Monday, April 26, 2010

Off-Season Report: Iona Moving Forward

Here's the latest in the "10 Teams in 10 Days" series looking back and ahead at MAAC mens teams. Up now ...

IONA (12-6 in the MAAC this past season, 21-10 overall)

2009-10 FINAL RPI: No. 86 of 347 Division I teams nationally.

RECAP: An above-expectation season in nearly every way possible. It was just the 2006-07 season that the Gaels finished with just two overall victories (2-28). Progress was expected, but maybe not this much this soon. Instead, third-year coach Kevin Willard took an 11-member playing group (9 of those 11 started at least one game, 10 of the 11 averaged at least 11 minutes per contest) that included five freshmen and three sophomores and got it to play ahead of its experience level. It didn't hurt that the on-court director, sophomore Scott Machado (12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists) was one of the top three or four point guards in the conference. The large playing group allowed players to play shorter shifts and stay fresh throughout games. The victory total was the most by any of the 14 Division I programs located within 30 miles of the New York metropolitan area. While team success "arrived" a year ahead of its time, so too did the departure of its coach. Willard moved on to Seton Hall in the 0ff-season, despite a 45-49 career record at Iona, no conference finish above this past season's third-place result and an 0-3 record in the conference's post-season tournament. But Willard has a strong pedigree (not only is he the son of well-respected coach Ralph Willard, but a protege of Rick Pitino, serving under him for several seasons at Lousville).

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Machado, the 2008-09 MAAC Rookie of the Year, elevated his game a little more and became a team leader as much as an individual talent. Junior forward Alejo Rodriguez shot a conference-best 67.9 percent from the floor, and was a force inside. Four of the five freshmen got significant minutes and made strong contributions, particularly 6-4 swingman Kyle Smyth, an all-Rookie Team selection. Mostly, Iona was a "get-it-done-by-committee" operation. And, for the most part, it worked. There were plenty of positive signs within the won-loss record. An early season victory over Providence was a harbinger. And, then, a mid-season eight-game winning streak against conference opponents pushed Iona's league record to 9-3 at that point and on the verge of contention in the MAAC standings. There might be some sentiment that the Gaels could have been even better, but with so much youth playing key roles ... well, no one should be complaining about the results.

WHAT WENT WRONG: How much could go wrong from a team with so much youth that finishes with a 21-victory season? Consider this more of a "What Might Have Been" list. There was indeed too much youth. After winning eight straight to get to its 9-3 conference record, it had a showdown game with Siena, losing 88-68. The Gaels just weren't mature enough, experienced enough to handle a good, veteran opponent. After that 9-3 start, Iona went 3-3 down the stretch against conference foes including another showdown game against Fairfield with second place on the line. The Stags won, 71-54, on Feb. 26. That outcome, along with its failure to win a conference tournament game, cost Iona any chance it had of being included in a national post-season tournament. Machado's 12.8 points per game led the team, and a consistent second option never emerged. Iona was also a little undersized, and got outrebounded by a per-game average of 2.3, an unusual discrepency for a 20-victory program.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Good years, plural. The next two years with Machado in charge should be very good, and this year's strong freshman class likely ensures another strong season post-Machado. While the roster won't change much (only role-playing forward Jonathan Huffman and lightly used guard Milan Prodanovic are gone), there will still be some transition here. Iona filled Willard's departure with Tim Cluess, who had a 98-23 record in four seasons at Division II C.W. Post. Before that he was 22-10 at Suffolk Community College and 264-78 in 15 seasons at St. Mary's High School in Manhasset. Cluess clearly can coach. Now, we'll see how he handles a veteran team and the myriad of other responsibilities associated with the Division I level. The likelihood is that this year's cast of freshmen and sophomores takes another step forward. And, there is some height in place, too. Freshman 6-10 center Chris Pelcher was hurt for much of the early portion of the season and never established himself. Now healthy, he could be another nice inside piece. The only recruit thus far is 6-2 guard Sean Armand, a big-time scorer in prep and high school and a long-range shooter. But the Gaels already have everything they need.

PREDICTION FOR 2010-11: There are some questions: Can enough young players begin performing like veterans? Can a couple of the returnees improve on the offensive end and provide addditional rebounding help? Will Cluess' coaching ability on the lower levels translate to Division I, and will a large group of returnees easily adjust to him? The guess here is that all those questions will have positive answers and that Iona should be even a little better than this past season. Look for the Gaels to contend all season and finish no worse than second or third in the conference.

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