Friday, October 21, 2011

Adding Jones Could Lift Iona To New Level

The rich just got richer with news that likely preseason conference favorite Iona got a positive ruling on the hardship waiver of transfer junior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones, who becomes eligible to play this coming season.

And, now, the question becomes just how good can Iona become?

We'll speculate a little on that, below.

Jones played the last two seasons at Arizona and averaged 9.7 points and 2.4 assists per game there last year. The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of eight before losing to eventual national champion UConn.

Arizona gave the Huskies their toughest match in the tournament, a 65-63 decision. Jones played 27 minutes in that game and had eight points, two assists and zero turnovers.

"I'd like to thank the tireless work of many people at Iona including my staff and our compliance administrators for their assistance in preparing the waiver," said second-year head coach Tim Cluess, in a release issued by Iona. "The NCAA is also to be commended for its due diligence in the decision making process to allow Momo to play."

Jones transferred from Arizona to be nearer to his Harlem, NY home, his family and his ailing grandmother.

"Family comes first," said Jones, in the Iona press release. "I'm excited to have the opportunity to play at Iona College this year with some tremendous players that I've known for a while, but in the end, I'm happy to be home and happy to be able to help my family through this tough time. I'm grateful to the NCAA for granting the waiver which allows me to be nearer to my family and to be able to complete my degree in two (more) years instead of three."

How good is Jones? He was ranked as the No. 68 overall prospect in the country and the No. 11 point guard by to go with a scout grade of 88 by ESPN when he was a senior at Oak Hill Academy. There, he averaged 21.3 points and 8.0 assists per game as a senior in leading Oak Hill Academy to a 41-1 record.

Jones certainly is an "elite" caliber player with the type individual talent that rarely appears on the roster of a MAAC team. And, Iona was already loaded before the NCAA ruled that he could play this year.

The Gaels already were the preseason pick to win the MAAC's regular-season championship of every national college basketball preview publication. Their top two players, forward Michael Glover and point guard Scott Machado, are among the conference's top performers.

Another transfer, 6-1 junior Ra'shad James (from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas) was said to often be the best guard on the court for Iona during practices last season as he sat out the traditional redshirt year.

Also back is 6-4 senior sniper Kyle Smyth, 6-3 sophomore guard Sean Armond and 5-11 senior Jermel Jenkins, although Jenkins' role is in question as he recovers from a hand injury.

In addition to Glover up front, the Gaels added 6-7 junior forward Nyandigisi "Digs" Moikubo, a transfer from Cochise (Ariz.) Junior College, where he averaged 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds last season; and, 6-7 junior forward Taaj Ridley, a 6-7 transfer from Lawson State (Ala.) Junior College where he averaged 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Iona was already expected to be the best team in the conference this year, but the addition of Jones raises the bar even more.

And, maybe, it's time to look at how good Iona can be not only this season but historically.

The talent in place has the potential to lift the Gaels into a MAAC stratosphere occupied only by two programs in the previous 30 years of the conference, former league member La Salle of 1989-90 vintage and Siena of 2009-10.

The 1989-90 La Salle team is universally viewed as the best team the MAAC has ever had. Hard to argue that point considering the Explorers had three future NBA players in 6-7 forward Lionel Simmons (a senior that season), 6-3 guard Doug Overton (a junior) and 5-11 guard Randy Woods (a sophomore). It also had an underrated 6-6 small forward in Jack Hurd (a sophomore).

That team finished 30-2 with its only losses to Loyola Marymount early in the regular season and, then, a 79-75 setback to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Simmons finished with 3,217 career points and 1,429 rebounds and became the first college player to eclipse career totals of 3,000 points and 1,100 rebounds. Woods finished with 1,811 career points, Overton with 1,795 and Hurd with 1,661.

That team was also the only one to complete a perfect MAAC season, compiling a 16-0 record since the league's schedule expanded to at least 16 games in 1989 (the 1987-88 La Salle team was also perfect with a 14-0 league record).

How dominant was La Salle in 1989-90? It was an achievement for a conference opponent to lose by a single-digit margin, and only two (Holy Cross and Saint Peter's) managed it. In regular-season play the Explorers won league games by an average margin of 20.1 points, and followed that up with three MAAC tournament wins of 30, 16 and 10 points.

The only team in this blogger's memory that remotely compared was the 2009-10 Siena team that finished 17-1 in conference games. But, those Saints were a very good mid-major level team. The 1989-90 La Salle squad was talented enough to rank with nearly anyone on a national level.

So, how good is the current Iona team?

Let's start in the backcourt. Its combination of Machado and Jones could potentially be the second-best pairing in league history behind only, in this hoopscribe's opinion, La Salle's guard tandem of Overton and Woods.

Overall, adding James, Armond, Smyth and, possibly, Jenkins if he's healthy ... no team in conference history has had such a deep, talented perimeter group.

Iona's advance to the upper level of all-time MAAC teams will depend on the contributions of its inside players. Glover, arguably the conference's best player, is a given. How much Moikubo and Ridley can contribute will eventually determine just how good Iona can be.

But, there's little doubt right now that Iona, with the addition of Jones, is even more a clear-cut preseason favorite as this year's best MAAC team.

And, now begins a quest for more ... a season that could rank among the conference's best of all time.

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