34 Teams in 34 Days: Iona

Iona

Outlook: Not much has changed in New Rochelle, as defense will determine just how far the Gaels can go in the MAAC—and beyond—this season.

Last year: 22-13 (12-8 MAAC), NCAA Tournament

Who’s in: Zach Lewis (G); C.J. Seaforth (G); Andrija Ristanovic (F); Roland Griffin (F); T.K. Edogi (F); Gavin Kensmil (F); Isaiah Still (G/F – transfer redshirt); Branden Aughburns (F); Nils Taylor (G)

Who’s out: Jordan Washington (F); Sam Cassell, Jr. (G); Jon Severe (G); Taylor Bessick (F); Luka Milosavljevic (F); DeAndre Turner (G)

Key Non-Conference Games: @Albany (Nov. 10); Yale (Dec. 11); at St. John’s (Dec. 17)

Tim Cluess doesn’t rebuild at Iona, he reloads. The cast of characters has changed a bit, but the goal remains the same in New Rochelle: Make the NCAA Tournament.

To achieve that goal, Cluess will need to figure out a new frontcourt, as a key piece to last season’s attack, Jordan Washington, graduated. He’ll be replaced by graduate transfer T.K. Edogi and junior forward Roland Griffin.

Cluess said that Edogi’s athleticism and maturity have been particular bright spots as the team prepares for the 2017-18 season. Edogi spent the last three seasons at Tulsa where he averaged 4.2 ppg and 3.7 rpg last season.

Griffin played one season at Illinois State before transferring to Midland College in Texas. He averaged 6.9 ppg at Midland last season, but the real upside for the 6-foot-7 forward comes from his potential to be a “really good all-around player” who can “guard the one through the five,” according to Cluess.

Neither though is going to score 18 ppg like Washington did in 2016-17. Thus, once again the Gaels are hoping to improve on the defensive end.

“We are going to have to be a lot better on the defensive end for not having [Washington’s] twenty points per game,” Cluess said. “Hopefully we’ll be better and work harder and have more bodies to throw at that position. I think the entire needs to step up from where they were a year ago.”

Iona has never had a top 100 defense during Cluess’s time as head coach in New Rochelle. The Gaels finished 211th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, including sixth in the MAAC during conference play. The last time the Gaels finished better than fourth in the MAAC in defensive efficiency was back during the 2010-11 season. But this team might have the personnel to pull it off.

“I think we’re built better athletically speaking,” Cluess said. “We have more length, quickness. They guys have to understand how much effort to put into it. Takes a while for guys to learn that.”

The defense though is still a work in progress. The Gaels allowed 63 points in about 25 minutes of action against Army during an exhibition game to benefit hurricane relief. (The game was called with 15:40 remaining on the clock due to wet floor conditions at the Hynes Center.)

There are also options in the backcourt to pick up the scoring load. Despite the graduation of Jon Severe and Sam Cassell, Jr. there is plenty of firepower. Rickey McGill returns after averaging 10.9 ppg and 3.8 apg last season, and both of those numbers should improve as the junior gets more opportunities to lead Iona’s high-flying attack.

The Gaels also brought in another graduate transfer in former Canisius guard Zach Lewis. Lewis, who transferred to UMass but has returned to the MAAC for his final season of eligibility, gives Iona yet another dangerous three-point threat. Though Lewis shot just 29 percent from three last season that number should improve substantially in Iona’s system. He shot 39 percent from deep as a freshman with the Golden Griffins in 2013-14. Lewis is also a capable defender who has always put up strong steal rates during his time in college basketball.

“He was on a good team when he was on Canisius,” Cluess said about Lewis. “He’s used to playing high-level games with high-level guys. He’s a good fit for the style. He brings maturity and leadership to our team. You’re not taking a freshman and trying to mold him and teach him how to work on what to do on and off the court.”

Cluess is also hopeful that junior guard Schadrac Casimir can stay fully healthy for a season. The 5-foot-10 shot-maker played in 34 games last season, starting eight and scored 7.0 ppg. He should see a lot more shots after the graduation of Severe and Cassell.

Iona also boasts a lot of talent on the wing. Senior guard Deyshonee Much will be expected to contribute in a big way. (He missed the exhibition against Army because he had a bone spur removed from his knee.) Much was named a second team All-MAAC selection prior to this season after averaging 9.5 ppg and 3.6 rpg a season ago. The Gaels also have 6-foot-6 swingman E.J. Crawford, who started 30 games during his freshman season and averaged 9.4 ppg on 45 percent three-point shooting (on 125 attempts).

The plethora of options should give Cluess plenty of depth to work with as the Gaels attempt to win the MAAC. Eventually though the rotation will need to be shortened and Cluess anticipates playing just eight or nine guys.

The players who can defend will get their chance.

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