Iona basketball has always been synonymous with great guard play, especially in recent years under current head coach Tim Cluess.
The Gaels have built a steady stream of all-league caliber guards over the last seven years. From Scott Machado to Sean Armand to A.J. English and more, Iona seems to always have that star in the backcourt. Heading into the 2017-18 season, no one guard stands out from the rest on the roster, but as a collection, they stand apart from the crowd in the MAAC.
The offensive flow begins with junior Rickey McGill, who was one of two Gaels named to the preseason All-MAAC second team. As a sophomore, McGill took a leap forward and became a reliable point guard alongside fifth-year senior Sam Cassell Jr.
McGill was the only player to start all 35 of Iona’s games last season, and led the team with 32.1 minutes per game. His 5.1 assists per game and 2.57 assist/turnover ratio each landed the Spring Valley native in the top 50 nationally, and his 1.8 steals per game led the league. McGill also posted 10.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, becoming a triple-double threat on a nightly basis.
“I learned a lot from last year, just never give up,” McGill said. “Over the summer I’ve been working on my shot more than I ever have. Hopefully it’s going to pay off and we can get another championship.”
With Cassell graduated, McGill now has free reign at the point and should not only be one of the MAAC’s best point guards, but one of its top players overall.
Despite Iona receiving nine first-place votes and being picked to win the league in the preseason coaches’ poll, no Gaels were named to the league’s preseason first team. Alongside McGill on the second team is Iona’s only other all-MAAC selection: senior Deyshonee Much.
As a junior last year, Much endured a tumultuous season, but was at his best in the team’s biggest moments. The Rochester product averaged 9.5 points and 3.6 rebounds for the season. Although Much missed eight games and even left the team for a short time, he hit his best stride late in the year.
Much ended the season with six consecutive double-digit efforts, including a MAAC championship game performance during which he shot 7-12 for 18 points along with six boards and four assists in the Gaels’ triumph over Siena.
He then knocked down five 3-pointers against eventual Final Four competitor Oregon in the Gaels’ NCAA Tournament first round game. The first three of those connections came over a 68-second span in the second half as Iona attempted a late comeback.
“I think Deyshonee played at another level in a couple of those games,” Cluess said of Much’s finish to the year. “He’s understanding what his role is better, understanding how to play a little bit better, caring about other guys on his team a lot more. I think that came around for him the second half of last year. I think he took that with the success and is building on that, so I expect him to have a really good year for us.”
With a solidified role on the wing, Much will have every opportunity to live up to his potential as an all-around lethal scoring threat.
One of the Gaels’ key new recruits has already been named to an All-MAAC squad, but hasn’t played a minute in the league since 2015. Former Canisius Golden Griffin Zach Lewis joins Iona this season as a graduate transfer after two years in the Atlantic 10 at UMass.
“Zach was a guy I’ve known for a long time,” associate head coach Jared Grasso said. “From knowing him from the league at Canisius, I followed him at UMass, was friendly with the guys on the UMass staff. When I heard he was leaving, he was someone that I knew and felt I had a connection to.”
As a sophomore at Canisius in 2015, Lewis posted 12.5 points to go along with 3.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, earning a place on the All-MAAC third team. In his first official action as a member of the Gaels, Lewis poured in 27 points in less than 25 minutes of play during a hurricane relief exhibition against Army last month which was called early in the second half due to poor floor conditions.
If that exhibition performance is a sign of things to come, Lewis will be in position to rank among the league’s top scorers come season’s end.
“I think he just fits the way that we play,” Cluess added after that exhibition. “I think he’s better getting to the basket than what we’ve had here since probably A.J. graduated, and he gets to the foul line as well, he makes plays for guys. He’s becoming, in our estimation, a better all-around player.”
Perhaps the most game-changing piece of the equation in New Rochelle is Schadrac Casimir and his ongoing recovery. Casimir put together a dominant freshman campaign in 2014-15 during which he averaged 14.5 ppg en route to being named MAAC Rookie of the Year, but played just four games in 2015-16 before being sidelined with a hip injury.
The Stamford native eventually underwent multiple surgeries and returned to action last season to average 7.0 ppg, but never fully regained his previous form. Casimir often struggled to score last season, and ended the year with only one instance of double-digit outputs in back to back games.
This year, however, coaches are confident Casimir has fully returned to 100% and will be able to replicate his rookie year form.
Should Casimir indeed get back on track and play like the superstar we saw two years ago, it will add yet another dimension to the Gaels’ backcourt sure to leave opponents bewildered.
“He looks like he’s back to the way he was as a freshman,” Cluess said of Casimir. “He looks healthy, which he wasn’t healthy at all last year. We didn’t know if he was going to get back to that level…He’s down about 20 pounds from where he was a year ago and looks like he has more speed than he even had as a freshman.”
Sophomore E.J. Crawford hopes to build on a freshman campaign during which he averaged 9.4 points and 3.1 rebounds, capped with a nomination to the league’s All-Rookie team. Crawford played the hero in Iona’s MAAC championship game victory over Siena when he converted a layup with 29 seconds remaining in overtime to break an 83-all tie, and his versatility on the wing is reminiscent of recent graduate Isaiah Williams.
“E.J. is perfect for the role he has right now with our team,” Cluess said. “He is really good at that spot, and he’s hard to defend. He had a really good summer shooting the basketball and his body and work ethic have gotten better. E.J. plays with a ton of confidence, one of the most confident kids on our team, probably one of the most confident kids in the league.”
Freshman C.J. Seaforth is the lone rookie joining the backcourt mix, and will look to make an immediate impact similar to other recent newcomers. Seaforth comes to the Gaels out of Hamden High School in Connecticut, where he averaged 21.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 3.7 steals during his senior season.
“He’s a guy that we’re really excited about who could be one of the next really good guards to come out of our program,” Grasso said of the rookie. “Really skilled, can handle it, shoot it, I think he just fits the kind of guards we’ve had success with in the past.”
Within the MAAC, opposing teams are sure to struggle with Iona’s perimeter speed and scoring ability. Last season, the Gaels stood head and shoulders above the league in most offensive categories, including offensive efficiency, effective FG%, and 3-point shooting. Those trends will likely continue this year as Iona presses on its advantage in the backcourt.
Preseason Player of the Year Tyler Nelson will give Fairfield plenty of firepower, and Niagara possesses an experienced duo in Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes while Micah Seaborn and Nico Clareth should lead Monmouth and Siena respectively. However, no other team possesses the wealth of two-way perimeter options the Gaels do.
“I do think defensively we can play at a much higher level, get out and extend, and put more pressure on teams because of the depth we have at those spots,” Cluess added. “I think we can put two, three, or four playmakers on the court at the same time who can all shoot the ball as well.”
Iona – and its talented backcourt – will face an immediate test in their season opener. Cluess and company will travel to perennial America East contender Albany Friday night to take on the defensive-minded Great Danes, giving this talented group of guards their first true test right off the bat.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.