Thursday, February 4, 2010

Good Times Here For Iona's Hoop Teams

It wasn't that long ago, the 2006-07 season to be exact, that the Iona men's basketball team reached the depths with a 1-17 conference record and finished 2-28 in overall play.

And, it wasn't that long ago when the expectations for the Gaels weren't much higher. This preseason, to be exact. That's when league coaches, in their annual preseason poll, predicted Iona to finish ninth in the 10-team league.

It wasn't that long ago, either, that the Iona women's team had similar dismal results.

The Lady Gaels finished last in conference play in the 2004-05 season, and as recently as 2002-03 could lay claim to being arguably the worst women's Division I program in the country with a 1-27 record that included the only winless record in conference play (0-18) since MAAC teams have played 18 league games.

But, that was then and this is now.

Right now is a good time to be an Iona basketball fan.

And tomorrow night (Friday, Feb. 5th) is a big night for both programs.

The Iona women are playing for first place in the confererence when they travel to meet six-time defending conference champion Marist in a 7:30 p.m. contest at the Red Foxes' McCann Recreation Center in Poughkeepsie.

Both teams are 9-1 in conference play. Marist's only loss came in its last contest, a 69-59 setback at Niagara on Sunday.

The Gaels, after a conference-opening loss to Loyola, have won nine straight league games. Their nine-game winning streak is the longest in program history and the eighth-longest active streak nationally. Iona's average margin of victory during its current nine-game winning streak is 12.4 points.

Marist had the third-longest streak nationally with 13 in a row before its loss to Niagara.

Marist averages close to 2,000 fans per home game, and a near sell-out crowd of over 3,000 is expected when Iona visits.

"Now we've got to play a team that's hotter than anything," Marist coach Brian Giorgis told the Poughkeepsie Journal recently. "We'll see what it's like to rebound (from a loss)."

Marist has dominated this series in recent years, even while Iona has been in the process of building to its current level of success.

The Red Foxes have won the last 20 meetings, dating back to the 1999-00 season.

This isn't the first time in recent years the teams have meet with first place on the line. In the 2006-07 season both teams started 7-0 prior to their first meeting. Marist won that contest, 70-49.

The Iona men will play before an even larger crowd on Friday. A sell-out of slightly more than 8,000 is expected at the Times Union Center in Albany when the Gaels meet conference leader Siena. at 7 p.m.

Siena has a 12-0 conference record and a win over Iona would give the Saints the fastest start to a league season since La Salle went 16-0 in the 1989-90 season.

The Saints also have an active 13-game winning streak, the longest in the country. And, they have a 32-game home winning streak which is the second longest active nationally.

Iona is the MAAC's second-place team with a 9-3 record, and has an active eight-game winning streak, the seventh longest active streak nationally.

Iona has lost its last eight games against Siena, including a 73-60 setback at home on Dec. 7.

But, the Gaels have improved steadily since then. The Gaels regularly use 10 or 11 players in each game, and having fresh bodies is always a good thing, and it's something that concerns Siena coach Fran McCaffery.

"It makes for a very different preparation," said McCaffery. "I watched their last game and (Milan) Prodanovic makes three 3s; we played them, and he didn’t play. (Kyle) Smythe, he didn’t shoot it well against us. I watched another game and he goes for 21.

"They have different weapons. That’s what makes a team harder to prepare for. Very few teams have a 7-footer who shoots (Jonathan Huffman). You talk about pressing them, you’re pressing four guards - they’ve got (ball) handlers. (Alejo) Rodriguez is a handful. He’s shooting 68, and he's 6-foot-9. How many people do that in the country? Not many."

Iona would only pull to within two games of Siena in the conference standings with a victory tonight, and probably won't catch the Saints for the regular-season title.

But, a win in Albany would be a message-sender. A more-than-subtle reminder that the Gaels are an on-court force to be worried about come early March when the conference's post-season tournament is also held at the Times Union Center.

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