Here's another in the series previewing MAAC teams. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 12-6 in MAAC play, 21-10 overall.
2010-11 COACHES' PREDICTION: Picked for fourth in the coaches' preseason poll.
KEY RETURNEES: 6-2 junior guard Scott Machado (12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists), 6-8 senior forward Alejo Rodriguez (9.0 points, 7.5 rebounds), 6-4 sophomore guard Kyle Smyth (8.1 points, 3.0 rebounds), 6-3 senior guard Rashon Dwight (5.6 points, 2.3 rebounds)Z, 6-8 sophomore forward Mike McFadden (4.8 points, 2.4 rebounds).
KEY LOSS: 7-o forward Jonathan Huffman (6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds).
NOTES: After finishing 2-28 in 2006-07, the Gaels came all the way back for a 21-10 record, and things might have been even better. Iona started 9-3 in league play and, then, lost three of its final six conference contests. Add to that a first-round league tournament loss and Iona went 3-4 down the stretch and missed out on a chance to go to a post-season tournament. The architect of the turnaround, coach Kevin Willard, served his three seasons in New Rochelle and moved on to Seton Hall. In three seasons, he put up a 45-49 record, never got the Gaels higher than third place in the MAAC and was 0-3 in conference tournament games. Somehow, though, that resume got him into the Big East. Go figure.
The only loss of any significance was Huffman, who was a perimeter player in a big body and nothing more than a role player for Iona. Otherwise, every player of significance is back, along with newcomer 6-7 Mike Glover, who has bounced around. Originally signed to attend Seton Hall, he never played there due to eligibility issues. He wound up at the College of Eastern Utah, a junior college, last season before coming to Iona.
Iona did not have the requisite "elite" player to do much more than it did last season. Machado, the point guard, was the team's leading scorer at 12.8 points per game. Only Marist, which finished last in the league, did not have a player with a higher scoring average. Glover appears to be the primary point producer this season, averaging 18.7 points through the team's first three games.
But, Iona has yet to address its biggest problem, which is rebounding. Last year it worked to a minus 2.3 rebound-per-game average. Although three games is hardly a representative sample, the Gaels are already getting pounded on the boards this season, working to a minus 9.4 rebound average to date.
Then there's the matter of finishing games. Iona had late-game leads in two of its first three games and couldn't close the deal down the stretch. Better decisions need to be made, and it looks like Machado is the team's best decision maker, and he's not the prototypical pass-first/run-the-team point guard.
Chalk some of the early season mishaps to a new coach and a new system. Tim Cluess took over for Willard and he's trying to run more. So far Iona is averaging 70.7 points per game after averaging 66.2 last season. You have to figure Cluess will get things going soon. Although never a Division I coach, he is a highly regarded tactician, and his teams at Division II C.W. Post, where he was prior to Iona, ran up a 98-23 record.
HOW IONA WILL SUCCEED: The big thing that sticks out, both last season and in a major way thus far this year, is the rebounding ... or, lack thereof. Right now Machado is the leading rebounder (5.7 per game), and no team that relies on a guard to do the bulk of the board work is going to be successful. The team does have 6-8 senior forward Alejo Rodriguez, who averaged 7.5 rebounds per game last season, but he's not yet at full strength after battling some preseason injury issues. Glover, at 6-7, probably will help out on the boards as could 6-8 sophomore forward McFadden. Right now the Gaels have just about everything else in place. They have experience, they now have a competent offensive force in Glover and they have some of the best perimeter players in the league. But, they remain the proverbial "donut" team for now ... they've got a hole in the middle.
COACH'S COMMENTS: "Scott Machado is a very competitive point guard and a leader for our team. I coaches him for one season in high school (St. Mary's H.S. in Manhasset, N.Y.), so we've got a little unfinished business together," said Cluess. "He's an aggressive, tough player and he's already been through my system. Smyth has been phenomenal so far. He's going to have a heck of a year and a career here. Glover is a newcomer from whom I expect tremendous things."
PREDICTION: The Gaels need one thing, a dedication to getting the ball off the boards. Everything else is in place here. And, maybe, what they have is enough to compete in a conference that doesn't appear to have the type dominant team that Siena had been for the past three seasons. Then, there's also the issue of closing out games and making smart decisions down the stretch. But, Cluess is reputed to be a very good coach, so the decision issue is likely to be solved soon. The rebounding issue, though, is another matter. It will probably preclude Iona from winning the regular-season title, but it's not hard to envision Iona finishing anywhere from second through fourth this season. Anything below fourth place would be a disappointment.