Iona's Mike Glover holds his 2-year-old son during postgame interview following 28-point, 14-rebound performance in win over LIU Monday night. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)
Ever since Gonzaga burst onto the scene with a regional final appearance in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, the world has clamored for mid-major success. One after another, several programs have taken their shot to join the Zags as a group fortunate enough to break through to the high-major label. Schools the likes of Southern Illinois, George Mason, Davidson, Butler; and most recently Virginia Commonwealth have made deep runs in March only to come up short. Next up in the brigade could be a team with high-major talent that could even be a top five Big East program if given the opportunity, a true sleeping giant just a mere thirty minutes outside the hotbed of college basketball that is New York City.
New York's college team may be Syracuse to those living in the northern part of the Empire State; and St. John's for those inside the five boroughs that make up the largest city in the United States, but the most promising basketball team (and most successful to this point in the season) in Division I lies in between Queens and Syracuse, located just a three-pointer from Central Park in New Rochelle, tucked away in the southern part of Westchester County.
In just his second season at the helm following the departure of Kevin Willard to Seton Hall, Tim Cluess has quietly built Iona College into an overlooked powerhouse not seen since the Gaels' past glory days under the late great Jim Valvano; and most recently under former Valvano player turned coach Jeff Ruland.
With four wins in their first five games; the most recent of which a decisive 100-84 victory over reigning Northeast Conference champion Long Island University after the Gaels led by as many as 32 midway through the second half, Iona has positioned themselves as the class of the metropolitan area with a star-studded roster featuring a former Big East recruit in senior forward Mike Glover, a former Elite Eight participant in Arizona transfer Lamont (Momo) Jones, and quite possibly the best point guard in the nation in Queens product Scott Machado.
Immediately following the final buzzer Monday night, Jim Ferry, who guided the Blackbirds squad Iona faced that night to an NCAA Tournament appearance against North Carolina last season, had this to say: "I think that is one of the most dynamic offensive teams I've seen in ten years. All their pieces really fit." Ferry later told SNY's Adam Zagoria that he feels the Gaels are "5-seed caliber" in regard to where they would end up in the brackets should they win the MAAC in March.
For a team as talented as Iona, they are certainly no strangers to championship competition. Last year, the Gaels were upset by Saint Peter's in the MAAC championship, only to fall to Santa Clara in the finals of the College Insider tournament. "We lost two championships last year," said Scott Machado when asked if this season served as motivation for his squad. "We know how it feels, and we don't like it." His co-star on a team that has averaged an eye-popping 95 points per game through their first five contests has been even more complimentary, as Mike Glover calls Machado "the best thing that's ever happened to me" as a player.
Glover is his own special story. The Bronx native known as "Optimus Prime" and younger brother of former St. John's standout Anthony Glover went through a seemingly perpetual odyssey to wind up in New Rochelle. After being recruited by Bobby Gonzalez at Seton Hall only to have to pay his own way through his first year in school, to playing at the immortal College Of Southern Utah, then signing with St. Francis College only to back out following the departure of former coach Brian Nash. That was when Glover ended his journey at Iona, becoming the first Gaels player to average a double-double for a season since the aforementioned Jeff Ruland, who coincidentally went to Iona along with my mother back in the late 1970s. A few months, a MAAC Preseason Player of the Year selection, and a 28-point, 14-rebound performance against Long Island University later, Glover showed the crowd his other side; that of a family man, as he held his two-year-old son while being interviewed by Iona color commentator Vin Parise after the game. When asked about his son in Iona's postgame press conference, Glover offered this nugget: "He doesn't know much. He just knows when Daddy wins."
Before he left New Rochelle for the North Carolina State program he eventually won a national championship with, Jim Valvano made a name for himself as the charismatic young head man who inspired his teams to defy the odds. "Dare to dream," said Valvano, a saying that is etched on his plaque located on the Iona Hall of Fame wall just inside the main entrance of the Hynes Center.
Three decades later, Valvano would be proud of the program he once led for not only daring to dream; but dream big, as Iona looks to once again make its mark among the giants they contend with geographically.