Thursday, October 13, 2016

Reigning champion Iona striking right blend of veterans and newcomers to begin title defense

With A.J. English becoming latest Iona alum in professional ranks, Deyshonee Much is closing in on joining litany of proven Tim Cluess success stories. (Photo by Brian Beyrer/Iona College Athletics)

There is no denying Tim Cluess' ability to remain a proven winner, judging by his six postseason appearances and seasons of 20 or more wins in as many years as his tenure at Iona, but one question somehow always remains the same, given the year-to-year roster turnover in New Rochelle.

How does he do it?

The answer is simple: Continuity. Although this season, with seven new faces donning the maroon and gold, that ever-present status quo may not be as abundant as in years past, but it is still a force in the Gaels' preparation as the reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions prepare to open the curtain on their title defense.

"I think it's beginning to," said Cluess of the familiarity's effect in shaping this year's Iona team. "We only have three guys who returned that were involved in practices up to this point, so I don't think it can be what we'd like. We have two other players that were hurt and have not been a part of it, so when we get them back and we have five guys who have been through what we do and the demands of what we do and the pride of what we do, that will rub off more on the newcomers."

"We are fortunate to have a couple of upperclassmen who have transferred in who are treating it like upperclassmen, kind of like Aaron Rountree did for us," Cluess added in regard to Jon Severe and Sam Cassell Jr., who arrive from Fordham and UConn, respectively. "Coming in with the right work ethic, understanding what college basketball, playing at that level is about, they've helped as well."

In Severe, a reputed shooter who could get hot at any given time, and Cassell, the son of an NBA champion point guard with the Houston Rockets, Cluess has the backcourt depth needed to help overcome the loss of one of Iona's cornerstone players over the past few seasons, MAAC Tournament Most Valuable Player A.J. English.

"Versatility and depth," Cluess quickly mentioned when assessing what his incoming guard duo brings to the table. "We didn't have players like either one of them a year ago. After you took A.J. out of the equation and Deyshonee Much, who became that, we didn't have another guard that was at the level of either of those two, and now both of them have a chance to have really good senior seasons. They're working like seniors, they want something special out of this year, and I think they still have to adjust to the style that we play and some of the freedoms that they have. They're learning how to use those freedoms the right way and let their best basketball come out of him."

"He's much more disciplined in his shot selection, almost sometimes to a fault now," he added with regard to Severe, whose green light to launch at Fordham made him a favored option under former coach Tom Pecora as a freshman before he struggled to reinvent himself in each of the past two years. "For him, he's got to figure out where the right balance is, and we have to find out where he's most effective, what he's best at right now; not the kid coming out of high school, not the kid who was a freshman at Fordham, but the young man that he is right now."

In particular, Cassell will have the first crack at replacing English in the point guard role, a position that loses both its star from last year and a valuable understudy in Ibn Muhammad. Cluess also hinted that Rickey McGill will see some minutes at the point in his sophomore season, and Schadrac Casimir will also join the fray when he is fully recovered and able to compete following offseason hip surgery, which sacrificed most of his sophomore season last year.

"He's still a ways away from getting ready to play," Cluess said with an update on Casimir's progress. "He's getting closer to being able to start basketball activities, and we're hoping that he'll be back and going five-on-five before we open this year, but we're not so sure about that."

Of McGill, a defensive revelation as a freshman last season; and one of the key components in the Gaels' late-season lockdown on that side of the ball, Cluess praised his improvement, even complimenting his progress on the offensive end.

"He's progressed a lot," said Cluess. "He's bringing in a better work ethic and understanding what it takes to be a better player and a more successful players. Watching all the players we've had and now having someone like Deyshonee Much, who's in the gym all the time, the standards are there now for him to live up to if he wants to be good. He's pushing the ball better on offense, and he's doing a much better job of shooting the ball. He's a threat now from the perimeter where he wasn't a year ago, so I think as he continues to develop that, his ceiling gets higher and higher."

Speaking of Much, the one-time Buffalo transfer burst onto the scene last year with his lethal marksmanship from three-point range, becoming an almost perfect fit into Iona's transition game and positioning himself to carry the lineage of NBA-caliber guards that have come through the Hynes Athletics Center in an assembly line of sorts, from Scott Machado to Momo Jones, Sean Armand and the aforementioned English.

"I think if Deyshonee keeps working as hard as he's been working, it will happen for him as well," said Cluess of Much's professional prospects. "He puts a lot of time in, he's a very talented player. I think last year was part showcasing what he could be and still figuring it out after a year of not playing much at the first school he was at. I think he knows 'I'm going to be one of those main guys now, and they're going to run a lot of things for me that they haven't run for me in the past,' so I think he's going to have opportunities to have a breakout type of season."

"Over the next two years, the players we're able to put around him are talented enough to where he shouldn't be able to get double-teams like A.J. did last year," he elaborated. "We have more shooters around him this year that should be able to help us in that area, and help him especially."

Up front, Iona returns a likely first team all-MAAC selection in Jordan Washington, but the remainder of the front line is still a work in progress, yet Cluess did highlight 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior college transfer Tyrell Williams as a candidate to join Washington on the block, as well as Taylor Bessick once he is 100 percent following recovery from a torn calf muscle. The Gaels will need their strength in the early part of the season, when they embark upon a non-conference schedule that sees Iona play six games in either the Pacific or Alaska time zone in their first month of competition.

"We're going to be tested mentally, physically, you name it," Cluess quipped when breaking down the non-league slate. "It's not easy, but the schedule we've got, we're excited about it because we play some really good teams and we can bring the guys to some parts of the country that they've never seen before. It gives us a chance to really bond as a team, and I think that's what makes you better in March, the bonding you go through and the hard times you go through. And we'll find out a lot about our newcomers that I honestly don't have any idea about right now, and that's why we play the quality teams we play on the road."

"We know how good our league is this year, and we know how good our non-league schedule is," he continued. "So we want to find out: How good is Jon Severe? How good is Sam Cassell? How good is Tyrell Williams? How much is Deyshonee Much going to step up? How does Jordan Washington really improve? Has Rickey McGill really improved? I could go right down the list, but that's what those early-season games will do for us. They'll answer some questions, and we'll have to figure out if we're on the right path with them, or if we'll have to change directions a little bit to continue to improve the team."

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