Quadir Welton’s special relationship with uncle Rasheed Wallace — Just a phone call away

Quadir Welton. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Quadir Welton. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Most kids who pick up a basketball dream of one day playing in the NBA. Quadir Welton is one of the select few who has known what it takes to actually get there since childhood.

Suiting up for Saint Peter’s, a small, overlooked mid-major that plays in a drab, grey gymnasium, Welton would seem light years away from “The League.” But NBA super stardom has always been a daily phone call away for the sophomore center and Philadelphia native through his special bond with his uncle, former NBA star Rasheed Wallace.

“It was fun knowing that that’s my uncle,” Welton says. “Seeing him doing the things that he was doing in the NBA was what motivated me more to try to play like him.”

Standing a burly 6-feet-8-inches, 230 pounds, Welton shares a similar, albeit shorter, build to the 6-foot-11-inch Wallace, and has emulated the former NBA Champion’s appearance on the court as well.
“This year I was wearing a headband to try to be like him,” says Welton with a laugh.

With a penchant for physical play and a soft touch, Welton tries to play with the same the old-school style Wallace channeled for six different teams in 16 seasons in the NBA. After a surprising freshman campaign where he started all 31 games for the Peacocks and averaged 4.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, Welton has turned to a defensive mindset for his sophomore season.

“I take a lot of pride in playing defense and offensive rebounding to get more opportunities for my team and basically, just help my team out as much as I can so we can win,” says Welton.

Welton credits his newfound defensive abilities to a grueling offseason in the gym and in the weight room where he gained over 20 pounds of muscle to improve his game on the court.

“My role changed a little bit this year from last year,” he says. “I had to mature and couldn’t have a lot of the mistakes that I had last year on defense, and just little stuff. I’m able to contribute more because I’m stronger. I know more. Everything is a lot different from my freshman year.”

This season, Welton’s statistics have improved in almost every category. He is averaging 7.0 points per game and 5.3 rebounds. Additionally, Welton has improved his steals and blocked shots while working on his defensive play.

These results have come from a large amount of hard work, but also daily conversations with the former NBA champion and four-time all-star Wallace.

“He always told me scoring doesn’t really matter,” Welton says. “He says, ‘anyone can make a lay-up, it’s the little things that you have to do to become a pro like playing defense, blocking shots, and rebounding.’ He told me, if I want to be a professional, I’ll have to do those things.”

Their relationship has been close throughout Welton’s young life, and he has always remembered sharing the special bond of basketball with Wallace.

“It was just really fun as a child seeing my uncle doing what he was doing in the NBA, especially when he won the NBA championship in 2004,” says Welton.

Once Welton started to gain recognition for his own play during his junior year of high school at Math, Civics and Science Charter, Wallace began to teach Welton the most important aspects of reaching higher levels of basketball.

“Since high school he’s been a teacher,” Welton says. “He’s been trying to help me out and teach me certain things and tell me what I need to do so I can be good at the next level if I go pro. We talk every day and have conversations about what we’re going to do in the summer to get my game better in my junior and senior year.”

Although Welton was the fifth-leading scorer for the Mighty Elephants as a senior in high school, he never felt like he was playing in his uncle’s shadow, or had to live up to his lofty career.

“No, there was no pressure,” Welton says. “It wasn’t that difficult because a lot of people didn’t know he was my uncle until the end of my junior year. They would do little cheers, but I never had to live up to anything. I just played my game.”

It has been a year of ups and downs for the 13-16 Peacocks, but Welton’s goal remains to win a championship.

“This year we’ve been working on finishing games; playing the whole game and finishing it out and being a team,” he says. “We lost a lot of close games at the beginning, but it made us better and closer. Now, we know how to win and it will help us out in the end during MAAC tournament play because of how the season went.

“Even though our record is not that good, we all know we’re a team and we know we can beat anybody in the league. For the rest of this season, the goal is just getting my seniors their championship and letting them leave with their ring.”

Being the competitor he is, Welton wants to continue to improve his own skills for each game in front of him.

“I’m going to be working on my footwork with my uncle over the summer and a couple more things that he said he had to show me like post moves so I can be a dominant player in the MAAC,” says Welton.

But Welton’s lofty goals do not stop with winning a championship, as Welton dreams of following in his uncle’s footsteps, either into a career as a professional player or coach.

“I want to play professional, but if that doesn’t work out I would like to go into coaching,” says Welton.

There is an extremely special bond between family and basketball for Welton, and it is one of the main reasons why he continues to play.

“It’s the love of the game, and really just for my family: to show my mom that I’m doing good,” he says. “I love basketball. For my uncle and my grandfather who played, it’s in our family. Just to make my parents proud and my family proud.”

Quadir Welton. Photo Credit: Saint Peter's Athletics
Quadir Welton. Photo Credit: Saint Peter’s Athletics

Donyell Marshall, former NBA forward, loving mid-major life at Rider

Donyell Marshall and Chuck Lerner after Rider's Jan. 18 win at Manhattan. Courtesy Photo / Chuck Lerner
Donyell Marshall and Chuck Lerner after Rider’s Jan. 18 win at Manhattan. Courtesy Photo / Chuck Lerner

As Donyell Marshall ambled towards Rider’s locker room at Manhattan College’s Draddy Gym, a young man ran over to the barricade and stopped him.

It’s not every day you see one of your favorite NBA players coaching — assistant coaching, actually — at the mid-major level, and Chuck Lerner, 22, wanted to meet the man who once hit 12 three-pointers in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. That record-tying night 10 years ago left an everlasting impression on Lerner, who imitated Marshall’s shot during middle school lunch periods.

“We had been planning to go see Rider for a while, and I gave away all my other jerseys to younger kids who I knew would wear them,” said Lerner, who went with friends to see Rider beat Manhattan, 82-79, on Jan. 18. “I kept Donyell’s with the hopes of getting it signed. I got it signed to Chuck, personalized, no secondary market value. To me it will be a memory.”

Make no mistake: It will be a memory for Marshall, too.

Special moments with fans and his team are accumulating, and the second-year Rider assistant couldn’t be happier.

“I’ll take those moments,” he says. “They’ll live with me forever.”

This is a man who made $72.4 million over 15 NBA seasons. He flew from city to city on chartered planes and dressed in palatial locker rooms across the country.

Now he shifts around coach bus seats, trying to appease his wide, 6-foot-9 frame. He drives his own car to recruit, and his salary is just a sliver of the $1.2 million the 76ers paid him in 2008-09, his last and lowest-paying NBA season.

But Marshall isn’t a cautionary tale, another statistic on the long list of professional athletes who have gone broke after retiring. Assisting Rider head coach Kevin Baggett isn’t Marshall’s desperate way of making ends meet.

“He’s not a guy that’s blowing his money,” Baggett says. “I’ve been around him enough to know that he’s not lavish with his money. He’s always thinking things through before he makes any investments or any purchases. To me, he’s a smart guy all the way around.”

Donyell Marshall laughs with two Broncs. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics
Donyell Marshall laughs with two Broncs. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics

Marshall loves basketball. That much is obvious about the Reading, Pennsylvania, native who parlayed his success at UConn into AP All-America First Team honors and the No. 4 pick in the 1994 NBA draft.

Not every passionate hoopster can teach, though. Marshall realized he could when he began coaching the Donyell Marshall Foundation, an AAU team he founded as an NBA rookie, towards the end of his playing career.

“I saw how I could relate to the kids,” Marshall says. “I thought this is what I wanted to do.”

That’s why he is at Rider.

Marshall has also held assistant coaching jobs with George Washington University and the NBA D-League’s Maine Red Claws. At Rider, however, he has made a profound impact, particularly on the team’s most consistent player, a 7-foot center named Matt Lopez who has led the Broncs (18-9, 12-4) into second place in the MAAC.

Lopez is a two-time transfer. He began his career at La Salle and stopped at Utah State, where he shot 45.7 percent from the floor in 2012-13.

In his one season at Rider, Lopez is leading the MAAC with a 59.7 percent clip. His 12.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game lead the Broncs.

Marshall has spent countless hours studying film and working with Lopez, who says he arrived at Rider with an ambidextrous hook shot but not an ability to consistently create favorable launching points.

“One of the stats that really shows how much Donyell has helped me is my field-goal percentage,” Lopez says. “That’s really where you can see coach Donyell has helped — recognizing good shots and getting good position, realizing that I have this big body, getting good position deep and making easy shots.”

As a former NBA power forward, Marshall knows a thing or two about playing on the block. He practiced against Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Cleveland and Tyson Chandler in Chicago and, of course, Karl Malone in Utah.

“With Matt,” Marshall says, “I’m able to use my experiences of playing with some quality big men as well as playing the big man spot and being coached by some wonderful big men. I can transfer that over to Matt as well as our other bigs.”

And how cool is it to impress a former pro?

“It’s cool when he gives me compliments and tells me I’m doing something very well,” Lopez says. “Coming from him it’s a compliment. It means that much more coming from him because he’s had so much success.”

Donyell Marshall, fourth from the left, sits on Rider's bench. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics
Donyell Marshall, fourth from the left, sits on Rider’s bench. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics

Baggett also appreciates the value of Marshall’s NBA pedigree, though he initially wanted Jason Kidd to join his staff in the spring of 2013.

“It was funny because I remember when Jason kidd [retired] and he had mentioned he wanted to coach,” Baggett recalls. “I told [assistant coach] Mike [Witcoskie] to send out a tweet that we’d love to have Jason Kidd join our staff. That’s when Donyell reached out to Mike and said, ‘hey, if you have an interest in Jason Kidd, then I certainly have interest as well if coach is interested in hiring an NBA guy.”

Witcoskie and Marshall had become friendly after meeting in 2010-11, when Marshall was on the road recruiting for George Washington. So Witcoskie passed along Marshall’s interest to Baggett, and soon enough Rider had its new assistant coach.

“You always get guys coming in thinking that they want to be in the NBA but not knowing what it takes to play in the NBA,” Baggett says. “To have a guy in the program that can tell the guys every day, and the success that he had in the NBA — he wasn’t just a player; he had a great deal of success — it made it neat.”

Says Marshall: “When there are days that our kids don’t feel like practicing or they say that they’re tired, I let them know that [former teammate] Lebron James might be tired, but he’s still going to come out and practice hard for two hours, or that Karl Malone did the same thing. Then they understand and say, ‘well, I guess I have to do it.’”

Marshall enjoys shooting the breeze about the previous night’s NBA games with his players. He likes sharing his knowledge about the game, whether he’s on the court or in his office.

And, occasionally, he proves his skills have not deteriorated with age.

“There’s times I’ll shoot against the kids when they start talking trash,” Marshall says, laughing, “and I’ll let them know that I’ve still got it.”

Marshall’s long-term goal is to become a head coach.

Donyell Marshall instructs Rider guard Jimmie Taylor. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics
Donyell Marshall instructs Rider guard Jimmie Taylor. Courtesy Photo / Rider Athletics

“You’re not always going to start at the top,” Marshall says. “You’ve got to work your way up, and honestly, I don’t feel like I’m at the bottom or anything. I feel like I’m in a good situation.”

“He’d like to be at UConn,” Baggett says, “but there’s only X amount of seats on that staff, so he hasn’t gotten a chance yet. I’m sure some day, if those guys are smart, they’ll bring him back because I think he is a good coach and he’s only going to get better.”

And while Marshall waits to get there — or wherever coaching sends him next — he’ll be sure to appreciate every moment: the Chuck Lerners seeking meet-and-greets, the players jokingly threatening to defecate on a long bus ride home from Buffalo.

The MAAC might not be the NBA, but coaching at Rider, Marshall says, undoubtedly beats the alternative many former pros choose and keeps him connected with the game that paid him millions of dollars.

“You don’t ever want to sit around the house and spend all your money and the next thing you know you don’t have any,” Marshall says. “I think at the end of the day, yes, the reason I coach is because I love the game.

“I love the kids, and I love to pass it on.”

Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.

OBW MAAC Power Rankings v13

Ladies and Gentlemen, your OBW MAAC Power Rankings v13.

1. Iona (21-6, 14-2)

Previous ranking: 1

Results: W 70-67 at Manhattan; W 60-57 at Quinnipiac

This week: Friday at Marist; Sunday vs. Monmouth

Friday night’s game could not have gone much better for the MAAC. In front of an ESPNU audience, the league’s top team avenged its title-game loss to its biggest rival in dramatic fashion.

It was just another revolution in the Gaels’ roll through the MAAC.

They survived another close one Sunday, in the game Kenpom projected to be their toughest remaining. His metrics spat out Iona as winners 53 percent of the time against Quinnipiac. Saint Peter’s, he says, is the toughest remaining game at 61 percent. Even Iona’s home clash with Manhattan is set at 85 percent in favor of the Gaels.

Those are just numbers, obviously. But the Gaels are clearly the team to beat and have first place all but locked up — second-place Rider is two games behind Iona with four left, and would really need to make up three games because the Gaels swept the season series.

All that and Isaiah Williams appears closer to a return. He shot around before the Manhattan game, and stayed on the bench dressed without a boot.

2. Rider (18-9, 12-4)

Previous ranking: 2

Results: W 60-59 at Canisius; W 69-60 at Niagara

This week: Thursday vs. Quinnipiac; Saturday vs. Niagara

Rider joined Marist and Monmouth as the only teams to sweep the western New York road trip.

The win at Canisius was emblematic of how the Broncs have risen to the top of the MAAC. Kevin Baggett’s team has won its close games.

In games decided in overtime or by four or fewer points, Rider is 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the MAAC. Think about that. A couple bounces here, a couple bounces there, and Rider could easily be 10-6 or 9-7 or even 8-8 in league.

This isn’t to say the Broncs will continue to win their close games — silence, stat nerds. But it’s worth noting for the first time in these power rankings that Rider has closed out games exceptionally well this year.

3. Manhattan (13-12, 10-6)

Previous ranking: 3

Results: L 70-67 vs. Iona; W 79-70 vs. Fairfield

This week: Saturday at Siena

Manhattan snapped its two-game skid with its win over Fairfield, a good thing for the Jaspers who close the season with games at Siena, Marist and Iona and a home bout with Quinnipiac. The Jaspers haven’t won at Siena since 2006, and the McCann Center won’t be an easy venue with Marist fully healthy. Nothing needs to be written about the degree of difficulty in games against Iona and Quinnipiac.

Whereas Rider has excelled in close games, Manhattan has not. The Jaspers are 3-4 overall and 2-3 in the MAAC in games decided in overtime or by four or fewer points. The good news for Manhattan is that the four losses have come to UMass, Rider (twice) and Iona. That should give the Jaspers all the confidence they need to know they can beat anyone in the league.

4. Monmouth (14-12, 10-5)

Previous ranking: 4

Results: W 83-64 at Siena

This week: Tonight vs. Marist; Thursday at Saint Peter’s; Sunday at Iona

The Hawks absolutely abused Siena’s woeful defense, getting 1.36 points per possession. That’s easily Monmouth’s most efficient offensive output this year — not even the 92 points against Iona (1.19 ppp) came close.

But, then again, Siena’s defense is Siena’s defense. We’ve spent plenty of words here explaining just how bad the Saints’ defense has been this year. Don’t forget: Monmouth just scored 44 points in a 55-possession game against Canisius.

The gem of the night was Collin Stewart, who poured in a career-high 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting.

5. Quinnipiac (14-11, 8-8)

Previous ranking: 5

Results: W 60-59 at Fairfield; L 60-57 vs. Iona

This week: Thursday at Rider; Sunday vs. Canisius

Quinnipiac gave Iona another tough game, but, like Manhattan, the Bobcats couldn’t pull off the win. But, also like Manhattan, the Bobcats must feel fairly confident in their ability to beat the Gaels should they meet a third time in the tournament.

The Bobcats have won eight of their last 12 games.

6. Canisius (13-12, 8-8)

Previous ranking: 6

Results: L 60-59 vs. Rider; W 69-55 vs. Saint Peter’s

This week: Thursday at Siena; Saturday at Quinnipiac

The Golden Griffins ended their four-game skid with the win over Saint Peter’s, as their defense pestered Desi Washington into the worst game of his season (three points on 1-of-5 shooting and a 66 offensive rating).

More encouraging, perhaps, was the offense’s production, led by Jeremiah Williams’ 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Canisius got 1.19 points per trip, easily their best mark since they posted 1.24 points per possession against Iona on Jan. 18.

7. Saint Peter’s (13-14, 7-9)

Previous ranking: 8

Results: W 65-57 vs. Siena; W 77-65 at Niagara; L 69-55 at Canisius

This week: Thursday vs. Monmouth; Saturday at Fairfield

Saint Peter’s had its stride broken by Canisius, but the Peacocks have won three of four since the overtime loss at Iona — yes, the one you probably remember for the postgame incident, but the one the Peacocks likely point to as a reminder they can compete with anyone in the league.

Marvin Dominique had a very good week. The senior forward averaged 22.7 points and six rebounds, while shooting 64.7 percent from the field.

Dominique’s numbers across the board have not been as high as they were last year. He was a OBW first teamer in the preseason, but he hasn’t appeared on the Fab Five since the early going. Why? Well, there are some really good players in the MAAC who stuff the statsheet more than Dominique. But even if he’s not a first teamer, Dominique is one of the best players in the league. He set the bar high for himself in his first year under John Dunne, but he has still been the Peacocks’ MVP.

And, you know what? It wouldn’t be all too crazy to see Dominique and the Peacocks steal the fifth seed in the last two weeks. They’ve beaten three of the four teams left on their schedule — Monmouth, Fairfield and Marist — and they took Iona, their opponent in the season finale, to overtime.

8. Siena (10-15, 7-9)

Previous ranking: 7

Results: L 65-57 at Saint Peter’s; W 66-64 at Marist; L 83-64 vs. Monmouth

This week: Thursday vs. Canisius; Saturday vs. Manhattan

Not long ago, the Saints nearly won at Manhattan. Then they beat Rider and almost upset Iona. They had risen to seventh in these power rankings, and with the right results this week could have jumped to fifth.

That didn’t happen.

Saint Peter’s (!!) scored 48 points in the second half to overcome Siena’s nine-point halftime lead. Evan Hymes’ last-second layup saved Siena from Marist’s comeback bid — the Red Foxes trailed by 13 at the break — and then Monmouth torched Siena at the Times Union Center.

So it was far from a good week for the Saints.

9. Marist (5-20, 4-11)

Previous ranking: 9

Results: L 66-64 vs. Siena

This week: Tonight at Monmouth; Friday vs. Iona

The Red Foxes showed once again they’ll be a tough out the rest of the way, battling all the way back from an 18-point deficit against Siena. The comeback fell short, however, as Khallid Hart was stripped as he pulled up for a last-second 3-pointer.

Hart scored 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting while Chavaughn Lewis struggled to score nine points on 4-of-13 shooting.

t-10. Fairfield (6-20, 4-12)

Previous ranking: 10

Results: L 72-57 vs. Iona; L 60-59 vs. Quinnipiac; L 79-70 at Manhattan

This week: Thursday vs. Niagara; Saturday vs. Saint Peter’s

Niagara (4-21, 3-13)

Previous ranking 11

Results: L 77-65 vs. Saint Peter’s; L 69-60 vs. Rider

This week: Thursday at Fairfield; Saturday at Rider

This might as well be a tie for 11th rather than 10th. Fairfield has not won since Jan. 16, and while Niagara beat Quinnipiac two weeks ago, that win seems like a distant memory.

Player of the Week

Emmy Andujar, Sr., F, Manhattan

As well as Marvin Dominique played this week, Andujar did more for his team. The senior averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.5 steals as Manhattan split its two games. He also shot 48.4 percent from the field.

Rookie of the Week

Schadrac Casimir, G, Iona

Casimir could probably go scoreless in Iona’s last four games and still win Rookie of the Year. He’s been that good. This past week was just another reminder.

In Iona’s three games, Casimir averaged 19 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.0 steals. He shot 57.5 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from long range.

His most scintillating performance came in his initiation to Iona’s rivalry with Manhattan, when he boosted the Gaels with big shot after big shot and scored 22 points.

Fab Five

David Laury, Sr., F, Iona

A.J. English, Jr., G, Iona

Emmy Andujar, Sr., F, Manhattan

Ousmane Drame, Sr., C, Quinnipiac

Zaid Hearst, Sr., G, Quinnipiac

Frosh Five

Schadrac Casimir, G, Iona

Tyler Nelson, G, Fairfield

Dominique Reid, F, Niagara

Karonn Davis, G, Niagara

Jermaine Crumpton, F, Canisius

A.J. English rises to occasion for Iona against Manhattan

RIVERDALE, N.Y. — As the seconds ticked off the clock, A.J. English had his sights set on two things. Neither was the rim.

Iona was tied at 65 with rival Manhattan Friday night, and 45 seconds left became 40 and then 35. The fluorescent lights lining Draddy Gym’s ceiling bounced off the hardwood floor as resounding chants of “Defense!” emanated from the capacity crowd of 2,520.

English had not scored in more than 11 minutes. He scanned the floor for Schadrac Casimir, a freshman guard who passed his initiation into the rivalry with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Casimir wasn’t free. Manhattan switches every pick late in games, and the 6-foot-9 David Laury screened for English to create a mismatch. English couldn’t find an angle to feed Laury in the post against Manhattan point guard Rashawn Stores.

English had been in other high-leverage situations this year.

With just a few ticks left, he calmly sank two free throws to beat Niagara, 80-79, on Jan. 16. Two weeks later, he had the presence of mind to hit Kelvin Amayo for an overtime-forcing layup in a win over Saint Peter’s rather than shoot a triple-teamed 3-pointer.

But this was different.

This was a chance to stake Iona’s maroon and gold flag at center court and declare a new territory 9.3 miles away from home in New Rochelle. This was at Manhattan, the rival that upset Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship.

“Coach [Tim Cluess] just looked at me and told me to go,” said English, who ranks 17th nationally with 19.7 points per game.

So with the 6-foot-10 Ashton Pankey guarding him off the switch and 18 NBA scouts taking notes, the 6-foot-4 English let one fly from well beyond the 3-point line with 30 seconds left. He dropped his arms to his sides, and the ball splashed through the net as he strutted down court with points 20, 21 and 22 for the night.

The Jaspers still had life, but Iona prevailed with a 70-67 victory, its 47th win in 86 tries against Manhattan.

“He made a terrific shot,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “It’s kind of one of those plays where when you look at it statistically that shot shouldn’t beat you, and it did tonight. It’s a switch with a [6-foot-10] guy switching out. Almost 70 percent of the time on pick-and-rolls with a 1-5 switch, the 1 is going to shoot a challenged jump shot, which he shot. And he made it. Give him credit.”

The win was Iona’s 20th this year — Cluess became the first head coach to hit that mark five times at Iona — and solidified the Gaels (20-6, 13-2) as a virtual lock for the MAAC regular season title. Rider (17-9, 11-4), which dropped both bouts with Iona, trails in second place by two games with five left.

“It’s great,” Cluess said when asked about getting win No. 20 by beating Manhattan.

It was well-earned.

The Jaspers were resilient and battled back from two double-digit deficits. Iona just always had an answer, and it was frequently Casimir.

Nine seconds after Emmy Andujar capped a 14-3 Manhattan run and evened the score at 26 with two foul shots, Casimir sank a 3-pointer. He drove on Iona’s next possession and finished a nifty scoop. Then he buried a trey with a minute remaining in the half to send Iona into the break with a 37-30 lead.

In the second half, Shane Richards’ 3-pointer with 9:16 left gave Manhattan a 52-51 lead, its first of the game. Draddy erupted.

While Manhattan fans were still high-fiving, Casimir snatched back the lead with another 3-pointer. Iona did not trail again.

“They had hit a huge shot, and they’d either get back in the game or take the lead,” Cluess said, “and here comes [Casimir] to answer it. As the crowd was starting to erupt, he quieted it again. I think those were huge, that we had answers, because if we didn’t have the answer right then, the game might have turned in the other direction.”

That direction would have been a statement win for the Jaspers (12-12, 9-6), whose record conceals a hot streak of 10 wins in 14 games carried into Friday night’s clash. But Manhattan still made a statement of sorts.

“We just played Iona to the wire,” Andujar said. “It just shows that we’re right there. It just comes down to one or two plays.”

English made the one that mattered most.

David Laury, A.J. English to integrate new Iona players to Manhattan rivalry

David Laury was so upset by his missed 3-pointer at the buzzer of last season’s MAAC championship against Manhattan that he spent the offseason improving his jumper.

That burden fueled him. The loss to his school’s historic rival stung.

When he and Iona get their next shot at Manhattan tonight in Riverdale, he and A.J. English will be the only two Gaels who played a minute in that final. Isaiah Williams is hurt, and the others either graduated or transferred.

“This will be [everyone else’s] first time in that environment,” Cluess said. “That’s going to be interesting to us to see how they handle that environment.”

The Gaels have played in venues far bigger than Draddy Gym this year, taking trips to Wake Forest, Arkansas and UMass. Nothing can simulate a packed Draddy, though. Not when Iona is visiting.

Cluess said he’ll rely on Laury and English to share the sting of last year’s loss with their teammates.

“Everything we do starts with them,” Cluess said. “They’re the leaders of the team. They’re the best players on the team. They’re the ones who set the tone in the game on both ends of the court and in the locker room and preparation.”

Not having Williams — sidelined after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot — hurts. He’s Iona’s No. 4 scorer and best defender. But in eight games without him, Iona is 7-1. The only loss was to Canisius, with one day to gameplan without Williams.

Defense and depth have been Iona’s weaknesses, but the Williams injury has required other players to gain experience and produce.

Kelvin Amayo, whose dunk over Marist’s Chavaughn Lewis made SportsCenter’s Top 10 last weekend, has emerged as a No. 4 scorer behind Laury, English and Schadrac Casimir. He has reached double figures four times since Williams got hurt, and he averaged 15.3 points in Iona’s last three games.

“That’s been huge for us,” Cluess said.

Ryden Hines, Ibn Muhammad, Vangelis Bebis and Jeylani Dublin have also given the Gaels a solid boost.

“All four of them at different times have given us a lift in different games,” Cluess said. “For us to be successful, we have to have those other guys have good nights. Now if they play well, we have a chance. If they don’t, reality is we’re going to be in trouble in those games. Thankfully guys have improved and gotten better and figured things out and are playing at a higher level right now.”

In a way, Iona’s resiliency on this micro level is emblematic of the program’s ability to never skip a beat from year to year under Cluess.

After making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team in 2011-12, Cluess had to replace Scott Machado and Michael Glover. That’s one of the country’s best point guards and his leading scorer. Iona won the 2013 MAAC championship. Then Cluess had to replace top scorer Momo Jones, and Iona won the regular-season title.

The Gaels are the best team in the MAAC and, once again, graduated their leader — Sean Armand — in the spring.

“I just think it says so much when you lose a guy or you graduate kids and your teams don’t skip a beat,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said, “and I think Iona has done that year after year after year. That’s a credit to Tim.”

But how will these new Gaels fare in their first trip to Draddy? Cluess hopes the three games at high-profile schools helped prepare his team.

For now, though, he’s just looking forward to the latest installment of one of college basketball’s best rivalries.

“I’m just excited,” Cluess said. “It’s a great conference rivalry. It’s a rivalry that goes on for many many years. It’s fun to be a part of. It’s fun to be a part of an exciting night of basketball coming up.”

For live updates from tonight’s game, follow Ari Kramer on Twitter.

Steve Masiello: Emmy Andujar not getting “respect” he deserves

Steve Masiello sat in his Draddy Gym office, clad in his Manhattan track suit and brimming with optimism borne by a new season’s imminent start. It was late October, and the Jaspers coach was speaking about how he would replace three players — George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown — who had carried his program last March to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.

One obvious solution seemed to be Emmy Andujar, a statsheet-stuffing senior point forward. Andujar averaged 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 23.3 minutes per game as a junior, and had shown flashes — like his 28-point outburst in Manhattan’s 80-77 win over Iona last February — that he could be Manhattan’s new alpha dog.

Masiello hedged, saying Andujar could be one of many potential alpha dogs along with Ashton Pankey, Shane Richards and Rich Williams.

“I think this team has a lot of guys that could really step up and really have what I call ‘alpha roles’, but I don’t think you’ll see the same guy have alpha roles every night, which I like because how do you prepare for it?” Masiello said. “Well, if you prepare for Emmy, then Shane or Rich are going to go. If you prepare for Rich, then AP and Shane are going to go. That’s a nice luxury as a coach. I don’t want it to be this guy’s team because it’s easy to prepare for that.”

Fast-forward four months, and those three other players have had their alpha moments and games, especially lately. Andujar, however, has asserted his value as Manhattan’s do-it-all playmaker. He’s leading the Jaspers in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg), assists (3.4 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) while shooting 52.1 percent from the field. Those marks rank fifth, sixth, fifth, second and third, respectively, in the MAAC. He’s second in the conference with 6.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and no MAAC player his height (6-foot-6) or smaller has an offensive rebounding rate higher than his 10.4 percent.

Manhattan (12-11, 9-5) has won 10 of its last 14, and Andujar has averaged 18.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting 55.6 percent in 13 games played during that stretch.

“I think his value is more than it’s ever been,” Masiello said. “It even now has surpassed what I envisioned for him because he’s doing everything at such a high clip, from his scoring to assists to field-goal percentage, offensive rebounds, defending. I think he’s having a terrific senior year.”

Yet Andujar hasn’t won a MAAC Player of the Week award, and that frustrates Masiello, who also questioned the credibility of a media outlet that named Andujar a fourth-teamer in the preseason and the conference coaches who voted him to the second team.

Disclaimer: Andujar has been a mainstay on OBW’s MAAC Fab Five, but he has not once been our Player of the Week.

“From where I’m sitting, I never thought he got the respect he deserved,” Masiello said. “I think he’s one of the most disrespected kids there is, and I do feel that way. I don’t think he got the credit he deserved coming into this year on a defending championship team as the leading guy back. He didn’t get nearly the credit he deserved, and I still don’t think he’s getting it. He’s one of the few guys that hasn’t gotten Player of the Week, and his team is in the top three in the conference. He’s the only guy that’s had that. There’s something there where people don’t think he is where he is.”

Andujar’s 25.3 percent turnover rate is high. His 26.7 percent 3-point clip and 68.5 percent free-throw percentage are low. Masiello would obviously prefer those numbers to be better, but he is pleased with Andujar’s overall production.

“He has met everything I’ve asked and done everything,” Masiello said. “If I asked him to go outside and stand in a blizzard, he would do it. If I asked him to go get 20 rebounds, he would do it. He’s done everything I’ve asked. Other people might say, ‘oh, I want to see him do this more.’ Well, I’m not asking him to do that, so it’s unfair.”

Don’t count Iona head coach Tim Cluess as an Andujar doubter. In Cluess’ first meeting with Masiello’s Jaspers, Andujar’s banked 3-pointer at the buzzer capped Manhattan’s comeback from a 17-point deficit for a win in New Rochelle. He was just a freshman then, and he has saved some of his best performances for Iona.

“He gets [respect] from us,” Cluess said. “Emmy’s a really good player. He’s a top-level player in this league, and if anyone doesn’t give him respect shame on them.”

When Manhattan and Iona clash tonight on ESPNU, Andujar will face his stiffest competition for MAAC Player of the Year: David Laury and A.J. English, who rank first and third on the league scoring chart. They have led the Gaels (19-6, 12-2) back to the top of the MAAC standings while stuffing the statsheet.

“Everything we do starts with them,” Cluess said. “They’re the leaders of the team. They’re the best players on the team. They’re the ones who set the tone in the game on both ends of the court and in the locker room and preparation.”

Andujar has played his way into the conversation with them for Player of the Year, and you can bet Masiello will campaign for his star to win it.

“The first thing I look for when you talk about Player of the Years and you talk about first teamers is if you’re that good, does your team have a chance to win it? So that’s the first thing you’ve got to talk about,” Masiello said. “I think we’re right there… He’s done his job of having us in contention for it. Then obviously his numbers and his play have backed that up. I think he’s done what he’s supposed to do as a senior, as a guy who’s kind of taken the reins over of being the next guy up from George, Mike and Rhamel.”

For live updates from tonight’s game, follow Ari Kramer on Twitter.

Manhattan vs. Iona: 10 best games of last 10 years

Manhattan and Iona are separated by 9.1 miles, a 17-minute drive from one gym to the other. They have one of the best rivalries in college basketball.

As the Gaels take a 46-39 all-time advantage into this year’s first meeting with the Jaspers, let’s take a look at the 10 best games Iona and Manhattan have played over the last 10 years.

Games were evaluated based on stakes, finishes and how good both teams were.

10. Thriller at the Mecca

Date: Jan. 30, 2008

Score: Iona 62, Manhattan 60

Location: Madison Square Garden

The Gaels did basically everything they could do to blow a 13-point lead in the last six minutes, going ice cold from the field. Their only two points in that stretch came on a De’Shaune Griffin jumper with 1:53 left. Their three possessions after that, leading to the final horn: turnover, turnover, missed front end. Manhattan had two chances to tie the game on the final possession, but Rashad Green’s last-second jumper missed.

9. Give the ball to Rico

Date: Jan. 22, 2010

Score: Iona 56, Manhattan 53

Location: Draddy Gym

Iona was on its way up, in the last year of the Kevin Willard era, and Manhattan was en route to yet another sub-.500 year under Barry Rohrssen. Nonetheless, this one came down to the wire, with Manhattan losing by way of a classic Rohrssen coaching move: give the ball to Rico.

Rico, of course, was Alabama/Miami Dade CC transfer Rico Pickett, an enigmatic, ball-stopping talent. As he did in so many late-game scenarios that one season with Pickett, Rohrssen handed the ball to his star and basically said, “Do something.” It rarely worked.

This time, Jermel Jenkins stripped Pickett with just a few seconds left, and Kyle Smyth sank a pair of free throws for the final margin.

8. The timeout

Date: Jan. 15, 2005

Score: Iona 69, Manhattan 67

Location: Draddy Gym

Peter Mulligan did so much right during his time at Manhattan, but he made a Chris Webber-like gaffe in this one, calling for timeout with 36 seconds left and the Jaspers having none available.

Steve Burtt converted the two free throws to break a tie at 67, and the Jaspers missed three 3-pointers in the last 20 seconds.

Iona overcame a 13-point deficit in the last 8:21.

7. The Jenkins winner

Date: Feb. 4, 2005

Score: Iona 55, Manhattan 53

Location: Mulcahy Center

Greg Jenkins was the last-second hero, as Iona swept its 2005 series with Manhattan. After Jeff Xavier tied the game at 53 with 35 seconds left, the Gaels had an opportunity to hold for the last shot. Steve Burtt missed a layup, but Jenkins corralled it and laid it in with 0.4 seconds left.

The winner was a shining moment in Jenkins’ nice senior year for the Gaels.

This stands as Iona’s only buzzer-beating win over Manhattan in the last 10 years.

6. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 3

Date: Feb. 28, 2014

Score: Manhattan 80, Iona 77 OT

Location: Draddy Gym

The Gaels had locked up the MAAC regular season title a night earlier, with Quinnipiac’s loss to Siena, but they showed no signs of complacency. Less than eight minutes after tip, Iona had a 20-13 lead and looked like it would shoot the Jaspers down to the No. 4 seed for the MAAC tournament.

Then Manhattan began to pick apart Iona’s defense, scoring 32 points in the last 12 minutes to take a 45-35 lead into the break. But this wouldn’t have been a Manhattan-Iona game if the Gaels rolled over. Tre Bowman had a chance to break a tie on a layup with nine seconds left in regulation, but Emmy Andujar swatted it, corralled it and then missed his tough potential winner at the horn.

Andujar scored five of Manhattan’s nine points in the extra period, as the Jaspers held on for the win.

5. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 2

Date: Feb. 15, 2013

Score: Manhattan 74, Iona 73 2OT

Location: Draddy Gym

Manhattan had hit its groove two weeks earlier, finally adjusting to life without George Beamon — who redshirted the season with an ankle injury — and came in hoping to avenge a recent loss to the Gaels. It nearly didn’t happen.

The Jaspers held Iona scoreless for the last 3:22 of regulation, and Andujar forced overtime with a layup with 42 seconds left.

At the end of the second overtime, Mike Alvarado missed a free throw that would have tied the game at 73 with 11 seconds left. Rhamel Brown gathered the offensive board, his 17th rebound of the night, and the Jaspers worked the ball to Andujar, who drove left and finished the winner with four seconds remaining.

4. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 1

Date: Jan. 12, 2012

Score: Manhattan 75, Iona 72

Location: Hynes Athletics Center

Steve Masiello’s head coaching debut in the rivalry included a 17-point comeback and a wild, buzzer-beating shot.

The Jaspers trailed an Iona team that would eventually earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament 65-48 with 7:58 remaining. Then Manhattan caught fire, and six minutes later, an Alvarado layup tied the game at 69.

Brown, of all people, buried two free throws with eight seconds left to give Manhattan a 72-70 lead, but Momo Jones raced up court and answered. His falling jumper in the lane tied the game with a shade more than three seconds on the clock.

The Jaspers got the ball to halfcourt and called timeout with 1.3 seconds left, allowing Masiello to design a play from the left side that would get Brown the ball near the rim. With Taaj Ridley leaping and waving his arms frantically, Alvarado, the inbounder, couldn’t get the ball to Brown. George Beamon, the next option, couldn’t free himself as he curled around the left wing. Kidani Brutus ran around aimlessly near halfcourt to clear room in the middle. That left Andujar as the only option.

The then-freshman caught Alvarado’s inbounds pass on the right wing with his back to the basket. In one motion, he turned, rose and banked in the winner as the horn sounded.

3. An all-time regular-season finale

Date: Feb. 26, 2006

Score: Manhattan 78, Iona 74

Location: Draddy Gym

For a while, this game stood as the greatest bout between Manhattan and Iona, a winner-take-all clash for the regular-season title and the all-important double-bye in the MAAC tournament.

It included a brawl. It featured two comebacks. After the Jaspers completed the latter one and sealed the win, an Iona student somehow managed to rip off a piece of the Draddy bleachers, chucking it in disgust as Manhattan fans rushed the floor.

Steve Burtt blew kisses to the crowd after his transition 3-pointer with 6:05 left gave Iona a 67-60 lead, but Jason Wingate led Manhattan on an 18-7 run to close the game. Manhattan’s lefty point guard started the spurt with a 3-pointer, gave the Jaspers a 72-70 lead with a layup and sank all four of his free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the victory.

Iona got the last laugh, though, as Keekee Clark and Saint Peter’s upset the Jaspers in the semis before falling to the Gaels in the championship.

2. A first for everything

Date: March 11, 2013

Score: Iona 60, Manhattan 57

Location: MassMutual Center (Springfield, Mass.)

Iona put an end to Manhattan’s timely hot streak — the Jaspers had won eight of 10 entering the first MAAC championship meeting between the two rivals — but it wasn’t easy, as Masiello’s bunch kept the pace and score in their favor.

The Gaels hadn’t been held to an output lower than 62 all year. The eighth-fastest-paced team in the nation at 71.1 possessions per game, they had played 65 or fewer possessions just three times. Manhattan’s high-pressure defense made them uncomfortable, resulting in a 60-possession game, the slowest 40 minutes Iona had played all year.

And the Jaspers were also doing just enough offensively. With 14:52 remaining, they led 35-30, thanks to a Shane Richards 3-pointer.

But then Iona found an offensive rhythm. The Gaels went on a 17-2 run over the next six-plus minutes, and Manhattan wouldn’t cut the gap to four until Brown hit two free throws with 1:24 left. Tre Bowman scored 14 points in the last 14 minutes, and David Laury’s emphatic slam with six seconds left sealed Iona’s first championship since 2006.

This one ranks below the 2014 championship because the slim final margin was aided by an Iona technical, after players prematurely left the bench in celebration when another Richards 3-pointer fell through with one-tenth of a second remaining.

1. Manhattan’s senior sendoff

Date: March 10, 2014

Score: Manhattan 71, Iona 68

Location: MassMutual Center

With a talented senior class, the Jaspers hadn’t had as good of a chance of making the NCAA tournament since 2006, when they lost to Saint Peter’s in the MAAC semifinals. Of course Iona stood in the way. Again.

And, again, Iona used a run to take control after Manhattan scored its 35th point. This time, however, the Jaspers would squelch the spurt earlier, ending the 11-0 spurt and pulling within 38-37 on a Brown layup with 15:35 remaining.

Manhattan opened a 64-54 lead with 6:19 left, but Iona came back and cut the gap to two with 26 seconds left and again nine seconds later. After Donovan Kates went 1-for-2 at the stripe to give Manhattan a 71-68 lead, Iona had one more chance. The Jaspers took away Sean Armand and A.J. English, leaving Laury wide open from the right wing. His 3-point bid hit the backboard and then the rim, but it bounced off and sent Manhattan dancing for the first time since 2004.

For live updates from tonight’s game, follow Ari Kramer on Twitter.

Justin Robinson trying to lead Monmouth to new heights

Justin Robinson drives against Fairfield's Tyler Nelson. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics
Justin Robinson drives against Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics

Justin Robinson guesses he was 8 or 9 years old when the star of Kingston High School’s basketball team approached him at a boys club in their hometown.

Robinson was by himself, diligently working on his shot. Tay Fisher had just finished his pickup game.

“Tay came over to work with me, and then he told me to come to the Kingston High School basketball camp later in the summer,” Robinson recalls.

Thus began a fitting friendship between a pair of diminutive guards who shared a competitive flair and the skills to play Division I ball.

Fisher, a 5-foot-9 sharpshooter, graduated high school in 2004 as Kingston’s all-time leading scorer with 2,119 points. He was a senior on the Siena team that upset Vanderbilt in the 2008 NCAA tournament, when he torched the Commodores for 19 points on 6-of-6 three-point shooting. That performance, he says, is why the Harlem Globetrotters offered him a contract and nicknamed him “Firefly.”

Robinson tracked Fisher’s career at Siena. He has followed his buddy’s globetrotting.

“We stay in contact all the time,” says Robinson, a 5-foot-8 sophomore at Monmouth.

Robinson estimates he was 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-5 when he started for Kingston’s varsity team as a freshman.

“He was significantly slighter than he is now, maybe even 20 pounds lighter, if I can remember correctly,” says Mark Wyncoop, an assistant at Kingston for Robinson’s entire career.

Wyncoop recalls Robinson getting frustrated by the physicality of the bigger, stronger 17- and 18-year-olds he faced as a freshman. But Robinson never quit, and averaged seven assists per game.

“He worked his way through that,” Wyncoop says. “He competes. He never gave up. He never felt sorry for himself. He just kept after it.”

As a junior, he was a Varsity845 first-team all-star. He led Kingston to a Section IX title as a senior, earning section and county Player of the Year honors.

Robinson attributes the toughness he tapped to prevail to two sources: his hometown and a group of mentors.

Growing up in Kingston, he says, “was pretty rough.” He abstained from the violence and gangs that consumed so many of his peers. “You’ve got to be confident and tough,” he says.

But Fisher, as well as former Kingston star Jesse Cannie and girls standout Rachel Coffey, also guided Robinson. “I had good role models that I looked up to,” Robinson says.

Fisher, in particular, shared sage advice.

“He always told me that just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t play basketball,” Robinson says. “He’s probably Kingston’s best player to ever play there, so he kind of instilled that in me. He taught me to always be tough and don’t let anybody undermine your talent just because you’re a little smaller.”

Justin Robinson has become a leader for Monmouth. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics
Justin Robinson has become a leader for Monmouth. Courtesy Photo / Monmouth Athletics

Robinson has carried that advice with him to Monmouth, where King Rice’s bunch is a little smaller in cachet than storied MAAC foes like Iona, Siena and Manhattan.

Monmouth went 11-21 with a 5-15 league record last season, its first in the MAAC. Robinson was a freshman and averaged 7.1 points and 3.0 assists in 22.4 minutes per game.

His role has expanded this year, and he tops the team at 12.6 points and 4.0 assists in 31.2 minutes per game. His value has extended beyond the box score, though, as Rice and his staff have asked Robinson to lead vocally as well.

“They tell me that more and more every day because I’m the point guard,” Robinson says, “so everybody looks at me to tell them what to do. I’ve got to be the vocal leader.”

Wyncoop says he first noticed Robinson’s leadership qualities during Robinson’s junior year of high school.

“He had a knack for getting guys to perform or knowing what it was that each guy needed to perform, whether it was a couple of harsh words, whether it was a little pat on the back,” Wyncoop says. “He had the pulse of that group, and it was apparent that he was able to do that even at that age.”

Robinson is three years older now and has almost two years of college experience to tap. Wyncoop still sees those qualities from afar, as Robinson has led the Hawks (13-12, 9-5) into a third-place tie with Manhattan.

The Hawks were the only undefeated MAAC team four games into the conference slate. They beat Iona in a thrilling 92-89 shootout on Dec. 7 in West Long Branch, and Robinson had 25 points. Canisius is the only other MAAC team with a win over Iona.

“It was a wakeup call for us and the rest of the league that we’re not here to just play basketball,” Robinson says. “We’re here to compete for a championship, just like every other team in our league.”

It would be the program’s first conference title since 2006, when the Hawks won the NEC.

The road there might require another victory over Iona, which has appeared in two NCAA tournaments since Tim Cluess was hired in 2011. It might require a takedown of Siena on the same floor the Saints celebrated three straight MAAC championships, and it might require a win over a Manhattan team that swept the season series.

Those three schools have secured 13 of the MAAC’s last 17 automatic bids to the Big Dance.

That history could be overwhelming.

But as Fisher told Robinson, the size of a player or, by extension, a team’s trophy case does not really matter.

“Just remember what happened last year,” Robinson said. “We’re not satisfied.”

OBW MAAC Power Rankings v12

Ladies and Gentlemen, your OBW MAAC Power Rankings v12.

1. Iona (18-6, 11-2)

Previous ranking: 1

Results: W 87-83 vs. Siena; W 89-67 vs. Marist

This week: Tuesday at Fairfield; Friday at Manhattan

This time last week, we were all conjecturing the proper discipline for A.J. English and wondering if Iona could get by Fairfield without two of its top three players.

English was suspended for a game, but because a snowstorm wiped out Iona’s trip to Fairfield, he missed Friday night’s bout with an improving Siena team fresh off an upset of Rider. No English? No Isaiah Williams? No problem for Iona.

David Laury dominated offensively, Schadrac Casimir manufactured 22 points despite a poor night from the field and Kelvin Amayo, who threw down this nasty slam against Marist, stepped up as he has several times this year. Most important, however, were the contributions from Ibn Muhmmad, Ryden Hines and Vangelis Bebis, who combined for 21 points. Muhammad, in particular, gave 37 solid minutes and is cementing himself as a key player in Tim Cluess’ rotation.

Why was all this so important? Well, it’s fairly obvious. If the Gaels can beat a solid team without two of its three best players, what can they do at full strength with reserves and role players emboldened by their experiences as cogs for the stars?

With seven games left, the MAAC regular season crown is Iona’s to lose. The Gaels lead second-place Rider, which they swept, by two games. The schedule isn’t a cakewalk, thanks to five road games and two clashes with rival Manhattan, but Williams’ return is nearing.

On a team of shooters, Williams is the best. More importantly, he’s Iona’s most tenacious defender. It goes without saying that Iona is a much better team with him available.

Given how the Gaels have played without him, that’s just scary.

2. Rider (16-9, 10-4)

Previous ranking: 2

Results: L 79-72 at Siena; W 54-52 OT vs. Fairfield; W 85-77 OT vs. Manhattan

This week: Friday at Canisius; Sunday at Niagara

The Broncs emerge 2-1 from a three-game stretch that easily could have been composed of three losses. Resiliency seems to be a defining quality of this year’s team, and that trait was on full display this week, particularly against Manhattan.

Rider opened a 15-point lead early in Sunday’s game for sole possession of second place, but the Jaspers stormed back and took a 10-point lead with 11:27 left. The Broncs won in overtime.

Matt Lopez might be the best player that doesn’t get serious consideration for MAAC Player of the Year. Kevin Baggett told reporters after Sunday’s win that Lopez is Rider’s MVP. If the Broncs finish second, Lopez will likely get some votes by virtue of being the best player on the second best team.

But what has made Rider so great this year — in addition to the defense — is that the Broncs are so balanced offensively that Lopez leads the team with 12.2 points per game. Baggett runs a lot of his offense through his 7-footer, who is also averaging 7.8 rebounds per game, but Lopez just doesn’t have eye-popping stats like every player on OBW’s Fab Five.

It’s a shame, in a way, but Lopez told OBW in January he loves it.

“We’re a really close-knit group,” he said. “We all are close to one another, which is awesome because if I’m not having a good night or if I make mistakes and Junior [Fortunat] is coming in to back me up, I know that’s not going to be a letdown. Everybody wants to see each other succeed. If it’s not my night and it’s Teddy [Okereafor’s], I’m screaming on the bench and vice versa. If you look at the stats and check the numbers, we don’t have one guy on our team. If a team focuses on me, so be it. Pick your poison. If they’re going to focus on me, then all the guards are free. And vice versa. We’ve been doing a great job of balancing that out.”

That seems to be a pervasive attitude at Rider.

3. Manhattan (12-11, 9-5)

Previous ranking: 3

Results: W 78-69 vs. Canisius; L 85-77 OT at Rider

This week: Friday vs. Iona; Sunday vs. Fairfield

The MAAC is a bounce or two away from Manhattan entering Friday night’s ESPN2 game against Iona one game, at worst, behind the Gaels. But after Sunday’s result, the Jaspers have lost to Rider in overtime twice this season.

Sunday’s loss, in particular, must have been tough to swallow. The Jaspers overcame a 15-point deficit and took a 60-50 lead with 11:27 left, but Rider won the next 16:27 35-17.

Though the end result was different, Canisius outscored Manhattan 38-22 in a 10-minute, 30-second span to pull within four in the final minute. The Jaspers prevailed in that one, however.

The Jaspers’ big three of Emmy Andujar, Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards had a solid week, and Manhattan is 10-4 in its last 14. The Jaspers would be the No. 3 seed if the season ended today, so there’s plenty to be happy about in Riverdale.

But Manhattan has a brutal stretch schedule: vs. Iona, vs. Fairfield, at Siena, at Marist, at Iona, vs. Quinnipiac. You know Steve Masiello will have the Jaspers prepared for the national television spotlight on Friday, as Manhattan looks to beat Iona at Draddy for the third straight year, and the Jaspers are a better team than the group that lost to Fairfield in early December. But even games at Siena and Marist could be stiff challenges, to say nothing of the two versus Iona and one against Quinnipiac.

Manhattan has not won at Siena since Jan. 30, 2006, and Marist — Sunday’s loss at Iona notwithstanding — seems to be hitting its stride.

4. Monmouth (13-12, 9-5)

Previous ranking: 4

Results: L 72-52; W 44-40 vs. Canisius

This week: Saturday at Siena

Monmouth got an important win Sunday.

The Hawks were terrible in Thursday’s loss, their third in four games. They scored 0.75 points per possession and grabbed 32 rebounds to the Bobcats’ 50 a month after finishing even against them on the glass.

Andrew Nicholas is not Monmouth’s most talented player nor is he the most important player. He’s good, though, and he sat both games this week with a concussion.

That Monmouth bounced back without him and beat a Canisius team coming off a tough loss at Manhattan served as another reminder that the Hawks are a solid team.

The win over Canisius also created two games of separation between the Hawks and the Golden Griffins and Bobcats, who are tied for fifth.

5. Quinnipiac (13-10, 7-7)

Previous ranking: 6

Results: W 72-52 vs. Monmouth; W 91-69 vs. Niagara

This week: Friday at Fairfield; Sunday vs. Iona

Just when it looked like Quinnipiac might have cooled off from its hot streak of five wins in six games — the Bobcats subsequently got swept on the Buffalo road trip — Tom Moore’s bunch dominated twice. And Player of the Year candidate and OBW Fab Five mainstay Zaid Hearst scored 19 points all week.

Quinnipiac torched the nets from long range in both games, converting 23 of 48 3-pointers. If the Bobcats, who are shooting 31.5 percent from deep this year, can snipe like that more consistently, they’ll be an extremely tough team to beat. Couple even good 3-point shooting with their rebounding ability, and they could be overwhelming.

Quinnipiac has a pair of “revenge” games on slate this week. First up is Fairfield, which stole an overtime win at the TD Bank Sports Center in early December. The Bobcats will follow their trip down to Bridgeport by hosting Iona, which won the Jan. 6 match 81-73.

6. Canisius (12-11, 7-7)

Previous ranking: 5

Results: L 78-69 at Manhattan; L 44-40 at Monmouth

This week: Friday vs. Rider; Sunday vs. Saint Peter’s

The Golden Griffins have lost four of five. They’re 0-3 since Phil Valenti went down with a sprained ankle, and his return timetable is undetermined.

Yet they had opportunities late in both games this week to swing the outcomes. First, they missed a layup that would have cut Manhattan’s lead to 73-71 with 48 seconds remaining. Then, Jermaine Crumpton couldn’t finish a tying attempt near the rim in the waning seconds against Monmouth.

The result: two losses and a fifth-place tie with Quinnipiac.

Canisius closes out the regular season with four of six games at home, starting this weekend with Rider and Saint Peter’s.

7. Siena (9-13, 6-7)

Previous ranking: 8

Results: W 79-72 vs. Rider; L 87-83 at Iona

This week: Monday at Saint Peter’s; Thursday at Marist; Saturday vs. Monmouth

Rider, the MAAC’s second-place team, went to Siena and lost on Monday. Opponents of the MAAC tournament’s move to Times Union Center can’t even point to the Saints’ upset of the Broncs as a reason why the event should have stayed on a totally neutral floor, like MassMutual Center in Springfield, because only a small fraction of the typical crowd braved the snowstorm to attend the game.

Jimmy Patsos called the environment “surreal.”

“It was almost like an exhibition scrimmage-type game, but it was obviously a real game,” Patsos said on last week’s conference call with media. “I was really pleased with the people that did come, but it was definitely a different type of atmosphere.”

Nonetheless, the Saints battled back from a 20-4 deficit to beat the Broncs. Then they came close to upsetting Iona — yes, the Gaels were still a double-digit favorite, even without A.J. English — on Friday night. That’s three solid showings from Siena, dating back to the Jan. 30 loss at Manhattan.

A win tonight at Saint Peter’s would deadlock the Saints with Quinnipiac and Canisius in fifth place. Siena would lose the tiebreaker against both teams, however, as each holds a 1-0 lead in the season series.

8. Saint Peter’s (11-13, 5-8)

Previous ranking: 7

Results: W 69-58 vs. Fairfield

This week: Monday vs. Siena; Friday at Niagara; Sunday at Canisius

Saint Peter’s took care of Fairfield despite playing without Desi Washington, who was suspended for his participation in the postgame scuffle at Iona on Jan. 31.

Four Peacocks scored in double figures to mitigate his loss, but it was the usual suspects: Marvin Dominique (15 points), Trevis Wyche (12), Tyler Gaskins (10) and Quadir Welton (10).

In other words, there’s not much more to take from this one other than Saint Peter’s beat one of the league’s worst teams while overcoming the absence of its top offensive threat.

9. Marist (5-19, 4-10)

Previous ranking: 9

Results: W 63-61 vs. Niagara; L 89-67 at Iona

This week: Thursday vs. Siena

You can’t win them all, Marist. The Red Foxes finally lost after reeling off four straight wins to make up serious ground in the MAAC standings. With just six games left, however, they likely won’t be able to catch 7-7 Quinnipiac and Canisius for the fifth seed. No matter. They still have time to get hot again and consider this season a success, given the grim prospects they faced just a few weeks ago.

Chavaughn Lewis passed Rik Smits and became the second all-time leading scorer in Marist history with his sixth of 24 points Sunday at Iona. He’s just 113 points behind program leader Steve Smith, who scored 2,077 points. If Lewis sustains his average of 21 points per game, he will enter the MAAC tournament with 2,090 points to his name.

Lewis has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

10. Fairfield (6-17, 4-9)

Previous ranking: 10

Results: L 54-52 OT at Rider; L 69-58 at Saint Peter’s

This week: Tuesday vs. Iona; Friday vs. Quinnipiac; Sunday at Fairfield

Marcus Gilbert had a ridiculous week against a pair of really solid defensive teams. The junior went for 30 points and 13 boards at Rider and 28 points and seven rebounds at Saint Peter’s.

But do the math. The Stags didn’t get many points from anyone else.

At least Fairfield took Rider to overtime, but when you’ve lost six straight, there’s really no moral victory in a tough loss.

11. Niagara (4-19, 3-11)

Previous ranking: 11

Results: L 63-61 at Marist; L 91-69 at Quinnipiac

This week: Friday vs. Saint Peter’s; Sunday vs. Rider

Think Niagara ran into a Quinnipiac team determined to avenge a double-overtime loss at the Gallagher Center? The result indicated so, as the Bobcats showed no mercy to a team that has lost 11 of 12.

Niagara had yet another close loss two nights before the Quinnipiac loss. The Purple Eagles are young, and they have struggled in games decided by five or fewer points during this 12-game stretch — they’re 1-4.

Player of the Week

Marcus Gilbert, Jr., F, Fairfield

Though Matt Lopez had a great week, Gilbert single-handedly kept Fairfield with Lopez’s second-place Rider squad in a tough road environment. Gilbert had 30 of his team’s 52 points and shot 10-of-17 from the floor. He also grabbed 13 rebounds. Then he followed up with a 28-point, seven-rebound showing at Saint Peter’s.

I just can’t split the award, but I’ll give Lopez a hearty honorable mention for his 19 points and 13 rebounds per game.

Rookie of the Week

Schadrac Casimir, G, Iona

Casimir averaged 27.5 points, three rebounds and two assists in Iona’s two wins. Though he shot just 4-for-17 from the field against Siena, he manufactured 22 points by drawing fouls and burying all 12 of his free throws. Then he erupted for 33 points on 11-of-17 shooting, including 9-of-14 from deep, against Marist.

Fab Five

David Laury, Sr., F, Iona

A.J. English, Jr., G, Iona

Emmy Andujar, Sr., F, Manhattan

Zaid Hearst, Sr., G, Quinnipiac

Ousmane Drame, Sr., C, Quinnipiac

Frosh Five

Schadrac Casimir, G, Iona

Tyler Nelson, G, Fairfield

Karonn Davis, G, Niagara

Jermaine Crumpton, F, Canisius

Dominique Reid, F, Niagara

Samson Usilo, Samson Akilo and their Nigerian bond and strife

Samson Akilo. Photo credit: Carlisle Stockton / Manhattan Athletics Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.

But sitting towards the end of the bench in Draddy Gymnasium, the 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward for Manhattan needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.

“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”

“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”

The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.

And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.

And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.

“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”

“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.

The long journey

Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.

Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.

“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.

And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.

The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.

“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.

“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”

It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.

“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.

The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.

“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.

“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”

But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.

“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.

A lifeline

Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.

“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.

“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.

Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.

And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.

“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”

“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.

Inseparable brothers

Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.

“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.

“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.

Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.

“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.

A rough landing at Manhattan

Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.

“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.

On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.

“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”

But both have found solace and support from one another.

“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.

“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.

Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future

Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.

“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.

“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.

And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.

“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.

“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”