Now running point with Scott Machado in NBA, Momo Jones becomes leader for an Iona team intent on returning to NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
The college basketball season starts at long last Friday night, and for a mid-major just over the Bronx/Westchester border, it will be the beginning of a campaign where the program hopes to continue its success from recent years that resulted in the awarding of just the second at-large NCAA Tournament bid to a school from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Iona College does not have the firepower it enjoyed last year with point guard Scott Machado and power forward Mike Glover, but the Gaels are actually deeper and more talented in their third year under head coach Tim Cluess. With nine new players on the Iona roster, three of whom are high-major transfers that will be able to play immediately, Cluess is confident that his personnel overhaul will bring more of the same results on the court for the Gaels, who have won twenty-five games in each of the 53-year-old coach's first two seasons in New Rochelle. "Our guys kind of have to get used to each other," Cluess said earlier today. "It's a growing process. We're trying to keep a consistent program here and just grow it one step at a time."
Despite the nine newcomers that will take the court, the Gaels still return three starters from last year's team that won the regular season MAAC championship and represented the conference in Dayton for the First Four. Replacing Machado, who signed with the Houston Rockets as an undrafted free agent, will be Momo Jones, who joined the Iona roster last season following a transfer from Arizona, who he led to an Elite Eight along with former No. 2 overall draft pick Derrick Williams. Jones, who ran the point at Arizona; as well as for Iona last season when Machado was off the court, will return to that role this season after playing primarily off the ball a year ago. "Momo's our point guard, period," Cluess stated. "He's the best point guard on our roster, and I expect him to have a really good year in that spot. I'm not looking for the same number of assists, (as Machado) but I think the overall production will equal out."
Sean Armand will join Jones in the backcourt for his junior season, and has been lauded by Cluess for improving his game to the point where the Brooklyn native is no longer just a shooter. "His game itself has transformed," said Cluess of his X-factor last season. "He's come a long way, and I'm looking forward to a big season from him." Tre Bowman, a transfer from Penn State, will compete with Toledo import Curtis Dennis for the third and fourth spots, while Taaj Ridley likely fills up the inside for the Gaels until junior college transfer David Laury becomes eligible. Tavon Sledge, the third transfer to join the Iona roster this season, comes to New Rochelle by way of Iowa State, but Cluess is being realistic with the explosive 5-9 guard early in the season. Freshman A.J. English is a 6-4 guard described by Cluess as a "slasher who can shoot the three and get to the rim," and the coach is already enamored with his potential. Shawn Jackson will also make an impact for the Gaels as a 6-8 forward who could ultimately help fill the void left by Glover. "He's a hard-nosed player, he's passionate and he plays with a lot of energy," Cluess said. "He's not at Mike's level yet, but he can make some plays."
Iona opens their season Friday night at the Hynes Center against Denver, who they defeated in overtime on the road last December in the midst of a month-long trip away from home. "They outplayed us 99 percent of the game last year," Cluess said of the Pioneers, who lose leading scorer Brian Stafford, but return swingmen Chris Udofia and Royce O'Neale; as well as sophomore sharpshooter Brett Olson, in their first year in the Western Athletic Conference after competing in the Sun Belt last season. "They brought back four starters and six of their top eight players. They're going to want a piece of us," said Cluess. "It's a good test for us, I'll tell you that."
The opener with Denver is part of a nonconference schedule that includes a trip to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam, as well as contests with NCAA Tournament darling Norfolk State and Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Joseph's later in the year, and Rutgers in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. "It may be a stronger schedule than last year," Cluess said. "With these games in hand, I should have a better feel for what our players can and can't do, and what our team can and can't do."
Gaels fans will get their first impression of the team in just over 72 hours.