Considering the Iona Gaels’ struggles during non-conference play, they didn’t appear to be a team that would run away from the pack in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
After falling behind 23-4 early against Quinnipiac, the Gaels couldn’t recover in an 86-74 road loss. It was the latest time in the four-year tenure of Tim Cluess that Iona was under .500.
Since then the team has gone 13-1 and Cluess’ emphasis on improving the defense has fueled the Gaels emergence at the top of the MAAC standings. The fourth-year coach of the Gaels said that his players started to catch on and improve defensively into January and has held teams to fewer than a point per possession in six games.
“I know we simplified it at one point and we took out a lot of different packages we had been using out of it and just tried to really simplify what we’re doing and rebuild back from there,” Cluess said. “I think we’re at the point now, we’re not using as many different defenses, we’re just trying to be better at the couple that we are using.”
The Gaels have won 11 straight, seven of which have come by margins of 10 points or more, and are a win away from clinching the MAAC regular season championship outright.
Other than being winless in Ohio during the last four years, the Gaels struggled against a schedule that Cluess said was one of the hardest he’s made.
“I could understand how we were going to possibly struggle early, because this was not one of our most powerful teams and we had a lot of new guys on it,” Cluess said. “When you’re playing a schedule like that, it could be overwhelming to our guys and I thought we competed in most of those games, in all but two of those games we really competed well and enough to show us that we had a chance of something special going on this year.”
After last season’s group, led by MAAC Player of the Year Momo Jones, went from fourth seed to a MAAC championship, this season’s group has done it a different way. Behind a variety of scorers, the Gaels rank as one of the best shooting teams from the field in the country. Sixth man and inside presence David Laury makes 57% of his two-pointers, while sharpshooters such as A.J. English, Sean Armand, Tre Bowman and Isaiah Williams all make better than 37% of their three-pointers. Cluess said that how this team shares the wealth on offense has made it a special group.
“Last year I really felt if you guarded Momo and Sean, you’d probably beat our team,” Cluess said. “This year I think it’s five to six guys who can go out and score on any given night and are doing so consistently.”
Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.