Winners of 15 of their last 18, Iona has two-game lead in MAAC standings, but Tim Cluess is realistic about Gaels' progress entering first of two meetings with Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)
With the success Iona has enjoyed under Tim Cluess, one might expect the Gaels to be expectant of another run into the postseason, something that has become an annual occurrence in New Rochelle since Cluess replaced Kevin Willard in 2010.
However, the latest surge that has propelled Iona to the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings is one that the man in charge of the Gaels remains realistic about, perhaps to a fault as he sizes up his team's stretch run, which continues in earnest later tonight.
"I just think we're coming around," Cluess candidly assessed in explaining the Gaels' 19-6 record and six consecutive wins as they invade Draddy Gymnasium to take on bitter rival Manhattan tonight, doing so with a 12-2 MAAC record that is two games better than their next closest challenger, Rider. "I think we're growing as a team, (and we're) getting more comfortable with each other."
The familiarity with one another has spoken larger volumes for the last eight games, as Iona has faced the minefield of the MAAC without the presence of Isaiah Williams, the Gaels' fourth-leading scorer, and perhaps their biggest X-factor for opposing teams, who often focus their scouting reports toward the two more recognizable names on the roster in New Rochelle, those of David Laury and A.J. English.
What Iona has done in Williams' absence is receive contributions from a number of players, each of whom has contributed to the collective effort in their own way. Vangelis Bebis, who has taken Williams' spot in the lineup to give the Gaels a smaller, more athletic look, went for 10 points against Niagara on January 25. Ryden Hines nearly recorded a double-double this past Sunday against Marist, and Ibn Muhammad's energy has been seemingly irreplaceable this season. However, the greatest contributor in the eyes of the coach who has had to figure out what to do with his vaunted offensive attack with Williams out has been one whose rebounding ability has stood out more recently than ever before, in Marshall transfer Kelvin Amayo.
"I think Kelvin's the one that's making the most strides for us," Cluess remarked. "I think he's had about four or five solid games in a row for himself now. I think his game has come back after a long period away, so I'm really happy with what I've seen from him."
While Amayo leads a supporting cast that will seek to complement the stat lines of Laury, English and Schadrac Casimir; whom Cluess believes may eventually go down as the best shooter he has ever coached, it is still going to take more than one person to defeat Manhattan, who has not seen the Gaels since March 10 of last year, when the Jaspers emerged from the MassMutual Center with an unforgettable MAAC championship win in what remains an instant classic of a basketball game. Despite the lasting image of Steve Masiello's team cutting down the nets in Springfield, Cluess believes the opportunity for revenge has not affected Iona leading up to tonight's encounter, stating he and his team take the schedule one game at a time.
"Honestly, we just worry about our next opponents," Cluess said of whether or not the Gaels have looked ahead to their adversaries, whom they will meet first on the road for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when Kevin Willard and Barry Rohrssen patrolled the sidelines in New Rochelle and Riverdale, respectively. "Obviously, the depth helps them," he continued. "Honestly, it's going to come down to who makes shots."
Of the prospect of having to travel to begin the home-and-home series, Cluess affirmed: "It changes things for sure, because you haven't had a taste of them yet, and now you've got to go on the road to a tougher environment, but our guys have been there before, they've played in tough environments."
Playing their fourth game in eight days as opposed to the Jaspers, who have not taken the floor since an overtime loss at Rider on Sunday, fatigue may be an issue for a team already employing an eight-man rotation, but the thought of scheduling attrition was quickly dismissed.
"Rest time becomes a big factor right now," Cluess conceded, "but it's really about trying to get ready for the weekend. It's going to be a heck of a battle. I'm just looking forward to our guys going in there and having the opportunity to go there and compete."