Tim Cluess and Iona prepare to defend MAAC championship this weekend, but Gaels' coach insists his team does not have as big a target on its back as top seed Monmouth might. (Photo by Brian Beyrer/Iona College Athletics)
As Iona heads into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament this weekend, they do so with one of the longer periods of preparation in the league, having not played since Sunday's loss to Monmouth to end the regular season. The Gaels were the beneficiary of an off day in between the quarterfinals and semifinals as the No. 2 seed a year ago, but not so this time around. Yet head coach Tim Cluess insists that despite having to play three games in as many days this time around, his team is up to the challenge.
"It's obviously tough when you play back-to-back-to-back, but someone's got to do it," Cluess said before his Gaels (19-12, 12-8 MAAC) face either Rider or Manhattan Saturday night at 7 p.m. "We hope that we're one of the teams that has to do it, but for anyone, it's difficult."
"We did play in tournaments this year to get used to it," he added, having used two early-season events to prepare the Gaels for league play in the non-conference season. "We played in the Great Alaska Shootout (in November, as well as the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas) and we did very well in that situation. Right now, we're worried about Saturday. No matter who we play, it's going to be a heck of a team and a heck of a game."
One advantage for Cluess is that Iona does not have to worry about the prospect of facing Siena in a de facto road game, at least not until Monday night should both the Gaels and Saints advance to the championship game. However, the fact that Iona's opponent on Saturday will have already had a game under its belt on the Times Union Center floor is a factor that Cluess feels may tip the scales against his team.
"I think the advantage may go to those teams who have practiced on the court and then played a game on the court before our guys have stepped on it for the first time," he said. "Whoever we play is going to come in on a day off and have a day to prepare for us, so we can't really prepare until we know who won."
Regardless, Iona takes the floor as the defending MAAC champion, which is normally a valid cause to have a major target on its backs. That may be the case, but with Monmouth coming to Albany on a 16-game win streak whose most recent entry was a second win over the Gaels this season, the perception around New Rochelle is that the Hawks are more of the hunted going into the weekend even if they lack the hardware they came within three points of winning last season.
"We graduated most of the players from last year's team, and Monmouth's had an outstanding year," said Cluess. "I think they're the team that everyone's looking at, and we've all beaten each other up. I don't think anyone's worried about who they play. They know it's going to be a competitive game. You can beat anyone, you can lose to anyone, so I think there's a lot of targets out there."