armand - who can shoot with anyone in the nation - got the radio interview afterward and signed some autographs for the birthday party that hung around.
It was an interesting scene, as Mason stood nearby, Armand signed away, there was certainly a time not long ago that Mason couldn't walk the streets of anywhere in the New York City area without getting mobbed. To his credit, Anthony seemed to take it in stride, he just wheeled an elderly relative out, stopped to take a couple of pictures with fans, and waited patiently for Antoine.
As I got back to the parking lot, I found that while the early bird may not always get a worm, he does get a quick escape. Being one of the first ones in the garage, I got a spot near the exit, a nice New Yorker (they are out there) let me back out, and I was on the road home within seconds.
Conference play in the MAAC was underway, and I didn't have a huge problem with it. at IONA 83, NIAGARA 72
NIAGARA 2-4 (0-1) -- J. Green 5-11 0-0 12; M. Jordan 5-10 1-2 14; A. Tanksley 6-13 1-2 13; T. McCall 1-5 0-0 2; A. Mason 9-16 5-6 24; T. Cline 2-6 2-4 6; M. Lemmons 0-3 1-2 1; J. Thomas 0-1 0-2 0. Totals 28-65 10-18 72.
IONA 3-2 (1-0) -- S. Armand 6-12 2-4 18; T. Bowman 4-10 1-1 12; T. Sledge 6-12 0-2 12; L. Jones 3-10 6-6 12; C. Dennis 6-11 0-0 17; T. Ridley 2-5 5-6 9; A. English 0-1 0-0 0; S. Jackson 1-1 1-2 3. Totals 28-62 15-21 83.
Three-point goals: NIAG 6-23 (M. Jordan 3-7; M. Lemmons 0-2; A. Mason 1-3; J. Green 2-6; A. Tanksley 0-2; T. Cline 0-3), IONA 12-26 (C. Dennis 5-8; L. Jones 0-3; S. Armand 4-8; T. Bowman 3-6; A. English 0-1); Rebounds: NIAG 34 (A. Tanksley 11), IONA 36 (S. Armand 11); Assists: NIAG 18 (T. McCall 7), IONA 18 (L. Jones 5); Total Fouls -- NIAG 21, IONA 16; Fouled Out: NIAG-None; IONA-None.