Photo courtesy of Geraldo Rodriguez/Iona College Athletics.
By David Cordova
When one thinks of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, there is one team that stands out above the rest. In this decade, the Iona Gaels have been the “it” team in the MAAC, with four NCAA tournament appearances in the 2010’s, including the last two seasons.
Last year, the Gaels went 22-13 and won the MAAC Tournament by beating Siena, 87-86, in overtime and then made a quick first-round appearance in the Big Dance, which ended in a 93-77 loss to Oregon.
But now, this is a new season, and the Gaels are in rebuilding mode. Gone is first-team All-MAAC selection Jordan Washington and Taylor Bessick, two forwards who helped Iona out with clutch rebounding when they needed it most.
However, they still have their potent guard play with juniors Rickey McGill (averaged 10.5 points and 5.1 assists) and Shadrac Casimir (averaged 7 points per game), as well as sophomore guard E.J. Crawford (averaged 9.4 points per game) and senior guard Deyshonee Much (averaged 9.5 points per game). All four guards contributed valuable minutes for the Gaels.
But now, there are a lot of newcomers on the team in the form of redshirt T.K. Edogi, a junior forward who transferred the University of Tulsa, freshman guard C.J. Seaforth, and graduate student Zach Lewis, who recently graduated from UMass and is finishing out his final year of eligibility.
On Thursday, the Gaels played in an exhibition game at the Hynes Athletic Center against the Army West Point team in an effort to raise funds for Hurricane Relief. Early on, with Lewis leading the way, Iona had a 14-point lead, 23-9, with 16:09 to go. But then they started to unravel, as they were forced into 13 turnovers by the Black Knights and went into halftime trailing by four, 53-49.
In the second half, the score stayed close, but the game was halted with 15:40 left because of slippery conditions on the court, which ended with the Army leading, 63-61. Although the Gaels struggled after letting the Army take over the game, they still managed to in it until the game was halted.
But Lewis emerged as the team’s brightest light by scoring 27 points, and making five three-pointers. When asked about his performance, he replied, “I mean, it’s just exciting, really. We’ve been going hard against each other since the summertime, so it’s just really exciting to go up against somebody else.”
This season, Iona will have a very rough non-conference schedule, as most of their games will be played on the road, as they start their season on the road against UAlbany on November 10th. After that comes games against Syracuse, Weber State, a trip to the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase and then another trip against Ohio University before their first official home game, which will be played on December 2nd against FDU.
Other road games include other NJIT (Dec. 9th), Holy Cross (Dec. 19th) and Rhode Island, an A-10 power (Dec. 21st). But there is one neutral game to be played that will be a major event for the tri-state area, and that is the matchup against St. John’s on December 17th at Madison Square Garden.
When asked about this year’s non-conference schedule, head coach Tim Cluess replied, “It’s a beast. We have a really, really tough schedule for a group of a lot of new guys, but i love a challenging schedule, the players love it and it’s all about getting to March and trying to find out where our weaknesses are and trying to get better at them.”
Lewis’ replied: “It’s just exciting, we play road games in our non-conference, because one the conference games start, every game is crazy. We’re just excited to tackle what we have going into the season.”
In the recent MAAC preseason poll, Iona was rated as the No. 1 team in the conference. It’s a great honor for the two-time defending conference champions, but now it means that instead of being the hunters, they are now the hunted.
“We’ve been working hard, and as the season progresses as a team, we’ll just keep getting better and better and that’s what I like about this team. We’re learning everyday,” says Lewis.
Even though they’re the MAAC’s No. 1 team, it doesn’t mean that they will be complacent, but it means that it will motivate them to stay on top. “It’s not us, it’s guys like Rickey, guys like Dey, Schad, A.J. English and David Laury, all of those guys are what got us that No. 1 spot. We haven’t proved anything yet,” says Lewis.
When asked about what he thought about the MAAC’s preseason rankings, Coach Cluess replied, “I just get a kick out of the whole thing, preseason polls are completely useless. Whatever we’re picked, it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re picked first, last or in the middle, does it really matter?”
Now, at the dawn of a new season, it’s time for the Gaels to put their hard work to use. They may have a lot of new guys and a lot of things to work on. But as the the team starts to jell together, there’s no telling what they could accomplish in the 2017-18 season.
Can they make their fifth consecutive appearance in the championship game or win their third MAAC title in five seasons? All of that remains to be seen and the first true test will start on November 10th. Only time will tell if that will be so for the squad from New Rochelle.