Thursday, May 22, 2014

Team Report: Iona Men Poised For Another Title Run

Here's another in the "Team Report" series looking back at the 2013-14 season and a crystal-ball look ahead for conference teams.

Up now ...


2013-14 RECORD: 17-3 in MAAC play, first place; 22-11 overall.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Plenty, as has been the case under head coach Tim Cluess. This past season brought the second regular-season title in the past three years and the fifth-straight 20-plus win season. There was enough talent in place for Cluess to really challenge the team with a grueling non-conference schedule (losses to Kansas, Northern Iowa, Nevada, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, Cleveland State), but that helped toughen the Gaels up for conference play and the results were evident. Sophomore A.J. English, hurt for the second half of 2012-13, not only came back successfully but made a difficult move from off-guard to the point, and he flourished (17.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 142 total assists) and figures to be one of the best perimeter players (if not THE best) in the conference for the next two seasons. Sean Armand, one of the top long-range shooters in league history had the second-most three's made this year with 96, trailing only Billy Baron of Canisius. Isaiah Williams, a 6-7 forward, joined the program and added ability usually seen at a higher level. His value could be seen in the games he missed due to a minor injury. Iona was 1-4 without him and 21-7 with him in the lineup. Mike Poole, with just a single season of eligibility, also contributed (6.0, 4.2), and 6-9 junior David Laury (14.0, 8,.3) showed signs that indicated he is among the most-talented bigs in the league. And, senior Tre Bowman (13.9) provided more offensive fire power. There were also some non-league wins over sold programs, including George Mason and Florida Gulf Coast. There was an 11-game late-season winning streak that was extended into a 14-of-15 stretch through the end of the regular season. The only loss in that stretch came against Manhattan, but that was a harbinger. Iona did get to another national post-season tournament, but it was the NIT after an NCAA berth the previous year.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The 1-4 record when Williams was out. Laury also struggled early and was sent to the bench just before the midway point of the season,  and Cluess was outspoken about the reason why: his big man wasn't playing hard enough. But Laury became more effective as the team's top front-court reserve and continued to play "starters' minutes." In one way, Laury's demotion worked in Iona's favor. The smaller lineup was quicker and overcame opponents with that trait. The downside, though, was that the team didn't have a second legitimate post player, and got outrebounded by an average of five per game. The offense was as high-powered as ever (83.6 ppg, fourth-best nationally). The downside, though, was a defense that allowed 77.6 points per contest, and only 18 Division I teams nationally gave up more. There also wasn't much depth as only six players averaged more than 9.7 minutes per game. The smaller lineup also made Iona susceptible to physical teams, and league losses came to two of the more physical MAAC squads, Quinnipiac and Manhattan; and, the third came against Canisius, whose best player, Billy Baron, was as good an individual perimeter player in the conference in a decade.  And, then, came the late-season disappointments, first a 71-68 loss to Manhattan in the MAAC Tournament's semifinal round against a Jasper team that just seemed more physical and seemed to have the "effort" edge. And, then, came the season-ending heart-breaker, a last second loss on a tip-in that gave Louisiana Tech an 89-88 victory in the NIT.

WHAT'S AHEAD: More of the same. English, Williams and Laury are the key returnees, and all three are among the league's best players in terms of pure talent. And, the team also gets the services of Kelvin Amayo, a 6-4 sophomore guard who had a spectacular high school/prep school career. He played three games at Marshall before leaving there for Iona where he had to sit out as a redshirt transfer last season. Also back is 5-9 junior Tavon Sledge, a key playing-group member two years ago whose role diminished this past season. And, there's a solid addition in Jeylani Dublin, a 6-6 forward who averaged 10.4 points and 4.2 rebounds at Longwood College last season who is immediately eligible as a graduate-level transfer. Ryden Hines, a 6-10, 240-pounder who showed some flashes as a freshmen, might power his way into the post rotation, too. And, there's intriguing 7-foot string-bean frosh Daniel Robinson, who redshired this past season, and is reputed to be a strong face-up big man. One true freshman, lightning-quick 5-9 point guard Schadrac Casmir might also get inutes. He averaged 19 points at South Kent prep school last year and 26.7 points two years ago in high school.

REASONABLE EXPECTATION: Most prognosticators are going to select Iona as the 2014-15 preseason favorite, and there's no argument here. Siena is a relatively close second choice, for now, but Iona's top four players are all experienced. There should also be more depth this year. And, as always, the Gaels will overwhelm a lot of opponents with quickness and offensive firepower. We'll pick Iona to win the regular-season title and, at worst, finish second.

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