Zach Thomann, Sports Editor
The Utica College men’s basketball team is in a familiar position in the Empire 8 conference rankings with two games left in the season.
The Pioneers are currently in the fourth and final spot for a playoff berth after a four-game winning streak but have work to do, according to head coach Sean Coffey.
The team is guaranteed a spot in the conference playoffs with two wins, but coach Coffey does not think they will come easy.
“We are fortunate to finish the season at home, but our last two games come against two of the top teams in the conference,” Coffey said.
Coffey is referring to Alfred University and Stevens Institute of Technology, who are in third and first place in the standings. He considers the last two games as “Part Two” in the team’s plan to make the playoffs.
“We have five seniors on this team, so they knew we were still in the hunt,” Coffey said. “I don’t like looking too far ahead in the season, but I did show them the path we would have to take in order to get in. Part one was to win the first four games against teams we already beat earlier in the saeson and part two is to win the last two against tough teams.”
The Pioneers had three road games during its win streak, and Coffey loved the resilience the team showed during that stretch.
“We had our backs against the wall and had to win on the road,” Coffey said. “I give my guys credit for bouncing back after tough losses and keeping their emotions in check knowing that we were playing in games we had to win.”
Coffey credits senior Ivan Iton as a “force” in the paint this season, especially during the four-game win streak. Iton is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 68 percent from the field in that span.
Iton is happy to be in position for a playoff berth once again and is confident that the team will finish the season strong.
“I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s head that we won’t win these next two games,” Iton said. “We’re playing two very good teams, but we also know how good we are.”
Iton believes that the team needs to play defense at an “extremely high level” and move the ball efficiently in order to win. He thinks that if the Pioneers stick to the game plan, it will not matter who the team plays.
“We all know what we can do,” Iton said. “We just have to worry about ourselves and not focus too much on our opponents.”
The Pioneers face a similar position to last year where the team rattled off four wins in a row to finish with a 10-6 conference record and held the third spot in the playoffs. Iton saw the resemblance from last season, and thought a win streak was bound to happen.
“I don’t think it’s been a coincidence we’ve gone on a win streak late in the season the past two years,” Iton said. “We’re all still fairly new to each other and have been figuring out rotations. I think it takes time for good teams to mesh, especially with short time periods.”
One difference from this season compared to the last was the non-conference schedule. In his first year as head coach at Utica, Coffey started the season 0-9 but the team rallied to go 10-6 in conference games.
This year’s team had a 5-4 record after the non-conference schedule, and the team had a different attitude than last year’s, according to Coffey.
“There were moments earlier in the season where the guys thought this would be easier,” Coffey said.
Coffey previously spent seven years with St. John Fisher College, and through his nine years of coaching in the Empire 8 he believes that there are always good teams that are left out of the playoffs.
“I’ve never seen a clear-cut, top-four team in this conference,” Coffey said. “It almost always comes down to a tiebreaker.”
Coffey believes that this situation may happen this year and hopes that Utica is not one of the teams on the outside looking in.
“It’s very hard to tell a senior that their season is over on a tiebreaker,” Coffey said.
If Utica makes the playoff, Coffey hopes to “do some damage” this time around. Last year’s season ended in the first round after a 79-71 loss to Stevens Institute of Technology.
A conference championship would be the first in Utica men’s basketball history, and Iton’s confident that the team can be in the record books.
“This is a very special and selfless group of guys,” Iton said. “This is by far one of the best teams I’ve been on, and we have all of the pieces to win this year. I felt something special with this group from the first day we all were on campus, and it’s time we put all of our hard work to use and do something very special for the school.”