In the Iona Gaels’ first game of the season and Rick Pitino’s debut as the Iona head coach, there is no other way to describe their performance other than a tale of two halves. In the first half, Iona outplayed Seton Hall on both ends of the floor and they took a 37-35 lead into halftime. That being said, in the second half it seemed as though every Iona player went cold while Seton Hall could not miss a shot. The final score ended up being 86-64, and the margin was even bigger at times. In other words, this was not the debut that Rick Pitino had in mind.
Let’s cut the Gaels some slack, though. After all, they are essentially an entirely new team aside from seniors Isaiah Ross, Dylan Van Eyck, and starting point guard Asante Gist, who is injured and was unable to play against Seton Hall. On top of that, one of their highly touted recruits, 7-foot-1 forward Osborn Shema, is also out for the first three weeks of the season according to coach Pitino. If that wasn’t enough adversity, Iona is just a few days removed from a two week quarantine due to a COVID-19 case within the program, which prevented them from practicing.
All in all, Iona was all but set up for failure going into this game tonight, and the fact that they were leading 37-35 at the half before imploding was a miracle in of itself. With that said, there are a few players who were bright spots in this game and their performances should give Iona fans a sense of optimism about the season.
Right from the start of the game, it was very evident to me that Ross was a much more complete player compared to last season. After being almost exclusively a three-point shooter last season, we are now seeing Ross blossom into a player that can score at all three levels and be trusted with the ball in his hands in big situations. He finished the game with 23 points and was 8-18 from the field and 4-7 from beyond the arc. It should also be noted that Ross had 3 steals in the game, and his defensive intensity was contagious throughout the whole team. Leading a young, inexperienced team, it is no secret that Isaiah Ross will be leaned on heavily this season, and I have no doubts that he’s up to the task.
Nelly Junior Joseph
With Osborn Shema injured, there was a bit of uncertainty going into this game regarding who would be manning the 5 spot. That uncertainty was put to rest very quickly when Nelly Junior Joseph showed us what he was all about. I’ll get to the offense in a moment, but to me, the most impressive part of his night was how strong and relentless he was on the defensive side of the ball. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound big man was tasked with guarding preseason All-Big East selection Sandro Mamukelashvili, and Joseph more than held his own. Joseph had two impressive blocks and gave Iona a true frontcourt presence, something the Gaels didn’t have last season. Offensively, Joseph seems to be a skilled post player as well as an effective rim runner. He finished with 13 points on an efficient 5-7 from the field, and perhaps the most exciting part of his stat line is that he was 3-3 from the foul line. As a player who will be getting fouled a ton, this is very encouraging. Joseph, only a freshman, has a very high ceiling, especially playing in a MAAC conference that isn’t accustomed to having to face such a force down low.
It may have gone unnoticed due to the score of the game, but Ryan Myers had himself a productive debut off the bench. After Tahlik Chavez looked rattled at the point guard position in the first couple of minutes of the game, Myers came in and gave Iona some stability in the backcourt. He looked confident with the ball in his hands and almost always made the right decisions. On top of that, it looks he has a nice three-point stroke as he went 2-3 from beyond the arc. The freshman finished with 9 points and was 3-6 from the field, and the main thing that caught my eye was simply how comfortable he looked at the point guard position, especially against a tough opponent like Seton Hall. If Myers continues to play good basketball, look for him to start getting an increase in minutes, and maybe even a spot in the starting lineup until Asante Gist returns from injury.