Tim Cluess is still optimistic about Iona's chances in MAAC Tournament this weekend, even after Gaels lost four of six entering Albany in hopes of winning third straight conference title. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
Champions until proven otherwise, Iona has received more than a fighting chance among prognosticators in this year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, largely due to the Gaels' track record in March and particularly in Albany, where the confines of the Times Union Center have become almost as friendly as possible over the years to any team not named Siena.
Then again, there are some who feel that this incarnation of Iona basketball is not the same, with losses in four of their final six regular season contests to limp into Albany as the No. 4 seed in the tournament behind the unlikely success stories of Rider, Canisius, and Niagara, against each of whom the Gaels fell victim during the year. Regardless, the mood in the camp of the reigning titleholders remains an upbeat and positive one.
"We're really looking forward to the tournament," head coach Tim Cluess said as Iona (17-13) opens its postseason slate Saturday against Manhattan in the last of four quarterfinal matchups, with either Rider or Saint Peter's awaiting in the semifinals should the Gaels emerge victorious. "I think everyone's excited about it. Every team feels like they have a great opportunity this weekend."
Following a Monday morning shootaround a year ago hours before Iona successfully defended their MAAC championship against Siena, Cluess made mention of the fact that the Gaels did not have the alpha dog that defined its teams of years past, becoming a unit more reliant on the sum of its whole rather than that of its parts. That greater good has once again revealed itself in New Rochelle this season, led by junior point guard Rickey McGill, a second team all-MAAC selection and the lone all-conference honoree among the maroon and gold.
"He had a terrific year for himself," Cluess said of McGill. "He's been our guy that has led us the entire season on both ends of the court, and he's the toughest guy we have on the team."
Besides McGill, Roland Griffin has evolved into an efficient sixth man that continues to show his upside, and E.J. Crawford; the hero of last year's championship game, has made strides in the rebounding department after Cluess emphasized the need for the sophomore wing to be more assertive on the glass.
"We had a talk," Crawford said of Cluess' concerns about his rebounding. "He was like, I don't care how many points you score. At the next level, you have to rebound and be more than a scorer. So I really took that, and now I try to rebound everything."
The Gaels' record may not show their potential, but Iona weathered a similar slump in 2012-13, where they lost six games in the second half of the season by a grand total of 11 points. This year's outfit is cut from a similar cloth in responding to adversity, as it did last Friday to defeat Manhattan coming off a crushing loss to a Niagara team that lost Matt Scott in the first half to an ankle injury, and it is one of the reasons why Cluess shrugged off the notion that his program may have peaked too early.
"I feel as good about my team as anybody feels about their team," he said. "I think we have a chance to win the whole thing, and I'm looking forward to playing. That's because of what we do every day and how hard our guys work, and how we feel going into the tournament. We have a great shot."