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Iona-Manhattan Rivalry As Good As It Gets on Mid-Major Scale

When you think of great college basketball rivalries, immediately the likes of Duke/North Carolina (which, of course took center stage Thursday night) and Kentucky/Louisville come to mind. While of course they are the rivalries to top all rivalries in college hoops given the exposure they get, they are certainly not the only rivalries we should embrace.

Rivalries are a special tradition in any sport on any level. And when it comes to rivalries in college hoops, Iona/Manhattan has it all. It’s a civil war between two campuses separated by less than 10 miles and it’s also a rivalry that is picking up steam not just in the New York area, but nationally as well.

The teams met in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) title game last year with the Manhattan Jaspers edging the Iona Gaels, 71-68 to earn the automatic invite to the NCAA Tournament. In the previous year, it was Iona who took the MAAC crown away from Manhattan, winning 60-57.

So, suffice to say, these two teams don’t like each other, and they always seem to bring out the best in each other. Their games have turned out to be events of late.

When CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein tweets out you should go to this game, well then maybe you should try to make it out to this game. And that I did.

Last Friday night I attended the Iona/Manhattan game played at Manhattan’s tiny Draddy Gymnasium, which was played in front of a sold-out crowd. Rothstein lived up to his end of the bargain by being there, as was ESPNU, which covered the game. The game lived up to all the hype with Iona fending off Manhattan, 70-67, after the Gaels A.J. English broke a tie game with a three-pointer with 32 seconds left that effectively sealed the win.

It was absolute bedlam right from the start as the decibel levels never dropped from deafening levels like it began. Both program’s students, fans and alumni immediately let each other know how they felt about each other. Manhattan’s student section, affectionately known as the “Sixth Borough”, as usual sat behind the basket and did a great job of making Iona feel unwelcome. Then again, Iona’s traveling student section, better known as the “Maroon Maniacs”, did a good job of letting the “Sixth Borough” know they were unfazed. Back and fourth chants between the student sections made you feel like you were back in an old Miller “tastes better, less filling” advertisement.

This rivalry dates back to the 1946-47 season with Iona leading the series 47-39 after Friday night’s win. While St. John’s is the biggest program in New York City, they have no natural rival on par with them in the city. But that’s the beauty between Iona and Manhattan, as they are very similar in stature. They play in the same conference; both play just outside Manhattan (in case you didn’t know, Manhattan is actually located in the Bronx while Iona is located in the suburb of New Rochelle) and they both have small enrollments (Iona at 4,065 and Manhattan at 3,883).

For more on how intense this rivalry is, I reached out to some writers who cover the local college basketball beat and get their take on the rivalry. One such writer is Zach Braziller of the New York Post.

“The area’s high major teams garner much of the attention during the regular season except for two nights — when Iona and Manhattan play,” said Braziller. “There is an electricity and excitement in those games that isn’t matched by any other games locally.”
“Part of the rivalry is of course the close proximity between the two schools,” Braziller added. “But also the players. A large percentage are local kids who have known each other for years. And that adds to these games.”

I also reached out to my good friend Jaden Daly, founder and publisher of DalyDoseOfHoops.blogspot.com, which covers the ins and outs of east coast college basketball including the Big East, Atlantic 10, MAAC, and Northeast Conference among others. Here is what Daly had to say:

“Here’s the best way I can describe Iona/Manhattan,” Daly would begin to say. “It’s the college basketball equivalent of Rangers/Islanders. Every game is always a war regardless of record, and every game always sells out. No other rivalry in the MAAC, or even the New York metropolitan area, comes close to matching the atmosphere of these games whenever the Gaels and Jaspers take the court. To cover it is to cover a Super Bowl of sorts. Those who spend time around these two programs will see how they prepare even harder for this big game, to avoid being the subject of bragging rights, and also to prove they are better than their rivals. There’s always more of a swagger around an Iona/Manhattan game, no matter the stakes, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.”

Iona is currently the toast of the MAAC. They lead the MAAC with a 14-2 record (21-6 overall) and have an NBA prospect on their team in English (19.5 ppg, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 apg). English is adept at driving the lane or drilling it from deep. He did after all nail down six of his nine three-point attempts in the game against Manhattan and is shooting .403 percent from three-point range this season.

It is, though,  6’9”, 245-pound brute David Laury who leads the team in scoring with 20.5 points per game while hauling down 9.5 rebounds per game. He is a force in the paint and must be accounted for. The Gaels also have two other scorers averaging at least 14 points per game (Schadrac Casimir with 15.4 points per game and Isaiah Williams with 14.2 points per game). So, this is a team that can put the ball in the hoop. If it is Iona who gets the automatic bid from the MAAC, this is a team capable of slaying some potential giants.

Iona is coached by fifth-year head coach Tim Cluess. Cluess is now 113-51 at Iona with already two NCAA Tournament appearances under his belt, and he’s on track for another this year. He has also guided Iona to the NIT, as well as being the runner-up in the 2011 CIT. If he gets his Gaels back to the Big Dance, he will certainly be a hot name to fill coaching vacancies at bigger schools come March.

For Manhattan, they are having an average year. It started off rocky for the Jaspers after last season ended, as coach Steve Masiello initially accepted the head coaching job at South Florida before controversy about him lying on his resume (saying he graduated from Kentucky when in fact he didn’t) led him back to Manhattan.

Masiello has since earned his degree and is guiding the Jaspers to a good but not necessarily great season The Jaspers are 13-12 overall but in fourth place in the MAAC with a 10-6 record. They are always a threat to make the NCAA Tournament and have appeared in the Big Dance three times in the last 12 years.

The Jaspers are led by the exploits of 6’6” senior forward Emmy Andujar, who leads the team in scoring (16.5 ppg), assists (3.3 apg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg). Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey adds 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while sharpshooter Shane Richards adds 13.6 points per game.

It would be great if the MAAC Championship, which gets underway on March 5 in Albany, New York, came down to Iona and Manhattan once again. However, don’t count out Rider (18-9, 12-4) and Monmouth (15-12, 11-5) either.

Regardless, when it comes to rivalries, they don’t get much better than Iona/Manhattan. The rematch at Iona on February 27 should be just as exciting and ESPN2 will be covering that one.

If you live near the New York City area, I highly recommend checking this rivalry out some time. It has all the pageantry you want: rabid fans, local tensions and great coaches and fans.

All quotes obtained first hand.

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