Here's another in the series examining conference programs.
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2010-11 RECORD: 13-5 in MAAC play, 25-12 overall.
2010-11 RECAP: A new coach, a new playing style and a new "star" player joining the program. Not exactly the greatest recipe for success in a league that traditionally sees experienced players with developed chemistry as a team compete for league titles. But the Gaels not only survived all the transition, but thrived. First-year head coach Tim Cluess, whose previous experience as a head coach came either at the Division II level, or high school, installed an uptempo offensive style that enabled the team to average 13.1 points more per game than the previous year, the third-biggest increase on the Division I level this past season. Things didn't start out well, though, with an 0-3 record at the biginning. Then, the wheels fell off momentarily in mid-season with four straight conference losses (to Canisius, Rider, Loyola and Fairfield). And, after that the Gaels won nine straight, ultimately getting to the conference championship game where it struggled mightily to score against Saint Peter's bruising defensive style (the Peacocks won, 62-57). Still, Iona had done enough to earn its post-season berth to the CIT, where it won three games before falling just short in the championship game.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Mike Glover, a 6-7 junior forwrd transferred in and was one of the more-impactful players on any MAAC team. He averaged a double-double (18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds) and finished second among MAAC players in both scoring and rebounding (Siena's Player of the Year, Ryan Rossiter, topped the conference in both statistical categories). Glover was exactly what Iona needed ... a good-sized forward with the ability to ru the court. One of the prime beneficiaries was junior point guard Scott Machado, who became more of a passer this past season and finished with an assist average of 7.6 per game, the second-best average nationally. Glover's presence also drew defenders and opened up the perimeter where sophomore Kyle Smith and junior Jermel Jenkins in particular, took advantage. Both made 75 3-pointers on the year. Freshman Sean Armand, another perimeter sniper, had a nice first season averaging 6.2 points. Senior Alejo Rodriguez stayed relatively healthy, a problem for much of his career, and provided toughness and rebounding (6.6 per contest).
WHAT WENT WRONG: Some early adjustments, the mid-season four-game losing streak that cost the Gaels a chance to compete for the regular-season crown and the lack of a front court depth after Glover and Rodriguez. And, don't discount what that four-game mid-season conference losing streak kept Iona from doing. Had it beaten Fairfield (one of the four losses), it would have shared the regular-season crown. Had it won two of the other games in the losing streak it also would have earned a share of the top spot. Instead, it lost by two points at Canisius, by two at home against Rider, by one in overtime at Loyola and by four at Fairfield. So many close losses in succession could have sapped some teams of its enthusiasm. Instead, the Gaels ripped off wins in their next nine games. Iona also struggled against real good defensive opponents. When opponents were able to slow down the Gaels' fast-paced offense they were able to control Iona. Saint Peter's put on a clinic in the conference championship game, turning the proceedings into a half-court, brusing defensive contest in which Iona clearly struggled. Of course it didn't help that Smyth, who had a terrific 16-point performance in the conference tournament's quarterfinal round, got hurt in the team's next game and never returned. Had Smyth played against Saint Peter's, providing an additional outside presence against a defense that played primarily in the paint ... who knows if things might have been different?
WHAT'S AHEAD: Good things. Your hoopscribe makes Iona the early summer favorite to capture the MAAC's 2011-12 championship. Hard to pick against a team with two of the league's top three players in Glover and Machado (Fairfield's Derek Needham completes the trio), plus has the conference's best array of perimeter shooters in Smyth, Jenkins and Armond. The question, though, is whether the Gaels can find replacements for graduated guard Rashon Dwight, a steadying influence; and the blue-collar Rodriguez. Armand looks capable of stepping in for Dwight. Replacing Rodriguez is another matter, complicated by the decision of 6-9 bruiser Chris Pelcher, who showed late season signs of being able to contribute, to transfer out of the program in the off-season. Help, though, could be coming in the form of Nyandigisi "Digs" Moikubo, a 6-7 transfer from Cochise Junior College in Arizona, where he averaged 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds last season. And, there's one more new player of significance in the program. Astute conference follower Guy Falotico also reminded us that 6-1 guard Rashon James, a transfer from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College University (where he averaged 16.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 2009-10) is eligible this season. James, according to Iona sources, is expected to have a significant impact. He has two seasons of eligibility.
PREDICTION FOR 2011-12: A first-place finish, but not in the dominating fashion of some recent regular-season titlists. Iona and Fairfield appear to be the two clear front-runners with Iona holding a slight edge as the early favorite due to the type of transition related to a coaching change at Fairfield that the Gaels went through last season. Also, Iona has three senior starters, including its top two players, and experience always counts for plenty in the MAAC.