Iona's recent slide has left Tim Cluess perplexed at times, but Gaels' head coach knows what his team needs to do to stem tide heading into MAAC Tournament. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
Projected to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference at the beginning of the season, Iona's current fourth-place standing in the league with two games remaining before the conference's annual postseason tournament may come as a mild surprise to the casual observer.
However, the Gaels' inconsistency reared its ugly head three times in a span of nine days, prompting the need to refocus in an attempt to bring momentum back within their walls as the final stage of a potentially historic championship defense awaits in Albany.
"It's always a next-game attitude," forward Roland Griffin said as Iona (16-12, 10-6 MAAC) takes the floor Friday evening for the penultimate contest of its regular season campaign, coming against bitter rival Manhattan in a 9 p.m. tipoff from the Hynes Athletics Center. "All the games, those are in the past now. We've got to just wake up and play the next one."
"We've got to get better," head coach Tim Cluess bluntly assessed. "It's kind of simple -- we've got to defend the ball. We need to have a guard that's going to sit down and guard somebody, we've got to make a shot. We keep making mental mistakes."
"We've been shooting the ball poorly for quite a while," he continued. "Our interior game has been solid. Our guard play -- they have to start making some shots."
Iona's recent spate of setbacks, beginning two weeks ago with a 22-point loss to Monmouth that became the Gaels' most lopsided defeat in MAAC play under Cluess and the lowest point output in his eight-year tenure, snowballed into an overtime loss at Siena and a missed opportunity last Friday when Niagara; who lost senior Matt Scott with an ankle sprain in the first half, came back from a double-digit deficit to defeat the two-time defending MAAC champions in New Rochelle. But if there is an encouraging parallel to be drawn from the skid, it is this: In 2012-13, Iona lost six of seven games in January and February by a grand total of 11 points before winning both of their final regular season contests en route to bringing home the program's first MAAC crown since 2006, and first under Cluess, eight days later in Springfield.
"We've talked about being in the same position in other seasons," Cluess said, referencing the downturn that was reversed at the most opportune time. "But the sense of urgency we had with those teams was really present, and we're trying to create that sense of urgency within this team. Hopefully if we get it, we'll have a chance just like everyone else does."
"We're in every game. We've had 14 games now decided by five points or less, so you're talking about one play here, one play there, and I think telling young men how important each and every play is, sometimes they don't grasp that. They don't grasp that a play five minutes into the first half they didn't hustle on that led to a basket is just as much a cause to you losing a close game as missing that four-footer with 30 seconds to go. It's all those plays, and we have to; at least effort-wise, be better and more consistent."
Still, even in the face of a short-term impression that may not be the most optimal entering a conference tournament, Cluess was just as quick to point out that in the grand scheme of things, the Gaels were in similar straits one season ago before succeeding in their quest to repeat as league champions.
"We're not far off, record-wise, from where we were last year," he reiterated. "That's the reality of it. We had ups and downs last year, too. It's whether or not you can get on a good swing when the playoffs come in. Can you make shots at that time? Whoever makes shots at that time is winning the tournament. Whoever misses shots is going home."