The Iona and Manhattan college men’s basketball programs account for the last five Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championships, and a sixth title may be on the horizon if one believes the preseason polls.
Iona and Manhattan, basketball rivals on campuses 10 miles apart, were selected to finish first and second, respectively, by the conference coaches in a preseason poll.
“It’s been a great rivalry,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess told CNY. “The student body and alumni really get excited. You really feel the adrenaline in both gyms. (The rivalry has) grown because both teams have had successful seasons. The players knowing each other is another thing that brings emotions and incentives to the games.”
The MAAC opens regular-season play after Christmas with Iona beginning at Niagara University Dec. 29 and Manhattan hosting Fairfield University Dec. 30. The Gaels and Jaspers will meet at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale Jan. 27 and at Iona’s New Rochelle campus Feb. 23. The MAAC tournament is March 1-5 at the Times Union Center in Albany, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s how good you are in March that matters in our league,” Cluess said.
Cluess has guided his team’s high-powered offense to five consecutive MAAC title games and to MAAC championships in 2013, 2016 and 2017. The Gaels have been ranked among the top five scoring offenses in the country four times in the last seven years.
Iona, which started the season at 1-4, had a four-game winning streak snapped by St. John’s University at Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised game Dec. 17.
The Gaels have been led by junior guard Rickey McGill of Spring Valley and forward TK Edogi, who is a graduate student. Through Dec. 17, Edogi was leading the conference in rebounding, and McGill was second in assists.
“We have a lot of new pieces and we’re trying to get better every time out,” Cluess said. “I like how resilient our group is and how they never give up in games. I like how hard they are working in practice. Learning the system on offense and defense takes time.”
Manhattan won MAAC championships in 2014 and 2015, and has had two 20-win seasons under head coach Steve Masiello, now in his seventh season. The Jaspers, 4-6 entering their game at Hofstra University Dec. 20, were 2-3 in games decided by four points or fewer.
“You obviously want to learn from winning and you want to learn through losing, too. We’ll be as tested as any team in our conference,” Masiello said.
Preseason All-MAAC honorees Zane Waterman (first team), Rich Williams (second team) and Zavier Turner (third team) lead Manhattan.
Six Jaspers graduated from high schools in the archdiocese, including Iona Prep graduate Thomas Capuano, a junior guard.
“We’re coming along great,” Capuano said. “It’s still early in the season. We’re building chemistry and that will come with experience. We’re getting better every day.
“Our expectation every year is the MAAC championship. We can do great things with this group. We’ll take it day-by-day and game-by-game.”
Manhattan and Iona will be working in the coming weeks to put themselves in a position to win the MAAC championship in Albany.
“It’s a terrific league and teams play hard,” Masiello said. “The talent is underrated, and we have coaches who are some of the best in the business. There are no off nights in the league.”