Iona vs. Siena: MAAC Game of the Year

The Iona Gaels (17-6, 8-3) travel to Albany’s Times Union Center to face the Siena Saints (19-4, 12-0) tomorrow night in a showdown of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top two teams. Iona has won eight straight games, and Siena holds the nation’s longest streak at 13 games. The Saints won the first match-up on Dec. 7, 73-60.

Iona, like every other MAAC team this season, will be a big underdog against Siena. This is a different Iona team from when these two teams last met, however, so in anticipation of the game (which I’ll be covering) I’ll break down five keys for the Gaels to pull off the upset.

1. The Awe Factor
The Saints are the two-time MAAC champions and haven’t lost a conference game yet this season. They’ve won eight in a row against Iona, last losing in January of 2006. The Gaels can’t be intimidated by the Saints or their sold-out arena — a building, by the way, where Siena has won 32 straight. In fact, Iona, a full-court pressing team, can use the crowd energy to its advantage.

Jonathan Huffman, one of only two seniors on this Iona team, told me after the Gaels’ latest loss to Siena that, coming from the Big East (Huffman followed head coach Kevin Willard from Louisville), he looks at Siena like any other team. It’s reasonable to think that cool confidence has rubbed off on his teammates. After all, Iona won at Providence this year and took Florida State and Baylor down to the wire in Orlando.

2. Keep A-Rod on the Court
Willard said it himself after Iona’s most recent game: “He really is the backbone of our team.” He was speaking of junior Alejo Rodriguez. At 6’8,” 235 lbs., Rodriguez provides muscle for the Gaels’ thin frontcourt. Huffman is a seven footer, but he prefers to play on the perimeter, leaving freshman Mike McFadden as the only other Iona forward who logs substantial minutes.

Rodriguez enters the contest with Siena coming off two straight double-doubles. He leads the MAAC in field goal percentage by a fairly wide margin, but it’s on the defensive end that Rodriguez makes his mark, blocking and changing shots and pulling down boards. He can’t do any of these things, of course, if he’s not on the court. A-Rod fouled out of five of his first 14 games this season, but hasn’t fouled out in nine straight. He’ll go up against a Siena front line that includes three preseason first and second team All-Conference players.

3. Something’s Gotta Give
Siena is the highest-scoring team in the MAAC, averaging 75 points in conference games. Iona is the best defensive team, allowing only 56 points per game. After Monday’s game, Willard and his players spoke about how this Gaels squad is finally grasping the concept that defense wins games. But Siena’s starting five poses an entirely different challenge. Four starters score in double-digits, and the one who doesn’t, point guard Ronald Moore, leads the country in assists by a wide margin at a whopping 8.3 per game.

Edwin Ubiles is Siena’s most talented player, but “Ronald Moore is the key to that basketball team,” Willard said after Moore played 40 minutes against Iona in their last match-up. “If there’s a better point guard in the country, I’d like to find him. He makes everything go. He handles the ball, handles it against pressure, gets in the lane when he needs to, and makes all the right decisions…he is just terrific.”

Pretty high praise, huh? Well, Iona can counter with some great defensive guards, and if they can slow Moore down or force him into some turnovers, Iona’s chances at winning improve greatly.

4. Contain Ubiles
Easier said than done. The versatile small forward hit nine-of-16 shots for a game-high 19 points in the first match-up. When the game was still in single digits midway through the second half, he scored 10 points in a six-minute span to put the game away.

Ubiles is a match-up nightmare. At 6’6″ the senior can shoot over smaller guards, but he’s too quick for bigger forwards. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and, although he doesn’t take many threes, he’s over 40 percent from downtown. Ubiles has been hampered by a bad shoulder and has missed three of Siena’s past five games. But he played 23 minutes in Saturday’s win over Marist, scoring 15. He is expected to start tomorrow.

Not sure which player will draw Ubiles — whoever it is, he will have his hands full at the defensive end. Forcing Ubiles into some tough shots will help Iona limit the high-powered Saints offense.

5. Dig Deep
It’s often a key ingredient in any upset recipe: knock down some threes. Fortunately for the Gaels, they’re tops in the MAAC, shooting 37 percent from deep. They make an average of 7.6 threes per game, and I think 10 will be needed to beat Siena. Iona can spread the floor with as many as four shooters — Scott Machado, Kyle Smyth, Jermel Jenkins, Rashard McGill, Rashon Dwight, Milan Prodanovic, and Huffman can all hit from deep.

Stretching the defense by hitting outside shots will open the lane for Machado and others to penetrate. Deep bombs also tend to have the effect of quieting the crowd.

So there you have it. Pretty simple right? Five easy steps to victory. In all seriousness, Siena is going to be favored for a reason. This program has earned its position as the MAAC’s elite. But the Saints hear the footsteps of some of the other MAAC programs, with Iona’s likely being the loudest.

Willard has taken this team from a laughingstock (2-28 the year before he took over) to a legitimate conference force. Just hanging tough with the Saints would an improvement from years past, but a win would be perhaps Iona’s biggest in several seasons.

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