Life without Jordan Washington has begun for Iona, who is now tasked with replacing last season's MAAC Tournament Most Valuable Player. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
The third of our four-part series of questions surrounding the four focal points of this site's coverage looks at a reigning conference champion attempting to make history. After taking a closer look at St. John's and Seton Hall, next to be profiled is Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite Iona, who opens the season on the road tonight against Albany:
1) Who is the primary interior presence for the Gaels?
Arguably the biggest concern for Tim Cluess as his program shoots to become just the third in MAAC history to win three consecutive conference tournaments is finding a successor to Jordan Washington. One constant during Iona's near-decade of dominance has always been a rim protector in the middle, from Mike Glover to David Laury to Washington. Through Iona's exhibition and scrimmages, the role remains in somewhat of a holding pattern, with a number of candidates to consider. Fifth-year senior TK Edogi, a graduate transfer by way of Tulane, may be among the first in line to take his shot, with 6-foot-9 junior Tyrell Williams the sole incumbent forward on the roster, having played behind Washington and Taylor Bessick last season. Keep an eye on 6-foot-7 forwards Roland Griffin and Gavin Kensmil, the former a junior college transfer that has drawn comparisons to Laury for his ability to run the floor, the latter a freshman from Suriname who projects to be a contributor when he is fully recovered from a foot injury that limited his preseason activity.
2) Will Iona still play small ball?
Yes. Don't expect Cluess to deviate too far from what has brought him to the dance four times in his seven-year tenure on the bench in New Rochelle. The Gaels still have the talent and athleticism to create the floor spacing he craves, and in a smaller look, E.J. Crawford; the hero of last year's MAAC championship game, would be the de facto center in a four-out, one-in set. Freshman guard C.J. Seaforth comes into the program with considerable hype and positive reviews, and should be a piece on the perimeter alongside 6-foot-7 wing Jan Svandrlik, both of whom will see significant minutes among the more established personnel.
3) How healthy is Schadrac Casimir?
The redshirt junior is still not fully healed from three hip surgeries that cost him nearly all of his second season and severely hampered him in his return last year, and Cluess has been patient in managing his former all-conference talent, but at the same time, he has been candid in discussing the need to return to his peak form.
"Now is a big step from practice to a game," Cluess said of Casimir's rehabilitation following last month's exhibition against Army. "I'm hoping to see him -- over the next couple of games and into the early part of the year -- start to put his game into a little bit of another gear and get back some of that freshman year confidence."
4) Are Rickey McGill and Zach Lewis the next Scott Machado and Momo Jones?
Both McGill and Lewis may not be the MAAC Players of the Year that Machado and Jones were in 2012 and 2013, but each possesses a similar impact in a guard-oriented Iona offense. Now a junior, McGill has blossomed in each of his first two seasons running the point in New Rochelle, becoming his own person and making the Gaels' motor run smoothly enough to where any lingering questions about his ability to effectively replace A.J. English have been answered. Lewis arrives from UMass, by way of Canisius, as a former all-MAAC talent returning to the league for one last shot at a winner. The fifth-year senior has already shown what he can do in Cluess' system, erupting for 27 points in 22 minutes, albeit in exhibition trim. Regardless, the newest veteran following in a mold that saw Sam Cassell, Jr. and Jon Severe become integral pieces to a championship puzzle seems to be gearing up for his best basketball yet, already considering himself a better player just through one month of Cluess' extensive film study, where Lewis admitted he would "find 50 things wrong" with what may appear to be a perfect game on the surface.
5) Can Iona repeat despite no true alpha dog on its roster?
Cluess admitted before last year's MAAC championship game that he preferred a team whose whole is greater than its parts, and even with Washington's exceptional weekend, the affinity came to fruition. This season, the lack of a standout presence is even more glaring, but it did not stop the MAAC coaches from voting the Gaels as the league's preseason favorite, with all but two first-place votes going in the direction of the Hynes Athletics Center, home to the conference's greatest home court advantage. With that said, Manhattan and Monmouth lead the charge of challengers in a MAAC that has many questions of its own, but at the end of the day, Iona's returning talent, which also includes Deyshonee Much, is more than enough to keep them in the conversation.
Prediction: 19-11, 13-5 MAAC